When it turned out that I would be in Chennai, India, in November during the World Championship match between Vishy Anand and Magnus Carlsen, I was, like any chess fan would be, over the moon. I even posted a photograph of my visa on my Facebook page to annoy my chess friends who would have to remain at home.
But in real life, things always turn out differently. In 1997, I saw an exhausted Anand lose in my home country to an extremely fresh and fit Anatoly Karpov, for the FIDE World Championship in Groningen. In 2000, I travelled especially to London with two friends, only to see my hero Kasparov draw with White in just 11 moves against Vladimir Kramnik - and subsequently lose the title.
Actually, my most memorable moments in chess were consistently witnessed at home. The first World Championship match I seriously followed was Kasparov-Karpov, Seville 1987. I pasted newspaper clippings in a little booklet with my own analysis and thoughts. The 1990 match, again between the two Ks, coincided with the Open Dutch junior championships, where I participated. We youngsters analysed these games much more seriously than our own, which, for a junior championship, is surely telling. And even though I managed to visit the recent Candidates tournament in London, held at the Savoy, I witnessed the dramatic two last rounds at home, behind my laptop.
On Sunday, while visiting the Hyatt Regency Hotel to watch the second match game in Chennai, at some point I again felt like I should have stayed behind my laptop. All tickets for the main playing venue were sold out and the press room was strictly for journalists with official accreditation - even when the game had finished (after less than one and a half hour of play) and the players were giving a press conference.
I've never really swallowed the thought, which some tournament organisers appear to take for granted, that a press conference should be just for press: it seems a terribly outdated concept that only journalists are allowed to ask questions, let alone that only they would be in a position to witness it live. These days, most press conferences can be watched by the whole world online, so why not in real life too?
This is not a new, internet-induced development, by the way. Already during the London 2000 match between Kasparov and Kramnik, the audience was allowed to the press conferences and could even, if memory serves me right, ask questions to the players directly (which, of course, nobody dared to). But in Chennai, the problem was that the press conference was held IN the press room, where nobody without a valid press accreditation was allowed to enter.
To be honest, this wasn't particularly bothersome for me - after all, it hadn't exactly been an exciting game, and I've been fortunate enough to witness many press conferences by both Anand and Carlsen in the past. But for the many Indian chess fans trying catch a glimpse (or a photo) of the players, especially 'their champ', it must have been less easy to accept. I couldn't help feeling that they, too, might have been better off watching the whole thing live on internet.
The were men in uniform everywhere, strict looking security guards who weren't only, I suspected, looking for real troublemakers but also trying to prevent 'ordinary' people from coming too close. After the press conference was over, both players left via the emergency exit, denying the fans a fair shot at a question or an autograph. This meant that the fans started haunting Susan Polgar and Tania Sachdev for photos instead - understandable, but surely still second choice.
Having said that, the atmosphere in and around the playing area that I experienced was just wonderful. I have never seen so much genuine interest for chess as here in Chennai. The taxi drivers whom I spoke to all knew not only Anand (which I guess isn't surprising) but also Carlsen (which is, at least when compared to Dutch taxi drivers). It is also clear that the local government has really done a great PR job, placing giant chess boards across town and huge posters everywhere, mentioning the event and what's at stake. (They could, in my opinion, do something about some other posters that I saw, such as one which read 'Curing Cancer is Easy!')
The lobby of the Hyatt hotel, too, was a feast for chess lovers. Here again were giant chess boards being played at by colorfully dressed little kids and their parents; a section called 'Vishy's Lounge'; people dressed up as Kings and Queens; and regular chess boards and monitors everywhere. (I didn't see any chess clocks, though. I hope this doesn't mean Indians don't like to play blitz, which would be an insult to Anand, one of the great blitz wizards of the last decades.)
In general, the luxury of not only the Hyatt Regency but also other five star hotels stands, of course, in stark contrast with the indescribable poverty that can be seen elsewhere in Chennai and indeed all across India. The fact that one sees cows, goats and stray dogs everywhere is something even a Western European can get used to pretty quickly, but the sight of old men wearing nothing but a loincloth crossing a busy highway, or dirty five year olds playing in a heap of garbage, is not so easy to forget (especially if you have five-year-old kids yourself). Still, this too must look somehow 'normal' to the citizens of Chennai.
It's too easy to criticize the Chennai municipality for spending their rupees on chess rather than poverty reduction, especially if you read about the chess in the school projects and see the immense joy and pride of the Chennai people when you mention their World Chess Champion. But it's also true that they could perhaps have been just a little more relaxed in allowing people - not would-be journalists, but local chess fans - to watch, say, the press conference, or collect a few autographs after the games. Then, instead of this just being a great event (which all World Championship matches are by default), it might become a truly memorable one. Let's face it: so far, the games certainly aren't.
...where a giant chess set has been put up
A statue of Mahatma Gandhi
View from St. Thomas Mount