Featuring ballet and Artificial Intelligence, the grand opening ceremony in Astana was a perfect blend of tradition and innovation, setting the stage for a battle to crown the next world chess champion.
The 2023 FIDE World Championship Match is officially underway in Astana following a show where music, art, tradition, magic and technology came together to announce the beginning of a three-week event which will grip the chess world.
The Astana Ballet Theatre hosted the ceremony, which was attended by the players, Kazakhstan's Minister of Sports, FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich, and other high-ranking officials and guests.
The ceremony began with a performance by the Astana Ballet Orchestra, which played the well-known composition "One Night in Bangkok" from the musical "Chess". This was followed by a short video recapping the history of world championship matches.
The Minister of Culture and Sports of the Republic of Kazakhstan, Askhat Oralov, took the stage as the first speaker and emphasized the match's importance for promoting Kazakhstan as a nation that supports all sports. Oralov reiterated Kazakhstan's commitment to the development of chess at all levels.
In a letter addressed to the players and audience, the President of Kazakhstan, Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, echoed Oralov's sentiment and highlighted that chess is taught in approximately 700 schools across the country. "This outstanding competition held in the heart of Astana will give a big boost to chess development in our country," Tokayev declared.
The speeches were followed by the performance of the Kazakh national anthem – My Kazakhstan. Following on the traditional notes, the audience was treated to the traditional Asem Konyr dance – a dedication to the women of the Great Steppe.
As FIDE President Arkady Dvorkovich approached the stage, a woman dressed in traditional Kazakh attire appeared beside him, cradling the coveted trophy that would be awarded to the match winner.
"This is the beautiful prize that the two best players will fight for to become the next world chess champion. For both of them, this is an event they've been waiting for all their lives. It's going to be very competitive. They'll give all the talent and the skills to win it. I am confident that millions of spectators all around the world will enjoy this event, but through it, will also discover how chess makes people fight for something important. I hope that this event will give motivation for millions of kids to play chess, to use chess as a tool to improve themselves, to be better people and to make the world a better place."
Timur Turlov, the CEO of Freedom Holding Corp (which is the General Partner of the Match) and also the President of the Kazakhstan Chess Federation noted the importance of the event for the youth of his country.
"This Match is a great chance and a great honour for Kazakhstan. We hope this event will inspire many new chess players. I am sure we will have more of our children in future chess events. Our country is full of bright and talented people, and this type of event is important for us".
Following a spectacular performance by members of the Astana Ballet Theatre, Chief Arbiter of the match, Nebojsa Baralic, stepped onto the stage to officiate the ceremony. He was joined by two players, Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren.
A magician suddenly appeared beside them, signalling that the drawing of lots would be nothing short of magical. Ding Liren was particularly intrigued, closely observing the magician's every move. But as it turned out, it was all just a playful and humorous illusion.
Then came the real drawing of lots. Unlike the traditional way of doing this, with the arbiter holding a black and a white pawn in each hand clinched to a fist, this was done with the help of Artificial Intelligence. A robotic pyramid with a chess piece-filled bowl and a robotic arm on top took centre stage.
The AI ceremony had two parts. In the first, one of the players had to name a colour – black or white – and if the robotic arm picked up the piece with the same colour, that player moved to the second stage, where the robot then decided if that player would be White or Black in the first round.
As he is currently ranked ahead of Ding Liren on the FIDE rating list, Ian Nepomniachtchi was invited to come forward. Nepomniachtchi curiously walked over and said, "white", and then pressed a button on the computer. Luckily for him, that was the colour the robot chose as well, which meant he moved on to the next stage. Had he guessed it wrong, it would be Ding's turn.
In the next stage, Nepomniachtchi had to press the button again, and the robot was the one to choose the colour of his pieces in game one. While robots may be better than humans in almost everything, in a sign that they're still not perfect (especially when it comes to the fine sensory skills of hand movement), it took the robot three times to successfully navigate the task. The robotic hand mixed pieces in the bowl but did not pick up any pieces on the first try. Then, on the second – it picked up two pieces – black and white! On the final, third try – it picked up one piece. Nepo was again lucky – the colour of the piece was white!
The honour (and the advantage) of the first move in the match went to Ian Nepomniachtchi. The advantage of playing with white pieces is small but counts at the top level. Nepomniachtchi downplayed the advantage by saying: "White is not bad, but black is good as well".
With the event officially opened, and the first move decided, the stage was set for an epic battle of wits between two chess titans. Who will emerge victorious in this high-stakes match? Only time will tell. But one thing was certain - the world is about to witness a display of brilliance and strategy like never before.
The first game is set to start on Sunday, 9th April, at the St. Regis hotel at 3 PM local time in Astana.
Text: Milan Dinic
Photo: Stev Bonhage
Official website: worldchampionship.fide.com/