Cut and thrust of the highest order

FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov presents World chess champion Viswanathan Anand with a laurel wreath at the award presentation ceremony of the FIDE World Chess Championship in Moscow.-AP

While genius no doubt helped, it is certainly true to say that perseverance and speed, two qualities that have never abandoned Viswanathan Anand throughout his long career, were decisive in overcoming Boris Gelfand's challenge, writes Ian Rogers.

Viswanathan Anand — World Chess Champion. These words have been seen together for so long that it might have seemed inevitable that the 42-year-old from Chennai would prove victorious in his title defence in Moscow against unfancied Israeli Boris Gelfand.

Instead, by the narrowest of margins, Anand survived to reign as World Champion for another two years in his toughest ever match, which finally was decided by rapid tiebreakers.

Anand had already beaten two titans of the sport, Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov, in world title matches in 2008 and 2010 respectively, so few expected Boris Gelfand — 43 years old, ranked barely inside the top 20 and supposedly in the twilight of his career — to pose much of a problem for the four-time World Champion.

Yet, Gelfand, who had won 10 elimination matches — World Cup and Candidates contests — to get to the challenger's position proved a harder nut to crack than either Kramnik or Topalov. “Gelfand had played with enormous mental strength during the whole World Championship cycle so I knew he would be a very complicated opponent,” Anand confessed.

Using his long experience in World Championship qualifying matches going back to the 1990s, Gelfand took no chances with his preparation.

The Israeli challenger assembled a large team of helpers, which included world number two Levon Aronian, the player who has given Anand the most trouble in recent years. Over months of intensive training, Gelfand threw out all of his traditional methods of opening the game when playing with the black pieces and prepared a completely new opening repertoire, one which rendered much of Anand's pre-match opening preparation useless. Gelfand even moved his training camp to the Austrian Alps, hoping that altitude training would improve his concentration and stamina.

The result was that the Gelfand who turned up at Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery on May 11 for the first game of the world title match was a different man from the one who had finished near the tail of the field at the Tata Grandmaster tournament in Wijk aan Zee, the Netherlands, in January.

The first six games, all draws, already showed Anand that Gelfand was to be no pushover. In those six games Anand was given just a single chance by Gelfand, one which Anand failed to grab in a contest of attack-and counter-attack. In all other games, Gelfand was rock-solid though he also failed to seriously trouble Anand.

As the sixth game was being played Garry Kasparov, the world's best player for two decades and Anand's nemesis for many years, claimed that “Gelfand's chances are improving with each draw; both can stumble but the chances of Vishy stumbling are higher.”

Kasparov's words proved prescient as Gelfand comprehensively outplayed Anand to win the seventh game. This was Gelfand's first classical win against Anand for almost two decades — overcoming the psychological factor which Kasparov had said was the biggest obstacle to Gelfand winning the match.

“Unfortunately he hit on an area where we had been a bit careless,” admitted Anand. “In a match where there were so few chances for me it was a really incredibly heavy blow to lose game seven. I can't remember suffering so much; I couldn't sleep. I really thought I'd blown the match.”

Then, on the day when Gelfand's success was plastered on the front page of almost all Israel's newspapers and the pundits were counting down Anand's days as World Champion, the Indian struck back by winning the shortest game in World Championship history.

Gelfand lost in only 17 moves and 110 minutes after falling into an Anand trap in a double-edged position.

The match had come alive, and most expected Anand to cruise to victory after such a huge psychological blow for Gelfand. However if there was a question mark over Gelfand's mental resilience, it was removed after the ninth game, which Anand barely survived after being forced to give up his queen early in the game. “Before the match I had decided to play without paying attention to the score, until game 10 at least,” said Gelfand.

Two more draws took the score to 5.5-5.5 with one more game in regulation time to play.

In the twelfth and final game, Anand threw everything at Gelfand, with an opening pawn sacrifice described by Gelfand as brilliant. Yet the Israeli's reaction was equally sensational. After thinking for almost 40 minutes on a single move, Gelfand found a counter-sacrifice which was later described as the greatest single move of the match. “I was fully concentrated and my head was working well,” said Gelfand. “I realised that I had to play this move to change the course of the game.”

Anand has won and Boris Gelfand acknowledges it.-AP

The action-packed twelfth game ended in a draw, meaning that rapid tiebreakers were now required to decide the world title.

On May 30 the playing hall was filled, with the overflow watching on giant screens inside and outside the historic Tretyakov Art Gallery. The press room also could barely hold the extra numbers, with hundreds of reporters from around the world hanging on every move.

Anand and Gelfand were required to play four games at a time limit of 25 minutes plus 10 seconds per move per player, less than a quarter of the thinking time they had previously enjoyed.

Despite plenty of chances, Gelfand was unable to break through Anand's defences in any of the four games and, showing both speed and coolness under pressure, Anand triumphed 2.5-1.5 to retain the world title and take the winner's purse of $1.4m. Gelfand received $1.15m as compensation for the shattering of his life long dream.

“I am just relieved and just happy to still be World Champion,” said Anand. “This match has been so tense. It has only been three weeks here in Moscow but I feel as if I have spent months here. I am really looking forward to getting back to the family [in Chennai].”

After the match, neither player put on the show that is expected of sportspeople after such a titanic contest. Offering no false praise for their opponent, both were brutally frank about their performance and that of their rival. Anand admitted that “the match could have gone either way” and that “I won because I won — that's all I can say.” Gelfand talked about the myth that there is no luck in chess, adding “I played against a great Master who was absolutely capable of handling some of the new things thrown at him by my team.”

Neither player suggested that Anand had played better chess throughout the match, Gelfand explaining, “I didn't let Vishy play the way he would like. If you let him get certain positions, he is unbeatable.”

But when the chips were down, the Indian World Champion came through — he had won ugly, as the Americans say, but he had won nonetheless. “This is sport,” said Gelfand. “Somebody has to win.”

So how did Anand win?

One Russian commentator summarised the match by saying, “Boris is a great player, but Vishy, of course, is a genius.”

While genius no doubt helped, it is certainly true to say that perseverance and speed, two qualities that have never abandoned Anand throughout his long career, were decisive in overcoming Gelfand's challenge.

At the critical moments in the decisive tie-breaking games, Anand refused to buckle when the game was trending in his opponent's favour and also played faster at critical moments, inducing mistakes from a time-pressed opponent.

“It wasn't pre-planned. I just started playing fast, like the old days,” said Anand. The sparkle which Kasparov had noted was missing from Anand's eyes in recent times seemed to be back and when asked about possible retirement Anand hit back with “Why now?”

The 24 hours after his world title win was a whirlwind for Anand; a congratulatory message from the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an award ceremony including two trophies and a traditional World Champion's wreath, multiple interviews, plus of course a chance to tell his son Akhil that India's World Champion, after fighting and winning the contest of his life, would be home soon.

SOME INSIGHTS

AP

Team Anand

For the third world title match in a row, Anand stuck with the team of Grandmaster helpers he knew and trusted — long-time second Peter Heine Nielsen of Denmark, Uzbek Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Pole Radoslav Wojtaszek, and fellow-Indian Surya Shekhar Ganguly.

As usual, team Anand worked together in Germany at multiple training camps over many months.

During the match, the seconds would analyse through the night looking for weaknesses in Gelfand's set-ups, often only sleeping while the games were in progress.

“Boris' preparation was excellent,” said Kasimdzhanov, “but I thought we started to get on top at the end of the match, especially in game two of the playoffs.”

After the tense finish to the match, Ganguly predicted that it would take him a month to recover and be ready to compete himself, while an exhausted Kasimzdhanov wondered if he, at 32, was already too old for World Championship seconding.

Anand's Next Challenge

The field of players who could become Anand's next challenger has already been whittled down to eight.

These eight elite Grandmasters will compete in London next March, with the winner going on to challenge Anand in late 2013 or early 2014.

Two players stand out as favourites — 21-year-old Magnus Carlsen of Norway, the world's top ranked player and a multiple winner of Grand Slam tournaments over the past three years, and Armenia's Levon Aronian, who has beaten Anand more often in recent years than any other player.

The One-Percenters

In such a close contest, there are plenty of tiny decisions which in retrospect might have made one percent difference to the performance and therefore changed the outcome.

For Gelfand, his decision to be his own manager and negotiate the pre-match conditions directly with Anand's manager and wife Aruna and the world body FIDE, might have taken up energy better used working on the Sicilian Defence.

During the match, Gelfand was also following the coverage of the match, and letting some of the less flattering comments — inevitable in the internet age — upset him. Anand knew from recent experience to wait until after the match before reading stories about the match; this was a tactic he had learned as a self-preservation technique during the bitter 2010 contest against Topalov.

Friends and Rivals

Anand and Gelfand first met over the board in 1989 in Moscow, when Anand had just become India's first Grandmaster and was regarded as the fastest player in the world while Gelfand was a 20-year-old from Minsk and one of the Soviet Union's rising stars.

Since then Anand moved to Spain and back to India, while Gelfand found himself representing Belarus rather than the USSR in 1991 and later relocated to Israel via a brief stop in Belgium. The two players' paths have crossed at elite tournaments many times; Gelfand winning the majority of their early games, Anand dominating from the mid 1990s.

Now both Anand and Gelfand are over 40 and have started families, even sending gifts to each other to celebrate the birth of each other's child in 2011.

Anand admitted that if he had to lose his world title, he wouldn't mind losing it to a long-time friend and gentleman like Gelfand — but clearly he was not ready to pass on the chess crown just yet.

Moscow

When billionaire Andrei Filatow's last-minute $2.55m bid took the world title match to Moscow instead of Chennai, some believed that the venue would favour Russian speaker Gelfand — though not on the scale of Anand entering the lion's den for his 2010 match against Topalov in Sofia.

However Moscow — at one time the world centre of chess — had not held a World Championship match since 1985 and they sought to ensure that the match was not only brilliantly organised but scrupulously fair.

The venue, the home of Russian art, the Tretyakov Gallery, was ideal, the accommodation for Anand and his team was luxurious and close to both the venue and Red Square, and Moscow's May weather was near-perfect. Moscow also set new standards for internet transmission, with games streamed live around the world to an audience of many hundreds of thousands.