Two years ago, Indian superstar Viswanathan Anand travelled to Sofia, the home town of his Bulgarian challenger Veselin Topalov, and retained his world chess title is a match filled with ill-feeling. This year, Anand faces another challenger, Israel’s Boris Gelfand, in a 12-game, $2.5 million contest at Moscow’s Tretyakov Gallery and Anand’s biggest problem may be the absence of malice.
Anand, once maligned as too nice a guy to become world chess champion, finds himself against an unlikely opponent; another gentleman and a long-time colleague, a player not only ranked far below him but also a year older.
Anand and Gelfand first met over the board in 1989 in Moscow, when Anand had just become India’s first grandmaster and was regarded as the fastest player in the world while Gelfand was a 20-year-old from Minsk and one of the Soviet Union’s rising stars.
Since then Anand has moved to Spain and recently back to India, while Gelfand found himself representing Belarus rather than the USSR in 1991 and later relocated to Israel via a brief stop in Belgium. The two players’ paths have crossed at elite tournaments many times; Gelfand winning the majority of their early games, Anand dominating in more recent years.
Now Anand and Gelfand are over 40, the twilight years for a professional player. Both have started families and even sent gifts to each other to celebrate the birth of each other’s child in 2011.
Probably not even Gelfand expected to be meeting a year later in a world title match but Gelfand came from nowhere to win the qualifying candidates matches, knocking out younger and more heavily fancied opponents to earn what will probably be his one and only shot at the world title.
As soon as Gelfand became challenger he set about assembling a team of seconds and has been in training for almost a year. Gelfand’s fitness and stamina was also thought to be an issue, so he lost weight and moved his final camp to the Austrian alps for altitude training.
Meanwhile, Anand was sticking with his proven recipe; hiding away in Frankfurt with his regular team of four — grandmasters from Uzbekhistan, Poland, Denmark and India — plus heavy-duty computers.
Having grown up as a Soviet boy, Gelfand will enjoy something of a home-ground advantage in Moscow, with the match being sponsored by his old university friend and billionaire businessman Andrei Filatov.
In any case: “The match is,” as English grandmaster Nigel Short said, “Anand’s to lose.”
At the opening ceremony on Thursday, attended by Russian political (and chess) heavyweights such as Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Zhukov, Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser Arkadij Dvorkovich and ex-Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, Anand looked the more tense of the two players, while Gelfand was able to enjoy the speeches and music.
For world No.20 Gelfand to beat world champion Anand would be an upset of historic proportions — some betting agencies had Gelfand at 9/2 at the start of the match — but after the first two games the improbable has become merely unlikely.
Not only did Gelfand draw the first two games, he did so without ever being in danger and forced Anand to defend precisely.
After both games, Gelfand was able to joke with the press and his good humour was infectious, making the Tiger from Madras look as threatening as a pussy cat. With the third game beginning tonight, Anand will have to find a way to restore his killer instinct or else the world title could drift away.
World Championship 2012 Game 1
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 g6 3.Nc3 d5!?
The Grunfeld Defence — a system never before played by Gelfand.
4.Nf3 Bg7 5.cxd5 Nxd5 6.e4 Nxc3 7.bxc3 c5 8.Bb5+!? Nc6 9.d5!? Qa5!
Though taken by surprise, Anand was ready with a razor-sharp ninth move, but Gelfand shows that he is not to be tempted by 9…Bxc3+ 10.Bd2 when White takes the initiative.
10.Rb1 a6! 11.Bxc6+ bxc6 12.0–0 Qxa2!?
Very risky. “I would have played 12…0-0,” admitted English Grandmaster Nigel Short, “but Gelfand certainly has balls.”
13.Rb2 Qa5 14.d6!?
Played after Anand’s first serious think of the game. Anand needed to choose between 14.Bg5, keeping up the pressure, and the move played in the game which sets a sophisticated trap.
14…Ra7! 15.Bg5 exd6!
Once again, Gelfand plays with perfect precision. Anand was hoping for 15…f6? which runs into the stunning refutation 16.Rb8! 0–0 17.Qb3+! Kh8 18.Ne5!! when Black is helpless, e.g. 18…fxg5 19.Nf7+ Kg8 20.Nh6+ Kh8 21.Qg8+!! Rxg8 22.Nf7# with a classic smothered checkmate.
16.Qxd6 Rd7 17.Qxc6 Qc7! 18.Qxc7 Rxc7 19.Bf4
“I need to be exact because potentially with the bishop pair Black could be better,” said Anand.
19…Rb7 20.Rc2 0–0 21.Bd6 Re8 22.Nd2 f5 23.f3 fxe4
“I need to get my bishop to d3 or to break White’s coordination. I spent half an hour trying to find out but I couldn’t see how I could do it.”
24.Nxe4 Bf5 Draw Agreed
Gelfand, intending exchanges, offered the draw. Anand accepted immediately, saying, “In my opinion, [after …Bf5] a four rooks ending will inevitably result – there is nothing going on there.”
World Championship 2012 Game 2
Opening: Queen’s Gambit, Semi-Slav Defence
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.e3 e6 5.Nf3 a6!? 6.b3 Bb4 7.Bd2
The more obvious 7.Bb2 walks into 7…Ne4 8.Qc2 Qa5 9.Rc1 Qxa2!.
7…Nbd7 8.Bd3 0–0 9.0–0 Bd6 10.Rc1
Allowing Black’s standard freeing manoeuvre. 10.Re1 is more relevant, as played recently by one of Gelfand’s assistants.
10…e5 !11.cxd5 cxd5 12.e4!?
The only try for an advantage.
12…dxe4 13.Nxe4 Nxe4 14.Bxe4 Nf6! 15.dxe5
“This was a very critical moment in the game,” explained Gelfand. “There were two options – either 15.dxe5 or 15.Bg5. I decided that after Bg5 there was no way to pose any threats.”
15…Nxe4 16.exd6 Qxd6 17.Be3 Bf5!
“On other moves my pieces may get pushed back to bad squares,” said Anand.
18.Qxd6 Nxd6 19.Nd4 Rfe8!
“I could make an effort to keep my bishop,” said Anand,” but I was afraid that something could go wrong there and I decided that Rfe8 would be safe enough.”
20.Nxf5 Nxf5 21.Bc5
“When he played this I briefly thought that this might be unpleasant,” said Anand, “but very soon I realised that White cannot use the advantage of bishop versus knight in any way.”
21…h5 22.Rfd1 Rac8 23.Kf1 f6 24.Bb4 Kh7 25.Rc5 Draw Agreed
“At the end of the game we discussed the endgame and whether White could pose some problems,” said Anand, “and we both agreed that he can’t. After the exchange of rooks followed by… b5 and …Re6, I have a very solid fortress.”
The third game begins at 9pm AEST tonight and can be viewed live online.