Friday, July 23, 2010

The Promise of Change

By Lim Chong


Contesting the World Chess Federation (FIDE) presidential elections, former world champion Anatoly Karpov promises major changes if elected.

To bring chess back on the world’s map is now his mission and one of the changes which he feels is necessary is the current world championship format. He is disappointed with the poor coverage that the recent world championship matches have been getting compared to those he had played earlier with rivals Garry Kasparov or Viktor Korchnoi.

“A world championship match over 12 games is too short. Around 16 or 18 will be better,” he says in an interview in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday.

Karpov says a new format would need to bring together the world’s strongest players, with quarter-final and semi-final matches as part of the cycle. “The aim is to enable the eventual champion to get the proper recognition as the strongest of all, and not one of the strongest under the current format,” he says.

According to Karpov, the various kinds of chess, such as rapid, blitz and classical, should not be mixed together. “This is against the spirit of the game. Separate events should be organised to promote them,” he says.

Whatever the format, Karpov feels that time may have passed by the older established players like Vasily Ivanchuk, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand to get another chance at winning the world title as the younger players are improving fast. Even former world champion Vladimir Kramnik and current champion Viswanathan Anand may find it tough, he says.

His view is that Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, now at 19 and a frequent tournament winner, is likely to become the next world champion. The challenge, according to him, will come from fast-rising grandmasters like Hikaru Nakamura of the United States and Sergey Karjakin of Russia. “Players like Le Quang Liem of Vietnam and China’s Wang Yue and Wang Hao may also pose a threat. Young grandmasters with talent and potential are also coming up in India and the Netherlands,” he says.

“The young players are now able to peak at an earlier age. During my time, it was between 25 and 35 but now it’s much earlier,” Karpov says.

“This promises to be good for chess if current format is improved. Internationally, chess can become very interesting again,” he adds.

After a press conference on Tuesday, Karpov found time to play three blitz games, with one against the country’s top player Mas Hafizulhelmi Agus Rahman and two against schoolboy prodigy Yeoh Li Tian. He was impressed by both. Mas held his own at the early stage but later blundered a rook in time trouble. Against 11-year-old Li Tian, Karpov tested out the youngster’s skill in manoeuvring. “He managed to keep up with each manoeuvre until the last one,” he says after the games. On the board, one noticed that Karpov, though tired after his trips around the region, seemed to be infused with extra energy, giving each game his full attention.

Karpov was on an Asian campaign sweep covering China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. After Kuala Lumpur, he left for Bangkok to cover Thailand before heading to Germany as his next stop. He was accompanied by Richard Conn Jr of the United States Chess Federation, the candidate on his team for deputy president.

There is a Malaysian connection in Karpov’s team for the FIDE presidency with Abdul Hamid Majid of Malaysia as the candidate for general secretary. Other candidates in Karpov’s team are Viktor Kapustin of Ukraine as treasurer, and Dr Aguinaldo Jaime of Angola and Alisa Maric of Serbia as vice presidents.

This was Karpov’s second visit to Kuala Lumpur. He still remembers fondly his candidates final match against Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman in the city in 1990. Stating that the playing conditions were very good, and at his peak then, Karpov did not allow Timman to win a single game in the match. Karpov, showing strong fighting spirit, denied Timman the point even when his opponent had winning positions. Timman needed to fight hard even to get a draw. Karpov says he went on to play many interesting games with Timman, scoring good results.

This seems like jumping on the bandwagon but Karpov has always been one of my favourite players. US grandmaster Bobby Fischer caused a chess boom when he defeated his Russian opponent Boris Spassky for the world title but his games were too complex for me. When Kasparov came along, his thorough preparation and analysis were difficult to follow. Karpov’s playing style was much easier to appreciate, understand and emulate. What a time for chess as this also happened to be a period when we have Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov, considered by some as the three greatest players of all time.

Anyway, it was the book, “The Best of Karpov”, written by Peter Markland after Karpov won the candidates final in 1974 that sparked my interest. Markland wrote that Karpov’s play “shows all the solidity of (Tigran) Petrosian, the simplicity and effortless ease of (Jose Raul) Capablanca, and the killer instinct of Fischer”. Of course, Karpov may not have all these qualities but he certainly recorded some impressive achievements when he became the 12th world champion from 1975 to 1985.

On his decision to contest for the FIDE presidency, Karpov says he made the move as he feels that changes were urgently needed. “This is what everyone in the chess community is waiting for,” he says.

He is also continuing the tradition of grandmasters taking charge of the world federation. Karpov says Dutch grandmaster Max Euwe, who held the post for eight years from 1970, was “a great president”. In fact, some even said that Euwe was the best president FIDE ever had. Another grandmaster, Fridrik Olafsson of Iceland, who succeeded Euwe and became president from 1978 to 1982, is also considered by Karpov to have done well.

While Karpov is gaining the support of the top chess players, including Kasparov and Carlsen, as well as the chess community who feel that FIDE needs urgent reforms, his opponent Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has the advantage of incumbency, having been at the helm for the past 15 years. Both teams have promised to bring in more money and sponsors for chess competitions and development.

Ilyumzhinov, an eccentric Russian millionaire and regional governor of Kalmykia, is standing for a fifth term in the FIDE elections scheduled in September which will involve an estimated 170 member countries.

Karpov expects to cover between 40 and 50 countries during his campaign, dividing the rest among his team members. With one country having one vote, the Ilyumzhinov camp has already claimed the support of more than 70 countries. Some countries are obviously adopting a wait-and-see approach to determine the winning side before committing themselves.

Signs are increasingly showing that this may yet be Karpov’s toughest battle.

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