A candid tête-à-tête with a visibly relieved world champion
After successfully defending his world title in Moscow against Boris Gelfand, Viswanathan Anand spoke about how he fought and won the toughest battle of his life.
“I have never felt under so much pressure,” said Anand as he relaxed with his team of seconds in a back room of Moscow's Tretyakov Gallery soon after winning the crucial tie-breakers against Boris Gelfand.
“When I woke up this morning (Wednesday) I knew that one way or the other our fate would be decided today and I just hoped for the best. I am just relieved and just happy to still be world champion. This match has been so tense. It has only been three weeks but I feel as if I have spent months here. I am really looking forward to getting back to the family [in Chennai].”
Anand felt that the first six games of the match, all drawn, already confirmed his expectation that he was in for a tough fight.
“I wasn't getting anything much with the white pieces and neither was he. Boris was giving the impression of someone who had really done an enormous amount of work just for the match.
“We had prepared something against the Grunfeld and the Sveshnikov [opening] but it couldn't compete with his depth of analysis.”
Then came a major setback. In game seven, Anand repeated an opening system which had worked for him three times earlier in the match but this time was comprehensively beaten.
“Even when an opening is working so well you always have to stop and decide do you do it one more time or do you move on. Somehow in Game 7 he hit on an area where we had been a bit careless. It's very subtle because the position looks equal but it's unpleasant and soon it was an embarrassment how ugly it looked.
“I can't remember suffering so much as I did after Game 7. I couldn't sleep; I really thought I'd blown the match. In a match where there were so few chances it was an incredibly heavy blow to lose game seven.
“In such a tight match, every mistake has a much higher value. But I was still going to give it my best shot.”
The next day Anand came out and won convincingly; the shortest ever victory in a world title contest.
“Game 8 was a turning point in the match — a moment I'm really proud of. I understand it wasn't Boris's best day but it was very important for my morale; it allowed me to play the rest of the match normally, instead of desperately trying to catch up. I was not getting a lot of chances and that's exactly the situation where you don't want to be behind.”
Four more draws, including a near-miss for each player, left the match tied at 6-6 and rapid tie-breakers were needed.
“Gelfand had played with enormous mental strength during the whole world championship cycle so I knew he would be a very complicated opponent. I hadn't planned it, but I just started playing fast, like the old days.
“The first tie-break game [drawn] I wasn't sure about, but it turned out that we both played reasonably well.
“The turning point was the second game — Boris defended well and the result should have been a draw. I liked my knight fork at the end but even if he avoided this I had lots of ideas — it would not have been easy for him.
“In the third game I was just lost but I was lucky that I was lost in a way that I would always have some counter-play. Sometimes when you are in a bad position, it is better not to think about it.
“If you see all the possibilities for your opponent it just makes you feel even worse and when you can't do anything about it you might as well just get on with it. In Game 3, once I got my bishop trapped on b8, I didn't see the point of dwelling a lot.”
Having hung on to draw and leading 2-1 in the tie-breakers, Anand needed only a draw to retain his world title, but he did it the hard way. “I understand that you should not just play for a draw but the urge to get it over with is so strong that you just do it.
“Then I understood I was doing it badly as well because, to put it mildly, his two bishops were far too dangerous. After his f5 move I started to get back some hope.”
After 56 moves, Gelfand could make no progress and the game was agreed drawn, leaving Anand the champion for another two years.
“It will take some time for today to sink in. I'm mainly relieved, because I understood that this match could have gone either way.”
And at 42, has Anand any thoughts of retirement?
Ian Rogers is an Australian Grandmaster