Game of thrones

Anand and Gelfand have all to play for at the keenly awaited world chess championship

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: May 8, 2012 3:15:44 am

Anand and Gelfand have all to play for at the keenly awaited world chess championship

The world championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Boris Gelfand will officially kick off this Thursday in the Tretyakov Gallery,Moscow. It will begin in time-honoured fashion,with the drawing of lots to determine who gets white — and the advantage of the first move — in the opening game. When the first pawn is moved,it will be one more link in a chain forged in the fire of the ultimate clash of minds,with a lineage that goes back more than a hundred years.

Spanish author Arturo Perez-Reverte,writing on the official site,says,“It’s all here: loneliness,hubris,courage,pride,cunning,crime,revenge,mistake,life,death. I’ve always said that there is no better reflection of the great engines of real life than chess pieces.”

There is everything to play for in the 12-game match,with the winner taking home a cool $1.53 million. The loser can console himself with $1.02 million. Of course,it’s not just the money. There have only been 15 champions after all,ever since Wilhelm Steinitz ascended the throne in 1886.

For Gelfand,this will be the culmination of a lifelong dream. At 43,this is probably his last realistic shot at the title. For Anand,the motivation is simple. A third consecutive title defence will see him spend two more years at the summit of Olympus,cementing his reputation amongst the pantheon of all-time greats.

Chess cartoonist Jose Diaz recently showed Vishy in a Force India F1 car with Gelfand as Mr Bean atop his Mini Cooper. While it has become fashionable to portray Gelfand as a hapless figure,experts agree that it would be a mistake to rule out the Israeli veteran. He made an incredible comeback to win the Kazan tournament and earn the coveted right to sit across the board from Anand.

Indeed,this match is a blast from the past,with Gelfand tipped as a potential world champ in the early ’90s,even before Anand made his mark. For instance,in July 1990,Gelfand was already number three in the world,just behind Gary Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov,while Anand had just entered the top 20.

While Anand continued his ascent,Gelfand stalled. In 1995,both young talents went up against the “super Ks”. Anand took on Kasparov in their celebrated match at the World Trade Centre for the title itself,while Gelfand battled Karpov in Hyderabad for the qualification. Both lost,but while Anand was relatively unaffected,going on to win the crown for the first time five years later,Gelfand plateaued,and never regained his former glory.

So what kind of match will it be? Gelfand is a very “technical” player with a positional bent of mind. A product of the famed Soviet chess school,he has a strong grounding in the fundamentals and is known as a virtuoso endgame player. Anand,of course,has tremendous powers of intuition shot through with daring creativity. His best games are often underpinned with a harmonic dynamism. Anand’s gameplan will probably be to get Gelfand out of his comfort zone and put consistent pressure. Gelfand,in turn,will aim for drier positions with scope for prolonged manoeuvring.

Gelfand’s greatest strength will be his motivation. Known as one of the hardest workers in the game,Gelfand knows he is at the last chance saloon.

Can Anand shrug off his indifferent form? He will be a tad rusty,having last played in a classical event way back in December. The champ did try to get his eye in by playing for his team Baden-Baden in the Bundesliga. It ended up rather messily,dropping a game against a lowly-ranked grandmaster. Vishy can take solace that he went into his previous successful title defences with similar spotty play in the lead-up.

World championship matches contribute to opening theory,with each player developing “smart bombs” to demolish the opponent’s defences. In the 2008 match in Bonn,Anand,a lifelong king-pawn player shocked Vladimir Kramnik by switching to the queen pawn. Referring to Anand’s new ability to play both types of openings,computer chess guru Frederic Friedel drew an analogy from snooker saying,“Anand is now like Ronnie O’Sullivan — he can play both sides of the table!”.

Chess fans are agog over the strategy that will be adopted by Anand now. Will he continue with the queen-pawn against Gelfand? Or return to his roots? After all,the surprise value of “1.d4” — the queen-pawn — is no longer present.

Unlike the previous match in Sofia,which saw elaborate anti-cheating measures,including cellphone jammers,this will be a duel between gentlemen. Apart from the standard transparent screen separating the players from the audience,Anand and Gelfand have agreed to drop the more extreme of the measures.

The match is being bankrolled by infrastructure magnate Andrey Filatov. It was the billionaire’s brainchild to have the games amidst the splendour of the Tretyakov gallery,one of the greatest art museums in the world. The idea is to bring about a synthesis of art and culture.

In 2010,Gelfand was asked to predict the winner of Anand’s clash with Veselin Topalov. He answered,“The result will depend on who can impose his own character on the struggle”. The same can be said now. In the end,it all comes down to character.

Jaideep Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer

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