by GM Ian Rogers
Did I hear a collective groan by chess fans around the world as Veselin Topalov comfortably defeated Vladimir Kramnik in the eighth game of the World Championship match in Elista?
Topalov may have started the match as a popular, suave, attacking world number one but over the last week most of his peers and most chess fans seem to have turned against him, turning the match into a classic bad guy v good guy contest, with almost everyone now barracking for the Kramnik – the man who accepted the injustice of a forfeit in game 5 and agreed to play with a point handicap. (One radio host in Australia described Kramnik yesterday as the People’s Champion and Topalov as the Agent of Evil!)
After Thursday’s eighth game, Kramnik may be wondering whether he may emerge from the match smelling of roses but without the World Championship title. Although the match is now tied at 4-4, Topalov has the momentum after round 8, in which he defeated Kramnik in a 52 move, four and a half hour game.
Topalov credited his victory on his good opening choice saying “I won deservingly.”
Kramnik tried to insist that he was still in good shape and that this loss was not tragic. “It was not my day,” said the Russian after the game (at a separate press conference to Topalov, of course). “The whole game was one big error [by me].” When a journalist compared his disaster on Thursday with his crushing defeat with White against Peter Leko at his 2004 title defence, Kramnik agreed that the sprit of the loss was similar.
In the press room, Topalov win was greeted with a curious reaction – the fear that every Topalov victory will increase the chance of a later legal challenge by Kramnik.
The biggest worry for Kramnik is not (as a recent protest letter from the Kramnik camp alleged) that Topalov’s team will plant an electronic device in Kramnik’s toilet but that the Russian has been comprehensively out-prepared in the opening in the past two games.
Kramnik’s great defensive abilities enabled him to create winning chances in game seven but at top level this is hardly the way to win games.
(One of the more bizarre conspiracy theories has Topalov beginning to use electronic assistance, since any allegations by Kramnik against his opponent will only look like sour grapes. The conspiracy theory notes that there is no Faraday shield over the playing hall (as promised but not delivered) to avoid electronic signalling and that the metal detector to which the players are subject at the start of each game would not pick up the sort of device used at the World Open. Of course the theory makes the elephant-sized assumption that Topalov would even consider getting electronic help but the suggestion has dogged Topalov ever since he made his big leap forward 18 months ago.
The theory probably has too many legs to be slowed by a single blogger but here goes -having watched Topalov win the world title in Argentina last year, and also at major tournaments in Spain, Bulgaria, Germany and Mexico, I can say that Topalov’s play, his demeanour, his post-game analysis and the actions of his seconds – who were sometimes talking to me when they were supposed to be signalling to Topalov - gave no hint whatsoever that he was getting outside assistance at any of these tournaments, all but one of which Topalov won.
Back to the real world. Here’s Topalov’s great performance in game 8 and please don’t ask what percentage of his moves match Fritz!
1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 e6 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Bd3 dxc4 7.Bxc4 b5 8.Be2!?
As a teenager, Kramnik had plenty of experience playing on the Black side of this line but his only previous trial of this move on the White side (in a 1998 blitz game against Garry Kasparov) proved unconvincing.
Despite Topalov almost never taking the Black side of a Semi-Slav, the Bulgarian was well prepared, leading the game into messy territory very quickly.
8…Bb7 9.0-0 b4 10.Na4 c5!? 11.dxc5 Nxc5 12.Bb5+ Ncd7 13.Ne5 Qc7 14.Qd4 Rd8 15.Bd2 Qa5!
An obvious improvement on 15…a6 16.Rfc1 Qa5 17.Bc6 which led to a large White edge in a 1974 game. Topalov was still playing very quickly; “I found a line which had a bad reputation and analysed it deeply and discovered that Black has nothing to worry about.”
16.Bc6 Be7 17.Rfc1 Bxc6 18.Nxc6 Qxa4 19.Nxd8
Apparently Kramnik was unconvinced by his attack and decides to seek solace in an endgame but White’s initiative proves no compensation for Black’s material advantage (Yes, Virginia, two knights are worth almost a pawn more than rook and pawn.)
It would have been better for Kramnik to try 19.b3!? Qb5 20.Qxa7! Now 20…Rc8 21.Nd4! gives White a big attack but Black is probably fine after 20…Qb6.
19…Bxd8 20.Qxb4 Qxb4 21.Bxb4 Nd5 22.Bd6 f5 23.Rc8 N5b6 24.Rc6 Be7 25.Rd1 Kf7 26.Rc7 Ra8 27.Rb7 Ke8 28.Bxe7 Kxe7 29.Rc1 a5 30.Rc6 Nd5 31.h4 h6 32.a4 g5 33.hxg5 hxg5 34.Kf1 g4 35.Ke2 N5f6 36.b3 Ne8 37.f3 g3 38.Rc1 Nef6 39.f4 Kd6 40.Kf3 Nd5 41.Kxg3
Now Black’s job becomes very easy but White has almost run out of moves, e.g. 41.Rb5 Ra7! followed by …Nc7, trapping the rook.
42.Rb5 Nc3! is also hopeless. However now the b pawn falls and the rest is a massacre.
42…Rb8 43.Ra7 Rg8+ 44.Kf3 Ne4 45.Ra6+ Ke7 46.Rxa5 Rg3+ 47.Ke2 Rxe3+ 48.Kf1 Rxb3 49.Ra7+ Kf6 50.Ra8 Nxf4 51.Ra1 Rb2 52.a5 Rf2+ 0-1