Viswanathan Anand threw the form book out the window with a stunning and largely unexpected win over pre-tournament favourite Levon Aronian in the first round of the Candidates tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. The three other games ended in draws, giving Anand an early lead in the fourteen-round tournament whose winner will go on to challenge world champion Magnus Carlsen in November this year.
Anand had white pieces against Aronian. Normally an advantage, this only seemed a small mercy against an imposing opponent. The Armenian has largely dominated Anand, except perhaps for a remarkable game at Tata Steel in 2013. Then, despite being in as bad a slum as he is in currently, Anand played one of the best games of his career, earning the Yearbook Novelty of the Year award, an entry in the pantheon of great attacking games, and a sweet win against an opponent who had, before the game, enjoyed a +5-1 record over him.
The game, however, did not spark Anand’s game back into life, nor did it turn his fortunes around in his personal battles against Aronian. The last time they played each other, Aronian brushed off Anand in the first round at Zurich early in 2014. Anand’s Wijk Aan Zee show was in danger of becoming a painful reminder that Aronian’s style so thoroughly threw his own game off its rails, that he had to play out of his skin to beat his nemesis.
Given their personal history and his own poor recent form, Anand may have settled for a draw against Aronian in the first round, and consider that a reasonable success. A tough delivery peaceably negotiated for a scampered single to leg. As it happened, Anand found himself with a pleasant advantage out of the opening. “When we got to c4 (white’s 21st move) I was surprised how strong my position was not slightly better but clearly better,” he said in the post-match interview. The game panned out to a perfect script from Anand’s perspective, who generally relies on his extensive opening knowledge and quick, sharp play in middle games for an upper hand. Here, a strong advantage out of the opening (a Marshal setup, which strangely enough, considering how things went, is a preferred system of Aronian’s) was built on subsequently, while his opponent, slipping steadily towards a time-default, further weakened his position. By around the first time control, Aronian, with less than a minute on his clock for 7-8 moves, blundered away his knight in a deteriorating position. Anand completed the win in 47 moves.
That the rare win against a personal tormentor came without much fuss raises, once more, the prospect of Anand turning a corner with his form. It is something that will become evident as the 21-day long continued…