Before the introduction of game timers in 1883, the image of tournament chess as two old fogeys hunched over a chess board for hours had some basis in fact.

Since then, the rate of play has continually become faster and adjournments — where games were suspended overnight — have been phased out altogether.

As recently as the 1980s I was involved in a 13 hour game over two days — hard to forget, since I spoiled everything with a single bad move after 12 and a half hours.

Modern players, fortunately, need play no longer than seven hours except in very exceptional circumstances.

The ongoing World Championship is being played at an average rate of three minutes per move for the first two time controls and then the last part of the game moves to a rate of 30 seconds per move. In that 30 seconds a player must not only find a good move, but also keep a written record of the game. To fail to meet a time control is to lose a game, just as decisively as if a player was checkmated.

A typical Grandmaster game goes for three to four hours, so when Viswanathan Anand lost the first game of his title defence against Veselin Topalov in just two hours, many were surprised.

Since then, however, the two players competing in the €2 million Euros World Championship match in Sofia have more than made up for failing to give full value to the paying spectators on day one.

Since the title match approached the halfway mark, games have regularly reached the five hour mark and during Thursday’s ninth game, Anand and Topalov were forced to concentrate at high intensity for six and a half hours before Topalov saved a game that many pundits had given away as lost for the Bulgarian.

This was the epic battle that chess fans around the world – close to a million of them, watching and listening on multiple web platforms – had been waiting for.

Although the score was tied at 4-4 going into the game, few gave Anand, at 40, five years older than Topalov, much chance of recovering from Tuesday’s defeat.

The Indian proved everybody wrong with a hyper-aggressive performance, giving away his most powerful piece, the queen, early in the game to create activity.

This was chess on the edge. Time and again Anand seemed to be playing like a genius and have Topalov’s king caught in a checkmating net; time and again Topalov slipped away.

Then the clock became a factor. Anand ran himself down to a move per minute while searching for the elusive winning idea. Topalov, well ahead on the clock and not content with defending, constantly kept enough counterplay to make Anand fear that the tables could be turned at any moment.

Finally, after six exhausting hours, Anand missed his final winning chance and Topalov scrambled a crucial half point to keep the match tied at 4.5-4.5.

Anand looked shattered at the post-match press conference.

“I imagine I had a win somewhere,” he ventured. “Maybe twice, [maybe] more.”

It is so difficult to win a game at this level and Anand understood that to let so many opportunities go begging was near criminal.

Topalov, who plays with the first move twice in the last three games, tried to dampen down local expectations, even when a journalist quoted to him Garry Kasparov’s claim that if Anand could not win Thursday’s game, then the match was Topalov’s for the taking; “I was a little bit lucky today, so I am satisfied with the result, but we made a lot of mistakes. At the end of the match we will see if I really had luck today.”

Slipping out of the press conference without his usual game round-up for the Indian media, Anand looked dead on his feet while Topalov seemed little more than jaded. Topalov is moving in for the killer blow on Friday and it will take enormous mental toughness for Anand to resist.

Low on energy, low on morale, Anand must still turn up and play at a high level just to stay in the contest with Topalov. He has the expectations of a nation of a billion people on his shoulders and a million watching his every move live. There must be easier jobs.

World Championship 2010 Game 9

White: V.Anand
Black: V.Topalov

Opening: Nimzo-Indian Defence

1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3

In earlier games Anand had opted for the wimpier 3.g3; today he goes for the throat.

3…Bb4 4.e3 0-0 5.Bd3 c5 6.Nf3 d5 7.0-0 cxd4 8.exd4 dxc4 9.Bxc4 b6

A solid system made popular by former World Champion Anatoly Karpov.

10.Bg5 Bb7 11.Re1 Nbd7 12.Rc1 Rc8 13.Bd3 Re8 14.Qe2 Bxc3 15.bxc3 Qc7 16.Bh4

16.h3 has a better reputation, but Anand has a completely new manoeuvre in mind.

16…Nh5 17.Ng5 g6 18.Nh3!? e5 19.f3 Qd6! 20.Bf2 exd4

The resulting exchange should be fine for Topalov, but soon he begins to look for tricks.

21.Qxe8+ Rxe8 22.Rxe8+ Nf8 23.cxd4 Nf6 24.Ree1 Ne6 25.Bc4 Bd5 26.Bg3 Qb4!?

26…Qd7 was safer.

27.Be5 Nd7! 28.a3! Qa4 29.Bxd5 Nxe5 30.Bxe6 Qxd4+?

An easy mistake to make, but 30…Nd3 was stronger.

31.Kh1 fxe6 32.Ng5! Qd6 33.Ne4

33.Rc8+ Kg7 34.Rec1 looked good as well.

33…Qxa3 34.Rc3 Qb2 35.h4 b5 36.Rc8+ Kg7 37.Rc7+ Kf8 38.Ng5 Ke8 39.Rxh7 Qc3 40.Rh8+?

With just three minutes left to reach the first time control, Anand panics and lets the Black king out of his cage. After 40.Re4 b4 41.Rxa7 b3 42.Rb7 b2 43.Kh2! White can stop the Black pawn and win the game.

40…Kd7 41.Rh7+ Kc6 42.Re4 b4!?

More risk taking by Topalov.

43.Nxe6! Kb6 44.Nf4 Qa1+? 45.Kh2 a5 46.h5!! gxh5

Too late Topalov realises that after the pawn race 46…b3 47.hxg6 b2 48.g7 b1(Q) 49.g(Q), Black can have two queens but he still loses after 49…Nxf3+ 50.Kg3!!.

47.Rxh5 Nc6 48.Nd5+ Kb7 49.Rh7+ Ka6 50.Re6 Kb5 51.Rh5 Nd4 52.Nb6+ Ka6 53.Rd6 Kb7 54.Nc4?

Allowing counterplay. After 54.Nd5, Black’s king would again have no escape.

54…Nxf3+! 55.gxf3 Qa2+ 56.Nd2 Kc7! 57.Rhd5 b3?! 58.Rd7+ Kc8 59.Rd8+ Kc7 60.R8d7+ Kc8 61.Rg7! a4 62.Rc5+?

Anand used seven of his last 14 minutes on this move, unable, unwilling or simply too tired to risk 62.Rdd7! Qc2 63.Kg3! Qc6 64.Rdf7! when White’s rooks will win the game.

62…Kb8 63.Rd5 Kc8 64.Kg3?

Another chance to play 64.Rdd7! goes begging and Topalov is in no mood to give Anand any more opportunities.

64…Qa1! 65.Rg4 b2 66.Rc4+ Kb7 67.Kf2 b1(Q) 68.Nxb1 Qxb1 69.Rdd4 Qa2+ 70.Kg3 a3 71.Rc3 Qa1 72.Rb4+ Ka6 73.Ra4+ Kb5 74.Rcxa3 Qg1+

Now Anand cannot escape the checks and a draw is inevitable.

75.Kf4 Qc1+ 76.Kf5 Qc5+ 77.Ke4 Qc2+ 78.Ke3 Qc1+ 79.Kf2 Qd2+ 80.Kg3 Qe1+ 81.Kf4 Qc1+ 82.Kg3 Qg1+ 83.Kf4 Draw Agree

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off