The idea of paying to watch a game of chess would be alien to most Crikey readers.
Yet every day at the Bonn Exhibition Hall, hundreds of people queue to enter a theatre to watch Viswanathan Anand and Vladimir Kramnik play a single game, having paid between 35 and 280 Euros for the privilege.
For their entry fee, the spectators get to sit in absolute silence in a darkened hall, with a player moving on average once every three minutes. A game, one of 12 which will decide the title of World Champion, could last for as little as half an hour or as long as seven hours. Only a minority take up the option of moving to the commentary room where Grandmasters explain the ideas behind the players’ moves — the attraction lies in observing the battle of wits on stage.
Paying to watch an activity where almost all the action is mental might seem bizarre, yet for chess fans, who could easily watch the game live and gratis via the internet, the decision to pay serious money to watch a world title match is entirely rational.
World Championship matches come around only rarely and the title often hangs on a single game, so to be in Bonn on the day when Kramnik blunders his queen and loses the world title would be as exhilarating and shattering for a chess follower as to be a football fan at the MCG when Australia blew a 2-0 lead against Iran in the 1997 World Cup qualifier.
And while 280 Euros might seem an extraordinary amount to pay to watch chess, front row seats in the theatre plus drinks and a personal commentator in a VIP room are just a corporate box in another guise.
On Wednesday the 400 spectators in the playing hall and the 500,000+ watching game two on the net certainly received value.
After comfortably holding Kramnik in the first game, Anand missed a great chance to push cricket off the back pages of the Indian newspapers by winning Wednesday’s second encounter.
Anand built up a dominant position but became nervous and began to run short of time; for Anand an unusual situation. In his youth Anand became famous for his speed of thought, beating one Grandmaster in 8 minutes and prompting a commentator to exclaim “Anand moves faster than God thinks!”
The natural talent remains but over a 25 year career Anand has learned the hard way that — in a game where one false move can be fatal — speed kills and has slowed down considerably.
In Bonn, to exceed the time limit — two hours for the first 40 moves — is to lose the game instantly. So when Anand found himself needing to make eight moves at 15 seconds per move to avoid a time loss in game two, the Indian felt obliged to play safe and agree a draw.
When the draw was agreed, cyberspace ran hot with complaints that Anand was a coward but “in his place I would have made the same decision,” admitted a relieved Kramnik after the game.
The match score is now 1-1, with game three to be played on Friday.
Opening: Nimzo-Indian Defence
A line rarely seen since the 1960s but Anand came well prepared. 8 … Qa5 is standard nowadays.
“The position is very sharp but if Black tries 16…Ne5! I am not sure that White [has any advantage].” Anand opined.
“I was getting overoptimistic here,” Kramnik conceded.
“21…Nge5 is safer but even then White keeps some chances.”
“I spent a long time on 23 … Ne3, calculating a lot of unnecessary variations since none of the lines are working for me,” said Kramnik.
“After 23…h4+ I lose a pawn but his pieces take some time to untangle.”
“Now I started to like my position,” said Anand, with good reason.
:But [around now] I started to come back to earth,” admitted Anand.
“I have a stupid bishop and my king is floating around.”
Here Kramnik offered a draw, and Anand thought until he had only two minutes left before accepting.
“Black will play 33 … c5 and I don’t see what I can do,” Anand rationalised.
“I believe that White is objectively still better,” Kramnik countered, “and for me after such a tough game a draw is quite alright.”