Diplomacy and confessions

 The Altibox Norway Chess event in Stavanger is now officially underway – the star-studded field started their maneuvering at a press conference before hostilities kick off in earnest with a blitz event to decide the tournament pairings.

by Jonathan Tisdall

Veteran journalist Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam managed proceedings, using his knowledge and experience to pose questions tailored for each individual player. The session began with qualifier Nils Grandelius, the Swedish GM who was playing in his first ever super-tournament. Rated over 100 points below his nearest competitor, the 22-year-old was asked: «How scared are you?»

 «Not at all!» the Swede fired back.

«I’m here to learn and have nothing to lose, so I also have nothing to fear.»

Last year’s winner Veselin Topalov answered a question about his attitude – prompted by his declarations that he has been ‘almost playing for fun’ for a while, no longer working hard on his game. The recent Candidates tournament was a total disaster for the Bulgarian. Topalov said that no one had believed him because his results had been so good for a while, but he hoped that the Candidates had convinced people he’d been telling the truth – a reply that harvested laughter since it seemed bent on selling his chances as short as possible.

Pentala Harikrishna sidestepped a query about becoming the new Indian number one, diplomatically explaining that overtaking legend Vishy Anand was not on his mind, and that he was hoping that they would both be doing well.

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Armenian hope Levon Aronian agreed with Dirk Jan that he was ready to put his disappointing result at the Moscow Candidates behind him and roll on. Levon told the gathering that he was happy to be in Norway – it reminded him of Armenia, he liked the tournament and the weather, and appreciated the efforts of the organizers. «I’ve got a bike, I’ve got a basketball, and I’m ready to roll.»

Secrets were in focus as Anish Giri was asked if he was ready to use the confessional – a novelty introduced by TV2 during coverage of the Norway Chess qualifier last year, and which has grown to be a popular feature with viewers and players.

«Why do I feel like anything said is a personal attack on me?» the 21-year-old from the Netherlands moaned with a smile. The world number 4 has been the butt of endless jibes and jokes after his record-setting result of 100% draws at the Candidates, but he maintains his confidence and good humor.

The affection the organizers have for the confessional is demonstrated this year by the addition of a special prize – the player who produces the best revelation in ‘the box’ will receive this new reward.

In reply to both Dirk Jan and later from the audience, Vladimir Kramnik arguably produced a press conference-winning performance. The former world champion somehow managed to be both thoughtful and lively, diplomatic and outspoken.

Asked simply why he liked Norway – the site of successes including a World Cup victory – he was temporarily speechless. He knew he liked the place, he just had never thought about why. After this hesitation he delivered an energetic list, ranging from the country’s quiet and calm, to the unprecedented TV coverage of chess, a unique situation that he said was not even seen in Russia during peak interest in the game.

Told that Magnus had named him as the person he’d most like to beat, Vladimir again had a reflective pause to consider who was top of his own list, finally saying «Everyone.» He elaborated by saying that he didn’t really think this way, and was more concerned about finding form due to factors like rust and age, and that he hoped to play good chess and do well. «But if anyone beats me, it will probably be Magnus,» he smiled.

The world champion was diplomatic when asked to assess qualifier Grandelius, who he praised as an original player, and said he would be following him closely. Both Carlsen and Vachier-Lagrave singled out the importance of the day’s blitz event due to their having had two months away from tournament play. They both emphasized the need to warm up and get a feeling for their form from the lightning session.

Kramnik provided another meaty response when questions came from the floor, being asked if he was excited about Russia having a challenger for the world title.

«Frankly, I would be more excited if this Russian would be me,» he quipped. He agreed that the swelling media attention would likely be good for Russian chess, and noted that the angles already chosen by western media, with cliché Soviet era emphasis on the full support of the state, were exaggerated.

Things are not like before, though he guessed chess interest would rise again, and he called a world championship match ‘a private matter between the players’.

Kramnik went on to call Karjakin a worthy challenger and looks forward to a new generation match, ‘without pensioners like me or Vishy’. He said that he would not be rooting for anyone, and that he had sympathy and respect for both men, as players and personally. «I expect a tough and very serious match.»

And so, on to the blitz…

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