Lord of the board

Print edition : December 05, 2008

Viswanathan Anand, seen through his trophy, at a news conference in Bonn, October 29.-WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Three titles in as many formats: Viswanathan Anand is the only World Champion to prove himself in every possible way.

PETE SAMPRAS has won the most Grand Slam singles titles but does not have his name on the Roll of Honour of the French Open. Bjorn Borg won five Wimbledon and six French Open titles but fell short of claiming the US Open and Australian Open crowns. Ivan Lendl, winner of three straight US Open titles, could never conquer Wimbledon.

These extraordinary talents attained greatness in their own way. But given a choice, these champion performers would have certainly traded anything for the titles that always eluded them. Unlike these great sportsmen from the world of tennis, chess maestro Viswanathan Anand has made sure he has no such regrets when he looks back at his achievements in a career spanning well over two decades. Having won every worthy title in the game at least once, he claimed the World crown for the third time in October by overpowering the Russian challenger Vladimir Kramnik. He not only retained the games most coveted prize but also made more than just history. And we are not talking about the whopping 7.5 million euros that came along with the title.

Anands first success in the World Championship came in the tough 128-player knockout format in 2000. He regained the honour in a strong eight-player field in 2007 when the title was decided on the aggregate points scored in 14 rounds, played on a double round-robin basis. His latest triumph came in a best-of-12-game match-play format against Kramnik, who had been unbeaten in three World title clashes since 2000. Three titles in as many formats made Anand the only World Champion to prove himself in every possible way.

Against Kramnik, the 38-year-old Indian reached the magic figure of 6.5 points following a tense draw in the 11th game. Kramnik, needing to win with black pieces to keep the contest alive, offered a draw after 24 moves and, with it, accepted Anand as the true, undisputed champion of the chess world.

A section of the chess world, mostly from Europe and certain parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union, wanted Anand to prove himself in the match-play format to earn its acceptance as a true World Champion. For over a decade, its spokespersons pointed to Anands not-so-impressive match record to substantiate their argument.

Personally for Anand, it was very important to win this match. Though he has been honoured with the prestigious Chess Oscar five times, the inability to prove himself in the match-play format gave the sceptics a reason to discount his greatness. Anand went down to Anatoly Karpov (1991 and 1998), Gata Kamsky (1994) and Garry Kasparov (1995) in matches. Though he settled the score with Kamsky in the same year, his four defeats in five games against Kasparov in 1995 left him with a baggage that he carried until the other day.

In a way, it was poetic justice that Anand defeated none other than Kramnik, in Bonn, to silence his detractors. Kramnik is the man hailed for dethroning Garry Kasparov, the mighty fellow-Russian regarded as the strongest player in the history of the game. Following that epoch-making triumph in 2000, Kramnik came out undefeated against challengers Peter Leko (2004) and Veselin Topalov (2006) to earn the reputation of being the strongest match player since Kasparov.

Last year, when Anand pushed Kramnik to the joint second spot on his way to the World title in Mexico, the dethroned Russian came up with some uncharitable comments: On paper Anand may be the World Champion. But from my point of view, there is a difference in significance between a title won in a match and in a tournament. For me, the forthcoming match [in Bonn] with Anand is more important. If I lose that, I will accept completely the fact that I have lost the title, but right now, I have no such feelings. At present, I take the view that I have just lent Anand the title temporarily.

The last sentence hurt Anand, but Kramnik went on: Federer is better than Nadal, but cannot compete with him on clay. Everyone has his or her strong side. Mine is match play, whereas Anands is tournaments. He is very even and stable and can draw with the top players and beat those lower down.

For almost one year, Anand waited patiently to silence Kramnik when the Russian exercised his one-time right to challenge him for the title. Kramniks taunts helped me concentrate better and stay focussed through the match, declared Anand after finishing the job. Indeed, when the time came, Anand gave a fitting reply without uttering a word. The chess world heard the message loud and clear.

Anand needed to win in the match-play format against Kramnik to show that he was no less than the illustrious champions in the history of the game. He formed a team (called seconds in chess parlance) comprising former World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, long-time associate Peter Heine Nielsen, surprise packet Radoslav Wojtaszek and fellow-Indian Surya Shekhar Ganguly. This support staff, finalised in April, worked tirelessly during the match and put in up to 16 to 18 hours a day to make sure that Anand realised his most cherished goal.

Kramnik, on the other hand, had Hungarys Peter Leko, who assisted Anand before his match against Karpov in 1998, Frenchman Laurent Fressinet and fellow-Russian Sergey Rublevsky as his team of seconds.

Anands first move, with white pieces, in the 11th game on October 29, in Bonn had Vladimir Kramnik thinking for over two minutes. A tense battle ended with Kramniks offer of a draw, which meant the title went to Anand.-WOLFGANG RATTAY/REUTERS

Before the match started, the choice of Leko was considered a plus point for Kramnik, but it did not take long for experts to question the choices made by the Russian. During the intense war of pieces, Anand showed he was better prepared for the biggest match of his career. He uncorked surprises that left Kramnik in knots. He worked on a new opening choice with white pieces to add to the worries of the Russian.

A comfortable draw with black pieces saw him gain the psychological edge in the first game. In the second, another peaceful draw kept things in balance. The third game saw Anand produce the kind of stuff classics are made of. From a position that looked fairly even, Anand squeezed out a forceful victory, that too after being two pawns less on the board. This was a huge psychological blow for Kramnik, for he enjoys a reputation for not losing many games, even fewer when playing with white pieces.

Anands third career victory with black pieces clearly hurt Kramniks ego. The world expected Kramnik to retaliate. The ardent followers of the game did not have to wait for long. After the fourth game ended in a dull draw, Kramnik returned with white pieces and dared Anand to repeat the same opening sequence seen in the third game. Anand took up the challenge and, within a few minutes of the start, had Kramnik worried. Before long, it was clear that Anand had once again outprepared Kramnik. Towards the end, a desperate Kramnik went for an innocuous-looking pawn and lost almost immediately.

The experts were quick to question Kramniks decision to test Anand in the same opening lines as seen in the third game, but Anand found it a very normal decision. He said, Its something I could entirely see myself doing. You must be guided by your chess considerations. You cannot second-guess these things on the basis of a result. I think, when he played Game Three and lost, the normal thing is to go back and see if you find some chink in the armour. If you find something, you repeat the variation and beat your opponent in the same thing. In history, youll find as many examples of people switching openings as people staying, and neither strategy by itself is a mistake. As it turned out, he had not quite caught up and I scored a second win. But there is no way that he could know this before.

The following day, it was not tough to notice that Kramnik was yet to recover from the reverse suffered in the fifth game. As a result, Anand did not have to produce anything exceptional in the sixth game to win again. At this stage, the score stood at 4.5-1.5 in Anands favour. Kramnik drew solace from the mathematical probability of bouncing back in the match, but going by the form of the two players, it looked highly improbable. Anand was clearly seeing more on the board and not missing much. Kramnik was struggling to find answers to the questions Anand posed.

Kramnik fans were almost in a state of shock. Going by the enviable match-play record of Kramnik and Anands not-so-impressive results in this format, the Russians were busy searching for reasons for the lopsided nature of the mega contest. With the second half still to go, Kramnik was expected to come very hard at Anand. He is known to consider a draw a good result with black pieces and strike with white.

The loss in two games with white pieces forced him to shed his safety-first method and play aggressively, which is most unlike his style. Kramnik was out of his comfort zone, and Anand had to simply add to his discomfort with some more draws. Every draw meant Anand was getting closer to this target and Kramnik was drifting away from his goal. Anand started the second half with white pieces and drew without really creating any chances. The following day, the drawn eighth game saw Kramnik having the upper hand. Suddenly, Kramnik appeared to be gaining in confidence for the first time in the match. After a day of rest, Kramnik missed a winning continuation with black pieces against Anand in the ninth game. Had Kramnik won, it would have been Anands first ever defeat with white against the Russian. The narrow escape brought Anand just half a point away from the title.

Another rest day followed, and the world waited for Anand to force one more draw to clinch the match. But Kramnik, who promised to fight until the end, finally enjoyed his best day of the competition. He outplayed Anand in just 29 moves in a highly complex battle to take the match into the 11th game. The day of rest proved a difficult one for Anand. It was not fun. The rest day came exactly at the wrong moment. When you need one game, then suddenly, you get a rest day. Its quite tough. I tried to relax a bit but I did not succeed at all, was the candid admission of a man for whom a draw would have signalled the biggest triumph of his career.

Anand, with white pieces, reached early for the 11th game and quickly played his first move, which left Kramnik thinking for over two minutes. Kramnik leaned back, looked at the ceiling, stared at Anand and then finally chose the opening of his choice. A tense battle followed for the next three hours, during which Anand took his time to be safe.

An exasperated Kramnik read the position well and realised there was no way he could force a victory with black pieces. Anand accepted the draw offer and thus ended the most-followed match in the 122-year history of the World Championship.

Since American Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972 to claim the title, Anand became the first non-Soviet to win the title match against a Soviet/Russian. After the Second World War, only two players Fischer and Anand have won the world title following match victories over Soviets/Russians. This also gives a fair idea of the domination of players from the erstwhile Soviet Union in the history of the championship.

When it was all over, Kramnik graciously accepted defeat and acknowledged Anand as the true champion. It was a very difficult match for me from the very beginning, I am happy to have played this match. I am happier to play with such an opponent like Vishy. He is a great player and for me it was very interesting, not only to fight for the title but also for a fact that it was a very interesting chess experience. And basically, I am disappointed. But it is not over. I am going to make use of the lessons that Ive learnt here.

Next year, Anand will have to defend the title against the winner of the match between the 2005 champion Veselin Topalov and the reigning World Cup winner Gata Kamsky. However, as things stand, an air of uncertainty hovers over this match since Kamsky has expressed his displeasure over the suggested venue. But then, chess and controversies have gone hand in hand.

At present Anand is the worthy champion of the world. At Bonn, he successfully exorcised the ghosts that haunted him for over a decade. He has proved his prowess in the biggest match of his life with a matchless performance. With this, Anand has cemented his place among the greats of the game.

Unlike Sampras, Borg and Lendl, Anand is free from the clutches of the uncomfortable sense of incompletion. Completely at peace with himself, Anand can now take time to plan his next move.

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