Khanty-Mansiysk is a tiny little oil town in deepest Siberia. About 50,000 locals make up this snow-covered community that is only notable for the occasional Winter biathlon, a signature frozen fish dish… and chess tournaments.
This month, it plays host to the World Chess Cup, a 128-player knockout event featuring some of the best players in the world, along with the occasional wildcard. One of the drawbacks with trying to organise a world championship for chess, a game played by almost two billion people, is enabling fair representation. How do you narrow the number of chess players down to a ten-millionth of the total, particularly given that the geographical spread is anything but even?
Fortunately for us Aussies, the Oceanic region is granted one spot in the field, and hence Fi and I are en route to Siberian Winter. After a few pit-stops in London and Helsinki, we’ll get to watch the World’s best go head to head in possibly the most entertaining tournament in the chess calendar. Knock-out matches, rapid and blitz time controls, and even the infamous Armageddon sudden-death final tiebreak – classical chess enthusiasts are no doubt convulsing at the merest mention of this traditional travesty, but for the spectators, it’s the Twenty20 world championships for chess.
Not to mention the likes of Gelfand, Svidler, Grischuk, the inevitably entertaining Ivanchuk, and young hopes such as Negi, So and Caruana… non-chess players have probably tuned out by now, but for the rest of us, it’s a line-up to rival a Twilight premiere.
My personal involvement is a little less dramatic. Under the pairing system of 1 versus 128, 2 versus 127…, I, ranked 115, have come up paired against Dominguez, the 20th best player in the world. The 25 year old Cuban, and best player in South America, is well known, having spent the last couple of years hovering around the world’s elite. He’s most notably remembered for winning the World Blitz Championship in 2006, but in my opinion, his most remarkable characteristic is his unashamedly attacking, take-no-prisoners style. Grunfelds, Najdorfs and Open Sicilians litter his repertoire, and Lenier seems to thrive in hardcore tactics.
(No doubt Alana is already rolling on the floor at the thought of ‘hardcore’ and ‘chess’ in the same paragraph…)
While my expected score is a modest zero from the two games, one thing is certain: the games are likely to be entertainingly sharp.
Fi is constantly berating me about my lack of optimism for the match, and probably not without reason. I would claim it’s more of a realistic, work-based approach, but the truth is, it’s hard to expect much. No Australian has ever taken so much as half a point off their opponent, so far as I know. But regardless of expectations and optimism, the chance to play someone like Dominguez is incredibly exciting, and at least I get to have a go at him without reservations.
It would be interesting to see who ends up winning the championships. Being an elite player just isn’t good enough; you need to be able to adapt to new opponents and styles at short notice, and being able to excel at both classical and quickplay time limits is crucial. It’s hard to discount any of the 2700+ super grandmasters, of course, but of the bunch, Grischuk is probably my pick. Of the outsiders, don’t discount the young guns like Gashimov and Negi, and one ‘old hand’ worth watching is Nisipeanu, or as Ian Rogers likes to call him, ‘Peanut Man.’
First things first, though – Fi and I still have to get there. We’re now off to London to hang out with Manuel Week and his girlfriend Brigitta for a few days, before the difficult set of flights that will eventually see us in Gulag territory.
By the way, having never used a blog or website before, I may have made a few design errors – feel free to let me know how I can fix this site up.
EDIT: Tim Reilly reminded me that Darryl Johansen drew with Mikhail Gurevich in their first game of a world cup. Also, a postscript quote from Fi: “You’re not going to spend the whole trip checking your blog every two minutes are you?!” – and here I am editing it in…