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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kalmykia Lays Red Carpet for Chess Circus

ELISTA, Southern Russia -- Everyone knew that holding the World Chess Championship in remote Elista, the capital of the tiny Russian republic of Kalmykia, would make for a strange spectacle. But perhaps not this strange.


On Thursday, Russian Anatoly Karpov, playing white, will make the first move of his 20-game World Chess Federation championship match against American Gata Kamsky in the conference hall of Elista's 400-seat Pioneer Sports Palace.


Or at least he should. In the grand tradition of chess championships, the match was in jeopardy Wednesday due to a dispute over ground rules -- specifically, over whether games that have to be carried over to a second day should be counted.


Wednesday's opening press conference degenerated into a frenzied shouting match between Kamsky's combative father, Rustam, and Karpov's press secretary, Ron Henley, as Kamsky senior threatened to pull his son out of the match unless adjourned games were eliminated.


But assuming the dispute is resolved, the republic's wealthy and ubiquitous president, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, has promised there will not be an empty seat in the house. And if Ilyumzhinov says so, it's a fact.


One reason is that admission is free. But it is also clear that the president, as he has proved through his elaborate preparations for the match, can pull off just about anything on his home patch.


For the benefit of the small group of cosmopolitan chess correspondents who flew in to cover the event, Ilyumzhinov has transformed this micro roads has kept reporters from noticing that there are virtually no restaurants in the city.


Said Leontia Olisagasti, a former professional chess player and now the chess correspondent for the Spanish newspaper El Pais, "This is the weirdest venue for a world championship I have ever seen."


With the promotion of this match, the federation, known by its French acronym, FIDE, had hoped to recover at least some of the legitimacy it lost when champion Garry Kasparov broke from the organization in 1992 to form his own professional chess league.


But the match between Kamsky and Karpov, who took over the FIDE title when Kasparov vacated it, has been hounded by misfortune throughout its year-long quest to find a home and a sponsor. It was originally scheduled to take place in Montreal, but that venue collapsed when sponsors withdrew.


Then, in a move that smacked of desperation, the match was to be moved to Baghdad under the patronage of Saddam Hussein. But that venue also fell through when the United States government refused to grant Kamsky, who is a Russian-born immigrant, permission to travel to Iraq.


After the Iraq debacle, Ilyumzhinov, who is also the president of FIDE, suggested his home town of Elista as a venue in a last-ditch effort to save the day. His hope was to show the international press and the world's chess-playing luminaries -- among the guests is former world champion Vasily Smyslov -- that FIDE's championship was in no way worse than the title matches held by Kasparov's Professional Chess Association, or PCA.


Certainly the match itself, held in the modernized Pioneer meeting hall with giant computer chess displays surrounding the audience, is expected to be a crowd-pleaser. Though the game's chief titan, Kasparov, is not here, Karpov and Kamsky -- the game's third- and fifth-ranked players, respectively -- can be expected to put on a good show.


"It will be a great match and a very tough match," said Olisagasti. "Karpov's understanding of the game is probably as deep as any player's in history. And Kamsky is a great fighter."


In contrast to the flashy attacking character of the Kasparov-Vishwanthan Anand PCA title match last year, Karpov and Kamsky's match is likely to be a battle of sheer endurance, nerve and patience.


Neither player is known for his creativity in the attack, but both are feared for their ability to gradually take away control of space on the board from their opponents.


"They both squeeze the life out of their opponents, like constrictor snakes," said Valery Abramov, a Russian master who came as a spectator. "Karpov has more experience, but Kamsky is young and will be stronger in the later games. It should be fun to watch."


That is, if the adjournment problem can be solved.


Adjourned games take place when the game runs too long on one day and has to be completed the next day. The last move on the first day is chosen and put into a sealed envelope, and the players resume the next day with that move and then play on until the game ends.


Adjourned games are considered to favor the slower player, who can consult with his seconds and even with computers to help him analyze the game in between the two days.


Perilous disputes over playing conditions are a much-revered tradition in chess championship matches. The famous Fischer-Spassky match that took place in 1972 was nearly canceled when Bobby Fischer failed to appear for the second game because he didn't like the tournament chairs, board and playing hall.