The sweet smell of success

Posted: November 14, 2018 in chess
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Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana are playing for a purse of one million euros. How much is that in real money? About $29.16 in the U.S., $31.20 in Canada, enough to buy a nice dinner for four in Mexico or a two-bedroom house in China with off-street parking.

Each member of the World Series winners, the Boston Red Sox, could buy and sell chess 50 times over.

Why is chess so little valued, when it’s one of the most important activities on the planet?

Mag Wheels and Fabio are playing for less money than the stakes in the 1995 Garry Kasparov/Deep Blue match. (Elon observed at the time that IBM wasn’t sponsoring the match, they were paying Kasparov to debug their program.) (What Deep Blue intended to do with the money if it won has never been disclosed. Deep Blue took the rematch in ’96, but IBM responded by taking the machine apart.)

Why isn’t IBM sponsoring this match? How about Amazon? Google? Netflix? Dunkin’ Donuts?

Who is the sponsor? PhosAgro, a Russian fertilizer company.

Because I am too sad to riff on that, I want to mention that the Women’s World Chess Championship is going on right now in Russia, in the city of Khanty-Mansiysk (where one million euros won’t even shine your shoes). The 64 highest-ranked women in the world are playing in a knock-out tournament similar to basketball’s Final Four.

There have been 21 women’s chess champions since 1927, all of them from the Soviet Union, Russia, China, the Ukraine, Hungary, and Bulgaria. Among the 64 players in this year’s battle, there are six from the Western Hemisphere (two from the U.S. and one each from Canada, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Peru). The field is dominated by China, India, Russia, and places that once belonged to Russia, with lone wolves from Western Europe, North Africa, India’s neighbors, and countries as mysterious and unknowable as Scotland.

Though the women are being trounced in the TV ratings war with the men and can’t even land a fertilizer company as their sponsor, and even though the men’s championship is called the World Championship but the women’s is called the Women’s World Championship, it’s worth noting how far women have come from the days when they were herded into tournaments designed to keep them out of the men’s hair, tournaments that produced a “ladies champion” who was laughed at by the men.

Vera Menchik, who was born in Moscow in 1906, was the first women’s world champion. Her father, a Czech, taught her how to play. In 1921, in the wake of the Russian Revolution, she and her sister, who also played chess well, joined their mother in England.

By 1927 she was good enough to represent her birth country in the first women’s world championship, which she won. She reigned until 1939, when World War II froze chess in place. Menchik defended her title six times, five representing Czechoslovakia and, in her final match, representing her adopted country, England. Menchik and her family were killed by a German V-1 flying bomb in 1944. The Czech Republic put her on their postage in 1996. She was inducted into the World Chess Hall of Fame in 2011.

One of the best chess stories is what happened when our heroine entered a prestigious tournament in Karlsbad, Czechoslovakia, in 1929. The Viennese master Albert Becker declared that she didn’t belong there among the men and that anyone who lost to her should become members of the Vera Menchik Club. It was Menchik’s first international competition, and she finished last, but one of her two wins was against Albert Becker.

I’ve had my share of challenges as a chess player, but nothing compared to being the only woman in a tournament full of men who think you’re there to bring them coffee.

Let’s all raise a lone finger to honor Herr Becker. Tomorrow: Game 5.

(Editor’s note: Due to technical difficulties, all of them involving my ISP and wheezy old laptop, yesterday’s post only appeared about an hour ago. Run-DMSteve regrets this error.)

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