Saturday, November 1, 2008

Viswanathan Anand Becomes 15th World Chess Champion

You would never know it based on the lack of mainstream media coverage but a significant cultural, artistic and sporting event just concluded in Bonn, Germany: Viswanathan Anand defeated Vladimir Kramnik 6.5-4.5 to become the 15th classical World Chess Champion. This is the same title held by legends like Bobby Fischer (1972-1975) and Garry Kasparov (1985-2000). Fischer's 1972 World Championship match versus Boris Spassky and Kasparov's five World Championship matches versus Anatoly Karpov drew coverage and attention ranging far beyond the chess world, largely because Fischer and Kasparov were charismatic individuals who captivated people not only with their exciting styles of play but also with their colorful personalities.

Anand and Kramnik are not as charismatic as Fischer and Kasparov, nor will either of them ever be ranked ahead of Fischer and Kasparov as all-time greats, but the Anand-Kramnik match featured some very spirited chess. You can find all 11 games here. International Master Malcolm Pein also annotated each game at The Week in Chess site. Anand defeated Kramnik because of superior pre-match preparation, an ironic twist of fate considering that excellent pre-match preparation is the primary reason that Kramnik beat Kasparov eight years ago to win the title in the first place; there is no greater proof of the beauty and depth of this game than the fact that even though chess has been played for thousands of years and in recent years many positions have been subjected to deep computer analysis by powerful engines, it is still possible to invent novelties (previously unplayed opening moves), as Anand dramatically demonstrated on several occasions. Kramnik prefers to play a slow, maneuvering game in which he methodically increases the pressure on his opponent's position without taking a lot of risks but Anand created dynamic, unbalanced positions that forced Kramnik to engage in the kind of open combat that he tries so hard to avoid. The lone bright spot for Kramnik happened in game 10 when he turned the tables on Anand, played a novelty of his own and crisply won in 29 moves. However, that proved to be Kramnik's only victory, as Anand clinched the World Championship by drawing the 11th game.

The Anand-Kramnik match is historically significant because it completed the process of reunifying the World Chess Championship title, which had been split up since 1993 a la the alphabet soup of championship belts that proliferated in professional boxing. From 1886 to 1993 there was a fairly orderly succession of universally recognized World Chess Champions who won the title by defeating the previous champion in a match (the lone exception being when Alexander Alekhine died in 1946 while holding the title; a match tournament was held in 1948 to crown his successor). In 1993, Kasparov and his challenger Nigel Short split from chess' governing body--the Federation Intenationale des Echecs (better known as FIDE, the International Chess Federation)--because of FIDE's corruption. Kasparov and Short created the Professional Chess Association (PCA) and held their championship match under its auspices. Kasparov defeated Short to retain what would be called in boxing the linear title but FIDE countered by stripping Kasparov of his FIDE crown and reinstating Karpov (who Kasparov dethroned in 1985) as FIDE World Champion. The two competing groups each held a championship cycle in 1993-96, with Kasparov beating Anand to retain his PCA/linear title while Karpov toppled Gata Kamsky to keep the FIDE crown.

The PCA folded shortly the Kasparov-Anand match and Kasparov struggled to put together an organization to sponsor a match for him to defend his title. Eventually, he played Kramnik in 2000 and Kramnik--who had previously trained with Kasparov and thus was not intimidated by him--used some terrific opening preparation to pull off the upset over Kasparov. In his 2007 book How Life Imitates Chess, Kasparov candidly explains exactly how his former student ended his 15 year reign at the top of the chess world (pp. 33-34):

Years of success had made it difficult for me to imagine I could lose. Going into that match, I had won seven consecutive grand slam tournaments in a row and I wasn't aware of my own weaknesses. I felt I was in great form and unbeatable. After all, hadn't I beaten everyone else? With each success the ability to change is reduced. My longtime friend and coach, Yuri Dokhoian, aptly compared it to being dipped in bronze. Each victory added another coat.

When he played black in our match, Kramnik shrewdly chose a defense--the Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez--in which the powerful queens quickly came off the board. The game became one of long-range maneuvering rather than dynamic, hand to hand combat. Kramnik had evaluated my style and had rightly assessed that I would find this kind of tranquil play boring and that I would unwittingly let down my guard. I had prepared intensely and was ready to fight on perhaps ninety percent of the chess battleground, but he forced me to play on the ten percent he knew better and that he knew I would least prefer. This brilliant strategy worked to perfection.

Instead of trying to wrest the games back to positions where I would be more comfortable, I took up his challenge and tried to beat him at his own game. This played right into Kramnik's hands. I was unable to adapt, unable to make the necessary strategic changes quickly enough and I lost the match and my title. Sometimes the teacher must learn from the student.

In light of how Kramnik beat Kasparov, it is worth noting that Anand made sure that he did not once face Kramnik's dreaded "Berlin Wall"; in fact, Anand turned the tables on Kramnik and reversed what Kramnik had done to Kasparov: while Kramnik forced Kasparov to play in sterile, queenless positions, Anand compelled Kramnik to play fighting chess with the queens on the board.

In 1998, FIDE changed the structure of its World Championship, shifting from match play to tournaments with fast time controls; many people felt that this devalued the title. Kasparov never played in those new FIDE events and Kramnik declined to participate after he beat Kasparov to grab the linear title (Kramnik had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a prestige standpoint by playing in FIDE's World Championship competitions). Karpov retained his FIDE crown in the first FIDE World Championship under the new rules in 1998 but then he chose not to defend his title in 1999 due to his dissatisfaction with the rules. The next four FIDE World Championships produced three champions who most non-chess players have probably never heard of, though Anand did manage to win the title in 2000.

Meanwhile, Kramnik retained the linear title by drawing a match with Peter Leko in 2004. Kramnik has never been a great match player--as Kasparov hastened to point out as soon as the Anand-Kramnik match concluded--and he understandably avoided a rematch with Kasparov. In 2005, Kasparov--who was still the highest rated player in the world--retired from competitive chess because the only challenge left for him was to beat Kramnik and it was obvious that Kramnik would make sure that he never played Kasparov again in a match; Kramnik fully understood that the psychological ploys and special opening preparation that he used so successfully against Kasparov in 2000 would not work in a rematch and that if they crossed swords on the "ninety percent of the chess battleground" that Kasparov later referred to in his book then Kasparov would almost certainly reclaim the World Championship title.

In 2005, Veselin Topalov won the FIDE World Chess Championship and a match pitting him against Kramnik was arranged to finally reunify the FIDE and linear World Championships (the latter is often called "classical" because it is based on match play at traditional time controls as opposed to FIDE's recent use of tournaments with fast time controls to determine their World Champion). Kramnik drew the regular portion of his match with Topalov and then retained his title by winning tiebreaker games at a faster time control. Although Kramnik's victory over Topalov temporarily reunified the World Chess Championship title, in 2007 FIDE held an eight player World Championship event in Mexico. Kramnik reluctantly participated--he felt that the title should be determined by a match, not a tournament--and he finished second, while Anand emerged as the victor.

Although it obviously is quite an accomplishment to win a FIDE World Championship tournament at a fast time control, I have never considered those tournament winners to truly be world champions: Kasparov was the World Champion, Kramnik beat him in a classical match and therefore Kramnik deserved to be considered the rightful champion until someone dethroned him by beating him in a match. It is truly a shame that Kramnik avoided playing a rematch with Kasparov but it is good for chess that Anand's convincing win in Bonn reunifies the title. Next year, Anand is scheduled to defend his crown in a match against the winner of a match between top contenders Topalov and Kamsky. Wouldn't it be something if after the dust clears Kasparov unretires and tries to reclaim the title? I doubt that he would do that--he is very engaged in his political work in Russia and the farther one gets past the age of 40 (Kasparov is 45) the tougher it becomes to compete at the highest levels in chess. Nevertheless, I believe that a fully committed and focused Kasparov would still be able to win a classical match against Anand, Kramnik, Topalov or any of the other top players; a Kasparov return now or within the next year or two would be more like Michael Jordan's first comeback with the Chicago Bulls as opposed to Jordan's injury riddled second comeback with the Washington Wizards.


Vijay said...


Those who complain that FIDE world champions between 1993-2005 are not true world champions are people who unfortunately do not understand chess very well.

A knockout based or tournament based champion has to win against several of the strongest players in the world. You are playing the board (actual chess) as opposed to the man. In match-play, one focuses deeply and exclusively on the weaknesses of one opponent and plays to that. There is more psychology involved.

Anand won the world championship in 3 formats: knockout (2000-2002), tournament (2007-2008), and match (2008-present). He also won the rapid world championship in 2003. He also considered the strongest advanced-chess player in the world.

Kasparov has not done all of them. Kasparov could have participated in these tournaments and KO events, if he wanted to. He chickened out of many events, and that reduces the value of his PCA world titles after 1993.

Since the advent of computers, chess has become more competitive, given that many openings can be thoroughly analyzed and digested. Consequently, players understand chess theory much better. Also, the competition is more intense since there is larger number of players who have ELO-ratings greater than 2700. Hence, today's champions can be considered stronger than champions of the past.

To me, Anand is the most comprehensive and greatest champion in the history of chess, having been the world champion in so many formats of the game, and having done that when many of the other champions engaged in shenanigans to retain their titles. His victories are universally agreed upon as the cleanest, no controversies.

David Friedman said...



I commend Anand for his brilliant victory over Kramnik, thus earning the title of 15th classical/linear World Chess Champion. My comments about the validity of the FIDE World Championship events post-1993 were certainly not meant to denigrate Anand's accomplishments either during that period or now. However, it is hard to take seriously any claims that the players who FIDE crowned as champions during that era were in fact the strongest chess players in the world or that those players even had a reasonably good claim to being the strongest players.

The best way to determine who is stronger between player A and player B is to have them contest a match at classical time controls. Winning a FIDE knockout tournament at fast time controls against a strong field is certainly an admirable accomplishment but that is not the same thing at all as winning a series of classical matches culminating in a World Championship showdown between the two strongest players.

It is not fair or accurate to say that Kasparov "chickened out." He repeatedly defended his title against the strongest challengers and he also regularly dominated the world's best in the elite super tournaments. Why should Kasparov enter a FIDE tournament as nothing more than a challenger when he earned the title the classical way via match play? I don't understand or agree with your complaint that because there is psychology involved in match play it somehow is not as valid as tournament play; it is precisely because of the grueling nature of match play that this is the best way to determine a champion. FIDE did not choose the other approach because it is better but because it is more economical. It is precisely because FIDE does not consider the best interests of the game that Kasparov left the fold in the first place.

Look at the list of FIDE champions post 1993: Karpov, who never beat Kasparov in a match, "inherited" Kasparov's title. After Karpov declined to defend his crown, the players who next won the title--other than Anand--cannot seriously be considered the best player in the world; throughout that whole time Kasparov was still the highest rated player and he was dominating these same players in tournament play. As Kasparov derisively noted about one of FIDE's so-called World Championships, most of the participants were "tourists" who simply showed up to enjoy the free room and board but they were nowhere close to being legit World Championship contenders.

You will recall that the only time Kasparov played Anand in a match Kasparov dispatched him very easily.

The ratings of today's players are inflated (that is a statistical fact, not an opinion about their quality of play). The correct thing to look at is not the ratings but the differential between ratings. When Kasparov was active he usually enjoyed a sizable advantage over his rivals (other than Karpov in the 80s), though not as sizable as Fischer enjoyed during his prime. Kramnik and now Anand are "first among equals" because neither has been as dominant as Kasparov was during his reign.

Although Anand is a great player, unless he holds the classical/linear crown for an extended period there is no way that he will be looked at historically as being at the same level that Fischer and Kasparov were. As I said, I suspect that Kasparov could probably still beat Anand now if they played a match.

Again, this does not take anything away from Anand's accomplishments, either in the 90s or now; I just don't see him as a candidate for greatest player of all-time. That said, I much prefer having a World Champion who plays the way Anand does than a World Champion who plays the stolid chess that Kramnik plays. I also don't like how Kramnik avoided playing Kasparov again. If Kramnik does not accomplish more, his victory over Kasparov may end up looking like nothing more than Euwe's fluke victory over Alekhine.