World Championship Chess: Spy versus spy in Sofia as Topalov trails
In Bulgaria, Cold War memories die hard. And despite murky shadows surrounding competitive chess in that country, Crikey's chess correspondent Ian Rogers is discovering that it is hometown hero Veselin Topalov that is feeling the heat.
When Sofia was announced as the winning bidder for the 2010 World Chess Championship match, many believed that the titleholder Viswanathan Anand would be at a serious disadvantage competing on his challenger Veselin Topalov’s home territory.
Anand did not have much choice. Sofia’s was the only serious bid and the prize fund of €2 million Euros (about $A3 million) was the highest offered for a chess match since the early 1990s.
However Cold War memories die hard.
In the 1970s and 80s Bulgarian chess was notorious for corruption; not just prearranging draws — a sin that has permeated the upper echelons of the chess world for decades — but also the organisation of complete tournaments designed to favour a particular player; for example a foreigner who had paid a fee to secure an International Master or Grandmaster result.
A new generation of “clean hands” Bulgarian players has emerged over the past two decades, with Topalov leading the charge.
Topalov moved to Spain in the mid-90s with his friend and manager Silvio Danailov and became a world class player, one who fought against the national stereotype by fighting to the last pawn.
However Danailov, the self-proclaimed “best manager in the chess world” was less universally admired.
Danailov had had an extended stay in Melbourne in the early 1990s but perhaps too much of it was spent hanging around the seedy Red Triangle snooker parlour, where chess players, snooker players and Underbelly-style characters mixed seamlessly. (On occasion this writer also visited the Red Triangle, where a future Grandmaster pulled your cappuccinos during the Friday night “blitz” tournament.)
So when Topalov’s results became world beating in 2004 and 2005, his nationality and his manager made it a little easier for a few to believe the allegations, never substantiated, that somehow Topalov was cheating.
When Topalov earned a shot at the world match title in Elista in 2006 and Danailov, with only frivolous evidence, accused Topalov’s opponent Vladimir Kramnik of obtaining computer assistance during his toilet trips, Topalov was the person whose reputation was trashed. (Notably, Topalov still believes he was cheated by the Russians in Elista.)
But it was the refrain “Those Bulgarians will do anything,” that bounced off Anand before the current match; Anand went ahead and agreed to play in Sofia anyway.
Anand was advised on internet forums to check his room for bugs, bring his own chef, scan the playing hall for electronic signalling devices, avoid using umbrellas, and 1001 other ideas that seemed to have come straight out of Spy vs Spy.
Yet, apart from a spat over the starting date following Anand’s delayed arrival, the Bulgarians appear to have been excellent hosts to the Indian and his team.
Of course the fear of cheating is ever-present at top level matches and this time an expensive translucent curtain was installed between the players and the audience so that the players could not see any signalling from the crowd. Audience members have also had their mobile phones confiscated for the duration of the games, a measure which was first used at the 2000 Kasparov-Kramnik world title match.
A 10 minute black-out during the fifth game was a glitch, but it was immediately followed by a grovelling Fawlty Towers-style apology from both the organisers and the electricity company.
When Anand was asked at the press conference after the sixth game to comment on the organisation and rumours that he was having problems, the Indian looked bemused and replied “It’s all fine. I didn’t start those rumours.”
In fact the course of the match seems to be indicating that Topalov is having more problems competing at home (as Danailov had predicted but had his opinion dismissed as spin).
Apart from the pressure of playing with the Bulgarian Prime Minister or President in the audience, Topalov, one of the most famous sportspeople in his home country, has very little privacy in Sofia.
As one local Grandmaster explained, “Vesko can’t walk down the street here without someone approaching him and asking for an autograph, or asking how the match is going. He can’t relax at a restaurant. It’s not easy.”
Of course it is possible for Topalov to lock himself up in his hotel suite with his seconds and computers and analyse chess positions but, in a three week contest of twelve games running from three to seven hours, remaining physically fresh is an imperative.
The course of the match to date would seem to indicate that Topalov is feeling the pressure. After a quick win over Anand in the opening game, Anand has controlled most games in the match and took the lead thanks to wins in games two and four.
The fifth and sixth games, given below, were both drawn after hard fights, but Topalov did not look like breaking through for his second victory at any stage.
“Obviously I am not satisfied with the score in the match so far,” said Topalov, who trails 2.5-3.5, “but I aim to improve my play in the second half and I expect also to improve my results.
Whether the home town favourite can do this, and whether Anand will let him, will be decided this week.
At this point a member of Team Topalov entered the press room and proudly proclaimed that the game so far was all preparation by the home team. If so, they had missed something, since 22.Rd1 was stronger.
A sober choice given that 23.Bxe6 Rc2 and 24.Nxe6 Bf7 25.Nd4 Bxb3 26.Nxb3 Rc2 both work out well for Anand.
23…Nxg6 24.g3 Ne5 25.f4 Nc6 26.Bc3 Bb4!
Topalov’s winning hopes are eliminated with the elimination of his dark squared bishop.
“After 30…Bxc6 31.Rxc6 Rxe2 White has plenty of compensation for the pawn,” said Anand, who then refuted any theories of him being an all-seeing, all-knowing Chess God by adding “I thought I’d just work it out when I got there.”