For a five-year period between 2007 and 2012, Viswanathan Anand was the undisputed king of chess.

This is part of a year-long series of articles. Part XI is here, Part X is here, and Part IX can be found here

In October 2006, Vladimir Kramnik was the undisputed king of chess. He had just defeated Veselin Topalov to reunify the World Championship title, which had been split for 13 years, and, in so-doing, he had reaffirmed his legitimacy as the rightful heir to the crown because he had previously defeated Garry Kasparov, the last undisputed champion, in a match in 2000.

Kramnik did not have long to rest on his laurels.

The match had put the World Chess Federation, also known as FIDE, firmly back in charge of organizing the championship. (During the split, FIDE controlled only one half of the title.) One of the first things FIDE did was to pledge to hold a World Championship tournament in Mexico City in 2007 to determine the title. The tournament, played in September 2007, had eight players and was a double round-robin, meaning it was 14 rounds. Aside from Kramnik, the field included Viswanathan Anand of India, Peter Léko of Hungary (who had tied a title match with Kramnik in 2004), Boris Gelfand of Israel, Levon Aronian of Armenia, and three other Russians – Peter Svidler, Alexander Morozevich and Alexander Grischuk. It was most of the outstanding players of the decade. Two who were notably missing were Kasparov, who had retired in 2005, and Topalov, who was guaranteed another shot at the title because he was seeded into a future World Championship cycle.

Kramnik, a strong believer in the principle that the World Championship should be decided by match-play, played somewhat reluctantly. However the rules in the reunification agreement guaranteed him another shot at the title should he be unsuccessful in the tournament.

Anand, Svidler and Morozevich, had qualified for the tournament by taking second to fourth prizes in the World Championship tournament that Topalov had won in San Luis, Argentina, in 2005. The remaining places were filled by a series of Candidates matches played earlier in 2007.

“Now that I have to play a match against Vishy, I know it will be a real world championship,” Kramnik said.

Anand was the world’s top ranked player at that point, so he went into the tournament as a slight favorite, and he lived up to it. By contrast with his below-par performance in San Luis, he played very well, going through undefeated and winning by a full point to become World Champion for the second time in his career. (He had previously won the FIDE knock-out World Championship tournament held in 2000.) The other player who left Mexico fairly satisfied with his performance was Gelfand, whom many had expected to finish last. Instead, he tied for second with Kramnik, ending up third on tie-breaks.

According to the agreements that FIDE had struck with Kramnik and Topalov to achieve the reunification of the title, both had to have a shot to regain it. If Kramnik had won in Mexico, he would have been required to meet Topalov in a match in 2008. Since Anand had won, Kramnik and Anand would play the first match for the title, while Topalov would have to wait until the next cycle.

The contrasting views that Anand and Kramnik had of the situation was plain from interviews each gave in Mexico to the editor of New In Chess (issue 2007/7). Anand commented: “These privileges for the next cycle are simply outrageous.” Kramnik, on the other hand, while admitting that Anand was now World Champion, said that he was brought up to believe that the title should always be decided in a match. “Now that I have to play a match against Vishy, I know it will be a real world championship,” Kramnik said.

The match between Anand and Kramnik was played in Bonn, Germany. Like the Kramnik-Taoplov match, it was a best-of-twelve games, with tie-breakers if needed. It started on Oct. 14, 2008, only a month after the global financial crisis had begun.

Experts and fans predicted that the match would be close. It was not. After two draws, Anand won Game 3 with Black by employing a new idea in a very sharp opening and then outplaying Kramnik after a tense struggle. Game 5 started with the same opening and Anand introduced another improvement and beat Kramnik again. Anand then won Game 6 so that he already had 4.5 points out of the 6.5 required to retain the title.

Though Kramnik managed to win Game 10 — employing a new idea at move 18 – the match was already out of reach.

Anand wrapped it up in Game 11, opening with 1. e4, the first time he had begun the match with the e-pawn. Kramnik, forced to play for a win, chose the Sicilian Defense, but quickly wound up in an inferior position. After 24 moves, Kramnik offered a draw, conceding the match. Anand had retained the world championship by a score of 6.5-4.5.

In an interview afterward with New in Chess magazine (2008/8), Anand attributed his success to the opening novelties he had prepared with his team. “It’s basically about whether you can outfox the other guy and how you do so.” He had been caught out once but had surprised Kramnik several times. Anand now had two years before he would face a new challenger, but he already knew it would be one of two players: Topalov or Gata Kamsky of the United States.

Topalov was seeded into a match to determine a challenger because of the agreement that had led to the 2006 match that reunified the title.

“It’s basically about whether you can outfox the other guy and how you do so,” Anand said.

Kamsky, a Russian-born former prodigy, had played Anatoly Karpov for the FIDE title in 1996 and lost. Afterward, Kamsky, then 22 years old, had then more-or-less quit chess for eight years and gone to law school. Just as suddenly as he had quit, he unexpectedly returned as a full-time professional in 2004, at age 30.

In December 2007, he had won the World Cup, a monster knock-out tournament of 128 players (using the same format FIDE used for its World Championship tournaments in the late 1990s and early 2000s) that was held in the Siberian winter of Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia. Winning the tournament gave Kamsky the other spot in the qualification match.

The match was delayed by difficulty finding financing and a venue. It was eventually held in Bulgaria in February 2009 and Topalov won the best-of-eight match three victories to one, with three draws. Anand now knew which rival he would face.

Anand agreed to play in Sofia, Bulgaria, conceding Topalov home advantage. The format was the same as it had been for Kramnik vs. Topalov and Anand vs. Kramnik: best-of-12 classical games with a play-off of rapid games (and after that, blitz) if necessary in the event of a 6-6 tie.

The match, which began on April 24, 2010, was a much closer contest than the one in 2008. In the opening game, Anand forgot his opening preparation and was crushed by Topalov. But Anand immediately struck back in Game 2, employing a new gambit in the Catalan Opening. In Game 4 he took the lead, again using the Catalan. Three draws followed, but in Game 8, Anand blundered in a tricky endgame and lost. The match was level again.

Anand missed winning chances in Game 9 and the game ended in a draw. Games 10 and 11 were also long, hard-fought and tense draws. It appeared increasingly likely that there would be a play-off.

Such a scenario seemed to favor Anand, who had long been known for his prowess at fast chess, while it had long been known that that was a weakness of Topalov’s game. Perhaps fearing that he would have little chance in a playoff, Topalov, who had White in Game 12, seemed determined to finish the match in regulation and pressed hard, even though he had no edge out of the opening. Anand defended solidly, resisting temptations to complicate the position and indicating, indirectly, that he was content to go into a play-off.

The decisive moment of the match came suddenly and unexpectedly. Topalov, who had plenty of time on his clock, played a pair of risky moves very quickly and grabbed what looked like a poisoned pawn. His pieces became tied up, while Anand’s sprung to life and he launched a devastating mating attack. Though Topalov survived the initial onslaught, he lost his queen and entered a hopeless endgame. He resigned soon after.

Anand had won, 6.5-5.5, and had once again retained the world title.

A new challenger had to be found for Anand and FIDE chose to hold mini knockout Candidates matches with eight players. The selection process FIDE decided on for the participants was complicated.

Two qualified based on their ratings; two were chosen from the 2009 World Cup (the winner and runner-up); two were the top finishers from the Grand Prix tournament series; one was a selection by the host country (albeit, he had to be rated at least 2700); and one was the loser of the last World Championship match.

Many chess fans had hoped to see the young Norwegian star Magnus Carlsen, by now ranked No. 1 in the world, emerge as challenger, but in November 2010 Carlsen refused the place for which he had qualified based on rating. He wrote a letter to FIDE in which he criticized the arbitrary format of the selection process and the privileges granted to some players (Kamsky and Topalov) from the previous cycle.

Many had hoped to see Magnus Carlsen emerge as Anand’s challenger, but in November 2010 Carlsen refused the place for which he had qualified based on rating. 

The matches were held in Kazan, Russia, in May 2011. Each match was four games at classical time controls (six in the final), followed by rapid-play and even blitz games if necessary to break ties. Out of the 30 classical games, only four were decisive.

In the first round Kramnik beat Teimour Radjabov of Azerbaijan, Kamsky beat Topalov, and Boris Gelfand of Israel beat Shakhriyar Mamedyarov of Azerbaijan, in each case without a play-off being required. In the last match, Alexander Grischuk of Russia beat Levon Aronian of Armenia in a playoff with rapid games. In that match, Grischuk seemed to intentionally try to end the classical games as early as possible to get to the playoff because he excelled at faster time controls.

Grischuk’s strategy paid off in the semifinals as well, as he beat Kramnik in a playoff after all the classical games were drawn. Meanwhile, Gelfand against Kamsky also went to a playoff, with Gelfand finally prevailing in the fourth rapid game. In the final, Gelfand defeated Grischuk in the sixth classical game making him the surprising challenger for the championship. Gelfand has analysed that great game in depth in his recent book Dynamic Decision-Making in Chess (Quality Chess, 2016).

At age 43 (44 by the time the match would be held), it was Gelfand’s first title shot. The match between him and Anand was held at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow beginning May 11, 2012. The conditions were the same as for three previous two matches: best-of-12 classical games with a playoff if needed.

Anand was higher rated (2791 to 2727) and much more experienced in title matches so it seemed logical to expect a rather one-sided contest. But he was unable to demonstrate any superiority in the first six games as Gelfand had carefully prepared openings to neutralize the champion’s favorite lines.

In Game 7, Gelfand took the lead with a strategic masterpiece, only to commit a disastrous tactical oversight in the next game, which he lost in 17 moves. The match was all square at 4-4. The remaining games in regulation were all drawn so, for the second time since the new format had been adopted, the title would be decided in play-off at rapid time-limit.

The decisive games were all played in one session on May 30. The players had 25 minutes with a ten-second increment per move, so each game lasted about an hour. The first was drawn but, in Game 2, Gelfand, short of time after defending very well, went wrong in the endgame on move 71 and lost.

In the third rapid game Gelfand missed clear wins at moves 25 and 26. Later a difficult rook-and-pawn ending arose with both players down to their last few seconds. Anand made slips at moves 51 and 52 that should have cost him the game, but Gelfand returned the favor at move 61 and it ended in a draw. Anand kept the last game safe and drew easily to win the match. The battle for the world title was essentially decided by mistakes made by Gelfand in two very difficult endgames, which could easily have gone the other way.

Though it had not been easy, Anand had defended the title successfully for the third time. He had now been undisputed champion for five years, but ahead lay the greatest challenge of his career. 


Dr. Timothy Harding, who has a PhD in history from Trinity College Dublin, is a senior international master of correspondence chess who has written many books on the game. His most recent, “Joseph Henry Blackburne: A Chess Biography,” published by McFarland, has received favorable critical reviews. 

Dr. Harding is on on Twitter (@TimDHarding). He has a Web site and a list of his books can be found at GoodReads.