The Elite Meet in Monte Carlo
The chess circus is back in town! At least if your town is fabulous Monte Carlo, Monaco. Twelve of the world's best are competing in the 12th annual Melody Amber tournament. The event is organized and sponsored by the Association Max Euwe and chess player/patron Joop van Oosteram, for whose daughter the tournament is named.
Each round the competitors play one rapid and one blindfold game against the same opponent. The player with the best combined score from the rapid and blindfold tournaments is the winner. Last year it was first-time participant Alexander Morozevich taking the title on the strength of his phenomenal 9/11 score in the blindfold. (See last year's report.)
The young Russian is back and will have to defend his title against multiple title winners Kramnik, Shirov, and Anand. Three of the players just finished the Linares supertournament and fatigue might play a factor, particularly in the exhausting blindfold games. The playing schedule is March 15-27 with rest days on the 19th and 24th. Here is the full list of this year's participants.
Vladimir Kramnik, Russia, 2809
Viswanathan Anand, India, 2753
Veselin Topalov, Bulgaria, 2743
Peter Leko, Hungary, 2736
Evgeny Bareev, Russia, 2729
Alexei Shirov, Spain, 2723
Boris Gelfand, Israel, 2700
Vassily Ivanchuk, Ukraine, 2699
Alexander Morozevich, Russia, 2678
Zoltan Almasi, Hungary, 2676
Loek van Wely, Netherlands, 2668
Ljubomir Ljubojevic, Yugoslavia, 2570
Yes, we know that Yugoslavia no longer officially exists (it's now "the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro") and that Ljubo lives in Spain, but if you ask him that's where he says he is from and who are we to argue? Ljubomir Ljubojevic's best results on the crosstables are likely behind him now that he is over fifty and rarely plays. He is a friend of van Oosteram and the multi-lingual Ljubo is the life of any event he attends whether he is playing or not! He won the event in 1993 and enjoys showing the youngsters that he can still be 2700 in the middlegame.
There is an official site here: http://chess.lostcity.nl/amber/. The promised live coverage did not seem to be working during today's round one. Linares winners Kramnik and Leko started off well with blindfold wins over Almasi and Bareev, respectively. Kramnik used to own the blindfold event until he looked mortal last year. He might be back to his winning ways in 2003.
The conditions in Monte Carlo are first class, the prize fund is enormous ($190,000), and there are no rating points on the line, what more could a chess pro ask? First he could ask that he not embarrass himself by hanging his queen or any other large pieces of chess furniture in the blindfold games.
This happens at least once per year. In 2002 it was Bareev playing the the unfortunate 20.Bxc6 Bxc6 21.Nxc6 Qxc6 white resigns against Shirov.
The players sit facing computer screens and make their moves on the computer with a mouse on a board with no pieces, so there are no illegal moves possible. This lacks the 19th century flair of Morphy sitting with his back to a huge Paris crowd and calling out the moves, or having a silk scarf tied over the eyes, but it's considerably more comfortable.
Blindfold chess was a sensation for centuries and only started to decline in the 20th, when it become better known that any strong player could play at least one game without sight of the board. It can still impress, however, and as we have seen before, the public has a short memory.
When the legendary Philidor played two blindfold games simultaneously in 1744 it was considered close to miraculous and the papers wrote in breathless words about this unrivaled display of genius. This despite the fact that blindfold chess was recorded hundreds of years earlier with the first known event in Europe occuring in Florence in 1266!
Paul Morphy wowed the Parisians over a century later and just about every top player of the 19th century added to his income considerably with these seances. The American Pillsbury would add other memory tricks to the show, and also played a very high level of chess during his exhibitions. On an off day during a tournament in 1902 he played 21 blindfold games simultaneously and all the participants were playing in the event's B tournament! Pillsbury's score of +3 =11 -7 doesn't look so great, but considering he couldn't see the boards and that all of his opponents were seasoned players, it is phenomenal.
The generally accepted record for most simultaneous blindfold games is held by George Koltanowski, who was a memory magician with few equals and was recently the subject of a ChessBase article on the knight's tour. In 1937 he played 34 amateurs in Edinburgh and finished with a +24 -10 score in over 13 hours of play. (Miguel Najdorf's 45-board blindfold simul in Sao Paul Brazil in 1947 was more of a publicity event than a serious competition. Najdorf had access to scoresheets and there were multiple opponents per board during the marathon.)
100 years ago there was a lot of "how do they do it?" and many Masters discussed the subject. Tarrasch wrote of seeing the board "as a plastic object" in his mind and about how each move modified the image, "as the photographic plate receives the impression of the object on which the light falls."
Perhaps partially due to the later mental health problems of several prominent players, Morphy and Steinitz in particular, many believed that blindfold play was too taxing and led to mental sickness or even death. The USSR banned the displays in 1930, according to the Oxford Companion to Chess. Botvinnik spoke out against it, which may be why his top student, Kasparov, has declined to test his blindfold play. Most of the Melody Amber players agree that it is more tiring than a regular game even with a faster time control.
Blindfold play is something you can practice and improve at apart from your regular chess game. A player who practices it regularly will beat a player hundreds of rating points higher if the stronger player has never tried it before, at least at the amateur level. Give it a try and wow your friends! Unlike your knowledge of the subtleties of the Semi-Slav, this is actually something that non-players are impressed by.
Grandmasters rarely have trouble visualizing the board during a single game, although as mentioned above, accidents do happen.If you need more proof, this diagram is from Melody Amber blindfold 1998. It's the great Anatoly Karpov to play and he grabs the unprotected f-pawn with 13.Rxf7. No points for figuring out how Matthew Sadler responded...