SOFIA: After a week of intrigue, delays and cross country treks, Viswanathan Anand and Veselin Topalov will finally sit down in the Bulgarian capital on Saturday night to play the first game of the €2 million World Championship chess match.
The match will be World champion Viswanathan Anand’s biggest challenge given the off-board obstacles he has already faced and the strength of his opponent.
Topalov goes into the match as favourite. His world ranking is higher, his recent form is better than that of Anand, he has a career 11-10 lead in classical games against Anand, he has the white pieces in the first game and is playing in front of his home crowd.
Even more importantly, Anand’s preparation has been severely interrupted by finding himself stranded in Frankfurt due to the Icelandic volcano ash cloud on his way to the match. Anand and his team were then being forced to endure a five country, two-day trek in a mini-bus to get to the Bulgarian capital.
Anand requested a three-day delay to recover but was reluctantly granted only a postponement of a single day by the world body FIDE over strenuous objections to any delay from the organising committee.
Anand arrived in Sofia in the early hours of Tuesday morning in a delegation of eight which included his wife and manager Aruna and most of the team of seconds who backed him during his successful 2008 title match against Vladimir Kramnik. (Seconds help Anand in targeting Topalov’s weaknesses and analyse planned opening moves while Anand is sleeping.)
Nonetheless, Anand has both his opponent and history to overcome. In 1997, as a sprightly 27-year-old, Anand, having just completed an exhausting month-long qualifying event, raced from the Netherlands to Switzerland to meet a relaxed Anatoly Karpov for the FIDE knock-out world crown.
Anand forced the match into rapid tie-breakers, the form of chess at which he was and is peerless, but with victory in sight Anand blundered and lost a key game and the FIDE title.
Older and wiser
Now 40, Anand is older and wiser — he has refused to be baited by any jibes from Topalov’s team — but he is at an age where the demands of competitive chess weigh heavily and a three-week battle for the world title may stretch the Indian legend to the limit.
Anand goes to the gym regularly but Topalov, 35, looks to be fitter.
Anand’s key asset, and one which may enable him to retain the match title he took from Kramnik in 2008, is that after all his setbacks in match play he knows how to prepare well for a world title match.
Anand described the process as hibernation for six months, thinking only of his opponent and this in part explains his recent modest tournament performances.
Great sportspeople have the ability to shine in adversity and at the opening ceremony on Wednesday Anand appeared calm and relaxed. Whether he can also put the off-board travails out of his mind and outpoint the local hero will begin to be known late on Saturday night.