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Reigning monarch

Print edition : Jun 29, 2012 T+T-
Viswanathan Anand, the world champion, at the FIDE award ceremony at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow on May 31.-KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

Viswanathan Anand, the world champion, at the FIDE award ceremony at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow on May 31.-KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP

Viswanathan Anand reaffirms his status as the world chess champion with his fifth victory in the World Championship.

In sports, like in many other fields demanding specialisation, staying at the top is considered a bigger challenge than reaching there. The longer one stays at the peak, the greater value it brings to one's achievement. Being the world champion is the highest reward for any individual or team, though exceptions can be found across several Olympic disciplines. But for those in pursuit of excellence in non-Olympic disciplines, such as chess, the World Championship crown is deemed to be the pinnacle of success.

In May, Viswanathan Anand, India's torch-bearer in the highly competitive world of chess for over two decades, took another giant step that should only reaffirm his status as the greatest sportsperson from an individual sporting discipline in the country. Anand's fifth success in the World Chess Championship the fourth time in succession came after he stopped challenger Boris Gelfand of Israel by winning the decisive game in the best-of-four rapid tie-break games in Moscow. Earlier, the two were tied 6-6 in their 12-game match. Gelfand won the seventh game, Anand hit back in the eighth, and the rest were drawn.

This triumph, described by the champion as the toughest of all his title clashes, came after the match produced a series of short draws which invited criticism from several elite players and discerning chess watchers from around the world. Indeed, the quality of most of the games fell well short of carrying any recall value. Overall, the match will never be remembered for great encounters. It was a battle that showcased Gelfand's superior match preparation and how Anand and his team of seconds literally lost sleep in finding answers to the challenger's posers over the board. (Seconds are chess coaches with whom a player works.)

Once it was known that Gelfand would challenge Anand for the world title, the chess world tipped the Indian to retain the crown. This assumption was largely based on Anand's world ranking (fourth to Gelfand's 20th) and rating points (2791 to Gelfand's 2727). Since Gelfand had not defeated Anand since 1993, the Indian was deemed to be an overwhelming favourite. But once the battle started, it was clear that Gelfand and his team of seconds were able to surprise their counterparts. Anand graciously admitted (see interview) that most of the work done during the three months of preparation had been wasted, and his crack team had to work overtime during the match to prepare him for the challenges ahead.

A series of six draws ended with Gelfand winning the seventh game with white pieces. Anand, who admitted having a sleepless night following the defeat, bounced right back after Gelfand blundered his way to lose in just 17 moves the shortest game in the history of World Championship title matches. Like the first six games, the remaining four also ended in draws and that took the match into the best-of-four, 25-minute rapid tie-break games.

For a change, Anand had the upper hand in the first game with black pieces but could not capitalise on that. In the second, Anand broke through after Gelfand faltered owing to paucity of time. In the third, Anand was extremely lucky to escape with a draw. Now needing a draw to retain the title, Anand started with white pieces in the fourth game but some passive play by him gave Gelfand a flicker of hope. But Anand held the position well to extend his lease on the world title. In order to understand what really happened before, during and after this tense but controversy-free match, one must take a closer look at the chronology of events that led to the clash.

As you would imagine, a World Championship does not start the day you start playing, said Anand. It starts the moment you know who your opponent is going to be. That moment came in May 2011 when Gelfand won the FIDE Candidates Matches in Kazan, Russia. From that moment, both of us seem to have started thinking of each other. In January, I started training. Training was roughly from the 15th of January to the 15th of April. So three months of intensive training, followed by a little under a month's rest. I then headed for Moscow before the title challenge to acclimatise. This time, Anand's preparation was very intense because he did not have any chance to have a camp before the championship. Last year, he was busy playing tournaments in the second half of the year. Anand's team or seconds Peter Heine-Nielsen (Denmark), Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzbekistan), Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland) and compatriot Surya Sekhar Ganguly started their training in Germany.

In three months, they worked very hard and developed some ideas. Anand had several systems prepared with black and white pieces. This time, one significant change I made was, instead of having only one white weapon, I, in fact, opened with two white weapons. And this was one important change we thought we had to make because my decision to open with one would no longer come as a surprise and you always have to have something new for the match.

Anand and Gelfand first played in 1989. Anand always thought that Gelfand was a very professional, disciplined chess player, someone who could put in whatever amount of work necessary and also had a deep understanding of the game based on the love for the game and the fact that he had interacted with all the greats back in Russia, starting from his junior days in the 1980s.

Anand said: We talk of all the chess greats [Mikhail] Botvinnik, [Viktor] Korchnoi and Lev [Polgaevsky]. Boris has actually interacted with all of them intensively. He is someone who embodies the best tradition of the Soviet school of chess. I know he would, therefore, come up with preparations as it should be done. And I was not wrong. The key in a match is not so much whether your preparation is good or bad. The key is how much of your preparation you get in and how little of his preparation he gets in. By that means, Boris was a very, very complicated opponent.

In the first game itself, Gelfand pulled off a surprise. He opted for an opening variation (Grunfeld Defence) for the first time in his career with black pieces and followed it by his choice of Sicilian Sveshnikov. He played this only for about a year in 1998 and did not play any of his dominant openings. In fact, he managed to set all his dominant openings aside and came up with a completely new choice, entirely for this match. This showed how seriously he had taken it and how much time he had invested on these new complexes thoroughly.

Anand said: He guessed correctly that I would have to prepare all the possible things he could do. I had to necessarily skimp on a few things and concentrate on what he was most likely to do. He prepared very cleverly. So the two things he played, we were continuously playing catch-up during the match. We had done a little bit of work. Just a couple of days to cover the material but we had to catch up during the match. Call it a good nose or a sense of danger, with white pieces, Gelfand managed to stay clear of our most dangerous ideas and always stayed in sort of control. He managed to control the match to a great degree. I think it was only in games 11 and 12 that we were starting to break it a little.

In the match, for both players that preparation with black held out very well. Neither player was able to make much headway with white pieces. But with black, things were moving very steadily. After six draws, Gelfand stunned the chess world by winning the seventh encounter to take the lead. Gelfand managed to stumble on one area which I wouldn't say we had neglected, but had not done as thoroughly as others. And by keeping on hitting and probing different areas, he finally struck gold. Even so, it was my psychological reaction to that rather than anything else which determined that somehow I could not maintain my usual level in that game, and immediately got into trouble. I was not able to arrest that either. The position just kept getting worse and I lost it, Anand said.

That was the most difficult moment in the match for Anand. He managed to catch some sleep between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m., had an early breakfast and slept later. Anand needed to hit back soon, and his team rose to the occasion. He said: But for the eighth game, we had prepared a lot of improvements over our third game of the match. Of course, I could not know before the game that this was going to be a turning point. But you have to give yourself maximum options before something like this happens. I mean, the more you work, the more resources you have, if a turning point should occur, better your chances are, if using it.

Anand explained the intricacies and technicalities involved in what turned out to be the most important game of the match for him: To get into the details, Boris was playing Grunfeld normally but he had the option of shifting to the King's Indian Defence or the Benoni Defence. Surprisingly, to me, he switched to Benoni. I was not completely without weapons this time. I actually shifted my knight's direction instead of playing it on the queen's side, I moved it to the king's side. This is an unusual set-up we had prepared, just in case I don't know whether it caught him by surprise or what exactly happened. But he reacted very aggressively and within a few moves, things started to develop very strongly.

It was not obvious, even to me and to many commentators that Gelfand's position was much worse. I felt and, more importantly, liked my position with white pieces. I was excited about what was to come and the right pawn structure that I was going to get was better for me. And, therefore, I'll be able to put him under pressure for the whole game. But this is funny. You can't really just end up there. Both of us had to calculate maybe seven moves earlier that we would end up there and only based on whether we liked about that final position or not. We could take that decision and enter it. He played the queen move based on a wrong assessment and I was very happy I could get right back into the match.

The victory in this match and the score level at 4-4 meant that Anand could play the rest of the match in a different frame of mind. If I was trailing him, then you constantly try to catch up almost desperately because as each game finishes, you become more desperate. But with this game, I was able to play the rest of the match in peace because we were both tied, Anand explained.

Four more draws followed. After an exciting ninth game, Gelfand managed again to anticipate Anand's preparation for the 10th. In game 11, Anand finally managed to surprise him. In game 12, Anand came up with a big improvement over one of his previous ideas but was not able to exploit it to the full.

Again at the board, he showed what a great defender he is and reacted beautifully. Many, many people have praised him for the pawn sacrifice on the 12th move, said Anand, in praise of his rival. The tie-break games began with Anand starting as an overwhelming favourite based on his skills at playing rapid chess, where usually the game lasts around an hour compared with around four hours in the classical form.

Anand won the second game, but the most significant thing happened in the first game, where, for the first time in the match with black pieces, the champion was able to create lots of chances. I was feeling the match was opening up in a certain sense. In the third I was completely lost but managed to hang in there. In the fourth, I felt the pressure because at some point I was playing for a draw that gave Gelfand some options. Well, the tie-break was just incredibly tense. Just that, things really went my way.

The title remained with Anand but came at a price.

The triumph cost Anand 12 rating points, which meant his rating slipped to 2780 and pushed him down to the sixth place in the world rankings. He is out of the world's top-five bracket in more than a decade, but Anand is not complaining. After all, it was a mission well accomplished.