Thursday, May 13, 2010

It's King Vishy Again

On May 11th at about 10 pm IST, when Veselin Topalov shook hands with Viswanathan Anand at the end of Game-12 of the World Chess Championship on May 11th, the Indian Chess King successfully defended his Crown, a feat beautifully compared by Amit Verma in a nice little article to a guy taking a Maruti 800 into a Formula 1 race and winning the championship. It was tougher than his previous three wins and the effort showed as the grand finale swung through various tumultuous rounds of tension before the more patient man among the two finally won his way through.

Most of India was glued to the TV set watching Dhoni’s boys, oblivious of the match being played but then Chess has never been much of a media favourite, though the sport is much more popular now when compared to its status years back when Anand played Alexey Dreev in Madras, in his first major stab at the Championship.

Anand was the slight pre-match favourite, but there was never much to choose between the two men. At 40, he was the aging champion against the relatively younger and tough talking Topalov, who had a one point lead over Anand in Classical Chess.

The pre-game interviews had the Bulgarians ranting against Anand on many an occasion - for being too old (just 5 yrs older than Topalov, of course), too conservative and trying to trick the organisers by pretending he was in Sofia and attempting to postpone the games by his lousy travel plans. He was also riled for not doing enough to ensure that the Championship was held in India, instead of Bulgaria; Topalov has repeatedly maintained that for him "home" is a disadvantage because of the expectations. In Topalov’s words:

The prize fund in our match is 2 million Euro - about 3 million US $ - but if Anand would have made even a minor attempt, it could easily go over 5 million. India is a vast market and Anand is very popular in his homeland. But the World Champion preferred that someone else does all the work and even play the victim. 'Well, you see, I prefer not to play in Bulgaria, but there are no other options.' We were prepared to play in India half the games or even the whole match, but Anand didn't make even the slightest effort to arrange anything about this.

The significance of a venue now is debatable, unlike in the Cold War era, when the Russian-American geo-political rivalries also manifested themselves on chess boards. As mentioned in an earlier post, it was not because Anand did not lift his finger that the match did not come to India. The match was held in Bulgaria (even though the Bulgaria bid is only 13 crore) because the AICF could not get any sponsor; Vishy wanted the match to be held in India but with practically no interest shown by India, the bid was won by Bulgaria. N Srinivasan was busy taking care of Chennai Super Kings to worry about a small event like the World Chess Championship, featuring a local hero.

Bad Boy Topalov, true to form, decided to push the ante even before the play started. In 2005, a rule was framed banning conversation between players to curb the practice of competitors' offering each other draws in drawn-out games. But the rule has been rarely invoked, but Topalov insisted that he would not speak to India’s Viswanathan Anand, invoking this rule. Topalov also stuck to what is known as the Sofia rule in chess where if you need a draw you have to go to the chief arbiter and not offer it to your opponent. Anand had dismissed Topalov's rule saying, "A world championship should be played with world championship rules" but had no option and later on admitted in an interview later that it felt odd to be approached by the arbiter to accept a draw.

The starting date had been the subject of a week of argument after Anand became stranded at Frankfurt airport due to the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic ash cloud over Europe and requested a three-day delay. The volcanic eruption in Iceland disrupted Team Anand's travel schedule but somehow brought the team which was scattered all over, together at Frankfurt before they embarked on an adventurous journey from Frankfurt to Sofia in a hired bus travelling for 2000 kms, across five countries in 40 hours. In the end, the match was delayed by a single day with Topalov playing White in the first game.

But then Topalov has always found it tough to be a gentleman in a sport, which has had a fair share of odd balls. He had earlier raised a tantrum in the 2006 Fide World Chess Championship against Vladimir Kramnik, accusing his Russian opponent of visiting his personal loo too often during play (it was popularly called the Toiletgate). The Russian rejected a compromise of a shared lavatory, accused the organisers of bias, and even forfeited a game before finally winning the game in tie-break.

After all this, when the game started, it took off on a dramatic note with Anand forgetting his opening preparation and being duly demolished by an attacking Topalov. Anand bounced back immediately with a win and what followed were a set of closely fought games, which increasingly exhausted the players. With Topalov invoking the Sofia rule, draws were not easy (something that Anand was not used to since he believes in quick draws in dead positions) and seemed that Topalov had an upper hand in most of the exchanges. Anand had a few more chances but the pressure was enormous and the play suggested that Toplaov had the momentum with him as he tied down Anand with his fighting abilities.

Then came the decisive and dramatic final game against the run of play which might have been won and lost by Topalov’s aggression and maybe superstition! Topalov admitted after Tuesday's loss that he had avoided a repetition draw on move 26 because he was afraid of going to the rapid tie breaks. Partly because Anand is one of the great rapid players of all time, but also because the tiebreakers were to be played on Thursday the 13th. And the 13th was the same day that he had lost his rapid tiebreakers against Kramnik in 2006.

Vishy is known for his rapid chess playing abilities and so it was a bit surprising to see him lag behind Topalov in every match in terms of the time. But then chess circles also know Topalov as somebody who plays fast to trick his opponent – part of his psychological warfare. It involved a bit of bluffing and taking the fight to the enemy camp and a lot of strategizing.

In an interview with The Hindu, Anand admits being surprised by Topalov’s strategy - One of the things we assumed was, he always likes moving around in matches. This means, he'll play an opening for a couple of games and then move on to the next one. His match strategy in the past was never to stand his ground. Kind of hit-and-run strategy. So, whether consciously or sub-consciously, we had made this assumption the basis of our preparation. But he stood his ground. He did not switch his openings.

Followers of the sport may recollect the 1995 PCA World Chess Championship Final between Anand and Kasparov in New York, to understand the impact of psychological warfare in the sport. After eight successive draws, Anand had drawn first blood but Kasparov struck back with extreme ferocity. Game-10 showed Kasparov at his fiery best tactically as well as psychologically – so you saw him glaring hard at Anand, slamming doors, walking swiftly and creating an terrifying aura around him. Anand lost the match and the finals and Kasparov declared after the match that Anand had been well prepared for the chess, but not sufficiently prepared psychologically.

Much water has flown under the bridge since then and the young man is now a much mature player, who has learnt to handle the pressure of performing at the top for close to 10-15 years now. Topalov had his strategy cut out and definitely put across a brilliant effort in ensuring that the Championship was a well-fought see-saw battle and what eventually separated the King from the Vanquished was his aggressive and blustering indiscretions, as he tried to force a win. Topalov may go back ruing his move but his success has been largely brought about his ability to take risks and play aggressively and there are times when the gambit just fails and it happened finally in the most crucial match of the final.

In a sport where odd balls are the norm rather than the exception, Anand is a living proof that nice guys can finish first and he is the game’s best World Champion ambassador. Can we take a break from analyzing the antics of Dhoni's over-hyped team and celebrate the success of a true champion atleast now?

P.S. The next challenger to Anand in 2011 will be one among the following players – Veselin Topalov, Gata Kamsky, Levon Aronian, Boris Gelfand, Magnus Carlsen, Vladimir Kramnik, an organizer nominee and the runner-up of the Fide Grand Prix. The 19 year old World No.1, Magnus Carlsen (earlier trained by Kasparov), is already tipped to be a future World Champion and it would be interesting to see the Crown Prince battling the King in future - a position that Anand may have found himself when squaring off with Kasparov!!!

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