EU Individual Championships: death by ringtone

9/12/2008 – The prize fund is 30,000 pounds, the venue is the World Museum in Liverpool, England. 38 grandmasters and a bunch of other title holders. After three rounds six players have perfect 3/3 scores. But the highlight so far was round two, when suddenly a Nokia cellphone played a few tinkling bars of Tarrega’s Gran Vals, which led to a well-known GM defaulting his game. Full background story.

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The European Union Open Championships are taking place from September 9th to 18th September 2008 in Liverpool, England. The prize fund is 30,000 pounds (38,000 Euros or US $53,000) with a £6,000 first prize. The venue is the World Museum Liverpool, which has extensive collections covering archaeology, ethnology and the natural and physical sciences.

Participants (Elo 2500 or higher)

1 Adams, Michael GM   2735
2 Bacrot, Etienne GM 2691
3 Vachier-Lagrave, M. GM 2681
4 Short, Nigel D GM 2655
5 Tiviakov, Sergei GM 2645
6 Fridman, Daniel GM 2637
7 L'Ami, Erwin GM 2610
8 Beliavsky, Alexander GM 2606
9 Laznicka, Viktor GM 2601
10 Baramidze, David GM 2593
11 Smeets, Jan GM 2593
12 Berg, Emanuel GM 2592
13 Werle, Jan GM 2591
14 Kotronias, Vasilios GM 2574
15 Luther, Thomas GM 2570
16 Andersson, Ulf GM 2562
17 David, Alberto GM 2562
 
18 Dgebuadze, Alexandre GM   2562
19 Sulskis, Sarunas GM 2562
20 Howell, David WL GM 2561
21 Meier, Georg GM 2556
22 Jones, Gawain C B GM 2549
23 Miezis, Normunds GM 2540
24 Conquest, Stuart C GM 2536
25 Hillarp Persson, Tiger GM 2526
26 Wells, Peter K GM 2526
27 Hebden, Mark L GM 2520
28 Godena, Michele GM 2519
29 Carlsson, Pontus GM 2514
30 Haslinger, Stewart G GM 2511
31 Edouard, Romain IM 2508
32 Gordon, Stephen J IM 2508
33 Arkell, Keith C GM 2506
34 Gormally, Daniel W GM 2504

After three rounds of play six players have perfect 3/3 scores: GMs Michael Adams, Stuart Conquest, Daniel Fridman and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, as well as the French IM Thal Abergel, rated 2499 and Dutch FM Ali Bitalzadeh, rated 2310.


Death by Ringtone

By John Saunders

  • The Scene: the playing hall of the European Union Chess Championship, at the Liverpool World Museum.
  • The Date: 10 September 2008
  • The Time: 4.29pm BST, 2½ hours into the session.

All is silent. The top board players are hard at work, as are the four TTs (tournament techies: two DGT board technicians, one webmaster and one game inputter – the current writer), quietly tapping at their laptop keyboards in the same room and no more than 10 metres away from the grandmasters. A few spectators are watching from beyond the cordon.

Suddenly, a few tinkling bars of Tarrega’s Gran Vals break the silence. Momentarily, the brain registers the well-known Nokia ring tone and then, a nanosecond later, the sheer horror hits you that it might be your own mobile that rang. Two more nanoseconds comes the wave of relief that – thank God – the sound came from further away and it was somebody else’s. Blessed relief. Then, you can’t help yourself, but your head turns away from your work to look around the room. Whose phone was it? You look and you see all the other heads, grandmasters and techies alike, doing the same thing as you – staring quizzically from face to face. It’s that infants school feeling – some naughty boy has let off a stink bomb and the teacher wants to know who did it.

It was soon apparent that it was not one of the TTs or a spectator (for whom such a mishap might only mean a severe reprimand from the tournament director and universal loathing from a group of super-grandmasters), as grandmaster heads seemed to be pointing towards a board nearest the window. At that moment we all knew that a grandmaster was about to suffer death by ringtone.


Nigel Short (in the background left) in his game against Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant

Well, to be honest, I couldn’t see all the top boards from my chair in the corner of the hall as the other three techies were obscuring a large part of my potential vista, but it turns out that Nigel Short was the owner of the phone that rang, which he had placed on top of a large tome (a biography of Fidel Castro) beside him on the table before play. There wasn’t an arbiter in view, but I think Nigel owned up immediately to his opponent Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant. He exchanged a few quiet words with his opponent, signed the scoresheets and was gone.


The deadly Nikia cellphone, behind the white king on the biography of Fidel Castro

What had gone wrong? In the museum’s coffee shop, Nigel later explained all to the tournament director, Manuel Weeks. The Nokia phone had been a gift from a sponsor at a recent tournament and he had had only just started using it. So new was it that it had only been charged once since had received it. As we shall see, the matter of battery charge and his unfamiliarity with the new handset were key to the disaster which had befallen him.

As we all know, it is so damnable easy to leave your phone switched on when you walk into a tournament hall. I shall now make a personal confession: during this tournament, I have twice done the same thing and left my phone on for considerable periods of time whilst in the playing hall, very near where the top boards are playing. And plenty of other people here have confessed to the same error. My phone has always been switched off at start of play but I have popped out to make a call and then forgotten to switch off on return to my desk. Of course, this doesn’t apply to players who are not allowed to go out and make phone calls during play, but we techies have to be doubly careful every time we go out to transact telephone business. Really we should be in a room of our own but unfortunately the lay-out of the venue does not make this possible.

Back to Nigel: he had had a near miss with a previous mobile phone at the same tournament in 2006. Here is Steve Giddins’ comment from this round one report from the 2006 European Union Chess Championship website:

“The top seed and focus of most media attention is Nigel Short, the former world championship challenger, who is making a rare appearance in the country (and county) of his birth. He won smoothly enough against Finland’s Maki Karttunen, but here the game score does not tell the full story of how perilously close Short was to losing in the very opening. This had nothing to do with his moves, however. The truth is that some 90 minutes into the playing session, Short discovered to his horror that his mobile phone was still switched on! Fortunately, nobody tried to phone or text him during the period – as he agreed with me afterwards, it sometimes pays to have no friends...”

The irony was that Nigel had learnt his lesson from this near miss. In 2008 he had done all the right things. At the start of play, he made a point of taking out his phone, switching it off and placing it beside him as described above. His opponent, Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant, vouches for this: she saw Nigel switch his phone off before play and was as surprised as him when the infernal device suddenly rose from the dead and found its voice after 2½ hours of play.

Afterwards, Nigel was in shock but accepted the penalty without demur. Although he was not yet entirely familiar with his new phone, his explanation for the phone springing to life was that it was not a phone call or receipt of a text SMS, but actually a ‘battery low’ signal which it was apparently able to emit even when totally switched off. He said that it didn’t feel as if he had lost a game of chess. This accords with the feeling of those who were there to witness it. There was something surreal about it. Given his sensible practice of taking the phone out and being seen to switch it off, it is difficult not to feel sorry for him.

This was the first time I have witnessed a mobile phone loss. The fact that it was of such a high-profile player made it all the more startling. I haven’t yet come to terms with my feelings on the mobile phone loss rule. Is it too draconian? Is there a more equitable way to deal with this occurrences? I don’t know. But I shall now always associate the Nokia ringtone with this unfortunate little incident in Liverpool.

Short,N (2655) - Arakhamia,K (2448) [B45]
4th ch-EU Liverpool ENG (2), 10.09.2008
1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 e6 5.Nc3 d6 6.Be3 Nf6 7.f3 Be7 8.Qd2 0-0 9.g4 d5 10.g5 Nxd4 11.Qxd4 Nh5 12.0-0-0 Bxg5 13.Kb1 Kh8 14.exd5 exd5 15.Bxg5 Qxg5 16.Rg1 Qf4 17.Qxd5 Nf6 18.Qg5 Qxg5 19.Rxg5 Be6 20.Bd3 h6 21.Rb5 b6 22.a4 Bd7 23.Rb4 Bc6 24.f4 Rad8 25.Rc4 Bf3 26.Re1

and death by ringtone: 0-1.

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