Alas, it wasn't a joke, although the world chess championship is rapidly descending into farce. The battle to stage the match between Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short is now a bizarre jigsaw of increasingly disreputable negotiations.
Consider last week's developments: the Times issued a statement that the players had accepted its bid to run the match; the London Evening Standard, part of a rival consortium, said that they hadn't; the Times replied with a story saying how happy Kasparov was that such a reputable newspaper was involved at all, and that he was sure everything would turn out fine in the end; and then the Manchester Evening News joined in with an interview with Raymond Keene, the Times's chess correspondent and the moving force behind its bid, in which he offered to share the match between London and Manchester.
It looked odd next to the front- page story in the same day's Times, full of self-congratulation at bringing the match to London. Particularly when the main rival bidder wanted to stage the whole match in London anyway.
'The Times will be a credibility card for us in this venture,' said Kasparov. He and Short certainly need one, for the whole breakaway venture has been condemned by the chess world.
'I have spoken to over 60 grandmasters,' said Murray Chandler, one of England's leading players, 'and the only ones who support Short and Kasparov are those with a direct financial interest.' Other British grandmasters described Short's actions at various points on a scale from 'regrettable' to 'hypocritical' via 'opportunistic'. The Times judiciously described this as a 'mixed response'.
It was all so simple a month ago. There were three bidders - Manchester, the London Chess Group, and IMG/Channel 4 - and the world chess body FIDE awarded the match to Manchester as the only bid conforming to their strict rules. Informed of the decision, Short phoned Kasparov, who phoned Keene, and a plot was hatched to hijack the world championship. Announcing the formation of a new organisation, they re-opened the bidding.
On 28 February, David Levy, a business partner and former brother-in-law of Keene, faxed Manchester with this offer: 'We would be more than happy to act as consultants on the basis that we receive no fee unless we are able to help you succeed in your aim of bringing the Short-Kasparov match to Manchester.' The fax was headed: 'We think we can help you solve your problem.' Someone in Manchester scrawled beneath it the words 'We think you caused it.'
On 4 March, not having received a reply from Manchester, Keene and Levy offered advice to the London Chess Group, who decided to ignore it after spotting an item, under the heading 'Organisational Budget', of pounds 170,000 for 'expert organisational team, hired for 7.5 months'.
After bids were opened, the choice was quickly narrowed to the Times (bidding pounds 1.5m plus pounds 200,000 guaranteed residuals) or the London Chess Group bidding pounds 2m plus residuals to be negotiated. The players appear to be favouring the Times bid, even though it is lower.
Several disturbing questions remain unanswered:
Why, if the London Chess Group bid was considered suspect, was Matthew Patten, who headed the consortium, never told of any queries or doubts about the validity of his figures?
Why did the Times say that the players had accepted their bid, when all they had signed was an agreement to negotiate exclusively with the Times for 14 days?
Why was Nigel Short so furious when he learned that the Times had issued a statement about the agreement? Was it because, as Keene says, 'He may not have totally understood what he signed', or was it, as sources close to Short indicate, that the players had an unequivocal agreement not to publicise anything until the contract had been finalised?
Why did the Times, on the strength of its own announcement that it had won the match, contact London Forum, part of the London Chess Group consortium, to ask for their support? Why did Times representatives contact another major backer of the London Chess Group? 'They phoned us,' said Keene of both these initiatives, but Janie Joel, communications manager of London Forum, was adamant: 'No,' she said, 'the Times phoned us.'
Lastly, why, if the Times's own bid of pounds 1.7m is so solid, is it sniffing so eagerly at the doors of other sponsors before the contract is signed with the players?
The deal will no doubt be done, and the match will go ahead, and Nigel Short, even on the loser's share of the purse, will be much richer. But his role in the whole affair may have permanently tarnished his image as the golden boy of British chess.