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The advantage of being Viswanathan Anand

The Sofia match was a dramatic war of wills between two entirely dissimilar players....

Written by Jaideep Unudurti |
May 14, 2010 3:05:05 am

Viswanathan Anand is a master calculator,but even he was unable to predict the effect that the volcano with the unpronounceable name would have on his title defence. Anand was due in Sofia,to play a best-of-12 game match against Veselin Topalov,the hometown favourite. He was en-route from Madrid and with his requests for postponement denied,it looked like Anand’s campaign was over before it began. The airspace over Europe was shut,and they had to wend their way through Eastern Europe to reach Sofia.

After this arduous journey,the first game was as anti-climatic as they come. Topalov launched a fierce attack. While Anand had already prepared for this sequence of moves with his team of grandmaster helpers. he could not remember the move,at the crunch. With the clock ticking,he desperately searched the chambers of his memory (an immense library built move by move,book by book over the two decades that he has been a top level player). Rejecting a bishop manoeuvre that commentators said was necessary,Anand finally moved his king from the firing line. Topalov’s response was as brutal as it was rapid. A knight smashed into the fortress of pawns around the black king. Anand attempted a flight to safety but it was too late. The white pieces corralled His Majesty in the centre of the board and with checkmate imminent,Anand had to throw in the towel. As he once said in an interview,“It’s funny,you may remember every single thing. But if you don’t remember that you remember,that is also a problem.”

After that disastrous start,though,Anand fought back in the very next game and felled the Bulgarian with some exquisite play. The scores were levelled. What followed over the next three weeks was an epic battle as the two grandmasters went at each other. From torturous endgames to fierce battles in the middle-game,to pieces of outstanding preparation in the opening,the “thrilla in Sofia” saw them all. They did not play perfect chess. Far from it. Its splendour came from the clash of two absolute wills consumed by thoughts of victory.

Much of the excitement was provided by the contrasting personalities and their unique approaches to the game. Anand’s opponent Topalov was once a champion himself. In 2006 he had lost his crown to Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik in the most infamous world championship match of all time. Kramnik had gotten off to a 2-0 lead when Topalov’s manager Danailov entered the fray. Accusing the Russian of visiting the loo once too often and getting computer assistance,Danailov threw the match into chaos. Eventually Topalov was dethroned by the Russian in a bitter battle.

Topalov was a 12-year-old prodigy with a difficult childhood when he caught the eye of Silvio Danailov. Danailov himself was a master who nurtured ambitions as a player. Once he saw Topalov,however,he sacrificed his own career. A Canadian grandmaster who knows the duo wrote: “Danailov took Topalov to his apartment and told him ‘From now on,you live here and this will become your new home. I am not just your trainer,but I am also your mother and your father. I am your cook. I am the one who will wash your clothes. I am the one who will pay your bills and expenses to tournaments. All I want from you is to think only about chess!”

Topalov shot through the ranks — by 19 he had already defeated Kasparov. This lonely and obsessed East European could not be more different from Anand. And yet,in some ways they understand each other. Like all specialists in a very narrow field,there are only two ways of reacting to them — indifference or awe. To be admitted into their secret world,you have to know the rules. An amateur once congratulated Bobby Fischer on a “great game” – the legend snapped back “How would you know?” Chess is unique in that unlike football or cricket,you need to have a modicum of understanding even to spectate. And as the level becomes higher,even understanding the moves becomes difficult.

Topalov performs best when there is an air of “aggro” — an

atmosphere of menace and pressure. He tried provoking Anand,proclaiming that he would not offer or accept draws — he would fight to the death. Anand calmly offered draws anyway. Topalov had the unpalatable options of either playing on in a completely drawn position or accepting the hated offer.

This contradiction would impose its fatal pressure on Topalov in the final game. Eleven games had gone by with scores even. Now everything depended on the final encounter. Again the position began looking equal and Anand made a tacit offer of a draw. If this game too was drawn then the match would enter tie-breaks,a further match of four games played in “rapid style”. And Topalov had lost to Kramnik in precisely the same fashion. With that on his mind,Topalov disdained the draw. He instead played in kamikaze style,with an all or nothing attack. Anand calmly retaliated and won a smashing final victory.

Like in all sports,you can be haunted by memories of a traumatic loss. Topalov spent much of the time after 2006 futilely arguing for a rematch. Topalov was obsessed with Kramnik,and Anand’s biggest failing in the eyes of Topalov was that he wasn’t Kramnik. Meanwhile,Anand was defiant in defeat,resolute in the struggle and magnanimous in victory. While a stunned Topalov could barely speak,Anand complimented the organisers and called his rival a great attacking player. And it is this — not his trophies,his rating,his hundreds of tournament victories — that make Viswanathan Anand a true champion of our times.

The writer is a chess enthusiast and graphic novelist

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