Pregame chess ritual: the hefting of a sheep (photo by Casto Abundo for fide.com)
Chess has a bit of an image problem as a game that is now dominated by computers. So the PR mavens at the World Chess Federation are now bringing sheep to tournaments to make the game seem warm and fuzzy.
The World Chess Championship Qualifying Tournament starts today in Elista (“Help me, MapQuest!”), Kalmykia, a desolate, sheep-herding semi-autonomous Russian republic on the northwest coast of the Caspian Sea. The tournament employed a novel system for deciding who had White and who had Black in the first game. One of the two players on each chessboard was ceremoniously presented with a chest containing an ovine. The color of the animal dictated which color he’d play—and the sheep was his to keep!
When French phenom Etienne Bacrot (the dude with the mod shirt, at the right in the photo) received a black sheep, his adversary, American veteran Gata Kamsky, knew he was getting the White pieces. Kamsky, age 32, is among the sixteen candidates who’ll contest two successive six-game knockout matches. The four people left standing will compete in September in Mexico City for the World Championship.
Kamsky, who defected to the United States in 1989 from Russia, is America’s best hope of becoming world champion since Bobby Fischer held the title from 1972 to 1975.
In the mid 1990s, tournament chess was fissured by two rival world-championship titles, one awarded by FIDE, the world chess federation, and one granted by a breakaway organization called PCA, the Professional Chess Association. Kamsky managed to play for both titles, losing an eleven-game match to the PCA champion Vishy Anand in 1995 and a twenty-game match to FIDE world champion Anatoly Karpov in 1996.
In 1999, Kamsky abandoned the game for five years and ended up in medical school and then law school. Armed now with a law degree, which he says he can fall back on if chess doesn’t cover the rent, Kamsky plunged back into tournament chess in 2004.
The smart money gives Kamsky a slight edge over Bacrot. But there’s one wildcard: the Frenchman has never had a sheep among his retinue before.
[Update: their first game ended in a draw after an uneventful 28 moves.]