Last night, the most eagerly awaited World Chess Championship in years began in Bonn, Germany.
Vladimir Kramnik, the Russian who has proven unbeatable in matchplay since deposing the legendary Garry Kasparov in 2000, is taking on Viswanathan Anand, perhaps the greatest natural talent or the era and recently voted India’s greatest sportsman of the past 60 years. (Sachin Tendulkar, Anand’s main rival each year as “Indian Sportsman of the Year” was only fourth.)
Over many years, World Chess Championships often acquire a zeitgeist which has little to do with the over-the-board struggle.
In 1972 the USA’s Bobby Fischer and the USSR’s Boris Spassky fought out a proxy Cold War battle in Reykjavik, about which political screeds are still being written.
Fischer remains the only non-Soviet/Russian to have taken the world match title since World War II, a feat Anand is keen to emulate.
The World Championship split of 1993, which saw Garry Kasparov and England’s Nigel Short being lured away from the world body by Rupert Murdoch, proved to be a dry run for the Super League battle in Australia.
The Kasparov-Short title match not only saw cheap tickets being offered in London’s Sun newspaper but, when the contest became too one-sided, the sponsors even offered to buy Short any assistant he wanted if it could engineer a come-back and restore flagging public interest in the match.
Kramnik’s 2004 title defence against Hungary’s Peter Leko was sponsored by Dannemann cigars — a last gasp for tobacco sponsorship of a sporting event in Europe.
Smoking also created the biggest scandal of the 2006 match between Kramnik and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. Kramnik, who was supposed to have given up smoking, visited his private rest room so often — up to 40 times per game — that he was accused of cheating. Since Kramnik would rather be accused of cheating than caught smoking, he could not adequately answer the allegations, which festered and grew.
However the smoking issues were years ago — Kramnik has left them all behind.
The 2008 contest — while being played between two players who are so friendly you could imagine them smoking cigars together on Boston Legal — has nonetheless acquired notoriety for its close connection to “Big Carbon”.
Kramnik and Anand will be playing for a 1.5 million Euro ($A3m) prize fund sponsored by Evonik, a German industrial firm that specialises in making coal-fired power plants, and Gazprom, the Russian gas giant.
Gazprom supplies a quarter of Europe’s gas supplies and has in recent years been looking for an entry into the European retail market by buying stakes in European power companies. One of their targets has been Evonik.
To date the EU has blocked Gazprom’s attempt’s to buy a stake in Evonik, so the sponsorship link-up between the two may indicate that Evonik is more open to being wooed than the EU would wish.
The first game of the match was, as many had feared, all peace and love — a quiet draw after 32 moves and three hours play.
Here is the game, with game comments based on comments by the two players after the fight:
Opening: Queen’s Gambit Declined
“The exchange variation looks innocent,” explained Anand, “but very often there is venom in these systems.”
“I know that theory said that this was supposed to be equal but I realised that the position was not so easy,” said Kramnik.
“Luckily I had checked all these lines,” Anand countered.
“A very important move,” said Anand.
“After 17… Bc2 18.Re1 Rc2, I didn’t see what I was doing. If his bishop comes to c5 from d6 then I am really worried. White has the idea of 20.a4, 21.b5 and if 21 … axb5 then 22.a5.”
“I couldn’t see what to do if I didn’t [continue] in forcing style with the e4 advance,” Kramnik said.
“But it seems that with accurate play Black can make a draw.”
“Also very exact,” said Anand.
“Now White has only a token edge.”
“The trouble with 24.d5 is that after 24 … e5 25.Rd2 Rdc8 26.d6!? Black plays 26 … R7c6! and I actually lose my d pawn,” explained Kramnik.
“After I saw this I got [rather less] enthusiastic about 24.d5.”
“This was a typical first game,” Kramnik explained to a packed press conference.
“I need to get used to the playing conditions. I was trying to press today and I got a certain slight advantage. However a draw is a normal result if players play without mistakes — it is not our fault. I am not so worried — in two of my three previous World Championship matches I won game 2.”
Anand just smiled and raised his eyebrows. The Indian will have the advantage of the white pieces tonight and will be pushing hard for the first win of the match.