The king extends his reign

V. V. SUBRAHMANYAM

THE start was sluggish compared to the high standards he had set for himself over the last two decades. The format too was taxing for it had no provision for a rest day. And, he looked like a besieged 'King' midway through the fifth round of the preliminary phase. But, he showed exemplary skills to marshal all his armoury and intelligence in the most decisive manner when it mattered the most.

Viswanathan Anand holds aloft his prized possession.-P. V. SIVAKUMAR

Consequently, there was the usual flourish to the finish as the Indian maestro, Viswanathan Anand, successfully defended his title in the World Cup chess championship held at the Ramoji Film City (October 9 to 21) in Hyderabad.

It was a sedate start to Anand's campaign. He started with an 18-move draw against Xu Jun of China in the first round game and then came the shocking loss to Krishnan Sasikiran in the second round. The Chennai youngster surprised Anand by choosing the rarely-employed London System.

Sasikiran's c4 on the queenside ensured that the game took a complex turn. Soon, he followed it up with a d4 on the 15th move. This should have surprised Anand as it expanded the centre.

Though Anand played e5 on the 18th move to create space for his pieces, his opponent was equal to the task with an amazing move - e6. This really put Anand in a spot as he had a badly placed bishop on g6. Anand then tried to challenge with his d5 to attack Sasikiran's queen. In a clever manoeuvre, the youngster, instead of moving the queen to safety, offered it by capturing a pawn on the 'a' file which left all of his pieces in control. And, to his delight, Anand made a blunder, playing Rd8 on the 33rd move, after which it was all over and the next move Ra1xa4 saw Sasikiran clinch a great win in 53 moves.

It was not what Anand's fans were looking for. Suddenly, the connoisseurs were engaged in some deep thought as to what was in store for Anand. For, he had to win the next three games to have a clear chance of qualifying for the knock-out phase. Much to the delight of his fans, the genius put on show his mastery on the 64-square board with a classic win over Rustam Kasimdzhanov of Uzbekistan in the third round game. In a Sicilian Opening, Anand revelled in his now familiar trait of bouncing back with vengeance to play a solid game. It went on predicted lines till the Indian introduced a novelty - d7, which exposed the chinks in the opponent's armoury.

The Uzbek, rated the second best in Asia, weakened his back rank by playing Rc6. Anand tried to lure his opponent by offering an exchange which the latter avoided and instead attacked Anand's queen on f5 to which the Indian replied with d8. At that point, Anand's queen, bishop and new queen were all under attack. But Anand's genius was to the fore again. Even as Kasimdzhanov captured the new queen, he could not gain any compensation. Once he played f3, the rest was a mere formality.

After this victory, Anand never really looked back. That crucial win over Kasimdzhanov virtually set the trend for the rest of the championship. In the next round, Anand outwitted Al Modiahki in a Sicilian Defence Najdorff Variation. Even this win was exceptional as Anand thrived on the obscure variation of f4 opted by his opponent. Though Modiahki tried to push his pawns on the queenside and play on the 'c' file, his e4 pawn became the prime target for Anand. Soon, the Indian star player stormed the centre with a masterly move, e5. After that he managed to open up the diagonals that saw him excel in the attacking game to clinch the issue.

Just when everyone was expecting the 32-year-old Anand to record his third straight win to take the authentic route to the knock-out phase, he surprised the experts by settling for a draw against Hichem Hamdouchi of Morocco in the fifth round. This baffled many as the battle between Sasikiran and Kasimdzhanov was still on when Anand left the venue. The danger of being knocked out was lurking around in case Sasikiran recorded a win. Before leaving the venue, a realistic Anand remarked: "It will be a pity. But, if I am eliminated that's it. You have to face it." His line of argument on the draw against Hamdouchi was very practical. "Well, you cannot squeeze a rock. There was nothing on the board for me to try anything special,'' Anand explained.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that quite a few around that afternoon had virtually resigned to the thought of the next phase of the World Cup without him. Then, the smiles were back as Anand returned to the venue in shorts and wearing a cap to have a look himself at the final phase of the decisive blow Kasimdzhanov was delivering to the dreams and aspirations of the young Grandmaster, Sasikiran. The beaming face of the maestro said it all. "I think the final result proved that my draw was logical,'' he said as he left to prepare for the next day's quarter-finals.

From then on, Anand adopted a very clear strategy of preferring a draw with black and going for the kill with white. This worked wonders except perhaps in the mind-boggling and energy-sapping semi-final against Alexey Dreev of Russia. Anand meant business against Vladimir Malakhov in the quarter-finals. In the first round, Anand played it safe and was content with a draw, knowing that his opponent had shown the exit to one of the strong contenders, Vassily Ivanchuk, in the previous round. At the end of the draw, there was a 45-minute analysis of the game in which Ivanchuk, Teimour Rajdbov and Vescovi joined. In the second round, Anand ensured that there were no escape routes for Malakhov when the latter employed the Accelerated Dragon Variation. After eliminating the white's dangerous bishop on g7, Anand reached an end-game with his strong bishop on the c4 square.

Then the mastery of the Indian was on show even as he sacrificed a pawn to activate his rook and soon played Rh8 which proved to be decisive in the final analysis.

The toughest test for Anand came in the semi-final against the experienced Alexey Dreev. Quite aptly, it was his renowned mastery in blitz games which saw him through when the first two rounds in the semi-final, the two tie-breakers and the first blitz game failed to resolve the deadlock. That Anand emerged winner in the second blitz game after being involved in three games featuring 69, 26 and 88 moves on the same day was a testimony to his remarkable temperament and ability to outwit his opponent. Anand deviated from his normal style by playing the Queen Pawn Opening with the clear intention of putting Dreev under time pressure. Some accurate moves from Anand countered the Slav Defence preferred by the Russian. Retaining the crucial rook without going for an exchange in the end-game was the clincher. Dreev virtually played into the trap by allowing the Indian to play Ng5 as this helped the latter to combine his knight, rook and bishop to menacing effect. And Anand's acknowledged skill in activating the knight in the end-game was another factor which sealed Dreev's fate. "I was always trying to do something with the time trouble factor of Alexey. I am happy my ploy worked,'' said a delighted Anand, later.

The final began on a sedate note with Anand settling for a quick, 16-move draw with black against Rustam Kasimdzhanov. Then in the second round, the 'King' rose to the occasion with a clinical display to vanquish his opponent in 29 moves to clinch the World Cup title. In a Petroff Defence, the Indian's mastery in the middle-game with the right combination was pretty obvious. To the delight of Anand, the Uzbek gave up his bishop on the c3 square in the 15th move. The defending champion took advantage of two bishops and came up with two real good moves - b3 and Ne5 - to gain control. Surprisingly, Kasimdzhanov not only sacrificed a piece but overlooked Nc4 from the Indian after which there was very little for him but to give up hope and the title.

Interestingly, there was a 40-second suspense as the computer monitors didn't display the result. The select audience which included Ravi Sanghi, Managing Director of Sanghi Industries, was perplexed and was unsure of what exactly had happened. Only when the deputy arbiter, Nasiruddin Ghalib, showed the victory sign for Anand did the greetings begin to pour in. Ravi Sanghi was the first to walk across the 'rope' and congratulate the deserving champion.

Anand was particularly pleased that his third greatest victory (after the FIDE World Championship title and the World Cup in Beijing) had come on Indian soil.

Sadly, the most disappointing show came from Vassily Ivanchuk of Ukraine. One of the pre-tournament favourites, this moody and experienced customer seemed to be more content with going for a draw. His misery was compounded by the two losses to European champion Macieja Bartilomiej of Poland and Vladimir Malakhov of Russia in the preliminary phase. In all he had two draws, two losses and just one win.

British Grandmaster Nigel Short confirmed the impression that he is more keen to merely compete than pose any serious challenge in major events. Though he made it to the quarter-finals, he lost to Alexey Dreev in the second tie-breaker after the first two rounds and the first tie-breaker failed to produce a result. "I don't think these (tie-breakers) truly reflect the skills of a player. They really test the physical strength. I was terribly tired at the end of the day to force a result in my favour," was Short's reaction after the loss.

The real surprise in the men's section was Alexander Beliavsky of Slovenia, the semi-finalist here. Unfortunately, he let Rustam Kasimdzhanov wriggle out for a draw from a hopeless position in Queen's Gambit Declined Variation in the first round of the semi-final. The 23-year-old Kasimdzhanov showed his class in the second round with white to force a win in the Ruy Lopez Opening. Beliavsky made a blunder, playing dxe4 that saw him lose his e5 pawn and his opponent capitalised on it to coast to victory and move into the final. But the 49-year-old Beliavsky did show his class with some facile wins in the previous games.

Even the gifted 15-year-old GM Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan didn't do anything special after the high expectations he raised following his draw against Garry Kasparov and a win against Anatoly Karpov, recently.

From the Indian perspective, both Pendyala Harikrishna and Surya Sekhar Ganguly scored their solitary wins against Alexander Morozevich. But for that, there was nothing special and they were honest enough to say that the standard of competition at this level is totally different.

However, the exception was Krishnan Sasikiran who kept his reputation intact as the next best player from India after Anand with a fabulous win over the latter, who is an 'idol' for many Indian players.

The results:

Final: Viswanathan Anand (Ind) bt Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzb) 1.5-0.5.

Semi-finals: Anand bt Alexey Dreev (Russia) 3.5-2.5; Kasimdzhanov bt Alexander Beliavsky (Slov) 1.5-0.5.