John Saunders reports:
Yesterday (Friday) was the day before the tournament starts, and turned out to be quite a lot of fun as the business of registration and pairings took place. This process can often be very boring, but not today.
Only recently have super-grandmasters descended from the peak of Mount (Chess) Olympus (where they enjoyed playing in exclusive all-play-all events against each other) and descended to the lower slopes where not-so-super GMs and other mere mortals have to compete in open tournaments. I'd like to think that this had something to do with the streak of altruism and egalitarianism at the heart of every current super-grandmaster, though the cynical side of my nature tends towards the view that their willingness to participate in the rough and tumble of open swiss chess may have more to do with the truck-loads of cash that have recently been added to the prize lists of events such as the Chess.com Isle of Man, Tradewise Gibraltar and Qatar Masters. And I suppose it's partly cultural: Hikaru Nakamura's rivals have seen how the genial American has regularly pitched up to Gibraltar, picking up the first prize there three times on the bounce and with no discernible damage to his rating or standing. So for the other super-GMs it's about keeping up with the Nakamuras. And the Carlsens, of course. Magnus played in the Qatar Masters a couple of years ago and did pretty well, winning after a play-off. So he's effectively given permission to all the other big guys to follow his lead.
There is still an element of culture shock when it comes to this new development in chess. Super-GMs may have a few initial difficulties in adjusting to the culture of open tournaments, and, in the same way, officials who are used to dealing with large numbers of players when running opens have to acclimatise to having celebrity players rocking up to their control desks. These things, of course, take time, and so it was that yesterday, at the tournament venue, the following verbal exchange was heard as a player (we'll call him Mr X) approached the arbiter's desk...
Arbiter (seeing Mr X): "Have you come to register?"
Mr X: "Yes."
Arbiter: "Where are you from?"
Mr X: "Norway."
I can now reveal Mr X's true identity (if you hadn't already guessed) as Magnus Carlsen.
A registered competitor from Norway.
We all had a laugh about this on Twitter at the arbiter's expense. But all in good fun, certainly on my part. The man in question, chief arbiter Peter Purland, is a bit of legend in the UK and deservedly so. He is a retired schoolteacher and so popular with his former pupils in Liverpool that they've created a Peter Purland Appreciation Society. I'd certainly be proud to join this society as he is a top bloke and a great organiser, as any Gibraltar player who has travelled back and forth on a coach to Malaga will know. One of the great and endearing things about Peter is that he treats just about everyone he meets as if they were one of his school pupils, but in a good humoured way. (I'm hoping he doesn't read any of this as I stand to get a good, old-fashioned schoolmasterly clip round the ear if he does. And that's only if he likes it. If he doesn't, you'll soon be reading my obituary.)
Peter Purland: "Seriously? That bespectacled Norwegian kid is world champion? But he's not got his own appreciation society, I bet." (No, he didn't really say that.)
Incidentally, now I come to think of it, Magnus and Peter might well have met before, or very nearly. A few years ago Magnus came down for the end of the Gibraltar tournament to see some of his Norwegian mates who were playing there. Not sure of the year: I think this was after Magnus had won at Wijk, when he was already world number one but not yet world champion. After the tournament Peter Purland was, as always, organising the coaches back to Malaga Airport, for which the travellers were charged ten pounds each. The story goes that a certain random Norwegian who wasn't on the official coach list (let's call him Mr X) was smuggled onto one of these coaches without paying his ten pound fee. Mr X successfully hoodwinked the organiser and made his getaway back to Norway without paying. The story also goes that Peter is aware of this fact. So I might not be the only person getting an old-fashioned clip over the ear from the chief arbiter in the next few days.
The Man Behind the Random Pairing Idea is Unmasked
Moving on from random Norwegians to random pairings: yesterday evening the top eight players lined up on stage at the tournament hall to draw the names of their opponents from a tombola machine. But before describing the fun of the draw, let's first consider what was behind the move to a random pairing for round one. I can reveal here, exclusively, that it started some months ago with a conversation between tournament director Alan Ormsby and... let's just call him Mr Y for now.
During this telephone discussion, Mr Y expressed his dissatisfaction with certain aspects of Swiss tournaments. He found round one of traditional swiss tournaments particularly tedious, with a long litany of mismatches and only the very occasional newsworthy David success against Goliath. Why, he asked rhetorically, was it axiomatic that the top players should be kept apart until the latter stages of a tournament? He empathised with chess scribblers and promoters who had to try and make reports of early rounds of Swisses interesting with so little useful material to work from. Why were pairings so slanted in favour of higher rated players anyway? It was no longer necessary to add sweeteners to attract strong players these days since the prize list was sufficient inducement in itself. Why were pairing regulations so complicated? He expressed the view that the regulations should be sufficiently simple so that they could be explained to the man in the street in five minutes. Alternation of colours - yes, of course - pairing with someone on the same or similar score - yes - but why all the other palaver? If random pairings make it a bit harder for norm seekers - tough. The world has enough titled players anyway, and this would compensate for the rating inflation that has made the gaining of titles too easy.
On and on Mr Y pontificated in his usual long-winded way. Only he usually does this in writing... and some of you might be starting to wonder whether Mr Y reminds you of the current writer. Well, I suppose it is time to come clean. I shall now out myself as Mr Y. Yes, I was responsible for the initial idea. Alan Ormsby thought it sounded interesting and took it away to discuss and work through with arbiters and officials. I rather thought that would be the last I heard of it - in reality I was only sounding off, like the grumpy old man I am turning into - but a few weeks later Alan phoned me back to say that they had checked it over and decided it was a runner. The implementation has been shorn of some of my wilder ideas, which is probably just as well. But if anyone wants a scapegoat for the random pairing idea I guess that will have to be me. I shall ascend to the verbal guillotine of Twitter with as much dignity as I can muster. "It's a far, far better thing I do...," etc, etc.
First man to the tombola machine was number one seed Magnus Carlsen. His first job was to decide the colour of the top board pairing and he duly drew a white queen from the bag. (Thereafter the boards alternated colour for the leading players so no further colour draw was required.) Then he drew out the name of an Icelandic player, Bardur orn Birkisson, rated 2167. Master of ceremonies Mike Klein referred to him as "a fellow Scandinavian" but the world champion swiftly corrected him: "Iceland is not Scandinavia." Nice pairing for Magnus - I think he now owes me a tenner for my random pairings suggestion, just as he does the arbiter for that illicit coach journey (oops! I think I just blurted out the second Mr X's identity).
Next up was Vladimir Kramnik, who already knew he was going to be Black in the first round. Here the pictures tell the story...
Vlad's face registers surprise - "Caruana..."
"... Fabiano!" Vlad Kramnik's surprise turns to amusement as he finds he is playing the number three seed.
Vlad Kramnik read out the name as it was given (surname first) on the slip of paper: "Caruana Fabiano!" and suddenly his faced was wreathed in smiles. Fabiano Caruana also grinned at the news. At least one person in the auditorium - namely me - was greatly relieved at their good-humoured reaction at being paired with the highest rated player remaining in the draw. Generally the players seemed to have reacted quite well to the random pairing idea. We shall have to see how they feel after the game. I might need a safe house. Any offers?
Vishy is paired with an IM from the USA. Arbiter Matthew Carr writes the name down, while Mike Klein asks the questions.
Vishy Anand was the next to step up and found he was paired with Marc Esserman, an IM from the USA. Vishy smiled as he was reminded that Esserman had held him to a draw last year in Gibraltar.
Hikaru Nakamura looks puzzled but he's paired with GM Das Neelotpal of India
Super-sub Jack Rudd stands in for the absent (flight delayed) Mickey Adams and secures a friendly pairing for him - Valerio Bianco, 2086.
Tough one for Boris Gelfand - Baskaran Adhiban, 2670
Pavel Eljanov drew English GM Keith Arkell - so I spun round and caught a photo of Keith smiling
The other pairings can be found here - http://chess-results.com/tnr303618.aspx?lan=1&art=2&rd=1&wi=821