Chess: Keith Arkell captures online British title after rival is disqualified

Keith Arkell became online British champion at age 60 in controversial circumstances last weekend when the popular grandmaster from Paignton, Devon, scored 7.5/9 in the nine-day contest to finish a full point clear of GMs Michael Adams and Bogdan Lalic, with the England No 1 and defending champion taking second place on tie-break. Mohammed Ismail, the under-16 champion, was fourth.

Victory had seemed remote a day before the finish when Arkell, the 2008 English champion and author of Arkell’s Odyssey and Arkell’s Endings, was defeated in round eight. Then the result was reversed as his opponent, Gerasimos Giachos, whose only recorded over-the-board results were five inter-university games for Swansea a decade ago and who had no international Fide rating, was disqualified for allegedly violating the host site’s fair play policy.

Online cheating has been a bugbear of chess during the pandemic. ECF rules for competitors last week included a mandatory Zoom and webcam, no headphones, and nobody else in the playing room. Other major events have required at least two cameras and proctors for top games. The online Meltwater Champions Tour events led by the world and US champions, Magnus Carlsen and Wesley So, where the prize funds are high and the playing protocols are rigorous, have been completely free of suspicion.

The online British championship had a qualifying tournament which was open to anyone, whereas players in the over-the-board contest possess a published rating achieved over a significant number of competitive games. Given that the national title is the ECF’s jewel in the crown for advancing a player’s reputation and earning power, there are likely to be calls for future online entry regulations to be tightened. Suspicious results need to be investigated earlier in the tournament before the player gets within range of a top position.

The ECF plans to stage its over-the-board championship, separate from the online title, in October, although its venue and dates have yet to be announced. Dr Stefan Fazekas, who won in 1957 at 59, a year younger than Arkell, was the oldest champion. Joseph Blackburne, world No 3 at his best, tied for first at 72 in 1914 but was too ill to take part in a play-off.

Adams, the defending online champion, finished a point behind Arkell after conceding too many draws. In the final round, the England No 1 dropped half a point to 10-year-old Freddy Gordon, Scotland’s new talent. Gordon stood worse, but fought back into a drawn ending.

Scotland has never had such a promising player as Gordon, who turns 11 next week and is performing at a level comparable with England’s top grandmasters at that age. The George Heriot’s, Edinburgh, schoolboy finished fifth on 5.5/9, including a win over GM Mark Hebden as well as his draw with Adams, and performed a phenomenal 600 points above his pre-pandemic rating of 1750. However, in the concurrent Fide World under-12 Cup, Gordon finished only 30th in a field of nearly 200.

There is bad news for England’s top grandmasters about the 114-player Fide Grand Swiss, staged in Douglas, Isle of Man in 2019 and planned to return there this October, The event is part of the 2021-22 world championship cycle, which qualifies two players directly into the 2022 Candidates and another six into the 2022 Grand Prix which is a qualifying route.

In the 2019 Grand Swiss David Howell had a chance to qualify for the Candidates until losing in the final round to China’s Wang Hao, the tournament winner, while Luke McShane was also in contention until near the end. None of England’s top players entered the World Cup knockout at Sochi last month, and they could now find themselves effectively disenfranchised from Fide’s individual global competition.

The Grand Swiss venue has been transferred to Riga, Latvia, due to the strict Covid-19 restrictions in the Isle of Man and the UK, which would force many players to self-isolate before the tournament and would make the event unviable. Latvia has more flexible regulations and has promised high organisational quality. Currently it is proving the point by hosting the Riga Open with more than 400 players from 35 countries.

Berlin has topped a worldwide poll of 4,000 chessplayers who voted for a host city for the 24-player Fide Grand Prix, three tournaments in early 2022 which will decide two Candidates places. São Paulo was second in the vote and London third. Meanwhile, international open chess will resume in England with the Northumbria Masters in Gateshead on 26-30 August. Entries to the congress at the Marriott MetroCentre are close to its maximum of 192.

Last week Wesley So won the Chessable Masters, the penultimate event on the Meltwater Champions Tour, despite a 19-move loss to the new Dutch star Jorden van Foreest. So is in action again this weekend, competing over-the-board in the US-based Grand Chess Tour in the St Louis Rapid and Blitz (9pm start, live commentary online) in which six top US players compete with four visiting GMs.

There are a few days to go before the final Grand Tour leg, the prestigious $325,000 Sinquefield Cup on 17-27 August where the world No 2, Fabiano Caruana, will be hoping to repeat his historic success of 2014 when he won with a record 3103 performance rating.

3776: 1…Qxc6! 2 Nxc6 Bf8! (Bg5! also works) wins for Black with the double threat of 3…Rxe1 mating and 3…Bxh6 winning the queen. If 3 Rxe8 Rxe8.