A nasty car crash on the outskirts of town almost spelled disaster for the 2012 Queenstown Chess Classic.
Organiser Paul Spiller, 54, and his wife Joanne were driving along Highway 6 on their way to the resort last Friday when the accident happened.
A taxi coming the other way spun on a bend near Roaring Meg, hit the barrier and then their van – which contained all the tournament equipment.
Spiller, from Auckland, says: “It was very traumatic.
“We basically thought we were going to be killed. Fortunately nobody was seriously injured.
“My wife Joanne has some bruises and was pretty shaken by the whole thing. It’s one of those nasty experiences I guess.
“It was a very wet day and the taxi lost control, snaked across the road about 100 metres in front of us, hit the barrier and then started coming towards us sideways. I avoided a head-on but it hit us and smashed my van up.
“We had all the equipment for the tournament, everything – all the sets, the electronic gear, computer gear, banners.”
Spiller praised the police, fire brigade and paramedics who attended the scene – and the Cromwell tow-truck driver who agreed to bring the van to Queenstown so they could retrieve the equipment.
“The tournament would not have been able to go ahead on time.
“The police and emergency services were fantastic. They took us to hospital to get checked over.
“We had to abandon the van but managed to convince the tow-truck driver to bring it from Cromwell to Queenstown on the truck that night.
“There was a lot of glass over everything but only minor damage, the hard drive and some clocks.”
Quiet please – masters at work
There are more than 150 people in the room but the only noise to be heard is the steady hum of the air-con.
The 2012 Queenstown Chess Classic, in a conference room at Millennium Hotel, is probably the last place you’d want your mobile phone to go off.
The concentration is almost palpable. There are 76 chess boards and timing clocks arranged on dozens of white-clothed tables in rows.
At most boards sit two players, staring intently at the pieces and usually employing one of a beguiling, endless range of hand-to-face concentration gestures.
There’s the classic elbow-on-table-hand-on-chin-finger-gently-brushing-lips. Or the slightly more detached hand-off chin, thumb and forefinger pressing bottom lip together – a sort of ‘ah, hold on, new thought’ gesture.
Then there’s the totally intense index-and-middle-finger-of-both-hands-pointed-and-pressing-into the-temples – sort of ‘I must keep this train of thought in my head’.
And also the common elbow-on-table-full-palm-on-chin-and-side-of-face – ‘slightly stumped but patient about finding an answer’.
In between the tables stalk dozens of spectators, like exam invigilators, appraising the states of the various matches which can go on for five hours.
There are, of course, some total geeks here – that is to be expected. But it’s hardly at sci-fi convention level and there is generally a surprisingly diverse mix of people, all ages, many nationalities and races.
Chess, it appears, is still an absorbing game that has universal appeal.
Tournament organiser Paul Spiller says: “Chess is actually on the up.
“The number of players and tournaments are increasing, as is the standard of play.
“We’re broadcasting the top seven boards live to the internet and there might be up to 20,000 people around the world watching every round.”
The competition got underway earlier this week and there have already been a few shock results. On Monday, top New Zealand junior Alan Ansell drew with grandmaster Darryl Johansen, who this month won Australian championships in Geelong, Victoria.
And Indian grandmaster third seed Surya Ganguly was also surprisingly held to a draw by another Australian player, Andrew Brown.
Ganguly is one of 11 grandmasters at the tournament competing for the top prize of $7000. The total prize pool is $30,000.
Top seed is China’s third-ranked player Li Chao, who is ranked number 40 in the world.
Spiller says: “It’s already getting pretty intense.
“As we progress through the rounds we’re starting to get some of the stronger players against each other. So there are some pretty exciting games coming up.”
Outside the main tournament room in the second-floor foyer there’s a table selling books with such fabulously peculiar and impervious titles as Beating the Fianchetto Defences and The Complete Sveshnikov Sicilian.
It further illustrates that this is a niche world with levels of complexity most people will never fully appreciate – but chess often becomes a consuming passion for those who do.
The nine-round tournament, which doubles as the 119th New Zealand Chess Championships, runs at Millennium Hotel until next Monday.
Games start at 3pm daily.