A visit to the London Chess Classic

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

It's a little known fact that the playing venue of the London Chess Classic is actually not that easy to reach from the City. The office where I work is on the South bank of the Thames, close to London Bridge station, from where it took me no less than 1,5 hours to get to the Olympia Conference Centre, near the Kensington Olympia tube station.

Photo © Ray Morris-Hill

True, I took the subway during the evening rush hour and it was raining cats and dogs, which didn't help. As after 20 minutes there still was no sign of the already 'limited service' from Earl's Court to Kensington Olympia (which must be one of the most difficult-to-reach stations in London), I decided it was quicker to just take a taxi and at least be able to witness the time scramble. But it proved impossible to flag a cab in the congested streets of Kensington.

So I walked - in the rain - from Earl's Court to the Conference Center, where a small sign outside the building was the only evidence of the London Chess Classic tournament being held inside. I was puzzled by that small sign - wasn't the World Champion playing?

Many of my London-based colleagues reacted with wonder, even disbelief, when I told them a chess tournament with the world's best players was currently being held in their town. 'Why would they ever want to go to London?' asked one, while another was surprised that in this computer-age there were still professional chess players at all. As far as I could see the local newspapers made no mention of the event, nor did I see announcements in the subway or on billboards.

When I came in, Carlsen and Nakamura had already finished their game and were analysing it on stage in the commentary room. After that, the audience was allowed to ask questions. When someone asked the players what they thought of each other, before either of them could answer one of the hosts remarked that the players were surely 'tired and had answered enough questions already', and were now excused. I think such a thing, both effective and rude at the same time, simply wouldn't be possible in The Netherlands.

Walking around the tournament site, especially the amateur groups, made me realize how lonely an activity chess can be. I didn't know a single participant! Thus I felt utterly excluded from the London chess scene, which seemed familiar and yet utterly strange, and I suddenly wondered if I would continue playing chess if I didn't have people to talk to during a game.

I went to check out the 'press room', but this turned out to be a completely deserted area with a bunch of network cables sticking out of the wall. The 'VIP room' was a restricted area where journalists where not allowed, at least according to the lovely lady guarding the entrance. A refreshing experience for anyone who acts blasé about visiting lively press rooms in his own country.

Next, Anand and Howell came on stage to talk about their game. Someone in the audience asked Vishy if he was already 'hiding his preparation' in view of his match with Gelfand, next year. To that, the World Champion remarked that 'you probably shouldn't believe my answer anyway', which I thought was both witty and telling. Young David Howell was visibly taken aback by a lady from the audience who told him at great length that he shouldn't give up chess in favour of a job because, you know, he had so much talent and it was just a waste if he quit it. Again, I doubt this would ever happen in The Netherlands.

Visiting the tournament made me think about what a good chess tournament should provide. The London Chess Classic has received nothing but praise all over, and most of it is justified. The internet coverage of the tournament is simply superb and so is the commentary, which has all available media and tools at its disposal.

At the same time, I felt there was a strange disconnect between the elite and the amateurs here. In Wijk aan Zee, both super grandmasters and beginners are always playing in the same area; in London the top players had their own auditorium and stage where absolute silence reigned.

Despite the presence of so many world-class players, the tournament still made a very 'local' impression on me. I hardly saw any visiting grandmasters (but then I wasn't allowed in the VIP room!), let alone foreign amateurs (except those invited by the tournament organization), and I didn't see any foreign press either, except for Macauley Peterson, who just seems to be everywhere, always.

While I waited - in the rain - for the train to take me back to the City, I noticed a fresh appreciation for the distant location of the playing hall. Why would the organizers need one closer to, say, London Bridge? After all, organizing a good tournament isn't about attracting tourists, or foreigners like myself - it's about cherishing local chess culture; about providing great chess coverage on internet and on stage; and about chess players enjoying themselves.

That's what chess needs.

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