Ohmigod ohmigod ohmigod! Just try to guess why I am so excited right now. I dare you, just try.
I’ll even give you some time…
Okay, so maybe the title gave it away.
The long awaited (among chess fans anyway) match between Viswanathan Anand of India and Vladimir Kramnik of Russia begins today. To fully understand the importance of this match, let me lay some history on you.
In 1972 Bobby Fischer played defending champion Boris Spassky for the title. After twenty-one of the scheduled twenty-four games the match was mathematically over. In the weeks that followed Fischer was appearing on the Tonight Show, gleefully describing Spassky as the second-best chessplayer in the world. For his part, Spassky was saying things like, “Back home they don’t understand. They think this reflects badly on them.”
Fischer’s success launched a chess boom in the United States. Sadly, it was not to last. Fischer refused to defend his title against Anatoly Karpov in 1975 and was stripped of his title. Karpov, apparently feeling he had something to prove, went on a tear and dominated the chess scene for the next ten years. He racked up a string of tournament victories so impressive that no serious doubt remained about his status as champion.
Dominant as he was in tournaments, Karpov was less impressive in matches. His match with Vicotr Korchnoi, played in 1978 in the Phillipines, is now legendary for its abnormally large number of frivolous disputes. Abnormally large even by chess player standards, mind you. Korchnoi protested the small cup of yogurt Karpov was in the habit of receiving during the match on the grounds that the color of the yogurt could be used to communicate messages. (The ruling of the appeals committee was that Karpov could have his yogurt but it always had to be the same color, with any change of color announced two days in advance). Karpov complained that the colorful, flowing gowns of Korchnoi’s spiritual gurus were distracting. Korchnoi accused Karpov of placing a hypnotist in the audience to distract him. On and on it went.
In 1984 Gary Kasparov arrived on the scene. His match with Karpov was to end as soon as one player notched up six wins, which can take a while considering the large number of draws between top grandmasters. After nine games: Karpov 4 – Kasparov 0. Kasparov hunkered down and rattled off one draw after another. Still, Karpov won game 27 to go up 5-0. But the sixth point eluded Karpov, and by game 48 Kasparov had brought the score up to 5-3, scoring two consecutive wins in the last two games. At this point FIDE called off the match, citing the health of the players. This was commonly seen as a desperate attempt to save Karpov, who was clearly weakening physically.
Anyway, a rematch was played the following year and Kasparov won. Kasparov and Karpov would play three further matches, with Kasparov winning two of them and tying one. Since the champion keeps his title in the case of a tie, Kasparov was the champion throughout.
Kasparov would dominate the chess scene for the next fifteen years, but I won’t dwell on that. Of interest to us here is his break with the World Chess Federation (FIDE) in 1993, when it was time for him to defend his title against the British grandmaster Nigel Short. Angered by the rampant corruption in FIDE, Kasparov and Short played their match outside their auspices, with Kasparov emerging victorious.
FIDE responded by officially stripping Kasparov of his title and beginning a cycle to produce a new champion (with Karpov emerging victorious). Chess fans the world over laughed at this, since there was simply no question that Kasparov was the best player in the world. By far.
In 1995 Kasaprov defended his title against Viswanathan Anand. The first half of this match was played in New York City. In the observation deck of the Twin Towers. I attended game one. Turned out to be a dull draw, but I was riveted the whole time. Go figure. Kasparov scored another convincing win in the match.
In 2000 Kasparov defended his title against Vladimir Kramnik. Kasparov was certainly the favorite, but his aura of invincibility had certainly faded by that time, and everyone regarded Kramnik as a worthy challenger.
Actually, there was a fair amount of intrigue surrounding the match (the fans would have felt cheated if there weren’t), since it was not Kramnik, but Russian (now Spanish) grandmaster Alexei Shirov who earned the right for the match. Why the Shirov match never happened, and how Kramnik became the challenger in his place, will have to wait for a different post.
Kramnik beat Kasparov. In fact, Kasparov was largely unrecognizable, and failed to win a single game in fourteen tries.
Kasparov retired from chess a few years later. He is now active in Russian politics. Kramnik, meanwhile, proved to be something less than an inspiring champion. Both because of health problems and his basic laziness, he just wasn’t very impressive in his subsequent tournaments. Meanwhile, other grandmasters like Anand, Hungary’s Peter Leko, and Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov were putting up impressive results. The result was a situation in which there was no clearly best player in the world. That state of affairs has continued to the present.
Kramnik has defended his title twice, once against Leko and once against Topalov. Kramnik emerged victorious both times, but suffice it to say they were not exactly dominating wins. The Topalov match was especially bizarre, having given us the sadly infamous toiletgate scandal (in which Topalov protested the excessive amounts of time spent by Kramnik in his private bathroom, and suggested that he had stashed a computer there. Heavy sigh. Chess fans get used to this sort of thing.)
During all of this time FIDE continued to promote the delusion that they controlled the title of World Champion. They initiated a knock-out style tournament to decide the champ. These tournaments made for great fun, but as a way of choosing the best player they left quite a bit to be desired. They ended these tournaments in 2005, replacing them with a more traditional double round robin tournament among the world’s best players. Anand won the 2007 edition of the event, making him the official world chess champion.
Kramnik, meanwhile, was still recognized as the champion by some traditionalists, on the grounds that no one had defeated him in a match.
So now we have Kramnik and Anand playing twelve games in Germany. This is an eagerly anticipated match, since both players have been at the top of the heap for the last twenty years or so. It’s very hard to pick a favorite, since the players are very evenly matched. (I’m going with Kramnik!) There is also no history of ill will between them, so one can hope the match will be fought solely over the board.
And there you go! Promises to be an exciting match. Don’t worry! You will be getting updates…
Incidentally, if you’re wondering why I filed this post in the Technology category, it’s because everyone knows that the op chessplayer in the world right now is a computer. But that’s a different post!