The King and I

Chess championships in England are often played in dreary municipal halls in grey provincial towns. So I jumped at the chance to compete in 5-star comfort in Thailand

Chess

Except for the world’s elite grandmasters, chess tournaments and comfort are distant companions: indeed they never seem to meet at all. In this country, such events tend to be held in municipal halls or sports centres, where the food available is usually grim and every footfall can be heard squeaking on linoleum. For example, the final of the English county chess championship is held each year at a community centre in Leicester. It is conveniently near to Leicester railway station. So conveniently near, in fact, that you can hear the stationmaster’s announcements.

For keen young chess players, such things matter very little: most children and students have an admirable unconcern about creature comforts. But over the years — perhaps as our own income rises — we become less and less enchanted with spartan playing conditions.

There is, however, one tournament open to amateurs and grandmasters alike, which offers a unique combination of chess struggle with hedonism. It is the Thai Open Chess Championship, organised for the past 11 years by a Finnish chess-playing businessman long resident in Thailand, Kai Tuorila, and sponsored by another Bangkok-based Finn, the fund manager Petri Deryng. 

Mr Tuorila’s mission to make Thailand the site of the world’s best open tournament is almost quixotic, as it is a nation with its own particular form of the game, called Makruk, which is played by around two million Thais; by contrast only a few thousand of them play Western chess.

Yet the Thai Open now attracts not just a growing number of local converts, but also hundreds of players from all around the world — and the latest one, in April, attracted such luminaries as England’s Nigel Short and India’s Koneru Humpy (the world’s third-ranked woman player) — along with 22 other grandmasters. The joy of open tournaments, however, is that anyone can enter in return for a small fee (about £65 in this case) and have the chance to play against grandmasters, rather than just watch them from afar.

In the case of Mr Tuorila’s tournaments there are other benefits which justify the additional expense of flying out to the Far East. He has an arrangement with the leading Thai hotel group, Dusit Thani, who offer all competing chess players sharply discounted prices for rooms in their five-star establishments. The tournament itself is held in the ballroom of whichever of their hotels is hosting; in April this year, it was the Dusit Thani in Pattaya, a coastal resort which admittedly is associated much more with strip joints than chess.

Nigel Short persuaded me to join him at the Thai Open in Pattaya, insisting that it would be much more salubrious than I could ever have imagined. He was quite right. The ballroom that hosted the nine-round event was dazzlingly lit (essential for chess, and so often neglected); glasses of iced water were constantly on supply — not that it was necessary in the air-conditioned surroundings — and all the chairs for the more than 300 participants were fully sprung, in sharp contrast to the standard rock-hard schoolroom type which are an affliction to the middle-aged back when rooted to the spot for four or five hours at a time. Did I mention food — normally the bane of chess opens? The organisers of the Thai event each year set up a sumptuous buffet right outside the tournament hall — again, with the idea of offering competitors the quality of a top-flight hotel, but at knockdown prices.

Are there any drawbacks to this apparent paradise for chess players? Only this: when playing chess — or indeed any competitive sport — most of us need to be in what might be described as an edgy mood. Yet being so serenely well-disposed as a result of all the Dusit Thani cossetting, I found it hard to whip up the necessary competitive nastiness (and I noticed that Nigel Short, too, was unusually benign after losing a couple of games to weaker players). But perhaps I am just using the familiar chess-player’s resort of making excuses where there are none.

In any case, I would urge all readers of this column who have ever thought of mixing chess with comfort to enter next year’s Thai Open, which will be in Bangkok. I will certainly be there (given the necessary domestic clearance for take-off).

My own games in this year’s event were dismal, as noted. But one, with the White pieces against the Norwegian player Borre Kjell Grebstad, perhaps displayed the tiniest glimmer of original thought — which is what all we amateurs struggle to achieve, if only for an instant.

1.b3 (Larsen’s Opening-which is probably the best that can be said for it) d5 2.Bb2 c5 3.Nf3 Nc6 4.e3 Bg4 5.Bb5 Qb6 6.a4!? (As far as I know, a theoretical novelty) a6 7.a5! (The point is that he can’t play 7…Qxb5 because after 8.Nc3 Qb4 White wins with 9.Nxd5 or even 9.Ra4) Qc7 8.Bxc6+ Qxc6 9.Ra4! (Another point of 7.a5) Bh5 10.g4!? (Very ambitious. My hand was itching to play 10.Rh4, but after 10…Qg6 it seems that White has nothing better than the drawing line 11.0-0 Bxf3 12.Qxf3 Qxc2 13.Qxd5 Qxb2 14.Qxb7 Rd8 15.Qc6+ and perpetual check) Bg6 11.Ne5 Qc7 12.h4 f6 13.h5 Be4 14.f3 fxe5 (Black saw that he could have grabbed a pawn with 14…Bxc2 but didn’t fancy the position after 15.Qxc2 fxe5 16.Qf5) 15.fxe4 e6 16.g5 Bd6 17.Qg4 Qd7 18.h6!? (Nigel Short described this to me as “the sort of move that is either very good or very bad”. After playing it I felt optimistic about my chances-more based on the fact that my opponent looked concerned rather than that I had the faintest idea what was going on)…gxh6 19.gxh6? (But this is definitely wrong. The correct follow-up would have been 19.exd5 exd5 20.Nc3! Qxg4 21.Rxg4 d4 22.Ne4 Be7 23.g6! hxg6 24.Rxg6 0-0-0 25.Rh5 when White has fantastic compensation for his pawn) Ne7 20.exd5 exd5 21.Qxd7+ Kxd7 22.e4? (This is also stupid. My idea was to fix a square for my Knight on c4 and to win the pawn on c5. Both are achieved, but at the expense of allowing Black’s rooks to dominate the board. 22.Rg4 Nc6 23.Rg7+ was much more sensible) d4 23.Na3 Nc6 24.Nc4 Raf8 25.Ba3 Rhg8 26.Nxd6 Kxd6 27.Rc4 Rf4 28.d3 Rg2 29.Rxc5 Ke6 30.Rf1 Rxf1+ 31.Kxf1 Rh2 32.Rd5 Rxc2 33.Rd6+ Kf7 34.Rd7+ Kg6 35.Rxb7 Nxa5 36.Rb6+ Rc6 37.Rxc6+ Nxc6 38.Bf8! (The only move to preserve the importunate pawn on h6. After 38.Bc1 Na5 39.b4 Nb3 White would be dead lost. But now the position is drawn, a conclusion the players managed to reach some inconsequential moves later.) As my schoolteachers used to write: Must do better.