Kevin Burke, who writes our Round the world by train column, was in Bunratty last weekend to play Chess. Kevin’s a decent player but he was in some elite company. Here’s the story of an Irish event that attracts the world’s best and nobody is really sure why.
The game of chess is almost inextricably linked with the former USSR and its modern independent states. Between them, they can boast all bar three post-war World Champions – one of those exceptions, Bobby Fischer, came to symbolise America’s battle against the USSR at the height of the Cold War. The countries have won all bar three post-war Olympiads – the chess equivalent of the World Cup – and on two of those three occasions, the USSR were boycotting the event. The reigning champions are Armenia, where chess was recently made a compulsory school subject. Almost one-third of all Grandmasters today represent ex-Soviet states – that’s not counting expats like Alexander Baburin, an Irish Grandmaster who moved here from Russia 20 years ago.
So you’d imagine that if you wanted to find the strongest weekend chess tournament in the world, the former Soviet bloc would be a good place to start. But you’d be way off. In fact, it took place last weekend in Bunratty, Co Clare.
The highest title a chess player can achieve is that of Grandmaster – there are fewer than 1,500 Grandmasters in the world. Last year, Bunratty featured 11 Grandmasters, including two former World Championship runners-up – Nigel Short and Michael Adams. They were both in England’s team for the Olympiad later that year, along with Gawain Jones GM, who also played Bunratty. This year was slightly weaker with a “mere” seven Grandmasters, but the tournament also boasted a special guest in Bulgarian Veselin Topalov GM – world champion in 2005, former world number 1 and current world number 7. Topalov didn’t actually play in the tournament, unfortunately, but he wouldn’t have been the highest-ranked player to play Bunratty had he done so – Peter Svidler GM was world number 5 when he played in 2008. It’s a remarkable success story, and it’s not altogether easy to figure out how it’s come about.
Two things should be noted from the start. Firstly, the strongest players don’t typically play weekend tournaments, where players play six potentially 3½-hour-long games over the course of a weekend – one on Friday, three on Saturday and two on Sunday. They favour a more serious, 9-day format; one game a day allows for longer, higher-quality games and for time to research your next opponent – what opening will he play? How will you respond? What happened the last time you played? Does he struggle in complicated positions or does he push too hard in drawn positions and lose sometimes? How can you adjust your game to take advantage? Bunratty can’t compete with these tournaments – in a weekend tournament, there just isn’t time for such in-depth preparation. And at any level, but particularly the top level, the schedule represents a massive mental exertion. Svidler – six times champion of Russia – described it, good-naturedly, as “mad”, saying he didn’t know how everyone did it.
Secondly, there’s no official log of weekender tournaments, so the claim to be the world’s strongest has to remain unofficial. But the organisers are happy that, at the very least, they heard of none stronger last year. And given the circles they move in, you’d imagine they’d have heard if there was.
Bunratty started in 1994 as a small tournament, with under 60 players taking part. It grew quickly, helped by strong players coming over from England for the weekend. Danny King GM, winner in 1996, had been on Channel 4’s commentary team when they aired coverage of Nigel Short’s world title clash against Garry Kasparov three years earlier. Luke McShane won Bunratty in 1998 at the age of 14, two years before becoming England’s youngest-ever Grandmaster.
But it was Peter Svidler’s participation in 2008 which pushed the tournament onto a whole new level. The world of chess is a small one; even at the top, there’s always someone who’ll know someone else; contacts are reasonably easy to make and players are always looking for their next tournament – Luke McShane is today ranked just outside the world’s top 50, yet has kept his day job rather than go pro. Svidler had been invited to Bunratty a couple of times previously, but as the event clashed with a 9-day tournament in Linares in Spain – at the time the strongest tournament of any kind in the world, and one so prestigious that entry, limited to eight of the world’s top players, was solely by invitation – Svidler had had to decline. In 2008, however, he’d been controversially left off the Linares invite list, and so booked the next flight to Shannon. There were another four Grandmasters in Bunratty that year, but Svidler was on another level, winning five games and drawing just the one. His first game in Ireland was against a club-mate of mine and was broadcast live on a big screen in the hotel bar, with the names of both players prominently displayed at their respective ends of the board – said club-mate was at one stage seen taking a photo of the screen as a souvenir of the occasion. Svidler promised to return in 2009, and he did – again winning five games and drawing just one. On both occasions, he drew on Sunday morning, giving the impression that he was so far ahead of the field that he could choose his results; the Sunday morning tie is the hardest mentally when there’s a residents’ bar open (and busy) all hours.
2010 was a quiet affair – the tournament clashed with the 4NCL, the chess equivalent of the English Premiership – but for 2011, Nigel Short appeared…and didn’t even come in the top three. Stung by that, he was back last year, only to lose out on tie-break to Michael Adams, who pipped him again this year. So amazingly, Short – still in the world’s top 60 twenty years after being World Championship runner-up – has yet to win Bunratty in three attempts.
So what do the top players get out of it? Firstly, the format – with three games on Saturday alone – means the tournament doesn’t actually affect the world rankings; players can afford to try something a bit different, knowing the result doesn’t matter too much (though professional pride means the will to win is still very much there!) Secondly, and maybe more importantly, is the social side of things. Bunratty is a small country village boasting a castle, a folk-park, two hotels, six pubs (including the hotel ones) and not a huge amount else. In between games, everyone decamps to one of the pubs. The whole village becomes a local of sorts – players catch up with old friends or analyse their last game with new ones. This is most evident after the evening games; it’s not uncommon to see a Grandmaster standing outside the hotel door at 3am, chatting away, pint of Guinness and smoke in hand, while back in the hotel bar, another Grandmaster might be playing blitz games against all-comers. There’s an infectious community feel about the tournament which certainly no other tournament I’ve ever played – and I’ve played tournaments in Spain and Andorra, Austria and Croatia – has come close to matching. Clearly the top players feel it too. And the word may be starting to spread – this year saw players from England, Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Finland, Luxembourg and a now-traditional large contingent from Holland compete.
But the best thing about Bunratty is that while it’s a strong tournament, it’s not just for strong players. The youngest entrant last week was aged 7; the weakest players little more than beginners. 301 players competed in 2013, with every level from beginner to world championship finalist taking part – in four different sections, granted, yet all playing the same game in the same venue. I started to play chess competitively partly as a result of watching Nigel Short’s aforementioned Channel 4 appearances; in Bunratty, I was playing in the same room as him. Indeed, during one of Nigel’s opponent’s moves, the man himself went for a wander around the room to look at some of the other games, stopping at mine for a few seconds. Somehow, I can’t quite see Roy Keane playing in the 5-a-side cage next to mine, and stopping afterwards to watch me play before heading on! Similarly, the 13-year-old who won the bottom section now has a photo of himself being presented with a crystal trophy and a decent cheque by a former world champion – Topalov was at least handing out the prizes – while the Sunday evening sees a blitz tournament with entrants split into groups, each headed by a Grandmaster, so anyone does have a chance of sitting down to battle with a top player. Incidents like these are what make Bunratty a truly unique tournament.
It’s an exciting time for chess in Ireland; who knows who’ll turn up at next year’s event? Vishy Anand, the reigning world champion? Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian 22-year-old many rate as the strongest ever to play the game? As suggestions, they’re far less outrageous than they would have been a few years ago. And all of this is achieved without a single penny in government funding. Ireland is in a large minority of European countries that doesn’t recognise chess as a sport – while it’s easy to get side-tracked on the issue of whether a sport should involve physical activity, the main issue is that Government funding extends only to recognised sports, so chess gets nothing. A few years ago a Government official dismissively noted that if they had to give money to chess, they’d have tiddlywinks on looking for money next – yet it doesn’t stop them giving millions to Bord na gCon every year, and greyhound racing doesn’t involve physical activity either (for the people anyway!) A small fraction of the amount given to Bord na gCon would make a big difference to the game in Ireland, and might well be money better spent.
In the meantime, the thousand or so competitive chess players in the country can look forward to next spring, and see what famous names they might be playing alongside – or against – in Bunratty, the strongest weekend chess tournament in the world.
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