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Chess and the Comfort Break, Guardian Screen Break, October 2, 2006
I do not know a great deal about sport – if you are bothered about all that, there are some red hot experts elsewhere in this section I can heartily recommend – but I have over the years built up a level of expertise in the area of toilet facilities, so I may be just the man to deconstruct the dispute affecting the championship chess match currently taking place in the Russian republic of Kalmykia – Toiletgate, as this paper tentatively dubbed it on Saturday (that’s the dispute, not the republic, which may not be blessed with the world’s most advanced sanitation, but The Guardian would never be so rude).
The match, between Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov, is what boxers would call a unification bout. It is to determine the undisputed world champion (a term, incidentally, that the comedian George Carlin takes issue with: “If he’s the undisputed champion, then what’s all the fighting about?” asks Carlin).
Topalov, as I understand it, complained after game four of the 12-game match that his opponent was visiting the loo too often - 50 times, he said, during six hours of chess. He thought Kramnik might be logging on (you should pardon the expression) in the seclusion of the cubicle and using computer aided expertise to plot his next move (on the chess board, that is, not in the toilet, where outside advice is rarely needed).
The committee overseeing the match responded by closing the two toilets in the rest rooms, and designating a third for the use of the chess players only. That is, out of bounds to anyone without a domed forehead, unfashionable glasses held together with sticking plaster, a slight personal freshness problem, wearing a shirt with a frayed collar, and a tweed jacket with a row of ball point pens in the inside pocket. I joke, of course. Do not send emails; I am well aware that using outmoded stereotypes is a facile way to get cheap and easy laughs. In fact, I am rather banking on it.
Anyway, Kramnik refuses to share a toilet with his opponent, and forfeited game five in the series rather than do so. You can see his point. There is nothing worse than settling onto a disconcertingly warm seat when your posterior is conditioned to expect a bracing slight chill, and if Topalov is indeed in there long enough to establish a wireless broadband connection and search authoritative chess sites, well that is even more unsettling than seeing someone disappear into your loo with a copy of the Daily Mirror.
In tennis, I believe, players are allowed to leave the court for a toilet break, but are accompanied by an appointed official – the Master of the Water Closets or some such – to ensure there is no jiggery pokery of any kind, but such a system, I suspect, would not work in chess. Whereas your tennis player would probably be used to showering in public and so on, and feel quite comfortable about his bodily functions, enabling the mission to be completed successfully, one imagines that you do not get to be a tournament standard chess player without being a little anally retentive - tight-buttocked if you like - making assisted toilet breaks dispiritingly unfulfilling occasions. I should feel uneasy myself, being monitored in this way, and my chess never reached championship levels.
A possible solution would be to restrict players’ toilet breaks to those periods when no game is in progress, which might mean cutting down thinking time, to bring the span of the game more into line with the capacity of the human bladder. If the sport wishes to go this route, it might consider adopting the methods we have used in our house to make a game of Scrabble pass more quickly - a system of heavy sighs and pointedly picking up the paper and starting to read it.
On the subject of tennis, hands up anybody who knows how the Davis Cup works. It is one of the great mysteries of sport. Sky Sports brought us the exciting news this week of Tim Henman’s possible return to Davis Cup action, but failed to clarify in what matches, and against whom he might compete. We constantly seem to be taking part in play-off matches in the Davis Cup without ever reaching any finals or being knocked out. It seems to be a never-ending process, in the course of which we seem always to be pitted against teams like Upper Volta and Kazakhstan, rather than big nations with proper toilet facilities like Sweden or the USA? It may simply be because we are not awfully good at tennis, but I think we should be told.
Rugby league is another sport that could be said to suffer from a surfeit of play-offs, but when the matches are as exciting as the two on Sky at the weekend, one is inclined not to complain. Such was the compelling intensity of the competition I almost failed to notice Stevo’s irritating habit of unremittingly referring to teams as “this Bradford outfit” or “this Warrington team” rather than simply Bradford or Warrington.
Stevo, of course, has built his reputation on colourful but meaningless commentary - not so much stream of consciousness as puddle - but sometimes you feel he abuses the privilege. “I said they were tiring, but someone somewhere has given them some plum pudding or something,” he said of Bradford. Don’t ask me where plum pudding came from. It is the kind of poser you need a good sit down to ponder.
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