Feedback and opinions on the Needleman case

8/30/2005 – As you probably know that Gastón Needleman, the chess prodigy from Argentina, who was eliminated in the tiebreaks of the Continental Championship, was given a special ticket to the World Cup by FIDE President Ilyumzhinov. Since publishing the story last week we have received a lot of critical feedback, arguing both sides of the issue.

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Editorial remarks

Our initial article on the tiebreak of the Continental Championship in Buenos Aires, which appeared on August 19, was written by Carlos A. Ilardo and originally published in the national newspaper La Nacion a day earlier. It described how one player from the seven who tied for second in the main event needed to be eliminated, since there were only six tickets available for the FIDE world cup. Of the seven players six were experienced GMs and one a 15-year-old boy who had surprised everyone by keeping up with players in the main event. Gastón Needleman, who had gained international attention, was duly eliminated in the tiebreaks, and the story of the GMs allegedly ganging up against him was told in the Argentinian newspaper.

The reaction to Ilardo's story was swift and emotional. We received many dozens of very critical letters from our readers. At the FIDE Congress in Dresden the matter was discussed at all levels, and in the end, as we reported, the Governor of the province of San Luis, which will be staging the next FIDE world championship, appealed to President Ilyumzhinov to give Needleman a free ticket to the tournament many felt he had so unfairly missed. The FIDE President, feeling the mood of the delegates (and chess enthusiasts all over the world), complied.

So all's well that ends well? Not quite. A number of GMs, especially some of those directly involved in the Buenos Aires tiebreak, felt that their reputation had been tarnished by Ilardo's article – and by the fact that ChessBase had published a translation of it. "To be honest, I am a little disappointed with the way you handled this Continental Zonal tie-break affair," wrote one. "We had to pay our own way to the event and now get accused of ridiculous things by some journalist who printed his story in an Argentinian newspaper. I think that simply re-printing that article by ChessBase was a bad way to handle things, as it clearly presented the grandmasters in a false light and did serious damage to our personal image in the chess world." Another GM demanded an editorial apology for the damage done to the grandmasters' chess reputations, "which is incidentally perhaps one of the most important and valuable things we possess".

After reading the arguments on both sides, and especially the very sanguine views of Gastón Needleman himself, we come to the conclusion that there are indeed two sides to the story. Ilardo portrayed the one side with South American passion, and apparently under the influence of the booing spectators he had just seen at the tiebreak, and the disappointment he felt that the young Argentinian star had been eliminated in this way.

On the other hand chess professionals have eloquently argued that it is perfectly normal to act pragmatically when so much is at stake. In this case, in view of the late hour and the exhaustion of the players, it was natural to seek to gain the minimum number of points required for qualification against the player who could be expected to put up the least resistance. This is reflected in the cross table. In the GM vs GM games there was just one decided encounter, Granda vs Felgaer – all other games were drawn. In the GM vs Needleman games there was just one draw, and all the others were decided. Just glancing at the final table leaves chess fans with an uncomfortable feeling, which is not assuaged by the pragmatic arguments of the professionals.

No  Name
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
Pts
1  GRANDA, Julio
 
½
½
1
½
½
1
4
2  KAMSKY, Gata
½
 
½
½
½
½
1
3.5
3  VESCOVI, Giovanni
½
½
 
½
½
½
1
3.5
4  FELGAER, Ruben
0
½
½
 
½
½
1
3
5  ONISCHUK, Alexander
½
½
½
½
 
½
½
3
6  MILOS, Gilberto
½
½
½
½
½
 
0
2.5
7  NEEDLEMAN, Gaston
0
0
0
0
½
1
 
1.5

Whatever our own opinions and feelings about the events during the tiebreak, we could not ignore the story that appeared in a national newspaper of the host country. It is the daily bread-and-butter task of this site to bring you chess news from all over the world, and, in the Internet age, to do so quickly, as it breaks. This has caused distress to many people in the past; we only mention Kirsan Ilyumzhinov and the FIDE team, who were attacked vigorously by Anatoly Karpov; or the organisers of various events, who have been criticised by participants. We cannot suppress the reports because they may be detrimental to the interests of any persons or groups; we can only give these persons or groups the chance to reply and so contribute to a balanced view.

Which is what we have done in our follow-up stories, and which is what we do here today, where we bring you reactions to the last installment, which contained the opinions of Gata Kamsky, Alexander Onischuk, Gastón and Alejandro Needleman, and other participants, as well as visitors to this site. We would like to mention that in that article and today we have not filtered the information to generate a bias in any direction. We only left out gratuitously rude or abusive letters, which incidentally were usually critical of the GMs.

So without further ado, and to avoid endless editorialising, we hand over to our readers.

Frederic Friedel

Feedback

Lonnie Kwartler, Chester, NY USA
I have read before of grandmasters getting draws and winning against the one who is losing games in a tournament. Playing to beat the weakest performer in an event is nothing new. In the playoff, is it true that if all the games were draws, that Needleman would have been the only one to not qualify? If that is the case, it would be like playing poker with every card except the eight of hearts wild and with that card exposed in one player's hand. The players would only raise the one they know has that card. If the games of the main event had been played online, according to your previous articles, the results of a low rated player who did well would be questioned and even called the result of cheating. Now the failure of the lowest rated player is attributed, by some, to cheating. Perhaps, more care should be taken before making a claim that cheating has taken place.

Jose, New Jersey USA
I have one question, why was the main arbiters name not in bold type like the others in your story? Was it an attempt to marginalize his views? Was this because you did not care for his position as it did not conform to yours? It is quite clear that you favor the kid without any consideration for the difficulties (financial) involved in being a professional chess player. What took place was completely understandable under the circumstances of a professional. The assertion in LA NACION that Felgaer played "to win" in every game is just propaganda. He did what the rest did. A very one-sided bit of coverage.

Jorma Kovapaa, Helsinki Finland
There have been a lot of strange replies from angry people here about this Gaston-incident. This simply astonish me, EVERYONE is allowed to play/draw/lose ANYWAY they like as long as they don't break the rules set. The replies that say they should be disqualified and the boy should advance: unbelievable! He had his chance, didn't play well enough, period.

Christian Mambrin, Argentina
I am an Argentinean citizen and as far as I remember I play chess. Just for fun, no Elo, no ranking. Due to my nationality I am very passionate too, we usually love as much as we hate. We need heroes and we hate evildoers. Gaston needs support to develop his skills, and to enjoy his age, without pressure. I will be praying for that. Just as an addition, for those who are saying that he is too young. I love the old fashioned way of becoming the World Champion. I agree in that. But, and I am not trying to compare Gaston with anyone, let me tell you a story. In 1979, at the age of 15 (he turn to 16 during the competition) a young boy with a special invitation won a Super Tournament in Banja Luka. He didn't have a title and his Elo was around 2200 at that time. Do you need the name? Gary Kasparov.

James Marshall, St. Charles, USA
Having read the articles and interviews, it is clear that FIDE's format is a joke. The GM's could have had a day to rest at least! To expect full, fighting chess after so many hours of playing is simply ridiculous. It is a pity the Needleman took the brunt, but, hey, he really is weaker than the others at this moment. It is quite clear to me that there was no conspiracy, simply the brutal reality of qualification made worse by harsh playing conditions. These are not millionaires like Kasparov, Leko, or Kramnik, who have the luxury to pick and choose their events and receive appearance fees, these are guys trying to make a living....in short, sorry kid! Better luck next time! Professional chess has little room for compassion, and this is a reflection on the conditions for the players. FIDE tournaments are really becoming more and more of a bad joke.

Sudharma Karekar, Mumbai, India
What a farce. Ask a thief if he committed a theft and he is bound to say no. I am surprised at the little kid who has shown such composure. Forget the masters, this guy is in a league of his own. He may or may not go on to become a Fischer or a Kasparov, but if he keeps his dignity and humility, he's got my vote.

Geoff Marchant, London, England
My opinion is that the episode with the tie-break is both unfortunate and fortunate! It shows the participating GMs in a bad light, to the non-chess-player, because it suggests they needed to 'gang up' against a boy. However given the circumstances of the tie-break, the players' competitive instincts look understandable to me. Don't forget they are professional chess players for whom qualification is a matter of livelihood. Gaston is a boy, true, but for all we know, the fortunes of young families of the GMs may depend on their qualification? For the tie-break, the organisers should be held responsible for the controversy. None of the participants themselves have lost honour or dignity in my opinion. However, the controversy is good. It has given excellent publicity for the Championships themselves, especially now that Gaston has been allowed to qualify as well. I would agree with Frederic Friedel that image and publicity is pretty important in chess nowadays. What better than such a 'hard luck' story to generate interest! Finally, good luck to Gaston who has obviously been hiding his light under a bushel not to be a GM himself already!

Hari Tammineedi, Houston, TX
First of all ChessBase reported the story of Carlos Ilardo. It is not by ChessBase. Most readers letters reflect that they think it is by ChessBase, and not aware that the clip is by Carlos Ilardo and that ChessBase is quoting it. I find it very objectionable, the assuming and persecutory nature of the readers without having full facts. First pay attention to what you are reading and be open to all the facts. Before we even try to determine if the GM's ganged up against the young prodigy, the least we could do is give them a chance to tell their story, as well as Gaston to tell his side. Then we have the right to accuse or give our opinion. ChessBase is the best chess site I have come across. So it has the journalistic responsibility of seeking the truth and upholding it. I can't point the finger at you, but readers seem to have selectively seen what they wanted to see from this whole episode.

Tullio Zannoni, Stockholm, Sweden
I am Argentinean born and don’t want get into the discussion about the intentions of the GM involved. I just want to thanks ChessBase News for the journalistic courage showed in giving priority to such a controversial incident. The news gives a well balanced picture about what happened and I strongly support your policy giving all parties the opportunity to tell their own version. It is important to have the spirit, showed by ChessBase News, in order keep fair play alive in chess, as in all other mankind activities. I appreciate very much to know that it is still an issue for others. I hope all of us can learn something about what happened that late night at Club Argentino and be reinforced in our beliefs.

Ray Cornish, Cambridge, UK
I blame the organisers: they just were not prepared for a tiebreak, i.e. they were unprofessional. And I blame the players: they definitely ganged-up on Gaston – the crosstable and the round's results do not lie: why try to beat a player who is already minus? For example: Why would Kamsky fight Gaston when the kid was +1 and he was at evens? His objective was not to reach +1 but to avoid elimination (i.e. last place). As two players were at -1 when he started to play the kid, he should have been targeting those -1 players (Felgar and Milos), and would definitely have offered a draw when in trouble against Gaston. Surely Gaston would take a draw offer when in a better position against a 2700 when Gaston was already at +1?

I think all of the GMs have been economical with the truth. Thus I believe they should be penalised. My idea for a penalty: make them re-qualify, at their own expense (a penalty that professionals will understand), in a country that is remote from them all. I agree with all the comments about lack of sportsmanship. This whole situation is just not good enough. Inviting Gaston is a good idea, but does not go far enough.

Reid Davis, USA
Concerning the Gaston Needleman foolishness, I think ChessBase and their readers who took the Argentinian journalist's record of the tiebreak as "the way it was" should be ashamed of themselves. The journalist in his article showed not only his incredible bias for the local boy (who was undoubtedly a hero), but also a critical lack of basic chess tournament strategy. And that is: to go for wins against weaker rated players and draw the stronger ones. Going in to the tiebreak (at 9:00 pm after a long day of chess - ending at 3:00 am) the other six players tied for second only needed draws to advance to the World Cup. Gaston needed a plus score. This, along with the fact that Gaston was rated 300 Elo points below them set the stage for the other six players to draw against each other, and try to win against Gaston. Simple, logical, practical tournament strategy. If Gaston has been five years older no one would be having this conversation. It's just a case of a reporter trying to drum up business by making a story out of misunderstanding and ignorance. It's telling that none of the players (including Gaston and his father) feel any wrongdoing had occurred. I feel sorry for the GMs who are now labeled as scoundrels, and hope that someone in a position of authority (certainly not Kirsan of FIDE who just gave the boy a ticket - setting a dangerous precedent) can bring some sanity to this situation.

Arjen Oudheusden, Gladwyne, USA
I appreciate your follow up reporting as it provides a much more balanced picture of the events. It shows that things are not always what they appear to be in the first place and that one should not pass judgement too quickly. It is clear that the knock-out formula used at this event was inappropriate. And did Gaston 'earn' his special invitation? Probably not measured by chess strength and final result, but yes based on enthusiasm of the chess community for this young and inspiring player!

Shauh Whelan, Nashville, United States
If ChessBase really wanted to give an unbiased account of the tournament and happenings, they should have spoken with the GM's before they printed the article from Argentina. This is irresponsible of you all. These Grandmasters who have now qualified for the WC, are among the best GM's in the world. And before you start printing stories that bash the best in the world, you need to hear their side first. This game is their profession and passion. Printing such an article could have a negative effect on their reputations, especially if the accusations are incorrect. ChessBase is read all around the world. I don't care if you do not think it is your responsibility to report the facts.

Having said this, it is unfortunate that the GM's had to play at two o'clock in the morning and indeed save their energy for a younger player. I agree that it is the fault of the organizer making them all play that same day. I'm sure that everyone has jobs they have to go to the next day (I'm speaking of the organizers) and did not want to have to have more rounds played any following days. However, they knew the importance of the tournament before they agreed to host it. They should treat it as an important event and see it through. Making ANYONE play at 2 o'clock in the morning is absolutely illogical and ridiculous. They're not playing blitz at Harvard Square in the middle of the night for 20 bucks a game.

Also, these playoffs shouldn't be quicker games. Do we want the world championship to be the GM/IM (and in Needleman's case untitled) who is the best at fast chess? If that is the case, I know plenty of people on the Internet Chess Club who would own many of these GM's. The playoff games should be slower...if not just as slow as the regular games played.

Tau, Illinois, USA
What is understandable is GM Gata Kamsky's use of surnames when refering to his opponents ("with white against Granda... black against Vescovi...") But what is disgraceful is GM Gata Gamsky's barnyard use of the word "kid" when refering to Gaston Needleman ("...except with regards to the kid... I played white against the kid... the kid missed a certain tactic... playing the kid actually favored the kid... Unfortunately for the kid..."). The refusal of GM Gata Kamsky to refer to Gaston Needleman by surname either demonstrates a presence of guilt, or a lack of respect, neither of which is favorable to the image of chess as a wholesome gentleman's game. His explanation serves instead to raise suspicions regarding the cold, calculating manner in which these six GMs qualified for the Championship.

Jimmie B, Virginia, USA
I commend this young fellow (Gaston Needleman) for his response to the situation. He shows more integrity than those twice his age, obviously. In my opinion the prearranged draws, like it or not, is part of the strategic decision making process at the top-level. As Kamsky said, the conditions must change, not the rules on the chessboard. I am glad to hear that FIDE has offered Gaston an invitation. In the future if the organizers don't like the possibilities of the results they ought not to make such a tournament where 6/7 players qualify and set the young man up for such a disappointment. I mean the players in this case were just the pawns on the chessboard being pushed to do what is inevitably the most logical thing to do. Hurray for Gaston and Boo to the organizers!

John Bosco, USA
While I have a lot of empathy for the perceived way Gaston Needleman was treated by the GMs at the recent playoffs in Argentina, I absolutely do not blame the GMs involved. Life is a pragmatic game, and these GMs took the most pragmatic move they can make. They are professionals and their livelihood and ability to take care of their families depends on their success in chess. Gaston is still but a young man and an amateur for that matter, so it is only logical that the grandmasters would ensure their security by eliminating the only weak link in the play offs. Moreover, Gaston has already achieved a lot by getting to play with so many grandmasters at once. It is only in chess that this can happen. Can you imagine Tiger Woods having a playoff with an amateur golf player? Or Lennox Lewis getting in the ring with the olympics heavyweight gold medalist? So please, leave the GMs alone. It is already enough humiliation that they have to have a playoff with an amateur!

Shivkumar Shivaji, Mountain View, CA, USA
I think the GMs conducted the tiebreaks fairly. After all, one has to put his own interest of qualification first. If all the GMs just required an equal score to qualify (given that they had better tiebreaks), why should they risk their qualification by doing otherwise. If Needleman started winning a few games early on, this would force the remaining players to play for a win in all their games. This did not happen except for the win against Milos. I cannot understand why everyone thinks that the GMs should play for a win against each other given that 1) this could result in them not qualifying; and 2) they do not get any prize for winning besides the coveted prize of qualification. Regarding the ganging up against Needleman, after Needleman has lost a game the GMs would be MORE than happy to draw against him as it ensures their qualification. He lost the games because he HAD to play for a win against the GMs in order to qualify. Thus, one can say that Needleman was FORCED to gang up against the GMs.

In tennis, players make millions of dollars in every tournament. This is not the case with chess. Why then should grandmasters be required to play out games and hurt their chances of qualification for no benefit? Probably the tiebreak rules need to be blamed for the lack of fight among the GMs. Its great that Needleman got a qualification spot anyway!

Carlito J. Agner, Holland, MI
I think we are all missing the main issue here regarding the GM's "ganging" up on young Gaston. The main issue I see here is the moral duty of the GM title as well as the title of being a "professional" to chess. Not to Needleman but to CHESS. That duty is to play chess to the best of your abilities in fairness. A four-mover is not a game of chess. It should not be counted as a game, it was a default. And that is what is lost here because the GMs did not perform to the expectations of the respected and titled GM. What came up instead were personal motives. A professional aspires his work to be the best is trained to do so. Those GM should be ashamed on themselves.



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