It could well be a three-horse race

RAKESH RAO

Viswanathan Anand-R. RAGU

THE 12-year-old mess in the chess world looks set to get cleared. Come October 16, an undisputed World Chess Champion will be crowned at San Luis, Argentina. Hopefully, this will also put an end to the confusion that reigned at the highest level of this cerebral game since 1993.

From September 28, eight chosen players battle it out in a 14-round event in quest of the World title. Every player faces the other twice, once with each colour. At stake, apart from the title, is $1 million as prize money.

This will also be the second time in chess history that a round-robin format will decide the champion. In 1948, two years after World Champion Alexander Alekhine died ahead of his scheduled title-match against challenger Mikhail Botvinnik, FIDE organised a round-robin event in which five out of the six invited players took part. The participants played each other five times after which Botvinnik won with a score of 14 points from 20 rounds.

Unlike in 1948, when Botvinnik was the overwhelming favourite, it could well be a three-horse race in San Luis. Going entirely by form, calibre and worthiness, one among Viswanathan Anand, Veselin Topalov and Peter Leko is being seen as the next champion. The one with an outside chance is Peter Svidler. Judit Polgar, Michael Adams, Alexander Morozevich and defending champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov are likely to end up among the also-rans.

Again, unlike any of the previous world-title deciding formats, this double round-robin event also allows the contenders to prepare well in advance with each colour against not just one but all those in the field. Apart from the expertise of the contenders, the competition will also test their endurance. Such long all-play-all events can also be torturous for those who fail to find form in the early stages and continue to get whipped at regular intervals. This format leaves such players with no relief or escape route.

Veselin Topalov-ARVIND AARON

With all players knowing fully well about each other's preferred opening lines, the one who prepares more deeply is likely to hold the edge. The chess world would also expect a fair number of `novelties' or new ideas from these players during the opening phase of the games. The one who succeeds in pulling off more surprise moves, is sure to gain advantage that can eventually prove decisive.

Purists argue that the shortened four-hour format has taken its toll on the quality of chess played these days. It is true to an extent that today's elite players are committing more mistakes than their predecessors. On the other hand, the players are under pressure to manage their thinking time better. In fact, with a few variables coming into play, it has become difficult to indicate a clear favourite at the beginning of any event.

Most chess fans are likely to back Anand to regain the title he won in 2000. His consistency in winning titles since May 2002 is unmatched. He has excelled against all opposition in all formats and time-controls. If one considers Anand's head-to-head record against those in the fray, he enjoys a better score. But Anand knows that one cannot drive safely ahead when concentrating entirely on what the rear-view mirror reflects. On his chances, Anand says, "I certainly think I have a fair chance. I will give it my 100 per cent and more. But that is what everyone will also be thinking. We hope we can entertain our fans and they'll enjoy from our mistakes, time troubles and our genial moves. I think it will be a very entertaining chess event."

Anand feels that one needs "patience, stability, stamina and of course, great novelties" in order to win. "We play each other quite often in tournament chess. But when it comes to a title I think the stakes rise. This adds its own dynamics and tension. That could also be a vital factor."

The players need no reminding that the competition of this kind will test their patience, nerves and stamina. "I will do some physical exercise routine. Some preparations and lots of rest before the actual event," says Anand before pointing out the role of "lots of luck" in winning the title.

Topalov, who matched Anand's rating of 2788 in the current list released in July, is one player who is "only thinking of winning the title" at San Luis. He is confident only because he has had a great 2005.

Peter Leko-ARVIND AARON

Unlike Anand, Topalov does not think luck is going to be such an important factor. "I think this is the best and the most balanced system. Luck cannot influence the result. This is also the first time that the best eight players of the world are gathered to see who's the best."

Leko has done well in the past year to be counted among those capable of winning at San Luis. The deep preparations for his 14-round match for the World Classical title against Vladimir Kramnik last year helped him in winning the Corus title ahead of Anand. In fact, it was his surprise victory over Anand that proved decisive in the title-race.

"At this time, I need to prove something to myself. I think the not-very-convincing result in Dortmund (in July) is in a way logical but has nothing to do with my real strength. You know, (in the last three years) I have won all classical super tournaments: Dortmund, Linares and Wijk aan Zee. It should be possible to do the same in San Luis though the pressure is much higher than normal. It is just one event but by the end of the day you also need a little bit of luck," says the articulate contender.

The surprise of San Luis could well be Svidler. The Russian, who finds Anand the toughest in the eight-player field, feels that the one who is mentally the toughest should come out on top. "I played in Linares 1999, when it was an eight-player double round-robin. I remember how hard that was. But this will be even harder because of the status," says the four-time Russian champion, who keeps his sense of humour intact by listing his favourites to win at San Luis: "Anand, Leko and Topalov... , in alphabetical order... hee... hee... "

For Judit, Adams, Morozevich and Kasimdzhanov, it will be an uphill task to win ahead of the players figuring in the top half. Though they are all capable of pulling off a couple of surprises, it will be difficult to imagine any of them scripting a sequence of miracles.

Judit and Morozevich are known to go for broke by playing sharp, attacking lines. But against the top players, this kind of play is not known to be very effective. Alexei Shirov is a fine example of a sharp tactical player coming a cropper in a league format of this nature.

Going by their form, Adams and Kasimdzhanov, the finalists of the depleted World Championship last year, do not promise much. Though Adams is vastly experienced, it is unlikely to help him perform beyond a certain level. On the other hand, in the given elitist field, Kasimdzhanov is poised to become the only defending champion in the history of World championship who has everything to gain and only his title to lose.

Head to head Player 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

1. V. Anand — 59-18-11-30 52-13-4-35 25-5-2-18 43-22-7-14 63-21-6-36 18-7-5-6 11-7-1-3

2. V. Topalov 59-11-18-30 — 47-9-14-24 22-7-6-9 24-11-6-7 34-7-11-16 19-8-7-4 10-1-3-6

3. P. Leko 52-4-13-35 47-14-9-24 — 27-2-8-17 14-4-1-9 45-9-10-26 23-6-3-14 6-2-0-4

4. P. Svidler 25-2-5-18 22-6-7-9 27-8-2-17 — 14-1-7-6 36-6-7-23 20-4-6-10 3-1-1-1

5. J. Polgar 43-7-22-14 24-6-11-7 14-1-4-9 14-7-1-6 — 21-6-4-11 5-1-4-0 5-2-3-0

6. M. Adams 63-6-21-36 34-11-7-16 45-10-9-26 36-7-6-23 21-4-6-11 — 17-3-5-9 13-2-3-8

7. A. Morozevich 18-5-7-6 19-7-8-4 23-3-6-14 20-6-4-10 5-4-1-0 17-5-3-9 — 2-1-1-0

8. R. Kasimdzhanov 11-1-7-3 10-3-1-6 6-0-2-4 3-1-1-1 5-3-2-0 13-3-2-8 2-1-1-0 —

Read as Played, Won, Lost and Drawn