- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

By the narrowest of margins, world chess champion Viswanathan Anand of India has retained the crown he has held since 2007, defeating a game Israeli GM Boris Gelfand in a four-game rapid playoff Thursday in Moscow after the two deadlocked 6-6 in their classical title match.

Anand took home $1.53 million for his efforts, while the underdog Gelfand, who became a media sensation in his home country trying to become the first Israeli to capture the crown, received slightly more than $1 million.

It should be a popular victory for the well-liked Anand, who next must defend his title sometime in 2013-14, though the fighting quality of the play at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow left something to be desired. Thirteen of the 16 games played in the match ended in draws.

The playoff games were contested more closely and turned on a pair of key moments in Game 2, won by Anand, and Game 3, in which Gelfand almost managed to even the account.

With White in Game 2, Anand again went with the Rossolimo Sicilian line that had brought him only minimal play during the classical portion of the match. White wins a pawn in the early play, but Black’s rooks and the numerous weaknesses in White’s game always give Gelfand good equalizing chances. Even when things clarify in the ending with 43. Nxa6 Rxf3 44. Nc5+ Kb6 45. b4, it’s by no means clear that White — while he can torment Black without risk of losing - has enough firepower to force a win.

Gelfand-Anand, Rapid Game 3, after 25...Nxe5.
Gelfand-Anand, Rapid Game 3, after 25…Nxe5. more >

White’s problem is that Black can guarantee a draw by a) trading his rook for the knight and pawn to get down to a rook-vs.-bishop ending; or by b) trading his bishop for the b-pawn to get down to a rook-vs.-rook-and-knight ending. As White tries to slowly nurse his pawn up the board, English IM Andrew Martin pointed out one ingenious way for Black to hold: 66. … Rf4+! (instead of the game’s 66. … Bd5?!) 67. Ka5 (Kc5 Rf5+ 68. Kb6 Rf6+ 69. Ka5 Bc6! 70. b6 [bxc6 Rxc6 is a book draw] Rf1, and White can’t make progress) Rc4 68. Na2 Bc6!, when 69. b6?? is out of the question because of 69. … Ra4 mate.

But lagging badly on the clock, Gelfand can’t handle the technical challenge and blunders with 71. Ka5 Rf5? 72. Ne6+ Kc8 73. Nd4, transitioning to a won rook-and-pawn ending. The winning technique in the final position involved the famous Lucena position, as White would use his rook to “build a bridge” with 77. … Rb1 78. Ka7 Ra1+ 79. Kb7 Rb1 80. b6 Rb2 81. Rh8 Rb1 82. Ka7 Ra1+ 83. Kb8 Rb1 84. b7 Ra1 85. Rh4! Ra2 86. Rd4+ Ke7; Gelfand resigned.

Perhaps more dispiriting for the challenger was the sequence in the next game, which we pick up from the diagrammed position after Black has just taken White’s bishop on e5. Black’s problem is that his attacked bishop on b8 is plugged - had Gelfand first played the simple 26. Nxe4! fxe4 (Nc4 27. Bxc4 fxe4 28. Ba6, and the Black bishop is still doomed) 27. Nxe5, he would have won a piece. Instead, White took immediately with 26. Rxb8? Ng6 27. Nxe4 fxe4 28. Qf2 Qg7, and Anand was able to save the inferior ending.

With one more long draw in the fourth and final rapid game, Anand retained his crown.

In their post-match comments, the two players defended the large number of dry draws, citing the stakes involved and the pressures of making a mistake.

Not all world title matches have been played so cautiously. The famously conservative Soviet great Mikhail Botvinnik racked up 10 wins and took four losses in his 21-game match to reclaim the world title from Latvian champion Mikhail Tal in 1961.

Anand’s 17-move miniature win in Game 7 of the Moscow match also broke a 126-year-old mark set by another fighting world title match, won by Austrian-born champion Wilhelm Steinitz over Polish challenger and archrival Johannes Zukertort. That match, played in a series of American cities, featured 15 decisive games out of 20, including a 19-move match-clincher by Steinitz over his exhausted sparring partner.

Already well ahead in the match, Steinitz trots out the Vienna Game (2. Nc3) for the first time in the match, following up with a dubious gambit of his f-pawn. But Zukertort, far better known today for his attacking skills, proves far less impressive as a defender. As with Gelfand in Moscow, he allows his queen to be lured to a vulnerable position on 8. g3! fxg3+ 9. Kg2 Nxd4 10. hxg3 Qg4 11. Qe1+ Be7 12. Bd3! (Rh4?! is premature because of 12. … Nxc2), where the queen falls to a neat tactic.

Thus: 15. Ne4 Ngh6? (losing, but Black’s position already was hard to hold) 16. Bxh6 Nxh6 17. Rxh6! gxh6 18. Nxf6+ Kf7 19. Nxg4, and Black resigned the game and the match.

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