That’s the headline in The New York Times. I’m not kidding.
Game five of the big reunification match for the World Chess Championship was supposed to be today. This was the match that was going to restore harmony to the chess world, after the big split in 1993 when Gary Kasparov refused to defend his title under the auspices of FIDE. (That’s pronounced FEE-day, incidentally, and stands for Federation Internationale des Echecs.) FIDE officially stripped him of the title for his trouble, leading to a boxing-like situation where there were multiple world champions.
When the appointed time came Topalov was on the stage ready to play, but Kramnik was not. An hour after the start time Kramnik was forfeited. Officially, the score now stands at 3-2 in Kramnik’s favor.
So why didn’t Kramnik show up?
It all started when Topalov filed an appeal protesting that Kramnik was making a ludicrous number of trips to his private bathroom during the game. There was ample video evidence of the playing area to document this fact. Why Topalov finds this significant is unclear. The only thing I can think of is that Topalov is suggesting that Kramnik has concealed some sort of computer chess playing device in his private bathroom. The bathrooms are the only part of the playing area not under video surveillance, you see.
So Topalov’s representatives filed a complaint and the appeals committee considered the matter. They ultimately decided that Kramnik’s behavior was odd, but by itself not evidence of anything. The Kramnik team, for its part, claimed that Kramnik’s frequent trips to the bathroom are explained by his fondness for pacing during the game. And since the players’ backstage area is rather small, he uses the bathroom to increase his pacing space. Anyway, the appeals committee did decide to lock the private bathrooms given to each player, thereby forcing them to use the same, different, bathroom.
Kramnik went nuts. He felt this was an affront to his dignity and a violation of his contract. He appears to be wrong on that last count, since the contract only guarantees him the use of a bathroom during the game, and not a private bathroom used only by him.
Whether this dispute can be resolved to both players’ satisfaction is now unclear. If it is not resolved, the match could end right here. That would be a tragedy. The public image of chess can not afford another blow of this sort. Chess grandmasters already have the reputation for being childish prima donnas with very little in the way of social skills. This would only confirm that reputation.
I notice that The Chess Ninja has taken a decidedly anti-Topalov stance on this. Certainly Topalov’s protest sounds silly and frivolous. On the other hand, there are clear procedures for filing complaints of this sort, and it sounds like Topalov followed them. The appeals committee likewise seems to have acted within its purview in handling the complaint. And the bottom line is that Topalov showed up for the game and Kramnik did not. Sounds like there’s plenty of blame to go around.
In the entire history of the World Chess Championship there has only been one other instance where a player was forfeited in a game. That was in the 1972 match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Fischer lost the first game in bizarre fashion, making an elementary blunder in a dead drawn position. He then failed to show up for game two, demanding that the games be moved to a private room with no spectators or video cameras. This left him two points in the hole.
Spassky, in a gesture of magnanimity that would be unthinkable today, agreed to move the match to the private room. Big mistake. Fischer won five of the next eight games, drawing the other three. From there he mostly coasted to victory with draws.
But for petty complaints and embarrassing childishness, the prize must surely go to the 1978 match between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi. This was the match that saw the great yogurt controversy. Karpov was in the habit of receiving a cup of yogurt during the game. Grandmaster games go on for several hours, and a touch of refreshment could help relieve the monotony. Korchnoi protested that Karpov could be receiving coded messages via the color of the yogurt. Perhaps purple yogurt meant move the knight, or orange yogurt meant offer a draw. That sort of thing. The appeals committee ruled that Karpov could continue to receive his yogurt, but it had to be the same color every time, and that changes in color had to be announced three days ahead of time.
Korchnoi also protested that Karpov had paid a hypnotist to sit in the front row of the audience to stare at Korchnoi. Karpov, not to be outdone, complained that the long, colorful gowns worn by Korchnoi’s spiritual advisors were very distracting. He demanded that they not be allowed in the playing hall wearing such clothing. Despite all this, the match did manage to provide some interesting chess.
Hopefully the match can be saved. We’ve had four interesting games so far, and i’d like to see some more. If the match falls apart it would be the worst black eye for chess since Kasparov lost that match to the computer. But that’s a different post.