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Fun and Games in Sofia Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
May 16, 2007
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Nisipeanu, Topalov and Kamsky on the soccer field. Photo Macauley Peterson

by Macauley Peterson

SOFIA, BULGARIA East of Stillwater, Oklahoma by oh, about 5,800 miles, Gata Kamsky struggled tenaciously on defense, but yielded several points, his rivals getting the better of him in the first half of play. Mamedyarov took the lead at the half way point, and also defended well.The Bulgarian favorite, Veselin Topalov, was taken down early, but showed signs of life late. These three, and three more world class grandmasters, were all competing in the Bulgarian capital city of Sofia on Tuesday, but they weren’t playing chess; they were playing “football!” (Read: Soccer!)

In what must be one of the best chess marketing moves in recent years, all six players in the M-Tel Masters super-tournament participated in an exhibition match against members of the Levski professional football team, in their home stadium just outside of central Sofia. The grandmasters fought hard, and even took the lead 3-2 at one point on a Mamedyarov goal that was cheered by all.

Mamedyarov is also tied for the lead in the main event, and the parallels to the chess don’t end there. Krishnan Sasikiran, unaccustomed to facing such high level competition, rose to the occasion and scored the first goal for the "Chess United" team, which delighted his second, the former Soviet Champion Lev Psakhis, almost as much as Sasikiran's win against Kamsky on Saturday.

Kamsky had a few nice saves, but let several balls get past him during his time in the goal.

Topalov was clipped by an opponent and cried foul, drawing the only yellow card of the day from referee, and M-Tel chief executive officer, Josef Vinatzer, but the grandmaster bounced back to score on the ensuring penalty kick.


Topalov on the ground.

Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu, the Romanian veteran, showed some nice moves, but played a bit erratically.


Nisipeanu's ponytail flapped wildly in the wind during the soccer match

England’s Michael Adams was regrettably absent from “the pitch,” leaving after the first few minutes, due to a prior injury, but he remains in good form at the chess board. Adams is in second place with 3 points, a half game behind the leader Mamedyarov. Topalov’s second, Ivan Cheparinov, became a last minute substitute at Levski stadium, and even ten-year-old Kiprian Berbatov, a new Bulgarian talent was allowed a few minutes on the field towards the end.

Even with the extra foot the chess players faltered down the stretch, as the pros eventually got down to business and scored several times in the second half to finish with the win at 6-4.

Following the football, Levski captain Hristo Yovov, an A-player, had white against Topalov in the chess portion of this “footchess” match, and escaped with a draw after the grandmaster decided not to risk making a mistake in time pressure against his much weaker opponent, and generously conceded the half point.

Veselin Topalov expresses mixed feelings on being the local hero.

Topalov has had real problems in the tournament, falling unexpectedly to Nisipeanu in the first round. “Vesko,” as he’s known here in Bulgaria, explained that there is no “home court” advantage in chess because heightened expectations actually make it harder to focus at the board. He has many fans here, but they can’t cheer during the game to put pressure on his opponents, but only after the game to celebrate his victories, the first and only win thus far coming Sunday, over Sasikiran.




Shakhriyar Mamedyarov from Azerbaijan

Mamedyarov appears notably determined, both at the board and off. He has confidently explained that he deserves the points he’s won, and feels very comfortable here in Sofia. Here is his first round win against Gata Kamsky:



At a press conference over the weekend he extolled the virtues of the playing site and hotel rooms at the Grand Hotel Sofia, the nearby parks, the food, and as of Monday night he was even headed to a local disco following the elegant “black and white” cocktail party held in honor of the tournament in the garden behind the hotel.


The chess carpet led to the elegant "Black and White" party.

Kamsky, who currently shares the bottom of the scoretable (but is only a full point away from sharing the top!) did not expect to repeat his surprising domination of the field from the 2006 M-Tel Masters. His main aim has been to get in some hardcore practice at the 2700 level to warm up for his candidates match coming up in Elista against Etienne Bacrot of France. For Gata, the world championship cycle, naturally, takes precedence over the ongoing US Championship, a continent away.

Kamsky drew with Topalov and Adams in rounds 4 and 5, and in round 6, he signalled a possible turn-around with a victory over the tournament leader Mamedyarov:



It’s back to the grind for all the players with four more rounds to go under the special Sofia rules, which prohibit discretionary draw offers. All the players profess indifference to the strict rules when it comes to their own play, but it’s unlikely we would have reached at least some of the deep endgames extending to the seventh hour of play. Adams and Mamedyarov played to the lone kings on Monday in a battle for the lead.

The football provided a welcome diversion for the players, in addition to a wonderful spectacle for the media – the game was broadcast on several local TV stations. One “scandal” broke out, however, after a last second goal by Cheparinov was rejected by the referee because it came moments after the final whistle. Today we learned that an “official protest” to FIDE and the United European Football Association (UEFA) was launched, and the game is to be “replayed.” I suggested foosball, but the organizers are opting to schedule the game for May 13, 2008, at next year’s M-Tel Masters.

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Vitosha Boulevard in Sofia (with Vitosha Mountain in the background!)

Standings After round 6

1-2 3.5 Shakhriyar Mamedyarov - Azerbaijan 2757 and Krishnan Sasikiran - India 2690
3-4 3.0 Michael Adams - England 2734 and Veselin Topalov - Bulgaria 2772
5-6 2.5 Gata Kamsky - USA 2705 and Liviu-Dieter Nisipeanu - Romania 2693

Macauley Peterson is covering the M-Tel Masters tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria for, Chess Life Online and the ICC Chess.FM webcast. He may be reached at MacauleyPeterson.com

 
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