Chess: British championship dominated by veterans as over-the-board returns

Over-the-board competitive chess is back in earnest this week, after fully 18 months of pandemic cancellations and postponements. The British championship at Hull University has its final round on Sunday, the US championship in St Louis began on Wednesday while the Russian championship Superfinal at Ufa has its opening round on Saturday.

There will be a new first-time British champion when the nine-round 2021 final ends at the University of Hull. Despite a prize fund of nearly £5,000, with £2,000 for the winner, none of the top six English grandmasters with 2600-plus ratings (Michael Adams, Luke McShane, David Howell, Gawain Jones, Nigel Short and Matthew Sadler) is competing, nor is Ravi Haria, 22, whose recent successes have brought him within a few rating points of the grandmaster title. Howell plays in the Fide Grand Swiss, which starts in Riga on 25 October, an event where in 2019 he got within one game of qualifying for the 2020 Candidates, while Sadler is providing daily commentary at Hull.

The upshot is a field where most of the rating favourites are veterans in their 40s or even 60s, while some cautious play among the early front runners led to a bunched field at halfway. With three of the nine rounds to go GMs Andrew Ledger, 52, Mark Hebden, 63, and the top seed, Nick Pert, 40, shared the lead on 4.5/6. Another four players were half a point further behind. Pert checkmated the Scottish prodigy Freddy Gordon with an unusual final move.

For Magnus Carlsen, it is time for change. The world champion easily converted his big lead in the online Meltwater Champions Tour to the $100,000 first prize despite losing two of his final three matches. His main Tour rival, the US champion, Wesley So, dropped to fourth behind Teimour Radjabov and Levon Aronian in the final stages, and was also outclassed by Carlsen in their individual match. Radjabov has sometimes had a bad press, but the Azerbaijani showed his class when he defeated the No 1 by sophisticated positional play.

Carlsen confirmed he will now concentrate on preparing for his $2m, 14-game global title defence in Dubai, starting on 14 November, against his Russian challenger, Ian Nepomniachtchi. So far both contestants have adopted a low-key approach to the forthcoming series, but the entry list, or rather the absentee list, for the Russian Championship Superfinal could be very significant.

The two top seeds at Ufa are the second-line grandmasters Dmitry Andreikin and Nikita Vitiugov, with a young challenge likely from the 19-year-old Andrey Esipenko. But where are the world No 8, Alexander Grischuk, the eight-time champion Peter Svidler, Carlsen’s 2016 challenger, Sergey Karjakin, the strategist Vladislav Artemiev who caused Carlsen so much trouble on the online Tour, and Carlsen’s creative ideas man Daniil Dubov? The implication is that some at least of the missing names are toiling away at Nepomniachtchi’s training camp, seeking out opening novelties or probing for weaknesses in the Norwegian’s repertoire

Success at Dubai for Nepomniachtchi would imply much more than a new name at the very top of world chess. The game needs sponsors, and Carlsen’s Play Magnus Group has been highly successful in finding international backers for its online tour, which will have support from Mastercard in 2022. In contrast, Fide has relied heavily on Russian cities, Russian state-backed firms and cities with connections to Fide officials.

Fide was widely criticised last week after it announced that its 2022 women’s events, including the world championship match, will be sponsored by the breast enlargement company Motiva, but it seems the move was a calculated risk. The sponsorship is substantial, perhaps the largest ever for the women’s game, and can make a real difference to the tiny number of professional female players in western nations.

If new events like the Women’s World Teams and the Women’s Grand Swiss lead to a higher profile for female chess in the US and western Europe, the improvement will reduce the current lopsided situation in the women’s game where only the former USSR nations plus China and India are serious contenders and that in turn may attract more sponsors.

A real life Beth Harmon would be a better solution, of course, but the chances of a third female prodigy emerging to follow Judit Polgar and Hou Yifan seem remote.

Even more hangs for Fide on the result in Dubai. Whether or not history assesses Carlsen as the greatest of all time, he has already done as much or more to popularise chess globally than any other previous world champion. The Norwegian has become a media personality without needing the political props which made Bobby Fischer, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov controversial figures. Yet Carlsen’s appeal to sponsors also rests significantly on his world crown and No 1 status, which may be seriously at risk in a contest with a high proportion of draws as happened in 2016 and 2018.

Nepomniachtchi is a different personality, more laconic and less outgoing than his rival. Even his surname is a challenge to headline writers. His playing style is attacking but sometimes baroque, a contrast to Carlsen’s partiality for endgame grinds. His good personal score against the champion is arguably significant but could be just a statistical outlier due to the Russian’s comparatively late arrival at the very top level.

The Fide president, Arkady Dvorkovich, has been a breath of fresh air to the organisation after the excesses of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, but he was also Russia’s deputy prime minister for six years and will be well aware that a surprise victory for Nepomniachtchi will swing the economic and political battle for sponsorship funds towards Fide and away from the Play Magnus Group. Moscow can be expected to mobilise maximum technical and human support for the challenger in the coming weeks.

Meanwhile, the US Championship began on Wednesday at St Louis with two surprise early leaders, the experienced Ray Robson and the junior champion John Burke. The five-time champion Hikaru Nakamura is not competing, another sign that the Twitch streamer with a million followers is concentrating on speed chess.

Fabiano Caruana, the world No2, and Wesley So, the reigning champion, are the favourites in the $194,000 event with $50,000 for the winner. Their opponents include two Cuban exiles, three juniors, and the US team stalwarts Sam Shankland and Robson. Live commentary daily from 7pm is at uschesschamps.com.

There was a rare English success in Europe this week when FM Terry Chapman won the silver medal in the European Senior (over-65) championship at Budoni, Sardinia, with an unbeaten 6.5/9, half a point behind the Israeli IM Nathan Birnboim. Earlier, Chapman won in 26 moves with a crushing attack.

Many chess players are talented at school, give up the game due to the demands of career, college, or family, resolve to return later, but never get round to it. Chapman, however, has lived the dream. In his teens he was England’s No 3 junior after Jonathan Mestel and Jon Speelman, who both became strong grandmasters. He was successful in business in the dotcom boom, retired early and conceived the imaginative idea in 2001 of challenging Kasparov to a four-game match at odds of two pawns and the move. Kasparov won 2.5-1.5, but Chapman won game three convincingly. Chapman then turned to senior tournaments, financing England to a near-miss in the over-50s World Teams and becoming British over-50 co-champion in 2019. His real target, though, was the over-65 world and European titles for which he became eligible this year and for which silver in Sardinia is an impressive start.

3784: 1 Ng5! Bxg5 2 Qe8+! Rxe8 3 Rxe8+ Kf7 4 Rf8 mate.