Jerusalem Grand Prix 2019

Elite chess event set to kick off in Israel, with organizers angry at government

Part of World Championship cycle to begin Wednesday with 16 of world’s best players; ministry refuses funding to make event in Israel a long-term project, citing political impasse

Illustrative. A chess set. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative. A chess set. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

For the first time ever, Israel is set to host an elite chess tournament that is part of the World Championship cycle, with 16 of the world’s best players — including an Israeli — battling in Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem Grand Prix will kick off Wednesday with an opening ceremony, and will be held at the Notre Dame of Jerusalem Center overlooking the capital’s Old City until December 23.

The organizers — World Chess, a London-based company that is a commercial partner of the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and the official broadcaster of its events — have accused Israel’s government of refusing to offer funding that would bring the international event back to the Jewish state every two years.

“We hoped that, should there be government or city support that we discussed with the Israeli government, we would make the Grand Prix in Israel long-term,” World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon told The Times of Israel this week. “However, unfortunately there has not been any support from the government yet. This is very surprising.”

The official poster for the Jerusalem Grand Prix 2019 in chess. (World Chess)

He said lengthy negotiations had been held on the matter between the Israel Chess Federation and the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, but the ministry ultimately declined.

The ministry responded that the request for funding was discussed and rejected since Israel is currently ruled by an interim government in an unprecedented political crisis. A spokesperson for the ministry said, “the time is sensitive from a legal and budgetary aspect.”

Merenzon said the decision to hold the prestigious event in Israel was made since “we feel that chess is very popular in Israel, and this has proved to be the case — interest from media and chess fans is high. Israel, which is called the ‘start-up nation,’ is interesting for partners and we hope to develop collaboration with Israeli start-ups and technology companies and connect them to chess.”

While the organizers have received several “politically-charged emails” from supporters of boycotts of Israel, there has been no backlash within the chess community, FIDE said, telling The Times of Israel: “The players, commentators, arbiters and FIDE principals have been great and we all are looking forward to have the spectacular event in Jerusalem.”

The participating grandmasters will not include the world champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, since the World Championship cycle is designed to determine who will be the challenger facing Carlsen in next year’s battle for the title of world champion.

One of the contenders is Israel’s Boris Gelfand, a veteran top player who in 2012 almost became world champion, qualifying for the match against then-champion Viswanathan Anand of India, but eventually losing to him in a tiebreak round.

Boris Gelfand during a World Chess Championship tie break match on Wednesday. (photo credit: AP/Misha Japaridze)
Boris Gelfand during a World Chess Championship tie break match, May 30, 2012. (illustrative photo credit: AP/Misha Japaridze)

Other elite players attending the event — hailing from a total of 11 countries — include Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Azerbaijan), Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (France), Anish Giri (Netherlands) and Wesley So (United States).

Reigning chess world champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, smiles during a press conference after retaining the World chess Championship in London, November 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

The series of four Grand Prix events — the last of which is the Jerusalem event — will determine which two players will join six others in qualifying for the Candidates Tournament. The winner of that event will face Carlsen.

The prize fund of each Grand Prix is 130,000 euros ($144,000), with an additional 280,000 euros ($310,000) for the overall standings.

The tournament has a knock-out format with 16 players at the start. To win, a player will have to defeat opponents in four rounds. Each round consists of two games with a classic time control, and a series of tie-breaks in case of an even score.

Some in Israel have voiced objection to the location of the tournament, since the Notre Dame Center is a Christian hotel owned by the Vatican and managed by a Mexican organization, that allegedly objects to symbols of the State of Israel being shown in its premises.

Notre Dame de Jerusalem, the largest single building constructed in Jerusalem before World War I, seen from the Old City ramparts. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

FIDE — whose director general is veteran Israeli grandmaster Emil Sutovsky — commented that the Israeli flag will be visible at the tournament, which will be held at an auditorium located near the hotel and part of the same compound.

“The organizers have chosen the venue which is well-equipped to hold a chess event, and is at a central location,” the federation said. “And as per FIDE regulations, it will have the FIDE flag and the flag of the hosting country, Israel.”

The Jerusalem Ministry said it had expressed doubts about holding the tournament at the Notre Dame Center, but since it wasn’t funding the event it had no influence over the chosen venue.

In 2017, seven Israeli players were barred from participating in the World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Saudi Arabia, after the Arab kingdom denied them the visas necessary for them to participate. As a result, FIDE moved the tournament’s 2018 installation from Saudi Arabia to Russia.

World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon. (World Chess)

Israeli athletes often face difficulties when competing in the Middle East or against Middle Eastern countries due to hostility toward the Jewish state.

Some Israeli reports have speculated that holding the Grand Prix in Israel was a form of compensation for what happened with the event in Saudi Arabia.

Merenzon commented that “this is simply not true.”

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