KING KRAMNIK

Print edition : November 11, 2000

World chess gets a new champion after 15 years.

IN one of the greatest upsets in chess history, Vladimir Kramnik unseated Garry Kasparov on November 2 to become the new world chess champion.

Vladimir Kramnik in London on November 4.-ALASTAIR GRANT/AP

It all happened on a stormy Thursday evening in London in the 16-match Braingames world chess championship match. Kramnik, 25, defeated 37-year old Kasparov 8.5-6.5 with a game to spare, for an astounding surprise in this all-Russian affair. The younger Russian who was universally thought to be the underdog, ran through the 15 games without losing any and by winning Game Two and Game Ten he won the title. Thirteen games were drawn in the match, which saw the lowest number of decisive outcomes in individ ual games.

Kramnik is the 15th player in history to win the crown, which runs back as far as 1886. World champions are rare and special people in the chess world, and Kramnik joins this select band.

This match is not recognised by FIDE, the international Chess Federation, and does not come under the ambit of Elo ratings. Since 1993, when Kasparov and Nigel Short decided to play outside the purview of FIDE, two parallel world championships were held. FIDE recognised their cycle, but the chess world and the man on the street recognised Kasparov's cycle since he was the strongest player on the planet. Kasparov found takers like The Times newspaper of London to sponsor the 1993 match with Short for a prize money of 1.7 million and microchip maker Intel to sponsor the $1.5 million match against Viswanathan Anand in 1995. After several unsuccessful attempts and different opponents each time, Kasparov got his eighth match after a five-year gap and lost by two games and, importantly, did not live up to his known levels of play.

This latest match carried total a prize money of $2 million (about Rs. 9.3 crores) and Kramnik earns $1.33 million, his career best purse. Kasparov takes the rest. It was Kasparov's first match defeat to a human being. He was beaten by Deep Blue, the che ss playing computer developed by IBM, in 1997 by 3.5-2.5 in New York.

The latest match did not have the usual backstage stories which any such event usually involves. "It was a pure chess match between two friends," said American arbiter Eric Schiller. Veteran International Master (IM) Andrei Fillipowicz from Poland, who s peaks Russian, the language of the participants, was the main arbiter. For the first time in a match, players were checked with metal detectors but discreetly.

ABOUT the quality of chess played, Kramnik pressed harder each time he had white and was generally positive in his approach. Kasparov was found wanting in terms of inspiration and he let go several opportunities with white with early draws. Kramnik's ear ly breakthrough with white in Game Two against Kasparov's main defence against the queen pawn - the Grunfeld Defence - put the pressure on the senior team and it remained that way until the end. The trend was known after as early as Game Two. Kasparov ha d to find new openings to defend with black on the one side and try to break the surprise opening that Kramnik had come prepared for the match - the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez. He did not succeed in either both and said after Game Eight that he wa s spending as much as ten hours trying to rebuild his opening repertoire. Kasparov's chess career had been reliant on the openings to deliver the goods that he never tried plan B and plan C that most players will come up with. He was perhaps confident th at it would not be required and gave up a little prematurely.

Kramnik won the match on the psychological front too. He had prepared clearly surprise openings as black and had bone depth strike with white against Kasparov's openings. By avoiding most of Kasparov's preparation, Kramnik dictated terms in the opening a nd perhaps that demoralised Kasparov into a surprise defeat. Kramnik's poor match record was a thing of the past for he beat the greatest match player.

Kasparov's skills were seen in many games where he escaped defeat and pulled off draws with them. His play looked ordinary without the usual razor sharp openings. He did not try enough in many games and particularly in Game 13. In the coming days and mon ths he will perhaps explain what went on inside him.

Kramnik was too solid with black and deadly with white. When he won Game 10, it looked as if it was over at 6-4 as Kasparov was aimlessly pushing himself in the match. "Do you smell victory already in the match?" this writer asked Kramnik. "Not yet," Kra mnik replied. That was the key game. Kramnik drew the remaining games with ease to wrap it up after Game 15.

Kramnik is at the top of the chess world. He will be expected to defend his title in 2002 under a proposed Brain Games Network plc world championship cycle.

Kasparov may not retire but will make a bid to recapture the crown. Nevertheless, the match will leave a scar which will remain on him and his future games with Kramnik. The personal score which was 3-3 before this match went up 5-3, not counting draws.

Gary Kasparov ponders a move against Kramnik on November 2.-DYLAN MARTINEZ/REUTERS

On the personal side, Kramnik may be a role model for aspiring players as far as his chess is concerned. But he is a heavy smoker and a drinker and represents modern-day youth in Russia. Since becoming a challenger he has given up many of these arguable vices and has concentrated on his health and fitness. He is single today but in 1996 was travelling to tournaments with Czech chess player Woman Grandmaster (WGM) Eva Repkova. Kramnik comes from a creative family. His chess epitomises perfection.

Although not rebellious like Kasparov, he takes a stand by himself and sticks to it. In 1997, when FIDE announced the controversial knock out cycle to decide the world champion, he protested to Anatoly Karpov's seeding to the finals and stayed out of the event. He played in the same event in 1999 when such seeding was removed.

Kramnik was lucky in many ways, including in the way he got invited to the match. It was a match that Anand declined to play in March 2000 when the required minimum guarantee he wanted was not entertained. Kramnik approached several players for help in t his match and it included Anand. Kramnik himself told The Sportstar in an interview this July that the names of some people from whom he will receive help will never ever be revealed. In London earlier he was assisted by his Moscow neighbour Grand master (GM) E.Bareev, his French friend GM Joel Lautier from Paris and Spanishman GM Miguel Illescas from Barcelona.

It was one of the poorest title defences offered by Kasparov since Dutchman Max Euwe lost a one-sided return match to Alexander Alekhine in the early half of the previous century. He was never close to a victory. He did not try to use the advantage of wh ite in several games. A number of reasons have been offered for Kasparov's defeat. "I was not outplayed, but out-prepared," said the loser in a carefully worded statement after the match.

Kasparov cited tiredness, disappointment at not being able to cash in on his chances and personal reasons for his defeat. But had both players cashed in on their chances, the result should have been the same.

THIS development in chess history brings several new positive things to the sport, which has not seen a new champion for long.

Chess is still in the process of proving itself as a sport. With television coverage impossible to get, the digital revolution and the growth of the Internet has given new hope for spreading the game wider. For the first time, the Kramnik-Kasparov match was available live on the Internet with live feeds of video and audio from the board and comments from British grandmasters. It is possible to follow chess in real time now from any location.

The result brings in a part of reality. There is no lifetime champion. Champions ought to lose someday. The chess fraternity did not expect that Kasparov's time had come. Many people could not believe the result. Kramnik proved everyone wrong that with d iscipline, determination and surprise he could beat Kasparov. He worked inside Kasparov's camp in 1995 as trainer. It was a big mistake for Kasparov, but it brought him success against Anand.

Kramnik is no newcomer to chess. He won the Linares 2000 tournament jointly with Kasparov earlier this year. He shot into fame in his very first Chess Olympiad at Manila in 1992 when he won the board prize for the reserve board. Unlike his Russian predec essors, Kasparov, Karpov or Spassky, he did not win the world junior because he did not play in them. His rise in stature was so quick that he was a FIDE Master with a 2600 FIDE rating! He was ranked No.1 on the junior list. Organiser Luis Rentero induct ed this teenager into the Linares Tournament in 1993, a round robin with top class players. Since then he has been a regular at super category tournaments, winning five of the last six Dortmund Tournaments, a host of PCA Rapid Tournaments, and the Dos He rmanas 1996 Tournament, to name a few.

A new young world champion is what the chess world needed. From now on, the success or failure of the two world cycles will depend on Raymond Keene of Brain Games Network plc and the mother organisation FIDE. Before the match, there was no possibility of a patch-up owing to clash of ideologies between Kasparov and the FIDE president. There should be a greater possibility of a patch-up now than before to have one cycle and one champion in the game of chess.

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