On Friday night in Bonn, Vladimir Kramnik, his wife Marie and an old friend and former assistant, Evgeny Bareev, enjoyed a Thai meal together.
Kramnik had just drawn the eighth World Chess Championship game against Viswanathan Anand in the former German capital and found himself three games down with four games to play.
At the dinner, Kramnik tried to keep the discussion away from chess — the Russian financial meltdown was one subject which made his own problems look minor.
Bareev’s opinion about the match was clear — he had been telling it to the media all day. Kramnik’s situation was almost hopeless because his hyper-subtle style had run into a brick wall against Anand. Risk-taking and ultra-violence was needed and if Kramnik went down with guns blazing noone would think worse of him.
Yet Kramnik is not one to betray his instincts. Although derided when he compared himself to an artist — a painter — rather than a sportsman, the description has proven apt.
Kramnik plays the board, not the man or the tournament standings. The 33-year-old Russian would rather play a fault-free game than win through gambling or bluff. Each game for Kramnik is an opportunity to try to create a work of art, albeit one where his opponent tries to obstruct him at every move.
No doubt the players’ agreement to split the $3m prize fund equally regardless of the result was Kramnik’s idea; money should not influence an artist’s decisions.
In contrast, Anand is a pragmatist — even a philistine — who would play bad moves if he thought they would confuse his opponent and lead to a win. Thanks to his incredible feel for the game, Anand has played just as many masterpieces as Kramnik and, most galling for Kramnik, Anand had won the one game in this World Championship match, the third, which will be admired and replayed for decades to come.
However the prospect of losing his world match title concentrated Kramnik’s mind and, having been painted into a corner, decided to come out swinging.
Sure enough, when the ninth game was played in Bonn on Sunday night — in front of a record crowd of 500+ thanks to extra rows squeezed into the Exhibition Hall — it was a different Kramnik.
The Russian confused Anand by using the Indian’s favourite opening against him. Kramnik grabbed a hot pawn and hung onto it and continued in risk-taking style for the first 34 moves.
Anand was comprehensively outplayed — “the worst game I have had [in the match]. At quite a few moments I thought I was lost.”
However, when given a chance to end the game on move 35, Kramnik froze. With five minutes left to reach move 40, Kramnik spent a minute analysing a particular move before realising that it allowed Anand to checkmate him in one move. Shaken, Kramnik showed his true colours and played a safety-first move instead of the winner and Anand hung on.
“I played well but was not lucky enough to win the game,” was Kramnik’s conclusion but he had missed the point. Anand survived because he was not trying to create a masterpiece — he just wanted to put enough problems in Kramnik’s way to disrupt his opponent and he succeeded.
Anand now leads 6-3 in the best of 12 contest and now needs a single draw in the final three games to become World Champion.
Kramnik, however, is not willing to give up the title he has held for eight years without a fight, saying “The match is not over yet. I will fight to the last.” He may have left his run too late but, with the new version Kramnik, some surprises may yet be in store.
Opening: Queen’s Gambit Declined
Using the very opening with which Anand playing Black had caused so much trouble for Kramnik. Courageously, Anand heads straight for the main line, involving a pawn sacrifice.
“I knew 11…Nh5 was supposed to be good for Black but I didn’t want to walk into Vishy’s preparation again. So I just played [a random move].”
“13.Nxd7 was more accurate,” said Kramnik.
“Around here I understood I’d messed it up,” admitted Anand.
“The only move to keep the game going,” said Kramnik, and Anand agreed. White is hoping for 20…gxf4 21.Bf3 Bxf3 22.gxf3! with counterplay along the g file.
Anand believed that 21…Bc5! first was almost decisive.
“This may not be the most precise,” said Anand, “but it is not clear how Black should make progress.”
Missing the trick 35.Bxf5! which wins all Black’s pawns and forces a draw after 35…gxf5 34.Qxh6+ Kg8 35.Qg5+ Qg7 36.Rxf5.
After considering 35…f4?? and then noticing 36.Qh7 checkmate!, Kramnik panicked. After 35…Rg8! White is defenceless against the coming assault, e.g. 36.Bc4 Rcxg3!! 37.hxg3 Qxg3 with checkmate to follow.
A last try but Anand remains alert.
Avoiding Kramnik’s last trap — 43.gxh4 Ra8! 44.Rxb3? Ra2+ and checkmate to follow.
Watch the game ( it’s French, le magnifique! ) here: