Chess: movers and fakers

Chess was invented as an alternative to war. But this most cerebral form of combat can involve as much skulduggery as the real thing. As the biggest match in the world is plunged into crisis amid claims that one of the players used 'bathroom breaks' to take advice from a computer, Dominic Lawson asks if the game will ever pick up the pieces
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The Independent Online

You might think, given the celebrated eccentricity of chess grandmasters, that the Kofi Annan of the international game would need to be as sane and balanced as any man alive. You would be wrong. The president of the Fédération Internationale des Echecs (Fide), Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, astounded reporters five years ago by revealing that he had been temporarily captured by aliens: "The extraterrestrials put a yellow spacesuit on me. They gave me a tour of their spaceship and showed me the command centre. I felt very comfortable with them."

The question is: did the extra-terrestrials feel comfortable with Mr Ilyumzhinov? I have met him only once, but I vividly recall the dead coldness of his eyes. Perhaps I was too much influenced by the knowledge that the editor of the newspaper Sovietskaya Kalmykia, Larissa Yudina, was murdered in 1998 while investigating Ilyumzhinov's financial affairs.

There was more than money at stake: the chess-loving Ilyumzhinov had, three years earlier, become President of Kalmykia, a former Soviet statelet bordering oil-rich Kazakhstan. Since then, he has ploughed his money - or Kalmykia's; it's hard to distinguish between the two - into chess. It has bought him the presidency of Fide.

Earlier this year, despite opposition from the likes of Britain's Nigel Short, he was re-elected. When things were looking a bit tricky for the Kalmuk leader, he swung the vote by announcing that he'd persuaded the Fide world chess champion, Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria, to play a $1m match against Vladimir Kramnik, the Russian who in 2000 beat the hitherto invincible Garry Kasparov in a match organised by a body derived from the Professional Chess Association (PCA).

It was the unification match for which the chess world had been waiting since Kasparov broke with Fide in 1993 by playing his world championship match against Nigel Short under the auspices of their newly created PCA.

Short and Kasparov may have become business partners thereby, but it was still skulduggery as usual during their match. I recall visiting Nigel in his room at the Savoy Hotel on the afternoon before the first game and finding him in the company of two men with strange devices. One was attaching his to the telephone, the other was waving his contraption around the room. Nigel explained to me they were "debugging" his suite just in case Kasparov's team tried any fancy Russian tricks.

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It is fear of Russian tricks - or the pretence of such fear - that has cast the Kramnik-Topalov unification match, now taking place in the Kalmykian capital Elista, into confusion. After four games of the scheduled 12, the 31-year-old Kramnik was leading Topalov, also 31, by two wins to nil with two draws. This was already desperate for the Bulgarian. Kramnik is famed for his defensive skills; Kasparov failed to win a single game against him in their 2000 match, and afterwards Kramnik told me that he had emulated Muhammad Ali's "rope a dope" technique, seeing the big-punching Kasparov as the chessboard equivalent of George Foreman. The chances of Topalov winning at least two of the remaining eight games seemed forlorn.

So Silvio Danailov, Topalov's manager, launched the lavatory counter-gambit. He announced that Kramnik had been going back and forth between the board and his "player's rest room" about 50 times during each game. Danailov helpfully supplied a log. This gripping extract was published on Fide's website: "15.54 Mr Kramnik plays his 15th move. 15.55 Mr Kramnik goes to the bathroom. 15.56 Mr Kramnik goes out of the bathroom. 15.57 Mr Kramnik goes into the bathroom. 15.59 Mr Kramnik goes out of the bathroom. 16.00 Mr Kramnik goes into the bathroom. 16.04 Mr Kramnik goes out of the bathroom. 16.07 Mr Kramnik goes out of the bathroom and plays his 16th move."

Nerves? Weak bladder? Not according to Danailov; he pointed out that Kramnik's private loo was the one area not scanned by closed-circuit cameras, and said: "In our opinion these facts are strange if not suspicious."

Topalov expressed himself "outraged by the suspicious behaviour of Vladimir Kramnik who actually takes his most significant decisions in the toilet". Topalov said he would no longer shake hands with Kramnik. What did he think his opponent was doing in the loo? What Danailov and Topalov meant - although they hadn't the nerve to say it outright - was that Kramnik had hidden some sort of chess computer in the lavatory and was consulting it.

Even if Kramnik was a cheat - and no one outside Bulgaria thinks he is - you might think it absurd that a grandmaster could gain any worthwhile knowledge from a mini computer. But advances in miniaturisation, and similar progress in software, mean that even small commercially available chess computers can out-calculate the strongest grand master. It doesn't mean the electronic players are better all round, but in sharp positions highly susceptible to concrete tactical analysis, batteries beats brains every time - and Topalov tends to head for just such positions.

Doubtless Team Topalov were also not unaware of the weird events at the World Open tournament in Philadelphia two months ago. According to a report in the New York Times, a hitherto unheralded player, Eugene Varshavsky, blazed into the lead of the top section, beating much stronger players with effortless ease. Then, a watching grandmaster, Larry Christiansen, had the idea of feeding the moves from Varshavsky's most recent astonishing win into the strongest commercially available chess program, Shredder. Varshavsky's final 25 moves were all identical to Shredder's.

The event organiser, Bill Goichberg, asked to have a word with Varshavsky, at which point the tournament's unlikely leader rushed to the loos and, so the New York Times reported, did not emerge for a very long time indeed. However, after a warning from Goichberg (who felt he had no hard evidence of cheating), Varshavsky lost his last two games rapidly against mid-strength grandmasters, his new-found tactical ability having equally suddenly deserted him.

Danailov and Topalov, however, did not need evidence. They demanded that Kramnik's private loo be closed down, and that they be allowed to view all the tapes of Kramnik as he came in and out of his chamber. Unbelievably, the match appeals committee agreed to this. But perhaps it was not so unbelievable: the three members of the committee were all from Fide, whose title is held by Topalov. Indeed, while Topalov backed Ilyumzhinov's re-election, Kramnik remained aloof, regarding Fide with thinly disguised contempt.

To make matters even more suspicious, the strongest personality on the appeals committee, Zurab Azmaiparashvili of Georgia , is known to be friendly with Danailov. Nor did it help the credibility of the appeals committee that Azmaiparashvili is the only leading grandmaster known to have cheated by taking back a move, in an event three years ago. His opponent in that game, Vladimir Malakhov, was too astounded to protest. (Azmaiparashvili won the tournament. Malakhov came second.)

Kramnik complained bitterly that "Azmaiparashvili is a good friend of Danailov. And the decision of the appeals committee to grant Danailov and Topalov full access to the videotapes of my movements is outrageous. I did not sign a contract to appear on a reality TV show." Kramnik's manager Carsten Hensel declared that "Mr Kramnik is ready to accept even stricter controls by sealing the toilets before and after inspections. The toilet connected to the restrooms must be reopened, in accordance with match clauses 3.17.1 and 3.18.3."

Not the least of the confusion among the international chess media must have been caused by the various words used to describe the room at the centre of the controversy. At various times, each camp has referred to a " rest-room", "chamber" and even, rather graciously, " toilette". But, as one American observer pointed out: "Whatever you call the damn thing, this match is going down the pan."

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That, at least, seemed to be the case when the fifth game started last Friday. The match arbiter started Kramnik's clock, but Kramnik remained outside his private lavatory, refusing to come to the board unless the seal on his favourite room was broken. He absolutely refused to share a loo with Topalov - and who could blame him? Kramnik's clock continued to run down, until he lost "on time" with no moves played. Topalov had won his first game, although - at the risk of descending into lavatorial humour - his method stank.

Ilyumzhinov stated that he backed the decision of his personally selected appeals committee. Kramnik said he wouldn't play again under such conditions. The match seemed over. But then a force even more majeure than Ilyumzhinov seemed to intervene. The Kalmykian President had a "long scheduled" meeting with Vladimir Putin, capo di tutti capi - and, of course, Kramnik's fellow Russian.

Ilyumzhinov flew back to Elista, declared that the appeals committee had collectively "resigned" and that he was temporarily taking over their duties, and in that capacity declared that Kramnik could have his private loo back, which he could visit as often as he liked, subject to "unbelievably scrupulous" searches by the Bulgarian team before every game. Topalov accepted that. Of course he would, said appalled fellow grandmasters, who wrote a letter of support for Kramnik: the Bulgarian had got an unmerited win out of the whole charade, and destabilised his opponent.

As for Kramnik, while agreeing to play on, he denounced "the unsportsmanlike and unequalled behaviour of my opponent, to whom Fide donated a victory outside of the chessboard by using dirty tricks. High level functionaries inside Fide once again are making the profes- sional chess world a disgraceful playground for their own interests." The Fide website had been prompt in reproducing in full the players' statements throughout the match, but this one seems not to have made it.

As a passionate follower of chess - I have been known to write the odd book about it - it grieves me that once again the game has gained mass media attention not through the art and skill of its leading players, but through the tragicomic paranoia of those very same participants. I imagine that the biggest impression left with the general public by the Bobby Fischer vs Boris Spassky match of 1972 is not the beauty of many of Fischer's games in that event, but the demands of Spassky's team that his chair be dismantled and examined bit by bit, so convinced were they that their man was the victim of dangerous forces emanating from who knows where. Fischer, not long before the match, had all his tooth fillings extracted so the "Commies" couldn't broadcast nasty things to him via the alien elements in his mouth. Nowadays, Fischer is not on the side of the good old US of A, having declared that his government "deserved" the September 11 attacks, largely, it appears, because the Internal Revenue Service had pursued him, the undisputed world chess champion.

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The association between chess and nuttiness goes back a long way. The first official world champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, who in the late 19th century discovered the strategic laws on which the modern game is based, ended up in an asylum - convinced, among other things, that he could physically move the chess pieces by electrical impulses from his brain.

Topalov, however, is not in that strange tradition. I do not believe he is so paranoid that he really believes Kramnik was using unnatural forces in the loo. The Bulgarian was just displaying absolute ruthlessness, which is also a tradition at the highest levels of chess - as it is in any professional sport. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov would understand that.

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