Shirov's magic spell

ARVIND AARON

WHEN Alexei Shirov excels, it is a great moment for the spectators. The grand-daddy of chess entertainment, Shirov went on his favourite mission - the king hunt - as he massacred five opponents, drew with four and lost to one - to his nemesis Garry Kasparov - as he became the best performer of the Rest of the World v Russia competition.

In the four-day event, Shirov's name featured on three of the day's best games prizes. On two of them, day three and day four, it was for his wins and on day two it was for his defeat against Kasparov. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to call him the most entertaining chess player of our times.

Winning five of the 10 games is a record in this event. His wins had quality and effect as he floored the in-form Russians who were bamboozled by the Shirov effect. If the win against Motylev had mate in mind, he snatched a win from the jaws of defeat against Grischuk by lifting his level of play. The win against Kramnik rendered the champion Russian ineffective in the whole competition.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Shirov is a tall Russian whose family settled in Latvia. In the mid-90s, he married a Latin American girl and they settled in Tarragona, south of Barcelona in Spain and that was how he got his Spanish citizenship. Today, living with his third wife, WGM Victoria Cmilyte of Lithuania, he has returned to Latvia but officially represents Spain.

Born on July 4, 1972, Shirov's best in chess is having qualified to play for the world chess title twice. In 1998, he defeated Vladimir Kramnik at Cazorla, near Linares, Spain, to qualify for a match against Kasparov. That chess cycle under the presently non-existent "World Chess Council" failed after efforts to find a sponsor to play Kasparov did not materialise. However, in 2000, in New Delhi, Shirov made another big march towards the crown when he made it to the finals. He was defeated by Viswanathan Anand at Teheran in the finals but he fought each game professionally without losing heart and received his biggest prize money purse there.

His artistic play with an enchanting eye for combinations and an ability to think different made FIDE to invite him for the Sydney Exhibition at the Olympic Games village in September 2000. He and Anand fought an exciting match which ended in a draw. Shirov, in short, is promotional material, who can entertain non-chess players and chess players alike through his daring missions at the board.

Shirov is a specialist in openings and his main trainer is Alexander Rychagov of Estonia. Like many top players, when he is back from training, his performance shoots up. Shirov concentrates hard on the board and after each game he is fully exhausted. In events such as Linares he would resemble someone more tired than the one who had tamed a Spanish bull.

Shirov plays league games regularly in Germany and represents Spain in the first board at Olympiads and in the European Team Championships. Once his relationship with Spanish journalists was so low that he asked Salov to talk to them on his behalf. He was so upset that he said, "I have noticed that I am not really accepted as Spanish."

Many of the world's elite group of players live in Spain and even people such as Karpov train in exotic islands as Las Palmas. Like Anand, Salov (both Madrid), Ljubojevic (Linares), Topalov (Salamanca), Shirov also used to live in Tarragona in the east coast and owned a flat.

Shirov has three children, one from each of his three wives. Shirov is a serious, passionate and romantic person. He is friendly with the press but often reacts to strong language by colleagues about him.

Defeats hurt a lot of top players personally and many of them have sleepless nights. It is said many even skip dinner but Shirov does not belong to this band. One can see him in company with trainers or friends like Valery Salov, sometimes with a glass of wine and he would be back at the same neck-breaking exercise on his opponents the next round. At this year's Linares Tournament he finished last but two days later he was in Monte Carlo fully recovered and was leading but finished second in the rapid and blindfold chess tournament.

When he is engrossed with an opponent at the board, he does not see or listen to anyone. During the 1999 Dos Hermanas Tournament near Seville in Spain this writer quizzed Judit Polgar at the dinner table if there were any draw offers in that day's game and she went on to narrate a nice story. "I offered him a draw after this move but to my surprise he made a move." Making a move means the draw offer is rejected. But Judit Polgar explained that after he made his move, he offered a draw! This meant he had not heard her offer in the first place. "I was so irritated I played on," Judit Polgar continued explaining her game.

Shirov gets excited quickly and it is usually by the positions at the board. At the end of one Linares Tournament he asked this writer, "Did you arrive just now?" He had to be reminded about the Madrid-Linares train journey and the conversations and also that he was a neighbour in the same hotel. A loud slam of the door everyday at 5 a.m. will mean that he has returned to his room for sleep after preparation all night elsewhere.

At the board he is a big fighter and rarely compromises with draws. Even in the most drawish positions he looks for brilliance and beauty, a side of chess he loves. At best he has been ranked No. 3 in the world and has fought for the world chess title. He will be remembered for producing masterpieces during a period when Grandmasters mastered the art of making insipid draws. The book he authored, Fire On The Board also reflects his chess style which he followed by example.

His Elo suffered a minor slide this year when he went out of the 2700-club. But then Shirov's name can be found anywhere in the standings crosstable. He can be a winner or a loser but would have, on an average, played more decisive games. He recovers quickly and that is one of his best characteristics to make comebacks.

Once Shirov promised to retaliate to Kasparov's remark of "talented amateur" in October 1997 by winning the world title match in 1998 but it was not staged for want of sponsor. Shirov has his own opinions and felt Kasparov was obliged to play him before facing anybody else. So, when sponsors signed up Anand and Kasparov for a match in 1999, he called the Indian a "pickpocket". That match did not take place. In 2000 when Kramnik got a chance to play Kasparov, he referred to the games as rigged and both players stopped normal relations with him.

Following in the footsteps of the illustrious Latvian legend, Mikhail Tal, Shirov is a sizzler and is often compared to the eighth world chess champion for his risk-taking ability. His father and Tal were contemporaries. A few days after Shirov took Latvia to a near medal winning performance in the Manila Olympiad 1992, Tal passed away.

His best rating performance of 2880 was recorded in 1997 when he won the Ter Appel Tournament in the Netherlands. Success and failure go hand in hand for Shirov but his play dots with brilliance of a rare kind. His play is settling down and so is his family life after two unsuccessful marriages to a Latin American girl and then to chess player Marta Zeilinska of Poland.

This Moscow result which gave him a stupendous 2865 Elo rating performance should keep his fire at the board alive till his mission to win the absolute world chess title materialises.