His attitude sets him apart

RAKESH RAO

"VISHY, you are in charge now!" These words from Garry Kasparov came after the Russian announced his retirement in Linares on March 10, 2005.

At that time, Kasparov was justified in naming Viswanathan Anand as his successor. This was in spite of Veselin Topalov beating Kasparov earlier that day and tying for the Linares chess title.

But seven months later, Topalov proved Kasparov wrong.

In the World Championship at San Luis, Argentina, Anand may have confirmed his class by playing above himself but it was Topalov all the way. He gave the performance of his life to not only become the World champion but also stake his claim to be the world's top ranked player, ahead of an `inactive' Kasparov, in the 2006 January rating list.

Topalov could not have asked for a better finish in this landmark year of his career. In March, he matched Kasparov's tally at Linares but had to take the second spot since the tournament's tie-break rules (more wins with black pieces) favoured Kasparov. Unfazed, Topalov went on to proclaim that he was the "moral winner" of the prestigious event.

A few days later, Topalov was second, along with three others, behind Anand in the blindfold section of the Amber chess tournament at Monte Carlo. In May, as home favourite, Topalov won the Mtel Masters in Sofia and in July, came second in the Dortmund chess tournament. Eventually, at San Luis, Topalov took the honours in great style. A leap in rating from 2757 at the beginning of the year to approximately 2809 in January next year is simply phenomenal.

Interestingly, Kasparov summed up Topalov's calibre with these words. "His energy levels and fighting spirit have always been his greatest assets. In Sofia, Topalov combined these characteristics with a preparation that fits his sacrificial style. It's about attitude, not just openings."

Indeed, Topalov's attitude is what sets him apart. "My attitude is that chess is important, but also even if you make a blunder and lose a game, it's not tragedy. Real tragedies are not in chess. I don't agree with people who say there's so much tension when you play chess. Real tension and real tragedies are something else. Earthquakes and people dying... but with chess, come on. If you're talking about tension, I'd rather think about a Formula One driver who has to take enormous amounts of important decisions while it's 40 degrees in his cabin. Or a football player, whose every move is watched by a hundred thousand spectators," said the Bulgarian in an interview to Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam of New In Chess this year.

"And I am not really afraid to lose. I play well now, but in every tournament, I lose at least one game. In Wijk aan Zee (in January) I even lost two, and one in Linares and one (to Anand) in Sofia. This makes the difference between others and me. In my opinion they take defeats worse than I do."

Armed with such an attitude, Topalov has come a long way. A closer look at the champion's career reveals a steady progress.

Born on March 15, 1975 at Rousse, Bulgaria, Topalov learnt the game from his father when he was eight. In 1989, he won the World under-14 title in Auguadilja, Puerto Rico, and in the following year, finished runner-up in the World under-16 in Singapore. Two years later, Topalov became a Grandmaster (GM).

He created a flutter soon after he joined the Bulgarian National team in 1994. As a 19-year-old, Topolov stunned Kasparov on way to leading the team to the fourth spot in the Moscow Olympiad.

In 1996, Topalov's best year before the present one, he did exceptionally well, particularly in Spain. His tournament victories came in Madrid, Dos Hermanas, Amsterdam, Vienna and Novgorod. The following year, he won in Antwerp and stayed firmly on way to joining the elite.

Like Anand, Topalov shifted base to Spain and moved to Salamanca, a university town, about 150-minute bus drive from Madrid. He continued to work with Silvio Danailov, his friend and coach since 1990.

Danailov first noticed Topalov, as a junior with a rating of 2450, in Vrnjacka Banja where he made an impression after beating two Yugoslav GMs on way to his first GM-norm. Thereafter, the duo decided to go to Spain to play tournaments. Though lacking in coaching skills, Danailov was a big fan of Bobby Fischer and read everything he could get on the genius. It was not long before they decided to copy Fischer.

In keeping with Fischer's approach, Topalov began fighting till the end in every game, stayed at the board all the time, refused all draws, played sharp openings with both colours and more importantly, played for a win with black. The results were stunning and in a matter of just 1-1/2 years, Topalov reached a rating of 2670 and to the eighth spot in world rankings.

One quality that kept Topalov going was his ability to remain realistic and not get euphoric.

After a lull, in 2001, Danailov's decision to engage Spanish sports psychologist Amador Cernuda helped Topalov get back to winning ways. The results were for everyone to see as Topalov won in Monaco and shared the honours with Vladimir Kramnik in Dortmund. For two years, Topalov travelled to Madrid every week, depending on his schedule, for two-hour sessions with Cernuda. The breathing techniques taught by Cernuda saw Topalov handle the time-pressure better.

Another factor that influenced Topalov's progress was his acceptance of an offer to work with Ruslan Ponomariov. The offer came soon after Topalov lost to Alexei Shirov in the 2001 World Championship in Moscow. Ponomariov was preparing to play Vassily Ivanchuk in the final and his team of seconds needed Topalov's assistance since he had a better head-to-head score against the Ukrainian genius. Ponomariov went on to win and become the world champion. Topalov continued to work with Ponomariov in anticipation of the latter's challenge match against Kasparov. However, the match remained a non-starter.

The opportunity to work as part of Ponomariov's team helped Topalov a lot. Armed with these preparations, Topalov reached the final of the Dortmund Candidates qualifiers in 2002 but lost to Peter Leko, who earned the right to challenge Vladimir Kramnik as part of the Prague Unity Plan.

After a none-too-exciting 2003, Topalov came up with a brilliant performance in the 2004 World Championship in Tripoli where he scored 9.5 points from 10 games before running into eventual champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov. The two drew all four classical battles before the Uzbek prevailed in the rapid tie-break games of the semifinals.

Since then, Topalov has been playing nearly at his best and the world crown comes as a just reward for his immaculate display at San Luis.

With such a series of superb results in 2005, Topalov has made it to the top of the chess world in style. Looking set to break the 2800-point rating barrier, Topalov has also ensured the Chess Oscar for the year. Having done all the hard work, Topalov has decided to rest and miss the World Cup in November-December.

Having scaled a new high, Topalov is sure to be a marked man when the next season begins with the Corus tournament at Wijk aan Zee in January 2006.

For now, it is time for Topalov to enjoy his moment.