Short on beauty, Kasparov and the chess scene

4/3/2005 – Nigel Short's Sunday Telegraph column is informative and entertaining. It can also do wonders for your vocabulary. Nigel's prose is erudite and occasionally sesquipedalian (oh dear, now we have caught it!). But not to fear. Together with our excerpts we provide, as a reading aid, a special version of the Short English Dictionary.

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The following are excerpts from the Sunday Telegraph column by Grandmasters Nigel Short. The link at the bottom leads you to the full story, each of which cotains a game annotated by the author. Note that you have to register, free of charge, to read the full columns. This entails giving an email address and a password for future logins.

As a special service to our readers we provide you (at the end of the first column) with a Short English Dictionary'. This is intended to facilitate the comprehension of Nigel's prose. If we have missed a few obscure or difficult expressions – a good place to look them up is the OneLook Dictionary Search.


Nigel Short, Telegraph chess columnist

03/04/2005 – The most important current international chess event is hotting up. I refer, of course, not to the star-laden Melody Amber Tournament in Monaco with Kramnik and Anand, but to the rather more significant inaugural World Chess Beauty Contest. The chess world of my youth, if not exactly inhabited by frumpy old Gorgon spinsters (plus plenty of nerdy males, of course), was, nevertheless, near bereft of pulchritude. Beauties existed, but they were as thin on the ground as oases in a desert.


Maria Manakova makes a welcome appearance in The Telegraph

Times have changed – thank goodness. Not only are female players more abundant, but they are younger, better-looking and more talented at chess as well. Thus, with the Internet providing the perfect medium, the scene was deemed frugiferous enough for the inventive grandmaster Vladislav Tkachiev of France to launch this ground-breaking competition.

Entry requirements are none too demanding, but it can be observed that the vast majority of the several dozen participants do indeed have an international (Elo) rating. There are three main prizes (as yet unspecified: Vlad is still looking for a sponsor), plus Miss Download and Miss Charm special awards.

Geographically, Europe is the best represented continent, with numerous entrants from Russia and Ukraine in particular. Maria Manakova from Moscow, who scandalised part of the chess community with some raunchy photos a few months ago, makes a welcome appearance. In one photo – a bathroom shot – she is as notoriously forgetful of her clothing as previously, although the soap suds provide enough of a metaphorical fig-leaf that it would offend only the most puritanical. Other participants are from as far afield as the USA, Ecuador, Argentina, Botswana, Australia, Kazakhstan and even Iran. Voting patterns tend to favour the more recent entrants. The hierarchy thus changes with great celerity.

Instead of trying to second-guess who will be top of the rankings today, this week’s game will come from a perennial favourite, Almira Skripchenko – formerly of Moldova, but now the leading women’s player in France.

A Short English Dictionary

  • Frumpy: drab, unfashionable, or plain in appearance, dress, or manner.
  • Gorgon: (Greek mythology) any of three winged sister monsters and the mortal Medusa who had live snakes for hair; a glance at Medusa turned the beholder to stone.
  • Bereft of: having had something taken away.
  • Pulchritude: [pulkrityood] physical comeliness; Middle English, from Latin pulchritudin-, pulchritudo, from pulchr-, pulcher beautiful.
  • Frugiferous: Producing fruit; fruitful; fructiferous.
  • Celerity: rapidity of motion or action; Latin celeritat-, celeritas, from celer swift
  • Bilious: irritable as if suffering from indigestion.
  • Ruction: the act of making a noisy disturbance
  • Sesquipedalian: of a word) having many syllables; long; Latin sesquipedalis ‘a foot and a half long’.

27/03/2005 – I don’t know whether there is a good way to die, but there are certainly bad ways: being repeatedly stabbed by your own son is about as terrible and tragic as it gets. Simon Webb (b. London, 1949) was one of Britain’s leading players in the 1970s. He won the British Under-18 Championship in 1966 and came fourth in the European Junior Championship. He became an International Master by winning a tournament at the Concordia Sports Club in Hamburg 1977, in an era when the IM title carried distinction. He missed the GM norm in that event by a mere half point.

However, his burgeoning chess career came to a halt after he became engaged during a tournament in Warsaw 1978, in which he finished in an impressive second place behind Kuligowski. Webb’s subsequent marriage to his Polish fiancée slowly led to his near total withdrawal from over-the-board play. In 1981, he turned instead to the ponderous discipline of correspondence chess in which he proved himself to be no less adept, eventually becoming a GM.

At his best, he reached seventh in the world rankings, no less. He wrote one slender volume, the acclaimed Chess for Tigers (Everyman, £9.99), in which he expounded his opportunistic approach to the game. The chapters included such titles as “Play the man, not the board”, “How to catch rabbits” and “How to trap Heffalumps”. It is both witty and instructive.

On his last night, Simon Webb was participating in the Swedish Chess League held earlier this month in Malmo (he had lived in that country for many years). He returned home at about 1 am, whereupon he got into an argument with his 25-year-old son, a convicted drug-dealer. The son stabbed him 20 times with a kitchen knife and then drove off at high speed. This gruesome incident was witnessed by Webb’s wife. The son is being held in custody and there are apparently no other suspects.

Simon Webb was described as a calm and gentle man by his neighbours. I was too young to have known him well, but in the few tournaments we played together that is how I remember him.


20/03/2005 – Last week I submitted my column as usual on Garry Kasparov in which I opined that the Russian genius was the greatest player of all time. That same evening I discovered my piece required an urgent addendum. In near disbelief I found myself inserting the phrase “who has just announced his retirement from professional chess”. A remarkable career had abruptly come to an end.

Kasparov is a giant, and there is no one of even remotely comparable stature to replace him. At 41 he has done everything that there is to be done in chess, and more. He possesses an extraordinary vitality and intellect which will now be turned to the murky field of Russian politics.

Unexpected as it was, Garry has nevertheless timed his retirement to perfection. Fischer, at 29, retired too soon, thus depriving the world of creativity at its peak. Karpov, on the other hand, should have hung up his Informators and Encyclopaedias a few years ago. In chess terms Garry is an old man, but in real life he is, of course, nothing of the sort. He will do well in his new endeavours.

I feel an important chapter in my own life has now closed. I first met Kasparov at the World Cadet Championship in the south of France in 1977 when he was 14 and I was 12. The Icelander Jon Arnason triumphed and Garry finished a disappointing third. I did not play him, however, until the World Junior Championship in Dortmund 1980. Garry won the tournament easily; I finished a distant second. Our individual game was drawn. There was a long interval before our next encounter, in Brussels 1986. He was by then World Champion – the youngest in the history of the game. I won, but this moment of triumph was to prove fleeting. A few days later he took his revenge.

It was the beginning of a long series of crushing defeats for me. We have played 72 tournament and match games, at different time controls, over the years. I won six, with plenty of draws but the score is massively in his favour. I have spent many months, if not years, of my life solely contemplating how to defeat him, but to no avail. He is simply too strong.

Kasparov finally lost his crown to Kramnik in 2000. This did not presage the dawn of a new era. Kramnik was not to dominate the chess world. Kasparov continued as number one in the rating list. Last year Anand outperformed all others but Kasparov was still able to win the Russian Championship by a thumping margin, and he won again just now in Linares, despite losing his last professional game.

At the press conference announcing his retirement he named the following game as perhaps his best. It would not have been my first choice, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Out of deference to the great man, it is the one we shall examine.


13/03/2005 – Emanuel Lasker may have been World Champion for 27 years; Bobby Fischer may have won 19 consecutive grandmaster games; but, for my money, Garry Kasparov, who has just announced his retirement from professional chess, is the greatest player of all time. The cynic would say that this opinion, far from being considered, is simply a delusion. How psychologically reassuring to believe that Kasparov is the best, just because he has beaten your columnist so badly and so often in the past! The cynic would add that there is a natural human tendency to exaggerate the importance of one’s own epoch.

Well, I will admit that the jaundiced observer may have a point, or perhaps even two. Nevertheless, I shall proceed to ignore this bilious soul, and adhere to my view. Garry wins, or rather, won tournaments, again and again and again. He is now approaching 42. Fischer, on the other hand, abandoned tournament chess at the age of 29. Quitters are not winners in my book. His hottest streak may have been a couple of degrees warmer than Garry’s, but Garry’s flame has burned for far longer and is at a still ferocious intensity.

What about Lasker? Nobody now is going to break his extraordinary record. Even if one acknowledges that the First World War abnormally prolonged his tenure, 20 years or so on the throne is a remarkably long time. Have no doubt about it, Lasker was a genius but, by today’s standards, only a semi-active one.

Some years ago I ceased to be Britain’s leading player when Michael Adams came to the fore. Railing against this is as pointless as railing against the changing of the seasons. Acceptance of the inevitable, and with as good a grace as one can muster, is a part of maturity. Still, one can’t help making comparisons – it is only human nature. I reached number three in the ranking list; Mickey number four. Garry, then at his prime, used to thump me with monotonous regularity; Mickey, if anything, fares even worse. The game below took Adams’s score against his grey-haired opponent to 0–8 with a few draws tossed in. Was it mean of me to point that out? Yes, probably. Normally, I wish Mickey well (honestly I do) – but not too well, you understand.


06/03/2005 – This week I should have been in Bikaner, Rajasthan, attempting to defend my title of Commonwealth Champion. Alas, seven days before the tournament was due to begin it was postponed indefinitely. Those Commonwealth citizens who had set aside the best part of two weeks and had spent both time and money acquiring visas and plane tickets were less than amused.

Indian chess has been plunged into turmoil following the decision, one month ago, of the Madras High Court to grant an Order of Interim Injunction restraining P. T. Ummer Koya and Soumen Majumdar (respectively the Secretary and Treasurer of the All India Chess Federation, or AICF, at the time), from interfering in the day-to-day activities and administration of the said body. Furthermore, it also granted a separate injunction restraining P. T. Ummer Koya from acting as the AICF’s representative and functioning as the Vice President of FIDE and President of the Commonwealth Chess Association (CCA), pending disposal of the suit. The action was brought by the State Associations of Tamil Nadu, Delhi and Maharashtra.

It is hard to see how P. T. Ummer Koya intends to discharge his obligations as President of the CCA without being in contempt of court. Given the current crisis in Commonwealth chess, his legal situation is rather more than just a personal matter. The honourable course of action would be to resign, so that a new President could be appointed, and a new venue for the championship chosen without delay.

A report, by the late Tony Miles, of the Commonwealth Championship held in Bikaner in 1999 was scathing (chesscafe.com, click on Archives). Even allowing for a large dollop of journalistic licence, the fact that there was a hopelessly insufficient number of clocks should, by itself, have disqualified the organiser responsible for the fiasco, S. L. Harsh, from holding such a position again. This gentleman – a friend of Koya’s – assured me repeatedly in a telephone call a few weeks ago (he had ceased answering my e-mails) that the event this year was not dependent on the outcome of the Koya court case. Nevertheless when the event was duly “postponed”, the ructions in the AICF were cited as the reason. Furthermore, on the day of the announcement, at a factional meeting of doubtful legitimacy, Harsh was proclaimed President of the AICF. One would expect the appointment of a President to facilitate the organisation of the tournament, rather than its abrupt demise.

If Indian chess ever acquires an administration to even remotely match the talents of its players it will be unstoppable. This week, as I have no game from that fine country, we shall go elsewhere – to deepest Siberia – for the Poikovsky tournament.


27/02/2005 – Five grandmasters – Emil Sutovsky, Andrei Kharlov, Vassily Ivanchuk, Alexander Motylev and Vladimir Akopian – tied for first place in the prestigious Aeroflot Open this week. They shared $65,000 between them – a large sum by chess standards. A further $25,000, in total, was paid out for those finishing in sixth to 30th place.

Mind you, 72 players, almost all of them “professionals”, took home nothing at all for their nine days’ labour. Worse still, they had each paid several hundred dollars for the privilege. These included the former World Champion, Ruslan Ponomariov, who finished a disappointing 40th.

The minimum required elo in the top group (there were three other sections) was a stiff 2550; thus there were only four active players in the whole of Britain who were eligible to participate in this piranha pool. Notching up the requisite 6.5/9 to secure a decent prize therefore necessitated a quite exceptional performance. After soberly calculating the odds and reminding myself that vodka is also available at the local supermarket, I decided that staying at home seemed by far the most attractive option.

The surprise leader practically all the way was the 36-year-old Russian, Andrei Kharlov (no relation to the late Hollywood Cricket Club wicketkeeper, Boris). When the Gods are kind to you, you have to accept their gift with gratitude, for otherwise they take their revenge.

Kharlov’s stroke of fortune came in the fourth round when he defeated Ivanchuk. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the Ukrainian defeated himself, because quite frankly Kharlov did little to deserve the full point, having done nothing more than defend with the White pieces for most of the game. Only when he stumbled into a better endgame, which he could not possibly lose, did he adopt a bold posture and exert pressure. It was sufficient. Now he was really flying; Kharlov reached an incredible 6/7 by defeating Malakhov in sharp tactical style.

Unexpectedly on the verge of attaining the greatest victory of his career, he chickened out by making a miserable short draw against Sergey Volkov. The Gods, it transpires, do not like wimps. Both these gentlemen were punished for their “crime” by losing their last round games to Akopian and Sutovsky respectively. Boldness should be rewarded. Ivanchuk – that giant of yesteryear and still a most formidable force – played as aggressively as anyone...


20/02/2005 – I was born in 1965, the year of Gambia’s independence. The British Empire was already in an advanced state of decay, but in the following years Guyana, Barbados, Botswana, the Trucial States, Zimbabwe and Hong Kong, to name a few, dropped off like lepers’ limbs. This was only fair – colonies are an anachronism, as any reasonable human being would agree. The problem is that I am not very reasonable; emotions sometimes over-ride dispassionate, rational thought. Nostalgia lingers within my breast.

The British Overseas Territory of Bermuda is the largest remaining piece of the Empire. With only 1/100th the population of Hong Kong, it is not much to shout about, but then again – as my wife tries to reassure me – size is not everything.

The Bermudans’ greatest contribution to chess is their must-attend biennial party at the olympiad. However, their invitational tournament, while involving much less cavorting, has earned the respect of the more studious connoisseurs. This year the joint winners were the veteran Boris Gelfand of Israel and the reigning World Junior Champion, Pentala Harikrishna of India. Sharing third place were Lenier Dominguez of Cuba and Andrei Volokitin of Ukraine.

Volokitin, ranked 20th in the world, seems to have been around for an eternity, but in fact he is only 18. Coming from a nation replete with superstars such as Ivanchuk and Ponomariov, and prodigies such as Karjakin and Lahno, he occasionally gets overlooked. Nevertheless, he was a vital component of the gold-medal-winning Ukrainian team in Calvia 2004. I must say that he plays very attractive chess, too.

The following extremely violent miniature from the final round, against Giovanni Vescovi from Brazil, shows his considerable attacking skills at their best.


13/02/2005 – Not all the votes have been counted, but it now seems certain that the United Iraqi Alliance has won the recent election in that country. As this political group was formed under the auspices of the Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali-al-Sistani, it is to him we must turn for clues as to how the new Iraq will be.

At his informative official website, sistani.org, one learns, rather distressingly, that “chess is absolutely forbidden”. Mind you, cricket is permitted – so it is not all bad news. Chess is not explicitly mentioned in the Koran and thus its status in Islam has always been somewhat ambiguous. When played for stakes, it is undoubtedly “haram” (forbidden).

However, when played for amusement it has more often than not been considered “makruh” (disapproved of, but under no penalty). Ayatollah Ali-al-Sistani obviously takes a harsher view. In this, he merely follows his Iranian Shia counterpart, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, who banned the game shortly after assuming power in 1979. Thankfully, today in Iran’s more liberal environment, chess has emerged from its clandestine past to reoccupy a respected position in society. It is one of the few sports in which women are encouraged to participate, as they can easily adhere to the Islamic dress code. If chess is banned in Iraq, it will mark the nadir of an otherwise long and, in many ways, glorious association with the game. The most famous Arab chess player and writer of antiquity, as-Suli, came to prominence at the Abbasid court in Baghdad during the reign of Caliph al-Muktafi (902-908).

Indeed, Baghdad could arguably claim to be the birthplace of professional chess. Even as-Suli was preceded by others: al-Adli and ar-Razi – both writers of chess books – played before the Caliph al-Mutawakkil (847-861), the latter defeating his more senior rival. Jabir, Rabrab and Abu’n-Na’am were other players of master class in that era of refinement.

Prior to the 2003 Anglo-US bombing and occupation of Iraq, I spoke to a couple of Iraqi players. I apologised for the death and destruction that was bound to occur if – as seemed likely – the war would begin. “No, we are in favour of it,” they answered. “But many, many thousands of people will be killed!” I said. “Yes, we know that,” they replied. That made me stop and think: perhaps I was wrong with my peacenik instincts?

Well, at a terrible cost, Saddam Hussein has been deposed, and very few people mourn his departure. But maybe my chess-loving colleagues are less enthusiastic now about all aspects of the brave new world which they have entered.


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