This is the second article in a series about the greatest World Championships ever. The first can be found here.
The 2010 World Championship match between Viswanathan Anand and Veselin Topalov was the first one I really followed live. I wasn’t very serious about chess in 2006, when Topalov played Vladimir Kramnik in the match to reunify the title that had been split in 1993. And in 2008, when Anand and Kramnik squared off, I was busy playing in the World Youth Championships. But it was very different in 2010. I would wake up at ridiculously early hours in California to follow the games and learn as much as I could. And to me the games were thrilling.
It’s very rare to see World Championship matches in which there are no politics. This match was not embroiled in politics, but it had its issues as well. The match was held in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, which was Topalov’s home turf. This was not a problem in and of itself, but when an unfortunate situation arose, it led to some speculation that there was some favoritism for Topalov.
Anand planned to arrive in Sofia a week early, but his travel plans were disrupted by the volcanic explosion of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland, which halted air travel in Europe for more than a week. Anand sought a postponement of the match by three days, but his request was denied. This doesn’t strike me as ridiculous because of the huge amount of organizational work that goes into a World Championship and how difficult it would be to book different rooms on different days and completely change the arrangements, but I definitely felt for Anand, who seemed to be the clear victim of an unlucky situation. Fortunately, he did make it to Sofia a few days before the match was scheduled to begin by renting a car and driving with members of his team from Germany.
This was the first match in which computers really played an outsize roll. While they could beat the best humans in the world before, by 2010 it was no longer a contest — laptops were routinely thrashing top grandmasters without much difficulty. Still, they were slower than they are now, and often would reach the wrong evaluations about positions.
The power of computers was on display in Game 1.Prior to the match, Topalov had been able to work on a super computer used by Bulgaria’s Defense Department. The access to such processing power helped Topalov ride to a quick victory in a sharp line.
During the game, I was wondering if Topalov had found all these moves at the board. This would be an extremely naive thought in 2016, but at the time it seemed feasible to me. Alas, it turned out that he won this game by simply having greater firepower, and using it effectively.
Anand, who was clearly outgunned in terms of machinery, responded appropriately. His “human squad” included help from the best players in the world, while Topalov was relying on grandmasters with ratings of about 2600 —very strong, but not world-class. Anand began to choose openings that did not involve a lot of forced variations hoping that his preparation would turn out to be superior. In Game 2, he leveled the score with a fine win in the Catalan, and in very human style.
With the match tied 1-1, Anand would have Black for the second time in Game 3. He chose the Slav Defense, aiming to get a position where human analysis could evaluate Black’s drawing chances in a slightly worse endgame more effectively than machines could. It worked like a charm.
Another win from Anand in Game 4 gave him the lead. A series of draws followed, and Anand remained loyal to the same Slav system. But it did not hold out forever.
Anand was surely displeased with himself for losing this game. Even after some mistakes, he still could have drawn at the end, but one final poor decision let Topalov even the score.
While preparation and opening choices played a large role in how the match played progressed, there has never been a World Championship match that was not decided by players’ decisions during the games in critical middlegame and endgame positions. This match was no exception, and with the score tied at 5.5-5.5 going into the final regulation game, Topalov badly misjudged the merits of a pawn sacrifice by Anand, and lost the game and the match.
Samuel Shankland is a United States grandmaster ranked No. 4 in the country. He is a professional player and recipient of the Samford Fellowship in 2013, the most prestigious award in the United States for young chess players. He is at @GMShanky on Twitter and is also on Facebook.
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