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Last Updated: Monday, 25 September 2006, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
Game of kings takes centre stage
Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov
The chess world is hoping to capitalise on a bit of media attention

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News

After 13 years of bickering and infighting, the chess world is at last setting aside its divisions with a reunification bout.

The Russian republic of Kalmykia is not a place that often finds itself occupying the spotlight.

But all that has changed this week with the start of the world chess championship. When the contestants picked their colours for the opening match by releasing chests full of white and black doves, it was clear razzmatazz had arrived in Europe's only Buddhist nation.

In the white corner is Vladimir Kramnik. "Classical" champion of the world since 2000, the 31-year-old is the latest in a long line of Russian masters of the game. The classical form of the title sees the incumbent face off against a challenger.

It is a shame Kasparov has retired - he would possibly beat both of them
Raymond Keene
Chess writer

In the black corner is Veselin Topalov. Ranked number one by governing body Fide and promoted as its own champion after an eight-player tournament in 2005, the Bulgarian, also 31, has long been tipped for greatness.

To some critics, Kramnik is the less exciting of the players, defensive, cautious, almost what boxing fans might call a spoiler.

Topalov, by his fans at least, is seen as the more dynamic and aggressive of the pair.

Twice a president

And yet Kramnik, who says he has recovered from a debilitating form of arthritis, has won the first two games in the 12-game series, a formidable lead.

As big a personality as any of the players is the Fide president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, overseeing the tournament and its tax-free prize fund of $1m (530,000). Neither contestant needs worry about any problems with the local authorities - Ilyumzhinov is also president of Kalmykia.

His reputation for eccentricity comes from claiming to have been abducted by aliens and running for office on the flagship policy of a mobile phone for every shepherd.

KALMYKIA FACTS
White House government buildings in Kalmykia
Republic of Russia
Descended from Mongol hordes
Mass deportations to Siberia by Stalin
Main industry livestock rearing
Europe's only Buddhist nation

But he has delivered the goods on this occasion by organising a "reunification bout" for a game in need of a boost.

Heads in hands, faces a mask of unwavering concentration, players can easily take quarter of an hour or more over a move, through games lasting up to six hours and beyond. In today's culture of instant gratification, chess is never destined to be big box office.

And chess masters can be a temperamental bunch. Apocryphal stories abound of prima donna behaviour over the years - the champion who demanded a man in the audience be removed because he was wearing shorts, the player who believed his opponent was receiving coded messages in the timing of the arrival of cups of water.

But what potential chess has as a spectator sport has been undermined in the last 13 years by endless confusion and bickering.

In 1993, champion Garry Kasparov broke away from world governing body Fide to form the Professional Chess Association and play English master Nigel Short for the world title, claiming his hand was forced by corruption and mismanagement. He was beaten for the world championship by Kramnik in 2000.

But Fide continued to run its own championships, changing from a one-on-one series to an open knockout competition, only scrapped last year.

The Fide tournament reached a low ebb in 2004 with the victory of the unheralded Rustam Kasimdzhanov. To use football as a parallel, it would be the equivalent of Latvia's Skonto Riga winning the Champions League.

CLASSICAL CHAMPIONS
Wilhelm Steinitz
Emanuel Lasker
Jose Raul Capablanca
Alexander Alekhine
Max Euwe
Mikhail Botvinnik
Vasily Smyslov
Mikhail Tal
Tigran Petrosian
Boris Spassky
Bobby Fischer
Anatoly Karpov
Garry Kasparov
Vladimir Kramnik

There is a major absence in Kalmykia. Kasparov, the game's greatest star for 20 years and thought by many to be the most brilliant to ever lift a pawn, has retired.

For those whose job is promoting chess to the sponsors and the public, the loss of the brooding, charismatic "beast of Baku" is a bitter one.

Chess writer, promoter and grandmaster Raymond Keene says that the tournament will boost the profile of chess, which needs a lift after the end of the Kasparov era.

"Now that Kasparov has retired there is no outstanding genius. Kramnik and Topalov both have claims. It is a shame Kasparov has retired. I think he would possibly beat both of them."

Chess will be hoping a new genius emerges, but for the moment Kasparov remains like Banquo's ghost at the feast.




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