02.05.2007 N.Vitiugov. THINKING ALOUD


     This year I happened to play in the European championship for the first time. I have a whole lot of impressions and would like to share some of them with chess community. I'd like to stress right from the start that these notes do not claim to artistic contents, but, on the other hand, this is no open letter either. In a manner of speaking, this is just thinking aloud.
      For what purposes do the chessplayers take part in a European championship? I guess the answer is unambiguous for the most of them. Naturally, to accomplish the main task of qualifying for the World cup (by the way, it seems to me that you can call this tournament whatever you want, but for the most of the "mere mortals" it is and will be the World championship still). And now the second question: how can one qualify for this longed-for cup? In other words, we can we see the procedure of those precious 126 places' distribution? How many participants will be eligible according to their average ratings for the last few years, what are the quotas for every continent, how many places will be given to the organizers of this tournament and how many, in its turn, to the FIDE Presidential Board? In my opinion, every participant of an individual European championship and generally of any qualifying event for the World Cup should have this information at his disposal. This is really very important. Already in Dresden we found out that the winner of the latest U-18 European championship Sergei Zhigalko would directly get to Khanty-Mansiysk. I took part in such a championship in the year before last myself. The average rating of the top ten participants in this tournament usually flounders around 2450, and then there follows an abrupt slump. Probably there is a grain of sense in giving a winner of such a competition a place in the World cup, but, firstly, that should be known in advance and to everybody, and, secondly, and this is absolutely incomprehensible for me, why the U-18 European champion should qualify, and not the world champion in the same age group? And why should it be the last year champion and not the current one? On the whole I don't think that every pro has understood this decision of the European Chess Union, the more so because, as far as I know, this place is not given to Europe in excess of the planned quota but is deducted from it.
      Continuing on the subject of qualifying for Khanty-Mansiysk I cannot help but mention an absolutely unique fact. In the statutes of the European championship published about half a year ago, the number of qualifying places was precisely stated as 33. A mystic number, one can hardly forget it or confuse it with something else. But during the opening ceremony the organizers honestly presented their apologies for a little miscalculation and said that there would be only 29 qualifying places, not 33. Well, there's seemingly nothing to fuss about, everyone can make a mistake, but if you think about it you will see that the matter is really scandalous! How can it happen that the number of qualifying places gets reduced right before the start of the tournament? And they play not for the participation in the next year main tournament, not for accommodations or a place in some commercial event at that. On the stake is a berth for the World cup, which is the main event for any chess pro! The only consequence of this decision was the former world champion A. Khalifman's protest lodged after the main part of the tournament had finished. Let me remind to the reader that St.Petersburg player, apparently protesting against this decision, refused to take part in tie-breaks matches. It is worth mentioning that he found himself in those tie-breaks exactly due to organizers who had practically forced another 8 players to try their fortune in those extra matches.
     And lastly I cannot help talking about another curious phenomenon. It's no secret that the European championship is also an opportunity to struggle for some good prize money, so it often happens that a player who has already qualified during the first event also takes part in the second one. For example, in Dresden such players as M.Gurevich, A.Naiditsch or K.Georgiev took an active part in the struggle for the highest ranks. But sometimes even more improbable situation happens – a player has already qualified for the World cup, but he himself doesn't know it for sure and so has to play in the qualifying tournaments. I mean those players who become eligible according to their average rating calculated for a couple of years. It is not the most difficult task to calculate an average rating of the world top thirty players, even if you have to do several calculations. Oh yes, there are, as far as I know, one or maybe even two calculations before us that can influence something, but even current April positions can tell us a lot. Only where can we find it?
    Thus we have a group of about 10 players, and very strong ones at that, who play for money or a title eliminating many others from the struggle for World championship in addition and, above all, running absolutely no risks themselves. What I mean is that it is possible in such cases to put one's own place "on the stake", i.e. to give it up for a place in the tournament. It is not a customary practice in chess, although there is something to think about there. For instance, A. Beliavsky once wrote: "The 52nd USSR championship was at the same time a zonal World championship tournament, so I considered it incorrect to influence the struggle for qualifying places" ("Uncompromising Chess", Moscow, 2004).
    The 2007 Men's European championship was an extremely mass tournament; suffice it to say that 403 players took part in it. The organizers undoubtedly have their own interest in that – more people, more money. But on the other hand the level of the tournament decreases, and the inevitable consequence of this is the increase of effectiveness, and that in its turn means that, for example, to qualify one must score not +3, as it has been in Warsaw a couple of years ago, but  +4, there being not 13 but only 11 rounds in the championship at that. The number of participants increased mainly due to the influx of the German host players; there were about 150 of them. For instance, in the 10th round I had to play against IM Rene Stern. In the last couple of years Rene played in one German open tournament and in Bundesliga for the whole last season (15 games). It is obvious that were the tournament held in any other European country Stern would not take part in it. But still he scored +2 in 11 rounds, took a couple of GM scalps and made a GM norm. Evidently he had once been a practicing player, then chose another profession and now plays for pleasure. Such an opponent is dangerous for a player of any level, and there were a whole lot of them in Dresden! Judge for yourself – Central Europe, a pleasant place not far from anywhere else; you just choose your own quarters and enjoy the game! And, above all, the number of participators is not limited! Everyone is welcome! Such policy is permissible for a director of a large open tournament, but, in my opinion, it has nothing in common with European championship, which is an official event. I am all for the popularization of chess, for bringing back the players who have once drifted away from the game, but let's not forget about pros as well!
     Apropos of the latter. Where does a seasoned GM look at first of all? You got it, at the prize money. It looked very impressive in the statutes – 200 thousand Euro. So what do we have in reality? Andrei Volokitin, who had been in the lead during the whole competition but failed in the last round, got a prize equal to the one for 11th (you will laugh but I mean it – ELEVENTH) place according to the "Performance minus rating" coefficient. Just think about it – a person with a rating of, for instance, 1800 could have played in this tournament, say, at 2100 level and get 1000 Euro for his work. An experienced GM after having scored +4 gets the same prize. I can but call it mockery at the pros. Oh yes, in the American open tournaments players with ratings under 1800 can struggle for several thousand dollars prize in their rating group, but again, these are commercial competitions, and the official continental championship is quite another story. As you have already guessed a Grandmaster with more or less decent rating does not have a snowball in hell chance to win a "Performance minus rating" prize, and that means that this undertaking is fully directed at the chess amateurs. As they write in the comments on games sometimes, "a possible but not the strongest continuation". As for amateurs, they keep on paying their money without grumbling.
    They would never write open letters like the one the chess world read soon after Dresden tournament. Dutch Grandmaster Erik van den Doel expressed, quite correctly in my opinion, his criticism about the notorious accommodation and quality of food in the hotels recommended in the statutes. I do not want to repeat him. As for hotels, I can only say that I found no mention in the statutes of the colossal difference that really exists between them (two stars, and the expensive two stars at that, and four stars). Yes, one is better, the other is worse, but surely not several times as bad! Speaking of other organizational problems, I personally was simply shocked by the fact that there was no table of additional tie-breaks before the last round either in the hotels or in the tournament hall itself. One can forget to post up the drawing results or muddle up the result of the game (this happened, for example, to the third round game Sulskis – Efimenko), but if the organizers do not understand how important it is for a player to know his current standing and whether he has to play for a win, then all we have to do is throw up our hands.
      And still, whichever way you look at it, the European championship must be on the chessplayer's schedule. For the young ones this is an opportunity to play against strong GMs, to score the norms for international titles or just to be imbued with interest in the game by looking at the living classics. A strong Grandmaster plays for a title in such a tournament. They may say as much as possible that winning a European championship has done nothing for many a former winner's career, but still bad is a chessplayer that does not dream of doing it. As for qualifying for the World cup, this is a success for absolutely every player, and the last championship proved it once again. Add to it the national color, the great number of participants, the indescribable chess atmosphere, the puzzling intrigue of every such tournament, tie-breaks, emotions, successes and disappointments, novelties and simply bright ideas carried out at the board – and you will understand that the participation in such an event is justified in any case.
     Next year there going to be a World Chess Olympiad in Dresden. I would like to wish the organizers to take into account this year's mistakes and to stage such an important and complicated event successfully. And the next European championship according to the schedule on the FIDE site will be held in Plovdiv. Meet you there!
  P.S. On the behalf of all Russian-speaking players of the Dresden championship I'd like to thank Mikhail Veselov whole-heartedly. His help was invaluable, and we all felt very much at home. Thanks again, Misha!

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