For sad personal reasons we’ve been deprived of the work of the Russian chess journalist Ilya Odessky of late, but his reports from the Tal Memorial have been a brilliant reminder of what we were missing.
In general Russian chess journalism exhibits a sophistication and cultural range that’s almost unheard of in the “West”. Reading it you sometimes feel the same bewilderment that someone who’s used to the English football press gets on translating the reports in an Italian sports paper - were a ballet critic and military strategist sent to the stadium by mistake?
Even against that backdrop Ilya Odessky stands out, raising chess journalism to a literary art form, full of wonderful observation and flights of fancy – though as an International Master there’s no absence of pure chess knowledge. I’d recommend Arne Moll’s review of Odessky’s “Play 1.b3!” at ChessVibes as perhaps the best summary of his style.
Remembering Tal Memorials past
Odessky began his first report by recalling scenes from the two Tal Memorials that he’d previously covered. Here are a few of the sketches (the first refers to demonstrating a game on the large board):
Kramnik, stretching diagonally to the corner square h8 and halfway there noticing that his favourite jacket has suddenly become too small for him, that the sleeves are too short, and how, exactly, could such a thing have happened?
Anand in a plumber’s green jacket, genially blending into the crowd, dissolving into it behind Kramnik’s back, and when called to the board – not revealing a single original variation, not a single idea, a perfect model of Malchish-Kibalchish (a Soviet children’s war hero who kept a secret).
Kamsky, having let his flag drop many moves before the time control, Kamsky, rushing in search of the exit, at that moment unattainable for him, opening all the doors, not understanding where he is, who these people are and why they can’t let him be, alone, absolutely and totally alone.
One of the remarkable things for me on reading the above is that I remember it all – Odessky’s reports stay in the memory, though it may also have helped that I translated a couple of items at the time. I’d recommend this story of Aronian, the animal, which Odessky uses this time round in order to lead into the one moment where he refers, obliquely, to his recent problems (see his open letter).
And then Woody Allen appears to me replying to the question: why do you make films? To distract myself from sad thoughts. Perhaps there’s something in that; perhaps chess players also play not only to express themselves creatively, or, like sportsmen, to try to finish first, but also (in part), to distract themselves from sad thoughts; perhaps that’s also a reason journalists write. You never know, you never know.
The opening ceremony
Peter Doggers led into his report on Round 1 at ChessVibes with, “After a somewhat modest (read: nothing special) opening ceremony…”, which, judging by appearances, was an accurate reflection of the event. Odessky, however, recalling a literary wizard like Bruno Schulz, could make a masterpiece out of going to a shop to buy a loaf of bread. His focus is on the Ritz-Carlton hotel where the ceremony took place and the Classic referred to is Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, where the main character insists he needs all seven rooms in his flat:
What can I tell you: of course, it’s a Wonderland. Of course, it’s a parallel world. In general Moscow is already a parallel world for the rest of Russia, but the Ritz-Carlton in particular is a cube within a cube, a ball within a ball. With little risk of being mistaken I’d suggest that an enormous number of people have lived their whole life in the capital and not only have they never once been in the hotel, but they’ve never had even the slightest chance of ending up there.
And if you end up there – well. You close your eyes, stretch out your fingertips, feel your way up the staircase, and there, blinded, try to conduct yourself as naturally as possible. Order a cocktail, sip it, listen to a moderately funny anecdote, smile with the corners of your mouth, and tell your own.
I remember from a Classic: Professor Preobrazhensky wouldn’t back down, refusing to submit to the demands of the house committee; they’d come with the decision to “fill up the house”, but the professor shouts that in that case he’d have to dissect rabbits in the bathroom. So he hadn’t been in the “Ritz-Carlton” either! Offer him the chance to dissect rabbits precisely in the bathroom of this hotel and, at the very least, he’d think about it, and perhaps agree.
But why talk about rabbits. You want to live in such a bathroom for a while. Your correspondent stepped into the restroom on the second floor – and it’s not just that he forgot why he came, but he was simply ashamed of his own needs. Everything around was marble, and gold, and extraordinary. From somewhere near the ceiling birds began to sing, while the scent of meadow grass wafted from below. In such surroundings a simple necessary matter was out of the question. It would be like being pushed into the grand hall of a museum and then asked severely: well then? Didn’t you want to pull down your trousers?
There’s more where that came from, including a scene at the opening ceremony when Odessky’s talking to a young grandmaster (my guess – Karjakin) but catches sight of Kasparov’s mother looking slightly out of place and wants to go over to her… but doesn’t as he can’t think of a better question than, “What are you doing here?”.
Aronian 1 – 0 Kramnik
Despite the impression the above might have given, there’s no shortage of chess in Odessky’s reports, though you get the moves combined with the thoughts of the players and keen observation. One game that featured heavily in both reports was Aronian’s first ever win over Kramnik in classical chess. When talking to Aronian afterwards Odessky had no problem thinking up an interesting opening “question”, if you can call it that!
When elite grandmasters demonstrate the games they’ve just won in the press centre you get the feeling that their opponents played very well, but they played even better. But Levon Aronian isn’t like that. When he commentates he creates the impression that Levon played badly, but his opponents played even worse.
Later in the interview Aronian reveals a strange background to his win. You might note that Odessky and Aronian are perfect sparring partners, with a similar sense of humour and the absurd.
And do you want me to tell you why I won today? Instead of preparing for the game I walked around the city for two hours – ok, maybe not two, but definitely one and a half – looking for the “Collected Works of Platonov”. And when I finally found it I was so happy that I wasn’t thinking anymore who I was playing or how to play. I knew that it’d all be fine.
But why walk around the city for two hours. Aren’t you staying in the Ritz-Carlton?
Then you could simply cross Tverskaya Street, go to the “Moscow” bookshop, and that’s that.
I looked there. They didn’t have it. There was some sort of junk. Some Platonov, K. While I needed, of course, A.
And where did you find what you were looking for?
In a big shop on Novy Arbat. I found it and bought it. And now (laughs) I’m completely, to the teeth, ready for the tournament!
Odessky of course records lots of Aronian’s thoughts on the game, but the real secret to what went wrong is revealed when he talked to Vladimir Kramnik the next day (as Ilya notes – he didn’t have to ask many questions!):
The percentage of victories that Aronian gets in difficult, or rather lost, positions is off the scale. How does he manage it?
Luck favours the young. I’ve noticed that with myself. The older you get the less lucky you are.
Moreover he’s agile. He keeps twisting and turning, not losing his optimism, and that’s very important. He doesn’t get dejected. Many chess players who end up in a bad position perhaps don’t get dejected, but they keep playing clearly under the burden of negative emotions. Many, but not Levon. He keeps playing the way he was playing. That’s his style: he keeps twisting and setting traps.
Anand was the same in his time – much more so than Levon. Vishy would win every other lost game. So it’s a combination: of his style and the luck of the young. Everyone gets points however they can. His opening preparation still isn’t at the level it should be; well, so he has to dig around in worse positions. It was simply extremely annoying for me. I gave up a point in the most stupid of ways and didn’t get my tournament off to a good start. I can’t even understand what happened, because I had the win written down, and I remembered the ideas. I needed to accurately remember everything, to calculate it to the end. To do what I always do. I had lots of time and the position was very simple.
You can win in two ways: 21…Rfc8 22. Bd1 Bh7 or 21…Ra1+ 22. Bd1 Rfa8. I made the first move from one win, and the second from the second: 21…Ra1+ 22. Bd1 Bh7. i.e. I chose the only path that didn’t win. Moreover, strangely enough, I’m not even particularly better.
And after that, firstly, I got upset (because I clearly remembered that I’d had a forced win in the position), and, secondly, I still didn’t want to draw. I pushed too hard and lost.
I haven’t had such a stupid loss for a long time. Losses aren’t all alike, and I can calmly accept many of my failures. Let’s say, against Anand in Wijk-aan-Zee or Shirov in Shanghai. Interesting, complex games. I took a risk at some point, didn’t quite grasp something, and lost – it happens. But a loss like yesterday’s, of course, knocks you off balance. Not because I lost, but how I lost. And in the first round. In general it’s one of the worst possible scenarios. But still, what can you do, I’ll keep fighting.
One of the perhaps unlikely heroes of Odessky’s first two reports is Wang Hao. Odessky reveals that Aronian, in his teasing style, asked him to guess who the most talented player at the Tal Memorial was, and then named Wang Hao, though he didn’t elaborate on why.
Odessky’s account of Wang Hao’s win over Shirov in round one includes this description of the Chinese player (it would take too long to explain why Odessky is talking about bunnies!):
But appearances are deceptive. And Wang Hao’s style at the board isn’t that of a bunny, but a boa constrictor. He plays without external effects, but remarkably effectively. His victories with black are particularly impressive. They almost always follow the same scenario: worse, equality, comfortable equality, perhaps an advantage, a tangible advantage and… where, exactly, did White go wrong in order to have to resign now?
The demonstration after the game was fascinating, and if you understand both English and Russian it was also something of a spectator sport to watch the interpreter’s heroic attempts to translate Wang Hao’s less-than-clear English. But as Odessky notes, it was more than simply a linguistic matter:
Strange as it sounds the Chinese grandmaster didn’t give a clear evaluation of this endgame. And even when he was asked again he evaded a clear reply. It’s either won, or it’s not, and after all, what’s the difference – that was how you could interpret the way he mimed, when with the palm of his right hand he lightly slapped himself on the temple, while he used his left at the same time to shake off invisible insects and flies.
You can actually still watch the demonstration on the exceptional archived video of Round 1. The scene Odessky describes starts at about 20:36:30. The interpreter gets it wrong at first (please forgive the breach of professional solidarity!) – he said it was winning for black who’s “just in time”, while she said it’s drawn but maybe time might be a factor, but then when he’s asked again he seems to change his mind so I’ve no idea either, and Odessky’s commentary above is perfect!
Carlsen was absent from the tournament in person, but his announcement managed to overshadow the first round. Odessky, as any self-respecting journalist would, asked some of the grandmasters present for their opinions:
I have to state that his professional colleagues displayed a rare unanimity in discussing the actions of the young Norwegian. He certainly didn’t find anyone like-minded.
It’s his choice. They’ve already changed the cycle once because he dropped out of the Grand Prix. The winner of the Grand Prix was supposed to play a match with the World Cup winner. In order to find a place for Carlsen they changed the system. And again he’s dropped out.
I’ve always won my places with blood and sweat. So I’m not prepared for such protests
Well… if a person doesn’t want to then he doesn’t want to. Of course, it’s bad. You want all the strongest players to fight for the title. But the world won’t collapse because one of the participants doesn’t want to play.
Maybe Anand will also protest – if the unbelievable happens and something doesn’t appeal to him. Perhaps Kramnik i.e. people who’ve already been World Champion. The others might be unhappy, they can express their opinion, try to change something (as I did in my time). After all, I also considered the proposed system unfair, in relation to Boris and me. Originally the rules were that I’d play a match with Boris, and the winner would play Vishy. Then they changed the rules – ok. But if you see some positive movement on the part of the organisers – and I saw it – then you also need to take some steps to meet them halfway.
Of course it’s a pity. But it’s his choice. To be honest I still don’t understand his reasoning. Why exactly has this happened? I couldn’t find a single convincing argument in his letter. I don’t want to say that it’s a mistake, but I wouldn’t act that way. At the moment I don’t see a single reason not to take part in the cycle. Will that change the line-up? Of course. According to the rules it seems as though Sasha Grischuk will replace him as he was third in the final standings of the Grand Prix. I’ll be glad if he plays. I don’t know what will be done about the matches. Will there be a reseeding in terms of rating or will Grischuk simply replace Carlsen. I’d like, of course, to receive a clear response. It’s already time to start preparing.
As I write I see that Odessky’s report on the third round has already been published. Being able to read it (when I get the chance!) is one of those things that makes having learnt Russian worthwhile.