Topalov emerges champion

VESELIN TOPALOV'S hard times in the year finally ended with a victory when he kept his nose ahead of the low scoring pack to win the Tournament of Stars rapid chess title at Benidorm in Spain.

ARVIND AARON

Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria won the Tournament of Stars, scoring four victories and six draws for his seven points from 10 games. — Pic. ARVIND AARON-

VESELIN TOPALOV'S hard times in the year finally ended with a victory when he kept his nose ahead of the low scoring pack to win the Tournament of Stars rapid chess title at Benidorm in Spain.

The Tournament of Stars was part of the second Bali International Chess Festival. There were two Open tournaments and all of them were held at the Gran Bali Hotel, located in the picturesque east coast of Spain. It is a landmark by itself, being Europe's tallest hotel building.

The Tournament of Stars had a big star cast and was intended to be a 12-player round robin. However, the controversy involving Anatoly Karpov gave publicity to the event for the wrong reason. It was subsequently reduced to a 11-player round robin but pairings remained unchanged with some players getting six whites and four blacks thereby jeopardising the fairness of the programme.

Topalov, 28, won the title, scoring four victories and six draws for his seven points from 10 games. He and second-placed Viswanathan Anand remained undefeated. He made the bulk of the scoring on the first day itself, winning three games to lead with 3.5/4. He picked up the first prize of Euro 18,000 besides undisclosed appearance fees.

Speaking to The Sportstar immediately after his victory, Topalov attributed his success to the preparations he made for Ruslan Ponomariov for the match with Garry Kasparov, which did not take place this year. "Somehow after this my playing level went up. It is always nice to win. It gives a pleasant feeling. It was a prestigious event but the standard of play was not very high. In the end what mattered more was I blundered much less than others," concluded Topalov.

Topalov who did not play much chess this year said he hoped to play Vishy Anand in a match at Sofia in February 2004 and then in the Linares tournament from February 22 in Spain. "To finish ahead of Vishy Anand who is the best player in this time control is an achievement. The field here was stronger than it is on paper as young players such as Karjakin, Radjabov and Mamedyarov normally play above their known ratings."

Top-seeded Anand finished runner-up after a costly lapse in round five on the second day and that let him behind Topalov in the title race. Somehow Anand was missing that punch he had at Cap d'Agde where he used tiny advantages to win. Perhaps the round robin contests softened his approach though he went undefeated. Had this been another knock-out, Anand might have done better since he played solidly like Topalov.

It was a slightly below-expected show by Anand for his new high stature in rapid chess and going by his own standards. He overcame Zurab Azmaiparashvili of Georgia in a fast paced opener. And on day one he finished with 3/4, winning both whites and drawing both blacks.

The missed opportunity result of the round put him on the backfoot. He scored 2.5/4 on day two, winning one game and drawing three. The draw in the mutual game against Topalov came in only 13 moves as he had the black pieces. The final day left a ray of hope since he had to play both games with white. It was against Judit Polgar and Radjabov, the two players who had last beaten him. He drew both and took the second place.

About his performance, Anand said, "I could muster at best plus three." On Topalov's smooth cruise to the title, Anand said, "No doubt, he deserved to win the tournament." About missing his chances against Hillarp Persson of Sweden, Anand said, "That was the easiest win I ever missed. If you can't win that position you can't win at chess!"

Viswanathan Anand scored 6.5 points, but the Indian Grandmaster took the runner-up prize with a better tie-break score. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

Radjabov is clearly getting better and better after scoring wins in classical chess games against Kasparov and Anand earlier this year. He continued in that direction with a super final round win against Polgar to tie with Anand for the second place. However, his tie-break score was lower and he was placed third. It was another good performance from this 16-year-old but he could have accepted to play Karpov later thereby solving the crisis for the organisers.

Spanish hope Francisco Pons Vallejo picked up heat in the last two games and had a moderately successful event after he escaped from the trance of draws in the first five rounds. Like Anand, he too missed a winning chance against Hillarp Persson when he lost a winning game.

"Topalov may have won but it was Karjakin who impressed," said a Spanish news item and that was very much true. For the bullfight-loving Spanish people, those who play fighting games become their darling. Karjakin, the 13-year-old world's youngest Grandmaster qualified for that statement.

Last year, Karjakin became the world's youngest Grandmaster, at age 12. He had a comfortable draw against the world rapid champion Anand. Considering that he was less than half the age of most of his rivals, Karjakin was quite a sensation making a fifty per cent score in this category 16 equal field.

If only semi-rapid games count for Elo rating, Hillarp Persson of Sweden would have gained the most. He started as the bottom seed and shocked Judit Polgar in the very first round. Then, he won the next round too and jumped into sole lead with 2/2. However, his defeat to Topalov in round four checked his unexpected progress.

Teimour Radjabov scored 6.5 points. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

When Karpov was out of the tournament, World No. 20 ranked Azmaiparashvili, the 1960-born Georgian who is also one of FIDE's many vice-presidents, became the oldest competitor. He played much below his potent strength but had one brilliant eighth round win against Hillarp Persson to show for his seventh place.

World junior champion Shakhriyaz Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan played 10 games and drew the least, just one with his countryman Radjabov. Although he finished below the 50 per cent mark he did better than what he was expected to do.

German champion Alexander Graf, formerly known as Alexander Nenashev of Uzbekistan, started with two defeats and never recovered really.

He had the distinction of being the only player to defeat Radjabov when the latter hurled his king side pawns to dig his own grave.

Spanish hope Francisco Pons Vallejo came up with a good performance in the second half and had a moderately successful event. He eventually finished fourth with six points. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

Judit Polgar of Hungary came in as the defending champion but was struggling with her form from the word go. She played many fighting games and provided entertainment but finished second from the bottom. Last year she beat the world champion Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine in the final in a play-off.

Alfonso Romero, who recovered from a road accident while driving to the Linares tournament last year, had a poor outing. On the last day he lost all three games and was left at the bottom of the standings. But he drew with the top three ranked players, Anand, Topalov and Polgar and the last day was yet another accident.

Former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov of Russia was unfortunately disqualified from the tournament after being involved in a scheduling dispute. Karpov arrived directly from Brazil and his flight was delayed. He asked for postponement of his first round for the morning of the second day but his teenaged opponent Teimour Radjabov refused. Unhappy that he had to forfeit a full point in such a manner, Karpov stayed away from his second game against Judit Polgar in protest and was subsequently disqualified as per the rules of the tournament.

Karpov is one of the most busy chess legends around, lecturing and playing chess actively at 52 years of age. He is no pushover at the board also. He is ranked 21 in the world and would have made a difference at the top in the tournament.