In many disputes between top chess players, there is no clear right and wrong – forming a clear opinion from the letters of protest, contradictions and mutual accusations is virtually impossible. However, the Kramnik-Topalov case is an exception.
We have to start with the background. Topalov and his team have worked closely with FIDE for some time. Topalov is the FIDE champion and he supported Ilyumzhinov’s re-election campaign. Kramnik, by contrast, is much more an outsider. His world championship title derived from Brain Games and then the PCA, so he has had much less contact with FIDE.
The current match is FIDE organised and sponsored, and is being played in FIDE’s home territory of Kalmykia. To avoid any suspicion of favouritism, it would have made sense for all the match officials to be clearly independent and unbiased. Instead, what do we have? The Appeals committee consists of Georgios Makropoulos (Deputy President of FIDE), Zurab Azmaiparashvili (Vice-President of FIDE) and Jorge Vega (FIDE Continental President for the Americas) – a selection which can hardly inspire confidence in the impartiality of the Appeals Committee. Nor are the members of the Appeals Committee especially qualified for such a potentially sensitive post, since only one of the three (Vega) is an International Arbiter and only one (Azmaiparashvili) has any experience of high-level chess.
The first extraordinary act was the handing over of the video of Kramnik in his rest room to Topalov’s team. This could easily be used against Kramnik, for example by seeing if he looked agitated after a particular move in the opening. This act was so obviously wrong that one can hardly imagine it being committed by an unbiased person.
Next was the ‘toilet protest’ from Topalov’s team. Notice that not only has Kramnik not been proved to have done anything wrong, there isn’t even a single piece of evidence that he has done anything wrong. All he has done, apparently, is to wander in and out of his bathroom – a bathroom which, one must remember, was open to inspection at any time before the game.
However, this didn’t stop the Appeals Committee from deciding to lock Kramnik’s bathroom. This may not sound such a serious matter, but chess at the highest level is largely about psychology and the imposition of your will on the opponent. Achieving this away from the chessboard could easily be the first step towards doing the same on the board itself. The organisers have stated that they do not believe Kramnik is cheating; in that case, where is the logic in punishing Kramnik by making a decision that is so obviously favourable to Topalov? Moreover, Topalov declared that he would not shake hands with Kramnik. There is no requirement in the Laws of Chess that the players shake hands before the game, but not to do so is a substantial insult.
It is hard to avoid the impression that Topalov’s team realised that it would be an uphill struggle to win two games from eight (and against a player who went 15 games without loss against Garry Kasparov!) and decided to launch a psychological attack. Such tactics are far from unknown in top-level chess, but they are usually frustrated by the fair and common-sense approach of match officials, an approach which has been notably lacking in Elista. Not only was the actual decision of the Appeals Committee clearly wrong, it was also wrong to start Game 5 without any kind of agreement between the players. The result has been to plunge the whole match into crisis, since now that Topalov has been awarded Game 5 by default, it is hard to see him playing it again.
Once again chess has shot itself in the foot; who will want to sponsor a top-level chess match if the whole thing can grind to a halt over a dispute about a toilet? At least when the 1984/5 Karpov-Kasparov match was controversially terminated by the then FIDE President Campomanes, the players had managed to entertain the chess public with 48 games before everything collapsed in chaos. Apparently today’s players only have the stamina to manage 4!
Chess Director of Gambit Publications