|Chess Fever in Norway
|By GM Ian Rogers
|June 9, 2014
Sunday afternoon in Stavanger, the heart of fjordland in Norway.
The Scandic Hotel lobby is crammed with visitors, old and young. Half a dozen Minis, painted black and white and emblazoned with 'No Logo Norway Chess 2014', are lined up outside the hotel.
A makeshift studio for the web broadcast of newspaper VG has been erected in the middle of the lobby where pundits chat and move pieces around on a giant (horizontal) demonstration board for six hours, continuing long after the final game had concluded.
Journalists with microphones are constantly making live crosses back to the TV2 studios in Bergen, the television station which won the bidding war to cover Norway Chess 2014. The playing hall has 100 of the 150 seats filled, mostly with adults who have paid $40 for a day pass to watch one of the strongest tournaments of 2014.
Outside the hall, dozens of children, as young as six or seven, prefer to gather in the hotel lobby and compete against each other on the many chess sets provided. Their time will come - as soon as the games finish a pack of pre-teen locusts gather around the players, pressing for autographs.
After escaping the children, the players are led from interview to interview; first the informed but generally sympathetic questioning of commentary hosts Nigel Short and Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam followed by some tough and well researched questions,from the mainstream Norwegian media.
"I can't explain my blunder," said Caruana after losing a drawn rook endgame to Kramnik. "Why can't you explain it?" shot back the reply. Kramnik, who might have been expecting congratulations on his win was questioned hard on why he would not be shaking hands with Topalov at the start of the following day's game. We learned that since Topalov had never apologized for his cheating allegations during the Toiletgate World Championship match of 2006, Kramnik would not be shaking Topalov's hand and that this was a firm 'principle'. By the end of the series of direct questions by the TV2 interviewer, Kramnik was probably wondering, even to himself, whether his behavior was principled or childish.
Even commentator Short was ambushed by a VG interviewer wanting to know why he had written an obituary about fellow English GM Tony Miles which included mention of sleeping with Miles' girlfriend as revenge for Miles taking board one at the 1986 Dubai Olympiad. Rather than adopt the "I was young and stupid back then" defense, Short doubled down and explained that this anecdote was necessary in the obituary to provide a "balanced" picture of Miles. The interview was no doubt embarrassing for Short but great television for Norwegian chess fans.
For US chess fans who can remember the Fischer boom circa 1972, such scenes might bring back memories - though Shelby Lyman was commentating in a more innocent era, when two flies in a chair was a big story and Fischer's moves were revered, rather than constantly overruled by the ever-present Houdini.
However just as with the Fischer boom, Norwegian chess fever is down to just one man, Magnus Carlsen; though it might be more correct to say that everything started with Carlsen winning the World Championship last November.
The first Norway Chess tournament in May 2013 was a brilliant tournament - technically almost perfect - but even on weekends the number of spectators was relatively modest.
12 months later a huge admission fee (even by Norwegian standards) has not kept the crowds away and the domestic media presence has multiplied threefold. (Fortunately for organiser Kjell Madland, the upsurge in interest in chess has enabled him to multiply the budget by a similar amount. What other tournament can afford 13 Mini Coopers to ferry the players and accompanying people around? Or, more importantly, to provide a lavish banquet of tropical fruit and gourmet wraps for the press?)
The one missing ingredient - until Sunday - was success by the local hero.
Carlsen drew his first four games, narrowly escaping against Fabiano Caruana in round three and suffered the ignominy of finding himself tied with his former coach, Simen Agdestein.
Agdestein, 47, who qualified for the match by beating young star and Carlsen second Jon-Ludwig Hammer in a match, was expected to be too old and too weak to survive in a field which included seven of the top nine in the world. (Anand and Nakamura were the missing links - the latter busy beating David Navara in a match in Prague.)
However Agdestein has more than held his own, drawing his first five rounds and missing serious winning chances against the Russian pair Sergey Karjakin and Alexander Grischuk.
After drawing with Agdestein in the fourth round, Kramnik explained, "Before the tournament I thought it would be difficult for Simen to compete on equal terms against the best players in the world. Of course he used to be a very strong player [Agdestein peaked at world number 16. IR] but then he didn't play for a bit and he is the oldest player. But by today I already realised that it would not be so easy - you don't lose class. [On the positive side] he has given me hope that I can play longer than I expected!"
In round 5 Carlsen looked to be in trouble against world number two Levon Aronian until the Armenian lost his way...
Stavanger Round 5
White: M.Carlsen Black: L.Aronian
Position after Black's 31st move
Aronian's last move, 31...c6! created a huge threat of 32...Bb5 and Carlsen must take desperate measures to stop it. ("At the start of the tournament I felt that I was playing well, but now... I was just outplayed today," said Carlsen.) At this stage Carlsen, through his body language, was showing exactly how bad he believed his position to be, constantly stretching and- the giveaway - sitting side-on in his chair.
Aronian was more worried about 32.Qa5 h5 33.Rcc2 but then 33...Qd3! keeps Black on top. 32...Qb3?
Suddenly Carlsen sat bolt upright and began to calculate intently. After 32...h5, keeping the White knight corralled, he would probably have remained half-asleep - literally, since it turned out that Carlsen had been unable to sleep the previous night, catching 40 winks only at 10am until shortly before the game.
Sheer panic. Had Carlsen not suddenly adopted the pose of a winner, Aronian might have found 3...Bb5!, with the point that after 34.Rxa7 Black can afford 34...Bxe2 because after 35.Ra8+ Kc7! 36.Qa5+ Kd7 the Black king escapes.
34.Qxd1 Bxd1 35.Re1 Bh5 36.g4 Be8 37.Rea1 Rf2 38.Rxa7 Rb2 39.Nf1 Kc7 40.Ra8 Kxb7
The final move of the time control turns out to be fatal. 40...Rxb7 would offer saving chances. 41.R1a7+ Kb6 42.Re7! Rbf2 43.Rb8+ Ka6 44.Ng3 Bg6 45.Rxf8 Rxf8 46.Re6
and Carlsen won a pawn and the game 47 moves later.
Carlsen thereby moved to within half a point of the lead while Aronian dropped back below 50%.
Carlsen might have been expecting to be trailing Caruana, who had won his first two games and had chances to win the following two as well, but the Italian was taken down by Vladimir Kramnik, following some Carlsen-like psychology by Kramnik in a drawn endgame.
Stavanger Round 5
White: V.Kramnik Black: F.Caruana
Position after Black's 44th move.
Kramnik had been unable to do anything with his extra pawn for many moves - "I was expecting to be able to invade on the h file but it never happened," said Kramnik - so he makes a final throw of the dice.
45.Rd2!? Bxb3 46.Bxb3 Rxb3 47.Rd5 a4 48.Ra5 a3 49.Ke5 Kf7 50.Ra7+ Ke8??
"I had seen 50...Kf8! when analysing 45...Bxb3," said Caruana, "and I cannot explain why I didn't play it." Without an invasion square on g7 White can make no progress, e.g. 51.Ke6 Rb6+ 52.Kd7 Rb3 53.e5 Rd3+ 54.Kc6 and now 54...Ke8 is safe enough but even 54...a2!? 55.Rxa2 Ke7 draws comfortably.
51.Kf6! Rb6+ 52.Kg7 1-0
Kramnik was somewhat surprised by the early resignation but White has a choice of winning methods, the simplest being 52.Kg7 Rb3 53.Kxg6 Rf3 54.e5 Re3 55.Kf5 Rf3+ 56.Ke4 Rg3 57.Kf4 Rb3 and now the White pawns are ready to march to victory via 58.g6 with 59.e6 to follow.
So just after the halfway point in Norway Chess, Kramnik, despite suffering from a cold, has taken the lead with 3.5/5, with Carlsen and Caruana half a point further back. Any one of half a dozen players could yet win, but few would be willing to bet against Carlsen adding another title to his collection. "If I was forced to put my money on a winner, I would still put it on Magnus," said Kramnik the day before Carlsen won his first game!
** The Norway Chess tournament continues until Friday, with games starting at 9.30am AEST (Round 9 at 8.30am AEST).
** For those wondering why Norway Chess is called No Logo Norway Chess, this is not, sad to say, a tribute to the Canadian author Naomi Klein's influential book No Logo but because the tournament sponsor, Unibet, is a betting company and therefore cannot be promoted in Norway.