Leko is Kramnik's challenger

ARVIND AARON

PETER LEKO, the youngest of eight players, won the Dortmund qualifier and advanced to become the challenger for Vladimir Kramnik's Einstein Group world chess title after he recovered from an indifferent start. The triumph in the Candidates tournament has lifted Leko's spirits. His defensive play never made him a big threat to win the FIDE world championship which followed a knock-out pattern. By qualifying from this tournament, Leko, the 23-year-old (born Sept. 8, 1979) Hungarian is closer to fulfilling his ambition.

Leko's hometown is Szeged in Hungary but his sponsors, WFG, a gas company, and in-laws live in Dortmund. The youngster, who downed Bobby Fischer and Judit Polgar's world record of becoming the youngest Grandmaster in January 1994 at Wijk aan Zee, has moved from rung to rung in the last two years and now has his eyes firmly set on the world title. Leko's German is perfect and he is even giving press conferences in that language. He is the most liked player in Dortmund although most Germans believe Kramnik to be the best player.

The victor and the vanquished. Peter Leko defeated Veselin Topalov (below) 2.5-1.5 to clinch the title.-ARVIND AARON

Leko started with a draw and then a shattering defeat. For someone who loses very few games it must have been hard to take. Yet, he clawed back taking more than his usual quota of risk. His 13 games resulted in a huge six win haul, five draws and two defeats. Posting his all-time rating performance he humbled Alexei Shirov of Spain 2.5-0.5 in the semi-finals and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in the final by 2.5-1.5 to earn to right to challenge Kramnik.

The Dortmund Chess Festival had a different agenda this year. Normally it is one of the three top category tournaments after Wijk aan Zee and Linares. However, this year, the tournament organiser, Carsten Hensel, who is now the manager of Vladimir Kramnik and also of Peter Leko changed the usual top category event into a qualifier for the Einstein Group world chess champion, Kramnik. This eight-player line-up was announced after two of the selected players, Viswanathan Anand and Garry Kasparov, declined to play in the qualifier. Kasparov's reason was that he believed he deserved a direct match against Kramnik. Anand rejected the offer in July 2001 as he was then FIDE World Champion and he was expected to do just that.

Seven of the players were chosen by rating averages and Christopher Lutz of Germany was the lone host entry. Naturally, the group where Lutz was placed was the weakest strengthwise. The format was to have two groups of double round robin and the top two in each group advanced. The semi-finals and final were best of four affairs. The event ran from July 6-21, 2002 and was the longest in Dortmund in many years.

Group 1 had three strong players, Topalov, Shirov and Gelfand. The fourth player, Lutz, was no easy meat but was clearly one level lower in terms of playing strength. The group stages were dominated by Topalov and Shirov with both topping with four points from six games and also remaining undefeated. They drew their individual games and beat the rest 1.5-0.5 for a place in the next stage. Topalov made use of his first two white games to lead 2/2 and drew the rest for a place in the semi-finals. His win against Lutz featured a brilliant knight sacrifice. Shirov came into his own slowly after making four draws to win his last two games for a place in the next stage. In the tie-break, Shirov beat Topalov 1.5-0.5 to emerge as the winner of the group.

Group 2 was much stronger with Michael Adams, the favourite to emerge on top. The second seed in that group, Bareev of Russia, qualified with loads of luck, winning what was easily a lost second game against countryman Morozevich. Adams could not win a single game out of the six he played and was in poor form. Bareev who has had good results ever since he worked as trainer to Kramnik against Kasparov in 2000 is on the up and will gain Elo points after a whopping rating performance from the group matches. Like Adams, Morozevich too did not win a game but was close to winning his last two games. Leko, seen by fans as part of the dangerous group, was only third highest-rated in the group. Minus one till the last two games of the group stages, he came back with a revenge over Bareev and then scored the vital points against Adams for a place in the next stage. Leko's bouncing back brought life to the tournament. This group was category 20 in Elo strength with a rating average of 2728. Kramnik should be relieved that Adams did not qualify.

ARVIND AARON

Once the group phase was over, the favourites had to be recast. Topalov was seen as the favourite for his ability to bounce back when in deficit and fight hard for the initiative in all games. The winner of one group met the runner-up of the other group. In the more interesting of the two semi-finals, Topalov took the lead against Bareev but then went a game down after two successive defeats. Later, he fought back to level the match and force the tie-breaker. Here, he sacrificed a piece and rook to hunt Bareev's king for a picturesque finish to enter the finals by 1.5-0.5. Bareev finally exited but was one of the big gainers in Elo terms at Dortmund.

The other semi-final was expected to be fought well by the risk-taking Shirov and the solid Leko. But Leko was the one to play aggressively and he won both games with the black pieces and drew a white game for a 2.5-0.5 win with a game to spare. Shirov's last place finish in Dortmund 1998 was one of the reasons for sponsors not putting in the money for the title match against Kasparov. A defeat is a serious setback for him for he had beaten Kramnik in May 1998 in a match at Cazorla in Spain and his chances should have been good a second time as well. He was beaten by Viswanathan Anand in the final at Teheran. The tournament began a day after he turned 30 and age should be catching up before he fulfils every chess player's dream of winning the world title.

The final saw Topalov as a tired competitor having won his semi-finals via the tie-break games. Leko on the other hand had rest having knocked out Shirov in three games. All this showed in game one itself with Leko getting a small advantage with an outside passed pawn and converting it into a full point. In the reverse game, Topalov's opening could not match or surprise Leko as the Hungarian was at home in the Sicilian Sveshnikov to win a theoretical game. Having taken a 2-0 lead, Leko was sitting pretty, needing only a draw. Topalov fought back in the third game with the black pieces to win after he looked dangerously close to a 3-0 defeat. Needing a win to bring back life into the match, Topalov could only draw with his extra pawn and Leko became the first Hungarian to play for the world chess title.

Leko had won the 1999 Dortmund tournament ahead of Anand and Kramnik. He came into the chess world as a child prodigy. From a sometimes boring style of play, he had started taking more risks. He made a tremendous comeback after drawing and losing the first two games. His victory here also pleased the organisers in more ways than one. He will play Kramnik next year. The winner of that match will play the Re-Unification match later in 2003. Their opponent will be the winner of the Ruslan Ponomariov versus Garry Kasparov FIDE match.

Leko was accompanied by his Armenian wife Sofia Petrosian. When he was just 12 years old, in Dortmund 1992, he was interviewed and was asked what he wanted to be. "World Champion," was the reply. Whom will you beat to become world champion? His reply was Viswanathan Anand. Garry Kasparov was the world champion of the undivided chess world then and also played in the Dortmund tournament of 1992. The winner of the open tournament that year was Kramnik. Leko has come a long way in the chess world using his talent and hard work. If he achieves his mission, there will be a lot of celebration in Hungary.

The bankers, Sparkassen, were the sponsors of the meet as always. The quality of the games and the high number of decisive games made this meet very eventful.