A kid turns conqueror

RUSLAN PONOMARIOV of Ukraine became the youngest world chess champion when he won the title in a historic match against fellow countryman Vassily Ivanchuk with a game to spare at 4.5-2.5 on January 23.

The world champion, Ruslan Ponomariov, during the closing ceremony.-ARVIND AARON

The new best of eight-match contest was staged at Moscow's prestigious Hotel Metropol during January 16-25, a month after the previous leg which was held in the Kremlin in Moscow, from November 24 to December 14.

Ponomariov became FIDE's 16th world chess champion and Ukraine's first and also, most importantly, the first junior ever to win the senior chess title in the long history of world chess. Ponomariov, born on October 11, 1983, hails from a remote Ukrainian town of Kramatorsk, while his opponent Ivanchuk is from Lvov, the second biggest city and one with a lot of chess tradition like Chennai in India.

At 18 years and 104 days, Ponomariov broke Garry Kasparov's record as the youngest world chess champion. His career has been dotted with historical records. He became the youngest Grandmaster at 14 years and the youngest to qualify for the world championship finals at the Kremlin when he downed Gata Kamsky's record set at Sanghi Nagar in February 1995.

His success opens a new chapter in the history of world champions. The young man who, barely a few weeks ago, broke into the world top 10, won the match with a better preparation, strong nerves, ability to play quickly and benefit from the new time control and overall a positive approach.

At the board, Ivanchuk was off to a nervous start, losing game one with the black pieces without much fight in what was called a 'miniature defeat'. After drawing first blood Ponomariov was expected to sit over the lead without taking risk in the other games. But he played positively and did not lose a single game in the match. In game two, Ponomariov salvaged a vital half point where he should have lost and he was lucky due to the new time control. Game three was a draw and was the best played game with no mistakes from both players. After another draw in game four, the score at the half way mark was 2.5-1.5 in Ponomariov's favour.

Game five saw Ivanchuk miss a possible win with the black pieces. In the end he could not even force a draw and resigned when he was about to be checkmated. Ponomariov's resilience in defence paid off. He was also lucky as it was the turning point of the game when Ivanchuk made his 47th move. Soon, Ivanchuk was outplayed and his only hope of levelling the match vanished.

Game six was a draw with Ivanchuk unable to break through with the white pieces against the Petroff's defence. Ponomariov was leading 4-2 and from a practical viewpoint, the match was over right here.

Needing a draw for the title with a game to spare, Ponomariov got just that in game seven with the white pieces after reaching a near winning position, playing aggressively with a pawn sacrifice. Ivanchuk employed the Alekhine defence, a rare opening with the black pieces played less than 10 times in super category chess in the last two decades. Ivanchuk shook hands and walked away taking the draw, without showing any signs of being the loser in the match.

In conclusion, both players agreed that Ponomariov was "lucky" and surprisingly the younger player agreed to buy this verdict. It is certain that the new time control played a part in Ivanchuk's defeat, and determination in defence gave Ponomariov the victory. Had Ivanchuk not missed his share of opportunities, it would have been a much closer match.

Despite the fact that Anand won the previous championship in just four games (3.5-0.5) with two games to spare in a six-match series, FIDE extended the match from six to eight games and once again it was shorter than the stipulated limit.

This match had as much publicity as the recent Kasparov versus Kramnik Botvinnik Trophy Match held in Moscow but the quality of play suffered due to the new shortened time control. However, this was more courageously fought than the other tie.

Analysing the match, it was apparent that Ivanchuk had not taken it as seriously as his younger rival. Ponomariov showed greater determination and maintained his playing level throughout and was not flagging on any count, especially in the endgames which required speedy skills.

Ivanchuk varied his openings, which is his strength, with both the black and the white pieces. He did not capitalise on his chances which is his typical weakness and that was evident in this match. The fast rising Ponomariov, whose strength is yet to be measured, played aggressively and ambitiously and credit should go to his team headed by GM Veselin Topalov, IM Silvio Danailov of Bulgaria and GM Gennady Kuzmin from his native country. Ivanchuk's lone Grandmaster trainer was an equally eccentric person and they were outdone by a more psychological and dynamic opposition.

Ponomariov was backed by an army of supporters including Ukraine's largest steel company. "Trainer Gennady Kuzmin is a nobody in his camp," said another insider in their camp. Unfortunately his parents and younger sister could not see him in action and even could not make it to the closing ceremony which was attended by over 50 people from Ukraine.

The match between two players of the same nation vying for the world title was previously fought under the FIDE banner in 1990 when the Kasparov v Karpov duels were held in New York and Lyon. Ponomariov overtook Ivanchuk on the Elo ratings in January 2002 and theoretically it was not an upset win. But considering Ivanchuk's huge experience it was indeed one. There is no doubt that Ponomariov will occupy the first board for Ukraine in the Bled 2002 Olympiad.

Ukraine had won the World Team championship in October 2001 at Yerevan and Ponomariov's victory is a far greater achievement than that. It was Ivanchuk's best result in the world championship although he lost the match to his younger team-mate. He received $193,000 and the winner received $400,000 minus FIDE's normal deductions. The entire prize fund of three million dollars was sponsored by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, a share of which the other 98 players received.

Contrary to what the FIDE President Ilyumzhinov announced at Groningen in 1997 during the first knock-out world chess championship, it will no longer be an annual feat. The next event will be held in London in 2003. With the rival group, Braingames, unable to put together their act into matches, tournaments or championships, this once-in-two-years event will not be seriously questioned by the chess elite.

"Vishy deserved two years (as champion), of course he won it twice and can't do it every time, such is the nature of the knock-out," said Topalov, trainer of Ponomariov. Those in the elite level see Anand as the winner of the first knock-out in 1997 since Anatoly Karpov joined the cycle using a privilege and jumped into the finals. That he won the 2000 edition at Delhi-Teheran is well known. In two years, Ponomariov will be the target of the top players in the world, particularly Kasparov, Kramnik and Anand who have not played him.

How did Ivanchuk take the defeat? Very sportive at the end but his complaints and behaviour at the start of game six were something typical of this eccentric 32-year-old player. He was reluctant to comply with the security check and wanted it to be done at the table in front of the 270-seat audience rather than at the backstage in secrecy. "Why? I am not Osama bin Laden carrying a gun," Ivanchuk told the press and appealed to stop this mandatory check prior to each game. After turning down chief arbiter Yuri Averbakh's request before game six he waived the security to conduct the check at the table.

In their joint-winners' press conference at Linares 2000, both Vladimir Kramnik and Garry Kasparov vouched for this check saying that the suggestion of a move coming from an electronic device (like vibrating pager) will have a lasting effect on the result. However, they denounced the drug test saying that will put the players at a risk depending on what medicine they are prescribed before a test.

FIDE introduced the security check and the expensive anti-doping tests for the first time trying to fall in line with IOC regulations. No player tested positive in the first leg at Kremlin in Moscow from November 24 to December 14 and also in the finals. This was new for the players and a sign of victory for the FIDE President for having implemented it despite the scare that preceded it.