World Championship Chess: Sofia erupts as the games begin
The World Chess Championships have started, and Ian Rogers, Australia's first Grandmaster, is in Sofia watching the action. Defending champion Viswanathan Anand is competing against local hero Veselin Topalov in the Bulgarian capital. It's chess at its finest.
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After an epic journey featuring volcanoes and hobbits, on Saturday night World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand sat down to defend his world chess title against challenger and local hero Veselin Topalov in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
A $2 million Euro prize fund was at stake and much was expected of the battle between the two dominant tournament players of the past five years.
World Championship games are expected to last four, perhaps even six hours. This one was over in little more than two. The Indian World Champion was destroyed; nay, humiliated. On Bulgarian television that night, Topalov explained that the entire game had been prepared by him and his team at home; he didn’t need to find a single original move to score a simple first game victory.
The next day Anand bounced back with a hard-fought win but the effects of the first game were still being felt; Anand admitted that he was feeling so pessimistic that he felt he was out of danger in the second game only at the point when the game was almost decided in his favour.
How had it come to this for Anand, the player who had looked almost invincible when taking the world title from Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn in 2008?
Track back ten days.
Anand and his team, travelling from various corners of Europe, found themselves stranded in Frankfurt thanks to the ash being spread by Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Frankfurt airport was closed indefinitely and even a private jet offered by one of Anand’s German supporters was not allowed to attempt the flight to Bulgaria.
Travelling to Sofia overland was also a major challenge because of the visas needed by Anand and others in his team to transit non-EU countries such as Serbia.
Eventually, with no end in sight to the closure of airspace, the eight-strong Team Anand headed out from Frankfurt on Sunday in a luxury Dutch minibus. 40 hours later, after travelling through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, the group arrived in Sofia at 4am on Tuesday morning.
The trip, especially the lengthy detour through the primitive roads in Romania, was half nightmare, half adventure. “Don’t mention the volcano,” was the rule, said Anand’s manager and wife Aruna; “I did once, but I think I got away with it.” So the journey became an unusual team bonding exercise which, after conversation had waned, involved sitting through the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy on the bus’ DVD system.
Upon arrival in Sofia, Anand tried to catch up on lost sleep while the world body FIDE considered the returned king’s request for a three day delay to the start of the match. Jet-lag has known pernicious effects on competitive chessplayers, causing them to think more slowly and less efficiently, and the days of interrupted sleep suffered by Anand in Frankfurt and on the road would have had a similar effect.
Publicly the organisers argued against any delay, using diplomatic phrases such as, “we are bitterly disappointed by [Anand’s] derogatory actions and attitude towards the organizers…” Too inconvenient, too expensive to change anything, they said.
Privately the organisers agreed to the match starting one day late but no more, and this was the ‘compromise’ announced by FIDE.
Topalov, a take-no-prisoners competitor, picked up few marks for sportsmanship by refraining from offering any support for Anand’s request, as more gracious Grandmasters of the past such as Boris Spassky had done in similar circumstances.
Normally players prepare for the game as late as possible but on Saturday Anand arrive at the lavish playing hall in Sofia’s Military Club — formerly a palace for the father of Bulgaria’s last king, Simon II — half an hour early. The World Champion sat quietly at the side of the stage, quietly meditating, while Topalov arrived later and spent time chatting to the arbiters while both players waited for the arrival of the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, on whose behalf the start of the game had been delayed a further two hours.
As the hall filled up with spectators Anand eventually came to the board but there was no glint of nervousness or excitement in Anand’s eyes.
Borissov shook hands with the players and then introduced them to a chunky black man in shorts and t-shirt. Why American body builder Ronny Coleman was on stage at all was a mystery even to most locals, until it was remembered that Coleman and Borissov had opened a new gym in Sofia together on the previous day; here was a chance to promote the venture in front of more than 50 press photographers.
The plug for his gym over, Borissov made the ceremonial first move for Topalov… and the game went downhill from there for the Indian.
At the post-game press conference, after one of the heaviest defeats of his adult career, Anand looked shell-shocked. He denied that his long trip had caused his poor play but said little more than “I just played badly today. I mixed up my moves.”
Anand looked a little more sprightly the following day, despite confessing that his sleeping patterns were still far from normal; “The main thing after a [loss] like that is to sleep — which was impossible.”
Even though Anand has now levelled the best-of-12 contest, history is against him. Not since 1892 has a defending World Champion lost the first game of their match and hung on to the title.
Anand, perhaps the greatest natural talent of the modern era, has a mountain to climb to stop Topalov taking the match title to Bulgaria for the first time. And I hate to mention it but he’s got to get over the volcano as well.
The first new move, but the idea was already common knowledge among top players and Topalov responded quickly.
17.f4 f6 18.f5 Qe5 19.Nf4 g5 20.Nh5+ Kg8 21.h4 h6 22.hxg5 hxg5 23.Rf3! Kf7?? Played after 26 tired minutes’ thought. “I must have mixed up my moves,” admitted Anand, who had likely prepared 23…Bd7 24.Rg3 Kf7! and simply played the moves in the wrong order.
Immediate punishment. “This is a typical sacrifice,” explained Topalov. “The moves are quite natural and White never has any risk so I was not worried.” 24…Kxf6
24…Qxf6 25.Rc7+ Ke8 26.Bb5+ Kd8 27.Rfc3! also gives White an overwhelming attack.