Diplomacy and draw offers: Scottish arbiter at the chess high table

Alex McFarlane, IA <em>Picture: Lara Barnes</em>
Alex McFarlane, IA Picture: Lara Barnes
At first glance, there is a distinct lack of Scottish or even British involvement in the world chess championship candidates tournament, which starts today and runs until 27 May in the city of Kazan, in the Russian federal republic of Tatarstan. The eight “super-grandmasters” taking part comprise two Russians, two Azerbaijanis, one Armenian, one Bulgarian, one Belarus-born Israeli and one Russia-born American.

Pretty much what might be expected in a field that could be seen as including eight of the ten leading chess players on the planet – the two absentees being the Indian Viswanathan Anand (current world champion and the man against whom the Kazan winner will play in 2012) and the Norwegian rising star Magnus Carlsen, who despite being the current world number two has opted not to take part.

So, a massively strong tournament made up entirely of players with connections to, and roots in, the old east-European and former-Soviet chess powerbase. Nothing new there. Except that a key figure in all that happens over the next three weeks will be a retired teacher from Uddingston with connections to Paisley chess club.

Alex McFarlane, aged 57, is an IA, or International Arbiter – the chess equivalent of a football referee or a tennis umpire, but requiring additional diplomatic and psychological skills. He has been active on the UK arbiting scene for a couple of decades, and is well liked and highly regarded – but his being asked to be part of the team overseeing the candidates tournament was an unexpected honour both for the man himself and for Scottish chess generally. It is, by some distance, the biggest accolade and most important role yet awarded to any Scot in this most cerebral of games.

McFarlane has overseen – “controlled”, in the jargon of the chess world – numerous large and complex tournaments, be they Scottish and British championships, elite events such as the annual London Classic, or smaller weekend congresses. He has, however, never previously controlled an event outwith the British Isles, despite a CV that he describes as stretching “from Stornoway to Torquay and from Douglas to Norwich”.

So Kazan constitutes a big jump. “The invitation to go to the candidates matches came totally out of the blue,” McFarlane said before leaving. “I received an email from the FIDE [world governing body of chess] office. Initially I was delighted, but then began to wonder if it was some sort of hoax. No one was able to throw any light on the matter.

“My invitation was even more surprising as I had not been selected to be an arbiter at the Olympiad [the biennial world team championship, most recently also held in Russia, in Khanty-Mansiysk] where I had actually volunteered and the number of arbiters required was significantly higher. It took a few emails from FIDE and Russia before I totally believed that the invitation was genuine.”

For all its status and importance, the tournament format in Kazan is relatively simple. It’s a knockout, with four quarter-final matches, two semis (all played over the best of four games), then the final, which will be the best of six games. In each match, a tied score will lead to further games being played at a faster rate – a fraught and occasionally fun format disapproved of by those who favour the older, slower, more magisterial form of the game.

Questions about pace of play and number of games are not McFarlane’s worry, however – beyond his overseeing the games themselves. “I will be there for the duration of the candidate matches,” he says, “and expect to be used in some capacity throughout.”

For all the meticulous pre-tournament organisation, there were surprises for McFarlane when he arrived in Kazan on Tuesday. “There are only three arbiters,” he said in an email from Russia. “Ignatius Leong (Singapore), Franca Dapiran (Italy) and myself. Surprisingly, there are no local Russian arbiters involved.” The expectation had been that the number of arbiters would be higher, so suddenly the workload – and the responsibility – has increased.

Another surprise came courtesy of the layout of the tournament hall. “Because of the location of the toilets and a smoking room,” McFarlane said yesterday, “I won’t have to follow the players when they leave the hall as there is nowhere for them to go. They will be scanned for mobile phones etc when entering. Also the playing hall and spectating area have jammers to stop people broadcasting/texting.”

If this level of monitoring sounds curious, it is. But ever since the rise of phenomenally strong chess computer programs – which can be accessed by mobile phones and other hand-held devices – there have been rumours and allegations concerning players being fed moves and ideas by outside agencies, all of which is completely against both the law and the spirit of the game.

Only last year, at the Khanty-Mansiysk Olympiad, there was an extraordinary dispute concerning French players being fed moves by a combination of text messages and their team manager standing behind the chessboards in a certain way, in order to convey coded messages to players. The dispute is at the appeal stage, but as things stand several of the people involved face lengthy bans from the game.

With this in mind, McFarlane notes that, at Kazan, “only the principals (FIDE officials and arbiters) and the players will be allowed in the playing area – so this should prevent allegations of cheating along the lines of those of the French team manager at the Olympiad. Other than draw offers and the like, the players are not allowed to converse during their games.”

There is another potential source of dispute, however – one which could prove extremely tricky for McFarlane and his colleagues to handle. This will be if the Russian Vladimir Kramnik and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov meet over the board – something which, given the way the tournament has been structured, appears only possible in the most high-tension round of all, the final.

Kramnik and Topalov are both immensely strong players – Kramnik was world champion before Anand (having deposed the now-retired Garry Kasparov), while Topalov lost to Anand in the most recent world championship match. There has been no love lost between the two men ever since a particularly fractious world championship match in 2006, when Topalov and his support team accused Kramnik of using computer assistance during what they regarded as a suspiciously high number of absences from the board.

Predictably, this became known as Toiletgate, with jokes about WC meaning not just world champion. Nothing was ever proven, Kramnik was exonerated, and the FIDE ethics committee issued “a severe reprimand” to Topalov the following year – but the dispute looks destined to be forever unresolved, at least in the eyes of the Bulgarian contingent.

Kramnik and Topalov have met over the board a number of times since 2006, but the traditional pre-game handshake has been noticeably absent. A further complication is that Topalov’s manager, Silvio Danailov, said last summer his man would refuse to play a match against a Russian player on Russian soil – which in terms of Kazan could mean either Kramnik or his compatriot Alexander Grischuk.

Although Topalov will face the American Gata Kamsky in the quarter-final, problems could arise in the later rounds. Both Kramnik and Topalov are reckoned to be among the three favourites (the other being the Armenian Levon Aronian, who faces Grischuk in the first round), so there is a high chance that the organisational and arbitorial team – including McFarlane – will have their people skills, and their patience, tested at some stage.

McFarlane, as one would expect, is diplomatic on the subject: “I hope that I will be able to deal with any situation that arises,” he says. “I’ve certainly dealt with a significant number of incidents in my previous events.”

On the more mundane – but again potentially difficult – question of language problems, he is also quietly confident: “Most of the players are fluent in English and all are able to speak enough to communicate draw offers or to raise any problems or concerns that they may have.”

Given all this complexity, the good news is that Kazan will make a pleasant change in terms of payment. Domestic chess has traditionally been short of cash, but at the higher levels matters are very different, and McFarlane will be well looked after during his sojourn in the east. “Accommodation and meals are being provided by the hosts,” he says. “Unlike most events in Britain, the arbiters will receive remuneration – €3,000 in my case. This will be quite a novelty, as many of the events I officiate at leave me out of pocket.

“There are also chauffeur-driven cars available for the arbiters in their leisure periods, so I hope to be able to see some of the surrounding area as well. I am looking forward to it immensely.”

Part of the reason McFarlane is both liked and respected is his modesty allied to an eagerness to see chess progress and develop. “Whilst from a personal point of view the lack of general publicity given to my selection is not unwelcome,” he said before leaving for Russia, “I fully appreciate that wider publicity could have had a positive effect on encouraging both players and arbiters to come forward. And any publicity can only help in the search for sponsors.”

Asked whether he could see a Scottish player reaching the heights of the candidates tournament within the next 20 years, he takes a typically pragmatic approach. “There are a number of promising juniors coming through,” he says, “who have the potential to become strong grandmasters and possibly compete at this level. However, for players in the next 20 years to have realistic chances of attaining this level, sponsors will need to come forward to both support the tournaments which will provide the chances to progress and to eventually finance a player to take part in events all over the world.

“£100,000 a year would allow five grandmaster events to be held in Scotland of a suitable status. Such events on a regular basis should generate enough publicity to encourage our top players to realise the potential for a career in chess.” One of McFarlane’s hopes, in the medium term, is that Scotland could put in “a realistic bid” to stage the Commonwealth chess championships in 2014.

Such matters will be at best peripheral in his mind over the next three weeks, however. His full concentration will be on technical issues such as overseeing time controls and assessing rival claims in drawn positions, along with dampening down any disputes between players which might escalate into high-profile bickering that could damage both the tournament itself and the game in general.

Whatever happens, it certainly looks like being a more exotic experience than controlling the Prestwick chess congress, which is where McFarlane would have spent the middle weekend of May had he not been called to Kazan.

Live, free, online relay of the Kazan games will be available from a variety of sources – with an inbuilt time delay as part of the anti-cheating effort. Chess followers should shop around, but could do worse than trying either the official site or ChessBomb.