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.
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.
Anand-Gelfand, World Championship Match, Playoff Game 2, May 2012
1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. Bb5 e6 4. Bxc6 bxc6 5. b3 e5 6. Nxe5 Qe7 7. d4 d6 8. Nxc6 Qxe4+ 9. Qe2 Qxe2+ 10. Kxe2 Bb7 11. Na5 Bxg2 12. Rg1 Bh3 13. dxc5 dxc5 14. Nc3 O-O-O 15. Bf4 Bd6 16. Bxd6 Rxd6 17. Rg5 Nf6 18. Rxc5+ Kb8 19. Nc4 Re8+ 20. Ne3 Ng4 21. Nd5 Nxe3 22. Nxe3 Bg4+ 23. f3 Bc8 24. Re1 Rh6 25. Rh1 Rhe6 26. Rc3 f5 27. Kd2 f4 28. Nd5 g5 29. Rd3 Re2+ 30. Kc1 Rf2 31. h4 Ree2 32. Rc3 Bb7 33. Rd1 gxh4 34. Nxf4 Re8 35. Rh1 Rc8 36. Rxc8+ Bxc8 37. Rxh4 Bf5 38. Rh5 Bxc2 39. Rb5+ Ka8 40. Nd5 a6 41. Ra5 Kb7 42. Nb4 Bg6 43. Nxa6 Rxf3
44. Nc5+ Kb6 45. b4 Rf4 46. a3 Rg4 47. Kd2 h5 48. Nd7+ Kb7 49. Ne5 Rg2+ 50. Kc3 Be8 51. Nd3 h4 52. Re5 Bg6 53. Nf4 Rg3+ 54. Kd4 Bc2 55. Rh5 Rxa3 56. Rxh4 Rg3 57. Nd5 Rg5 58. b5 Bf5 59. Rh6 Bg4 60. Rf6 Rf5 61. Rb6+ Ka7 62. Rg6 Bf3 63. Rg7+ Kb8 64. Nc3 Bb7 65. Kc4 Bf3 66. Kb4 Bd5 67. Na4 Rf7 68. Rg5 Bf3 69. Nc5 Kc7 70. Rg6 Kd8 71. Ka5 Rf5 72. Ne6+ Kc8 73. Nd4 Rf8 74. Nxf3 Rxf3 75. Kb6 Rb3 76. Rg8+ Kd7 77. Rb8 Black resigns.
Steinitz-Zukertort, World Championship Match, Game 20, 1886
1. e4 e5 2. Nc3 Nc6 3. f4 exf4 4. d4 d5 5. exd5 Qh4+ 6. Ke2 Qe7+ 7. Kf2 Qh4+ 8. g3 fxg3+ 9. Kg2 Nxd4 10. hxg3 Qg4 11. Qe1+ Be7 12. Bd3 Nf5 13. Nf3 Bd7 14. Bf4 f6 15. Ne4 Ngh6 16. Bxh6 Nxh6 17. Rxh6 gxh6 18. Nxf6+ Kf8 19. Nxg4 Black resigns.
• David R. Sands can be reached at 202/636-3178 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.