mind games

Why this world chess championship is so exciting

Like the world heavyweight boxing championship, the world chess championship has fallen on hard times since the ’70s and ’80s. The succession of colorful, controversial figures died out in a muddle of disputed titles and curious decisions.

From a U.S. perspective, the peak was the 1972 match in which Bobby Fischer won the title from Boris Spassky. The Soviet Union wouldn’t be without the title long — the erratic genius Fischer made a couple of unreasonable demands for his title defense and forfeited the crown to Anatoly Karpov in 1975.

Yet even without an American involved, Karpov’s 1978 title defense in Viktor Korchnoi was well-covered in the USA — see Sports Illustrated‘s report from the match’s opening and note Korchnoi’s “Ali-like entourage.” With the rabble-rousing defector Korchnoi facing a Soviet champion after disposing of several Soviet challengers, the match was steeped in Cold War animosity, perhaps even moreso than the Fischer-Spassky match. A Korchnoi comeback made the match almost as interesting on the board as it was off. Sports Illustrated recapped the final games, hinting that the key decision may have been the organizers’ agreement to kick out two Korchnoi aides — American members of an Indian “meditative sect” who were out on bail pending appeal of a stabbing convictiong — and the front-row seating of a Soviet “parapsychologist” who helped Karpov by staring intently at the challenger.

The 1981 rematch was less interesting, with Karpov easily disposing of Korchnoi. In SI, Roy Blount Jr. recalls a curious Korchnoi insult at the board: “Stop smiling or I’ll call you a fascist!” Blount also says of Karpov and his high standing within the then-solid Communist government: “He probably doesn’t even want to defect.”

As the Soviet Union started to change, so did the face of chess. In 1984, Karpov raced out to a 5-0 lead against prodigy Garry Kasparov. But the rules of the time called for the match to continue until someone had six wins. And continue it did. Finally, Kasparov cut the lead to 5-3 with two consecutive wins, and organizers abruptly that decided that the match had gone on too long.

Kasparov completed the revolution in 1985 and went on to a long reign as champion and a great ambassador for the game, playing some high-profile matches against supercomputers and generally finding a weakness in each. He faced Karpov three more times, needing to win the 24th game to retain his title in 1987.

The troubles started in 1993, when Kasparov and English challenger Nigel Short, who had finally beaten Karpov in the challengers matches, got sick of organizing body FIDE and took their championship match elsewhere, setting up the short-lived Professional Chess Association. Kasparov won the PCA title. Karpov won a rearranged FIDE match, but few could doubt Kasparov was still at the game’s peak. Kasparov defended his title in 1995 against Viswanathan Anand (we’ll call him “Vishy” the rest of the way), and Karpov kept his against American Gata Kamsky in 1996.

(Side note: In 1992, Fischer and the long-faded Spassky played again in a match Fischer perversely insisted was the actual world championship. The match took place in Yugoslavia in violation of U.N. and U.S. laws at the time, and Fischer was a wanted man in the USA the rest of his life.)

Then it really got silly. Surely different commentators would give different accounts, but we’ll stick here with what we hope is an objective take from Wikipedia:

The PCA couldn’t stay together, and Kasparov didn’t defend his title again until 2000. By then, Karpov had tossed his title in the trash as FIDE scrapped the long, intense matches in favor of a quicker tournament, as if jealous of the NCAA basketball bracket. Karpov played once and won, then figured he had enough. The tournament was played four more times, with four different winners. The only one whose name is significant right now is Anand, who won it in 2000.

The funny thing about 2000: Kasparov lost. Vladimir Kramnik pulled off the shocking upset. That was (so far) Kasparov’s final world championship match. He couldn’t come to terms to go back in the challenger cycle, and Kramnik defended his title in 2004 by winning the last game of a 14-game match against Peter Leko.

FIDE played one more unconventional tournament — an eight-player double round-robin in 2005 — to determine a champion, with Veselin Topalov taking the title. But the wheels were set in motion to reunify the title at last. Kramnik refused to play in the tournament but convinced FIDE and Topalov to play a match in 2006.

At last, normalcy returned. We had a unified champion in Kramnik and a crazy controversy — “Toiletgate,” in which Topalov complained that Kramnik was using a private restroom up to 50 times in one game. Kramnik won despite forfeiting one game and managed to seize the initiative in the gamesmanship with a pre-emptive protest over the possibility that a Topalov associate might plant something in Kramnik’s bathroom.

FIDE had one more tournament in 2007, saying the process was already in motion. The good news for those who prefer old-fashioned matches to wide-open tournament was that Kramnik was given the right to a rematch. Vishy Anand won the tournament and the 2008 rematch, becoming the least disputed champion since Kasparov in 1990.

Topalov had been excluded from the process and was due another shot, so he faced Chess World Cup winner Gata Kamsky, the prodigal American, for the right to face Anand.

So for the first time since Kasparov and Karpov last faced off 20 years ago, we have an actual world championship title defense in progress.

Over those 20 years, computers and the Internet have revolutionized the game. When I played high school chess in the ’80s, people carried around giant books of “openings” — categorized series of moves at the beginning of games. Today, that’s all in giant databases. (I stumbled into a story today about American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura’s preparation — weeks of data-crunching on a custom computer, followed by a lot of memorization.)

The Internet also makes it much easier for us to follow what’s going on. I was able to follow the first game from the world championship today on my Blackberry from Chuck E. Cheese and Red Robin. Then I found a good animated recap with analysis at the New York Timeschess blog.

Is chess poised for a great comeback? We’ll see.

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