I consider it an absolute privilege that I am able to travel to these events and share my experience with all of you... and share the joy chess brings to me.
John Brezina has produced a superb report from the World Championship that was held recently in London, England. Of course, he also took some great pictures. John allowed me the liberty of inserting and captioning the photos. See all of Mr. Brezina's terrific photos from the event here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/o67jVf4EkXYbs9HR8
The setting is London, November 9-28, 2018. The world #1 Magnus Carlsen versus world #2 Fabiano Caruana, first American chess player to compete for the crown since the year I was born in 1972. At stake, the world chess crown that Magnus has held for five years and the #1 rating that he has secured for over seven years. Oh yeah, and a share of 1.2 million dollars. I was very fortunate to attend rounds 4-6 of the World Chess Championship.
My goal here is to try and give my perspective of the match through the eyes of a fan primarily, and then a bit of the media side. Not the games themselves, as many more qualified individuals have and will continue to analyze every move of every game. I had applied months earlier for media accreditation through FIDE which gave me access to much. My picture album included here will give sight to my words.
Eager spectators lined up awaiting entry into the venue.
Many thanks to the organizers. London is not only a beautiful city but a wonderful host to the biggest match in chess. And the chess bug has bit the Brits. The line for each round wrapped around The College of Holborn, the match venue, as the first six rounds had sold out. FIDE and their sponsors of the match organized and presented a spectacular venue for fans and the players. The staff and security were professional and made you feel that you were at a special event. Once inside there were several rooms for fans to sit and enjoy the match.
Excellent commentators, Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolph
Large video screens were throughout broadcasting the match and great commentary from Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolph. A nice chess cafe room provided food and drinks. Downstairs a bar with stronger drinks to help others get through a grueling six hour match. Another larger room had many chess sets and tables for play. Many were set up to the live game where players would collaborate to attempt the best continuation.
A packed room for every round watching the game live.
But of course the most popular room was the theater with the players themselves onstage. In fact so popular you were ticketed a 30 minute time slot for viewing. The first several rows were reserved for VIPs and media. Special one way glass onstage assured silence for the players. A backroom was set up for media only. A special wristband got you past security and into the journalists workroom where the typing and stories were constant with every move made on the board. Daniel King was always working hard behind the scenes with his commentary and summations of the days events, then would host the extremely popular press conferences after the games.
The extremely popular press conference after the games.
Maybe this is after Game 6 with Daniel King saying."take a look at this" - GM Carlsen saying, "really" - GM Caruana saying, "how about that" :-)
And lastly past the media room was the very restrictive VIP room upstairs. Sometimes you would catch a glimpse of a known face exiting. Namely the new FIDE Vice President, Nigel Short, who I congratulated in passing. Throughout the day you would catch camera crews interviewing special guests or the players managers. Not surprisingly, many were conducted in Norwegian. And there you have a broad scope of the daily actively going on at the site.
Now to set the stage for the start of the games.... About 15 minutes before showtime, a small group of media photographers are ushered into a backdoor onto the stage. Hallowed ground of chess! A roped off area in front of the board corralled us, with everyone vying for the perfect angle and shot. Some interesting yoga poses develop as a result. A few reminders and comments from the arbiters then a short wait.
World class photographers on the job for a world class event.
The stage is designed well for the players. Silent automated cameras surround the players and the one way glass obscures the audience. Bobby Fischer himself would approve! As 3:00 PM approached, cameras and lenses were all focused on the entry point for the players. Like Formula One racers all revving their engines ready for action, and then the moment arises.
They all capture the traditional pre-game handshake.
The World Champion enters stage right and the camera shutters are released with a fury. I haven’t heard that much clicking since revving up my 1980 Ford Pinto. A burst of cheers from the audience as GM Carlsen enters is barely audible through the glass. He sits and fills his scoresheet and then adjusts his pieces, with cameras still in high gear. Then a repeat as the cameras all swing back to stage right. The challenger, appears and gets the same treatment. After a quick handshake, GM Caruana then makes similar adjustments. With precision clockwork, 3:00 PM arrives and there is an introduction of the special guest to throw out the first pitch. The move is made, the official handshake follows, and they’re off. 1.e4! We are given 5 minutes to capture as much history and bliss as we can.
GM Caruana releasing nervous tension by adjusting his pieces.
Like a blitz game, it is over in a flash. Then with cameras still smoking, we are all gently ushered offstage. Disappointment for the cameras but a relief for the players. With the cameras still trying to grasp every last picture as new angles now open up. As we each land back on earth, we sprint to the media room to connect with the chess world and declare “It’s on!” I had the honor of repeating this ceremony for all three rounds I attended.
John Brezina with Judit Polgar. I admit I'm a little envious :-)
While all three games would end in a draw, excitement among fans was palpable. Any tiny advantage for either player generated buzz, especially the marathon draw in game six. Fabiano appeared to have winning chances into the endgame. All the talk in town was Fabiano could possibly win and take the lead and highest rating title. But it was not to be. After six and a half hours, a defiant Magnus held the draw.
Then on to the theater for the press conference. A packed audience awaited the players each time and both players were very gracious to answer questions. I was even brave enough to get in a question after round five. After several other questions were asked my opportunity arrived. I raised my hand and Daniel King picked me. A mic is handed over to me and with both the #1 and #2 players in the world giving me their full attention from a mere ten feet away,
Daniel King taking questions from the audience.
I suddenly realize this is not so easy! I’ve always had a great respect for public speakers. Now more than ever. But I did get it out somehow. Mentioning the CSCA and DCC first, I then asked for any advice for the many new young players taking up the game, and who their favorite players were. I ask many kids the same, and they often mention Magnus and Fabi.
A big smile from GM Fabiano Caruana
I think Fabiano genuinely realizes the effect he is having on American chess. He then mentioned Bobby Fischer as one of his favorite players of the past, which then set up a classic Magnus answer. Not one to really have idols he says, so his favorite player of the past would be himself three or four years ago, which drew a huge laugh from the audience. To some hearing this it may sound arrogant. But I believe he meant it more as himself five years ago as it was five years exactly to the date that he won his first World Championship game against Anand in game five, which he later referenced. And he had some chances in game five here against Fabiano. Anyway, it was an honor to even get a chance to ask a question. The whole experience of just being at the match a few days was incredible. See the video of the players answering Mr. Brezina's question here: https://youtu.be/8gHDHS2AjdA beginning around minute 15:00
A big smile from GM Magnus Carlsen
I met so many people, including friends who flew out from San Francisco and Denver, and I had the pleasure of speaking with Henrik Carlsen, Magnus’ father, after round six. A kind gentleman. Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolph were gracious with fans after each round by talking and taking pictures with fans after a long day. I met Hou Yifan briefly as well. All very polite, worth a fans admission price alone.
And a big smile from the three time Women's World Champion, GM Hou Yifan
And it was only a short walk from the venue is the famous British Museum, a must visit for history lovers. Housed there is the original Isle of Lewis chessmen discovered in 1831. I have seen many copies, but gazing at the original makes the minds eye wander. I’ll finally finish here with how I started. After landing in London and waiting in line a bit for customs, I’m finally called up. He looks through my passport, looks at me and asks in full classic British accent, “What brings you to London?” I said I’m here to watch the two best players in the world play chess. He responds, “Oh yeah! And one of them is an American!” as he stamps my passport book. “Welcome!”
Isle of Lewis chess pieces. What other game has spanned centuries as chess has?
Wednesday, November 28, 2018. I flew back to London for the tie break games that will decide the World Chess Champion. After 12 drawn classical games, Fabiano Caruana and Magnus Carlsen will first play the best of four rapid games. The game 12 draw will be discussed for many years. Magnus held a considerable advantage in the position and clock, yet offered a draw after move 31. Fabiano would accept and then on to the tie breaks. Perhaps calculated by Magnus as he was heavily favored in the quicker time controls. But there is no doubt that many different theories as to why the draw was offered will develop.
The classy College at Helborn, the venue for the tournament
The College at Holborn hosted more media than I’ve ever seen at a chess event. Including CBS news, the BBC news and every major chess publication. When I arrive at the media check-in desk, I quickly learn that they have reached their limit for passes onto the stage for photos. Then a kind lady rekindles my hope by putting me on a standby list as not all have checked in. Still hope. As I am waiting, I run into the Executive Director of the St. Louis chess club, Tony Rich, and his two cameramen. We catch up on travel stories and I’m told a schedule for next years Grand Chess Tour will be announced soon. Throughout the building you could feel the excitement build as game time approached. The media and many VIP’s lined up early for entry to the theater.
The tradition of a celebrity making the first move.
Ten minutes prior to the start another gentleman and I were told to wait near stage right. After a few minutes, when all looked hopeless, a young lady breaks the good news. She has two passes left! We euphorically enter the side door and onto the very crowded stage. Perseverance and a little luck paid off. I go to the far side of the stage and stand right next to the esteemed photographer Harry Benson. David Llada is there too, author of The Thinkers chess photo book.
We would have a short three minutes to take photos once the game commenced. I have a clear view of the entrance and Magnus enters to a flurry of cheers, camera shutters and flashes. Shortly after Fabiano enters and is greeted with the same. A quick handshake and with both seated, cameras go nonstop. As I’m trying to get the best photos of this momentous occasion, I take pause to just look around and feel the energy onstage. Knowing again how fortunate I am to be standing just feet away from these two great players.
Lucy Hawking walking up for her turn to make the first move and start the game.
The chief arbiter introduces Lucy Hawking, daughter of the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking. She has the honor of making the first move for Magnus. 1.c4! And game one begins with a deafening sound of camera noise. We are all escorted off stage shortly after to leave the players in, I’m sure, much appreciated peace and quiet. As we all pass Fabiano one last time, I look at him and can only imagine the pressure and emotions he has gone through to be on this stage. From here on out everyone would stay outside in the theater area for viewing of the players.
Judit Polgar and Anna Rudolph again would provide live commentary throughout. All eyes were glued to screens around the venue as the rapid format hastened the excitement. After a tense struggle, a rook vs. rook plus two pawn advantage for Magnus would force Fabiano to resign game one. With a fist pump in the air from Magnus the crowd erupted in applause. Fabiano fans were dejected.
After a short ten minute break, game two starts. Fabi has White this time and we all hope for a revenge win or at least a draw. But as the game went on this was not to be. After a short 28 moves, an uncastled King would haunt Caruana. Fabi fans were stunned as he once again had to resign. Down two games against Magnus in rapids is insurmountable for any mere mortal.
Both players in full focus mode.
Game three starts and Fabiano would need a miracle with the black pieces. I stayed in the theater near the stage for the entire game. Magnus played solidly as all he needed was a draw. As Fabiano pushed and took chances for a must win, hope faded. The crowd could sense the inevitable. I watched Fabi in the final few moves and could see that he knew it was over. It was tough for me to watch. It was as if a family member was suffering. Then I remembered what it took for him to reach this point. No small feat. So after move 51, a gracious handshake from GM Caruana and it was over. The crowd jumped to their feet with a great applause. Magnus would remain the best in the world.
The final press conference is about to begin.
Staff quickly arranged the theater for the final press conference. You could not squeeze another camera in that room. It was great seeing chess receive all this attention. Both players entered with much fanfare and Daniel King would moderate one more time. A smiling Magnus would answer questions at length while Fabiano handled the loss with much dignity. Even having a bit of humor when an Italian journalist asked a question regarding Caruana's pride for his Italian fans. Answering that he was quite grateful for the fans of Italy and proud to have family there and in the U.S. And with a bit of a laugh says he knows some Italian fans are still angry with him for a certain decision, but appreciates all their support.
Afterwards the audience is told the awards ceremony would take place in one hour allowing journalists time to catch up on reports. Only VIP and media would be allowed back in for the awards. Once again it was standing room only as cameras filled in every space. A few obviously seasoned photographers brought in stepladders to rise above the fold.
Anna Rudolph with the reigning World Champion.
Anna Rudolph would host the awards with grace and introduce the FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, organizers, sponsors and of course the players. Anthems were played of FIDE, the host country, and then of Norway. There would be a short speech by each and gifts given to players from the sponsors. First Fabiano would thank everyone and then give Magnus one final congratulation. Nice seeing friends and family of his just offstage including his mother, Santina.
Then Magnus would take the stage one final time thanking everyone as well. Ending it with a bit of a Frank Sinatra saying, proudly stating in so many words, “I did it my way!” Perhaps answering the critics of the round 12 draw offer. Professionals at the top of their game are always second guessed. None the less, there is no denying he will be the King reigning over chess for yet another two years...
This is mine...
...and I'm real happy about that :-)
In closing thoughts I’d like to thank the FIDE organizers for such a professional chess experience in London. It will be interesting to see the direction FIDE takes with it’s new leadership. As I was getting ready to leave the media room one final time, newly elected President Arkady Dvorkavich appeared and began personally thanking everyone with handshakes around the room. A classy touch I thought.
I consider it an absolute privilege that I am able to travel to these events and share my experience with all of you. It is strictly to expand the world of chess and share the joy chess brings to me. In my limited journalism experience as in my chess game, I am still learning much and appreciate any feedback. As we close the year, it is my hope that Colorado chess grows and I predict great things in the new year. We all have a unique bond with this beautiful game, whether a beginner or World Champion. And in life as in chess, we are all continually learning from one another...
Several world class photographers at this event kindly shared their photos with Mr. Brezina. See a selection here: https://photos.app.goo.gl/bHez5UWGnzbLdGhGA
Thank you very much, Mr. Brezina. I, and I'm sure all chess players, enjoy your reports and pictures from the world class chess events that you attend.