King of 64 squares

Appreciation

King of 64 squares

Precise play, calculated combinations and positional perception might be the vital ingredients to win any chess game, but it was also over-the-board decisions, sensible play and a chameleon-like ability to adapt to the demands of the situation which led to Viswanathan Anand prevailing over Veselin Topalov and retaining the World champion’s title at Sofia recently.

It was a hat-trick of sorts by 40-year-old Anand. He first won a world title in tournament format, contested by eight players at Mexico in 2007, followed by a systematic and scintillating decimation of Vladimir Kramnik at Bonn in the match format in 2008. He completed his treble by clinching a cliff-hanger in the last game, once again in the match format, against Toplaov.

When Anand won the title for the first time in 2000 in his own backyard and Iran, it was in what is now considered the infamous knockout format. This victory, however, was like a sugar-coated pill, the shadow of another World champion, Kramnik, lurking in the background to a certain extent darkening the validity of the title.

The trilogy has now been completed! Three of the top contenders for the world title, Anand, Kramnik and Topalov virtually have had a round-robin World Championship match amongst themselves in the last three years. Kramnik defeated Topalov in the historical but controversy-marred Reunification Match in 2006, Anand defeated Kramnik in 2008 and reconfirmed his superiority in match play once again at Sofia.

Adopting the super sharp Grunfeld with black in the first game, Anand raised a few eyebrows as the opening game is more about settling down, prodding and probing. Within an hour, the Indian had probably mixed up his lines and was in a losing position and the game was over in no time with Topalov hammering and probably humming, at the same time, in this crushing game.

These are the type of losses which are difficult to shrug away, and can play havoc with your psyche. “Everything cannot go according to script and in such a high intensity match, there will be more chances to be gained. It’s pointless wasting time in thinking about what has happened,” explained Anand later. Needless to say, the Grunfeld did the disappearing act before reappearing in the 10th game.

The quiet and cool Catalan in the second game hinted at Anand’s strategy, to take out Topalov out of home preparation. Incidentally, it was also a strategy aimed to hit out at Topalov mentally, for this was the defense which Kramnik had effectively used against Topalov in their clash in 2006. A novelty here by Anand, objectively was a bad one but psychologically, the bluff worked and Topalov erred, resulting in a victory for Anand.
The third game had Anand adopting Slav solidly to draw in a cramped position. It was back to Catalan in fourth game with Anand uncorking a novelty once again. Anand was at his sparkling best and a superb knight sacrifice effectively shut out Topalov from re-entering the game to give the lead to Anand. This was the best game by Anand in this match. The fifth game once again was an uneventful Slav resulting in a draw.

The match at this point brought back Bonn memories where  Anand, for all practical purposes had settled it in his favour in the first half. Anand had double Whites in games six and seven and a victory in one of those would be like nailing the coffin. The sixth game was once again drawn without much fanfare while Anand defended brilliantly in the seventh to draw.

After the fourth game, it was Anand who was working in passive and cramped position for a draw, a stark contrast to his usual dynamic style. This probably took a toll in the eighth game where Topalov played brilliantly against the Slav. Topalov missed a winning advantage and Anand, painstakingly trying to garner his defence, almost succeeded and just when a draw was the logical conclusion, blundered and lost.

Here, the vulnerability of Anand’s home preparation was glaringly obvious and Team Topalov had distinctly scored. Pentyala Harikrishna, one of India’s GMs in the top 100 and following his idol closely, remarked, “I wish Anand would stop playing the queenless Slav in and getting into these passive positions which are not his style. He is magnificent when playing tactically and I personally think he is at his best when the queens are gracing the board.” The match was once again alive with the score reading 4-4.

The playing standard plummeted drastically in the ninth game. If Anand was brilliant in getting a super advantageous position, the win proved elusive time and again in this game. It may be for the first time that Anand missed multiple winning chances. A game marred by mistakes from both sparked a debate on whether it was the fatigue factor or just nerves.

The tenth game was with role reversals when Anand returned to the Grunfeld after reaching the saturation point with Slav. This time, it was Topalov trying to squeeze for a win in a good position. A lapse in the endgame had Anand latching on to the respite and forcing a draw.

Again, a brand new Opening by Anand as the players went the English way and drew without any excitement, making the last game a nerve wrecking one. The score read 5.5-5.5.

The last game will be etched in the players’ memory -- Topalov’s for a hasty gate opening move and Anand’s for a gutsy gate-crashing one! Pressure, nerves everything had a part to play in this dramatic climax. What differentiated the winner from the vanquished was the attitude and a pragmatic approach. Topalov had White and the advantage to start with, while Anand took comfort in a solid opening, the Queen’s Gambit declined which he played for the first time in this match.

Anand’s approach was safety-first, a draw suiting him fine and a mental make-up ready for the tie-break.  Topalov was in a tearing hurry to wrap up, a mental disinclination to go into the rapid tie-break, which by his own admission had less to do with his opponent’s formidable reputation in the rapids and more in battling his own demons, his superstitious belief that May 13, the day decided for the tie-break, was an unlucky date as he had lost to Kramnik on a 13th in a tie-break. This was like a self immolation bid and a blunder by Toplaov had Anand cashing in.

Topalov’s home preparation was better than Anand’s and the constant switch of Openings by Anand to a certain extent revealed the lack of depth in preparation. Topalov, also reputed for his vast Opening repertoire, stuck to the same openings but conjured something new on board. Anand later admitted that Topalov did fox him in this respect and to a large extent a lot of special preparation could not be put to use.
Garry Kasparov, following the match keenly, summed up, “Anand was the match favourite. He's a more versatile player. The struggle was tense but his opening preparation wasn't at its best. He didn't manage to get normal positions with black. As a result, Topalov had the initiative. There was the feeling that he might succeed, but he didn't manage to do it. From the point of view of chess strength, it's Anand who today deserves the title of World Champion.”

Manisha Mohite

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