The way it was
“Blitz is on its way how about Rapid Chess?”
In early 1988, I received a call from an American, Fred Rash. He had met with folks from the Hoteliers Association of Mazatlán, Mexico and they were very eager to host a “chess convention.” Fred begged me to come to Mazatlán and meet with them so that I could see for myself the “truly marvelous facilities” on offer. I visited Mazatlán and met with the Hoteliers Association board, who explained that they wanted to host a chess convention, offering rooms and great spaces, as well as organizational costs and a prize fund. I smiled.
Indeed, Mazatlán is truly beautiful, a tourist paradise, and the hotels are simply fantastic. I stayed for several days speaking with the Hoteliers Association about the length of the convention and the various formats and tournaments. They kept saying a “chess convention” while I kept saying “chess event.” “Oh no!” They would protest, “We don’t want an event! Just a convention. You know, something that would last a few days, a week at most. A chess convention which people would visit!”
The sponsors wanted something “special” but not “too special.” Neither too hot nor too cold but just right. For the “convention time-frames” on offer, a GMA World Cup would be too long and I suggested a Rapid Chess World Championship as it would be a perfect match for the time-slot available. The Mazatlán hospitality was warm and charming. My role was to be a facilitator bringing folks together, and to participate in the convention. The prize fund wouldn’t be too large, and there would be Opens for various Class players as well as the Premiere event. I called Campo, and he was very enthusiastic, “Let’s do it!” Whatever we were going to call it, Mazatlán would host the first “Thirty-Minute” FIDE World Chess Championship.
When I reported Mazatlán’s initiative to the GMA Board Garry wasn’t happy about the new event. He viewed it as crimping onto his own “Absolute” title domain. Garry’s objections were strenuous and he chose not to play, but Anatoly Karpov did. Anatoly won as well. He was FIDE’s new “Active/Rapid” chess world champion. Garry didn’t like that either.
My role in the 1988 Mazatlán FIDE Active/Rapid Chess World Championship was a small one. Before his phone call, I had never met Fred Rash. When I met him for the first time he introduced himself as a “Portrait Artist.” As he explained, “All great people want their portrait painted.” Who was I to argue?
The planning stages for Mazatlán weren’t a smooth ride. As things progressed I’d receive updates from Fred and they weren’t always good. The Hoteliers Association wanted someone “more professional” in charge, and Fred was given the old heave ho. Others would take his place.
The Mazatlán event itself went just great. Mexican television was present throughout, and the chess convention attracted many newspaper articles as well. Although I fell short of qualification, I had a wonderful time. Problems came later. Apparently, some of the Hoteliers Association budget was squandered or went missing. A few checks were written on accounts that bounced. The new professionals in charge were rather more expensive than Fred’s volunteerism.
Following his victory in Mazatlán, Anatoly Karpov came to Seattle for an inspection visit (in a few months he would face Jóhann Hjartarson in a Candidates’ match) and I became his chaperone. Through my bank, we cashed his winner’s check, which went through, without a hitch. Despite the setbacks with a few bounced checks, it seemed that the Rapid Championship had a promising future as the organizers were willing to do it all again. As Mazatlán came after the January 23 to February 20, 1988, St. John chess festival, it seemed that both Blitz and Rapid Championships were about to enter a brave new era.
The 1989 World Blitz Championship the event that wasn’t
Robert Hamilton was over the moon with the success of the St. John chess festival. What had been years in the planning went off as smoothly as any event I’ve attended. St. John, in the dead of winter had turned into a chess carnival. The press and television were full of glowing reviews. Robert was anxious to provide a repeat.
Through his contact with St. John city officials, Robert was encouraged to consider Calgary, Canada for the next event. Based on his experience with St. John, Robert considered the festival to be simply “too big.” There were too many moving parts. Consider that St. John had hosted seven Candidates’ matches at once; Two major Open tournaments that dwarfed the Canadian Open; Numerous simultaneous exhibitions and lecturers; Beginner and Scholastics events; A world Blitz chess qualification tournament; the World Blitz Chess Championship; Television and Radio shows; Sponsor dinners; Opening and Closing Ceremonies; Merchandizing and eventually video sales of the event.
In the midst of planning all of that Robert also launched a series of lotteries. These were highly successful fund-raisers with one small caveat: He had forgotten to limit “one prize per person” and discovered that one clever fellow had stuffed the box with thousands of his own newspaper write-in ballots. For the drawing the fellow had even shown up with his own attorney. There had been too many moving parts.
Of all the activities in St. John, both Robert and I felt that the World Blitz Championship had actually been the crown jewel in the event. The qualification tournament as well as the knockout format had proven remarkably successful. The audience had been standing room only and responded well to the constant flowing action. One remark I overheard from an audience member has stuck in my mind ever since, “Wow! This is great! Ain’t this great?”
Calgary, famous for its “Stampede” festival, was eager to expand the level of awareness for the city beyond being a “cow town.” A short (one week) “World Blitz Championship” would make for a perfect billing. The Calgary Convention Center was an ideal location with the city’s infrastructure of hotels all adjoining a major mall. His Worship the Mayor Ralph Kline was a popular local politician and he was highly supportive of such an event. Along with the convention center facilities, the city was willing to donate city workers $70,000 to help get the event started. Along with a matching Provincial grant as well as a matching Federal grant, Robert had a potential $210,000 prize fund and he had hardly gotten started.
The one concern that Robert had was the situation between the FIDE (the authoring body) and the GMA (the players). He didn’t want to be caught in a tug of war. Furthermore, in a strange echo of the 2010 FIDE elections, the Soviet Chess Federation seemed to be of two minds. That is to say, both Kasparov and Karpov claimed the support of their federation – even while the players were at odds with one another. Following his popular victory, Robert wanted to insure that Mikhail Tal would be in Calgary to defend his title, as well as the participation of other leading Soviet players. It wasn’t clear whether the USSR Chess Federation “supported” a Blitz Championship or “opposed” it.
Besides the mixed messages being received from the Soviets, Robert also had to deal with Campo, who had played foxy during the St. John festival. There was a running comical battle over Campo’s airfare. The Canadians provided him with Executive Business Class tickets, and Campo would “bump up” his ticket to First Class and the next day Robert would bump it back down. This bumping up and bumping down went on for some time. Also, while attending St. John as a Committee member, Campo played in the “beginners’ tournament”, or rather the “unrated” section, winning the first prize. While technically, it was true that Campo had no FIDE Elo rating, he had played on several Philippine Olympiad squads and was certainly no beginner.
With this experience Robert was on the look-out to keep his FIDE expenses in his budget to a low, preferring to pay a “modest” licensing fee to the FIDE whereas FIDE wanted a significant percentage of the prize fund. As Robert would complain to me, “Yasser, can’t you talk to Campo? I mean, we are just trying to get out of the starting blocks here. If the event is a success, down the line we can up the deal to a fair percentage but let’s not kill the goose before it starts laying eggs!”
Finally, there was a potential problem with the GMA as well. Garry, the President, seemed to be heading a group of players that didn’t want the FIDE to be creating World Championship events for either Rapid or Blitz, while many GMA members certainly wanted to see such contests.
It was hard being an organizer in 1989.
As I had done previously for St. John, at Robert’s invitation, I visited Calgary to help persuade sponsors and to do my bit for pushing the staging of the Calgary World Blitz Championships forwards. The reception at Calgary was simply excellent. The Mayor and his staff were gung-ho and pleased to have been “chosen” for the World Blitz Championship. Robert had done a splendid job in his presentations. The momentum, despite the hiccups with the USSR Federation, FIDE and the GMA, seemed to be unstoppable. I was convinced that Calgary would play host to a marvelous competition.
The video recording experience in St. John, especially buttressed by the incident between Vaganian and Georgiev, convinced Robert that there was a great need to have complete video coverage of the Calgary event. Video tape sales in those days were taking off, and the idea of having a two-tape VHS special of the event for sale soon after the competition seemed like a no-brainer. The tapes could be duplicated quickly, and if 5,000 units could be sold it would be a good revenue-maker for the budget. Robert went to Hollywood, California to find a partner in the video venture and signed up Jon Emr, a Hollywood producer no one had heard of, as his partner. It was a bad choice, a very bad choice.
Much to Robert’s eternal regret, Emr rather took over the organization of the Calgary event and simply absconded with the $70,000 in seed money that the city provided. Over several months the event seemed to recede further and further away until the whole project was canceled. It was bitter disappointment for everyone concerned, and most especially for Robert and me, as well as the players. Oftentimes I wistfully think back and wonder what might have happened had Jon Emr never entered Robert’s life.
The Return of Bobby Fischer!
By the beginning of the 1990s I was deeply disappointed by what had happened. The marvelous memories of a true chess Festival had started to fade away. The inaugural Blitz Championship had been a smashing success and just as abruptly stopped. The inaugural Rapid Championship still had a willing city in Mazatlán ready to host another “convention”, and here too it was as if FIDE dropped the ball. Perhaps to placate the GMA, Campo didn’t follow up with the Mazatlán organizer. Two great events were followed by complete silence. It was a strange situation that made no sense. It was clear that a Blitz and Rapid Championships could be successfully staged in a fraction of the time necessary for a GMA World Cup or a FIDE World Championship match. Two formats to fit any time-frame, yet the silence was deafening.
Remarkably, just at a time when I had given up all hope that Robert James Fischer would ever compete again, he broke a 20-year absence to play his old rival Boris Spassky in Sveti Stefan and Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1992. Our dear friend, now departed, Zdenko Krnić, of Chess Informant fame had urged me to come and visit. “Bobby is here!” He would exclaim on the phone. Doubtful, I waited until the first move before booking my departure.
I wrote my second book, No Regrets, about the 1992 match and meeting Bobby Fischer, and I would encourage readers to find more information there. For this article, I’d like to concentrate on Bobby’s innovation: He had just introduced his new chess clock. In Sveti Stefan I met with Bobby, and he showed me a prototype for his “Fischer Chess Clock.” Unlike David Bronstein, who had proposed a time-delay after a move has been made (presumably so that the players could keep an accurate score-sheet), Bobby’s innovation was to give a player a bonus amount of time for every move completed.
At Bobby’s suite I spent a pleasant afternoon with GM Božidar Ivanović playing Blitz chess with Bobby’s prototype, trying various time-controls. Before too long we settled on three minutes with a two-second bonus per move. It felt like an ideal time-control. If we imagine that the average Blitz game lasts, say, 50 moves, at a three plus two time-control an average game is completed in less than ten minutes. On the other hand, thanks to the bonus time it didn’t make any sense to play on for the flag in, say, a King and Rook versus King position. Thanks to the bonus time added with each move, virtually all the common disputes that happen in Blitz towards the end of the time-control were neatly swept away.
After several hours had passed, Bobby rejoined us in his suite and asked me how I liked the new clock. We talked at length about the various time-controls, and Bobby concurred that he too felt that three minutes plus two seconds was best for Blitz.
Professional Chess Association
In our musings down memory lane it would be wrong not to mention the Professional Chess Association. Following his decision to abandon the GMA in 1991, Garry Kasparov would find himself in an isolated position even as World Champion. In 1993 a new Challenger, Nigel Short, would emerge. They jointly decided to quit the FIDE World Championship cycle and to create their own organization, the Professional Chess Association (PCA).
The PCA would organize the 1993 PCA World Championship match in London. It would also create a PCA Candidates’ Cycle competing with the FIDE cycle. Remarkably, Kasparov would do an about-face regarding Rapid Chess. After he had wished to “morally condemn” those who played Rapid Chess, the PCA created a marvelous tour of Rapid Chess knock-out elimination events. In my view, this tour was extremely successful, with large audiences and an appreciative group of participants. What happened? About the PCA I have no special insights to share as I wasn’t a Board Member. Perhaps one day either Garry or Nigel would care to explain the ups and downs and why this series of Rapid Chess events was abandoned.
What about Today?
So that, dear reader, is a brief history of Blitz and Rapid Chess. It is time to sum up a little. At the 1995 FIDE General Assembly, FIDE’s President Florencio Campomanes’s term was cut short. He was unseated and a new FIDE President, Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, was elected. In 1997, Kirsan introduced his own system for deciding the FIDE World Championship, a massive 128-player Knock-Out event. The contestants would play two-game matches, and tiebreaks would be decided first by Rapid Chess and, if the tie remained, then by Blitz Chess.
There was a great deal of irony in the tiebreaks. In the first place, official FIDE attitudes seemed to ignore the very existence of Rapid and Blitz Chess on the one hand, yet elevate these disciplines as a means of deciding the World Champion. Indeed, Anatoly Karpov didn’t compete in the Knock-out stages of the inaugural 1997-98 event but received a direct seeding into the Finals contest versus Viswanathan Anand. The match finished finish 3-3, and Karpov won the first FIDE World Championship match to be decided by Rapid games.
Today, the 2011 Candidates’ Matches in Kazan, Russia saw just three decisive games from the thirty played. Of the seven matches in Kazan, four were decided by Rapid and Blitz tiebreakers. Quite an irony that the ugly secret of the chess world, the much-loved and greatly-scorned Blitz Chess, decided the Challenger to the World Champion Viswanathan Anand for 2012. It seems to have been a most unlikely elevation.
With Rapid and Blitz Chess playing such a crucial role in the struggle for the World Championship (Classical) title today it would seem to be just a matter of time before FIDE will take up the initiative once again. The FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has now expressed a willingness to start three official FIDE ratings lists for Classical, Rapid and Blitz chess, as well as a corresponding Championship event for each discipline. He has even spoken about the need for an “Absolute” Champion combining all three. Something that in 1988 Garry Kasparov seemed anxious to avoid. In my view, the need for three championships would be great, while an “Absolute Championship” can wait. By all means, let us hold such championships sooner rather than later, and please let me know how I can participate.
The way it was