Monday, 11 November 2013

The Champions Advocate

Often one feels the pressure of history in the making pushing events towards their inevitable fate. Pundits trip over themselves to predict the anticipated result and give various reasons for their pick.

Few contests have been as anticipated as the current world championship contest between Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand. Magnus is without doubt the anointed one. New years day 2010 he became the highest rated player in the world having just turned 19 a month before and now the world waited for him to assume his rightful place on the chess throne.

Vishy was also a prodigy but grew up in the era of the two K's. Anatoly Karpov dominated chess like no other after claiming the title in 1975 when Fisher chickened out. Not until Garry Kasparov came along, a decade later, did he have any serious competition. These two legends battled each other for the crown in several nail biting matches until 1992 when Karpov lost the final of the Candidates to Nigel Short.

Nigel got butchered by Kasparov in an unofficial world title match while Fide gave the title back to Karpov via a match with Timman.

Enter Vishy. He got his first chance in 1995 against Kasparov. The match looked close to start with but after losing a game Garry put the foot down winning 4 out of the next 5, match over. Next chance was against Karpov in 1998 but even a Tolya well past his prime was too good.

He did become Fide world champion in 2000 but none of the K's was playing { now there were three, Kramnik }. Topalov meanwhile took the number one spot and won the 2005 WCh tournament in St Luis, Argentina. Vishy was second.

In 2007 he won the Mexico world championship tournament. A year later he defended his title convincingly against Vladimir Kramnik and has since defended it against Topalov in 2010 and Gelfand in 2012. This rather long history lesson is meant to show how hard the road has been for Vishy. He has never been more than the best amongst equals, never a class above the rest like Karpov, Kasparov or Carlsen.

So obviously I am predicting a Carlsen victory? No I am not! No doubt Magnus is the finest tournament player on the Planet today. His superb positional feel and relentless technique coupled with the energy of youth make him a formidable opponent. How many times has he won must win games in final rounds to clinch victory?

The world championship is another story. In 2004 he was the youngest player to qualify for a WCh tournament but was knocked out by Levon Aronian, the current number 2. Since then he has not competed in the cycle citing issues with the qualification system. Fide succumbed to the pressure, got rid of its ridiculous knock-out format and re-introduced the Candidates tournament format. This tournament was one of the most exciting ever and Magnus only just squeaked home on tiebreak after both he and Kramnik lost the last round. Not smooth :-)

So now the long awaited moment is upon us. The shining star against the old warrior whose best days seem to be behind him. The handsome, marketable (!!) young westerner coming to claim his crown from the aging world number eight rated nearly 100 points lower. We are all looking towards the new era of chess where sponsors flock to our game while the new champion elevates chess to the popularity not seen since Bobby Fisher took the title from Boris Spassky. Standing in the way is the World Champion.

The first two games have revealed a lot already. In game one Magnus was forced to grovel a draw with white in 16 moves. Vishy could have played on. Game two was also drawn by repetition this time in 25 moves. If Magnus's strategy was to tire Vishy out with long protracted positional struggles, it's not working so far.

So what is Vishy's game plan? I think it is to have Magnus step on one of his opening "land mines" like Kramnik did. He has them scattered around in many openings and it's just a matter of time until Magnus finds one. Until then he will annoy him with short draws. The further Magnus goes in trying to find an opening where he can just play, the more likely he is to step on one.

I predict that Anand will win this match. If Vishy wins one early Magnus will take more risks and then it will be a wipeout. Carlsen will learn from this match how important openings are in matches. If he qualifies a second time then he will win the title. But not this time. His opponent may not be as strong a chess-player but he is an incredible match-player and psychologist. Go Vishy :-)