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Saturday, September 18, 2021

King’s Gambit

With Viswanathan Anand drawing 21 of his last 27 games,questions are being raised over his form and preparedness for the World Chess Championship bout in May next year. Raakesh Natraj finds out if there is more to the ‘no results’ streak than meets the eye.

Written by Raakesh Natraj | New Delhi |
December 18, 2011 3:23:24 am

For all that has appeared in the papers recently,Viswanathan Anand might as well have been a poker player short on luck. Draw after draw,but no cigar.

One however doesn’t have to rubberneck too much to see beyond the distorting haze of recent results — Anand has three tournament wins at Leon (June),the Botvinnik Masters (September) and Corsica (November) in just the latter half of the year.

Perhaps the wins are discounted as merely expected jaunts in his pet rapid format,or having little bearing to the event that anything he does this year will be seen in the light of — the World Championship bout against Boris Gelfand in 2012. That will,of course,be played in the classical configuration.

Preceding the title wins,Anand also had a fairly strong showing at the TATA Steel Classic in January,rated Category 21— an epithet that sounds faintly ominous,though essentially an indicator of the competence of the field. This one was possibly the best-ever assembled. The primary protagonists were Magnus Carlsen,Anand,Levon Aronian and Vladimir Kramnik,who,in the November list of FIDE’s rankings are in the top four and all weigh in with 2800 points and over,a first in the history of the ratings. Anand went undefeated and finished second,half a point behind eventual winner Hikaru Nakamura,a result that saw him hit a lifetime-high of 2817 rating points in the March listings.

Blue streak

What has,however,cast the current pall on expectations is his recent run at the Bilbao Masters,the Tal Memorial and the London Classic,where his results (3 wins-21 draws-3 losses — a sequence that would have relegated a football team,it was muttered) prompted a New York Times article to lead with ‘Is there something wrong with Viswanathan Anand?’.

It also seemed that the sequence of draws,which extended to eleven at one point,could not be referred to without insinuating a feebleness of intent,an impotence almost,in the inability to break the deadlock. This perhaps has something to do with the way the non-playing populace grasps chess — drawing analogies to other sports,to get a sort of handle on it.

“In soccer,they have perfected tie-breaks and the result is not seen to be diminished by that. A result in chess requires one player or the other to make a mistake. Draws are perceived to be not exciting,but occasionally you have brilliant ones which require incredibly accurate play,where someone very close to defeat plays precisely to secure parity. But generally speaking,yeah,people don’t like draws in chess,” says Anand,speaking to The Indian Express from Chennai.

The dynamics of chess are such that,though white starts with a tempo because he goes first,for it to be converted to any kind of advantage at all,there has to be a slip up from black,or vice-versa. A position that is seen to have attained ‘equality’ or be ‘drawish’ is rarely tampered with,because one cannot force a result without taking an inordinate risk.

Players routinely settle for an early shake of hands,sometimes only after a handful of moves- in what seems unfathomable to an outsider,perhaps used to seeing five days of cricket ending in a stalemate when time runs out.

The lead-up to a World Championship is often suffused with intrigue,secrecy,paranoia and propaganda; and that is not just true of the cold-war (of the famed Fischer-Spassky battles) or pre-War era (when Emanuel Lasker was alleged to have blown smoke in the face of opponents to distract them).

Bulgarian Veselin Topalov constantly harangued Anand about his age in the media,promising to wring him dry over the bout. Anand’s appeal for postponement of the Championship in Sophia because of the ash-cloud over Europe was denied; it took him a 40-hour bus ride (during which Anand and team watched the ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy) to get to the venue a day before the first game,which he promptly lost. Topalov and Kramnik had an ill-spirited 2006 final when they accused each other of cheating,with the Russian forfeiting a game (for the first time in a WCC since Spassky-Fischer in ‘72).

So when Anand,a veteran of four World Championships,refuses to let on much about his recent form,you know he has his reasons. “In principle it is not a big problem because the main training will start from now. Even when I played very close to the championship,at the end of my preparation,like in Bilbao in 2008 (he finished last with eight draws and two losses),I was able to put it behind and focus on the match against Kramnik. I am obviously disappointed with my tournament results but I think five months is enough time to move on,” he says.

India’s second ranked player GM Krishnan Sasikiran feels there might be an element of deliberation in Anand’s poor form; not that he intends to play sub-par chess,but that he would want to stay away from certain lines and variations so as to not give his hand away. “Gelfand and his team are obviously going to be looking at Anand’s games and maybe he doesn’t want to reveal too much of his preparation or strengths. His mind would be on the World Championships now,” says Sasikiran.

What will also downplay Anand’s mediocre tournament run of late is that the World title will be decided by match play. While the tournament structure is similar to a league (several players in round robin),Anand and Gelfand will go heads up in a series of 12 games,which allows for preparation,evolution of strategy from game to game and of course,the element of surprise.

In the final against Kramnik,for example,playing black,Anand hit the Russian with an innovation in Game three- a line that threw the book out of the window. The move (which Anand credited his second Rustam Kasimdzhanov with) deviated from known theoretical lines of the Semi-Slav defense and forced Kramnik to think on the board. Steadily losing time,the challenger couldn’t hold his defense for long. Game five,which proceeded along similar lines,saw Anand preempt Kramnik from deviating from the earlier quagmire by coming up with another set-up move a few turns back.

The position soon transposed into a replica of Game three that confounded Kramnik and again,white couldn’t prevent a damaging loss. During the title defense against Topalov,Anand came up with a previously unexplored move early in the Catalan Opening of Game four,which eventually sunk the Bulgarian. The move (10. Na3) won Anand the ‘Yearbook Novelty Award of 2010.’

“Anand has had a lot of success in match play,from his early days. He has wins over Topalov,Kramnik,Vasily Ivanchuk,Alexei Shirov,Alexey Dreev and so on,most coming when the opponents were at their peak. For Gelfand,this probably will be his first and last shot at the title. Also the difference in rating points between Anand and Gelfand is huge (a whopping 67 points and 12 spots in the November FIDE release) and he has a better head-to-head,” says GM RB Ramesh,who has trained several exciting young players.

Old school

While Anand has continued to play tournaments,Gelfand has chosen to sequester himself in preparation for a final that has come his way after several near misses. When the two meet in May next year,Anand (42),for the first time in a World Championship final,will play someone older — Gelfand is 43.

“A couple of people have come up to me and said that they are really happy to see our generation being well represented in this match when chess is so youthful. It is a strange experience to be seen as a veteran,it doesn’t feel very long ago when I was called a child prodigy,Boris as well” says Anand.

Despite the familiarity the two share,having started out at pretty much the same time,and the intimacy with each other’s game that stems from a long association,or maybe because of it,the contest promises something new.

“It is like meeting your school mates,you are young in their eyes and they, in yours. We know each other for a long time,but have been evolving anyway. We will do a lot of new work,fine tune our particular strategies,look at a number of ideas,try and get a feel of what makes him tick . It is clear that we will do something different,” says Anand.

As the pair plot against each other,there promises to be something different off the board too. The mature rivalry portends a face-off sans the paranoid suspicion-mongering and media-bashing that was a constant accompaniment to a few earlier editions,and it will only be welcome.

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