Scandal Ruins World Cup’s Best Day

by admin on September 9, 2017

In a fairer world, we would all be talking about Xiangzhi Bu today. At the World Cup, he just defeated the World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, in a game straight out of the nineteenth century. Bu played a daring bishop sacrifice on move 15; Carlsen accepted his challenge instead of meekly heading for a draw by repetition (which was an option); and after 20 moves of back-and-forth play, Bu played a pretty rook sacrifice that decided the game. Such a performance by Bu deserves a standing ovation.

But instead, everybody is talking about the stupid dispute that caused the Canadian player, Anton Kovalyov, to forfeit his game and withdraw from the tournament — all over a pair of shorts.

Probably most of my readers are already familiar with the sad details, but for those who haven’t heard yet, these seem to be the facts:

  1. Kovalyov showed up for his game against Maxim Rodshtein wearing a pair of shorts. He had worn the same shorts for his previous four games. Yes, apparently he only packed this one pair of shorts for a potentially month-long chess tournament. Cue jokes about chess players’ dressing habits.
  2. The chief arbiter spoke to him and told him that the players’ dress code (which is in a legal contract they sign before the tournament) requires more dignified wear. He told him to go back to his room and change.
  3. Kovalyov went back to his room but never reappeared. His opponent played one move (1. d4) and won by forfeit.

Even from these facts, it seems to me that the FIDE approach was very heavy-handed. From a legal point of view it seems to me that they have greatly weakened their case by allowing Kovalyov to play four games (!) in the offending garment. The arbiter said that nobody noticed earlier. Come on! If it’s a rule, then enforce it from the beginning. If it’s not enforced, then it’s not really a rule.

But I grant that the shorts might be getting somewhat rank and smelly after a week, so maybe they were more noticeable today. In that case, give the player a warning, explain the dress code to him, and say that you expect him to wear more appropriate attireĀ  the next day. Don’t come up to him 10 minutes before a game, the most stressful time for any chess player, and tell him he has to change.

But it gets worse. Kovalyov alleges — and this is, at this point, an unsubstantiated allegation — that in fact Zurab Azmaiparashvili, the organizer of the tournament, himself came up to him, told him that FIDE would “punish” him, and called him a “gypsy” twice. In America, where we don’t have a lot of Roma or Romany (their proper name), many people might not realize that this is an ethnic insult. But Kovalyov considered it one. On Facebook he wrote:

I’m being bullied by the organizer of the tournament, being assured that I will be punished by FIDE, yelled at and racially insulted. What would you do in my situation? I think many people would have punched this person in the face or at least insulted him. I decided to leave.

That’s as much as I know about the story, and I’m sure that much more will come out over the next few days. If Azmaiparashvili did in fact treat Kovalyov this way, he should have the same harsh rules applied to him that were applied to Kovalyov: He should have his right to organize tournaments for FIDE revoked.

Will that ever happen? No.

Such a sad day for chess.

Here is Xiangzhi Bu’s brilliancy against Carlsen:

bu brilliancyPosition after 15. Re1. Black to move.

FEN: 1r3rk1/pppq1pp1/3bb2p/3n4/8/2PP3P/PPBN1PP1/R1BQR1K1 b – - 0 15

Carlsen, playing White, had the opportunity earlier to play Nf1 to defend his kingside. Bu’s sacrifice on the next move is an obvious one in some ways — it’s almost as if Carlsen has gone out his way to provoke Bu to play it. But it still takes courage to play a move like this against the World Champion.

15. … Bxh3! 16. gh Qxh3

Black has only one pawn for a piece, but he has a dangerous attack and White’s pieces are all in a disorganized clump on the queenside.

Here White could have forced a draw right away with 17. Qf3. Black can play a perpetual check with 17. … Bh2+ 18. Kh1 Bg3+ 19. Kg1 Bh2+. And in fact, Black had better do that, because with the queen positioned on f3, White will easily be able to repel his attack.

But Carlsen does not believe that Black’s attack is sound, and he is playing to win! So he played 17. Nf1. This is what makes chess so great. You have two top-100 players, and both of them think that they can win. Probably players will analyze this game with their computers for years to come, and maybe they will reach a conclusion about whether Bu’s sacrifice was sound. But in the heat of the moment, nobody can tell. It comes down to who will play the best and keep their nerves together.

In the end, Bu outplayed the world champion. Carlsen gave back the piece, but it wasn’t enough to stop the attack. According to the computer, Carlsen missed one last chance to defend on move 30. By move 36, Bu was clearly winning, but the way he finishes off the game is really cute.

bu brilliancy 2Position after 36. Nf3. Black to move.

FEN: 8/pp6/3b3k/3p4/3P2r1/2P2N1p/PP6/R2K4 b – - 0 36

Even a routine move like 36. … Rg2 would surely win, as Black’s passed h-pawn is just too strong. However, for a game like this you don’t want a routine finish, you want to finish with an exclamation point. And Bu delivers:

36. … Rg1+!

And White resigned. A real shocker for Carlsen, a career-defining moment for Bu, and a win for the game of chess, which somehow survives in spite of all the scandals.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Hal Bogner September 9, 2017 at 4:35 pm

1. This game so reminds me of Marshall introducing his famous gambit against Capablanca. Bu did better than Marshall, against a world champ who makes chess look every bit as simply as Capa did back in the day. Wow.

2. Kovalyov was very noticeable in Round Two – eliminating former world champion Anand, and being interviewed extensively. “Didn’t notice”??? Hmmmm…


Larry Smith September 10, 2017 at 6:32 am

The comparison to Capablanca-Marshall is very apt: same initial move (… d5) and rapid king-side attack. What struck me about Black’s play is that 15 … Bxh3 would have been played by many amateurs as well. Of course, they might play it “just because,” hoping for the best. Interesting that, unlike Capa, Carlsen was not up to the defensive task. In fact, at one point Carlsen missed a rook move resource (Re2 instead of d4, say the engines), a move that Capa did play in the Marshall game, if memory serves (in a different position, of course).

I think though that the move Bu played earlier, … Rab8(!), is what separates the GMs from the merely strong players. A totally puzzling move, until Bu explained it after the game that he wanted to play … d5, but was concerned about a White Ba4 indirectly attacking e5. And so … Rab8 plans to meet Ba4 with … b5! As Tarraschovich no doubt said, the beauty of a chess move lies not in its appearance, but in the thought behind it.

And the Kovalyov debacle: why hasn’t anyone of stature spoken up about this? No one or no org that I know of has objected. Note that the “dress code” guidelines also have provisions for forbidding “greasy or unkempt hair.” Sorry to hear that, as no doubt Grischuk has been sent home already…


Hal Bogner September 10, 2017 at 8:12 pm

GM Emil Sutovsky, president of the Association of Chess Professionals, has posted a petition here:

It states:

The ACP Board strongly condemns and protests the actions of Mr. Zurab Azmaiparashvili in his capacity as World Cup Organiser.

Bullying and threatening the player taking part in your event is unacceptable, doing it right before the game is even a bigger sin.

The dress-code policy in the tournament is vague, and it is not even clear if Grandmaster Anton Kovalyov has violated it – but that’s not the point, as up to that moment, he was not even warned about any possible violation, wearing the very same attire in the previous rounds. And then, all of a sudden, he is threatened and insulted. No player can be treated this way and this is unacceptable. Grandmaster Kovalyov felt he got no choice but to leave the tournament, and we understand his decision.


Matt September 11, 2017 at 4:46 pm

Interesting clash of styles indeed.

The modest, almost indifferent way of Kovalyov, compared to the decisively aggressive, premature attack from Azmaiparashvili.

I prefer Bu`s style the most however. Many of the moves felt familiar to an amateur. The Rab8 idea, the hack attack with Bxh3 combined with ignorant rook on a1, and the finesse Rg1+. Strange but I think I`ve beaten good old computer or two with such moves!


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