Viktor and Andrei Throw a Party

Soon after the fall of the Communist system in the Soviet Union, there was the rise of the rich “new Russians,” and not much later came the jokes about them. At the time, Genna Sosonko, who used to instruct our Dutch chess community in the basic facts of Russian life, told me one of these jokes which he found typical of the genre.

Pyotr and Paul are walking on the Champs-Elysées and Pyotr opens his coat, shows his tie, and proudly points at an expensive shop, saying: “This tie I bought there for no less than a thousand dollars.” Paul also opens his coat, shows his own tie, exactly the same, and triumphantly says: “And I bought mine in an even more expensive shop for two thousand dollars.”

I wondered if the Russian billionaires who gave us the Grand Prix tournament in the Swiss town Zug and, almost concurrently, the Alekhine Memorial in Paris and St. Petersburg, were indulging in a kind of Pyotr-and-Paul rivalry by staging two super-tournaments almost at the same time.

Zug, a safe haven for the super-rich and their money, is the residence of Viktor Vekselberg, the head of the Russian Renova Group, a conglomerate of companies (says Wikipedia) with interests in aluminum, oil, energy, telecoms and a variety of other sectors. Vekselberg has been called the richest Russian by Bloomberg News, which estimated his fortune as $18 billion in 2012.

At the opening ceremony of the Grand Prix tournament, sponsored by Renova, on April 17, apart from FIDE dignitaries such as Kirsan Iljumzjinov, diplomats from Russia and Azerbaidzjan were also present. My guess is that in the corridors the conversation was about oil.

A few days later, the Alekhine Memorial started in Paris. Compared with Vekselberg, its sponsor Andrei Filatov, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes as a barely respectable $1.35 billion, is only small fry, but his co-sponsor Gennady Timchenko, with $14.1 billion, is doing fine.

Filatov is the man who last year organized the world championship match between Anand and Boris Gelfand, a friend from his youth, at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. He likes to unite chess and art.

For the Alekhine Memorial, a special pavilion was built in the Tuileries, the gardens adjacent to the Louvre. After five rounds, the tournament moved to the State Russian Museum in St. Petersburg, another splendid venue.

I think that Filatov & Partner outdid the Renova Group by a hairbreadth. Renova’s Grand Prix had a slightly higher average rating, six players from the world’s top ten and three former world champions: Topalov, Ponomariov and Kasimdzhanov. The Alekhine Memorial had only three players from the top ten, but these were Anand, Aronian and Kramnik.

When that tournament moved to St. Petersburg, it was not one of the three giants who was leading the pack, but the French champion Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. However, the main reason that I present his game against the three-time Chinese champion Ding Liren is that it gives us a rare opportunity to laugh at a chess engine. In the early days of computer chess, we used to have many good laughs at their expense, if you can put it like that, but soon the joke was on us, human players.

But lo and behold, sometimes they are still able to make a complete mess of their evaluations. It happens more often that these are off the mark - though usually that doesn’t prevent the engines to make strong moves - but seldom as drastically as here.

About this game the strongest program Houdini only spouted nonsense. When Black was completely lost, it saw a small advantage for Black and even when Black resigned in a completely hopeless position, it took my Houdini some time to realize that it wasn’t equal.

It was not only my old Houdini running on and old computer that failed miserably, but also the Houdini on the official tournament site and that of Alex Baburin, the editor in chief of the daily email magazine Chess Today.

Jan Timman was in Paris as a commentator for the tournament website, and at a certain moment I heard him say, with some hesitation, that he tended to prefer White. But Jan, wasn’t White completely winning? Then I saw a shot of him using a mouse in front of a computer screen and I thought that he not only saw the game position, but also Houdini’s silly evaluation, and I suspected that Jan had been intimidated by the oracle. Even he, I sighed in a newspaper article.

But later I was informed that the commentators at the Alekhine Memorial were not allowed to see the engine’s evaluations, which is a good thing, and that Jan had just been cautious, toning down his distrust of Black’s play. But who knows, maybe the engines have already crept into our brains.

Annotated Game: Simply click on the game to play through it.

Vachier- Lagrave - Ding

2013 Alekhine Memorial