A Day In The Doha Desert

A Day In The Doha Desert

| 32 | Chess Event Coverage

After Peter Doggers's preview of the players and schedule at the second Qatar Masters Open, here's a look at the setting of one of the strongest opens in chess history. 

The wealth of Qatar is strikingly new, so some readers may be unaware of the history or landscape of the terrain. The country is barely older than one of its high-profile players (Vladimir Kramnik and Qatar were both born in the 1970s). For a quick and candid look at the locals who've been born with a "winning lottery ticket" you can read the chapter of the same name in "The Geography of Bliss" by Eric Weiner.

The fossil fuels beneath the surface have fostered some impressive sites, and like the universe itself it seems the expansion of the skyline continues to accelerate. The main host hotel is the Torch (Aspire Tower) which is the tallest of Qatar's 34 highrises that top 100 meters (all of which have been built in the last two decades). The land is pancake flat -- all 34 of those spires trump the country's highest natural elevation (95m).

And here's a worms-eye view in the daytime. Flags are everywhere since Qatar National Day was yesterday, but that protrusion in the tower's midsection is permanent -- the pool is cantilevered off the steel and glass structure.

Here's the view whilst standing at the "unsupported" end of the pool:

About halfway up the tower you'll find the quaint pool deck. (Photo: David Llada)

The tower was formerly the focal point of the 2006 Asian Games, but this year will simply serve to house the players. The playing site is actually inside one section of a women's-only sport and fitness facility about 100 meters from the hotel (a special entrance will be used for the tournament). Like those Asian Games, the hosts have chosen December to host the event, where the high temperature will hover in the mid-70s F (24C) most days.

Khalifa International Stadium, with Doha's ubiquitous cranes resizing it for the 2022 World Cup, which will also be in winter.

The world champion is known to squeeze in sports whenever he can (usually football or basketball) but he was nowhere to be found on this perfectly-manicured pitch:

The "Aspire Zone" advertisements pronounce the goal of becoming the world's elite sports training academy.

Maybe Carlsen has taken up a new hobby? Actually most of the country's people are expats -- foreign workers dominate the interactions most visitors have.

Unlike last year, the complex is quite a distance from the city center and its famous corniche. About 30 minutes by taxi and through the haze you get to the downtown complex and most of the other tall towers.

The view of downtown from the Torch pool.

The haze prevented a clear view, but here it is captured from a different view:

One of Qatar's major industries before oil and gas was pearl hunting in the waters offshore. (Photo: Alla Oborina)

For better or worse, a visit to Doha will remind many of home. Most of the big western brands are represented and shopping malls become all-in-one entertainment centers. In one mall, you can drop kids off at an indoor waterpark, shop at Gucci, eat at Macaroni Grill, have dessert at Baskin Robbins, watch the new "Star Wars" on an IMAX screen, then go ice skating afterward.

The local McDonald's delivers in case you don't want to "go native" and brave the roads that Weiner discusses in his book.

One such "complex" is attached to the Torch -- the Villagio Mall. If that sounds like a portmanteau of two words you've heard of, you're right. The mall is essentially a recreation of the Las Vegas hotels Venetian and Bellagio, complete with a fake-cloud roof to replace an otherwise hazy blue sky!

What's old is new, which is really old again. Ancient transport, gondolas, in a new mall, in a new country, but essentially a replica of Las Vegas.

Local men usually wear long white flowing robes, while the traditional garb of women is an equally emcompassing black dress called an abayha. Some wear a niqab so only their eyes show, while others cover only their hair (relatively few cover their eyes as well -- there is quite a wide variation in what women choose to wear).

Three Qatari women cross a bridge in the Aspire Zone.

After sunset the opening ceremony began (which was short on speeches but included dinner). One thing not on the menu? Alcohol. While it is available at many upscale hotels in Qatar (and at one lone store if you are a Qatari resident), the Torch is completely a dry hotel. The upside for would-be bar patrons is that the fruit juices, mocktails and teas are elaborate.

Tournament organizer and strongest-ever Qatari GM Mohammed Al-Modiahki with other dignitaries and two world champions, Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik.

GM Anish Giri ensures that the world top three are all here. He poses with wife WGM Sopiko Guramishvili.

Special women's prizes totalling $17,500 have enticed some top female brass to Doha, including GM Hou Yifan.

GM Hou Yifan and a young fan: the photographer's daughter! (Photo: David Llada)

GMs Antoaneta Stefanova and Alexandra Kosteniuk dined together at the opening ceremony.

After the London Classic's paltry 10 wins in nine rounds, the 150 or so players will surely end the tournament year by creating a little more chaos. There's even not one but two "Carlsens" playing. They will "bookend" the grandmasters -- Magnus is of course the highest-rated while GM Pontus Carlsson is the lowest-rated of the grandmasters.

So will there be fire on board? The first move has yet to be played but the answer is already "yes!"

At the drawing of lots a magician mesmorized Carlsen with fire, distracting everyone long enough to reveal two chess pieces. The world champion chose the hand holding a white piece.

The tournament will feature nearly 80 GMs, even more that this year's Aeroflot Open. Since Qatar Airways is one of the sponsors, other organizers should take note -- getting the national airline involved is the "ticket" to a strong event!

The first round is Sunday, December 20 at 3pm local time (GMT+3) and you can follow all the games live with commentators GM Peter Svidler and GM Alejandro Ramirez at or at the official site.

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