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Clement Sreeves

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.

Keti Arakhamia-Grant in Edinburgh <em>Picture: AEK Photography</em>

Keti Arakhamia-Grant in Edinburgh Picture: AEK Photography

Last Sunday, just as one experienced and popular competitor emerged victorious after several days of intense effort on the rainswept coast of Kent, so something similar was happening in the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh.

OK, so Ketevan Arakhamia-Grant – Keti, as she is known – plies her trade indoors, is of a somewhat slimmer build than Darren Clarke and her area of expertise is always likely to be way behind Clarke’s in terms of mainstream coverage and public awareness. But both victories were well received, and each event – the Open golf and the Scottish chess championship – appears to have left onlookers and officials satisfied with the fare on offer.

The 118th Scottish chess championship proved to be an interesting and tense nine-day contest. It was more competitive than generally anticipated, given that there had been a fair chance of the Ochamchira-born, Edinburgh-based player strolling away with the title rather than – as actually happened – having to scramble for it in the final round.

Arakhamia-Grant was the only grandmaster (GM) in the 37-player field, and the only serious challenge was expected to come courtesy of international master (IM) Craig Pritchett – Scottish champion in 1977 and 2005. IM is the next title down from GM – think BA as against MA, although either chess title is markedly harder to achieve than those academic honours. Outside bets for the title were two fast-improving young players – Clement Sreeves and Andrew Green – but beyond that it was hard to see how anyone else had much of a chance.

It was, therefore, a surprise when the leader at the start of the final round, with 6½ points out of 8, was Tony Dempsey – a little-known player from the Wandering Dragons club in Edinburgh. So little-known, in fact, as to cause 2007 champion Andrew Muir to comment on the Chess Scotland noticeboard that he had “never heard of him before this”.

The final round, with games potentially lasting six hours, saw Dempsey play Arakhamia-Grant, who was half a point behind (in chess a win counts as one point, a draw half). Also on 6/8, and facing each other, were Sreeves and Arakhamia-Grant’s husband Jonathan Grant, the 2006 champion. Given the nature of the tiebreak system, the only way for Arakhamia-Grant to take the title and the £1,200 first prize was for her to beat Dempsey and for the other game to be drawn – which is exactly what happened.

The top-board encounter ended first – after a lovely combination by the winner, but also a missed, near-impossible-to-spot chance to draw for Dempsey. There was then a curious domestic subplot, given that Jonathan Grant now only needed to prevent Sreeves from winning for the Grant household finances to benefit – although a win would have seen him take the title ahead of his wife. Chess is indeed a complicated game.

That Arakhamia-Grant had to battle for the title rather than cruise to it came about mainly through her having lost to Sreeves in round 3, then only drawing with Pritchett in a round 6 thriller. Pritchett later pointed out – in a magnanimous, such-is-life way – that he missed a clear chance to win that game because of trying to save time on the clock by repeating the position and thus allowing his opponent to claim a draw. He ended the tournament joint-second – on such brief but profound moments do victories come and go.

It could be argued, however, that the title ultimately hinged on two curious non-games. In round 6, Sreeves and Green opted to shake hands on a draw after just nine moves, while the much-anticipated Grant–Grant pairing in round 7 similarly lasted only 11 inconsequential moves before the café beckoned.

Both these games prompted collective groans from the watching online chess community, especially the clash of the unbetrothed. There has, in recent years, been a history of promising young Scottish players declining to play serious chess against each other. Whether this is linked to the lack of title-gaining success for Scots over the past decade or so is debatable – but there was frustration at seeing the practice recur in Edinburgh.

“Motwani, McNab, Condie, Mannion, Rowson, as juniors had the bottle to avoid premature draws – hardly coincidence they were the future titled players and Scot champs,” said 1996 and 1997 champion Douglas Bryson as he reeled off the names of various earlier Scottish chess stars – three eventual GMs and two IMs – who weren’t in the habit of quickly halving-out. “Of course easy to say sitting here on the sidelines,” Bryson added.

Whatever the ethics of quick draws (imagine if, say, Rangers and Celtic were able to shake hands and walk off the pitch five minutes into an Old Firm game), it seemed likely that one of the Sreeves–Green and Grant–Grant opt-outs would, come the final reckoning, look like a silly miscalculation, while the other would be seen as a masterstroke of energy-preservation – and so it proved.

So, a well-contested tournament with a clear and worthy winner: who could ask for more? Well, quite a few people on the Scottish chess scene – both players and organisers – remain uneasy about both the format and the future of the annual championship.

The various problems inter-relate: the structure of the tournament – how many rounds total, how many rounds per day? (At present it is nine rounds at one per day.) Should it be a small-format all-play-all for the top-ranked players, or a larger Swiss-style open event, as now, in which the overall field is broader but weaker?

And where should it be held? Not just the old seaside versus city debate – with cities in the ascendant at present – but also the even older west/east split. Glasgow/Edinburgh rivalry exists in many spheres, and the extent to which it crops up in chess can be seen in just how few west-of-Scotland players entered this year’s championship. The same, in reverse, tends to be true when the event is held on the rainy side of the country, and it seems a near-unbridgeable divide.

This isn’t a footballesque problem whereby Glasgow chess players dislike Edinburgh players and vice versa. They get on perfectly well (well, so they say); it’s just that both groupings seem reluctant to allocate the time, money and logistical commitment required to play in a nine-day tournament away from their home patch. And that’s without getting into debates about players based in Dundee, Inverness and so on.

The overarching problem, however – as in so many areas of life – is a lack of funding. Chess is not a sport in the official sportscotland sense (although some would like to see it go that way), and it being one of the least televisual of games severely limits the scope for advertising/sponsorship revenue.

“This event will run at a loss of about £500, though the paper loss which will include grading fees will be a couple of hundred more,” said tournament director Alex McFarlane, after the championship ended. “We were basically seven entries short of breaking even which can’t be too bad. The venue [the LifeCare centre] proved to be very popular – the players liked the staff and the staff liked the players. I would certainly use the venue again with a suitable event. The cost of the venue is less than the free venue last year [in the University of the West of Scotland at Hamilton] and much better. We had to pay for cleaning and security last time.”

With a new crop of strong young players coming through – it would be rash to bet against either Sreeves or Green (aged 19 and 21 respectively) winning the Scottish title in due course – and with the popularity of the game at the middle and lower levels remaining healthy despite the stay-at-home distractions of the internet and the general economic downturn, it is important for chess in Scotland to push on and progress.

Something approaching a full-strength Scottish championship would help – the country has five GMs and a similar number of IMs, but of these only Arakhamia-Grant and Pritchett played this time round. It has been some years since the Scottish chess champion was also unequivocally the strongest Scottish chess player. (At present, most observers would award the latter title to Jonathan Rowson – who has recently acquired a column in the Guardian, albeit one in which his byline profile makes no mention of his chess prowess.)

A genuinely strong championship, however, needs a large prize fund along with a suitable venue and substantial publicity in order to draw in the funders. This is not an easy combination to achieve, but there is plenty of confidence around. “I am extremely optimistic,” said McFarlane. “Unfortunately I am not in a position to say publicly why.”

One imminent boost for the game is that Lord Kirkwood – the appeal court judge and keen supporter of chess Ian Kirkwood – looks set to take on a formal role as honorary president of Chess Scotland. He will be proposed and seconded at next month’s AGM, with his election expected to go through. The extent to which this and other as yet unannounced developments will raise awareness of chess in Scotland and contribute to an increase in funding remains to be seen – but a lot of thought and work is being put in at the organisational level.

Of course, there could have been a much swifter solution to the financial worries had the recent EuroMillions winners from Largs – which has a lively chess club – been chess fans and willing to lob in a spare couple of hundred thousand for the good of the game…

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