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A teenaged champion

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Chess has its youngest world champion in 18-year-old Ruslan Ponomariov.

RUSLAN PONOMARIOV'S unexpected victory in the FIDE (World Chess Federation) Men's World Chess Championship in Moscow in January leaves the chess world in the thick of a revolution of youth. At the age of 18 years and 104 days, he became the youngest world champion.

In chess, world champions usually display their talent early by winning world junior championships and then put up performances that gradually take them towards the world title. They reach the peak between the ages of 21 and 35. That is how Gary Kasparov won the title in 1985 as a 22-year old. Breaking this tradition, Ponomariov, who had not even won the Ukrainian national championship, pulled off a coup by becoming the first junior player to win the world's absolute chess title.

Ponomariov has in plenty the qualities that characterise world champions. The first junior player to win FIDE's world title, he is ambitious and positive in his approach. He has no psychological hang-up vis-a-vis any player. He successfully fought from adverse positions twice in the course of the seven-game title match. He salvaged a draw in Game Two from a losing position and later, in Game Five, managed to turn the tables on his opponent, Vassily Ivanchuk.

Ponomariov is not a rank outsider. He has been in the list of the top 100 players for three years and was making progress. In 2001 alone he gained 50 Elo, not a small achievement when one is already above 2,600. His best years in the field so far have been 1997, when he became the youngest grandmaster in history (the record was subsequently bettered), and 2001, when he qualified for the final. And with the world title triumph, the start of 2002 could not have been better.

Ponomariov had not anticipated that he would reach the final. He had originally signed up to play in the Corus Tournament in Wijk aan Zee, which had dates overlapping with the world championship final. Once he made it to the final, he opted out of the Dutch event.

Ponomariov had evidently made remarkable preparations for the final. He was fresh for his games, had enough confidence and pushed positively in all the games. He always hoped to get more than what the position offered. He had done his homework better than his opponent and did not make a blunder even under the most acute of time pressures. In fact, he survived not because he executed the best moves but because he did not blunder.

In the best-of-eight final, he won a squelching Game One over a nervous Ivanchuk and also made it his best game of the match. He maintained the lead all through, winning Game Five with some luck to take the match at 4.5-2.5 (two wins, five draws). For his part, Ivanchuk had problems related to sleep and to playing quickly, and in general he could not stand up to the pressure after conceding Game One.

Ivanchuk showed exemplary variety with his blacks, but could not play quickly without suffering a drop in the level of his game. Owing to the crunching 'time control', the quality of many games did not rise to established world standards. Ponomariov, however, thinks it is not the 'time control' that is to be blamed, but the nerves of the players.

The title, his first in three appearances, made Ponomariov richer by around $400,000 while Ivanchuk received $193,000. For both players it was their career-best pay cheques and career-best achievements. Ponomariov had not won two matches in the knock-outs while Ivanchuk had not made it to the last 16 in his previous appearances.

In the qualifiers at the Kremlin, held between November 25 and December 14, Ponomariov was an underdog but he went on to down three Russian stars, Alexander Morozevich, Evgeny Bareev and Peter Svidler. "Bad luck that I lost but I have to say that the little boy is playing really good," said Svidler after losing in the semi-final. Chess players, right from the No.1-ranked Kasparov, rarely pay such compliments to their opponents. Svidler's appreciation should be given due importance in that context. At the Metropol Hotel in Moscow, where the final was held between January 16 and 25, Svidler was the favourite in terms of rating. He had 10 Elo more than Ivanchuk.

"The match result was a lesson for Ivanchuk for being overconfident," said the new champion's trainer-manager and International Master Silvio Danailov. Asked if Ponomariov is the real world champion, Grandmaster Veselin Topalov replied, with raised eyebrows: "You have to wait for him to settle down and compete in elite events. If he continues to show the same promise as here, I think he will make it look convincing." Others, who did not want their names disclosed, said that Ivanchuk would have been a disaster as a world champion and that Ponomariov "saved" the chess world from his eccentricity by taking the title.

PONOMARIOV learnt the moves only 10 years ago. His 11-year-old younger sister does not play chess. They live with their parents in Kramatorsk. His father is an engineer and mother is a teacher. They do not travel with him these days, and he manages on his own. Ponomariov is a law student. The combination of chess and law is rare. His predecessors Viswanathan Anand studied commerce and Anatoly Karpov did economics. Ponomariov is keen to complete his education.

The best thing about the new champion, besides his chess, are his one-liners at press conferences. In one instance a Russian journalist quoted Kasparov as saying that he had not seen Ponomariov. Ponomariov replied almost immediately, "Yes, I too haven't seen him." On the evening after Game Four, the players were asked if they welcomed the free day on January 20. "Since I am behind (1.5-2.5), the rest day is bad for me," said Ivanchuk. But Ponomariov's reply was: "I like the free day because he doesn't like it!"

At age 18 no chess player has been written about so much as Ponomariov. In 1978, before his birth, Maya Chiburdanidze won the women's world chess championship at age 17. But she won an all-Georgian match in the Soviet Union. Also, young women reach their prime in the game faster than young men.

Besides his own trainer Gennady Kuzmin, Ponomariov roped in the high-flying Bulgarian duo of Topalov and Danailov as members of his team. The Russian-speaking duo helped him understand the personality of Ivanchuk. This was perhaps an expensive but prudent decision that he made before the final. Both sides are tight-lipped about the length of the preparation and its venue. It is certain that Ponomariov's sponsor, a Ukranian steel company, met the training and other expenses.

Ponomariov may not have become a champion at this age but for the knockout format. One other player who would not have been world champion but for the knockout system is Alexander Khalifman of Russia who won the title in 1999. It is still too early to surmise that FIDE's new time control favours the bold and younger generation. Ivanchuk, who turns 33 next month said he would "prefer to have more time", while Ponomariov felt the current system of control was sufficient. "You have time at the start," he said.

The change in the next edition is that the event will be held once every two years, instead of the annual Christmas bash. The broken rhythm sends mixed signals to players in terms of their financial situation and also to analysts who simulate the performance appraisals of the players under various system parameters.

Ponomariov's two-year term as champion may be a mixed bag of successes and failures - successes since his learning curve is steeply inclined, and failures because of his youthful attractions. He cannot wait before venturing into super events such as Linares, Dortmund and Wijk aan Zee. Competing in them will make him stronger but it might not mean superlative success. So, joining the chorus may be the right assessment: "Let us give him new time."