World Chess Championship - the Arena

by Venkatachalam Saravanan
12/4/2021 – Wonder how it looks inside the arena where the World Championship match is taking place? In a big pictorial report, correspondent Venkatachalam Saravanan lets us feel the ambience surrounding the most important chess event of the year. Not to be missed! | Photo: Eric Rosen / FIDE

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A spacious auditorium

The ongoing World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi is held as part of the ‘Dubai Expo 2020’, postponed exactly by a year due to the global pandemic and held between Oct 2021 - Mar 2022 at Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The World Championship along with the DP World Tour Golf Championship and the Cricket Twenty20 World Cup are the other sporting events conducted in the country coinciding with Expo 2020.

The Expo, a suggested six-month, US Dollars 7 billion event which has been about nine years in the making with the participation of 182 countries, is a global extravaganza targeting about 25 million visitors where the World Chess Championship is a peripheral sporting attraction. The venue is situated within a 45-minute drive from the major transport hubs of Dubai through a dedicated metro station, built specifically for the purpose.

The match is held at the south hall of the gigantic Dubai Exhibition Centre, a 45,000 square metre space with an auditorium, multi-purpose halls, suites and meeting rooms. 

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Entrance to the south hall of the Dubai Exhibition centre | Photo: Amruta Mokal

The south hall is a large high-roofed plaza, where the World Championship arena comes up after a walk of about 50 metres, beyond the coffee shop.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Inside the South Hall | Photo: Amruta Mokal

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The chess arena in the South Hall |  Photo: Amruta Mokal

To the right of the foyer are the giant chess board, the entrance to the auditorium, the FIDE room, room for Team Nepo etc., while the left side has the VIP room, commentary area and the press room. As can be seen, the ‘rooms’ are actually temporary cubicles, markedly small in size, built exclusively for the event. They have good detailing and branding, with the theme of the event printed all over and eyes of the protagonists staring down on the onlookers.
One enters the playing hall through a short queue next to the ticket counters, placed just behind the giant chess board of about 12 feet length and breadth.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The giant chess board and pieces in front of the ticket counter | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Spectators have to deposit mobile phones, laptops and other electronic devices at the lockers available near the entrance, and are thoroughly checked before entering the hall | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

The tickets are priced at 95 UAE Dirhams (23 Euros / 26 US Dollars approx) for the general and accessible category, whereas the VIP tickets are priced at a whopping 1900 Dirhams (457.50 Euros / 517 US Dollars). The ticket prices also include a complimentary audio system with earphones to hear the official commentary which can be carried inside the auditorium, and access to ‘standing room inside the commentators area’. The VIP tickets also give the additional access to ‘8 reserved seats in front row of the commentators area’, and to VIP Area in the Foyer, with complimentary ‘VIP-level catering’. 

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The audio devices for spectators |  Photo: Amruta Mokal

The actual match venue is the stage of the spacious auditorium of about 3000 square metres arena, with a seating capacity of about 800, but only 500 spectators allowed to watch the match due to Covid restrictions. The comfortably cushioned single sofas for four rows on the floor just below the stage are reserved for those with VIP passes / tickets. The chairs in the auditorium for the ‘general’ ticket holders are of a typical arena design, comfortable with a good view of the stage. Among them too, the first two rows have been reserved for media persons. The VIP area also serves as the place for the ‘accessible’ ticket holders, thoughtfully offered to people of disability on wheelchairs.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The spacious auditorium, with clearly defined VIP and general areas for spectators |  Photo: Amruta Mokal

Sitting inside the auditorium is an enjoyable experience for the spectators. The lights on spectators get completely switched off, and watching the players battling it out on the stage is an enjoyable experience. The soundproof ‘Fish-tank’ on the stage has been built for the occasion where Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi are battling out, in total view whenever they are in the playing arena.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The darkened auditorium, when the game is in progress. There are two giant screens on the top of either side, depicting the close up videos of the players which are related to the official broadcast, and the current position on the screen, both clearly visible even from the back rows | Photos: Eric Rosen / FIDE

The actual playing area is spacious enough for the players, watched over by about five remote-controlled Panasonic AW-UE150W cameras watching their every move and gesture, producing a brilliant live video-feed merged with live commentary at the official website.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

As photographers swarm the stage in the allotted initial five minutes, they are watched silently by the remote-controlled cameras - you can count about three of them on one side in the above picture. | Photo: Eric Rosen / FIDE

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The silent capturers, watching over every move and gesture, producing brilliant feeds in synchrony | Photo: Eric Rosen / FIDE

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Talking of the first five minutes, it does occasionally get a little too full, when there are dignitaries present to inaugurate the first move, and the posse of photographers to capture the occasion. At the beginning of the sixth round, Chief Arbiter Mahdi Abdul Rahim - the first non-European arbiter to preside over at a world championship — makes the first move watched over by the mayor of Moscow Sergey Sobyanin, the host GM Maurice Ashley, president of FIDE Arkady Dvorkovich, and Governor of Khanty-Mansisk Natalya Komarova.

Away from the stage and out of the spectators’ gaze, both players have private areas for rest, contemplation, nutrition and even a small nap, with the inevitable monitor relaying the position on the board.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Rest area for players at the playing arena away from the stage | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

Talking of private areas, both the teams of Carlsen and Nepo have their own individual rooms in the vicinity. Nepo’s team has a cubicle on the ground floor next to the FIDE office, while Carlsen’s team occupies a spacious room on the first floor dubbed as the Chess24 suite:

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The chess24 suite, where one can spot Magnus Carlsen’s father Henrik, and sister Ingrid | Photo: Niki Riga / FIDE

And somewhere beyond those areas is the place where the live relay is produced, from a complicated conundrum of video feeds, monitors, audio-video mixers, laptops, production machines and more complicated men. 

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The production room, where one can spot Lennart Ootes if one struggles a bit. Clue: blue | Photo: Eric Rosen / FIDE

There are two curious points to be considered about the entry for the match: 1) It is prohibited for children under 8 years of age and 2) The ticket prices are only for the world championship part of the entry, not including the tickets of the Expo 2020, which should be bought separately at the actual outer entrance to the expo. 

Such reality of clubbing the world championship with a global event of a gigantic magnitude has also resulted in an inconvenience for the media centre, as the cubicle could not accommodate all the 78 journalists who had accredited themselves in advance for the event. Thus, entry to the media centre has been restricted only to the photo / videographers for the event, whereas the writing press journalists have been forced to take their spots at the Expo Media Centre, a further 300 metres away.

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The somewhat congested Press Centre, which could accommodate only accredited photographers | Photo: Amruta Mokal 

It isn’t much of a distance, but considering that one had to walk multiple times between the venue and the working arena, and all the way from the entrance of the Expo to the Media Centre - about 500 metres - and back occasionally, I did get my average of 5 kms of walk a day!

But, it is also a thrilling experience to be in such a mega extravaganza, for the sights as well as the mind. Once in a while, your eyes come across events of such global importance in the south hall that it opens your eyes and intellect to the place and importance of the occasion.

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

A symposium on Space collaboration at the south hall | Photo: Expo 2020

Or when you realize that it is the John Kerry (American Presidential candidate in 2004, Secretary of State from 2013 to 2017, and the current ‘special presidential envoy for climate’) attending the Global Manufacturing and Industrialisation Summit (GMIS 2021) at the Expo.

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John Kerry, the special presidential envoy for climate for the United States of America in a discussion | Photo: Expo 2020

The foyer is also the place where you encounter one of the depths to which the expo organisation has planned to make it a unique event, when you encounter one of these little fellas aptly named ‘Opti’, roaming around the place just being pleasant and creative:

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Opti, the robot with artificial intelligence, designed to improve visitors’ experience of the expo, the sole aim of his existence being ‘to charm’ | Photo: Expo 2020

Unable to resist the temptation of talking to the fella, I approach him - he stops as he senses me to be on his pathway - and pose a random question:

“Where can I find some food around here?!”

After about five seconds of reception and processing, he comes up with:

“I can offer a lot of electricity myself, but for other stuff you have to consult the guides!”

Opti is just one of the 50 robots of its kind roaming around the expo among a grand total of 152, developed by the Terminus group, a Chinese digital transformation company.  According to the organisers, this is the first international event where AI-powered machines perform different kinds of daily functions. There are robots involved in security, being concierge-style attendants, for delivery of maps, drinks and free ice (!) as well as being kiosks. Obviously, they are a great attraction for the children, but even for grown-ups when no one’s looking...

And the foyer of the south hall is also the place very popular in the whole event: the commentary booth where ex-world champion Vishy Anand and Anna Muzychuk hold court, providing commentary. (Almira Skripchenko was the initial choice of host for Anand, but ‘unfortunately couldn’t make it to Dubai’ as FIDE stated). This is the second assignment on a trot for Anand — after Tata Steel Rapid & Blitz 2021 — engaging in a commentating role, and the former world champion seems to be relishing it, ably hosted by Anna Muzychuk.

Two most important aspects of Anand’s commentary stand out: 1) not using chess engines, Anand brings enormous human common sense and depth into the position, and 2) often questioned aptly by Muzychuk about his own world championship matches, Anand’s perspectives of decisions of either players throughout the game adds special weight to the commentary.

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Vishy Anand enjoying himself in the company of Anna Muzychuk | Photo: Anastasiya Karlovich

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

The audience in rapt attention for Anand / Muzychuk commentary, enjoying the relaxed, humorous and nuanced commentary | Photo: Amruta Mokal 

The end of the games are a bit of a comic run every day for the journalists, photographers and organizing staff, as the press conferences are once again held in 15 minutes after the end of every game at the 300-metres-long (remember?!) Media Centre. They are regularly 10-15 minutes affairs held in a large hall, with a beginning session by Maurice Ashley, followed by questions from the chess media present at the event. These sessions themselves have a lot to talk about, but let us keep them for another day :-)

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The inaugural press conference in progress, showing the vastness of the room| Photo: Niki Riga / FIDE

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

One of the press conferences after the game in progress, in typical formation, with the challenger and champion flanked by Maurice Ashley | Photo: Niki Riga / FIDE

Thus, at the end of the day, what makes the World Chess Championship being held at Dubai during the Expo 2020 makes it uniquely special? 

As I reflect on the curious question, it suddenly hits me - it lies at the fag end of the day. As the games get over and all the journalists and photographers go on a rushed run to the press centre, one encounters a unique spectacle on the way:

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

Between the expo exhibition centre and the media centre lies the brilliant Al Wasl Plaza, a 130-metre diameter, 67 metres tall dome consisting of a 360-degree translucent projection surface - viewed both from the inside and outside - designed to symbolically bring people of all backgrounds together to “Connect Minds”, a key ambition of the event, strategically placed between the three ‘thematic districts’ of the expo – Opportunity, Sustainability, and Mobility | Photo: Amruta Mokal

Apart from its symbolism, the dome has multiple connotations, its shape resembling the logo of the expo and its name of ‘Al Wasl’ being the ancient name for Dubai. Understandably, the plaza is dubbed as ‘the beating heart of expo 2020’ by the organizers, with colourful events and shows throughout the day, the onset of the darkness bringing in exceptional colour to the place:

FIDE World Chess Championship 2021

A graphics show projected on the insides of the dome, a permanent spectacle in the evenings | A symposium on Space collaboration at the south hall | Photo: Expo 2020

It is simply impossible to bring out the grandeur of the structure with just still photographs, and even the following video only brings reasonable justification for the creation:

It is spectacles such as this — and a lot more — which bring out the inspiration of the place, serving as a justified background to the world chess championship at Dubai.

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Saravanan is an IM from Chennai, the southern-most state of Tamil Nadu, India. He has been an active chess player in the Indian circuit, turning complete chess professional in 2012, actively playing and being a second to strong Indian players. He has been consistently writing on chess since late 1980s and is a correspondent to national newspapers and news channels.

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