Nigel Short, Commonwealth Champion

1/22/2004 – Last week Nigel Short won the Commonwealth Championship in Mumbai, India. The former World Championship challenger scored 7.5 points in nine rounds. After his return we had an opportunity to talk with him. As always Nigel was interesting and entertaining in his description of the tournament and the players. Here's the must-read interview.

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The Commonwealth Chess Champion 2004 was held at the Hotel Mirador and organized by Venus Chess Academy. It was sponsored by ONGC, Union Bank of India, GTL, Bharat Petroleum and MTNL.

Immediately after his return to Greece, where he lives, Nigel called us to talk about his adventures at the championship and in the Indian commercial metropol. It was, as always, an interesting, entertaining conversation, which we had the good fortune to record. Here is a transcript, which is only lightly edited. We have tried to retain as far as possible the original flavour of Nigel's verbal style.

Nigel Short, Commonwealth Champion

Nigel Short in Mumbai [Photo: Venus Chess Academy]

ChessBase: Nigel, we would like to congratulate you on becoming the new Commonwealth champion. That means you are the best player in the Commonwealth?

Nigel Short: Yes, best player in the former British Empire. Of course the Empire has been shrinking somewhat. We’re down to the Falklands and the Pitcairn islands I think…

Which islands?

The Pitcairn Island is the one where Fletcher Christian, the guy from the Mutiny on the Bounty, ended up with all the Tahitians ladies. Of course we also have Ascension Island, St. Helena and various other bits and bobs – a few in the Caribbean and one in the Indian Ocean I believe.

The Commonwealth Championship was in Mumbai…

Yes, and you should explain it to the ChessBase people, because it turns out that nine out of ten non-Indians have never heard of the place. It’s only when you say “Bombay” that they realise what you are talking about.

There were some problems at the start of the tournament?

Well actually before that. I was invited to play by Mr Ummer Koya, President of the All India Chess Federation. At some stage I noticed that it was scheduled to be eleven rounds over nine days. Once before in my life, in a moment of weakness, I played a tournament in Santo Domingo where they had two rounds a day. After this I decided never again. It is obviously not conducive to playing good chess. It makes it a question of stamina rather than ability. I said I would play if they reduced it to nine rounds, and they agreed.

Doing an interview with Indian TV [Photo: Venus Chess Academy]

Were the other players upset?

No, not at all, in fact they did not get any complaints at all – quite the contrary. All the top players supported this, as did many players lower down the list. I don’t know in whose interest it is to play at a very cruel schedule. At the Indian Championship they played 23 rounds in just over two weeks. There is no way you can play proper chess under such a schedule, at a certain point the chess just goes horribly downhill. There were protests by some of the players, but to the best of my knowledge this was simply ignored by the Indian chess federation. So they needed an outsider to get things changed. I think that part of the problem is that Indians in general are very polite people, and a lot of the top players are simply jolly nice boys who are not really acquainted with union militancy. Actually this is not really militancy, but basic rights as far as I’m concerned.

It is that serious, playing more than one game a day?

It destroys chess, what more can I say? You cannot prepare if you play two games a day. What is happening is that these people are being brutalised, they are playing too many games and develop the habit of not preparing. This is a problem when they go abroad. Top chess these days is all about preparation, thorough, deep opening preparation, and they are not learning how to handle this properly. You also become very, very superficial.

Is this a specific problem for Indian players?

No, there are several issues. Things have generally gone downhill in the chess world in the last few years. The greatest disaster is, I think, the Shirov time control. I don’t know why Alexei allowed anyone to put his name to this. It has been adopted by FIDE and is one hour and thirty minutes plus thirty seconds for the game. This is a fundamentally flawed time control, because, first of all it is too fast, and the whole reasoning behind it is totally wrong. People tend to say okay, you have a certain amount of time, you have to budget it for the game. But the question is how long is a game of chess? It’s the same as asking how long is a piece of string. When you begin you have no idea whether you are going to play a twenty-move game or a hundred and twenty move game. If it is going to last 120 moves you ought to move at a much faster tempo than if it is going to be very short and explosive. And when you get to the 30 second increment, when you have basically used up all your time, you still have to write down your moves, which is a very distracting thing to do. That takes up some seconds, plus you can’t go into too deep a think, in case you forget to move. So you are under this constant pressure, which makes for very superficial chess. Frankly I don’t see what was wrong with the old time controls, where you play 40 moves in two hours, and 20 moves in the next hour, and then have a certain amount of time plus an increment to finish the game. You have to have an increment, because you can’t have a situation where people are losing with king and queen against king and pawn.

Nigel, if you, God forbid, were FIDE president what would you do?

Well, if I had dictatorial powers, if I were chief despot, I would have something like a seven-hour session, with two time controls, 40 in 2, 20 in one, and then give maybe fifteen minutes plus a thirty second increment for the remaining moves of the game.

Let’s move to the Commonwealth tournament in Mumbai. You had some problems in the beginning?

Well, I didn’t start very well at all. In the second round I drew with some 15-year-old boy from some very obscure place, some village somewhere. I think his name was Abhijeet Gupta (picture left). He played quite reasonably well, but it was also taking me some time to find my stride. One of the problems was that I was actually sleeping quite badly at the beginning of the event. Bombay is quite a noisy city and I was disturbed by the traffic, even in our four-star hotel, the Mirador. Also the playing conditions were not as good as they should have been. We had this players’ meeting on the day before the tournament, where we had to discuss the schedule. Originally the games had been scheduled for ten o’clock in the morning. I just produced the FIDE handbook and their recommendations for top-class tournaments, where they said that no round should start before one.

Don’t tell us you got that changed as well?

Yes, I got that changed. I had downloaded the rules from the FIDE site and showed Mr Koya what they said about starting at one o’clock. He said that those were “English rules”. I found this quite extraordinary. Mr Koya is vice president of FIDE, so you would think it would be in his interest to uphold the FIDE regulations. He agreed to change the times and said he was doing this as a favour to me. I said it was not a favour to me but because he is a vice president of FIDE and this is what is in the FIDE handbook. You know the rules are there, just stick to them. It is one of the few protections players have. FIDE has been around for a long time, eighty years I think. They’ve got some things right, you know.

So you changed the number of rounds and the starting times of the games?

I would have liked to change the time controls as well.

Let’s get to the chess…

Yes. The tournament was an open one, so there were a few random Russians and Uzbeks and who knows what else there. They were from countries that had never been subjugated and become part of the British Empire, though it might have been in their interest [laughs heartily]. I think you better cut that bit out.

No, go on. People understand humour and irony these days.

Okay. This is, in my opinion, a total absurdity. There are hundreds and hundreds of open tournaments in the world, and you’ve got one Commonwealth championship. And you make that a Commonwealth open championship, you open it to Tajiks and people from God knows where else – Cambodia?

Anyway, after the shaky start things picked up?

In the third round I was playing some veteran player, Koshy, and I managed to draw with white. I played a poor game, but in the end I was winning. I must confess I haven’t even switched on Fritz, but I suspect I will find that I was completely winning, in not too difficult a way. But it escaped me at the time. I just played badly.

Short, N (2702) - Koshy, V (2374) [B33]
ch-Commonwealth Mumbai IND (3), 12.01.2004

You are right, Nigel, 61.f5? was bad. After 61.Rxe7+! Kxe7 62.f5 White, according to Fritz, is 33.98 pawns up! 61...Bf8+ 62.Kg6 Rxb7 63.Re8 Rb6+.

64.f6? Another missed opportunity. 64.Kh7! Bc5 65.f8Q Bxf8 66.Rxf8 is mate in 28. After 64...Rb1 65.Rxf8 the position is a draw. The game continued 65...Rg1+ 66.Kf5 Rf1+ 67.Ke5 Re1+ 68.Kd4 Rd1+ 69.Ke5 Re1+ 70.Kd4 Rd1+ 71.Ke3 Ke6 72.Ke4 ½-½.

At that stage I was simply losing a stack of rating points. When you have a 2700 rating, and none of my four first-round opponents were rated over 2400, then you get into big trouble. Your points are just going down the toilet.

Then you started to win.

Yes, after that I started winning a few games, I started to play better from this point. I had a very poor game against Iskusnyh, some Russian guy…

But you won the game, in 19 moves?!

Oh, no, that’s ridiculous, the moves are all wrong, they got them from the bulletin. It is all wrong, it was a 58 move game, and even the 19 moves you have are incorrect. I can enter them for you, I have my score sheet. The problem with the electronic boards is that they don’t work when the pieces are not quite in the centre, and they seem to go wrong for other obscure reasons. And if the bulletin editor is not a chess player he may not notice that the moves don’t make any sense. In some tournaments the games in the bulletins bear very little resemblance to the moves that were actually played. Sometimes the correct scores are actually lost forever.

Nigel (in the red cap) giving the ChessBase team a lesson (2002 in Bahrain)

Anyway I started to play my best chess against the better players. I beat this Fominyh, Alexander Fominyth, not Maria Fominyh, who is a cute blond 16-year-old from Krasnoyarsk. It was not a brilliant game, but actually quite okay. My best game was against my protégé, Harikrishna, in the last round.

How is he your protégé?

Because I’ve been coaching him, before the Indian championship. I think he has a lot of potential, he’s really talented. He reminds me to a certain degree of the young Anand. Not as good as Anand, but there is definitely something of him there. The young Anand moved fast and was very superficial, the old Anand, the Anand of today, is just a super-strong player. At some moment he learnt how to play chess properly. Vishy as a young guy, you saw immediately that he was very gifted, but he had many things to learn. Now he has nothing to learn, he does most of the things right.

My game against Harikrishna was some kind of Rubinstein French. I’m not sure that was his best choice, considering the circumstances. The last round he was half a point behind me. Obviously had he won the game he would have overtaken me. The Rubinstein French does not really have a reputation as a great winning weapon. He could have tried some sort of sharp Sicilian, which would have perhaps suited the occasion better. In the game he just drifted into a worse position, and I think I played quite well, actually, and he just got outplayed in the game. He tried to break out with 24…Bc6, but I already had a substantial advantage. Then came a tactical flurry. Perhaps Fritz will say that I am a complete idiot and that I could have won much more easily, but I think I did it well enough.

Short,N (2702) - Harikrishna,P (2582) [C10]
ch-Commonwealth Mumbai IND (9), 18.01.2004

Position after 24.Bd7-c6

25.Nc5 Rxd4 26.Nxe6 Rxg4+ 27.Rg3 Rxg3+ 28.hxg3 Rh8 29.Nxg5+ Kg6 30.Nf7 Rf8 31.Re7 Ng7 32.Bc2+ Kh5 33.Nd6 Kh6 34.g4 f5 35.gxf5 Bd5 36.Kh2 Rf6 37.Rd7 Nh5 38.Nxb7 Bc6 39.Rc7 Kg5 40.Rxh7 Nf4 41.Nc5 Rd6 42.Be4 Bb5 43.a4 Be2 44.b4 a6 45.Ne6+ Nxe6 46.fxe6 Rxe6 47.Bg2 Rb6 48.Rb7 Rh6+ 49.Kg3 Kf5 50.Bh3+ Ke4 51.Re7+ Kd3 52.Bg4 Bxg4 53.Kxg4 Rg6+ 54.Kf5 Rb6 55.b5 axb5 56.axb5 Rxb5+ 57.Kg4 Rb8 58.f4 Rg8+ 59.Kh5 Rf8 60.Kg5 Rg8+ 61.Kf6 Rf8+ 62.Ke5 Ke3 63.f5 Kf3 64.f6 1-0

I think Fritz wants to play each of your moves…

Oh really? Well maybe a few moves later I could have played a little more precisely, but it was good enough. I think that was my best game.

I would like to mention this player Smirnov, who played good, aggressive chess and tied for first with me, and actually won on tiebreak. So he could only win the Commonwealth Open Championship. Praveen Thipsay found this slightly absurd. I was tied with him up to the last round, and he was there playing a Russian, and so they are having the Commonwealth title decided by non-Commonwealth players. I think this has to be changed, and I think an overwhelming majority of the participants would agree with that, of making it a pure Commonwealth championship. It is not racism or anything, or directed against Russians. If the Commonwealth championship is to have any meaning it should be open just to Commonwealth players, just like national championships should be open to whichever particular country they are in.

So are you generally satisfied with the result?

The way I look at it is like this. The other day I was watching cricket, and they had this guy Adam Gilchrist who hit 172 in a one-day match. That was very close to the world record. But all the commentators were saying it was not his best innings, he often didn’t really middle the ball. Who cares, if you score the runs? My opinion of my performance in this event is I don’t really care. I think I played not really very good chess, but at the end of the day I scored 7½ out of nine, and that is hardly bad.

Did you actually win any Elo points?

I won 1.2 Elo points. One point two. So I’m definitely on the rise. In about the year 2030 I’ll be 2800. On the last list I went up from 2701 to 2702, and I’ve got one in the bank now, and so at this rate in 25 years I’ll be 2800.

Tell me about the Indian players. Apart from Vishy Anand who are the most talented and in what order?

In my opinion Sasikiran is clearly the number two. He has a place of his own, which is below Anand and above the rest. There’s quite a gap above of him, and quite a gap below of him. He’s a very serious player and works very, very hard. After him you’ve got the young guys, Harikrishna, who I think is number three, Ganguly and some other players. Also Sandipan Chanda, and a lot of young players coming up. There was this 13-year-old girl who did quite well, Dronavalli Harika is her name. I mean Stuart Conquest, who is a perfectly respectable GM, he played her and managed to hold a draw. He said that if he had been playing someone a few hundred Elo points higher he wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but here it was a 13-year-old girl with a 2300 rating. I don’t think she will stay at 2300 for long, she is clearly very talented. I drew with a 15-year-old boy who nobody outside of India has probably heard of. There are loads of good players in India.

Thank you Nigel, it was a pleasure talking with you. And congratulations once more on winning the Commonwealth title.

Frederic Friedel


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