Elista 2006: The games can begin

by ChessBase
9/23/2006 – The World Chess Championship in Kalmykia is about to start. But before it does there are a number of things to attend to. Tables, chess sets, chairs need to be examined, then an opening ceremony in a football stadium, with thousands of spectators, with the drawing of colours (Kramnik gets white in game one). Big illustrated report.

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Veselin Topalov vs Vladimir Kramnik

Twelve games, played from September 23 to October 12 in Elista, Kalmikia. The games start at 15:00h (3:00 p.m.) local Elista time, which translates to 11:00h GMT, 13:00h CEST, 12:00h London, 7 a.m. New York.

Live coverage is available on the official FIDE site and on Playchess.com (with live audio commentary by GM Yasser Seirawan).

Kalmykia, Elista and Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

The Republic of Kalmykia (Respublika Kalmykiya) is a member of the Russian Federation. The area is 76,000 square miles, and the population is just under 300,000. The head of the Republic since 1993 is Kirsan Nikolayevich Ilyumzhinov, who was elected President of FIDE in 1995. All about Kirsan and Kalmykia

Kalmykia is located on the shores of the Caspian Sea

Google Earth view of Elista, which has a population of just over 100,000

First days in Elista

A report by Misha Savinov

The charter flight to Elista was full with journalists, chess officials, both Russian and international, and relaxed VIPs. The plane took off with a two-hour delay, associated with some passengers hanging out in the business class lounge and ignoring boarding calls. However, nobody seemed to care too much about it. I collected some newspapers and magazines on the flight day, and every single piece of print mentioned the Kramnik-Topalov match in some way.

On the plane to Elista: the Bulgarian Minister for Sport Vesela Lecheva

Most expert commentators called the outcome of the match tight and unpredictable. Such an approach is very easy and safe, as it covers both 6-6 and 7-0 possible scores. However, some of the people were more specific. I would like to draw your attention to Konstantin Sakaev's opinion that Kramnik will dominate throughout the first eight games, but finish poorly due to fatigue. IM and chess writer Ilya Odessky told me that he has no idea who will win the match, but he has a feeling that it will end ahead of schedule. Overall, the public opinion seems to favor Topalov slightly, just as Prof. Elo does.

The welcome committee in Elista

Two members of the FIDE Presidential Board: Georges Makropoulos,
Deputy President, and GM Zurab Azmaiparashvili, Vice President

Honorary President Florencio Campomanes, who ruled FIDE from 1982–1995

There was a cheering welcome in Elista, where ladies in national dresses presented each visitor with white Kalmyk scarf. They were smiling, despite the disheartening two-hour wait at Elista airport. I have already been told by more experienced chess travelers that locals pay less attention to time in general and appointments in particular, and this came as a first confirmation.

A "cottage" in the Chess City

A recreational area with pools and gazebos

A charming local resident – a praying mantis, one of the few insects that can turn their heads.

We arrived at the Chess City around midnight, and registered at the reception. While waiting for the keys to the cottage, I played a game with Evgeny Atarov, with large chess pieces on a floor-painted board, and nearly won a pawn in the middlegame. But it was time to go, so the game was abandoned. Broad smiles of GMs Inarkiev and Sambuev confirmed that our play was at least entertaining.

The next day started was typical pre-opening ceremony hurly-burly. However, I found the press center was set up more effectively than one normally expects. Just come and work – the Internet is already there, the phones are available, the engineers are helpful; and there are two days before they start the match clocks! A credit to the organizers.

Vladimir Kramnik examines the table and chess setup

...and finds the pieces a little to big (right: arbiter Geurt Gijssen)

Kramnik's manager Carsten Hensel looked after all the details

An inspection of the venue was arranged at 3 p.m. Vladimir Kramnik arrived about 3:05, with Carsten Hensel. The classical champ examined three different chairs, and predictably picked the biggest one. Then he tested the pieces and showed a bit of disappointment, asking for a smaller-sized set. Vladimir spent another five minutes setting the lights. After no shadows were left on board he expressed satisfaction and started chatting. Mr Hensel, however, meticulously continued the inspection, and pointed out a number of other things that needed to be improved.

Topalov's manager Silvio Danailov examines the player's chair

Silvio Danailov did not take such formality as inspection anywhere close to his heart – he arrived alone, glanced at the stage and approved everything. But he is far from insouciance – later I was told he discovered a radio set installed in the shower, and ordered it removed, and the hole cemented, to avoid any possibility of electronic bugging.

Thousands pack the football stadium to attend the opening ceremony

This is certainly a country where the people love chess

The opening ceremony started at 7 p.m. at the Uralan Stadium. Some year ago Elista had a strong football team, which played in the Russian Premier League and even finished 6th once. But football is far too expensive sport in this country, with average teams having budgets of around 15-20 million dollars. The Uralan football team does not exist anymore, and the stadium hosts concerts of pop stars.

Children of Elista have their day at the opening of the big event

Welcoming the chess champions...

...and playing a musical game of chess (while the spectators spell "FIDE" on the stands)

Ladies in attractive chess costumes

The ceremony was very colorful, with more than a thousand children dancing and parading with flags, showing their sporting skills etc. But the drawing of lots was a real pearl. The players came out of the tunnel together with girls in national dresses. The carpet proved too narrow for four people. As big Vlad took the lead and occupied the center of the carpet, Veselin had to move aside and walk on the pitch.

Ready to be led out on the field by Kalmyk girls

President Ilyumzhinov with the two chess champions before the drawing of colours

Mr Gijssen asked a little girl to pick one of the two tubes with cartoon pictures of the players inside. The girl hesitated, and then made her choice. Mr Gijssen opened the tube and showed Kramnik's portrait to the audience. Thus, it was Vladimir's privilege to choose one of the two chests. He moved to one of them so confidently that I almost didn't realize it was drawing of lots and not something else.

The cartoon of Kramnik is drawn, so he gets to select the chest

White doves, which means Kramnik gets to play white in game one

Dark pigeons means he will have think about 1...c5

Veselin proceeded to another chest. The players simultaneously opened both lids, and dozens of white and dark pigeons rose into the sky. Kramnik freed white pigeons, which gave him White pieces in the odd games.

Fireworks to end the opening ceremony

The ceremony ended with fireworks, which were so intense that they provoked a small fire in a park next to the stadium. The loud explosions made the youngest spectators cry. But it was indeed a greater show than I have ever seen before.

The president hosts a gala dinner for players and guests

A festive dinner followed the ceremony. Baked meat, vodka, national songs and dances by local talents were appreciated by everyone who attended. Even more so because the opening day is followed by a day-off. Very wise! We all should thank Carsten Hensel for his remarkable prescience during the match negotiations.

Photos by Misha Savinov and Dagobert Kohlmeyer


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