VICTOR TOPOROV. A PARADOX OF THE MATCH
It is not easy to classify the Topalov-Kramnik match. Is it a world championship match? But such tag is usually associated with a match between the champion and the contender, who qualified (ideally) through the championship cycle. A unification match? But what is the name of the organization that ‘unites’ with the FIDE? A peacemaking match? But there is no war in the chess world since the retirement of the Great and Terrible. An absolute championship match? But there is no such title in chess, and it is unclear how to play for it. A specially set match that will stabilize chess fully and definitively? This is how it was planned, but it gives rise to a number of questions.
There are two champion’s concepts competing with each other over the last decade. Let us call one of them ‘monarchic’, and define another one as ‘democratic’. Do not confuse them with the way of determining the best player (democratic tournaments and autocratic matches) or with current dual championship. Monarchic champions – Fischer, Karpov, Kasparov – have left the scene one after another. The list of democratic champions looks much less impressive. And the main paradox lies in the fact that Vladimir Kramnik did not manage standing equal to his monarchic role (if we agree upon legitimacy of his crowning), although he would have been one of the best democratic champions.
It is considered that chess monarch must be charismatic and widely recognizable person, in order to represent chess before indifferent (by definition) crowd and overcome their indifference. Supporters of democratic championship like to compare chess with tennis – and their champion must be somewhat like Maria Sharapova! True chess kings stood up to their task. And Kramnik did not. Temporary (let’s hope) decline of his results due to illness, persistent dislike of publicity, unfair and unfortunate refusal to give Kasparov a rematch – all these factors only underscore the most important and obviously irremovable weakness of the 14th (according to the classical line) champion: he is unable to attract chess-ignorant public, either to himself, or to chess. Phlegmatic Kramnik, instead of overcoming the indifference, spread it himself. Six years of his conditional championship were simply wasted.
Veselin Topalov is a democratic, or, more precisely, elite-democratic champion (as he never managed to advance further than semifinal in the knock-out, and lost the candidates final of the ‘Kramnik’ version), and plays this role perfectly. His perfection is even disturbing. I don’t think anybody would blame Veselin, had he refused to play Kramnik. For a long time this match was considered a populist act of FIDE president and presidency contender Ilyumzhinov, as it is difficult to find any other justification. Not even mentioning that the chess fan would be more interested in a match between Veselin Topalov and Vishy Anand.
Like Topalov, Anand is the most accepting player under the FIDE system – and is being discriminated for years. First he was forced to play a match against fresh Karpov after winning an exhaustive knock-out, then he was completely disregarded in Prague, 2002, and now he had to step back in favor of Kramnik. Do you really believe that a drawn match with Leko worth more than Anand’s second place in the championship tournament? Think as you like, but in my opinion a hypothetic Anand-Kramnik match (played for the right to challenge Topalov) would have been more appropriate under current circumstances.
Topalov has many advantages as a candidate to charismatic men (or genuine chess monarchs). First, he possesses choleric temperament, which always calls for attention. Secondly, he devotedly loves chess, which is less obvious in Kramnik’s case. Thirdly, he experienced an eight-year decline after winning a number of tournaments in the late 90s, and magically improved in quite a mature age (in chess terms). Even the rumors of his cheating, generally harmful for chess, only stimulate extra attention to the reigning FIDE champion. Fourthly, as a small nation representative, he was doomed to become a national hero. Finally, he managed to deliver a farewell blow to Kasparov, and it was quite convincing, although not as convincing as Kramnik’s match victory.
However, the fact that Topalov as person is completely dependant on Silvio Danailov, works against him. Rybka, Danailov and Hydra, quoting Morozevich. A king manipulated by his advisor is unattractive. This undermines divinity of the king and limits his august power. Yes, there was Klara Shagenovna, but Topalov is quite far from Kasparov by any standards.
Predictions about the Topalov-Kramnik match are cautious and paradoxical at the same time. This is understandable: Topalov’s play, even after it has stabilized at the highest level, is still irregular, while Kramnik’s shape and physical conditions are totally unpredictable. Neither Turin nor Dortmund prove anything: conditions for Kramnik in both events were too favorable. A paradoxical situation: after Kasparov’s retirement most experts consider Topalov being the world’s best player (some prefer Anand, but nobody names Kramnik), however, the same experts unanimously give advantage to Kramnik in case both players hitting their top form!
This is explained by catastrophic results for Topalov in their individual games (although the trend has been somewhat reversed recently) and comparing the players’ styles. This is not about Kramnik’s match skill (he lost to Shirov, and selected wrong strategic course against Leko), this is about Kramnik’s match style: after the opening Vladimir goes straight into endgame, a better one with White and a worse one with Black. This style leaves no room for complications; the opponent can turn the game upside down only by making a catastrophic damage to his position. Resort conditions and sprint distance – just 12 games – also favor Kramnik. This is all reasonable – Kramnik is indeed a favorite, provided he approaches the match in at least as good shape as Topalov.
Yes, this is the main paradox! Topalov is the world’s best player. Kramnik is a favorite in the match against Topalov. In my opinion, this means that the very concept of determining the champion in a match has become obsolete. And this is especially true about the match organized without preceding qualification.
There were the following talks about Petrosian (and even about Hort): if he advances to the world championship match, he’ll win it. But by no means can he advance to this match! It took the Curacao tournament with all odd things including Keres losing to Paul Benko for Petrosian to disprove that statement. Other title contenders (and future champions) clearly showed their supremacy over other candidates on the way to the top. Only the strongest candidate qualified for the title match – and, as a rule, was capable of defeating the reigning champion. Sometimes contenders failed (Bronstein, Smyslov, Spassky, Korchnoi) – well, then they had to start from scratch.
Kramnik defeated Kasparov; this is a great feat but the match was just a perk. Kramnik has never won any qualification, nor a knock-out tournament.
A single match victory of A. over B., or B. over A. proves too little in modern chess, characterized by computer preparation and excessive support teams (including parapsychologists). A true world champion must be capable of beating every opponent – in matches, tournaments, rapid, and blitz; in spectacular, brilliant and varied style. Topalov (and Anand) are good matches, and it’s been long since Kramnik abandoned any attempts to fit into this scheme! This is why his probable victory over Topalov will not clarify the situation, but rather confuse it.
One could understand Ilyumzhinov for his readiness to return Kasparov, because Kasparov was a true king, and chess suffers without king – this has become apparent now. Survives, but suffers. But for Kramnik?.. He did not become a new Kasparov, and even did not dethrone Garry, he just defeated him once.
Could Schlechter beat Lasker in the 10th game of their match? Certainly. Would he turn to a new Lasker then? Not at all. Such win would only leave the chess kingdom without a king, and make the world waiting for Capablanca with even greater impatience.