September 13, 2009
The Age –
A chess grandmaster turned up drunk and fell asleep at the board at an international tournament in Kolkata, Reuters reported last week.
Australian rugby league officials have been quick to point to the scandal as evidence that drinking is not just league’s problem; it is society’s.
At least league players wait until after the game before getting on the sauce, officials argue. If these chess blokes are smashed while they’re playing, imagine what they’re like by the time they get to the pub.
Rugby league’s issue with alcohol-related incidents has long been blamed on the fact that league players have no necks, causing alcohol to enter the bloodstream much quicker than would be the case with normal members of society.
However, that theory may have to be revisited. Grandmaster Vladislav Tkachiev, a Russian-born French national who sports a full-length neck, arrived for his match against India’s Praveen Kumar so inebriated that he could hardly sit in his chair, and he soon nodded off.
Each time Tkachiev fell asleep other players would try to wake him with a shake of the shoulder, the Indian Express newspaper reported. Some offered him water.
Tkachiev briefly refreshed himself in the changing room but then, on returning to the board, dozed off again and eventually had to be carried off.
St John Ambulance volunteers, who had been attending chess matches for decades with nothing to do, said the incident justified their presence and they were just grateful the wheels on the stretcher hadn’t rusted up.
Officials from rival codes said the incident was nothing more than a publicity stunt as part of chess’s bid to regain its status as the world’s most popular board game, ahead of the current big three: Cluedo, Hungry Hippos and Operation.
Chess has been in the doldrums since the sixth century, when a member of India’s ruling Gupta dynasty tried a rudimentary form of the game and reported in his diary that it was “all right but not as much fun as Monopoly”.
If anyone can put chess back on the map, it’s 35-year-old Tkachiev, a controversial figure in the sport. Tkachiev has long railed against games that last too long. Instead he promotes a quicker version called blitz chess, the equivalent of cricket’s Twenty20, in which, of course, the players wear pyjamas.
“Blitz modifies the reality,” Tkachiev once said in an interview, The Times reported. “During the game light seems brighter and beer sweeter.”
In a widely reported attempt to revitalise chess’s fortunes, in 2005 Tkachiev and his brother Evegeny, known as “the Blitz Brothers”, set up the World Chess Beauty Contest, an online competition to find the world’s sexiest female player.
“The idea was to show that women who play chess are not just intelligent,” Tkachiev told the Hindustan Times. “They are sexy, beautiful, and why not have a contest to find out the best?
“Another important reason was to make the game popular by bringing it out of its boring confines.”
Other attempts to sex up chess at about the same time included Russian Grandmaster Maria Manakova appearing nude in Russian men’s magazine Speed, and her compatriot Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk, who appeared on her website playing chess in her bikini.
The World Chess Beauty Contest website, however, closed down after less than a year after failing to attract a sponsor, bringing an end to the short-lived era of “soft pawn”.
Making sex objects of its female competitors was no way to promote a sport, critics said, unless that sport happened to be tennis, golf, beach volleyball, swimming, football, netball or hockey.
Other larger-than-life figures in the chess world include Grandmaster Vassily Ivanchuk, a Ukrainian known as Big Chucky.
“Why?” asked Der Spiegel last year. “Because, after losing a game, he goes into the forest at night and howls at the moon to drive out the demons. Because he walks around in shorts in freezing temperatures. Because he likes to sit in dark rooms. Because he usually looks at the ceiling instead of the board during a chess match. Because he tries to fold the oversized winner’s cheque handed out after a tournament down to pocket size. And because he, as World Champion Viswanathan Anand says, lives on Planet Ivanchuk.”
Ivanchuk even had a doping scandal last year when he refused to offer a urine sample after Ukraine’s loss to the United States in the Chess Olympiad. He was cleared as it was decided his distraught frame of mind had contributed to his not understanding the arbiter’s request.
With drunkenness, drug tests and characters such as Big Chucky and the Blitz Brothers, it is a mystery why chess is not a major televised sport.
Perhaps Tkachiev is right: the games are just too slow and too long. He lost his now infamous drunken game against Kumar on the grounds of being unable to complete his moves within the stipulated time of one hour and 30 minutes.
That would have been a challenge for any TV sports pundit; 90 minutes of nothing happening is a lot of time to fill. Channel Seven’s rugby union commentators might be the only people for the job.