Chess contest becomes Moscow’s daily reality show
The man sits at a table with his head in his hands. He has not moved for several minutes. Opposite is an empty chair. Watching him through a glass panel are hundreds of people scrutinising his every gesture.
An angst-ridden surrealist nightmare? An image from a Samuel Beckett play? Or perhaps a novel format for a reality television show?
This is, in fact, the 12-game world chess championship in Moscow, a grinding epic where psychological stamina plays as much a role as knowledge and skills.
This month, title-holder Viswanathan Anand of India and challenger Boris Gelfand of Israel are slugging out the title fight in Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery, one of the world’s greatest collections of Russian art.
Each day they sit at a table with their heads barely one metre apart, occasionally exchanging shy glances with their eyes but ruthlessly searching for weakness and attack chances with the chess pieces.
Not only their every chess move but their every grimace, moment of doubt, or look of desperation is tracked by three remote cameras on the stage and broadcast live to chess fans across the globe.
The chess can be compulsive though typically ending in a draw, as often at the highest level.
But the merciless, reality TV-style scrutiny of two of the world’s greatest players is also addictive for those who do not know their Sicilian Opening from their Grunfeld Defence.
Gelfand, dressed in a suit without a tie, spends little time in his specially configured seat, taking long strolls across the stage with his hands firmly clasped behind his back.
He inspects the board, he inspects the overhead projection showing the pieces, he inspects the national flags of India, Russia and Israel put up on the stage.
Anand by contrast spends most of his time seated, staring intently at the board or into thin air as well as drinking endless glasses of water.
It is Gelfand who is by far the most demonstrative at the board, putting his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair and even putting his forehead on the table like a schoolboy trying to sleep at his desk.
“The match is very tense. The two players are very close in strength. Boris is very prudent. He is a tough nut to crack,” commented French grandmaster Joel Lautier.
Their stage is completely surrounded by a transparent glass partition, turning it into something of a thinking person’s squash court.
On the other side sit the chess fans, including Israelis and Indians supporting their heroes, under strict instructions not to make any noise but sometimes whispering excitedly when a move is made.
A mutter goes up: “Pawn d4!”
The glass partition is supposed to make the audience invisible and inaudible for the players to ensure that no one is distracted — or cheats by receiving outside help.
Tournament officials admit that the players can still partially see the spectators but as both men are considered such gentlemen of the game, no one really minds.
“I can see the audience,” Anand admitted. “But as for the rest, once you are there (at the board) you are lost in the thought of the game.”
This game stretches to almost 30 moves. Over two hours have gone by.
Suddenly, a hand is accepted, a draw agreed and as the tension suddenly evaporates they start talking animatedly, like two men who have not seen a fellow human in years.
The protocols of the game are signed and they head to a joint press conference, usually supremely uninformative as both men keep their plans firmly to themselves.
“Boris, this was your easiest game of the match so far?” asks one journalist. “Hmm, maybe,” comes the curt reply.
“I found this move hard to believe so I didn’t check it out,” is Anand’s explanation for one apparently surprising tactical decision.
Outside the art gallery in the late spring sunshine, a different kind of Russian chess world is also thriving.
A dozen tables have been set up and a female Russian grandmaster is playing simultaneous games against amateur players ranging from grizzled pensioners to five-year-olds wearing suits and ties watched over by proud parents.