In a bolt from the blue, the Kommersant newspaper reports that the Russian Chess Federation is lobbying to have the 2011 Candidates Matches switched from Baku, in Azerbaijan, to Kazan, in Russia. Veselin Topalov has joined the fray by refusing to play in Russia.
The 2011 Candidates Matches had seemed relatively settled. Azerbaijan’s capital city of Baku would be one venue, with the host’s picking Mamedyarov as their nominated player, giving us a line-up of: Topalov, Kamsky, Kramnik, Mamedyarov, Carlsen, Radjabov, Aronian and Gelfand. The one sticking point was Aronian, who was unwilling to play in Baku (see this recent interview), but it was assumed a compromise would be reached to hold some of the games elsewhere.
A Modest Proposal
Now, out of nowhere, the report in the Russian newspaper Kommersant. Entitled “Merci, Baku”, it mentions two letters that have been written to FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov by Chairman of the Russian Chess Federation supervisory board, Arkady Dvorkovich. These are summarised as proposing:
1) Switching the men’s Candidates Matches from Baku to Kazan, with a guaranteed prize fund of 420 000 euros.
2) Changing the Women’s World Championship planned for Turkey in December 2011 into a World Cup, with a match tournament then to be held between the Grand Prix winner, the World Cup winner, the number one on the FIDE rating list (Judit Polgar!?), and the current World Champion, the Russian Alexandra Kosteniuk.
The overall justification for the move is explained as follows:
The Russian Chess Federation, although it was the one to nominate Kirsan Ilyumzhinov as a candidate for the FIDE Presidency, considers that the current rules violate the rights of certain grandmasters and even, perhaps, jeopardize the running of such important competitions.
Specifically, Aronian’s problems with playing in Baku are referred to, while for the women’s event Dvorkovich’s deputy on the RCF board, Andrey Selivanov, refers to FIDE’s aim of having equality between men and women, and to the fact that the planned event gave no privileges to the current champion. Selivanov also goes on to say, “there is no link between the RCF support for Ilyumzhinov’s candidacy and the letters […] Moreover, if the Candidates Tournament is switched to Russia we are not even going to demand a wild card for a local player”. (At the Russian chesspro.ru forum it was pointed out that in the absence of a wild card for anyone Grischuk would take the spot based on rating – there was also some speculation that Mamedyarov’s blunder against Naiditsch in Dortmund might have been related to his knowledge of this whole situation!)
The Kommersant report states that FIDE have confirmed they’ll look at the proposals at the Presidential Council in Norway (happening now). It also quotes a source within FIDE:
Unofficially the source in the federation said that “he considers the appearance [of these proposals] quite strange”. In his words, FIDE is in any case looking at the idea of running the half of the tournament involving Aronian in Russia, while depriving Baku of the right to hold it would “be a blow to Azerbaijan, where chess is actively developing”. Speaking of the women’s cycle, the source said that “it would be wrong to change the rules of the game midway, when the system’s already established, and moreover a move to a match system is written into the rules for the near future”.
Though in the interests of gender equality you might wonder if women should be deprived of a change in mid-cycle…
The Azerbaijani response was one of understandable bewilderment, though what’s really going on behind the scenes was perhaps revealed by the re-editing of an interview. Mair Mamedov, Vice-President of the Azerbaijan Chess Federation, gave an interview to “Extra Time”. In both versions he says:
We have a signed contract with the International Chess Federation, and moreover FIDE and the Azerbaijan Chess Federation have established friendly relations, including both our support for the head of FIDE, Kirsan Ilumzhinov, and support from the highest level of our head of state. So why on earth should FIDE take the tournament from us, when we’ve had an agreement for so long now?
The interesting part is what comes next. In the first version, now preserved in Google’s cache, when asked about possible compromises Mamedov says:
For now it’s hard to say where the limits of any compromise on our side would be. But I won’t hide the fact that it’s more important for us that we have an Azerbaijani nominee than that we hold the Candidates Matches themselves. It’s a higher priority for us.
That was understandably, from a negotiating point of view, changed to the current version:
For now it’s hard to say where the limits of any compromise on our side would be. Important for us are both the place where the Candidates Matches are held and the presence of an Azerbaijani nominee.
Mamedov further puts a cat among the pigeons, now again in both versions, by speculating on the pairings:
According to the current rules those pairings are correct. But some ask: why should the pairings be based on the ratings for 1 January 2010? The Candidates Matches will begin in March 2011, so wouldn’t it be more logical in the given situation to base the pairings on the relative ratings on 1 January 2011?
A similar questioning of issues that already seemed to have been set in stone can be found in Emil Sutovsky’s open letter on the format of the Candidates Tournament (proposing longer matches), published after discussing the question with Ilyumzhinov himself. These seemingly minor technical changes could of course have a significant influence on where it would be possible to hold the Candidates Matches.
Andrey Selivanov was also quoted in the Kommersant report as saying that if the event was moved to Kazan there wouldn’t be a problem with any players refusing to take part. Enter, stage left, Veselin Topalov, who in an open letter states:
I would like to declare that I would not participate in any stage of the cycle for the World Chess Title that takes place in Russia, in order to avoid problems and conflicts that already took place there.
He believes it to be as natural for him to refuse to play in Russia (after the Elista debacle), as it is for Aronian to refuse to play in Baku (on account of Armenia and Azerbaijan having been on close to a war footing for many years).
Can Topalov scupper the plans to move the tournament to Russia? Dvorkovich creates a genial impression e.g. a Twitter from yesterday: “Today I’m flying to Kazan, there are things I need to discuss with the city and republic authorities. And also family matters!” But as the Karpov campaign for the FIDE Presidency knows to its cost, that facade conceals a steely determination.
Perhaps at this stage it’s worth recalling, a little wistfully, that FIDE turned down an offer from UEP to run the matches in Germany. At the time Josef Resch, the President of UEP, claimed that Ilyumzhinov had broken off negotiations on account of the size of the FIDE logo during the Anand-Kramnik match in Bonn. Ilyumzhinov rebutted that claim, though it’s hard to imagine that accepting the UEP bid would have led to the same chaos we have now.
UPDATE: (July 26, 00:15 CET)
It looks as though the compromise mentioned above (then edited out) by Mamedov has come to pass. The Candidates Matches are being switched to Kazan, but Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, the Azerbaijani nominee, remains one of the players. The information was quoted on the Chesspro.ru forum as coming from Yury Vasiliev, perhaps the best known Russian chess journalist.
The question now, of course, is whether Topalov carries through with his threat. Vasiliev said that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov is going to personally call on Topalov not to take hasty actions, to think things over properly, and to agree to play in Kazan. But will he!?
UPDATE 2: (July 28, 15:00 CET)
After Topalov and Danailov had their bluff called it seems that, to no-one’s great surprise, they’ve backed down. In another short report from Yury Vasiliev at Sport Express, he quotes Danailov as saying:
We were misunderstood. Topalov isn’t refusing to play in Russia. He’ll travel to Khanty-Mansiysk for the Olympiad and will play for Bulgaria on board one. Topalov is refusing to play a match in Russia with a Russian player, if that match is linked to the title struggle. The likelihood of Topalov playing a Russian player in Kazan is small, as for that they’d both have to get to the final.
For anyone trying to figure it out… the only Russian player in the Candidates Matches is, of course, Vladimir Kramnik. Danailov’s suggestion that Topalov’s very clear open letter was “misunderstood” is a little absurd, but in any case it looks as though Topalov will play in Kazan. Though on that note, as an organiser I perhaps wouldn’t be too pleased if one of the candidates was going to pull out of the final if the “wrong” player got through…
The only other loose end was Sutovsky’s proposal to lengthen the matches. It seems as though this has been rejected, with one problem being Gelfand’s principled stance that more changes, however well-intentioned, shouldn’t be made during the current cycle. See “Update 2” at the bottom of this Chessvibes report.