So near, yet so far

ARVIND AARON

LOOKING for a hat-trick of titles and a record fifth one at the prestigious Corus chess tournament, Viswanathan Anand fell short by a narrow margin and took the second spot behind Hungarian Peter Leko.

LOOKING for a hat-trick of titles and a record fifth one at the prestigious Corus chess tournament, Viswanathan Anand fell short by a narrow margin and took the second spot behind Hungarian Peter Leko.

In what was the strongest field in the 67-year history of the event in Wijk aan Zee, near Amsterdam, Anand was on the threshold of ending up as joint champion with Leko but a last-round draw against Ivan Sokolov foiled his chances. Leko, the only player to beat Anand in the meet, completed a successful campaign, half a point more than the Indian, at 8.5 points.

The event presented eight players from the world's top-10 list. Though the World No. 1 Garry Kasparov gave the tournament a miss to prepare for the now-cancelled World title match against Rustam Kazimdzanov in April, the line-up had other top stars, including Hungary's Judit Polgar. The world's strongest woman player, now a mother, made a comeback to competitive chess after more than a year.

Eventually, in what was a rare occurrence, the first four finishers were non-Russians. Leko and Anand were followed by the new World No. 1, Bulgaria's Veselin Topalov. Judit came fourth after topping the pack of those finishing with seven points.

Much interest centred around Anand's performance. He began with a draw against Alexander Grischuk but suffered a rare loss with white against Leko after committing a blunder in the second round. Thereafter, draws with Nigel Short and Peter Svidler did not help his cause much. After the first rest day, Anand came out firing on all cylinders. He brushed aside Alexander Morozevich, Ruslan Ponomariov and debutant Cuban Lazaro Bruzon for a hat-trick of victories and joined the leaders. He was engaged in draws with Vladimir Kramnik, early leader Topalov, a struggling local Loek van Wely and Judit but resurrected his chances of catching up with Leko after scoring over a previously-unbeaten Michael Adams in the 12th round. However, last-man Sokolov with white pieces proved a hard nut to crack.

While Anand pointed to missed chances in the matches against Svilder, Leko and Wely, the eventual champion came up with following remarks: "I was actually quite lucky with the drawing of lots. This may sound weird with seven blacks, but at least I was 200% concentrated and you have to get the maximum out of all your whites. I am very happy with this victory because it was the only grand slam I was missing. I have already won Dortmund and Linares and also I feel I played very well. I mean there is only one way to win here in Wijk aan Zee, you have to beat Vishy. He will win four or five games, so you have to win against him if you want to win here.

"Already in the last few years I feel I belong to the top group of players in classical chess. Of course Vishy wins a lot of tournaments, but some of these are rapid chess, but in classical chess I don't think he is better. I have had good results for quite some time except for Dortmund last year, but there I was preparing for the match and I could only see Kramnik opposite to me, I had no creativity. I am happy to play again. I play against strong opposition but they don't have this monster preparation, so there is room for some creativity, let's just play chess. This tournament is very special. It's the start of the New Year and Linares is after this. Everybody wants to start the New Year well and have been preparing for this."

In the final round, Leko who was leading by half a point, ensured himself of at least a joint-champion finish following an early draw with compatriot Judit and left the stage for Anand to avail of a win-and-tie situation. Anand did manage to gain a pawn but his poorly placed bishop prevented him from exploiting the situation. Thus, Leko took the honours unshared.

Topalov had emerged as the early favourite after winning the first two rounds over Ponomariov and Kramnik. In fact, his 20-move destruction of Kramnik was the worst defeat suffered by the Classical world champion. However, Topalov crashed to a surprise loss against a consistent Adams in the fourth round before recovering through victories over Short and Bruzon in the sixth and eighth rounds respectively. But the last five rounds saw him draw four and lose the 10th round to Judit.

For the better part of the competition, Adams' steady approach kept him in the hunt. After beating Topalov in the fourth round, Adams had three points but he drew the next seven rounds, lost the crucial 12th round to Anand and settled for another draw against Grischuk in the final round to slip to the sixth spot.

But the biggest surprise was Morozevich's disastrous form in the first half of the event. After starting with a draw against Leok van Wely, Morozevich lost in succession to Adams, Grischuk, Short, Anand and Bruzon. But all credit to the Russian for hitting back by beating Judit and Sokolov in the eighth and ninth rounds. In the last four rounds, he drew three and lost the 12th to Ponomariov to finish 13th, ahead of Sokolov.

Bruzon gained the respect of the chess elite following his 10th place finish. The lowest ranked debutant, who earned his place in the field by virtue of winning the Corus `B' last year, beat Short and Morozevich in succession midway through the competition before running into Anand and Kramnik who proved too strong. Bruzon again tasted victory by stopping Sokolov but in the next round, Leko scored an important win over him. Bruzon was happy to finish the campaign with two successive draws.

Overall, it was far more exciting than most of the major events seen in the past couple of years.

Meanwhile, Sergey Karjakin won the concurrently played Corus `B' event to earn the right to be among the elite in 2006.

In Corus `C', the Indian interest was due to the presence of Parimarjan Negi. This youngster has been making waves in the last couple of years and has been steadily raising his rating.

The youngest Indian to hold an International Master norm, however, failed to add another one.

Negi won four, lost six and drew the remaining three rounds to finish with 5.5 points to occupy the eighth spot. Negi's positive play received words of encouragement from Anand, who said that the youngster had surely gained a lot from his maiden appearance in a prestigious event. What more, Negi earned 16 rating points from this tough round-robin event.