Ahh, the World Championship of chess is in bloom now. In the picturesque environs of the Argentinian town of San Luis.
And with it go the sleepless nights glued to the small screen, capturing the pungency and the aroma of the games as they are delivered fresh from the kitchen, in the form of live telecast. No, I am not talking about the television screen. It has not reached that stage yet where the likes of Anand, Topalov, Leko, Svidler, Adams, Morozevich, Polgar and Kasimdzhanov would be seen happily endorsing products in between breaks from the action. (Do any of those sound like blokes from the neighbourhood, btw? One of them is actually a lady, though.)
Not because there aren't enough natural reserves of 'commercial breaks' in the course of a chess game -- to be true those reserves exceed the amount of natural gas in Iran, as, to the layman, there could appear nothing but a sprinkling of the chess coins on the board that shift position slower than Ganguly's scoreboard, and advertisers could show a full spectacle of Bachchan brushing his teeth to glory in between, if they want, than merely holding a pack of Dabur Lal Dantmanjan -- but because there are so few to be present in front of the screen when the action takes place (games getting played out that is, not Bachchan's antics).
But the chess servers broadcasting the live games on the internet have been witnessing a record breaking viewership, with the onset of this tournament. (Yes, a tournament -- a radical shift in the way a world champion of chess is decided -- because so far it was customary to hold one-on-one matches to decide that, but that's another story that'll interest just the die-hard enthusiasts.) Yesterday, in the second round of the tournament, there were close to five-thousand viewers watching the games at any instant. And this just on one server; there were, arguably, thousands more capturing the live action on other servers and websites.
Well, Topalov was taking on Anand.
Both tournament favorites, and just emerging from wins in their first round games to lead the points tally. Clash of the titans. Whoever of them wants to pocket the title ultimately will need to beat the other in their face-to-face matchup. Their individual encounters may be what will finally tilt the scales one way or the other; as both are equally proficient in beating up the other relative weakies (if anyone in this field could be called weak without blasphemy, that is). Topalov had already dealt a body blow to the other principal contender -- Leko -- in the first round, stealing a win from a lost position. And it was time to take the other bull by the horn -- Anand. A win for Topalov today and he'll be very much in the driver's seat towards the crown.
Topalov played briskly with white, and was soon 25 mins ahead on the clock. This being against Anand who's the acknowledged speediest player on the earth, showed that Topalov had come prepared with something special for Anand. Soon it uncorked itself -- an exchange sacrifice to create a powerful bishop pair and possibilities of attack against black's king. Anand navigated the position with elan and pretty soon had managed to contain white's initiative while retaining his material advantage.
However, that was only part of the work done. To win, Anand needed to come up with a winning plan. He seemed to be on course, gradually improving his own position bit by bit. Simplifying the position and going to the queenless ending would have ensured a victory for him. But, fortune never beckons without a hurdle; and that hurdle was: how to simplify at all?
That was when disaster struck. Unable to come up with the winning plan, and under pressure from Topalov's attacking pieces, Anand made a poor move that turned out to be a blunder. And within a flit, it saw Topalov holding Anand by the jugular as he not only regained the exchange but totally annihilated Anand's kingside with a pretty sham sacrifice. It was all over for Anand.
It is not without reason, however, that Anand has often got himself called as the best defender in the game. He took on to resist resourcefully in a completely lost position, and decided to force Topalov to sweat for his win. Topalov was playing like a man possessed -- finding the precisest moves on each turn to pile up his advantage, and denying Anand any counterchance whatsoever. Anand was lamb to the slaughter.
4 o'clock at night, and it seemed no point wasting any more time awaiting the verdict that was bound to be a death knell to an Anand fan's hopes.
Wait a minute! What did I hear Grandmaster Yasser Seirawan commenting on the game, just say? He said he regrets that though he's expected to be an expert in this endgame the fact was that he wasn't. But from what he could gather, he believes this could be a draw.
What?? What's he talking about? With Anand's position in greater ruins than Kandahar, and his king finding himself in a smaller hole than Saddam Hussein, how could he talk such nonsense? Every computer worth its silicon in the world was showing decisive advantage for Topalov. How could one even imagine Anand salvaging a draw in that eyesore of a position?
The thing with computers is that if they see a forced win their eval jumps by leaps and bounds. How come it was staying within bounds, then, for a considerable while? Hovering just around +3.0 (that's the equivalent of being three pawns ahead, for the uninitiated). Were not the computers too quite sure how the win was to be got at?
The last hopes keep me awake for another hour and a half. Suddenly it dawns (as much figuratively that, as literally), that probably the wily grandmaster was correct after all. With precise play, Anand's b-pawn one step from queening was providing enough counterweight to continue the oxygen supply to his beleaguered king.
Every step was fraught with danger. Anand treads on the precipice. One false step and his lifeline will be cut. But he managed to find the precise defensive moves for his king. Topalov decided to win back the dangerous looking b-pawn that had long been a thorn in his flesh. But in exchange had to spoil his connected passed pawns that were to win the day for him.
It was a wise decision, as he didn't appear to have much more than a draw, and after winning the b-pawn it was impossible that he could have lost. Anand still had to play on precisely to salvage the draw that he had worked so assiduously toward.
It was 6 in the morning and I finally decide that I must crash in bed, now that it was looking that Anand would indeed manage to save the game.
It wasn't without further drama, though. Anand did make further inaccuracies, but thanks to the gruelling seven hours of play Topalov was unable to capitalize. Draw agreed on move 97.
Phew!! 97 moves. In an era where these super-GMs are prone to call it truce in twenty-five moves, more often than not. Some spectators drooled in the excitement provided -- it was a cliffhanger in a sense that couldn't be truer -- while some lamented the inaccuracies made by Topalov after having purchased Anand's ticket. No prizes for guessing which fan-cult sided with which opinion, though!
The next morning I read that Anand indeed saved the day.
As some anonymous chatter on the server was heard saying, quoting a long time adversary of Anand: it's not enough to just kill him. You have to kill him seven times before he's dead!