Short on Tripoli: a one-month blunderfest

7/19/2004 – Nigel Short, one of Britain's top GMs, was one of the 128 contestants of the FIDE world championship in Libya. After his return we spoke to him about the new world champion, the FIDE knockout format, his incredible blunder against Krasenkow and what must be done to reform the chess world. Here is part one of this interview.

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Interview with Nigel Short – Part one

This interview was conducted by telephone from Nigel's house in Greece. The transcription sticks very close to the original recording, giving us a flavour of a chat with the always interesting Super-Grandmaster and onetime world championship finalist.

Frederic Friedel: The new FIDE world champion is Rustam Kasimdzhanov. That was a big surprise. You know him quite well, but most people don’t. Tell us about him.

Nigel Short: He’s a very talented player. People seem to have forgotten the fact that he was rated over 2700 not that long ago. He’s also very young. He certainly has a lot of ability, but there is some inconsistency in his play.


Nigel Short, Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Darmen Sadvakasov enjoying some Danish wine at the Samba Cup in Denmark in October 2003

I’ve been very impressed by his play in this tournament, the way he got past all these very, very tough opponents. I myself played him for the first time in Denmark [Samba Cup, Skanderborg, Denmark], and it was an interesting experience for me. Essentially I got totally outplayed. But I kept going and just tried to create some difficulties. And eventually at some moment he cracked up entirely, just totally disintegrated.

Kasimdzhanov,R (2668) - Short,N (2701) [C95]
1st Samba Cup Skanderborg DEN (1), 10.10.2003

Here Kasimdzhanov is much better, and Nigel had just played 51…Qh5 to try and stir up trouble. It worked, and Kasim played 52.f6? This allows an instant draw by 52…Qh4 or, as Nigel played, 52…Qf3. Now White must play 53.fxg7+ or 53.f7 and end the game with a perpetual by White or by Black. But Kasim went for the fatal 53.Qg4??, after which 53...Qf2+ 54.Kh1 (54.Qg2 Qxf4+ 55.Kh1 Bxf6–+) 54...Bh6 lost him the full point.

So there are some weaknesses there in his game, that much is obvious, but he is an excellent player, and I’m not that surprised that he has done so well.

What’s he like as a person?

He’s just a very nice guy. I like him a lot. He’s extremely intelligent, very well-read – much better-read than most chess players. He’s articulate and he’s very funny. He calls himself Baldrick on some chess servers I think, after the character in Blackadder. He’s just a very funny guy.


Blackadder (right) to Baldrick: “God made man in his own image. It would be sad for Christians throughout the globe if God looked anything like you, Baldrick.”

What did you think of the format of the FIDE world championship? Vishy Anand recently told me he did not play in Libya because he thought it was unfair that the winner had to play Kasparov, that this was simply a qualifier for that match. What is your position?

I totally agree with him on that issue.

But you played in Tripoli, while he didn’t.

Well, I took the purely pragmatic view that my time is running out as a chess player and this was a good chance for me to win or do well, and that if other people were not playing that in fact improved my chances. I took an opportunistic stand and Vishy took a principled decision. I respect him for that. I was looking after my own interests. But it is of course unfair for the winner to immediately have to play Kasparov. I don’t even remember why he is there, what are the mechanics of the match, or how he finessed this whole world championship cycle…

The Prague Agreement?

Yeah sure, but it is still all very bizarre.

What about reunification? Have you given up on that?

Well, the only good thing out of all this is that are moving closer to having a unified world championship.

Okay, let's say it were up to you, and you had unlimited power. How would you solve the problems of the chess world now, the problem of the different titles, the championships?

Oh, this is too difficult a question, especially to answer in fifteen minutes.

Let's try to do it in thirty seconds…

Okay. First of all I would like to see changes at the top in FIDE. Without putting names, I think there is a lack of professionalism with the governing body, and I think quite a lot of people could do with being replaced. Then I would make the time controls longer. First of all you have to complete games with an increment, that is absolutely clear. You cannot have arbiters deciding whether somebody is trying to win by normal means, (a) because arbiters are not competent enough, and (b) because it is not always possible to decide these things.

I don’t understand. When do the arbiters intervene…?

Well, if you are playing without increment, then sometimes the arbiters have to intervene, make decisions which affect the outcome. That is a very, very unpleasant situation, just asking for trouble. Anyway, I would definitely go for longer time controls. I would be looking at a six or seven hour session…

Isn’t that more or less what we had before?

Yes, and I don’t see what was wrong with it.

What about the knockout system? Would you go with that?

Yes, why not. Knockout matches.

So the current FIDE system with longer time controls…

No, knockout matches like the ones they used to have. I actually think the old system was better. The biggest problem then was finding funding for the various preliminary stages. Of course they never had problems with the world championship final itself, which generated much more publicity than the current world championship. You had these FIDE knockout events in Las Vegas, for instance, where I would bet that not more than ten percent of the people in the Caesar’s Palace Hotel knew that there was a world championship taking place. We don’t even need to speak about the wider world.

How many spectators were there in the theatre in Tripoli?

I think of genuine spectators, not people who are seconds or somehow related to the players, there were very few indeed…


Just a handful of spectators at a world championship final

How many? A hundred?

No, no, no, no, no.

Dozens?

No, no, a tiny handful of people.


The finalists on the stage in the theatre in Tripoli

What? Ten?

Let's say ten. It was really very small. And I think this is no good. They are essentially having a world championship final in an empty hall, with no interest. In Britain they only woke up to the fact that the event was taking place during the finals, when there was a chance that they might have an English world champion. The Guardian did a report I think. But in general there’s simply no interest for the event.


Video footage of the playing hall during the critical game six of the final.
In the front row we see FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and his deputy.

And all of this is the fault of…

I know that people criticise me for my match against Kasparov in 1993. But the amount of publicity that generated was absolutely colossal, especially in comparison with this one. What they’ve done with the world championship cycle is to take away some of the seriousness. In previous times the world champion was immensely respected – now they are just respected. It is clear that anyone who wins the world championship is a very good player, but before it was something truly exceptional.


Nigel Short in Libya

Today you have a system that is a bit of a lottery – whoever hits form for that particular event can come out the world champion, whereas before you had some Darwinian system of a qualification, which went on for ages, and you prepared for months – literally for months before matches. In the FIDE championships the amount of preparation you need to do is virtually nothing. You prepare for your first-round opponent, and then you are into the system, never quite sure whom you are going to play. So the quality of preparation has also gone down, you have no time for any real psychological dissection of the opponent’s game. And when you are playing two-game matches it is primarily nerves that are deciding everything.

So back to my question: what would you do to reform the system? Have a system of qualifiers, like Interzonals, then go on to match play with the last eight?

Yeah, that’s it. I believe that the old system was essentially very much better. There was more money for the players, it generated much more publicity for the game. I think what they’ve done is to trash the world championship in a way. It was done with this obsession of “We have to make chess more snappy, we have to make it more like Wimbledon”. Well, you know, Fischer-Spassky was not a snappy match, it went on for a long time...

That was an exception.

Yes, but even the Karpov-Korchnoi matches had huge publicity, as incidentally did the Karpov-Kasparov matches. These were great events, the games were published in every newspaper, and were scrutinised very thoroughly. Now everything has been contracted down to a one-month blunderfest. That’s what we have today.

Nigel was one of the players on the wrong end of the blunderfest: after winning the first round fairly convincingly he made a terrible mistake in round two against Krasenkow. We forced him to discuss the critical position at some length, and explain to us how a one-move blunder is possible at the Super-GM level. This is the subject of the eye-opening second part of our discussion with Nigel Short.


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