The highest-level individual chess tournament ever hosted in Israel kicked off Wednesday near Jerusalem’s Old City, as a small but enthusiastic crowd watched 16 of the world’s best players in action.
One of those players is Israeli Boris Gelfand, a former vice world champion, who scored a quick draw in his first game of the tournament against one of the front-runners, Russia’s Ian Nepomniachtchi.
“I am very happy that such a high-level tournament is being held in our country,” Gelfand said after the match. “It is a great honor for our country that such a tournament is being held in our capital. To play here in front of the local public is an extra feeling. The players are very happy and excited, for some of them it’s the first time in the country and some have been in other events in the past, but everyone is now focused on the games and the results.”
The tournament, part of the World Championship cycle, is being held until December 23 at the auditorium of the Notre Dame Center, a majestic Christian hotel overlooking the Old City and owned by the Vatican.
Even though some have alleged that in the past the venue has objected to symbols of the State of Israel being shown in its premises, the opening ceremony began Wednesday with the Israeli anthem, Hatikva.
Only a small crowd showed up to watch the first matches, but many more tuned in to a live feed of the tourney from around the world.
More spectators are expected Thursday as the Israeli Open championship for Israeli players from all over the country will begin at the same location.
“I’m very proud to hold this event here in Jerusalem,” said the director-general of the World Chess Federation, Emil Sutovsky, who is Israeli and has been one of the country’s top chess players for decades. “Hosting a Grand Prix is very special, and for me it’s very pleasing that it takes place in Israel.”
“I was asked at the airport if I have relatives in Israel,” said Zurab Azmaiparashvili, president of the European Chess Union, referring to Israel’s sometimes invasive airport questionings during his speech at the ceremony. “Unfortunately I don’t have actual relatives here but I have many friends here, players and officials who are like family. I am happy the players and participants have an opportunity to enjoy the city of Jerusalem, which truly can be called the capital of the world. Israel deserves this tournament.”
Government officials were absent from the opening ceremony, likely because it kicked off just as lawmakers were preparing to vote on dissolving the Knesset and calling new elections.
Zvika Barkai, chairman of the Israel Chess Federation, said that Jerusalem and Heritage Minister Ze’ev Elkin could not attend the event, but thanked his ministry as well as the Culture and Sports Ministry for supporting the federation’s activities.
Barkai used his speech to thank FIDE for “correcting the mistake” of holding the 2017 World Rapid and Blitz Chess Championships in Saudi Arabia, which caused seven Israeli players to be barred from participating after they were denied the necessary visas. Despite that comment, the organizers have denied that the incident had any role in the decision to hold the current event in Israel.
Before the event, the organizers — World Chess, a London-based company that is a commercial partner of FIDE and the official broadcaster of its events — accused Israel’s government of refusing to offer funding that would bring the international event back to the Jewish state every two years. The Jerusalem and Heritage Ministry had explained that since Israel is currently ruled by an interim government, “the time is sensitive from a legal and budgetary aspect.”
“We are still learning how to deal with the Israeli government but hope we can host many more tournaments here,” World Chess CEO Ilya Merenzon said Wednesday.
Speaking with The Times of Israel after the ceremony, Merenzon rejected the government’s explanation.
“I’m very surprised that the political stalemate affected the events and the plans, because although there are political issues, life still goes on and you can’t put everything on hold,” he said. “So I don’t think that is a fair excuse. But we are still hopeful that we will be able to teach Israel — and also learn from it — how to take advantage of chess so they see the value in it. We are not asking for charity, it is major promotion with sports coverage on major channels around the world.”
Sutovsky, the FIDE director-general, also commented on the possibility of more elite events being held in the Jewish state, saying that depended “more on efforts by the Israeli federation and local organizers than international bodies. As FIDE we would definitely be glad if that happen and we will promote that. There is definitely willingness but the question is to what extent we will get support from the government or the municipality, which is needed for events of this scale.”
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 next year face the world champion, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen, in a battle for the title.
The contest is currently wide open, as 12 of the 16 players still have a chance of qualifying for the Candidates Tournament.
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.
The opening day culminated in a cocktail celebration at the restaurant on the rooftop of the Notre Dame hotel, a magnificent setting currently full of Christmas decorations, from which the entire Old City can be seen.
Sitting in the restaurant, Merenzon, the World Chess CEO, told The Times of Israel that his plans extend beyond just holding future events in Israel.
“When we organized the World Chess Championship in New York, it was really cool because New York fell in love with it, they gave us a whole area to develop chess and put a mural on the wall of one of the buildings in Manhattan. We worked with the city to install chess boards in the city, and we caused the championship to have a long-lasting effect,” he said. “I went to Manhattan a few weeks ago and saw our chess tables, and there are webcams installed so you can actually follow the games from anywhere in the world. And for Israel this makes so much sense.
“I think that more than just organizing an event, it would make sense to develop some sort of a footprint for chess, and in Jerusalem it would mean so much. It could also entail not only government money but also charity, different kinds of programs. It could be a big deal if we make it into a big deal. And it’s our job to do it, but if the government is behind it it’s going to be so much better.”
Merenzon, who is Jewish, also said he acquired Israeli citizenship several months ago.
Asked if that fact has significance for him in organizing the event in Jerusalem, he said: “It means a lot, and having it in Jerusalem means even more. But being able to establish a long-term presence is more important, and that’s what we want to do. Imagine how amazing it would be to have an official World Chess Championship chessboard table somewhere in the Old City, with a camera filming it live 24 hours so that anybody can play and anybody can watch and comment. It could be pretty spectacular.”