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.