By: Nigel Short
The World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand, beginning on November 7 in Sochi, Russia, presents the Indian titan with an unexpected opportunity to add further glory to an extraordinarily distinguished career.
When Anand was trounced, in Chennai, last year, by the brilliant Norwegian, half his age, it appeared to be the end of the road for his title aspirations. So mediocre had been his play over the preceding three years that the defending champion’s defeat was about as foregone a conclusion as matches get at this level — his vast experience notwithstanding.
Therefore, when the Candidates (the FIDE qualification tournament for this year’s championship) took place in Khanty-Mansiysk, in darkest Siberia, this March, few, if any, commentators gave him much hope. They were very wrong. Unburdened by the weight of expectation, the rejuvenated Anand eased to a convincing triumph.
Occasionally a batsman flukes his way to a century after being dropped several times, but there was nothing fortuitous about Anand’s sublime performance in Russia. If anything, he could have scored more points. It was as though all his cares and worries, which had inhibited his form for an aeon, had vanished. The pundits were not the only ones to be confounded by Vishy’s sudden transformation: Anand himself described his win as “way beyond anything I could have dreamed of”.
Therein lies Anand’s best, and perhaps only, chance: if he is to regain the throne, he must liberate his mind completely. He must accept that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. At the gerontological age (in chess terms) of 44, he has already surpassed presuppositions merely by reaching the final. He must be undaunted by adversity and attack his opponent boldly, without compromise.
This is not, I hasten to emphasise, to advocate a kamikaze approach. One may begin a game innocuously, but there often comes a moment when a player can choose to intensify the pressure or take a calmer, safer option. In those situations, Anand must ratchet up the tension. He must let his opponent smell and fear the symbolic death of defeat.
A dip in Carlsen’s form
Magnus Carlsen, on the other hand, has had a slightly disappointing year by his own lofty standards — although, by no small consolation, he did win both the Rapid and Blitz World Championships. It is perhaps understandable that he has lost his focus a little after scaling the summit. A few uncharacteristic defeats have crept in. He could be seen energetically partying at the Tromso Olympiad and while, as a young man, it would be most unnatural if he didn’t enjoy his fame, it may also have taken a small toll on his results.
In contrast to recent history, 2014 has been dominated not by the Norwegian, but by Fabiano Caruana. The 22 year-old Italian’s astonishing 7/7 start, against the world elite at Sinquefield Cup in Saint Louis, Missouri, had even Garry Kasparov gasping in admiration. Carlsen should be thankful that he does not have to face him this month.
Indeed, it was by no means certain that the match would take place at all this year. Carlsen dallied up until and beyond the deadline for signing the contract for Sochi.
While your writer is not privy to the precise nature of all Carlsen’s apprehensions, he is known to be greatly irritated that the prize fund has been reduced by $1 million from 2013.
Furthermore, given that Russia is currently placed under sanctions by the EU (Norway, while not a member, belongs to the European Economic Area) there are serious concerns about the opaque financing of the event, which is rumoured to emanate from Aleksander Tkachev, Governor of Krasnodar, Russia, and a leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, in turbulent eastern Ukraine.
Under the Kremlin-backed FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov (who incidentally, is blessed with the unctuous support of the All India Chess Federation), the governing body of chess has become, in effect, a diplomatic organ of the Putin government. So toxic is FIDE’s reputation, most corporate sponsors give it a wide berth. State sponsorship tends to be less fussy — although the taxpayers of Tamil Nadu may wish to check whether Jayalalithaa Jayaram has spent their money wisely on the previous match, in Chennai.
Having bitten the bullet and decided to play, I believe Carlsen, who can summon immense self-discipline when necessary, will get his head down and concentrate on the task in hand. He will be wary of the precedent of Mikhail Botvinnik, the middle-aged Soviet patriarch, who twice won re-matches one year after losing the first. Anand will have learned that timidity does him little favour and will come out fighting — although not recklessly. From a sporting perspective, the match promises to be closer than the one-sided drubbing of last year. If forced to pick a winner though, I’ll stick with Carlsen.
(Nigel Short is a British Grand Master and former World C’ship finalist. He tweets at @nigelshortchess)