Las Vegas Sun

November 18, 2019

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Two battle for chess crown at Caesars as the grand game makes a move — toward a new image

Alexander Khalifman planted his elbows on the table and eased his cheeks into his palms, the very picture of a man bearing up under the weight of this final round of the world chess championship and the Nimzo-Indian defense forming on the board before him.

Then tap. Not a hard, arrogant, aggressive tap some chess players prefer after their move. Just a light tap on his clock to press the button that would start his opponent's clock.

And, just like clockwork, his post-move ritual followed. His tall frame clad in a dark blue suit and light blue, striped, open-collared shirt rose from the leather chair until standing straight as a ceremonial soldier. With a solemnity speaking volumes about the seriousness of this 33-year-old Russian grandmaster, Khalifman clasped his hands behind his back and willed his brown shoes into a glide toward his retreat behind the curtain.

His Armenian opponent, 27-year-old Vladimir Akopian, also chose a dark blue suit, open shirt and brown shoes for this game being followed by millions on the Internet and 32 souls this day at Caesars Palace. Akopian preferred to hold his hands in his lap or place his right hand to his forehead.

Being a game down in a championship that could forever place his name in history books and guarantee a financial breakthrough in this sport of comparative paupers made him more intense. He did not break for the curtain until 55 minutes had elapsed and 11 moves had been played. His brown shoes made more noise and his stride was more pedestrian, but the stage throughout bore the ethos of gentlemen.

Will Las Vegas be remembered as the city where this new image and style of world-class chess became solidified? The city where the World Chess Federation drew a line in the sands of the Mojave Desert and said to all recalcitrant primadonnas: These are our rules. Play by them or play on your own.

And will Las Vegas be remembered as the city where this new hard line worked, setting the tone and style of future world championships? The beginning of a new order where chess champions are international role models for fair play and magnanimous conduct?

Imagine a tennis world in which Pete Sampras could stop the U.S. Open because he wanted to play in Los Angeles at a date convenient to him, and you have an idea of the current chess world that appears on the verge of a sea change.

At Caesars Palace 100 of the world's best chess players accepted their invitations and showed up July 30 for this tournament to decide who the next FIDE world champion will be -- FIDE being the acronym for Federation Internation ale Des Eches, or the World Chess Federation.

And the tournament is proceeding as scheduled, despite a handful of top players snubbing their invitations and one filing a lawsuit.

Emmanuel Omuku, in town from his headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, affirmed Monday that the tournament here shows that fans can have an exciting world championship, that elite players will compete by the rules, and that the efforts of a few players, no matter their stature, cannot derail the will of representatives from the 158 countries that comprise FIDE's membership.

"No more allowing the world champion to dictate terms," Omuku said. "It's the people who show up at the appointed time and win who will be crowned world champion."

Omuku, of Nigeria, is FIDE's executive director. The federation was formed in Paris 75 years ago, partly to combat unsportsmanlike conduct by world champions, who then had the power to pick and choose their opponents. Given such power, naturally the champions would often freeze out their most worthy opponents and compete against only those they knew they could defeat.

Three-quarters of a century has been long enough to create enough order around the world whereby an estimated 500 million people play the game according to standardized rules and within an organizational umbrella.

But it hasn't been nearly long enough to solve all the problems associated with world championship matches.

Witness just the past 30 years: Bobby Fischer stalked off the world stage when only 99 percent of his demands were met. World championship matches by his successor, Anatoly Karpov, were marred by the invited appearances of criminals and parapsychologists and disputes about what flag to play under.

The first match between Karpov and his successor, Garry Kasparov, broke down when FIDE stepped in and halted play. Successive matches between the two were filled with the type of name calling more befitting professional wrestling.

Kasparov then pulled a Fischer, stalking away to form his own organization and his own championship matches, opening the way for Karpov to regain the FIDE title despite the fact that a dozen or more players are generally acknowledged to be stronger now than he is.

But a new method of choosing the world champion is under way in Las Vegas, a new method intended to once and for all get rid of gamesmanship except that which takes place on the board and at the same time accommodates fans in this modern world that overwhelmingly chooses fast food over fine dining, MTV over Fred Astaire, and USA Today-style news over in-depth reports.

Invite 100 of the world's top players, put them all in a room once a year, and let them devour each other until only one is left standing. And if the games at conventional time controls do not produce a winner, then speed the games up until one player has demonstrated mastery of that form of chess.

This is called knockout chess, and it's the new wave sweeping the chess world, owing to approval from FIDE. The old methods of choosing a champion, taking three years and culminating in championship matches that included draw after draw after boring draw, became problematic to the extreme.

Sponsors could not be found because mass audiences could not be found.

The qualifying matches always paired the best players against each other, which sounds logical but created difficulty for emerging talents to break into the cliques and resulted in the challengers studying only the games of each other, stilling any consistent need for them to demonstrate alertness at the board for new ideas.

In tennis Sampras has to face every hungry, new talent out there and risk everything in matches that affirm his grip on his world's No. 1 ranking.

In chess proponents of this new style say the old way would never have allowed for a Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu, the young Romanian ranked 46 out of 100 coming into this tournament who battled brilliantly to the semifinals before losing to Khalifman.

For that matter, they say, it would not have allowed for a Khalifman, ranked 36, or an Akopian, ranked 31, to have the opportunity to be playing for the world championship.

Detractors of this new style, and there are many, say a world champion should not be decided on so few games played so quickly.

American grandmaster Walter Browne, a commentator at the Caesars Palace tournament, said Monday that while the knockout tournament is exciting and will produce a winner who has accomplished a great deal, fans may always in their own minds think of that winner as simply the knockout winner, while choosing to believe in someone else, a Garry Kasparov for example, as the "true" world champ.

Be that as it may, FIDE, with the tournament in Las Vegas being the second and improved try at this form of world championship, is determined to stay the course. That has not been an easy decision.

One of the improvements of this tournament over the one two years ago is that the world champion would not be seeded into the final round, but required to battle his way through from the second round.

Anatoly Karpov, FIDE world champion until a winner emerges in a few days from the Khalifman-Akopian showdown, objected to that change and also claims FIDE broke a contract with him that required his consent before the date for a world championship event could be posted.

Omuku said Monday it was not fair for Karpov to be seeded into the final and have the advantage of being rested against an opponent weary from warring against the best players in the world.

Also, Omuku said, there has never been an agreement with Karpov giving him binding say on dates. The champion was contacted but demurred, he said, saying FIDE would have to contact his lawyers.

Subsequent attempts to reach Karpov while the champion was vacationing in Egypt were unsuccessful, Omuku said.

"He never bothered to return our calls," Omuku said.

While Karpov's behavior cost FIDE its intended 1998 tournament at the Bellagio, the federation decided that would be the last time a world champion caused the organization to lose credibility.

Its General Assembly decided the 1999 tournament would be held in Las Vegas on dates convenient to the federation.

Karpov has filed a lawsuit in Lausanne, Switzerland, seeking 2 million Swiss francs ($1.3 million) and the right to play the tournament's winner in a match to decide the world championship.

"Karpov always goes out of his way to see that he gets the best deal for himself," Omuku said, adding that FIDE is committed to changing the culture of chess that produces such champions.

With so many young people coming into chess around the world and with chess now recognized as a sport by the International Olympic Committee, it's vital that the world champion become a role model for such virtues as tolerance, fair play, generosity and loyalty to the organization that fostered him, Omuku said.

It remains to be seen whether the world will long accept a gentleman world chess champion who may not indeed be the best player over a hot-tempered, self-serving, arrogant Fischer, Karpov or Kasparov who clearly is the best.

It also remains to be seen whether FIDE's goal, noble as it may be, to produce a gentleman champion will even succeed.

After Monday night's drawn game, Khalifman showed there is hope.

For more than an hour after his game, he met engagingly with the press, trading laughs and analysis. He talked of former world champions, and how scandalous they could be.

"The reputation of chess suffered," he said. "Chess lost its image as an old, intelligent game and became just something they (the top players) did during the times they were not producing new scandals."

But for those who would miss the scandals, there was hope too.

Despite a contract stipulating that he meet after the game with the press in the event of a win or draw, Akopian never showed up.