Topalov vs Kamsky – and the remarkable Mr Chernenko

by ChessBase
5/15/2008 – Russian chess journalist Yuri Vasiliev has now confirmed that the semifinal Candidates Match between Veselin Topalov and Gata Kamsky will take place in Lvov, Ukraine, for a prize fund of US $750,000. On the web site ChessPro Vasiliev tells of a lengthy conversation he had with the initiator, Gata Kamsky's manager (and diamond trader) Alexander Chernenko. Must-read interview.

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Just over a month ago we reported that FIDE had extended the deadline for bids for the Kamsky-Topalov Candidates Match. The Bulgarian Chess Federation protested vigorously, but then the reason for FIDE's decision became clear: a US $750,000 bid to stage the match in Lvov, western Ukraine, had been announced by Kamsky's manager Alexander Chernenko. There were a lot of doubts if this offer was real.

Now Chernenko has stated that the financial guarantees have now been received by FIDE, at their Swiss bank account: “The sum of US $935,000 has appeared on the bank’s computer screen in Lausanne “, Vasiliev quotes Chernenko as saying. Here are some of the available details on the match:

Event WCC Challengers Match Kamsky-Topalov 2008
Organiser VAT ZTO Prodexport and Rondo Holdings S.A., Kiev, 03150 Ukraine
Date 26th November 2008 to 11th December 2008
Venue Potockis’ Palace Lviv, 15 Copernicus st. Lvov, Ukraine
Prize fund   US $750,000 (+ $150,000 for FIDE and $35,000 for FIDE expenses)

Vasiliev’s full story and lengthy interview with Alexander Chernenko has appeared on the Russian chess site ChessPro (link at the bottom of the page). It was translated, in an heroic effort, by Steve Giddins, who has managed to preserve the unique flavour of the original.

Lvov awaits Topalov and Kamsky!

By Yuriy Vasiliev

We now have confirmation of what ChessPro told you before anybody. The semifinal Candidates match Topalov-Kamsky will take place in Lvov, Ukraine, with a prize fund of US $750,000 (a “clear” $750,000 that is, i.e. after paying the FIDE 20% tax).

"The sum of $ 935 000 has appeared on the bank’s computer screen in Lausanne”, announced the quiet and unexcited voice of Alexander Chernenko, Kamsky’s manager, the initiator and one of the main figures involved in the story. ”Since I first announced to the chess world about the match in Lvov and its record prize fund, naturally I have been worried about how it would look if it did not come off. The last straw was a meeting in the office of Mark Glukhovsky, editor of '64', who told me of Kasparov’s scepticism about the chances of raising as much as $750,000 for a match between Topalov and Kamsky. 'Mark my words, it will all turn out to be a pipe dream, and will vanish into thin air like a soap bubble!'"

Well, I thought Garry is an authority on such maters. If he does not believe it is possible to raise such money for such a match, then probably it will all dissolve into thin air. But it is not a pipe dream! It is not a soap bubble! And it has not dissolved into thin air! It all turns out to be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And also crystal clear. Like the Star of Africa, a 530 carat diamond.

It is a surprising story, bordering on the truly fantastic. Consequently, I will not leave out a single word of my conversation with this remarkable man called Alexander Chernenko.

Gata Kamsky's manager Alexander Chernenko

Diamonds in the Sky

Alexander called me from Accra, capital of Ghana. Where he owns …diamond mines. Well, not owns, as such, but he has a concession in some mines.

He called me from the street. In my ear, I could hear a hubbub of barefooted Africans, and could almost smell the scorching African heat…

Chernenko: “I am on my way to the hotel. There it is cooler. It about 45 degrees here…”

Me: “OK, Alexander. Do that. I am also outside and will be home in an hour. Here it is only eight degrees. In the shade,” I added, for some reason.

The phone rang again an hour later. Chernenko: "OK, I am here. I can give you 25 minutes”.

OK, let’s start our conversation. I think we will manage in 25 minutes. So is it really 45 degrees there?

Well, a bit less now, I think. There are storm-clouds in the sky. It’s more like 34. Once the rain starts, the temperature drops by 10-15 degrees, sometimes even 20.

Are you often in Africa?

I have business here, so I’m here quite often.

Can you tell our readers something about your business?

No problem. My first business in Ukraine was book publishing, although I am a journalist by training. When the Soviet Union collapsed, I set up one of the first private publishers. We produced tens of millions of books. Many of them are used to this day in schools and universities in Ukraine. I think this was the most enjoyable part of my business, because I was doing something I really liked.

Sorry, I didn’t ask before. How old are you, and do you have a family?

I am 50, married, with a son aged 26, and a daughter aged 16. I live in Kiev.

Say a few words about your journalistic activities. We are colleagues, I guess?

I worked for the radio station “Svoboda” in Munich. This was both in the days when this was not permitted, and when it was. I reported on economic matters.

Have you been in business a long time?

I started in 1988. For the last seven years I have had a manufacturing business. In Ukraine, we produce granite blocks and bricks, whilst in Africa… well, you know what one does in Africa? Precious and semi-precious stones. But I would rather not go into details.

Many in the village laughed

And what is your connection with chess? Are you just by chance involved in chess management?

It is a surprising story. I grew up in the village of Golubovka, about eight kilometres from the regional centre of Priulki, in Chernigovsky Oblast. The village was pretty basic and there was no practically education, even in agriculture or livestock raising. Anyone who studied an intellectual subject was looked on as a bit crazy. And if he played chess, and at the age of 10-11, read Shakhmaty v SSSR, 64 (Petrosian was editor in those days, later succeeded by Roshal), and chess magazines from Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, well this seemed extremely eccentric to everybody around him…

We are not only colleagues, but compatriots as well. I was born in the city of Priulki, in Chernigovsky Oblast. I assume you are the chessplayer that you were speaking of?

Of course, I meant myself. How it happened, I myself cannot understand. Because there was certainly no prestige in the village attached to chess – rather the opposite, it was almost something shameful. But for some reason, I became interested in chess, and and half of the postman’s bag would be filled with magazines for me.

Excuse me, Alexander, but this was not such a cheap pleasure. Getting deliveries of magazines published in other socialist countries can’t have been cheap by the standards of village life…

The fact is that we earned decent money in the village. We had a large bee-stock, a huge garden, we always had three or four cows, five or six pigs, plus goats, sheep, ducks, chickens… In a year our family (my father, me and my grandmother) made between eight and ten thousand Soviet roubles.

What did your father do for a living?

He was a vet. After the war, he finished at the veterinary institute in Western Ukraine. He was the vet in the region, then for the oblast, and finally for the state farm. But he did not get any further for the simple reason that he was not a party member. Every five years he would be offered promotion, but on condition that he joined the party. He refused. He was a surprisingly well educated, intelligent man, who understood that it was not good for me to live my entire life in the village, that I could realise my potential away from there. In general, we did not have any financial problems in our family, but the most important thing was that my father understood me.

Did you play chess with your father?

My father never played chess, but he knew all about it. As he did about sport in general.

So whom did you play with?

I played by correspondence. Many of the villagers smiled at this pastime – how can you play chess by post?

Made a master norm, but never got the title

What ranking did you reach?

A fairly serious level of correspondence chess – I played in the Ukrainian Championship. I got to candidate master. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, I reached master level at correspondence chess. But I never got the title, because after the collapse, there were no tournaments for two to three years. But I can say with confidence that I am a strong candidate master.

And how did your chess fortunes develop after that?

There weren’t really any such “chess fortunes” for me. What I have already told you is virtually it. I played chess at university, was top board of the faculty team, but by then chess was already just a relaxation.

Which university was that?

Kiev. I graduated from Kiev State University. I got in, despite there being 36 applicants for every place. Nobody believed that I would get in, being from a virtually unknown village, and not having the contacts or the money. But I got in.

Four thousand chess books

At university you continued to follow chess?

Yes. I followed all that was going on, and knew all that one could know from open sources. Of course, I looked at the games of the top players, usually at night. I have one of the best chess libraries, not only in the Ukraine, but possibly in the whole former Soviet Union.

How many chess books do you have?

(Sighs) I am not sure exactly, but it is in the thousands. Probably about four thousand.

Where are they, in your flat in Kiev?

Not all of them, of course. Some are at my dacha. Some are archived, some are even in secure storage – the older books, from the 20s and 30, some of the foreign books.

Who were your favourites amongst the great players?

Most of all I like a positional style of chess, and I love the play of Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian. I also have a deep respect for Sammy Reshevsky, and I have great sympathy with Oleg Romanishin, a player with so many non-standard but classy positional ideas. And I worship Paul Keres. The best positional games of Anatoly Karpov are grandiose indeed. And I cannot express how much I love Tal’s positional games, those where he beats his opponents not by out-calculating them, but when he makes his combinations from a sound positional basis.

Offer to help Gata

How did you come to be associated with Gata?

It came about that I was a dissident. Working for Radio Svoboda, and teaching in the institute led me to have problems with the authorities. And therefore, when Gata, for certain reasons, did not become world champion in 1996, and when he then, again for various reasons (which I do not wish to go into) left chess, I was terribly upset, because I had seen the quality of some of his games at that time. When he returned to chess two years ago, I read many interviews with him (including some of yours). It was clear that he was playing with a lot of old “baggage”, yet was still able to compete with top ten players. I decided I had to help him. During the Tal Memorial tournament, I was in Moscow on business, and I approached Gata and said that I wanted to help him with organisational and financial matters. He replied that he could not decide this for himself, on his own, but would need to talk to his family. In tbe new year, I spoke to his father, Rustam, and we agreed the details.

Lvov – a Chess City

Alexander, what is your view of Lvov grandmaster, Vassily Ivanchuk?

I only know that, whilst here in Accra, I have looked at the games he has been winning in Sofia. Beautiful! One cannot but be amazed by him – he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of chess. He lives in the white and black squares. It is just a shame that so far, he has not been able to fully realise his fantastic potential, because he certainly has the talent of a champion.

Agreed, I also think that in talent, Ivanchuk is not less endowed than Kramnik, Anand, Topalov, etc. But he just lacks pragmatism. Now that people have heard of your success in arranging such big money for the Topalov-Kamsky match, many chess lovers, even those outside Ukraine, will say “So, they can raise all this money for two foreigners, but here in Lvov we have the genius Ivanchuk, and nobody wants to help him get a match for the world championship…”

My reply may seem paradoxical. I did not do this only to support Gata, but also to return to Lvov its great name in the chess world. This is the city that gave the world Leonid Stein, Victor Kart, Alexander Belyavsky, Adrian Mikhalchishin, Oleg Romanishin, Marta Litinskaya, Zu Lelchuk, not to mention Vassily Ivanchuk. I hope that chess events will bring Lvov before the eyes of the world. And that the world will see: Ukraine can hold such an event at a top level. That Ukraine can hold the Euro-2012 [the 2012 European Football Championship] at such a level. I want the match to be in Lvov because it is the city of chess, not just of the past and present, but also of the future. And I also want the match here because at this moment, a big battle is going on to save the city’s legendary chess club.

The club on market square? That was where I first came across Victor Kart’s pupils, Romanishin, Belyavsky and Mikhalchishin, as well as Victor Emanuleovich himself…That was many, many years ago.

Yes, absolutely right, it is the club on Market Square. They are trying to take it away from the chessplayers, which I consider absolutely shameful. Two weeks ago, in Lvov, I discussed the issue with Oleg Mikhailovich Romanishin. I proposed that he head the organising committee for the Topalov-Kamsky match, because this would be supporting not only Kamsky, but also the city of Lvov and the whole chess community of Ukraine. As they say in Ukraine, “dead bees don’t buzz”. When there is some progress, something going on, only then can we restore the great chess traditions of this unique city.

Why was there all the trouble surrounding the bank guarantees?

Briefly, in order to give such bank guarantees, one has to put together a whole load of documents. Just when these were ready, I received a letter from FIDE Vice-President Makropoulos, saying that we had to provide not just bank guarantees, but that we had to transfer the whole prize fund to the FIDE bank account – $935,000 in all. This is also quite normal, but it caused us a lot of extra administrative problems. In order to do this one must explain to one’s bank the purpose of the transfer, and must provide supporting contracts. But there are no contracts yet for this match, they have not been signed. So, all these technical and technological issues took a lot of time, with checks, questions, the account at one point being blocked by the bank, then finally re-opened and so on. It is a long-winded and painful process.

Finally, this “painful process” has been completed. And all obstacles to the match have been removed. What are the immediate tasks now for the manager of challenger, Gata Kamsky?

Now I have to help Gata organise some serious preparation for the match.

With these words, spoken in a serious and pre-occupied tone, the newest figure amongst the managers of top-level chess brought our conversation to an end. Our conversation took longer than the planned 25 minutes. But I hope that there are still enough diamonds left in Africa…

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