Overcoming all challenges

The World title, Viswanathan Anand's fourth in a decade, underscored his presence among the greats of the game, writes Rakesh Rao.

The prospect of two of the finest exponents of the classical form of chess, possessing contrasting styles, facing-off for the world title was thrilling enough. Eventually, the 12-game match provided enough excitement and lived up to the promise. Challenger and home favourite Veselin Topalov's blunder that proved costly in the final game was indeed a bit anticlimactic but not many complained. Viswanathan Anand, the better player, won and poetic justice was done.

If Anand is known for his universal style, playing all kinds of positions with elan and ease, Topalov has the reputation of being ruthlessly destructive in positions that encourage tactical onslaught. Anand, who has every weapon in his armoury, had to find the right strategy to blunt Topalov's sharp edges. On the other hand, Topalov made no secret of his desires to tire out Anand in this match. “My biggest plus is that I'm minus five,” was how Topalov described the advantage of being five years younger to Anand.

As it turned out, Anand was the last man standing.

It is to the credit of Anand that he overcame all the challenges — right from the announcement of the match in Sofia, to arrival at the Bulgarian Capital and the loss in the opening game — to come out stronger.

Unlike the 2008 match between Anand and the Russian challenger Vladimir Kramnik, there was no neutral host. Eventually, Sofia came forward to host the match for its hero. The Organising Committee headed by the Bulgarian Prime Minister made a commitment to the World Chess Federation (FIDE) and put up a prize-fund of two million euros with 1.2 million being the winner's share. Anand had no choice but to travel to Topalov's backyard to defend the title.

Once Anand started for Sofia, a week before the match, he was stranded at the Frankfurt airport due to the cancellation of flights owing to the volcanic ash that descended on Europe. Eventually, with great difficulty, Anand and his entourage reached Sofia by road after travelling for 40 hours.

The organisers initially rejected Anand's request to delay the start by three days but later agreed to defer the event by a day following FIDE's intervention. As it turned out, Anand suffered a blow in the opening game and suddenly, Topalov was looking to compound the Indian's problems.

Anand, unwisely criticised by many in the western world for lacking the ability to fight back, bounced back by winning the second, with white pieces. A forceful victory in the fourth put Anand ahead. Topalov managed to draw level due to a late error from Anand in the eighth game. Anand missed a possible win in the ninth but saved the 10th and 11th games. Then came the big battle in the 12th game where an ambitious Topalov pressed his luck too hard and Anand punished him mercilessly to defend the title.

The title, Anand's fourth in a decade, underscored his presence among the greats of the game. He has not only won the title in three formats — 128-player knockout in 2000, eight-player league in 2007, a 12-game match against Kramnik in 2008 — but also defended the title gallantly after losing the opener. The match brought out Anand's grit, hunger and tremendous focus in the face of some very stiff challenge.

Topalov was not disgraced following the loss. In fact, he gained new admirers for exhibiting the rare quality of making things happen on the board, instead of waiting for them to happen. On many occasions, his counter-attack proved the strongest form of defence. It was clear that he was not afraid to lose and played very positively, in keeping with his reputation.

Anand, known to be more solid in his approach than his rival, defended astutely, particularly in the second half. In the final game, Anand avoided a draw by repetition of moves before Topalov collapsed. The game showed Anand's positive intent that he wanted to seal the match in the classical time format, rather than take his rival into the four rapid tiebreak games and then prove superior. Psychologically, Anand had pushed Topalov into a desperate situation on the eve of the final game. Topalov, playing the final game with white pieces, was tempted to take the risks in order to avoid the rapid games. As Topalov later revealed, “I had to take a chance to avoid tie-break games. I did not want it. The games of speed chess are not my speciality.” He could not be blamed since he has just one victory in around a dozen decisive battles against Anand in rapid games.

The triumph over Topalov also helped Anand touch the magic rating of 2800 again and become second to Norway's teenager Magnus Carlsen in the world-ranking list. In fact, two years from now, when Anand will defend the World title, Carlsen is being seen as the champion's next challenger.