Chess is an unforgiving sport — comparable perhaps only to boxing.
While Rogers Federer can make 50 unforced errors and still win a game of tennis, while Sachin Tendulkar can play a loose shot and live to fight another day, chessplayers and boxers knows that, however far ahead they are on points, they are also only one mistake away from oblivion.
On Tuesday night in Sofia, World Champion Viswanathan Anand discovered the hard way that hours of good work can be ruined by a single bad decision.
After almost five hours of resisting challenger Veselin Topalov’s pressure in the eighth game, a draw was within the Indian’s reach. Then, to general astonishment, Anand made a casual and disastrous bishop move, allowing his opponent to achieve a set-up which previously Anand had carefully prevented.
Two moves later, with defeat inevitable, Anand resigned the game.
Anand, who had lost only one serious game in the 12 months prior to his world title defence, makes stupid mistakes — well, one every five years — but not a senior’s moment like this.
Suddenly Topalov had levelled the €2 million Euro contest at 4-4 and all the talk was all about age; is Anand too old for World Championship chess?
Before the Sofia world title match Topalov, 35, claimed that his edge lay in his being five years younger than his opponent, and the pundits are beginning to wonder if the brash Bulgarian might have been right.
In the modern era, when only one player over 50 is ranked among the top 100 and teenage Grandmasters are commonplace, 40 is considered to be near the end of the useful life of a professional chess player; the age of oblivion.
Experience should count in chess, but not as much as the ability to concentrate for hours on end without miscalculating or making the smallest of errors.
Peak age for a Grandmaster used to be thought to be 35 but nowadays the magic number is just under 30, after which time the best can maintain their strength for up to a decade but few make substantial improvement.
Anand has preserved his strength wonderfully well, but with age comes inconsistency.
The World Champion is still more than capable of beating the best but of late he has also begun experiencing failure; most notably a last place in the Grand Slam Final in Bilbao in 2008. (Soon afterwards Anand went on to take the world match title from Vladimir Kramnik, so little was read into the Bilbao result.)
As part of the pre-match mind games, Topalov questioned how well Anand would cope with a 12 game, three week contest, especially one where Topalov had declared that even a completely equal position must be played to the bitter end.
Add to that, the tiring overland journey to Sofia which Anand was forced to undertake due to the volcano ash closing airspace in Europe, and there was every reason to believe that Anand could fade at the finish.
While Anand controlled the first half of the Sofia match, the last two games have seen the titleholder doing nothing but defend and it is hard to imagine a more demoralising finish to a game than Tuesday night’s collapse.
Anand and his team of seconds from Denmark, Uzbekistan and India have been known to chill out to Coldplay after a hard game, but on Wednesday, a rest day, he would be advised to turn to Chumbawumba for inspiration. After all, this is a 12 round contest and though Anand has been knocked down, he has not yet been knocked out.
World Championship 2010 Game 8
Opening: Queen’s Gambit Declined, Slav variation
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4 5.a4 Bf5 6.Ne5 e6 7.f3 c5 8.e4 Bg6 9.Be3 cxd4 10.Qxd4 Qxd4 11.Bxd4 Nfd7 12.Nxd7 Nxd7 13.Bxc4 Rc8
In two earlier games Anand had played 13…a6 and drawn comfortably but now he feels it is time for a change.
14.Bb5 a6 15.Bxd7+ Kxd7 16.Ke2 f6 17.Rhd1 Ke8 18.a5 Be7 19.Bb6 Rf8 20.Rac1 f5 21.e5 Bg5 22.Be3 f4?
“Of course this was a mistake,” said Anand after the game. “I should have played 22…Bxe3 first or 22…Be7.”
23.Ne4 Rxc1 24.Nd6+ Kd7 25.Bxc1 Kc6 26.Bd2 Be7 27.Rc1+ Kd7 28.Bc3?!
Now Topalov allows Anand to get back into the game. After 28.Nc4! Bc5 29.b4 Ba7 30.Nd6 Black would be in all sorts of bother.
28…Bxd6 29.Rd1 Bf5 30.h4 g6 31.Rxd6+ Kc8 32.Bd2 Rd8! 33.Bxf4 Rxd6 34.exd6 Kd7
Though Black has lost a pawn, White’s lack of control over the light squares gives Black good chances of setting up a fortress and holding the game.
35.Ke3 Bc2 36.Kd4 Ke8 37.Ke5 Kf7 38.Be3 Ba4 39.Kf4 Bb5 40.Bc5 Kf6 41.Bd4+ Kf7 42.Kg5 Bc6 43.Kh6 Kg8 44.h5 Be8 45.Kg5 Kf7 46.Kh6 Kg8 47.Bc5 gxh5 48.Kg5 Kg7 49.Bd4+ Kf7 50.Be5 h4 51.Kxh4 Kg6 52.Kg4 Bb5 53.Kf4 Kf7 54.Kg5
For 20 moves Topalov has managed to make only vague progress, though he has had constant threats.
But now something extraordinary happens…
A huge mistake caused by tiredness, carelessness and pessimism.
Although admitting to not being 100% sure, both players believed that the endgame was already winning –– yet in fact the position is a clear draw!
Anand could have played
54…Ke8! 55.g4 Kd7 56.f4 Bd3 57.f5 exf5 58.gxf5
and here the trick that neither player foresaw…
58…h6+! 59.Kf6 Bc2
Now the only way for Topalov to untangle and push his f pawn is
60.Bh2 Bd3 61.Ke5
61…h5! 62.f6 Bc4 63.Kd4 Bf7 64.Kc5 h4 65.Kb6 Bd5 66.b4 h3
Anand can hang on, because the thematic break
67.b5 axb5 68.f7? Bxf7 69.Kxb7? b4!
actually wins for Anand.
Now Black’s bishop cannot defend the h7 pawn.
55…Kg8 56.g4! 1-0
Anand realised that he had no constructive moves and resigned. After 56…Bd7 47.g5 Be8 everything would be fine for Black were it not for 48.b3!. Now Black has to move his bishop and allow White to play 49.g6, whereupon the White king reaches e7 and wins the house.