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“The game of chess is both limited and infinite – its fascination lies in this paradox”

Gibraltar’s chess festival champions and tournament director speak to the NS

Around the world, many countries are experiencing a “chess revolution” as the sport’s popularity rises and top players gain increasing fame. Gibraltar is a part of that, with its annual Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival recognised as the world’s most prestigious open tournament. The 2014 festival took place in January of this year – marking its 12th anniversary.

Below, the New Statesman speaks to tournament director (and Grandmaster) Stuart Conquest, before hearing from this year’s champions Ivan Cheparinov and Mariya Muzychuk.  

New Statesman: What are the origins of the Gibraltar Chess Festival?

Stuart Conquest: The first Gibtelecom Gibraltar Chess Festival was held in January, 2003. The idea was Brian Callaghan's, who always had a fondness for chess but he had no knowledge of what this would entail. He and the Caleta Hotel's [festival venue] General Manager Franco Ostuni travelled to Hastings, England, in January 2002, to visit the famous chess festival there. They met Stewart Reuben, a senior figure in the English chess federation. Stewart then became Director of the Gibtelecom Gibraltar Chess Festival. 

Last year marked the 12th anniversary of the festival. How has the event evolved?

Each year has seen an increase not just in overall attendance, but in numbers of countries represented. This year we had more Grandmasters than ever. We also had our highest number of female participants. The Tradewise festivals of 2011, 2012, and 2013 have all been voted 'World's Best Open Chess Tournament' by the Association of Chess Professionals. We have come a long way. Every chess fan in the world has heard of Gibraltar. 

What makes Gibraltar a unique spot for the festival? Is there anything unusual or “Gibraltarian” about the festival?

Gibraltar embraces many cultures and mixes histories of different peoples, so in a way a game like chess, which crosses borders and is played all around the world, feels at home here. The key and most vital 'Gibraltarian' aspect of the festival is our local, loyal sponsorship. We absolutely depend on their support. 

How popular is the sport on the Rock?

Since 2003, chess in Gibraltar has increased in popularity, particularly with young children. Whereas before there was no chess activity in schools, now there are plenty of school chess clubs - almost every school has one. We are also well supported by chess players living across the border: many Spanish from the Campo de Gibraltar region take part. 

Describe the week of the festival. What is the atmosphere like?

The atmosphere is brilliant and energising, but the pressure doesn't really let up. Amateurs and professionals are thrown together - there is a kind of benevolent social cohesion which seems to keep everything afloat. Of course the main afternoon competition (the Masters) is the highlight, with high prizes and extreme tension as the competition reaches its climax. But notwithstanding the seriousness of the games, everyone, win or lose, seems to be having fun.

Do think it will ever be feasible that chess could become a mainstream sport, with a public interest and enthusiasm comparable to say, snooker or league football?

Chess already has a huge following, but online. You will never have tens of thousands of people in a stadium watching chess, but it is not an insurmountable challenge to market the game for television. Norway, for example, is currently experiencing a chess revolution. The reigning World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, is one of Norway's top celebrities, and Norway will host the Chess Olympiad (the Olympics of chess) in August. The popularity of chess worldwide is just a question of fashion. Right now it is definitely on the rise. And Gibraltar is a part of that. 

What attracts you to the game of chess? What wider lessons can players learn from the game?

Chess is both limited (by its rules) and infinite (in its possibilities). Its fascination lies in this paradox. Playing chess can help you accept life's inevitable difficulties and setbacks in a more constructive fashion, since it is only through making mistakes that you can aspire to do better. Chess teaches patience, planning, and respect for the opponent.

 

The Champion’s Q&A

This year’s tournament champion Ivan Cheparinov (Bulgaria, current world ranking: 60) and women’s champion Mariya Muzychuk (Ukraine, current world ranking: 11), are renowned and long-time players: both took part in their first chess tournaments as the age of just five. We talk to them about training, the qualities of a great player, women in the sport and what politicians can learn from the game.

New Statesman: What is your typical training routine like, and how do you stay sharp? Do you have a pre-game ritual?

Mariya Muzychuk: I work with chess programs on my computer, and often follow the latest information from books and magazines. It is also very important to stay fit, as chess games at the tournaments last many hours and it is important to have a fresh mind during the game. Every day I try to have some physical exercises or play some other sports.

Ivan Cheparinov: I don’t have any routine before an upcoming game. I like to listen music and concentrate. I try not to think about anything else. For me, concentration and self-motivation are very important.

What do you think makes not just a good, but a great chess player? (Stamina, cunning, inventiveness, sportsmanship…)

MM: I think it is impossible to choose just one thing. A great chess player has most of these qualities. I’d also include hard work, good memory, persistence, and physical abilities.

IC: I think everythink is inside our minds. If you are prepeared to work hard, to give everything for your career, day by day you will archieve it. Of course many other things are important, but for me “how we think” is first place.

How did it feel to win at this year’s Gibraltar Chess Festival? Is there anything that makes the festival particularly unique?

IC: I feel absolutely delighted. The Gibraltar Chess Festvial is the best open tournament in the world. This was my second time in Gibraltar. My first time was not very succesfull, but I was very glad to return. Gibraltar is a unique and very beautiful place. I feel at home there.

MM: I also played in Gibraltar in 2012 and 2013, and I was very happy about winning this year. It is a well-known tournament and a very strong one. Another interesting point is that the tournament is organized in such an unusual place. Many people comes to Gibraltar and face good weather in winter! Moreover, this is the only place where I could see monkeys on the streets.

How competitive is the world of professional chess? What’s it like backstage at an international tournament?

MM: It is very competitive. More and more people are starting to play: they try to improve fast and, as a result, we see many young players who are already professionals. But I would say this is the positive sign.

IC: Chess is competitive like any other sport. On the tournaments I try to concentrate on my playing and nothing else. I have only a few friends in the world of chess.

The game is more than a thousand years old. Why do you think it’s still so popular today?

IC: For me, chess is very popular because it brings many things on an intellectual level. Many of the great people of all time were chess players, and this tradition will continue.

MM: I find chess a very interesting game, and the fact that many millions of people also like to play it proves this. A great amount of games have been played during the history of the sport, but players today continue to improve and find new possibilities. Every game is different.

The world of chess is quite male-dominated. Do you perceive there to be a gender imbalance at professional level and if so, what do you think needs to be done about it?

MM: This is true - men are dominating at the moment. I think there are many reasons for this. Just to name a few: the number of young boys who have chess training is much bigger than the number of girls. Also genetically, men have a better physical condition and playing stamina. Women have a bit of a different way of thinking, which means they have different aims in chess. Also, they spend much more time with family and children and this cannot avoid influence on their career. There are many other reasons, and maybe men will continue this domination for a really long period.

IC: It’s true that we are dominating at a professional level, there many factors for that. But I don’t see any discrimination for the women, and I think is very good that, lately, there are many women who are fighting with men on an international level.

Does the game of chess mirror life? What could business people, politician, or other professionals learn from the game?

IC: Of course it mirrors life! It’s a very interesting intelectual game. From it, people can learn that every move is important and has consequences.

MM: Chess teaches you to think, to plan, to predict, to improve memory and build character. The qualities people have in life are sometimes also shown during the game: for example if the person is active and adventurous, then they are usually very active and like playing different combinations. With the help of this game we meet new people, make friendships, and through playing at tournaments we visit different places. All these points, and many others, unite people of different professions.