Recap of the world chess championship match


Recently, there was a match for the world chess championship, played between Anand Viswanathan of India and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. While there have been fairly regular matches for the title, I think this one was the most interesting one since I became interested in chess, in 1997. Between two suitable opponents, such a match can be seen as a clash of styles; however, it sometimes happens that the competitors have sufficiently similar styles that this facet doesn’t play out. Or, it could happen that something external happens to make a clash of styles not be the highlight of the match.

Let’s discuss the players briefly. Anand has been one of the top players in the world for around 20 years, playing his first world championship match in 1995, against Kasparov. (He lost.) He has a reputation as being a powerful but rather disciplined attacker (see, for instance, this game against Viktor Bologan from 2003), an imaginative tactical defender, and a good technical player.

For many years, Topalov had been slightly below the top group. He was generally seen as being an aggressive player whose aggression got him into trouble from time to time, and he was known more for his brilliant losses than for his wins; his most famous game must be this loss to Garry Kasparov in 1999 in a spectacular king hunt. But in 2005, he suddenly went from a longtime top 10 player to one of the very best in the world and #1 in the rating list, even beating Kasparov in the latter’s last game prior to retirement. His aggressive style of play became even more aggressive, and he began to win many games in spectacular style, such as this game against Ruslan Ponomariov. He manages to win lots of games with technically unsound but dangerous play, which is a good practical decision for him. Also, he is known for having great stamina. He frequently starts out poorly in tournaments but wins several games in a row toward the end of the event.

While some other recent world championship matches seemed to be capable of producing clashes of styles, it didn’t really play out this way, in my opinion. We could have seen a clash of styles in 2000, for example, in the match between Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik. Kasparov was a dynamic and aggressive player, and Kramnik prefers quiet technical games. Instead, we saw a lot of boring games, with Kasparov trying to make something out of the (more or less) nothing that was Kramnik’s Berlin defense, and Kramnik winning two games somewhere. The 2004 match between Kramnik and Péter Lékó pitted two players with similar styles against each other, and most of the games are not too memorable, game 8 being a notable exception.

Then there was the 2006 match, between Kramnik and Topalov. That could have shaped up to be something really exciting. Instead, it turned into a scandal-laden event, with Topalov accusing Kramnik of going to the bathroom too frequently, using these opportunities to consult a computer. Ridiculous. And, the 2008 match between Anand and Kramnik was mostly decided by Anand’s superior preparation.

I should point out that I was in no way an unbiased observer. I’ve been a fan of Anand ever since I started playing chess semi-seriously, both for his inspiring play and because he seems to be a genuinely nice person. He hasn’t been involved in any scandals or controversies, and he doesn’t insult other players or display a large ego. Topalov, on the other hand, and his manager Silvio Danailov, have been involved in one controversy after another. From the “Toiletgate” scandal with Kramnik mentioned above to his announcement before this match that he would not accept or make draw offers or have any communication with Anand during the match, Topalov has done much to detract from his fan base. It’s a pity, because his games are usually fun to watch, so he could attract a lot of support if he were able to behave like a reasonable human being.

Let’s move on to the games now.

In game 1, Anand played the Grünfeld Defense, which has the reputation of being a very risky choice. After a serious error from Anand, Topalov wrapped up the game quickly. The game didn’t tell us too much about the players’ intentions. We had to wait for later games to find out about that.

Game 2, however, allowed us to see a glimpse into Anand’s match strategy. For one thing, he employed Kramnik’s favorite opening, the Catalan. Normally, that would not suit Anand’s style so much; he prefers somewhat more aggressive and ambitious positions. However, since Topalov is the more tactical player of the two, Anand preferred to steer the games toward quieter play. His plan, in this game and several others, was to sacrifice a pawn for easier piece play. Generally, Topalov prefers to be the one sacrificing material for dynamic chances, so Anand reckoned that Topalov might feel uncomfortable with the situation reversed. Interestingly, there seem to be several shifts in thinking about the value of a pawn as we improve at chess. For beginners, a pawn is worth very little since they tend to come and go with mistakes. Since tactical factors trump positional factors when both are present, and beginners make a lot of tactical errors, losing a pawn is not considered to be a serious problem. As we improve, however, we learn how to avoid tactical oversights and how to win endgames with an extra pawn. I’m pretty much at this level for now. But still stronger players are frequently happy to sacrifice a pawn for dynamics, since they know how to make those dynamic factors last or else turn them into concrete advantages. Hence, at the grandmaster level, we frequently see pawns tossed around with little interest in recovering them soon; this is especially true in games beginning with 1. d4.

After sacrificing a pawn for some positional compensation, though, he upped the ante considerably with his bizarre-looking 15. Qa3!?. We can speculate that he was so confident in his advantage over Topalov in queenless middlegames that he was willing to enter an endgame down a pawn and with his pawn structure ruined after 15…Qxa3 16. bxa3 that he felt the deficit to be worth it. Of course, Topalov is still quite good at endgames (althugh perhaps not up to Anand’s standards), so entering one with such a deficit without any compensation would not have been a smart move. But Anand had compensation here: he had much more space to maneuver his pieces, and Topalov’s pieces were awkwardly placed, and it’s hard to see how to get them out to reasonable spots. Was this enough?

During the game, commentators thought that Anand was playing very badly and was going to have to fight for a draw. (You can read Nigel Short’s comments made during the game on the ChessGames link above.) But after the game, commentators were full of praise for Anand’s concept. (See, for instance, Anish Giri’s annotations on ChessBase.) Hindsight is 20-20 though; Anand ended up winning the game in fine style, and it’s easy to pour praises on his ideas once we can see that they have worked.

In games 3, 5, and 8, when Topalov had the white pieces, we saw Anand play the Slav, aiming for a position with no chances to win but with very good chances to draw. This is reminiscent of Kramnik’s strategy in his matches, when he had the black pieces: give up any hope of winning, and figure out how to defend a slightly worse position out to a draw. It’s not that fun to watch though, and I find it hard to believe it can be fun to play. In game 8, Anand faced his toughest challenge from these three games and ended up losing, although the position was completely drawn a few moves before the end, when Anand blundered badly.

I feel that this sort of system is not in line with the style of play Anand is most comfortable with, but that he only chose it because he was gambling that Topalov wouldn’t be up to the task of winning these games. We saw that this judgment was misguided, and Kasparov criticized Anand’s choice of openings. Still, he did get to play some strong moves that are characteristic of his particular style of tactical defense, such as 22…f6!, temporarily offering the pawn on e6 in order to stick a rook on c2, and 33…Nb4! in game 5.

Games 4 and 6 followed Anand’s strategy with the white pieces of sacrificing a pawn for some positional compensation. In game 4, he was able to turn his positional compensation into a winning attack after Topalov provoked 22. Ng4! and 23. Nxh6!!; that was his best game in the match. In game 6, he was only able to get a draw from a game in which both sides had winning chances.

In game 7, however, Topalov was the one who got to use his strategy of playing something mind-bogglingly complex, starting with the very risky and in-character move 9…b5!?. He sacrificed a knight for two advanced central pawns that made Anand’s task of development challenging. When some pieces started to come off, it looked as though Anand would win the game with his extra material, but Topalov always managed to generate enough counterplay to avoid serious trouble. I think this game was the most interesting of the match, and it reflected very well on both players. Topalov showed his ability to play enterprising and complex chess, and Anand demonstrated that he was able to neutralize Topalov’s very active play. Presumably, people have analyzed this game deeply and will continue to do so for some time, and they’ll judge Topalov’s play on its objective merits. But in an actual game with the clock ticking, people aren’t always going to make perfect moves; some people aim for perfect moves, which can lead to serious time trouble, while others prefer to play moves that lead to practical difficulties. Topalov is firmly in the latter camp. Those with computers may find holes in his play, but it’s much harder to refute it over the board.

In games 9, 10, and 11, both players had chances to win, but neither was able to succeed. So, the match was tied going into the last game, in which Topalov had the white pieces.

With the white pieces and his tradition of strong finishes, Topalov seemed to be the favorite to win the match. However, if the game were drawn, the match would go to rapid-play tiebreaks. Since Anand is quite clearly the stronger rapid player, Topalov really wanted to win game 12 and avoid the rapid match. However, he tried too hard, and ended up losing after making some serious errors, especially 31. exf5 and 32. fxe4. Therefore, Anand was able to win the game and the match.

I’m really happy with the result of this match. Rather unsurprisingly, the games showed Anand mostly playing a little bit better, but Topalov still doing quite well by playing tricky moves. It’s not unreasonable for a pragmatic and tricky player who doesn’t always try to play the best moves to be the world champion; several others, especially Mikhail Tal, but also Emanuel Lasker, were known for this. Still, my aesthetic prefers to have a world champion who strives for clear and good play (yet still interesting play) over one who tries to force complications.

I found this to be the most interesting world championship match since I started caring about chess. I eagerly await the next one, in 2012. Anand versus Magnus Carlsen?

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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One Response to Recap of the world chess championship match

  1. intrepia says:

    I don’t pay much attention to chess anymore, but I still found this a really interesting read. Thank you!

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