Watching the Whales in Tromsø

I remember sitting at a sidewalk café on the central square of the Dutch city Tilburg, on the eve of the Interpolis tournament of 1992, the first time that it was held in a knockout format. Everywhere in sight there were chessplayers. The Frenchman Joel Lautier, sitting next to me, said pensively: “It's strange to realize that very soon we will only be with a few left.”

I didn't think that he intended to include me in this “we,” those who would still be there near the end of the tournament. In fact, I would be eliminated in the first round by Yevgeny Sveshnikov. But Lautier definitely seemed to include himself, and I admired him for his confidence. But he also was not destined to be there to the end. He would be eliminated by Vassily Ivanchuk in the third round; so it goes in a knockout.

It might be a bitter pill to swallow, to travel all the way to the World Cup tournament in Tromsø, high up in Norway, hundreds of miles north of the Arctic Circle, and then, after two days, find that your tournament is over. It happened to my compatriot Jan Smeets, but of course he shared his lot with many others.

There was some consolation. Smeets would go on to assist Anish Giri, who would only be eliminated in the third round by the Peruvian Julio Granda Zuniga, who is known by untrustworthy legend as the carefree fruit-grower who would rather sleep under his apple trees than study opening theory.

And apart from that, it seems that Tromsø, where the Olympiad will be held next year, is an attractive and lively university town, surrounded by strikingly beautiful scenery. Whale watching in the ocean is only one of the many tourist attractions.

Already in the 19th century the town had been described as the “Paris of the North,” and nowadays it is also praised for its bright night life. The population is said to have a deep emotional relationship with its beer and the per capita intake of cognac is said to be among the highest in the world.

You can see that I have done a bit of googling to find enthusiastic reports which, however, said little about the Tromsø rain that apparently poured almost every day during the World Cup tournament.

I write this on Friday August 30, the first day of the final between Vladimir Kramnik from Paris and Dmitry Andreikin from Saratov. According to the regulations, the two finalists have earned a place in the 2014 candidates’ tournament. But Kramnik was already assured of his place, just as Levon Aronian was, because of his rating. This on condition that they would take part in Troms¬ø. Playing well there or ending high was not obligatory.

During the tournament Kramnik said in an interview that he found this obligation to take part a very strange rule, and that he didn't like the knockout format at all because it made for bad chess, with many matches decided in the rapid or the blitz games. But now that he was there, more or less against his will, he would of course try to win the tournament.

In fact Kramnik played quite well on his way to the final, though in his second semi-final game against Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, he missed a win on move 62. Just the thing for the more unforgiving elements of the internet crowd, who armed with their Houdinis, Fritzes and Rybkas, clamored about a blunder that merited two question marks, an incomprehensible oversight. In fact it had been quite a difficult win that Kramnik missed.

But bad play did indeed occur, sometimes quite entertaining. When the Russian Aleksandr Shimanov needed a win at all cost in his second game against Gata Kamsky, he sought recourse to the King's Gambit.

Bravo! During my active chess career I've had an on-again-off-again relationship with the King's Gambit, more often than not an exciting but unhappy one.

I thought that I had a good idea about which variations are very playable and which not, but some of my notions were seriously amended after reading - or rather browsing - the recent book The King's Gambit by the Scottish grandmaster John Shaw. It is a monumental tome of 680 pages, destined to be the King's Gambit Bible for a long time to come.

Shaw is quite fond of the King's Gambit, but he doesn't hide the fact that the highest realistic aim for White in this opening is what one might call ‘interesting equality’.

If Shimanov's aim was to create chaos and increase the chances for error, he did well succeed.

As a foretaste of a comedy of errors, here is the scene of the most dramatic moment of the game, when Kamsky as Black missed the devastating blow 20...Qxh2+. There was much more to come.

Shimanov-Kamsky after 20.Rf2

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

Shimanov-Kamsky, Tromso 2013