Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Anand Retains World Chess Championship Title with Playoff Victory Over Gelfand

Viswanathan Anand successfully defended his World Chess Championship title for the third consecutive time, defeating challenger Boris Gelfand 2.5-1.5 in a Rapid playoff (G/25 with a 10 second increment) after the two players drew a 12 game match at the Classical time control. Anand has held at least part of the World Chess Championship title since 2007 when he won the eight player FIDE World Chess Championship event in Mexico and he unified the title beyond any doubt in 2008 when he defeated Vladimir Kramnik 6.5-4.5 to become the 15th World Chess Champion (Kramnik won the linear championship by defeating Garry Kasparov in a match in 2000 and it could reasonably be argued that Anand did not fully succeed Kramnik--even though Kramnik participated in the 2007 Mexico event--until he took the title from Kramnik in a Classical match format).

Although serious chess observers place the most emphasis on the Classical format, it is worth noting that Anand is the only player in chess history to win at least part of the World Chess Championship title in four different formats:
  1. Anand defeated Alexei Shirov in 2001 to win the FIDE World Chess Championship in a knockout format.
  2. Anand won the eight player FIDE World Chess Championship tournament in Mexico in 2007.
  3. Anand defeated Vladimir Kramnik in a Classical match in 2008 and then defended his title in a Classical match versus Veselin Topalov in 2010.
  4. Anand defeated Boris Gelfand in a Rapid tiebreak match in 2012 after the players drew a 12 game Classical match (two wins each plus 10 draws).
The Anand-Gelfand match received a lot of criticism because the players seemed to be very risk-averse, agreeing to draws in positions that other Grandmasters thought still had some play left. Gelfand surprised the chess world with a win in game seven after six consecutive draws--Gelfand's first Classical win over Anand in nearly two decades--but Anand bounced back with an even more shocking win in game eight, taking out Gelfand in just 17 moves after Gelfand miscalculated and allowed Anand to trap his Queen. The players then drew the rest of their Classical games, setting up the Rapid playoff.

Previous World Chess Championship matches have either lasted longer--24 games was a standard format for many previous matches--and/or permitted the Champion to retain his title in the event of a tie score; the new format of a much shorter Classical match to be followed in the event of a tie by matches with progressively faster time controls until a winner emerges naturally makes the players hesitant to take risks early in the Classical match: a loss could be potentially disastrous, while a draw just brings the players one step closer to the playoff matches. Only the players know if either (or both) of them believed that his chances were better in the faster games and/or if either (or both) of them simply did not want to go all out in the Classical games when the Champion did not have the luxury of automatically retaining his title in the event of a drawn match.

The two players had an action packed, exciting draw in the first game of the Rapid playoff. In the second game, Anand successfully exploited the advantage of the White pieces to gain an edge and put pressure on Gelfand to defend accurately. Gelfand used up a lot of time to eventually reach a theoretically drawn position but with just seconds remaining on his clock Gelfand made a decisive mistake. The third game went back and forth before Gelfand built a winning position but with less than a minute remaining on his clock Gelfand blundered and Anand held the draw. Gelfand needed to win with Black in the fourth game in order to force a Blitz playoff (G/5 plus a 10 second increment) but he was unable to generate any meaningful winning chances and Anand eventually forced a draw. Gelfand proved to be a worthy challenger--despite the predictions by many commentators that Anand should be considered an overwhelming favorite--but in the end Anand's superior clock management in the Rapid playoff proved to be the difference.

Both competitors showed their class not just as elite chess players but also as great sportsmen; they talked amicably with each other after the games (far from a regular occurrence in World Championship competition) and they consistently displayed enormous mutual respect in their words and deeds. Anand graciously said that this was his toughest match ever and that if he had to lose the title to anyone he would have been happy for Gelfand to succeed him.

It seems strange to determine the result of a Classical World Championship match with Rapid games; this is like breaking a tie in the Boston Marathon by having the two competitors square off in a 100 yard dash. Other possible World Championship formats also have flaws but at least they don't significantly change the nature of the competition in the middle of the event. Nevertheless, that is a subject for another time. Anand is a battle tested World Champion in many different formats and with each successful defense of his title he moves up in the pantheon of all-time great chess players.

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