A Tragedy of Errors – Part I

by ChessBase
5/2/2004 – The chess world is currently in a mess, nobody would deny that. There is no clear world champion, and none in sight. So what happened to the high-flying plans, proposed and agreed almost two years, to unify the different fractions? Yasser Seirawan, the spiritus rector of the Prague Agreement, tells us what went wrong. Here is the first part of a candid, insightful interview.

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A Tragedy of Errors – Part I

Multi-media interview with Yasser Seirawan

By Frederic Friedel

The following interview was conducted at the end of November 2003, in the famous Athletic Club in New York. High-profile American GM Yasser Seirawan was there as a live commentator, for ESPN, on the match Garry Kasparov vs X3D Fritz. After an exhausting (but exhilarating) week Yasser had a few hours to kill before his flight back to Holland, where he sometimes lives. I used the opportunity to chat with this eloquent and highly entertaining player in the world chess arena. The video interview is on ChessBase Magazine 99. It offers a unique insight into the events that have led up to the current situation, given by a man who was at the center of it all. We bring you a transcription of the 44 minute interview in two parts.

ChessBase: The chess world is currently in a mess. Some time ago you tried to formulate a solution – in the form of the “Prague Agreement”. How did that come about and what became of it?

Seirawan: It started in 2001 when I was thinking of retiring from chess: It had become obvious to me that there were fewer and fewer sponsors, the chess world was in chaos and being a chess professional was becoming less and less a joy and more and more an unpleasant experience. Also there were some really marvellous junior players, for example from my neck of the wood Hikaru Nakamura, and to give them a chance somebody from the 40-year-old set has to step aside – from Olympic team perspectives and such. So I felt the necessity for retiring in 2001. Chess has been wonderful for me, it was truly a great blessing, it allowed me to travel the world and meet wonderful and interesting people. I was looking for a simple gift that I could give back, and looking at the tattered, torn world of chess I thought: the single best thing I could do for the next generation was to repair the split.

So I sat down and began to really think how I could best do this – what formula would not just make a great deal of sense to me but also to my colleagues and the protagonists who have varying claims. So I did that and launched what I called a “Fresh Start”. It was aimed at creating a cycle that would lead to the reunification. Garry Kasparov was immediately enthusiastic, and FIDE, much to my surprise, were also very enthusiastic and went for it. Vladimir Kramnik was not – he explained that his contract with the Einstein TV group required him by contract to play a single world championship match, full stop, end of story. Only then he would have the choice of accepting a “voluntary” second match for what was described as a single cycle. In his contractual obligations he was limited to playing two and only two matches or competitions. My “Fresh Start” had called for him to play in the quarterfinals and go forward.

So we were stuck. But Vladimir made a suggestion that was actually the Prague Agreement suggestion. Garry was even more enthusiastic about this idea, because mine would have required that Garry win three matches. The sole problem with Kramnik’s suggestion was that there was already an established formula for the Dortmund event which would lead to a challenger for Kramnik. That meant literally that the rest of the world’s chess masters were being locked out of the unification cycle. This did not make me very happy at all, because for example I would simply have liked to see Viswanathan Anand being involved. So it wasn’t a solution that met well with me, and many other grandmasters had similar feelings. However, having said all of that I was extremely enthusiastic about the Prague Agreement for the simple reason that I thought: let’s do it, let get it over with, let’s hold our noses and agree that this isn’t the perfect solution, and that once we have unification we can really make something that is fair and sensible to the whole world of chess – and most especially to the chess public and sponsors. This is the crucial point. You cannot draw chess sponsors to the game when there is a split, for the simple reason that if I’m a Coca-Cola executive and I agree to spend millions of dollars on a world chess championship I don’t want to see the Pepsi-Cola world chess championship that has equal weight and equal meaning being played down the road. It’s simply self-defeating. Sponsors will only return to the game when we get our own house in order.

The Prague Agreement had one tremendous advantage going for it. It was extremely simple to understand. No complicated Fresh Start ideas, no utopia going on. It was three matches, two prelims, the final, bang it’s done. In my and everybody else’s understanding basically by today a unification match should have already taken place, and in the following months a whole new cycle would have begun. It would have completely changed the world of chess. The world champion, whoever that might be, would have to play two matches in the second cycle and three matches in the third cycle to retain the championship. No longer a Mt Everest where only one person could climb to the challenge. That in my opinion had great sponsorship appeal. But it all fell apart.

First and foremost, let it be very clear, the blame fairly lands on FIDE. That may surprise some people. First of all let us not forget that FIDE is the world governing body, so they have the most responsibility. Secondly, as the Prague Agreement fully declared, the world championship title is in their hands, it is theirs to bestow, based upon a formal competition taking place. So they had the greatest responsibility to make sure that their world championship title would become prestigious once again, and hold all of the interest for the game that it traditionally had.

Almost from the start, at the end of the Prague Agreement, there were numerous mistakes being made by FIDE. The first and biggest mistake was that immediately after Prague. They should have made their champion Ponomariov fully aware of everything. FIDE could have simply said to me: “Yasser, fly to the Ukraine, meet this gentleman, tell him the whole story. Or get on the telephone, talk to him.” Or they could have said “Take the one hundred electronic letters you have, send them in some chronological order to Ponomariov, in a way that he could understand”. Anything to bring Ponomariov in a very nice way into the understanding. As Pono explained it to me months and months later, he felt like he was being kept in a dark room with no sunlight. He wasn’t getting any information and felt he was being treated like a mushroom. I can well understand his frustrations, because I’ve also been in that same room at times and felt like I didn’t know what was going on. Nothing gets you more panicked then when you are getting no information. There was a complete shutdown and shearing of communications with Ponomariov – as he explained it to me.

A terrible and stupid thing was when they took Kramnik off the FIDE rating list – they said Vladimir Kramnik had no rating, he doesn’t exist. Well, Vladimir Kramnik had just signed an agreement in Prague where he was being invited back into the fold. And the first thing he was getting was this technical glitch, that they didn’t rate his match in Moscow against Kasparov because it was competing with the knockout championship, or they never got the reports, and he was “technically” inactive, although he had played in Prague and in Melody Amber, etc. etc. Making a long story short, Kramnik was excluded from the FIDE rating list. This was a really stupid blunder. If anything this was going to antagonise Vladimir, just flat-out antagonise him. And surprise: it did!

But the biggest blunder was FIDE’s support for the Kasparov-Deep Junior match. It was totally wrong. Even today I’m absolutely staggered by how absurd this was. We have to understand: Vladimir Kramnik is going to be playing Deep Fritz; it had been announced that in October there it would be the “Brains in Bahrain”. It’s a million-dollar match, everyone is looking forward to this long awaited long anticipated event, it’s going to be good for chess, everybody is happy about it. Garry got it into his mind that he too should be playing a match against a computer, and best of all, that he should be playing a match against Deep Junior, the recognised microcomputer world champion, and that he could play it in Jerusalem, at exactly the same time. (Blinks). Well, gee, I mean hadn’t we just signed an agreement of peace and love and brotherhood, that we will not make war against one another. It was unmistakable, Garry wanted to upstage Vladimir Kramnik’s match. Also the geopolitical rivalry. We now had Vladimir Kramnik somehow aligning himself with an Arab cause, and Garry Kasparov aligning himself with the Jewish cause by playing in Jerusalem – it was all wrong. The next thing we know the match in Jerusalem was called off, due to problems with Club Kasparov and an Israeli bank. I thought this was marvellous and immediately said (to FIDE) great, don’t play this match. First you are saving yourself a million Kirsan dollars, and the second reason you should never have played this match is that this was the rightful place of Ponomariov. The contract of the FIDE world champion specifically gave him the right to play the match against the computer. He was offered $30,000. He refused because he believed he deserved more. From a marketing standpoint perhaps he was wrong. However, when you exchange him with Kasparov, and give Kasparov a million dollars, Ponomariov had the feeling that his crown, his title of World Champion, had been usurped. He actually said: “Let’s really make this official, why don’t we just give Garry my title.” This really caused Ponomariov angst, he was very angry, jealous, whatever you may want to call it.

From my perspective, as a person who was deeply interested in seeing the Prague Agreement realised, not only were you causing irreparable damage in these relationships – and they need to be very smooth relationships – but you are really taking your eye off the ball. As much as I love man vs machine matches, as much as I think they are great for chess and marvellous publicity, that wasn’t the crucial thing. The ball was the Prague Agreement – reunifying the world of chess, uniting the world of chess. Get the Prague Agreement done! Do that first! All of those exhibition matches, all of the groovy Pepsi commercials, will come thereafter. Don’t lose sight of the goal, which is to unify chess. When the Kasparov Deep Junior match eventually did take place in February 2003 in New York it was only after many things had failed, it had been a great drain on Kasparov himself, on Kirsan, on many others, who really had to work hard to make it happen. And by this time the whole Prague Agreement had started to move clearly and significantly into the background.

Part two of this interview, dealing mainly with Ruslan Ponomariov's plight and his failure to play the unification match against Kasparov, will appear in the next few days. We also have a new "open letter" and interview by Ponomariov, reports on ACP controversies against FIDE, and fresh proposals by Garry Kasparov. At the end of our "political week" you, dear readers of ChessBase.com, can express your opinion on the situation in the chess world today. In order to prepare for the momentous task we advocate a careful study of the following documents. Taking a week off your regular job might be in order. But it could be worth your while. Maybe you will come up with a proposal that gains widespread acceptance and solves the problems of the chess world.

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