SPRAGGETT ON CHESS
Perseverance has been the name of the game in Sofia this week as Topalov and Anand draw level after 8 games with 4 points each. Since the hiccup of game one, both players have stubbornly alternated between just 2 opening variations: the Slav and the Catalan. But today’s victory by Topalov against Anand’s Slav might mark a turning point as far as opening strategy is concerned for the last 4 games.
After 2 failed attempts to get something more than just a small theoretical advantage against the Slav, Topalov quickly found himself with a significant advantage in the early middlegame. ”When my knight went to d6, I evaluated the position as winning…” said the Bulgarian in the post-game press conference.
POSITION AFTER WHITE’S 25th MOVE
Perhaps over-confidence explains why just a few moves later the Bulgarian did not play what many thought was the winning move (28.Bb4
, instead of 28.Bc3
, which was the move played):
POSITION AFTER BLACK’S 27th MOVE
Here the expert commentators felt that 28.Bb4! Bxd6 29.Rd1! followed by 30.Rxd6 would probably win , as Black would soon be forced to shed his f4-pawn while allowing White to maintain Rooks on the board. Instead, Topalov’s pedestrian 28.Bc3 (which looks very good at first sight) allowed the Indian to avoid the worse and simplify to an opposite coloured Bishop ending a pawn down, but offering excellent practical chances to hold a draw.
POSITION AFTER WHITE’S 35th MOVE
Opposite coloured Bishop endings have a reputation for being notoriously drawish , even a pawn or two down. Here Topalov has a powerful extra pawn on d6 and all of Black’s pawns are on the same colour as his Bishop–usually a sign of trouble, but the Black King is in an excellent position to prevent White from making any obvious progress.
”Maybe it is not a win…”
Even so, the experts were divided on just how good White’s chances were to win or Black’s chances to draw. Former world champion Kasparov at first thought that White should be winning, but upon closer examination of Black’s resources he was not so confident. I personally felt that the practical chances of winning were about 50%, especially given that White can play on for 100 moves without taking any risks while Black would have to remain alert and focused.
The characteristic thing, I suppose, is that in this kind of position you can never really be sure whether it is a win or only a draw.
“I wasn’t 100 per cent sure,”
Topalov said in the press conference, “But it looked to me that it should be winning and I couldn’t see a way for Black to defend.”
While Anand thought “The endgame was very close but I didn’t ever see a clear way to draw.”
Certainly this endgame will be the subject of much analysis in the days to come, and I am certain that it will find itself into endgame anthologies.
But in the end it was the Indian who faltered when he fatally blundered on the 54th move, allowing Topalov the chance to level the match, and mercifully sparing the spectators from another 100 moves of Topalov’s King and Bishop moving back and forth, and sideways…
POSITION AFTER WHITE’S 54th MOVE
Here the experts agreed that had Black played 54…Ke8! (to blockade the White d-pawn with his King) and used his Bishop to defend his h-pawn (…Bd3) then Topalov’s chances of winning would be almost zero.
Instead, Anand did the opposite: he decided to blockade the White d-pawn with his Bishop and defend the h-pawn with his King. And this small inversion of moves gives White the chance to win by creating a Zugzwang position. Anand played 54…Bc6? and after 55. Kh6! Kg8 56. g4!! Anand realized that there was no way to stop White from breaking in:
POSITION AFTER WHITE’S 56th MOVE
White’s winning plan is simple: Play his pawn to g5, (probably his f-pawn to f4 also) his Bishop to g7 (!) and then break thru with g6. After the exchange of pawns on g6 the White King slides over to f6 and (after extricating his Bishop to h6) then to e7 to escort the passed d-pawn forward. Notice that it is important to prevent the Black King from going to f8, and for this reason White must play his Bishop to g7 before breaking in with g6.
Should Black move (at some point) his Bishop to e8 (trying to prevent g6), then White simply plays a pawn move elsewhere (b3 most likely) creating Zugzwang as the Black Bishop must move, allowing White to then win as above with g6.
Realizing this, Anand resigned in the position above! Classy!
It was not such a good day for defending world champion Anand. His favourite Slav opening got trashed,
and he has let the Bulgarian hero back into the match with just 4 games remaining. To make things worse, just when it seemed that he had escaped the worse (because of several imprecisions on Topalov’s part) , Anand then made a terrible blunder on the 54th move and had to resign just 2 moves later!
At the press conference Vishy seemed noticeably nervous, on numerous occasions his left hand touching his face while speaking, something that Anand rarely does, or atleast not in the previous days.
Anand also seemed to not fully appreciate that his position was completely drawable at the point where blundered. He expressed real doubts. Anand probably had difficulty in analyzing correctly at several points during the game.
This kind of dis-orientation is characteristic of an athlete who is out of his comfort zone and beginning to feel psychological and physical exhaustion. It is normal under highly stressful competitive circumstances. It is a good thing that tomorrow is a rest day!
While Topalov is undoubtedly satisfied with today’s result, he also is showing some signs of fatigue. His usually sharp tactical vision failed him when he did not play 28.Bb4 (instead of 28.Bc3). He most likely would have won handily in that case.
Instead, he allowed the Indian back into the game and he must have realized that he missed something when he found himself with nothing better than an opposite coloured Bishop ending a pawn up. While the Bulgarian was never in any risk, he should count himself lucky.
Normally, with this level of player (Anand and Topalov), if you make one mistake you can count on suffering for the rest of the game. Players of this level are unforgiving
, and only very rarely will they allow you to get back into the game.
But because of the unusal tension and importance of this match, both players are beginning to show cracks in their armour. What we saw today was that the mistakes were being forgiven! Not once, but twice!
To be fair, this is characteristic of such world championship matches. There will always be one or two games that are embarrassing! But what is important now for both players, as they are about to play the final period (analogy with hockey–3 periods), is that they find a way back to their usual level of play, despite the stress, the exhaustion and fatigue. It is especially important now for both players to be as mentally tough as they can be…the title of World Champion could be riding on a single blunder!
As mentioned, tomorrow is a rest day. Both players can use it, I am certain. The teams will have to sit down and re-evaluate their match strategy, re-define their objectives for the coming games and put into some rational perspective everything that has happened these past 4 games.
Certainly Topalov has gained some momentum, he has managed to win a game and has succeeded in imposing his will in each game.
Anand seemed to have been a bit uncomfortable with a one-point lead and lacked both the opportunity and the conviction to take any risks to increase his slim lead. Now that he has allowed the Bulgarian back into the match, he must think very carefully about what kind of mindset he wants to have in the next game.
However, as unfortunate as things have been recently, Anand still has an even score! He is certainly not out of the match by any means.
Finally, we spectators have to realize that while we are having so much fun, both players (and teams) are not having ANY fun at all! The routine of both players is undoubtedly limited to staying in their hotel rooms and travelling back and forth to the playing hall …and not much else. They probably can not go out , even for walks, for fear of being recognized and asked for autographs, pictures and silly questions. And there are real security issues as well.
This has been going on for the past 2 weeks, and can be expected for atleast another week…no doubt both players look forward to a nice long vacation later!
SPRAGGETT ON CHESS