Iran, Seirawan and the incorrect chessboard

10/30/2011 – A number of recent articles published on our news page have raised serious questions. Should players who boycott colleagues from certain countries be punished with disqualification? Are Yasser Seirawan's thoughts on the current state of chess endorsable? What was behind the photo-shoot error of two high-ranking German politicians. Entertaining, thought provoking feedback from our readers.

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Political problems at the 15th Corsican Circuit
25.10.2011 – The event is fifteen years old and thriving – this year it has a record number of participants (over 800) and a great prize fund (95,000 Euros). Everything went smoothly until round four, when GM Ghaem Maghami from Iran refused to play against Israeli FM Ehud Shachar, demanding a re-pairing. The organisers refused, the game was forfeited. Video reports and background.

Earl Roberts, New Zealand
Impressive. I am always impressed with just how myopic some media are with their reporting. Rather than be bothered to actually find out why GM Ghaem Maghami and reporting his point of view as a counter balance, ChessBase rather contented itself by skilfully pillorying Mr. Maghami for his principles by presenting a lop-side article with zero balance. It is not about what I, you or the rest of the people that read the article concerned think personally, it should be about the media (specifically your website) reporting the news in its entirety and doing so objectively. In not giving Mr. Maghami a chance to explain his stance, the article in question failed any such litmus test.

Karlheins Ewald, Marechal Cândido Rondon
Under the FIDE slogan 'Gens una sumus" the political problems should be set aside. The sport should be one way leading to peace between nations. Humanity lives in times of little tolerance. Please, GM Ehsan Ghaem Maghami, don't bring to the board problems that neither you nor your opponent will be able to solve with this attitude. Leave politics off the board and continue to play chess. Be the change you want to see the world Mr. Maghami!

James Hankins, Oklahoma City, OK, USA
What a sad commentary on Iranian chess and culture. Is it any wonder Iran remains a backward, third-world country? Did GM Maghami give any reason for refusing to play; or was it just blind and indiscriminate hatred?

Vaughn Dumas, Pretoria, South Africa
I think that if you have this kind of conviction, then you should also accept that which is coming your way. This person (the Iranian) should not just forfeit the game, but the whole tournament. He should also not be refunded any fees paid. You make your bed, you lie in it.

David Herz, Paris, France
This is so sad, especially that a chessplayer, a human being for that matter, is more interested in playing politics than the game he purportedly came to Corsica to play in the first place.

Chris Speck, Durham, NC, USA
It's really too bad that the editors at ChessBase refer to an instance of anti-Semitism as a "political problem" in a recent headline. Why not take the brave and principled stand of reporting what really happened: that the player from Iran committed an act of gross bigotry by refusing to play an Israeli? It seems that the editors of ChessBase are trying to gloss over this bigotry with such a neutral and bland headline. Political problems, indeed. One of the best ways to end anti-Semitism is to call it anti-Semitism and condemn it whenever it happens. So please do this in the future. That is, unless you're afraid of offending anti-Semites. And if that's the case, you should say so too, rather than hide behind bland headlines.

Jorge Shinozaki, Tokyo, Japan
I agree with Mr. Seirawan that chess is too complex for the public because I myself thought that it was necessary to be a mental Hercules to play chess, before learning the rules of the game. Coincidentally, I was encouraged to learn and play by some books Mr. Seirawan wrote for beginners (Winning Chess Series). Also, I like his ideas about the World Championship cycle and matches. I think if they were implemented chess would become much more competitive and popular.

Mark Schreiber, New York, USA
That was a great interview with Seirawan. His thoughts make a lot of sense. I would have liked another question after learning about his extensive family of Seirawans living in Damascus. What does Seirawan think about the rebels fighting Syria? Does Seirawan support the government or the rebels? Does Seirawan want to go back and fight the rebels or does he want to get his family out of Syria? How should we stop the fighting? Should NATO bomb the government troops?

Steve Giddins: Six steps to heaven

I offer this message to organisers of international tournaments, who wish to attract worldwide publicity to their event, without going to the huge expense of inviting a field of world-class players. In truth, it is very simple to secure such publicity for your event, if you adopt the following simple, six-step plan:

  1. Make sure you invite to your event at least one representative of Israel, and at least one from Iran.

  2. Ensure that at some stage of the tournament, you pair the Iranian player against the Israeli.

  3. Ignore the fact that FIDE rules allow you to flex the normal Swiss pairings, so as to avoid such conflict situations. Ignore, too, the fact that the standard Swiss pairing software allows you to instruct it to avoid certain pairings.

  4. Ignore all pleas from the Iranian player to change the pairings. Take no notice of the fact that even the world’s most respected FIDE arbiter advises that you should change or avoid such politically sensitive pairings. Also ignore the fact that the Iranian player, were he to play against the Israeli, would be placing his chess career and both his own, and probably his family’s lives, in serious danger, back home in Iran.

  5. When the Iranian player does the inevitable and defaults the game, don’t let it end there, but kick him out of the tournament as well, even though he is quite willing to continue playing.

  6. Finally, make a video of yourself, justifying your actions, and send it to ChessBase, and all the other major chess news outlets of the world.

If you follow this simple, six-step plan, you too can have your otherwise insignificant tournament topping the headlines on every major international chess news website and magazine, and at virtually no incremental cost to yourself!

Posted by Steven Giddins on his Chess Blog

Editorial note:

We have spoken to a number of people involved in the incident, and especially with Iranian players, whom we do not want to quote. Doing so would get them into as much (and sometimes even more) trouble back home than the action they are forced to take in such events. We also spoke with FIDE and with experts in the field. It is clear that particularly in Iran, sports and politics are more closely intertwined than in any other country. For instance there is a prohibition of women in sports arenas in which men are playing. Furthermore, Iran’s national Olympic committee has given the official order that none of its athletes are to play against athletes of the “Zionist regime” – namely Israel. In Europe certain contries (Spain, Ukraine, Romania) have cancelled football matches in Iran, in protest of Iranian policy against Israel, and some politicians have called for banning Iran from this year’s Soccer World Cup. However, Germany’s interior minister Wolfgang Schäuble argues that “Iranian players and their fans should not be penalised for the politics of their leaders”. Articles to read:

Addendum: One of our Iranian friends writes: "This is so unfair, that people around the world are calling a forced act "anti-semitic". Ehsan Ghaem Maghami has become a cannon fodder, he is being attacked an action he had no chance to decide about. I am disappointed by international community. They could at least accuse the politicians who have taken full control over their athlets. Unlike most other Iranian GMs Ehsan made a mistake: we always check things out with the organiser before a tournament starts, to avoid such "unfortunate incidents". Ehsan did not, he was incautious, and that led to the incident. But that blunder carried a heavy penalty for him, didn't it?


Seirawan's comeback – his views on the chess world today
28.10.2011 – Yasser Seirawan is something of a legend: World Junior Champion in 1979, four times US Champion, he has played played all the chess greats. In 2007 the Syrian born US grandmaster stopped playing competitive chess, but has now returned to the game, last week coming joint first in the Barcelona GM. After this success he gave IM Anna Matnadze an extensive, must-read interview.

Owen Clarkin, Ottawa, Canada
I would like to ask whether Yasser Seirawan and Bruce Harper considered another possibility to preserve the 8x8 board and 32 total chessmen with the addition of the new pieces elephant and hawk, namely, replacing a rook with elephant and one of the minor pieces with hawk. For example, the white pieces back row could be ENBQKHNR, or EHBQKBNR, etc. If such an opening setup proves to be playable, the additional complexity should solve the opening theory problem for a long time.

Graham Borrowdale, Milton Keynes, England
Just to say what a fascinating interview with Yasser Seirawan. He speaks the most down to earth common sense I think I have read from a GM. I especially like his points on time controls, and his ideas for the world championship, although I have always thought the 'Steinitz line' was sacrosanct. His views on Fischer, though perhaps unfashionable, stack up to me. The only thing I did not warm to was his S-Chess – I think there is and always will be plenty of play left in the game, and if the top 10 players in the world want to play novelties at move 33 I will be quite happy to watch the 'second string'. Most of all, I have always found his games accessible and inspiring: look at Seirawan-Barbero, World U18 1979, for example.

Seirawan,Yasser (2485) - Barbero,Gerardo F [A28]
Wch U18 Skien, 1979
1.c4 e5 2.Nc3 Nf6 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.e3 Bb4 5.Qc2 Bxc3 6.Qxc3 Qe7 7.a3 a5 8.b4 axb4 9.axb4 Rxa1 10.Qxa1 e4 11.b5 exf3 12.bxc6 bxc6 13.gxf3 0-0 14.Bb2 Ne8 15.Bd3 Qh4 16.Ke2 c5 17.Qa8 Nd6 18.Rg1 f6 19.Qd5+ Kh8 20.Qxc5 Qxh2 21.Rg3 h5 22.Rxg7 Kxg7 23.Qg5+ Kf7 24.Qxf6+ Ke8 25.Bg6+ Nf7 26.Be5 1-0.

Lurio Bedoya, Cali, Colombia
It is a very interesting interview, and in my humble opinion, I agree with Mr. Seirawan in everything, specially in his view that Kasparov is the best player ever. It is important to mention that maybe Fischer could have been more gifted from the chess talent standpoint, but in great deal he prevented himself of being even a more powerful player than he was. I would like to take the opportunity to ask you a favor. Please let Mr. Seirawan know that I have read his book "My duels with the World Champions" and it is one of the best books of chess I have read. And thank you for publishing that excellent interview.

Kenneth Calitri, Reston, USA

While I am a big fan of GM Seirawan and always enjoy his writing and views I find some of his suggestions to be a bit off the mark and somewhat troubling from a sporting point of view. His main points are as follows:

At some prescribed time interval the two highest rated players face off for a match for the World Championship. The above occurs, according to Yasser's suggestion, despite the fact at an earlier prescribed time interval a World Championship Tournament of eight players (World Champion, Host Country Player, 3 Qualifiers through tournaments, three Qualifiers by rating) is held to determine a World Champion. If the World Champion is not the first or second highest rated player they don't qualify for the World Championship Match.

Firstly, I cannot think of any sport where the two highest ranked players without any other competition play for a World Championship. Full Stop! (as Yasser likes to say). Can you? The only sport that comes to mind is boxing where the Champion has to face mandatory challenges, which periodically requires them to fight the #1 contender. This is something quite different in my mind.

Secondly: While I personally favor matches to determine a World Champion, I have grown tired of FIDE's unreliable and whim-like management of the World Championship. Therefore, I do find myself now supporting the concept of a World Championship tournament. I have a hard time, though, differentiating the significance of winning a double round-robin tournament of eight players from several other major tournaments that occur throughout the regular yearly calendar of events. Quite simply 14 games isn't enough these days to determine a legitimate World Champion versus any other major tournament winner, especially since at the elite level we find the same top players invited to tournament after tournament.

Thirdly, it is ironic that Yasser suggests the World Champion must play in the World Championship Tournament, eliminating the winner from having to play a match against the World Champion. But he is quite willing to exclude the World Champion, if his rating is, for argument's sake, one point behind the #2 player in the world, from playing in the 'other' World Championship. Well that is about as short-sighted as it was limiting the # of Russians who could qualify in the older WCC qualifying cycles (which potentially ruined a number of careers potentially in the process – GM Leonid Stein comes to mind). Full Stop!

Fourthly, Yasser claims the current World Champions go into a shell and hibernate. I don't know about you, but the lure of big-time Euros seems to keep Vishy Anand pretty busy these days. He seems to be playing constantly, judging by the tournament cross-tables. Also, winning the World Championship for a chess player is a big deal. Why shouldn't the World Chess Champion be able to enjoy the fruits of that championship for longer than a year? How else would they be able to take advantage of it? Chess is not like any other sport where a new Wimbledon or US Open Tennis Champion instantly receives millions in endorsements.

Therefore, I would suggest the following: a World Chess Championship tournament every 18 months. The tournament format options would be either:

  • Fourteen player double round-robin tournament; players qualify as follows
    • Current World Champion, two from Knockout Ch, two from World Cup, three based on other qualifying tournaments, six based on rating; or
    • Current World Champion, two from KO, two from World Cup, Women's World Champion, Highest Rated Women, Combination of seven more determined by rating and tournament qualification
  • Eight player quad round-robin tournament
    • Current World Champion, two from Knockout Ch, two from World Cup, three based on rating or other qualifying tournaments

Personally – the more the better – I prefer the 14 players tournament. Look how exciting a tournament like Wijk Ann Zee is with a solid group of competitors? If the time interval could be lessened without shortening the number of games that would be fine as well.

H.P. Srikanth, California, USA
I simply love this website. You guys are doing a fantastic job and hope you keep up this great work. You are extremely creative in appealing to chess enthusiasts. I religiously read every article here on ChessBase everyday. Every article on this website is associated with a number of pictures and well. "Pictures speak more than words" – so, apart from the great read, its a visual treat which allows us to be there and relate to the write ups on a personal level.

Brief general reaction to the letters, by Yasser Seirawan

One thing stands out to me, folks don’t seem to know their recent World Championship history. There was San Luis and Mexico City tournaments that determined the WCh, there was Elista, Bonn and Sophia match events that determined the WCh. Five WC events from (2006-2010) start to look very much like an annual World Championship to me. With the exception of the ‘toilet-gate’ controversy I liked them all! And the games were full of chess content as well. In my view, as a fan, these events helped the reputations of the players, as well as their wallets, and that of chess, bringing our “brand” into greater awareness. They helped Vishy cement his standing and raised his profile, allowing him to stand on the same pantheon of other greats. Why we should ‘dial back’ and now play only two year matches or tournaments doesn’t make sense to me. Clearly we can “handle” an annual World Championship. Especially, if the rules were properly conceived.


Move by move – politicians playing chess
27.10.2011 – A new book is creating quite a discussion in Germany. It is about two politicians, one a former chancellor of the country (1974 to 1982), the other quite plausibly a future chancellor (2013–), one 93 years old and razor sharp in his mind, the other, 64, a preeminent critic of global predatory capitalism. Both are chess players and the book uses a game motif on its cover. Take a closer look.

We never know how reports are going to be received by our readers. Sometimes articles of considerable importance and high quality elicit very few letters, at others one we hardly expected to get more than a bemused smile are suddenly the centre of attention. So, for instance, the above report on the German politicians and the turned chessboard, which brought us (virtual) sackfulls of mail. We added notes to the article itself but would like to quote a few here, plus share with you what has been uncovered in the meantime.

Andrey Stepin, Moscow, Russia
Looks like the very nature of newspaper printing introduces this mirroring. Old tech gets forgotten with digital printers. So there is no global conspiracy of editors...

Mário Kamody, Zarnovica, Slovakia
I am 100% sure that photo on the book is correct. Look at the Schmidt's hair and compare it with other pictures.

Tomas Pettersson, Borås, Sweden
Your assumption that the images have been mirrored, hence showing a white square at the bottom left, does not hold. The picture at the end would then show Mr Schmidt with his wristwatch on his right wrist, something not seen in other pictures that I have looked at.

Offinger, Robert, Passau, Germany
Regarding the proposed solution by John Nunn: Helmut Schmidt has his parting always on the left side, so the picture does not seem to be reflected. You can see this on the cover story of Der Spiegel this week.

Hermann Steinenacher, Karl-Marx Stadt, Germany
With all due respect to Dr. Nunn, it is obvious that the original picture has not been reversed. Compare that photo to the other photos in your article, and observe (1) the parting of Schmidt's hair; and (2) the hand with which Schmidt moves the pieces. The conclusion is clear: the board has been set up incorrectly. As to whether or not the error was intentional, this cannot be determined from the given facts.

Brian Esler, Portland Oregon
Just wanted to comment that, if this "reflected image" theory is correct here, both of these politicians would presumably need to be left handed! This seems a bit less likely than both being right handed, as is implied by the original (published) image.

Martin Greenwood, Penang, Malaysia
The white queen is on its correct square (white square) and the black king is on its correct square (white square). This would not be the case if the board had been set up wrongly. So I support John Nunn. The other possibility is that this was just set up for a photo-shoot and nobody noticed.

Editorial note: this week the very well-respected weekly Die Zeit appeared with a picture of the two politicians on its front page, since they are serialising the book.

Take a closer look at the chessboard:

The opening may not be orthodox, but the board is set up perfectly. Further research (by German newspapers, dozens of whom have picked up the story) reveals that there were two photo shoots, the one above with a neutral background, and then one with the table placed in front of a window. The person moving the table apparently turned it by 90°, which the politicians did not notice. Everything was fairly rushed and Schmidt quite tired.

Addendum: We have been informed by a member of the Schmidt family that the chess table had been built by Helmut Schmidt's father-in-law and was quite heavy. The former Chancellor is notoriously impatient with photographers, and so the second shoot was probably carried out after the table had been rearranged by helpers, and the two politicians had not spent a lot of time making meaningful moves.

One more letter from a reader who got it right:

Iman Khandaker, Watford
I suspect it is a continuity error – perhaps the statesmen started the game with the board set up correctly, were interrupted for an interview, and then had the position set up again by a non-playing helper for a final photography session. I almost always spot the queen on the wrong square in the initial position – but am much less observant when a position is set up deeper into a game. If we hold to your hypothesis on the other hand, we would also have to assume an international conspiracy to place wristwatches on the arms of Roman legionaries in Hollywood epics. Surely the Illuminati have better things to do?

To which we add...


The conspiracy includes a gas cylinder attached to the chariot on our favourite movie
Gladiator
(watch the above scene on YouTube)...


... or the modern boots clearly visible in the Roman Colosseum

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