‘Eight favourites’

This event was the last World Championship to be held in a round-robin format. Next year, Kramnik will exercise his one-time right to challenge Anand for the 2008 World title. With it, chess will go back to its old-fashioned, yet most sought after, way of finding the champion of the world.

Eight well-prepared men, half of them Russians, had come to Mexico City to battle it out for the World Championship. Before the first move could be made, Viswanathan Anand had described the field as one comprising “eight favourites”. This amply reflected what the great champion thought of the tag of ‘favourite’ that he carried by virtue of being the top-ranked player in the world.

Indeed, the presence of defending champion Vladimir Kramnik, the fast improving Levon Aronian, the ever-so-solid Hungarian Peter Leko and the unpredictable Alexander Morozevich had given the field a good mix. Add to this the flavour provided by Boris Gelfand and Alexander Grischuk, the oldest and the youngest in the fray, besides the friendly cricket fan, Peter Svidler. The fare was truly tantalising.

For Anand, at 37, this was one big opportunity to regain the title he had won in 2000. Though the victory in Teheran, at the expense of Alexei Shirov, gave Anand the world title he had been dreaming of winning, the chess world did not consider him as the rightful claimant. This was because Vladimir Kramnik had, a few days earlier, won the 16-game match against the mighty Garry Kasparov in their “World Championship” clash.

Anand, in spite of being called the World champion by FIDE, the game’s governing body, could not lay claims to being the strongest player in the world. So the world had two champions in 2000 — Anand and Kramnik.

But this time around, the scenario was different. Kramnik was the “undisputed” champion after his victory over the 2005 winner Veselin Topalov last year. Topalov was not part of the field in Mexico. Anand, the world number one, was considered the favourite based on rankings, but the chances of Kramnik, and to a lesser extent Leko and Aronian, could not be discounted.

Once the action began, Anand never trailed. The victories over Aronian, Svidler, Grischuk and Morozevich, too, came at the right intervals and made sure that he was comfortably ahead in the competition. Interestingly, it was the surprise defeats of nearest challenger Gelfand and third-placed Kramnik in the ninth round that helped Anand increase his lead to 1.5 points. As things turned out, Anand remained the only unbeaten player and never let anyone come within a point of his winning tally.

Gelfand, meanwhile, was defying all expectations and playing the tournament of his life. The oldest participant, at 39, showed tremendous tenacity to keep alive his challenge by beating Morozevich and twice emerging victorious over Aronian.

“It was almost like a tournament of the experienced,” said Anand referring to the performances of Gelfand and Kramnik along with his own.

“Well, I don’t consider myself as old, at 37, but funnily, the standings almost followed the age of the participants. Gelfand and I swapped places. As did, Leko and Svidler,” observed Anand.

About his four victories, Anand felt that they were all special in their own way. “In each of the games that I won, I had to play precisely to come out stronger. All the games were tough and there was only one mistake to be exploited. So it was nice.”

About the game against Morozevich, in which he allowed his rival to bring back his queen only to leave him hopelessly placed with a brilliant rook-move, Anand said, “I had seen the rook-move and it was a nice way to win.”

In fact, Anand should thank Morozevich for beating Kramnik and almost effectively putting him out of contention.

Just when Anand’s title-triumph looked a formality, he almost fumbled against Grischuk in the penultimate round. He had to be at his defensive best to escape from what looked like a certain defeat.

“A loss on the penultimate day would have ruined all the plans. I was lucky to salvage that half point, which was important. Even in 2000, in New Delhi, I had just one scare against Alexander Khalifman and was virtually eliminated. In Mexico, it was against Grischuk. It was nice to survive and finish it off without taking any risk against Leko,” said a much-relieved Anand after the final round. Kramnik struck form late in the competition by winning against Leko and Aronian in the 12th and 14th rounds.

This event was the last World Championship to be held in a round-robin format and was played over 14 rounds.

Next year, Kramnik will exercise his one-time right to challenge Anand for the 2008 World title. With it, chess will go back to its old-fashioned, yet most sought after, way of finding the champion of the world.

A Special Correspondent