The London Olympic Games were of note, I suppose; but for those of us more interested in the 64 squares than in athletics, the real sporting excitement that the capital has to offer takes place this month at the Institute of Electronic Engineering, on the north bank of the Thames just across the river from the London Eye. Â
There, from March 15 to April 1, eight giants of the chessboard will play each other twice in a world championship eliminator, known as the Candidates Tournament. The winnerÂ â€”Â the player with the highest score after the 14 roundsÂ â€”Â will contest a match in November for the ultimate title against the holder since 2007, India's Viswanathan Anand. Both events are being staged by Agon, a company set up by a London-based entrepreneur, Andrew Paulson. He is a highly cultured American who made a fortune Â in Russia; it was partly through those Russian connections that Paulson persuaded the World Chess Federation to sell him the rights to stage the world chess championship cycle.
The might of Soviet chess is now a purely historical phenomenon, but its legacy is dramatically evident in this event. Of the eight players who qualified, seven were born in what was then the USSR, and they all to a greater or lesser extent owe their early training to the formidable system set up under the Communist regime. Those seven are,Â in world ranking order, the former world champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia, Levon Aronian of Armenia, Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, Alexander Grischuk of Russia, Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine, Peter Svidler of Russia and Boris Gelfand, now representing Israel.
There will be just one player from a different chess culture. He is Norway's Magnus Carlsen; and this 22-year-old, though the youngest competitor, is the overwhelming favourite to win. He became the world's highest-ranked player (according to the Elo system of individual ratings) at the age of 19, having become a grandmaster at 13. Carlsen's Elo rating is now comfortably above that of any other player in history and almost 100 points above the highest achieved by the late Bobby FischerÂ â€”Â the last Westerner to be labelled the best in the world. Although mathematicians point out the element of statistical inflation in such rankings, even Fischer at his prime and magically transported to the modern era would have found Carlsen an awesomely difficult competitor to beat.