Christmas Eve in 2000 was different. It ended Viswanathan Anand’s search for the elusive world chess title. After finishing runner-up to Garry Kasparov in 1995 and to Anatoly Karpov in 1997-98 in match-play, Anand finally tasted success in the knockout format.
Anand got past six rivals in New Delhi and crushed Alexei Shirov in Teheran which hosted the best-of-six games final. Anand’s 3.5-0.5 triumph, signing off with a hat-trick of wins, truly reflected his resolve to cash in on the third opportunity in a title-clash.
It was an impressive campaign. The draw looked challenging and Anand, the favourite, set the pace well. In the first three rounds, against Viktor Bologan, Smbat Lputian and Bartlomiej Macieja, Anand did just enough to get past in the two-game mini-matches, winning with white and drawing with black.
Looking back Anand said, “In these three matches, I was focused and tried to get past. In general, these went as well as you could hope for, I mean, no tie-breaks, pretty relaxed.”
Up next, in the quarterfinals, was defending champion Alexander Khalifman. After short draws in the two classical games, the players faced off in the rapid tie-breaker encounters. Birthday-boy Anand rode his luck in a seemingly lost position and escaped to victory.
Anand said, “Once I had passed through this ‘near-the-death’ experience, things went fine. Somehow I couldn’t care anymore. I was not afraid of losing any more. I felt very good and this had some impact on my play. Suddenly I played much better.”
The four-game semifinals against Michael Adams saw Anand in command. One error from Adams, in the second game, proved decisive.
Anand recalled Adams’s 20th move, “He moved the pawn then I saw him wince. It was almost as if his hand disobeyed him. And Mickey is normally expressionless. He’s ‘The Rock’. He’s got this calm face. Immediately, it went back to where it was. And I looked at it, I knew it was a bad move and there was the confirmation — his body language. Okay, this was fortunate. Of course, I was very, very happy with this result.”
The final proved a one-sided affair. In 180 moves, spread over four games, Anand settled the contest. A draw with black was followed by three victories for Anand, two with white pieces.
In Anand’s words, “It was tough and very intense. Shirov’s style dictated the way it went, it went in four games. Had he been a more cautious player, it might have gone in six. Not to say that it was easy at all, but obviously, it’s great if you’ve wrapped it up in four games.”
And guess what Anand found the toughest to handle? “The rest day (after the third game) was, probably, the toughest of the match, because, the whole day I sat and waited for the day to end and start playing again. I couldn’t handle the rest day, more than anything else,” confessed Anand.
Amid the euphoria, Anand never lost the significance, rather the lack of it, of his maiden title. After all, only the previous month, in the much-followed Classical chess World championship match, Vladmir Kramnik had dethroned Garry Kasparov 8.5-6.5 in their best-of-16 games contest. Therefore, in the global chess fraternity, Kramnik was the worthy World champion.
The reality was not missed by Anand. “In fact, the FIDE’s World championship somehow lacks some legitimacy, because they (FIDE) tried to parade (Anatoly) Karpov as the World champion for seven years, even when he obviously was not. If you do that, eventually you can’t sell the public a lie any more. Whatever their reasons for doing it, you just can’t take someone and say, ‘We call him the World champion’ and expect yourself to be taken seriously,” said Anand.
But the chess fraternity in India was not too concerned about the ‘legitimacy’ of the title. They celebrated the making of the country’s first ‘official’ World chess champion.