The chess world now has a single, undisputed champion.
A match in Elista, capital of Kalmykia, held under the auspices of FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs), ended on Friday with Vladimir Kramnik of Russia defeating Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria.
The match was held to reconcile two competing world title claims: Kramnik is the 14th “classical” matchplay champion in a line that goes back over a hundred years; Topalov is the sixth champion FIDE has put up in the past dozen years. The two-champion situation arose in 1993 when the thirteenth classical champion, Gary Kasparov, refused to recognise FIDE’s authority.
The match was as notable for dirty play off the board as for the quality of chess. When Kramnik took an early lead, Topalov’s manager complained that the Russian was taking too many toilet breaks, and implied that he was somehow getting outside help. (For news coverage, google “Toiletgate”.)
This accusation should have been ignored, but the disputes committee decided to close the players’ individual toilets, in effect convicting Kramnik of cheating without a shred of evidence.
Kramnik objected to this arbitrary breach of both natural justice and the match contract, and refused to play until the rest-room access was reinstated.
This put FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov in a bind. His promise of a title reconciliation match, together with some blatant bribing of delegates, had got him re-elected as head of FIDE earlier this year.
He interrupted a conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin to fly back and sack the disputes committee. Then he begged Kramnik to continue the match.
Meanwhile, the Russian had been receiving tremendous support from chess players great and small. Many of his grandmaster colleagues advised him to walk away, but the majority of the chess-playing community urged him to keep playing. President Putin added his voice to the chorus via a telephone call.
Kramnik decided to resume the match, but it went down to the wire, with a series of tie-breaking rapid games eventually giving the Russian victory.
FIDE’s reputation has been severely tarnished since the 1980s. It remains to be seen if the victory of Vladimir Kramnik and the reunification of the world chess title can improve the image of the game.