Acid Test

How the King Kept His Crown

Devangshu Datta, a journalist based in Delhi, writes on markets and technology
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Anand didn’t play his best chess against Gelfand, and yet, with this win, he has cemented his place among the greats of the game

One hallmark of sporting greatness is the ability to steamroll all comers when in form. A more nuanced index of greatness is the ability to win even when out of form. The truly great find ways to win even when they are struggling.

Viswanathan Anand’s recent defence of the world title against Boris Gelfand in Moscow ticks that box and thus cements his claim to being one of the greats. Anand was in patchy form. He won by a narrow margin in a tiebreaker that could have gone either way. But he did win, against a determined challenger who played out of his skin.

This was Anand’s third and most difficult title defence. The two players traded one win each and hacked out ten draws at a normal time-control. To tiebreak, they played a mini match of four games at a short time-control and Anand managed to win one of those.

He is the only man to have won, or defended the world title, in three different formats. The first time, he worked his way through a 128-player knockout that started in Delhi and ended in Tehran.

The second time he won the title was in 2007 in Mexico City. The format had changed, to a double game, round robin, featuring the world’s top eight players. In 2008, Anand beat challenger and former world champion Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn to defend the title. In 2010, he beat another former world champion, Veselin Topalov, in Sofia.

The record indicates his extreme versatility as well as, obviously, his skill. Each format imposes different demands. A knockout requires the ability to handle the unexpected on the fly, since the sequence of opponents is unknown. A round robin requires preparation against a battery of known opponents and also a careful setting of targets—which games to hold, which games to press.

The match play format is unique to chess and the most difficult to handle. One analogy would be a series of boxing matches between the same pair. Match play demands in-depth preparation. It means getting to know each other intimately. A lot of it is about guessing and second-guessing the opponent’s actions and reactions, while allowing for the fact that the opponent is doing precisely the same thing. In a certain limited sense, Anand and Gelfand now know each other better than their respective spouses.

It is difficult to manage a successful synthesis of match psychology and the technical details of preparation even when in the best of form. It is really difficult to do this when you are in the middle of a slump, as indeed Anand was and maybe still is. Only he knows how he managed to raise his standards when it really mattered.

One key point that Anand himself identified was the 24-hour period between game 7 and game 8. Anand had lost game 7 and trailed in the match. He had played game 7 badly. He had not played particularly well in games 1 to 6 either. He did not sleep that night, haunted by the fear that the match was gone. But then he produced a masterpiece to break back, logging the quickest win (just 17 moves) ever registered in a title match.

Anand managed a similar triumph of will in the tiebreaker when the key thing was to just stay in control of the nerves. The emotional strain of the match was evident when he later said, “It was so tense, I’m not even happy I won, just plain relieved. I’d just say my nerves held out better in the end.”

Anand managed to win one game in the tiebreaker, and they drew the other three. The tiebreaker format was brutal—one game with 25 minutes (and a 10 seconds/ per move increment) on the clock, followed by a 10-minute gap, followed by the next game. In technical terms, Gelfand had excellent chances to win game 3 and also game 4. But the Israeli Grandmaster ran short of time as Anand found counterplay in inferior positions and eventually, Gelfand couldn’t convert his favourable positions.

As Anand described things immediately afterwards: “The match had been so even, I had no clear sense how the tiebreaks would shape. The first game (a draw) was nuts. It seems in hindsight that we both played reasonably but I had no idea at the time what was going on in a highly complex position.”

 “I had an edge through the second game (which he duly won) but Boris defended very well and kept chances of a draw until he ran short of time and offered me a welcome gift. In game 3, I was simply lost but I was lucky in that there was counterplay. (Most commentators would say he made his own luck by taking drastic action). I was very lucky the score didn’t equalise immediately. Again, in game 4, Boris had his chances and I had to find various tricks to hold out.”

The internet polls overwhelmingly favoured Anand. But Anand always knew it would be a tougher match than most analysts expected. Although Gelfand was a surprise challenger, he’d got to Moscow the hard way by beating other, more favoured contenders.  Anand and Gelfand have been playing each other since 1989. Anand went into the match with a career head-to-head record of 6 wins–5 losses–24 draws (it’s now 7 wins– 6 losses–34 draws). So, he knew the 43-year-old Israeli GM is a hard nut to crack.

And so it proved. Indeed, an overview of the positions suggests that Anand and his team may have been outmanoeuvred in that game of guessing and second-guessing intentions. Team Anand is a multicultural organism with a stable happy look. Peter Heine Nielsen (Denmark), Surya Sekhar Ganguly (India), Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzbek- istan) and Radoslaw Wojtaszek (Poland) have worked together for several years. They play loud metal, argue and insult each other cheerfully in several languages, while figuring out what “the boss” needs. They did a reasonable job in finding new ideas, including a couple of startlingly good ones.

But Gelfand’s team, headed by Boris Alterman (supported by several other players he refused to name), also did a pretty good job at working out what their boss needed. Gelfand surprised by adopting systems he had never played before. He consistently reached positions where Anand was not entirely happy or even ‘weak’ in the subjective sense.

Weakness is a very relative concept when speaking of world titleholders. Anand is among the most flexible and universal players there has ever been. But his real forte is handling complex unbalanced situations where he can bring his special gifts of massive calculating power and extraordinary intuition to bear. He doesn’t enjoy pure technical positions that much. Gelfand and his team deserve every credit for identifying that zone of uncertainty and getting into it, rather than being dragged willy-nilly onto Anand’s favourite turf.

As Anand described it, “Boris never does something insane and he gives you very little ground in terms of error. Every mistake has a higher value when errors aren’t thick on the ground. So it was an incredibly heavy blow to lose game 7. And, if at all I’m proud of any moment in the match, it would be coming back in game 8. Overall I’d say our preparation was just about balanced.”

So much for the title defence itself. The aftermath could prove to be an interesting period for the world champion in terms of personal motivation. Anand has, frankly, been in terrible form for a while. His world ranking will dip to No. 6 because he ‘should’ have beaten Gelfand by a larger margin. This slide has led to many critics, including the legendary Garry Kasparov, suggesting that Anand is now over the hill.

The chess rating system is a little like the tennis ATP rankings and the FIFA national rankings. It takes all official games into account and awards points without weighting for importance. It is as though a Spain-Netherlands ‘friendly’ counts for as much as a World Cup final. Magnus Carlsen of Norway is the current No. 1, while Anand owns the most prestigious title—of world champion. By analogy, the No. 1 footballing nation may not be the World Cup winner. Nor is the ATP No. 1 necessarily the winner of the most Grand Slams.

The age hypothesis sounds a little forced. Chess is a young man’s game. It requires huge amounts of energy to play and it means massive efforts in both conscious and automatic memorisation of long opening sequences and patterns. But rating records suggest that great players usually peak in their late 30s and early 40s and then plateau. At 42, it’s difficult to accept that age itself is a major factor in Anand’s dip in form.

There may be other, more logical reasons for the slump. First, some context. Until May 2011, Viswanathan Anand was at the absolute indisputable top. He was the world chess champion, the proud inheritor of a tradition dating back to 1886. He had also hit his own career-high rating and he was ranked the world No. 1.

In April 2011, his only child, Akhil, was born and he decided to take several months off to enjoy the joys of being a new parent. Between April and September 2011, he didn’t play a single game. When he resumed playing in October 2011, he seemed rusty. Between October 2011 and March 2012, he played 31 games and registered a 3 wins–4 losses–24 draws record, which is way below his normal standards.

It is possible Anand got a little too focused on parenting and allowed midnight nappy changes to disturb his routine a little too much. He may also have been too focused on preparing for the world title match and, so to speak, decided to keep his powder dry.

The six-month hiatus in itself may be a big factor. Anand hasn’t taken that much time off since he sat for his Class X exams. Even for an undisputed genius, that much of a break in riyaaz might be a difficult thing to overcome.

Like every other high-performing sportsperson, Anand has suffered poor patches before. It’s the flip side of the golden periods of absolute dominance when he’s won everything in sight. He’s always pulled himself out of those holes.

It’s up to him to identify what’s wrong at the moment and to implement corrective measures. The drop in ranking and the concomitant lack of respect should be more than ample motivation, if that was ever lacking.

There will also be an arsenal of unused ideas at his disposal. Anybody who now plays an opening system that Anand suspected Gelfand was interested in is likely to run into a landmine. I’d be willing to wager that the world champion will be back at the top of the rankings pretty soon.

The next world title match will be in 2014. Magnus Carlsen, who will then be 24, may be playing that one. Or Levon Aronian, who will be 33. Even the old warhorse, Vladimir Kramnik, who is actually six years younger than Anand, might get another crack. Whoever the next challenger may be, it’s unlikely he’ll be delusional enough to expect the ‘geriatric’ in possession of the title to lie down and concede without a fight.