Wednesday, January 14, 2009

One-Act Chess Play

[In the October-December 2008 issue of Atlantic Chess News, class-B player Ken Calitri gives his insights on the recent world championship match between Vladimir Kramnik and Vishwanathan Anand. See if you like reading his article as much as I did.]

Well, it was not a big surprise Vishy Anand beat Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn, Germany. Although I was rooting for Kramnik, I do admit Anand was slightly favored before the match. Only his psychological frailty, a stigma left over from his 1996 WCC match with Kasparov, precluded him from being the odds on favorite in Vegas, even if the pundits were too proper to say it.

Over the years I have become a big Kramnik fan. Although I rooted for the ‘old man’ in the 2000 WCC match, I was amazed how Kramnik boxed Kasparov’s ears off. The ex-champ later repeated what tired old fighters say after losing, “I just couldn’t get my punches off.” Two wins and one Berlin Defense later, Kramnik was world champion and Karpov’s successor as the boa constrictor of positional chess.

Kramnik’s decision not to give Kasparov a chance for revenge reminded everyone of the Alekhine and Capablanca dispute that deprived chess of a monumental rematch. Luckily for Kramnik, two matches against Leko and Topalov restored his sporting reputation. Kramnik showed guts in coming back to tie Leko, and by beating Topalov in Toilet Gate the Russian bear turned into a Russian prince. Kramnik also carried himself with amazing grace when he accepted the decision to forfeit a point, almost costing him the victory. In Elista, if Topalov destroyed his sporting reputation, Kramnik’s came full circle. Newly married to a gorgeous French journalist, in revitalized health, trim and fit, and playing to his full powers, Kramnik reminded me of Capablanca in his heyday when he was the Rudolph Valentino of chess.

Vishy Anand is one of the most popular players in the world. He is warm, and well-rounded, and one of the game’s greatest natural talents. He excels in all chess formats, and his results speak for themselves – he is a winner. With that said, he has always reminded me of other great natural sporting talents who didn’t quite live up to expectations. I am dating myself, but names like Ilie Nastase, Barry Bonds Sr., and Lanny Wadkins come to mind. These were sportsmen who had such natural talent they never had to work hard at being great; they just were. They reached significant heights of success but never reached their full potential. For whatever reason, call it laziness, a lack of toughness, arrogance, or emotional focus, they had psychological underpinnings that were not made of cement.

Anand has risen to the summit playing dazzling chess with countless tournament victories. Yet I cannot imagine him winning a 24-game match against any former world champion except for Steinitz and Euwe. I have strong doubts he would be able to beat Keres, Korchnoi, Short, Kramnik, or Topalov. I would have taken reasonable odds that, if the recent match with Kramnik was 24 games long, Kramnik would have eventually broken Anand down to win.

Does this mean Anand is not a great chess player? No. He is a great tournament chess player, but not a great match player, and winning one 12-game match doesn’t change my opinion. Roberto Duran was a living legend, but quitting in the famous ‘No Mas’ match against Sugar Ray Leonard tainted a reputation forged from hands of stone. During the 1996 WCC match in the Big Apple, Vishy Anand quit on himself and his team. I remember a poignant order by Nigel Short’s wife to her husband before a critical game versus Speelman in their second candidates match, “Nigel, at the end of the game come out of the room with your shield or on your shield!” Anand got into a clinch with Kasparov, leaned over and whispered, “I just want to finish on my feet.” How nice. As Kasparov said, “There is something psychological there,” when assessing Vishy’s chances in a pre-match interview.

A one-act play took place in Bonn in the form of a 12-game match for the world chess championship. Both players, especially Kramnik in defeat, showed themselves to be classy sportsmen and very worthy chess representatives to the world. The coverage of the match was phenomenal with real time and live video coverage. As Boris Spassky is fond of saying it was “a festival of chess!” Unfortunately, it quickly reminded us of a World Series where one team jumps to a 3-0 or 3-1 lead or a Super Bowl when one team comes in flat and are 20 points behind at half-time. If that is what we want chess to be, then why not shorten it to 8 games (rapid tie breaks only, please) and call it a day? Let them slug it out. Let’s face it. World championship chess is no longer about epic matches.

Anand is going to be a great champion and wonderful ambassador for chess. My homey, Vladimir Kramnik, will challenge again. He has heart, talent, and judging by the anguish on his face in game nine when a win slipped away he will maintain his drive. Ultimately this piece isn’t about them. It is about a one-act play. The Bonn match will be written about in chess magazines, but there won’t be a classic book written by ‘Raymundo’ Keene or Yasser Seirawan that you can curl up with for hours and re-read over the years. Titanic matches played over 24 games on a stage in Moscow or Seville are a thing of the past, thanks in great part to Kasparov’s break away from FIDE in 1993.

Recent WCC matches of shorter lengths have had peculiar features. Brissago was a cat and mouse affair, and the Elista match ended when it was just heating up. Matches of 16, 18, and 20 games seem to capture the aura of a 24-game match. Korchnoi’s semi-final candidates wins in 1977 and 1981 are good examples. The 1993, 1996, and 2000 WCC matches were not fraught with drama; the loser’s form influenced that, but there are enough games for players to get in a groove or recover from a bad patch, time for drama to build and a story to develop. Maybe the success of live Internet video coverage seen in Bonn will provide revenue that far outweighs the cost of the venue, making longer matches possible.

A one-act play every two years is an empty proposition for chess purists. If the future length of a WCC match is not at least 16 games, I suggest a yearly world championship tournament where the top two finishers (from one large field or two separate fields) play a match of 8, 10, or 12 games. Then, we can judge great chess players as they do in other sports, by their ability to win and prove their dominance with repeated victories and in doing so they will become as Muhammad Ali liked to shout gleefully “the greatest of all time!”