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Meet the Candidate

Boris Gelfand,the Israeli set to challenge India’s Viswanathan Anand for the World Chess Championship title in Moscow this week,is enjoying a second wind at the age of 43.

Written by Raakesh Natraj |
May 6, 2012 3:16:46 am

Circa 1972: Abram Gelfand,an engineer in Minsk,Soviet Belarus,got his five-year old son Boris a children’s book on chess,Journey to the Chess Kingdom. When Gelfand junior asked his father a few days later if he could read something else,Abram understandably thought chess didn’t hold much interest for the kid.

It was,of course,not so. In Gelfand’s words: “My dad couldn’t even imagine that I’d gulped down the whole book in one day and therefore wanted something new.”

Incredible as the story is,it is unlikely to faze most chess insiders. Photo-albums of most Grand Masters are bound to have a picture of the player as a kid,sitting in an oversized chair,legs in free swing. Precocity is a given for players at the elite level,and it was no different with Gelfand.

Talent and fulfillment do not always bear a causal relationship,and Gelfand will know it better than most. Perhaps it is unkind to call Gelfand’s career,which has seen its share of tournament victories and acclaim,unfulfilled. Maybe the frustrating time spent under the thumbs of the two Ks (Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov) in the early part of his career,the pernicious cleavage of FIDE in the 90s that somehow seemed to hurt him more than most others and the inopportune dip in his own form in the late 90s all connived to usher him to the last chance saloon.

For,the journey he began as a five-year old will reach a high-point,if not a culmination,when he sits in his first Championship final on May 11,opposite Viswanathan Anand. Gelfand,despite the customary early start and considerable potential,will be a few days short of his 44th birthday when he will get what Alon Greenfeld,skipper of the Israeli national team,calls his “best shot at history”.

“This will be the tournament of his life,because nothing comes close to the first time,” says Greenfeld,speaking to The Sunday Express.

While it has taken Gelfand an uncommonly long time to get here,it is also true that he has run the race all the while. Longevity is just one of the attributes of Gelfand’s genius. He is renowned as one of the foremost theoreticians of his age — Russian GM and commentator Serei Shipov said that one could learn whole openings by merely watching Gelfand play.

His sound positional knowledge and the ability to tread sharp lines have earned him frequent comparisons with former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. Anand himself praised Gelfand’s love for the game,the desire “to live and breathe chess like no other at the top of our field”. That is to say nothing of his extraordinary diligence,bordering on what Shipov describes as “self-torture” — Gelfand’s daily schedule involves serious preparation for more than 10 hours,even when not readying himself for a tournament.

Long and winding road

Despite the considerable regard in which Gelfand is held within the chess community,it came as a surprise when he earned the right to challenge Anand,qualifying from a strong Candidates field (one that included former champions Kramnik and Veselin Topalov,World Rapid Champion Gata Kamsky and Levon Aronian,ranked second in the world) in 2011. Gelfand’s winding route to the top in a way,mirrors his early,nomadic days. In the aftermath of Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II,his parents moved constantly,across Belarus,Lithuania and Russia. Gelfand,after the dissolution of the USSR,moved to Belarus and eventually to Israel.

His formative years in the former Soviet Republic were nothing short of spectacular,as he broke into the top-10 of the world in 1989,shortly after he turned 20. The next seven years,when Gelfand was near the peak of his powers,proved to be a watershed — he registered more than half of his tournament victories to date. His sustained high level of play and creative brilliance saw the world media dub him Alekhine’s (former Russian world champ) heir.

On more than one occasion in this period,Gelfand was within a match or two of challenging for the world title. In the 1990-93 cycle of the Candidates Tournament,Gelfand went out to the eventual finalist Nigel Short in the quarterfinal in a loss that he described as the “most painful defeat” of his career.

By the end of 1993,the chess world had split into the PCA and FIDE factions (not to come together until 2006) and from then on,the administration and especially the Candidates cycle was thrown into disorder. No two qualifying cycles were the same and rules would be made and discarded arbitrarily. After the semifinal loss to Karpov in the 1993-95 cycle,Gelfand fell through the cracks as far as the World Championships were concerned.

When earlier Gelfand had skipped tournaments to focus on the Candidates cycle,the prevailing uncertainty forced him into non-stop tournament play in the late 90s. Trained early to “make each move with an idea behind it,even if it was blitz”,Gelfand was soon wearied and his form dipped. By the time he moved to Israel (a long cherished dream of his) in 1998,his rating had taken a hit and Gelfand received increasingly fewer tournament invites —just six ‘classical’ super-tournaments in eight years.

The groundwork

In all that time — eight years,at ten hours a day would add up to 30,000 hours (enough to turn out three brand new geniuses,if Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule were any good) of apparently feckless labour — Gelfand kept himself ready. He maintained a demanding work ethic,a routine that consisted of learning new openings,refreshing his end game knowledge,looking for creative ideas and studying games,all done repetitively ‘to the point of making it instinctive’. When the chess world came together once more in 2006 (curiously,Gelfand’s crests and troughs can be marked out on FIDE’s timeline,with the points of inflection occurring during the bifurcation and reunification),and along with it came Gelfand’s second wind.

An unheralded Gelfand finished joint-second in the 2007 World Chess Championships,behind Anand. His next shot,and in all probability his final one,(he was out of the top-20 by then and was over 40) came through another circuitous,not to mention fraught,route. In 2009,Gelfand went through a field of 128 GMs over seven knock-out rounds (most matches went to tie-breaks and it was almost non-stop chess for close to a month) to claim the Chess World Cup,the win offering him a spot in the 2011 Candidates Tournament. Another set of knock-out rounds followed,and despite being on the brink several times (especially against Gata Kamsky in the semifinal) Gelfand came through,without losing his light touch. “Anand had been dreaming about facing a younger challenger,and had already lost all hope,” he had said then. “Now his dream’s come true.”

Enlightenment

In 1991,after the loss to Short,something was to happen in the post-tournament function that would redefine Gelfand’s approach towards chess. Sitting between Gelfand and Vassily Ivanchuk was the prescient Viktor Korchnoi — the oldest active GM and a contender for the Championship on 10 occasions — who told the dejected young men (Anand was in the vicinity): “I reached my peak in Bagio,aged 47. Then I played another match for the World Championship when I was 50. In this hall here there are many who shout that they’re going to be World Champion. They haven’t got a hope,while you’ve got every chance.”

Anand,starting out at almost the same time as Gelfand in the late 80s,did not enjoy the Israeli’s sharp early rise,but has had several tilts at the title – the PCA final (which he lost) against Kasparov as early as in 1995,and the subsequent triumphant runs in 2000,2007,2009,2011 to go with his Moscow appearance. But Gelfand has had to stand and wait.

The match is perhaps too close to call,but if it were down to desire,there is only one runner. After all,to comprehend a nectar,requires sorest need.

KNOW BORIS

Twist & turn

During each move of a game,Grand Masters analyse several possiblities,variations and responses at considerable depth. While they remain seated (mostly) during the game,the scarcely believable levels of concentration find expression in tics and mannerisms. Gelfand’s signature move,if one were to call it that,would be the way he picks up a piece and twists it before bringing it down on the pre-determined square.

What’s good for the goose..

Gelfand picked up on the game as a kid when his father brought home a chess book. When it came to Gelfand’s daughter,things didn’t work out so smoothly. Chess was introduced at five-year old Avita’s kindergarten classes and she is supposed to have told her teacher that it was a ‘stupid game’ and that her ‘dad could play if he wants to.’ Gelfand,of course,narrated the incident with a smile.

A Barcelona fan

Gelfand has been a fan of FC Barcelona since his youth and was gifted a ‘support card’ by wife Maya on his birthday. He watched Barca beat Manchester United 3-1 in the final of the Champions League in Wembley. Gelfand said in an interview that chess improved his ability to notice the work of football coaches,in how they studied tactics and utilized their strengths.

Beyond the game

While elite sports impose a certain level of isolation on its practitioners,the chess community is more closetted than most others. In a rare move,Gelfand wrote in a German paper speaking out against the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. “For us chess players,these towns – Bugojno,Niksic,Banja Luka,Pula and Belgrade – are not simply points on a map. They are the places where our good friends and real supporters of chess live,” he wrote.

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