Staunton Memorial: Behind the Scenes

Staunton Memorial: Behind the Scenes

FM_Eric_Schiller
FM FM_Eric_Schiller
Aug 13, 2008, 12:00 AM |
5 | Other

Behind the Scenes: Beware of termites!

 In view of some of the comments I’ve seen, I thought it would be a good idea to peek behind the curtain and look at how and why a major international chess tournament like the Staunton is put together. Of course there is some material up at the Staunton website but I want to get into some specifics and say a few words about those who cannot seem to resist attacking the event and everyone associated with it.

 The Staunton Memorial was originally (2003) a four player, double round-robin organized by Ray Keene and Barry Martin with assistance from Clive and Susan Davey (the same team that now organizes the event) to commemorate the great English chess genius Howard Staunton. By the third edition it had expanded to six players, and a year later, the generous sponsorship of Jan Mol allowed the tourney to expand to a dozen players. A strong contingent of Dutch players from Jan’s home country (Holland) was added to the field and it moved to Category 11 with an average rating of 2513. The following year it became an all-Grandmaster event and was even stronger.

 This year the event managed to attract both Mickey Adams and Nigel Short, the two top English talents as well as Jan Timman and Loek van Wely to be the strongest event held on British soil this century. All of the events featured play in Simpson’s-in-the-Strand, the very place where Anderssen and Kieseritszky contested their Immortal Game and host to top chessplayers for over a century and a half.

 Putting together such a high class event is a formidable task, requiring many difficult decisions. Ray Keene, O.B.E., the top British chess organizer for the past quarter century including the 1986, 1993 and 2000 World Championships had to deal with both the complex budget and typical logistical nightmares of which few people are aware.

 I’ve been involved in many of Ray’s events, as player, arbiter and press chief. So I’ve seen what goes on (frequently in detail, as I’ve often stayed at his house in Clapham during the tournaments). It is important that everyone understand the priorities involved.

 Both Ray Keene and Jan Mol place the players at the top of the priority list, making sure they receive appropriate treatment. Next comes the playing conditions. Simpson’s is a wonderful venue, with great tradition. The room is gorgeous and impressive with a high ceiling, paintings and tall columns. The excellent staff keeps a fresh supply of coffee, tea and snacks for players and staff, while spectators have nice glasses of cool water or can bring coffee or drinks from the bar. Large demonstration boards make it easy to follow the action. You can see pictures of the playing hall here.

 It is, however, not the most brightly lit of venues and there are two sources of a bit of noise. The spectators are not one of them, always well-behaved and this year remarkably so. The popular Knight Bar is located just across from the playing hall, which is wonderfully convenient for pleasant post-mortem analysis but a little noisy at times. As in Morphy’s day, when he played at Simpson’s, the sounds of London occasionally creep into the room, but that is now such a tradition that no one minds much except when there is construction going on and the language of the workers can be a bit colorful.

 Steve Giddins handles the job of getting the moves of the games our to the public. This is also important, though the event does not place a high priority on going live. Some people are unhappy about that, and we’d certainly prefer to give live coverage and had planned to do so this year. But circumstances way beyond our control intervened. Simpson’s has always provided for all our needs, but their owners, in the process of refurbishing the famous Savoy Hotel next door, had removed many items we had taken for granted. So we had to go out and buy things to handle the needs of the on-site spectators, who are one of our priorities.

 Thus we could not add the Internet facilities at the venue and arrange for live transmission. As our staff hotel does not have Internet, we do our reports each morning after breakfast at Ray Keene’s house. That’s why all the information goes up the morning after the games. Even in the 21st century, this is not a great delay or inconvenience, and reporters with deadlines can contact us earlier and get the results. While we’d like to go live, frankly, none of the organizers or staff are particularly troubled by the slight delay, which gives us time to provide analysis and comments from the post-mortems which Steve includes in his reports. Of course we will try to get better each year, if the event continues.

 But will it? I hope so. The foundations of the event are, however, being undermined  by a tiny minority of “termites”. These are obnoxious creatures, who almost without exception have never accomplished anything in life, have never mastered the game, and who think that editing a small-circulation chess magazine or have a website entitles them to demand that the event be organized according to their own priorities and desire.

 The organizers are subjected to abuse for many decisions, often under circumstances beyond their control, as the termites would know if they had ever in their lives attempted to put on a Grandmaster chess event. This is not to say that organizers don’t make mistakes. They do, and I have myself, often. We are all humans and in the complex process of a major event we inevitably will slip up.

 Termites give the impression that organizers and staff do nothing but drink champagne and eat fancy dinners. Yes, the Staunton does have an opening and closing ceremony where we are treated to Simpson’s famous roast beef and Yorkshire pudding and a few bottles of claret. In between it is fish and chips, take-away kabobs and curries. The staff gets breakfast expertly prepared by the chief organizer himself. Some luxury!

 Termites also complain endlessly about the players selected for the event, ignorant of scheduling conflicts, standing commitments and so on. This year termites were especially critical of the inclusion of Bob Wade, one of the great figures of British chess, recently honored by the publication of a book of his best games, in which he defeats many Grandmasters. Bob is an International Master and Arbiter, who in previous years has worked alongside me as co-arbiter and also as game commentator. He is 87 years old but retains the vitality needed to rise to the challenge of competing in a top event. He never expected to score many points against this Grandmaster field, but wanted to give it a shot. Why not?

The termites consider this some sort of crime against chess, but in fact throughout most of the 20th century round-robins included a local player of lower standard, providing some interest for the spectators and giving the Grandmasters a chance to show off. I have personally played the role of “rabbit” in a few strong events and was deeply honored by the opportunity. I even won a few games and got some draws. Nobody died.

 I’m not talking here about professional organizers and players with differences of opinion. Stewart Reuben, another great British organizer, disagrees with me vociferously about time controls (he believes in first time controls with increments, I find them an abomination), but we work together very well. Someone who has spent most of his life organizing professional chess competitions has every right to disagree with others in a respectful manner. The termites, however, have no such qualifications but act as if they have the proper answer to every question.

 Termites have an affect. They nibble away and cause the true chess workers endless grief, and organizers and staff grow tired of it and become less enthusiastic about repeating the experience. We have lost many good organizers and staff because of this. None of us are making any money on this. Ray puts in months of work with no compensation, the rest of us get expenses and a little pocket money. We do this because we like to. We enjoy seeing top chess in person, and enjoy contributing the events where great games are played. That is enough. We don’t look for honors or gratitude, tough it always nice to get kind words from the real chess fans.

 The termites threaten to destroy the Staunton, as they have destroyed many fine tournaments in the past. Keep in mind the hard work required to put on a major chess event and don’t become a termite! I hope we’ll have another fine event next year, but the insidious insects try to make this less likely.

 When you see the articles and posts of the termites ask yourself, what have these cretins ever done for chess? Then be thankful that there are people in the world willing to undertake organizing the chess events you enjoy so much. And don’t pity the termites. They’ll never be constipated.

 

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