Review: On the Edge of Elista, Topalov-Kramnik 2006

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

When the editor in chief asked me to review this book, I knew it wasn't going to be easy. Almost everything has already been said about the controversial match between Veselin Topalov and Vladimir Kramnik, which was held in Elista slighty more than a year ago. For this review I wanted something new to write about. So, let me give a small disclaimer in advance: this review is not about the actual Toiletgate controversy and the arguments from both camps. Instead, I will try to focus on the perspective and the general idea behind the book. In my opinion, it is not at all about 'Toiletgate', but about something else altogether.

Great news So, we finally have the English translation (published by Russell Enterprises) of the book Toaletnata Voyna (Toilet war) by the Bulgarian journalist Zhivko Ginchev. The English title is less sensational, and more to the point: Topalov-Kramnik, 2006 World Chess Championship - On the Edge of Elista. Remember, this is supposed to be the book that, according to the Bulgarian team, would reveal new and important 'evidence' for all sorts of allegations that were made during and after the match. Well, the book is definitely full of insinuations and allegations, but it's not about evidence.

The original Bulgarian edition, which I have here in front of me, consists of personal impressions and anecdotes by Ginchev, who is also the sole author for that edition. During the match, Ginchev was in Elista together with the Bulgarian team.

From a first glance, the Bulgarian edition looks slightly more attractive than the English one. For starters, it contains a lot of good colour-photographs and at least there is no confusion about who's the author.

The English edition is more ambiguous. There are now two authors, namely Topalov and Ginchev, and on the back it says: 'This is Topalov's very personal account.' Ginchev is now only mentioned as 'co-author'. This is clearly unfair to Ginchev, who wrote most of the book. Indeed, most of the book is an exact translation of Ginchev's Bulgarian text. I guess it's the usual marketing trick, so we'll forgive the publisher for this. The colour-photographs are gone, though, and have been replaced by a lot of ... diagrams and in-depth analysis by Topalov.

The latter is, of course, great news. There's also a very extensive preface written by Topalov himself. In it, he shares his personal thoughts and feelings about the match and also about the situation in the chess world in the (recent) past and his expectations for the future. (It was written before the most recent World Championship in Mexico, won by Anand.)

Uncle Nachko At the start, it seemed to me that the 64,000 dollar question would be this: does the book convince us that the Russians might have cheated, as the Bulgarian team claims? But while I was reading, I slowly realized that the book wasn't exactly about that at all... Anyway, I promised to focus on other things than arguments alone.

Zhivko GinchevThe first thing to note is that Ginchev, who did most of the writing, may be a good journalist, but he sure isn't a great writer. Of course he can't be blamed for including some couleur locale, and we sure won't blame him for writing something about the tourist trips he made together with the other Bulgarians, or about the quality of the food and the quantity of drinks. But he obviously wasn't restrained in any way at all, as is clear from the following typical fragment:

I ordered coffee, sat in front of the computer and opened the Bulgarian sports websites. A piece of news made me shiver. The football god had taken Uncle Nachko for the heavenly team. He was my favorite player. I was a crazy fan of the team Loko (Sofia) since my childhood. My father, may he rest in peace, never missed a match on TV and when Loko played anywhere near Haskovo we were always at the stadium. I will never forget my mother nagging while he wrapped the shawls around my brother and me, not uttering a word against her arguments that it was cold and snowing. My father was the only supporter of Loko in our village and he had the respect of all supporters of the Levski and CSKA teams. We had a big TV set at the time and most of the fans of the village came to watch matches at our home...

And on it goes, for another whole paragraph, without the slightest suggestion that it has anything to do with the match, the players, the setting, or the match situation. For a book about one of the most exciting chess matches in history, it sure contains an awful lot of unexciting prose.

Don KingOf course, there are moments where Ginchev does make a worthwile comment - like comparing Topalov's manager Silvio Danailov with boxing-promoter Don King - but one immediately wonders whether Ginchev, who apparently meant it as a way to praise Danailov, was aware of King's criminal past.

Which brings me to a more crucial point: Ginchev the observer is completely biased. This is pretty bad news for any journalist, in my opinion, but it's even worse news for readers who had hoped to read an objective or at least honest account of the match. For a book that aims to play an important role in revealing any 'evidence' about 'the truth', it couldn't have done worse.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not talking about any arguments, about who's right or wrong. I'm talking about the style, the perspective, and the author's voice itself that destroys all credibility in any objective point of view. Let me make this clear for now with two examples.

p. 36 [Before the match, when they spot a couple of police officers]: "We'll be watched everywhere here, no kidding," I mumbled at breakfast. [And this is the man who's going to write an objective report about the match?]

p. 119 [After checking some opinions on web forums about the 'scandal']: Bulgarian forums of course expressed support, but I was amazed to see that even in Russian forums lots of people thought sensibly and didn't blindly accept Kramnik's position. [When the Bulgarians support Topalov, it's normal, but when Russians don't all support Kramnik, they're 'sensible'.]

From these indirect remarks it's pretty clear to me that Ginchev, however hard he's trying to be objective and 'showing both sides of the story' (e.g. by publishing the open letters from the Kramnik team as well), is actually not objective.

Hit by a train But wait a minute, you might object, how do you know the book is supposed to be objective in the first place? Didn't it say at the back that it's a personal account of the things that happened?

Well, let me turn the question around: suppose it's not an objective account. We would then expect subjective, outspoken opinions all the time. But there are almost none, except between the lines like the examples above. Why copy-paste all letters, statements, documents without any comments or remarks at all? Why only quote opinions and suspicions uttered by others? It had better be an objective account!

Again, a few examples:

p. 62 [Right before the second game, when someone of the Bulgarian team has noticed that Kramnik visits the toilets a lot]:
"We must request the videotapes from his room!" the General [Djonkov] snapped. "They said all spectators will be checked for mobile phones, but it's just rubbish," said the Psychic [Georgiev]. "There were even people with their phones switched on. These supposedly 'rigid security measures' might just turn out to be a complete sham." "Let's see what happens today and then we'll write an official letter to Bovaev," the Manager said.

Now you'd expect the journalist Ginchev to ask at least a sensible question, like 'did you happen to take any photographs of these people with phones?' or: 'perhaps Kramnik just likes to use the space of his bathroom?'. And even if he wasn't very sharp that day, you would definitely expect anyone to be anxious to watch for himself what would happen in the playing hall... But what does Ginchev do? He walks away to watch the game from the internet. That's right: from the internet - where you can only follow the moves, not the actual situation in the playing hall or on stage.

p. 119 [After the fourth game, when there has just been an inspection in Kramnik's bathroom:]
"What happened, did you find anything during the check?" I asked straight from the door? The General was smiling but said nothing. The Psychic was on the phone and the Manager went up to his room in silence. "Come on, guys, tell me," I insisted. "Give me the cable for the camera to download the pictures and you'll see for yourself," Paren said. "We found a computer cable in the ceiling." I felt like I'd been hit by a train. "You're kidding, aren't you?"

I remember what I thought when I first heard the news about the cable in Kramnik's bathroom: 'Surely they've checked Topalov's bathroom too?' And I'm pretty sure the next thing I thought was: 'But what good's a cable without a device for Kramnik to connect to?' or something else to make sense of it all. And so, it seemed, was everybody else. But I don't recall anyone feeling like they'd been hit by a train...

The problem with the Russians But enough already. No single critical question is raised by Ginchev throughout the book, no issue resolved, no evidence presented (except for the 'evidence' we already knew about anyway.) Let's not waste time on this anymore - let's see what Topalov himself has to say about the match. After all, Ginchev is just Ginchev, but Topalov is one of the greatest players in the history of chess.

Topalov is very clear about his intention in the preface:

I won't claim to have written a great book. I do not claim that the game annotations are perfect. (...) Neither in my view of the match as a whole do I claim to be totally objective, but readers should find it interesting to learn about my personal experiences and feelings during those weeks in Elista. I have tried to make sure that what I've written makes sense.

This sounds fair enough. I found most of his chess-related comments rather brief, and where Topalov does write more extensive, it's more about politics, psychology and his feelings about the match situation.

In the preface, Topalov makes some valid points about some of the chaos of previous World Championship matches. His explanation of the current status-quo in the chess world also makes a lot of sense to me, especially when he remarks: "But the truth is that almost all the champions have taken advantage of privileges to some extent. It's hard to blame them; this is human nature" and a few pages later he goes on to say that "what made Silvio and me interested in a match with Kramnik was not moral principle, but a financially attractive offer."

At moments like these, Topalov is like a true gentleman who's not too arrogant to admit that he knows what it's like to be out there. And he doesn't really have such hard, principled feelings towards some of his colleagues at all.

Or does he? Right when I felt all sympathetic towards Topalov again, look what he also writes about Kramnik:

"His style is often described as boring."
[Well, people write a lot.]

"He's not a good team leader, because his personal interest is always more important than the team's. Practically all teams with Kramnik at board one fail."

These cheap remarks remind me of a man I once heard complaining about Dutch soccer genius Dennis Bergkamp that he 'doesn't score enough' - as if you can only be a really good soccer player when you score a lot of goals.

It gets more serious a few lines further:

I do not think that Vladimir actually believes that he is the best player on the planet, and this is why he keeps trying to obtain an advantage before starting to play. Obsessed with the idea of keeping the title at any cost, he will not balk at violating ethical principles. I am informed that the next match may be held in Germany, in which case it will be organized by his own manager Hensel and sponsored by Josef Resch, a German businessman who openly roots for Kramnik."

This is a serious insinuation, and it's supported by what? Only by a vague rumour. What's going on? Where's the fair and reasonable Topalov now? Could it be that there is a more deeply-rooted reason for Topalov's sudden bitter tone of voice?

Indeed there is. We get the full picture on the next page:

I fear we may return to an old double standard quite familiar to the chess world: that all players are equal, but Russian World Champions are more equal than others.

In my opinion, this is the most revealing statement of the book. It's not about cables, it's not about bathrooms, it's not even about proving who's right in the end - it's about getting even with those evil Russians.

And suddenly it shows everywhere, both in Topalov's and Ginchev's prose. For example, Ginchev writes that when people from Kalmykkia seem to support Kramnik, it's obviously because they're afraid of Russian pressure. On the other hand, Kalmyks who support Topalov are obviously fed up with the Russian pressure. Any which way you look at it, Russian pressure is to blame. This example is even somewhat funny, and so is the fact that while Topalov and the Bulgarians try to convince the reader that it's impossible for any foreigner to become World Champion in a Russian state like Kalmykkia, Ginchev also proudly writes that the Bulgarian Antoneta Stefanova became Women's World Champion in 2004 in ... Elista. Very convincing!

But it's not all funny. Here's Danailov talking about the supposed cheating:
It then struck me that Ilyumzhinov too was backed into a corner by the Russians. He knows about the computer, but he must close his eyes because his bosses from the Kremlin will take off his head.

And even though it's understandable that the anti-Russian sentiments sprung up when it was announced that Anna Politkovskaya had been shot (p. 170), I couldn't help noticing that right in the middle of discussion about politican murders in Russia, the conversation abruptly switches to ... Kramnik. Perhaps I'm starting to become paranoid, so I'll stop right here.

A small plus without any risk On the Edge of Elista is one of the most curious chess books I have read in a long time. It's clear to me that there's still a lot of frustration on the Bulgarian side, but not so much, I think, because of the 'toilet scandal'. After all, there is no new evidence whatsoever in the book, just more vagueness, like 'the number of toilet visits obviously exceeded the norm' (Which norm? Set by whom?).

No, the key theme of the book is the ever-present fear and suspicion against Russia. To be sure, even a superficial look at the material makes clear that the Russians probaby did try to make life a little tougher for the Bulgarian team, with all sorts of small annoyances. I have lived in Russia myself, and I know these things just happen. Russia is not Sweden - but neither is Bulgaria. And of course political murders are horrible and Russian politics is far from trustworthy at the moment. But it's a long step from such small annoyances to a grand all-Russian conspiracy theory, all the way up to the Kremlin.

And even in the small irritations, there are some strange inconsistencies in the stories by Topalov and Ginchev. Ginchev, for example, spends a good deal of space trying to show that there were many problems with the food, whereas Topalov simply states that the food was good. Whoever is right in this: why didn't some editor notice?

I will end this review on a positive note. After all, they really did also play chess in Elista. Topalov is rightly famous for his instructive explanations, and when I read a comment like this, I become very happy indeed:

Here I realized that my opening choice had been wrong, as Black was not able to get a playable position. After the objectively correct [moves], White plays e2-e4, Bc1-e3, f2-f3 and the ending reminds me of those we get from the classical line in the Nimzo-Indian with 4.Qc2, endings my opponent likes so much as White. There White has a small plus without any risk, and that was exactly the kind of position I wanted to avoid.

That's more like it! (By the way: in a recent review for Chess Today, GM Steingrimsson rated the book with 5 out of 5 stars, as I understand it mainly because Topalov's commentary is very personal and psychologically revealing. It's true Topalov is very honest in the book, but in my opinion his emotions too often somewhat stood in the way of more chess-relevant comments like the one above. Or perhaps GM Steingrimsson needs less explicit chess explanations than a mere mortal like myself.)

Anyway, Topalov is still young: let's hope he changes his mind soon. Another match with Kramnik will be eagerly anticipated not only by me, but by all chess players who like chess better than conspiracy theories.
More from CM ArnieChipmunk
Why chess will never be popular

Why chess will never be popular

In praise of draws

In praise of draws