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Andy Howie

Veselin Topalov (in white jacket) at work in last year's European Team Championship in Greece Picture: andreoua

Following on from the recent cup finals in various Scottish chess competitions, this Sunday will see another notable chess occasion in Edinburgh. And while there were undoubtedly some very strong players in action in the Richardson Cup, this weekend takes things to a completely different level with the arrival in town of one of the world’s strongest grandmasters.

A 37-year-old Bulgarian, Veselin Topalov is currently the 12th strongest player on the planet according to the live ratings list, and has been at that level – or, mostly, above – for over a decade, including a spell as world number one. Topalov is one of very few players ever to have reached the 2800 level in terms of his official FIDE grading (anyone topping 2700 tends to be labelled a “super-grandmaster” or “super GM”, and the gulf between 2700 and 2800 is huge), and for a year from autumn 2005 he was entitled to call himself world chess champion, having convincingly won a title-deciding tournament held in Argentina.

Chess, however – like various other sports and games – has been through a period of splits and schisms, and Topalov, for all his great skill, is not generally regarded as having been the true world champion during that period, the “classical” title having rested with the Russian Vladimir Kramnik during the period 2000–07. (In terms of who has been world chess champion since the late 1960s, the classical continuum is Boris Spassky 1969–72, Bobby Fischer 1972–75, Anatoly Karpov 1975–85, Garry Kasparov 1985–2000, Kramnik 2000–07 and Vishy Anand 2007–date, the latter having seen off a further challenge from Topalov in 2010.)

Kramnik beat Topalov in a reunification match in the autumn of 2006, an encounter remembered more for its bitter controversies than for the actual play, even though it proved to be a thrilling contest – tied 6–6 before Kramnik prevailed 2½–1½ in a rapidplay shootout.

For months and years afterwards, disputes rumbled on concerning allegations made by Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov over the frequency and length of Kramnik’s visits to the bathroom during games. Given that this was the only part of the playing area not overseen by surveillance devices, the implication was that Kramnik was somehow cheating, perhaps by accessing computer chess software.

Even though Kramnik was absolved of any wrongdoing – in the lavvy or elsewhere – the whole “Toiletgate” controversy (as it inevitably became known) created lingering ill feeling. To this day, whenever Topalov and Kramnik are required to face each other over a chessboard, things might appear outwardly civil but the two men find methods of starting and finishing the game without the traditional courteous handshake.

Whatever one thinks of Topalov – and he divides opinion more than any current member of the chess elite – he is without doubt a phenomenally strong player, and as such holds considerable fascination for the humble rank-and-file of the chess community. This weekend he will be Edinburgh – accompanying Danailov, who is now president of the European Chess Union (as in football, Scotland and England are regarded as separate entities in international chess). And while here, Topalov will give what is known as a “simultaneous display”, or simul, against 20 Scotland-based players who are not exactly rubbish at chess themselves.

A simul is pretty much self-explanatory: the simul-giver faces an agreed number of players all at once, usually has the white pieces on all boards, and works his way round each opponent in turn – moving a pawn or a piece, then progressing to the next board. Even though each of the 20 weaker players will be required to move whenever Topalov returns to their board, the whole process can and will take several hours, and is both mentally and physically strenuous.

And the people who Topalov will face on Sunday are not exactly “patzers”, to use the chess jargon for weak players. The list of 20, published this week on the Chess Scotland website, includes one grandmaster – the Bearsden-based former British champion Jacob Aagaard – one international master (IM, the title below GM) in former Scottish champion Andrew Greet, and a group of promising young Scottish players including Hugh Brechin, Clément Sreeves, Andrew Green and Kai Pannwitz.

Although this will be the first high-grade simul to be held in Scotland for quite some time, there is a long history of visits of this sort by the great players of various periods. The list compiled by chess historian Alan McGowan includes seven of the 15 classical world champions: Emanuel Lasker in 1898, 1899 and 1902, José Raúl Capablanca in 1919, Alexander Alekhine in 1938, Mikhail Botvinnik in 1967, Vasily Smyslov in 1969, Max Euwe in 1972 and Anatoly Karpov in 1984. Lasker, Alekhine and Karpov each visited while holding the world title.

There had been hopes that Sunday’s event would be held in the Scottish parliament building, but the fallback option of Edinburgh Chess Club, 1 Alva Street, will be the venue. It is a wonderful place – used specifically for chess since 1922 and with a long history of visits by strong players – but will be somewhat tight for space, given that it is a tenement flat. The 20 boards will be squeezed into one or two of the rooms, however, and play is expected to start at 3:45pm, half an hour after Topalov arrives.

Proceedings will continue until 9pm if necessary and onlookers are welcome – although, as international arbiter Alex McFarlane points out, “there will be spectating opportunities but these are limited by the size of the premises”.

The event is a considerable coup for Scottish chess – with much of the behind-the-scenes work having been done by Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland – and is the latest sign of revival in the game north of the border.

While not in crisis, the past few years have seen difficulties in terms of funding and venues, and a worrying lack of strong young players pushing on to titled status, with talk of a lost generation since the emergence of Aberdeen’s Jonathan Rowson in the latter part of last century. Rowson reached grandmaster status in 1999 and went on to win the British title three times in a row, 2004–06. Since then, there has been a dearth of young – or, for that matter, older – Scottish players really pushing on, even to the IM title, never mind to the high table of GM status.

The current crop of young players might well break through, however, with Alan Tate of Edinburgh (in his early 30s) closing in on the IM title following a fine run of international results, and various of the student-age players, most notably Sreeves (who turned 20 in January) being seen as very promising.

The chance for such players to face someone as strong as Topalov will surely provide inspiration – and, should any of them win, it will be a tremendous confidence-boost, notwithstanding the knowledge that their opponent was calculating strategy and variations against 19 other opponents at the same time.

Topalov was well regarded for his willingness to face the entire four-man Irish squad in a simul in Dublin last year – an event where he made no complaint on finding that one of his opponents was himself a GM (Alex Baburin) and all four were titled. That match was played using chess clocks – a markedly harder option than a normal simul, as all four devices were counting down at once even though Topalov was only able to attend to one game at a time. He also willingly took the black pieces in two of the Dublin games – and the result was 2–2, with the Bulgarian winning one, losing one and two games being drawn.

Were Sunday’s event in Edinburgh to end as a 10–10 draw it would be a major surprise. Far more likely is something in the region of 17–3 to Topalov, and 20–0 is not impossible. Whatever happens, it will be great to see such a strong player walking through the door of Alva Street, and he is sure to receive a very warm welcome. Whether any of the organising team is able to show him the whereabouts of the toilet while keeping a straight face remains to be seen, however.

● It finished 16½–3½ to Topalov. He beat Roberta Brunello, Alistair Campbell, Alistair Forbes, Andrew Green, Stevie Hilton, Ian McLean, Mike Mitchell, Andrew Newton, Charlie Nisbet, Kai Pannwitz, Gordon Rattray, Mike Ridge, Clément Sreeves and Alastair White. Five games – against GM Jacob Aagaard, Hugh Brechin, Adam Bremner, Robert Lawson and Boris Mitrovic – were drawn, while the sole defeat came against IM Andrew Greet.

Organiser Andy Howie describes it as “a fantastic day”, with an “endless stream of spectators”.

Pictures by Andy Howie here.

CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

CJ de Mooi at Sheffield

Yesterday saw the conclusion of this year’s British chess championship, a fortnight-long event held in Sheffield. This was generally deemed to have been an interesting tournament with some good, exciting and high-standard chess – but it concluded amid high-profile acrimony that had very little to do with the game itself.

The main tournaments – in which upwards of 900 people took part – ended on Friday, with only one issue remaining to be decided. The two leading British grandmasters, Cornishman Michael Adams and Nigel Short (ex of Lancashire, now of Greece), had tied for first place in the main championship and were required to meet again in short-form quickplay chess on Saturday morning to determine who would be this year’s champion.

Before that happened, however, at 9:30am on Saturday, came the general prizegiving ceremony, covering a considerable spread of chess ability.

The prizes were meant to be handed over by Connagh-Joseph de Mooi – commonly known as CJ de Mooi – who, as well as being a model and a panellist on the BBC show Eggheads, is also president of the English Chess Federation (ECF), having been elected to the post in 2009.

In Sheffield yesterday, de Mooi – who describes himself as a “gay equality” supporter – was wearing a red T-shirt sponsored by the charity Stonewall and bearing the legend “Some people are gay. Get over it!” In the lead-up to the presentation, de Mooi’s choice of attire was questioned and this led to him not presenting the prizes. Amid conflicting accounts of what had happened, a considerable hooha kicked off, both in the tournament hall and online.

At first it was unclear who had made the request of de Mooi: candidates ranged from the tournament organisers, the on-the-day arbiters, the management at the Ponds Forge centre where the event was being staged, or even a chess player or a parent of a junior player.

Gradually a clearer picture emerged. Just before midday on Saturday, de Mooi commented on Twitter: “I’ll make an official statement when play is over [in the Adams–Short playoff]. I stress this was not an ECF board (the members here were supportive) or venue decision.”

Then, late afternoon, de Mooi commented directly on the English Chess Forum (which, confusingly, is not linked to the English Chess Federation), both in an official “Statement” and in a personal – but still public – addendum. “At this morning’s prizegiving ceremony of the Darwin Strategic British Chess Championships 2011,” de Mooi wrote in the statement, “an arbiter approached me saying she had ‘personal reservations’ about me wearing a Stonewall T-shirt when presenting prizes to juniors. It was apparently inappropriate for me to wear something mentioning ‘sexuality’ in such an environment.

“I did not consider this an issue as I had worn it the previous day in the playing hall and no objections were raised. I am fully CRB [criminal records bureau] checked and was registering my public support of a charity. The other 2 arbiters said ‘no problem with it’ and ‘I hadn’t actually noticed’ but after a discussion returned and suggested if I wanted to wear it, I could just present to the adults. I refused saying ‘I either present all the prizes or none’ but I would leave it as their decision.”

There was then “consultation”, after which de Mooi says he was told “there had been ‘some complaints’. He then sat out the presentation ceremony.

“Personally, I was incensed,” de Mooi said in his addendum. “No matter how I try to drag chess into the 21st century, I seem to continually face ‘antediluvian’ attitudes. Whether it relates to lifestyle, accepted tradition, maintaining a status quo, whatever – if change wasn’t wanted or expected, why was I elected? I am utterly passionate about chess – I have used up most of my personal savings to provide ‘the strongest’ and ‘best ever British Championships’ this year and really don’t want to have to deal with this sort of stuff too.”

He added: ”I won’t change (in either sense!) and will continue to work hard to promote chess and what I think is right. I have heard nothing but support from the GMs [grandmasters], other players, sponsors ECF board and many other parties.

“If this isn’t what the English Chess Federation wants, please ask me to stand down or vote me out in October. However, you know who I am, what I do and what I support (incidentally, I don’t support gay rights, I support gay equality) I humbly dare to suggest that no-one has any issue with my chess endeavours and how I work to promote and support the game. […] I am happy and honoured to be ECF President but I am foremost CJ de Mooi and it’s him who defines the job, not the other way around.”

De Mooi has since offered his resignation “for the benefit of the ECF and the future reputation of chess”. He also said: “I am a passionate person and I know that’s one of the main reasons people are able to support me. However, although I don’t apologise for who I am, what I choose to promote or how I go about doing that, I may have over reacted on this occasion (despite my ‘irritation’) and it’s unfortunate that something such as this threatens to overshadow a magnificent event that so many people worked for, most far more than me.”

The mention of a female arbiter – the chess equivalent of a referee or umpire – made it easy to identify the person who had initially spoken with de Mooi, as there was only one such person present at Sheffield. Lara Barnes – a chess player and arbiter based in north-eastern England – is a familiar face on the Scottish chess circuit, where she is well-liked and respected.

This morning, Barnes – having earlier commented on Facebook – posted her response on the English Chess Forum: “Here is my side of the incident (I am posting against the advice of some, but I am getting hate emails claiming that I am homophobic and need to clear this up). I spoke to David [Welch – tournament manager] and Alex [McFarlane – chief arbiter] before the prize-giving suggesting that the T-shirt in question may not be advisable seeing as children were going to be in photographs with it and the charity in question was promoting a sexuality-based issue. I personally raised over £200 for the same charity on the Sunday night quiz [midway through the tournament] […] I was just worried that children who had come for chess may be exploited in photo opportunities for a different issue/charity.

“They [Welsh and McFarlane] were reluctant to speak to CJ about it and I said that I would. I told CJ that we usually dressed up more formally for the prize-giving and that it was only my opinion that his T-shirt may be controversial. He said ‘well I won’t present the prizes then’. When I told David Welch this he said that I had made a mistake in his opinion. I then left it to the ‘officials’ to make any decision. I believe that they still wanted CJ to present the prizes to the British Championship for which he had made a large financial contribution and huge publicity effort. He declined, saying ‘all or nothing’.

“May I add that, and many of my friends know already, it would be highly hypocritical of me to ‘oppose’ any gay-equality charity as I have had gay relationships in the past. Any thought of ‘anti-gay’ anything was never in my mind when I suggested the T-shirt was inappropriate for a national chess championships prize-giving, it was just inappropriate. I have many Wychwood Brewery T-shirts promoting real ale, but I would not wear them to the British Championships prize-giving. My only fault may have been being naive to the controversy that this brought up.”

Barnes also says that in today’s Sunday Times article on the controversy, “CJ’s claim that he was ‘banned’ from wearing the T-shirt is just untrue.” She also said: “He was never asked to ‘take it off’. I only queried whether it was appropriate, had he said ‘yes, I believe it is’ then I would not have had anything further to say at the time and he would have gone ahead with the prize-giving. He is the president of the organisation for which I do voluntary work and I would have bowed to his authority.”

The Sunday Times piece was co-written by grandmaster and 1971 British champion Ray Keene, who has been tweeting vigorously about the controversy since the start. Keene – long retired as a player – is a noted chess author and organiser but is himself no stranger to controversy. The dispute has also been covered by the Guardian.

It should also be noted that the T-shirt in question forms part of a high-profile anti-prejudice campaign, involving politicians – for instance Boris Johnson – and recently translated into Gaelic.

Also noteworthy is that this year’s British chess championship was unusual in having a dress code. This was set at “smart casual” – but seemingly only applied to players, not officials.

Asked this morning what would happen in a similar situation north of the border (where the British championship is held from time to time, most recently in 2003 in Edinburgh), Andy Howie, executive director of Chess Scotland, said: “As executive director I don’t often get asked as I am normally working the event. Often when I am, I will be wearing my Chess Arbiters’ Association top, a Scottish Chess top or a Scottish Junior Chess top. If I ever had to present at the Scottish [championship] I would be in a suit.”

“For official events like the Scottish championships / SJC Chess For Kicks final etc I would wear a suit”, said Chess Scotland president Michael Hanley. “In fact I was ‘suited up’ at the Scottish but had a chat with Lord Kirkwood and asked him to present the trophies as he had just agreed to be new honorary president. For less formal events like Hamilton Junior Congresses, I have no problem wearing a T-shirt advertising my business.”

Oh, and while all the T-shirt palaver was going on, there was some chess taking place. Adams and Short drew the first of their playoff games, before the former world no.4 Adams won the second to retain the British title. It would be neat to be able to report that one of the players used the Stonewall System in one of these games – and Short, known to have a wry sense of humour, was perhaps tempted. But a pair of more mainstream openings – a Queen’s Indian Defence and a Caro-Kann – were played…

Update, late evening 7 August: A statement from Andrew Farthing, chief executive of the English Chess Federation – along with new statements from Lara Barnes and CJ de Mooi – can be found here, about two-thirds down the page. Basically it seems that there has been a cooling-off period, time has passed in a useful way, misunderstandings have been sorted out and the two main parties have found it in themselves to say nice things about each other. CJ de Mooi’s offer of resignation has been declined by the ECF.

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