Chess contest limps to bitter end: After seven weeks of unparalleled hype and sour criticism, William Hartston argues that the championship was doomed from the start

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The Independent Online
THE Daily Mail called it 'The World's Most Boring Event'; the Daily Telegraph described it as 'a turkey' and 'an embarrassment'. After seven weeks of unparalleled hype and sour criticism, the Times World Chess Championship was effectively decided on Tuesday when Garry Kasparov defeated Nigel Short to go five up with five games left to play. The only issue remaining to be decided today, in the 20th game of the match, is whether Kasparov can ensure himself the pounds 1m winner's purse or if Short will retain mathematical chances of a tie.

On Tuesday it was announced that if and when Kasparov scores another half-point, the match will be finished in quick-play games. When the event was launched in a blaze of optimism and highly priced tickets in April, it was announced that all 24 games would be played, come what may. The players' contract also specified that the match would go to the end. Short, who made a considerable comeback in the second half of the match after a disastrous start, stated that he wanted to continue. Kasparov, however, said it would be pointless and the organisers appear to have agreed.

Short, 28, lost any chance of making a credible challenge in the match when he scored only a single draw from the first four games. Two weeks later, the news leaked out that his principal second and mentor, Lubomir Kavalek, the Czech grandmaster, had been asked to leave after game three. The reasons for this are still unexplained, but it cannot have helped Short to lose the man whose calm guidance had taken him to a challenge for the world championship. As Kavalek himself said, on hearing of Short's continuing disappointing results after his departure: 'It did not have to be so bad.'

Too one-sided to sustain sporting interest, yet not one-sided enough to fuel Kasparov's ego, the event has been a marketing disaster from before the start. When Kasparov and Short broke away from the International Chess Federation and the Times supported them with a bid of pounds 1.7m in prize money, all the evidence suggests that they did not expect to be footing the bill themselves.

They unsuccessfully wooed one commercial sponsor who was known to be offering a dowry of pounds 1.5m. They hoped for pounds 750,000 for the television rights. How much Channel 4 eventually paid is a well-kept secret, but they were furious when they found their agreement with the Times did not preclude the BBC from covering the match.

By the time the contract with the players was signed there was close to nothing in place to offset the costs of the event. The ticket prices at the Savoy theatre, however, set at between pounds 45 and pounds 150, would in the event of a sell-out have fetched about pounds 2.6m. Including advertising, theatre hire, hotel bills and other expenses, the total match budget has been estimated at between pounds 4m and pounds 5m.

Two months before the match was due to begin, News International, the publisher of the Times, called in CPMA, a high-powered sports marketing group, to take control of the match organisation. It immediately cut ticket prices to between pounds 20 and pounds 65 and restarted negotiations about the television rights. As late as four weeks before the match began, there were pessimistic sounds coming from sources close to Channel 4, unsure whether a deal would be agreed to enable their programmes to go ahead.

Another intended source of income was the Times's co-sponsor, Teleworld of Rotterdam and its public 'Predictamove' competition. In Europe 75,336 people, including 9,900 in Britain, would phone in on premium rate numbers to predict every move in the games, those guessing most moves correctly winning large prizes. But even in the theatre itself, many punters were finding it impossible to get their Predictamove sets to work. This was abandoned after three games had produced 2,000 calls - an average of fewer than 17 calls a move.

When Short lost three of the first four games, it was clear that he stood no chance. The Times, and Dominic Lawson, the editor of the Spectator, writing in the Telegraph, put the criticism down to newspaper rivalry. But a month into the contest, even the Sunday Times was harshly comparing Short with Eddie 'The Eagle' Edwards, and the Telegraph leader column was advising that the turkey should be put down.

It has all been a very sad spectacle. What should have been a fine contest between a great champion and the best player Britain has produced has been lessened first by the politics surrounding the breakaway, then by the hyping of the whole thing to an extent that could lead only to resentment. Even the Times readers have been saying they would happily pay more for the newspaper if only there were not so much chess in it.

In the rival Fide world championship in Indonesia, Anatoly Karpov won the 15th game against Jan Timman, and leads by 9 1/2 -5 1/2 .

(Photograph omitted)