A fight till the end

I WAS so very much on edge last Friday evening. Who wouldn’t be, watching the four tie-break games of the world chess championship unification match live on the Internet?

That was just about the most tense final night in any chess competition. Bulgarian grandmaster Vesselin Topalov, the Fide world champion, was battling the popularly-styled classical chess champion Vladimir Kramnik of Russia for the unified title of absolute world champion.

Their 12-game match in normal regulation time control had ended a day earlier in a 6-6 draw.

Actually, only 11 games were played but if you read this column two weeks ago or if you followed the championship on the Internet, you would have known that Topalov had won the fifth game by forfeit after Kramnik refused to play over a bizarre incident dubbed as Toiletgate.

Because the match ended in a draw, the two players were required to play four tie-break games at an accelerated time control of 25 minutes per player, plus an added 10 seconds for every move completed.

These were four very tense games played at the highest level by two of the strongest players in the world today.

It was a contrast of playing styles. Topalov is a born attacker. He thrives in unbalanced positions and he is not averse to giving up material for attacking chances. Meanwhile, Kramnik is the ultimate positional player. The moment he picks up the scent of a weakness on the chessboard, he zooms in on it with an iron grip.

Against this background, one can understand the tension that was transmitted from a chessboard in Elista, Russia, to the rest of the world. Countless chess players were following the players’ every move on the Internet.

Even the most popular chess sites were unprepared for the unprecedented traffic. At the height of the match, the playchess.com chess server, run by the Chessbase company, stalled. Even the official world championship website stopped functioning at a critical stage.

I got so frustrated that I eventually logged into the Internet Chess Club to watch the games.

The first tie-break game was anything but a tame draw. It was fighting chess all the way with Kramnik’s resourceful play eventually neutralising Topalov’s initiative.

The second game belonged to Kramnik. Some inaccuracies from Topalov soon gave Kramnik such a strong central pawn that marched down the board to cut his opponent’s space into two.

Topalov struck back in the third game with some vintage attacking play. By sacrificing a pawn on the kingside, he soon built up an irresistible attack on Kramnik’s king. Kramnik was forced to resign when checkmate became unavoidable.

With the score now tied at 1½ -1½, Kramnik clinched the championship by winning the fourth. He gradually outplayed Topalov who was pushed further back into defence. At a critical stage and in a difficult position, he blundered.

Topalov immediately realised his mistake and closed his eyes. Kramnik took a few seconds to savour the position, then played the move which won him the unified world title. Topalov stretched out his hand to resign the game, then quickly left the table. Almost simultaneously, Kramnik punched the air with his hand and was soon hugged by his manager who couldn’t resist a whoop of joy.

So what now for the absolute world chess champion? Will he make good his threat to sue the World Chess Federation? Conceivably, this definitely would happen if the match had gone the way of Topalov. But with Kramnik now wearing the undisputed world chess crown, Fide may actually avoid the suit.

However, the respite may not be long. Already, the Bulgarian grandmaster was reported to have issued a challenge to a rematch with Kramnik because he claimed that the Fide regulations allowed for every former world champion to seek a rematch if a prize fund of ?1.5mil Euro can be secured.

But Kramnik himself has dismissed the challenge, saying that there must be an end to “soap operas that could go on forever”. In criticising Topalov and his manager for unethical actions during the world championship match, Kramnik said there are other players willing to challenge him for the title.

What’s going to happen next is anybody’s guess. Daily, we hear contrasting news from Russia and Bulgaria, of claims and counter-claims. Fide will have to decide.

But as we stay tuned for more developments on the world championship front, the least we can do now is wait for Kramnik to play a six-game match against the computer chess programme, Deep Fritz. This match, in Bonn, Germany, will start in a month’s time. It will be a worthwhile diversion.

About the author
Quah Seng-Sun has been writing about chess in The Star newspaper in Malaysia since Aug 1980. This article originally appeared in the Lifestyle section of the newspaper on 27 Oct 2006.

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