Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
Before we get to right and wrong, let's get the facts straight.
1) Several eyewitnesses have described the scene of the closing ceremony. The prize for most beautiful game was announced with Teimour Radjabov the winner for his win over Garry Kasparov in round two. Kasparov stunned the crowd by immediately rising and walking to the stage and speaking into the microphone: "How could you give the beauty prize to a game in which I lost a piece because of a stupid mistake? It has been selected only because it was the only game that I lost and I consider this to be a public insult and humiliation." (The wording will vary as we have only the recollections from several non-native English speakers and we have re-translated their commentary back into English.)
Kasparov then approached a group of journalists, including GM Ian Rogers of Australia and Spanish writer Leontxo Garcia, and asked them who they had voted for and shouted: "This is the greatest insult that you have done to me in my life! It is an insult to me and to chess. You consider yourself chess journalists? If you think that this was the most beautiful game in Linares, you are damaging chess with your reports and articles. Radjabov was completely lost in that game." Kasparov then stormed out with his mother and trainer.
2) At the end of Linares every year there is a vote for the "most beautiful" game of that year's tournament. It's not called a brilliancy prize or best game prize, but "la más bella." The voters are the journalists in attendance on the final day. Most of them are Spanish and many of these are not chess people. So they do the logical thing and listen to someone who knows chess, usually meaning Leontxo Garcia of the giant El País newspaper.
GM Ian Rogers and Leontxo Garcia
Leontxo is a man of strong and able mind with many years of chess and sports reporting, and he is also a strong enough player to know chess beauty when he sees it. He has had his share of confrontations with Kasparov in the past, but anyone who has covered chess for the past 20 years who hasn't had confrontations with Kasparov is obviously not doing his job.
3) The Radjabov-Kasparov game was not only lacking in beauty, it wasn't a very good game by most standards. If you disregard the names of the players, you wouldn't give it much notice. Strong attacking position for white, desperate sacrifice by black, decline of sacrifice and winning position for white, blunder by white and black takes advantage to win a piece. The Grandmasters we have talked to praised Radjabov's resilience in a bad position but criticized the game as unworthy of a prize because it was based on blunders.
To quote Spanish GM Miguel Illescas, one of Kramnik's trainers in Linares: ".. at the end of the day Kasparov was right: his game with Radjabov was not beautiful, it wasn't even a good game. Kasparov was better, Teimour offered a desperate piece sacrifice as a last resort, Kasparov didn't take it and later he committed a tremendous blunder that cost him the point. Kasparov is partially right when he says it takes a certain level of chess to comment well on a game. Leonxto told me later that he had quite liked the knight sacrifice. About taste one cannot argue, but evidently the appreciation of an expert would not be the same."
English GM Nigel Short commented to ChessBase that "mistakes should not be so glaring in a game so honored." However, the former world championship challenger did say, regarding Radjabov's sacrifice 21...Ngxe5: "Radjabov plays very imaginatively. I have had many blitz encounters with the boy, and I have often outplayed him. But he just won't give up, he is extremely tenacious and will always find a way to muddy the waters to throw you off track. He is very good at finding disconcerting moves. Here he unbalances Kasparov completely, disturbing his rhythm of play. The move probably caused the Great Player to fall off his chair." Nigel also explained some of Kasparov's moves: "Garry played 22.Qe3 because he simply dislikes being attacked. I once spent 50 minutes deciding on a murky pawn sacrifice which the champion declined without giving it a thought. He loathes being subjected to pressure. And after 22...Nd7 23.Qxe6 Bh4 24.Qg4 Kasparov again avoided the free lunch – this time clearly incorrectly (the greedy 24. Qxd5 was clearly better). But his choice was consequent. After declining the piece sacrifice on e5 he was now not simply going to grab a pawn. He wanted to retain the threats that arise from the pin on d7 and also get his queen out of the file of the rook. Then came 24... g5 25. Bd2 Rde8 26. 0-0-0 Na5 27. Rdf1. Kasparov was still fighting desperately for the initiative, when calm defence was required. This means that Radjabov's strategy had worked. Instead of simply allowing Kasparov to grind him down he unbalanced the game with his knight sacrifice, and six moves later Kasparov had blundered. That was the point of Radjabov's sacrifice -- it was not sound but it gave him these practical chances." You will find the moves of the game here.
4) There wasn't much beauty on the chessboard in Linares this year. Two of the great attacking players of modern chess, Kasparov and Anand, were in mediocre form and most of the 15 decisive games were either technical grinds or one-sided crushes that were only pretty after the game was already decided. Most sacrifices, what there were of them, were declined. Without a clear favorite on the board, external factors weighed heavily in the selection.
Therein lies the problem. External factors shouldn't influence a game beauty prize. When we asked Leontxo Garcia about his decision he sent this eloquent reply: "The concept of beauty is very subjective. When I was watching the game live, giving commentary to the spectators on their headphones, the move ..Ngxe5 by Radjabov against Kasparov gave me a sensation of beauty. It is beautiful that a child of 15 has the courage to make that move with black against Kasparov in his Linares debut. It is beautiful that a record of seven undefeated years with white, and six years without losing in Linares at all, is broken by a 15-year-old child.
In his rage Kasparov talked about "best game." I explained at the top of my lungs that the paper on which I marked my vote said "prize for the most beautiful game," which permits a much greater level of subjectivity. What's more, the tournament did not provide an "immortal" game of sublime beauty, so I felt quite free to vote for Radjabov's game and it seems that the majority of the journalists felt the same.
Chess is too important to me to insult it. I respect Leko and Kramnik and Kasparov, and it would never occur to me to insult them. In fact, Kramnik told me last night (without being asked) that he thought it was fine that the prize went to Radjabov."
We add here a comment from Mark Crowther, editor of The Week In Chess: "I probably agree that this wasn't the most accurate game of chess but for a young player like Radjabov to have the courage and strength to fight Kasparov the best player in the world in a sharp position like this is extremely impressive."
These comments sum things up well to unintentionally validate the most serious of Kasparov's complaints. The prize was awarded to this game because Garry Kasparov was on the losing side and a 15-year-old was on the winning side. Had any other player or players been involved, the game doesn't win the prize. In a way this is a backhanded compliment to Kasparov: any loss by him is de facto considered to be very impressive. But it is still adding insult to injury.
In chess composition the judges are not told the names of the composers, so they can look at the quality of the works with an unbiased eye. This is obviously not possible with a tournament prize. But awarding a beauty prize to a game because of who played it is simply wrong and it becomes a popularity contest. We might compare this award to the ChessBase "Player of the Year" for 2001, an actual popularity contest that was won by Alexandra Kosteniuk by a large margin over Kasparov, Ponomariov, and Kramnik. Maybe in that case "beauty prize" would have been appropriate... The woman who beat Kosteniuk for the women's world championship that year, the equally "talented and charming" Zhu Chen, wasn't even nominated, to ChessBase's shame.
Kasparov departed the scene in Linares with the inverse MacArthur (or Terminator, depending on your age) comment, "I won't be back." We hope this isn't true, as there are few enough elite events on the calendar where we can see our heroes play. (If you discard this as a tantrum over something irrelevant you don't know how important Linares is or how important it is to Kasparov in particular. The beauty prize at the most prestigious chess tournament in the world is not trivial, nor should it be.) But if Kasparov does return it should be on the condition that such prizes are either redefined or handed over to an expert committee. We nominate GM Lubomir Ljubojevic, a constant presence in Linares who has contributed much beauty to the royal game in his career.
Much will be made of Kasparov's outburst at the closing ceremony. We cannot but agree that there is no excuse for such behavior. It was embarrassing for every player and fan to have the chess world's leading representative explode like this. Kasparov's criticism would have been more effective had he waited and asked to speak his mind. Instead, the fact that he was essentially correct in his allegations will be lost amid the accusations that he is a sore loser. We knew that already, however, and even have a certain degree of admiration for Kasparov's childlike emotional honesty. There is no spin, no false smile. Still, this explosion in front of the young Radjabov and his mother must be censured. Self-control comes late to some, but it must come eventually.
These dual incidents will not have a lasting impact unless Kasparov follows through on his heat of the moment threat not to return to Linares. If Anand can let bygones be bygones and play in Dortmund this year as announced, Kasparov can play in Linares. Winning is the best revenge. Meanwhile, perhaps the real losers are Leko and Kramnik, who both played games more worthy of a beauty prize in this year's Linares. Of course Radjabov was completely blameless in all this and it's sad that the one bright spot in his tournament was besmirched. In other news, no one else will ever have to worry about losing to the 15-year-old Radjabov again. He turns 16 tomorrow.