At first sight, it seemed that the 2007 World Chess Championship was supposed to be top secret. Even as one approached the entrance to the venue of the Championship, the Sheraton Centro Historico, there was no indication that the world's most important chess tournament was about to begin; no posters, no signs - nothing.
However the chess grapevine must work well in Mexico, for when the opening ceremony began in the convention centre on the fourth floor of the Sheraton, the massive hall was completely full.
In what seemed to be a major social gathering, 500+ immaculately dressed
Mexicans and more than 100 somewhat less spectacularly attired press people
watched the Governor of the Federal District Mexico City open the tournament.
The Governor was welcoming but constantly talked about "the eight best players in the world" present in Mexico, which must have come as a surprise to Veselin Topalov. He also referred to Florencio Campomanes as the President of FIDE, safe enough since Kirsan Iljumzhinov was not present.
Campomanes, who has somehow managed to secure the unelected lifetime position of Honorary Chairman of FIDE, once again managed to speak for 10 minutes without saying anything, an art he has mastered over many years of practice. Well, that may be a bit unfair – Campomanes did apologise for Iljumzhinov's absence and, remarkably he suggested that Mexico's neighbours, presumably Guatemala, Belize or the USA, should now hold a World Championship tournament "post haste".
Tournament organiser Jorge Saggiente said that organising the World
Championship in Mexico had seemed like an impossible dream but "We did
it!" Bringing the World Championship to Mexico City had involved the
cooperation of five government departments; primarily the Department of Sport but also including the departments of culture, tourism, social development and education.
The education factor and the benefits of chess was stressed in a number of the speeches, with a separate announcement made that Mexico City would soon be opening 100 chess schools.
Photo Cathy Rogers
The players who had waited patiently in a neighbouring VIP room when the
opening was almost an hour late then had to wait until all the speeches had
concluded before being allowed to draw their pairing numbers from the base of eight pawns. Each player was accompanied by a local child – Gelfand and Aronian let the child choose their number for them. Kramnik was called up first and scored number 1, which means that he will get the white pieces on the first two days.
There had been some dissension in the preparation of the tournament – the government of Mexico City had changed hands between the bid and the event and viewed some of the peripheral expenses, such as paying for FIDE's board meeting, as excessive - but the final result looked fantastic.
Two massive halls, one for the games, the other for opening ceremonies, press conferences and the like, adorned with giant posters, video screens and flags for each of the countries represented at the tournament. Immediately outside the hall were 16 computer terminals set up with 3D chess programs – a big hit with the public.
The press room, populated in large part by Russian journalists following the fortunes of their four representatives, was spacious and well-equipped.
Behind the scenes, there were still some problems to work out. Were the players obliged to give press conferences after the games? Would an analysis room be found for the players? Would the organisers finally agree to put a monitor showing the game positions in the rest area behind the stage? Would the tournament web site, which crashed constantly in the days leading up to the opening, have sufficient capacity to cope with the expected onslaught from chess fans once the games began? Would Peter Svidler convince the hotel to improve their wireless broadband speed so that he could watch the cricket 20/20 World Cup live?
The players have all arrived with seconds, some quite surprising. Viswanathan Anand has arrived with Danish GM Peter Heine Nielsen, who until recently had been working with Magnus Carlsen. "Yes, there are some things I have agreed not to disclose," said Nielsen, "but it is not really a problem."
Gelfand and Anand faced off in the first round. Photo Cathy Rogers
Four draws, all before the first time control, was not an inspired start to the
tournament. Still, all games except Grischuk-Leko contained significant
Anand could have been in deep trouble against Gelfand:
Already a surprise from Gelfand who invariably plays 1...c5.
2.Nf3 Nf6 3.Nxe5 d6 4.Nf3 Nxe4 5.Nc3 Nxc3 6.dxc3 Be7 7.Be3 Nd7 8.Qd2 Ne5
9.0-0-0 0-0 10.h4 Re8 11.h5 Bf6 12.Nh2!?
The first new move, intending a pawn storm on the kingside.
12...h6 13.Be2 Be6 14.f4 Nc4 15.Bxc4 Bxc4 16.b3?!
Anand was severely critical of this move after the game. "I analysed
16...Be6 and even 16...Bd5 but completely underestimated 16...Bb5! - a very
useful move," Anand said.
Anand thought for a long time over this move but was again critical of his
choice. "If I play 17.g4 then 17...Qe7 18.Rde1 Bh4 19.Bf2 is about equal.
However after 17...Re4!, I am not sure I am equal at all."
17...Re4! 18.Ng4 Qe7 19.Rde1 Re8 20.Bf2 Qd8! 21.Rxe4 Rxe4 22.Re1 Rxe1+?
Gelfand accompanied this move with a draw offer.
Anand was far more worried about 22...Rxf4! 23.Nxf6+ (23.Qxf4?? Bg5) 23...Qxf6
24.Bxa7 b6! "when I am not sure that this is OK for White at all."
"Somehow I thought that after 25.Bb8 White would be completely OK,"
said Gelfand. However Anand had continued the variation with 25...Rf2 26.Qe3
Qf5 27.Qe4 "And now can you play 27...Qc8 ?" asked Anand.
He was right - Black is much better after 27...Qc8.
"However after the exchange of rooks, I should be able to hold," said
Anand and so...
Gelfand seemed to lack confidence in his own calculations, thinking that Anand
would have had everything under control.
Kramnik and Svidler looked to be playing the most exciting game of the round
until the game suddenly stopped.
it was not the first round I would continue to play," was Kramnik's not
too convincing excuse for his draw offer.
Svidler was quite relieved to have escaped a passive position from the opening.
"I was very happy when some tactics started even though I didn't think my
position was good enough to justify them. At least [after ...c5] there was
something to calculate."
Svidler thought that 22.Bd3 was stronger than 22.Nh2. "Kramnik thought
that 22.Nh2 would lead to a mating attack," Svidler said. "I had no
idea who was better in the final position."
Kramnik agreed - "Maybe White, maybe Black. Maybe you should just ask the
Aronian felt that he might have missed some chances against Morozevich,
although Morozevich believed that after the queen exchange a draw was almost
the opening you can guess what my opponent wanted," Aronian joked.
"However I think that after ...e5 I was OK. Later I thought all
variations were bad for him but I forgot he had Kf1!"
Grischuk believed he had some pressure against Leko but said that "Peter
the final position I forgot that after 28...Bxf4 29.Nc5 Bc8 30.Bc4 he has
30...Bd6! and my knight will be trapped on a6. So I have to play 29.g3 and
30.Bc4 and it will be a dead draw."
Weighing the Odds
From Garry Kasparov to the sports betting web sites, Anand is hailed as the
favorite by both pundits and punters.
Certainly there are good reasons for backing the likeable Indian, even at 5 to
2 odds; after all, he is the world's top rated player and is experienced at
winning big tournaments. In addition, Veselin Topalov and Vassily Ivanchuk, the
most successful tournament players of recent times, will both be absent from
Mexico; Topalov because he forfeited his place by losing a world title match to
Vladimir Kramnik in 2006 and Ivanchuk because he failed at the 2005 World Cup.
Counting against Anand is his age - at 38 he is the second oldest player in the
field – and the length of the Mexico tournament – 14 gruelling rounds over
One factor in Anand's favour is that reigning World Champion Kramnik has little
incentive to play hard, since the Russian is guaranteed a title match in 2008
whether or not he wins in Mexico.
Kramnik surprised many with his choice of Loek van Wely as his second in Mexico
since the Dutch GM has helped Kramnik's arch-rival Topalov in the past. Still, there is no doubt that Van Wely has
plenty of World Championship experience, having also supported Gata Kamsky at
his 1996 world title challenge against Anatoly Karpov.
Alexander Grischuk surprised by choosing a second rated higher than himself –
rising Russian star Dmitri Jakovenko, while most of the other players have
their regular seconds.
Hungary's Peter Leko, supported by his father-in-law Arshak Petrosian and Cuban
GM Lernier Dominguez, has almost been written off as a possible winner but to
this writer's eyes could be the dark horse of the tournament.
Certainly Leko's form at the start of the year was shaky, as evidenced by his
last place in the Morelia/Linares tournament in March, two and a half points
However Leko looked dominant in the Candidates match qualifiers for Mexico
mid-year and, having just passed his 28th birthday, should be in the prime of
his chess life.
The major question mark over Leko is his nerves on the big occasion – he was
within a couple of good moves of taking Kramnik's world title in 2004 but
allowed Kramnik to win the final game to tie the match 8-8 and retain the
title. The psychological hangover from that game lasted a considerable time, with
Leko losing a number of other critical last round games in 2005 and 2006.
However the Hungarian is looking fit and confident, and at 10 to 1 odds looks
to be a good bet in what is likely to be a close race in Mexico.