At the World Senior Championships in Italy last month, competition was fierce, proving once again that chess is for all ages.
Players not named Magnus Carlsen or Viswanathan Anand can also become world champions – if they live long enough. Each year, there are World Seniors Championships and because they are open tournaments, the only requirement for players to compete is that they meet the age requirements.
In addition to the glory attached to winning, there is another potential benefit. Players who who are not already grandmasters can earn the title by winning the championship (as the American Larry Kaufman did in 2008). That did not happen this year at the 25th World Senior Championships in Acqui Terme, Italy, (held from Nov. 10 to 22) as the winners in each division already had the title. They were Vladimir Okhotnik of France, Predrag Nikolić of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Nona Gaprindashvili of Georgia, and Galina Strutinskaia of Russia.
(Gaprindashvili long ago earned the “regular” grandmaster title — the first woman to do so — while Strutinskaia is a woman grandmaster.)
Dr. Tim Harding
Jan Rooze, left, and Vladimir Okhotnik, with Anatoly Vaisser to Okhotnik's right
This was the second year in which the tournaments were held in two age groups (65-and-over and 50-and-over) instead of the old 60-and-over format (50-and-over for women). The “junior seniors” is still rather a controversial category — especially as several of the leading contenders are still active professionals.
The competition at the top was fierce, and the winning scores were higher than last year, probably because the entries in the open championships were nearly double the size. There were 185 players, including seven grandmasters, who started in the 65-and-older division (three did not complete the event) and 100 in the 50-and-older (including ten grandmasters).
Only the ladies’ championships (27 entries in all) were no larger than before. The early entry of several women grandmasters and women international masters from eastern Europe possibly deterred lower-rated western players, but it may also be the case that whereas many men return to active chess on retirement from their regular careers, fewer women are doing so.
(Perhaps in the future, everyone should play together, according to age groups. One international master in the 50-and-older section, whose wife has an even higher rating than him, said he hoped to persuade her to play next year in the championships, when she would, of course, play in the open section.)
Scottish international masters broke to the lead in both the men’s tournaments: Roderick McKay in the 50-and-older and Craig Pritchett in the 65-and-older. In Round 3, McKay beat England’s Keith Arkell, last year’s runner-up. The game featured a double exchange sacrifice.
But McKay and Pritchett lost in round five to the only other players still with perfect scores. Pritchett lost to Okhotnik, who was previously the 2011 Senior World Champion, and McKay to the second seed in his tournament, Eduardas Rozentalis of Lithuania. The latter game was a great fight, lasting nearly five hours, near the end of which McKay missed difficult chances to force a draw.
Dr. Tim Harding
Predrag Nikolić of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the top seed in the 50-and-over section, finally took the lead in Round 8 and held it until the end. His positional style and excellent endgame technique were too good for most of his opponents and he finished on 9½ out of 11. Nikolić did show his tactical skills in the following game against an Italian grandmaster with a Spanish name.
In the last round Nikolić (defending a half-point lead) beat Arkell, while Rozentalis won with Black against Fabrizio Bellia, an Italian international master, to take silver. A draw on third board saw Georg Mohr of Slovenia win the bronze medal. None of the medalists lost a single game. Garcia Palermo finished fourth with 8 points and seven players had 7½ including Evgenij Kalegin of Russia who was unbeaten. Arkell finished on 7 and McKay with 6½ points, but he played six grandmasters and his rating performance of 2423 was higher than everyone but the top six finishers.
The Women’s 50-and-over championship ended in a 4-way tie. Perhaps that would not have happened if the tournament had not been reduced to nine rounds. They had three rest days and, since the field of 17 meant that one player had a bye in each round, more than half the field only played eight games.
Going into the last round there were three players on 5½ (two of whom were playing each other) and four others on 5 with a hope of a medal. Strutinskaia became champion on tie-break with 6 points, while Marina Makropoulou of Greece, who won her last round game, took silver, and Petra Schulz of Germany the bronze. Helene Mira of Austria, who won in the last round with Black against Tatiana Bogumil of Russia, also had six points, but her tie-break was not good enough to earn a medal.
The 65-and-over women’s event was more rationally a nine-round event because with ten players a round-robin could be played. Gaprindashvili — the defending 65-and-over champion — won comfortably, going unbeaten with 7 points. Another Georgian, Tamar Khmiadashvili, was second on 6½ while Ludmila Tsifanskaya of Israel won the bronze medal on tie-breakers over Valentina Kozlovskaya of Russia. Both scored 6 points.
The open 65-and-over division was dominated by Okhotnik who was virtually certain of winning with two rounds to go, having conceded just one draw up to then. Two short draws completed his victory. The following win against a Russian international master came in round seven.
Most of the competitors, especially in the 65-and-over section, had come partly for a holiday and to meet old friends. One player celebrated his 86th birthday in the middle of the tournament and the oldest was 89 on the last day. The relatively low rating of players at the bottom of these championships is misleading. Quite a few of the untitled players had once been over 2200 and had even represented their countries in Olympiads. On any given day they can still play very strongly.
This was the second time that I participated. Unfortunately my hopes of doing better than last year’s 6½ points were ruined by a failure of concentration at the crucial points of some long games, which cost me half-points. Twice I was the last to finish after five hours play. I finished with nine draws – a record for me – and the consolation was that I only lost one game and I was never below 50 percent.
Dr. Tim Harding
Dr. Harding getting ready for battle
In some respects the quiet spa Acqui Terme was a good choice for the championships. It was an interesting and pleasant small city with friendly people. Unfortunately, the majority of competitors were accommodated in various hotels a long walk from the conference center, and no shuttle bus was provided. Ideally, everyone should stay in one hotel because the social aspect is very important for seniors events. The organizing committee was perhaps over-stretched by the large number of entries, but their planning and execution fell far short of what is required for an important tournament. Future organizers of these events need to consider carefully every aspect of the requirements of senior players, especially those in their seventies or older.
Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favourable critical reviews.