He handled pressure better than the others

Published : Aug 21, 2004 00:00 IST

"I can come to your room then," he said over the telephone. There was a gentle knock on the door a couple of minutes later. And in came Rustam Kasimdzhanov.


"I can come to your room then," he said over the telephone. There was a gentle knock on the door a couple of minutes later. And in came Rustam Kasimdzhanov.

It was late in the night, and he had a flight to catch the next morning. But the soft-spoken chess player from Uzbekistan was in a mood to talk that summer night a year ago at Tulip Star, a five-star hotel in Mumbai.

That night little did one think that the 24-year-old, who was speaking at length about Russian fiction and Pushkin's poetry, would be the next World champion. He wouldn't have imagined that himself either. Nor did many others, when the FIDE World knock-out championship got underway in Colonel Gaddafi's Libya.

Not the favourite

Kasimdzhanov wasn't, by any stretch of imagination, among the favourites to take the crown. Veselin Topalov, Michael Adams, Alexander Grischuk and Vasily Ivanchuk, the top four seeds, were the favourites. Kasimdzhanov beat all of them and there surely couldn't have been a better way to win a tournament.

This was the most unexpected result in the history of the World chess championship since Alexander Khalifman's triumph in 1999. Kasimdzhanov, seeded 28th, opened his campaign in unconvincing fashion against little-known Costa Rican teenager Alejandro Ramirez. He needed the tie-breakers to get past his younger opponent, after drawing both the games in the normal time control. Of his seven matches, five actually went to the tie-breakers. It was only in the second round, against Ehsan Ghaem Maghami of Iran, and in the fourth, against Zoltan Almasi of Hungary, that he won without playing the rapid games.

To win five matches in tie-breakers in one knock-out tournament, that too when you are playing for the World title, you require nerves of steel — like Kasimdzhanov.

"More than anything else it's his nerves that helped Kasimdzhanov win the title," said veteran Indian Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay, who has twice drawn with him. "He handled pressure much better than any of his opponents in Libya."

His opponent in the final, second seed Michael Adams of England, conceded defeat when he failed to win the second rapid game. Kasimdzhanov had required a draw after winning the previous game. The scores were level after six games in the classical format. The general feeling was that Kasimdzhanov would be the favourite if the final went to the tie-breakers.

In the semifinal, too, he was stretched to the tie-breakers, or to be more precise, he stretched Bulgarian Topalov, who, till then, was having a great time. The top-seed had scored 9.5 points out of 10 and it really looked like Bulgaria was heading for a rare double in chess this year: his compatriot Antoaneta Stefanova had already won the women's World championship in June in Elista.

Stefanova's biggest achievement before that triumph was a runner-up finish in the World Cup in Hyderabad in 2002. Interestingly, during the 2002 World Cup, Kasimdzhanov had lost in the final to defending men's champion Viswanathan Anand, while Stefanova lost to the reigning women's champion Xu Yuhua of China.

Come a long way

Kasmidzhanov has come a long way since that World Cup, where he was crushed by the Chennai magician. "nand gave him no chance in the World Cup, but Kasimdzhanov is a much improved player now," recalls Pendyala Harikrishna, who also played at Hyderabad.

Kasmidzhanov's world ranking is 54 at the moment but that should certainly improve when FIDE releases the next list in October. He is obviously a much stronger player than what his current rating of 2640 Elo points would indicate.

Tactical strength

His other strength is his tactics. "He is tactically very strong," says Thipsay, "and that's one of the reasons why he has an edge in the games of shorter duration."

You can't win a World title with tactics alone, of course. "He's a versatile player," says Dibyendu Barua, who finished runner-up to him in the Asian championship in Teheran in 1998. "But, yes, he's more tactical than positional. I had drawn my game with him in Teheran; I think it was in the penultimate round, but I didn't think at the time that I was playing a potential World champion."

The international chess community at large is of course reluctant to regard Kasimdzhanov as the ultimate World champion, just as it was when Khalifman took the crown five years ago. It's a fact that of the world's top 10 players, only two turned up in Tripoli. And there was none among the top five. But that's hardly Kasimdzhanov's fault. The top players stayed away by their own choice. And players such as Anand had logical reasons too (he was unhappy with FIDE's decision to give undue privileges to Garry Kasparov).

Kasimdzhanov himself would be the last person to claim that he is the best player in the world. But history would still say that he is the 18th World chess champion.

"And he's a most deserving champion too," says Harikrishna. After all, he did touch the 2700 rating once (a benchmark that separates the men from the boys). That was in 2001 October, when he was the World No. 11, with 2706 points.

Two best results

His two best results, apart from the World championship and the World Cup, have been his victories at Essen in 2001 (Category 15) and Pamplona in 2002 (Category 16). In 1999, he was the runner-up at the World junior championship in Yeravan, Armenia.

"Every single player who keeps on playing and fighting will have his success," he said in an interview shortly after his victory in Libya. "Everybody who tries will have his Linares or his Tripoli. You must learn to overcome the doubts you have in your mind."

He overcame his own doubts in stunning fashion in Tripoli. Yes, it's likely that he had some doubts about his own skills. They did surface fleetingly during that interview in Mumbai. That night he had even talked of having thoughts about looking beyond chess. Evidently, he wasn't happy with what he had achieved. Of course, he was feeling a little low then; he had a disappointing time in Mumbai, after drawing too many games. And this came straight after a disastrous Asian team championship in Jodhpur ("That was my worst performance ever," he had said).


During that interview, and during some other chats one had with him in Mumbai, he appeared to be a cultured, well-read and imaginative young man. Another striking aspect was his command over English; he used the language so well, much better than most chess players from the erstwhile Soviet Union. "I do like the language, yes," he said.

Reading is his hobby. He seemed happy to talk about the classics in Russian literature.

As Thipsay pointed out, Kasimdzhanov, who lives in Germany, is the first Muslim World chess champion. That means now we have World champions from all the major religions. The first World champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, was a Jew, Anand is a Hindu and of course there have been many Christian World champions.

Chess followers in India will have an opportunity to see the new world champion in action soon at the Category 16 Super GM tournament in Pune from September 2.

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