December 08, 2011 11:23

A visit to the London Chess Classic

A visit to the London Chess Classic

It's a little known fact that the playing venue of the London Chess Classic is actually not that easy to reach from the City. The office where I work is on the South bank of the Thames, close to London Bridge station, from where it took me no less than 1,5 hours to get to the Olympia Conference Centre, near the Kensington Olympia tube station.

Photo © Ray Morris-Hill

True, I took the subway during the evening rush hour and it was raining cats and dogs, which didn't help. As after 20 minutes there still was no sign of the already 'limited service' from Earl's Court to Kensington Olympia (which must be one of the most difficult-to-reach stations in London), I decided it was quicker to just take a taxi and at least be able to witness the time scramble. But it proved impossible to flag a cab in the congested streets of Kensington.

So I walked - in the rain - from Earl's Court to the Conference Center, where a small sign outside the building was the only evidence of the London Chess Classic tournament being held inside. I was puzzled by that small sign - wasn't the World Champion playing?

Many of my London-based colleagues reacted with wonder, even disbelief, when I told them a chess tournament with the world's best players was currently being held in their town. 'Why would they ever want to go to London?' asked one, while another was surprised that in this computer-age there were still professional chess players at all. As far as I could see the local newspapers made no mention of the event, nor did I see announcements in the subway or on billboards.

When I came in, Carlsen and Nakamura had already finished their game and were analysing it on stage in the commentary room. After that, the audience was allowed to ask questions. When someone asked the players what they thought of each other, before either of them could answer one of the hosts remarked that the players were surely 'tired and had answered enough questions already', and were now excused. I think such a thing, both effective and rude at the same time, simply wouldn't be possible in The Netherlands.

Walking around the tournament site, especially the amateur groups, made me realize how lonely an activity chess can be. I didn't know a single participant! Thus I felt utterly excluded from the London chess scene, which seemed familiar and yet utterly strange, and I suddenly wondered if I would continue playing chess if I didn't have people to talk to during a game.

I went to check out the 'press room', but this turned out to be a completely deserted area with a bunch of network cables sticking out of the wall. The 'VIP room' was a restricted area where journalists where not allowed, at least according to the lovely lady guarding the entrance. A refreshing experience for anyone who acts blasé about visiting lively press rooms in his own country.

Next, Anand and Howell came on stage to talk about their game. Someone in the audience asked Vishy if he was already 'hiding his preparation' in view of his match with Gelfand, next year. To that, the World Champion remarked that 'you probably shouldn't believe my answer anyway', which I thought was both witty and telling. Young David Howell was visibly taken aback by a lady from the audience who told him at great length that he shouldn't give up chess in favour of a job because, you know, he had so much talent and it was just a waste if he quit it. Again, I doubt this would ever happen in The Netherlands.

Visiting the tournament made me think about what a good chess tournament should provide. The London Chess Classic has received nothing but praise all over, and most of it is justified. The internet coverage of the tournament is simply superb and so is the commentary, which has all available media and tools at its disposal.

At the same time, I felt there was a strange disconnect between the elite and the amateurs here. In Wijk aan Zee, both super grandmasters and beginners are always playing in the same area; in London the top players had their own auditorium and stage where absolute silence reigned.

Despite the presence of so many world-class players, the tournament still made a very 'local' impression on me. I hardly saw any visiting grandmasters (but then I wasn't allowed in the VIP room!), let alone foreign amateurs (except those invited by the tournament organization), and I didn't see any foreign press either, except for Macauley Peterson, who just seems to be everywhere, always.

While I waited - in the rain - for the train to take me back to the City, I noticed a fresh appreciation for the distant location of the playing hall. Why would the organizers need one closer to, say, London Bridge? After all, organizing a good tournament isn't about attracting tourists, or foreigners like myself - it's about cherishing local chess culture; about providing great chess coverage on internet and on stage; and about chess players enjoying themselves.

That's what chess needs.

Arne Moll's picture
Author: Arne Moll


Anon's picture

You are right. The Classic is a great internet spectacle, but on the ground, it is a very cliquey event. The same people get the same jobs every year, regardless of merit. The favoured few are shut away, enjoying the free drinks in the VIP Room, while the rest of the amateurs are kept well away. I saw several people trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of the GM visitors, by peering through the door of the VIP Room, every time it opened for somebody to go in or come out! I was somehow reminded of the final scene of Animal Farm, with the animals looking through the window at the humans and pigs carousing...

Anon's picture

Of course, almost all chess events are the same. Wijk aan Zee is the worst of the lot.

Bert de Bruut's picture

Please elaborate, I for one don't understand this remark.

Felix's picture

It's good that the question to Carlsen and Nakamura was blocked by the moderator, not just because it's question asked to many times, but also because of Hikaru's reaction when hearing it ;)

Eiae's picture

"The internet coverage of the tournament is simply superb and so is the commentary"

I don't know where you got that from, I think its absolutely horrible.
Still, better than nothing, I suppose.

Harish Srinivasan's picture

The Internet coverage is good. No need to learn that. They have always been good. Ofcourse today there was some loss of video briefly. But the on demand video of the missed section was put up immediately. The daily reports are very well written. Chess fans can't ask for more.

Pierlala's picture

I read a lot of criticism on Nakamura and the English players (like Short) lately here. But I like them all and I'm glad they are there.

And I like Wijk aan Zee too!

Hughbertie's picture

For once Arne has written something non-rubbish that I agree with...
Chess is the ultimate who you know sport or more to the point if you know the organisers etc of the current event in town...if you think GM's are going to be floating around talking to amateur players etc you are deluded. They ride the freebee gravy train (not much granted, lodgings and meals etc, but still the thought of them buying someone they met before a pint and actually conversing with them would be absolutely abhorent to them) and spend as little as time as possible even acknowledging the masses. Its shameful that the public put up with it.

aerodarts's picture

Yes indeed, a very interesting article by arne moll. Thanks for writing it Arne and thanks for publishing it, Chess Vibes. It takes a dedicated fan to navigate the elements as the writer did. I was able to get a whole different look at the tournament and compare it to the US Championships.

Any chess fans reading this might like to try out St Louis for the US Championships. The internet coverage is excellent, but attending in person is an experience that you will never forget. You will not find the 2800+ club matching wits, but you will find a chance to get up close to the players and other people who involved with the tournament, like Macauley Peterson who is the man on the spot.

In 2009, I was living in St Louis and decided to attend the tournament. My experience was different than Arnie’s and No, I am not a VIP! I was able to meet and talk to Nakamura after he had just won the tournament. How? By just being there watching the games only a few feet away and asking questions in the post game interviews.

After his last game of the tournament, he went downstairs and signed a few autographs and went outside where I just happened to be. I said hello and we started talking! You know, there is a lot of negative things about Naka, but let me tell you he really is a cool guy.

It is really interesting to compare him to Gata Kamsky and you get to see their personality differences when the players go over the games and answer questions at the post game interview.

I also met Two-time U.S. Women's Chess Champion Jennifer Shade. She is the host and provides a live look at all the games going on. I also met Emil Sutovsky who was Co-hosting with Jennifer. I was given a neat chess book by Jennifer for asking a question and autographs were signed easily!

I posted some video’s on youtube if anyone is interested. Once again, I really liked reading what Arne had to say about the London Chess Classic!

I also have few other videos posted about the US Chess Championships. The St Louis Chess Club is easy to get to and is located in a neat part of St Louis.
Unlike Arne's experience in London, my experience in St Louis was up close and personal and changed the way I looked at chess. I am once again an avid fan, just as I had been when Bobby took on the World and won it all!

Yes, the internet brings it into my home, but there is nothing like what I experienced in person at St Louis. Someday soon I hope to attend all the Super Tournaments!

gav's picture

Strangely, Arne's article reminds me of this column from the Guardian about the Classic two years ago:
In both there is a sense of being an outsider. In the Guardian one it's because the Englishman's outside the clique of chess, in Arne's because the chess player's outside the English clique. I'm not in it either mate. No one lets me in the VIP room but I love the Classic. You say the players don't mix with the spectators - not true. They share the same toilet during play. I narrowly missed out on the chance to pee next Hikaru Nakamura today. And great to see grumpy (but funny) Nige in the commentary room with Anand, despite losing.

PS: Getting there via Earl's Court is a pain. It's easy from Clapham Junction though. Ten minutes on the Overground. Maybe try that?

Thomas Richter's picture

Hi Arne ("dear colleague" smiley),

Nice report! I can compare it with my own spectator's experiences in Wijk aan Zee (every year), Amsterdam (Rising Stars vs. Experience, once or twice) and Dortmund (once many years ago). I don't need to tell you and other Dutchies about Wijk aan Zee - for all others: experience it yourself if you ever have the chance, reports and photos at most give an idea about the atmosphere. As a daytripper, I also didn't catch all of it - I heard stories from other amateurs about dinner in a restaurant with Anand and Aronian sitting on other tables (forgot to ask if they shared the same table). This would be very unlikely and a strange coincidence in London ... . Also in Wijk aan Zee - and already in nearby Beverwijk - it's impossible not to notice that there is a chess event going on. Even friends of mine who don't care at all about chess (but know that I do care) knew why I would go to Wijk aan Zee. So frankly, I don't understand Anon's remark "Wijk aan Zee is the worst of the lot".

The event in Amsterdam (now unfortunately history) was kept relatively secret, at one occasion I had to ask even inside the hotel where the chess event is held. Dortmund also seemed more comparable to your London experience - bigger distance between top GMs and spectators or chess fans, and the open is held in another location (which I didn't even try to find).

This may also question the widely held opinion (which, as far as I remember, you shared in the past) that chess events should (always) be held in major cities. I obviously have no first-hand experiences, but maybe the atmosphere in places like Jermuk and Nalchik is more similar to Wijk aan Zee.

I am slightly puzzled though about your remark that the London venue is difficult to reach with public transport. It may be inconvenient for you, but more convenient for other people - unless the conference centre is in a completely deserted part of town with nothing else around? Maybe there is no suitable downtown location, or such a place would be even more expensive.

P.S.: I didn't know that you now live or at least work in London. Apparently you had no chance or no time to mix with the local chess scene (returning to the Netherlands for the weekends?).

graba pawnalov's picture

Arne if You lived in London...and new the chess scene
ARNE you should know That.....
1) Olympia tube only opens for major events
2) west Ken station is 4 mins walk
3) the (english ) players IM GMs can be found in the Pub across the road and later in the Indian restruarant , Gms seem to prefer wine others beer ! PM me to find a good chess club in london

Gary Clark's picture

I must agree with Arne and his poor impression of the London chess classic. As native Londoner I was less than impressed with the segregation of VIP and non VIP rooms. Chess should be enjoyed at all levels of ability and favouritism of any group (with perhaps the exception of the players) smacks of elitism and has no place at London's premier event.

Malcolm Pein deserves praise for bringing together such a strong group of players but he would also do well to take into account the lesser mortals, without VIP status, who forked out £20 (for access on Sunday) for such limited access.

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