The last time Viswanathan Anand took on a challenger for the World Championship, he had to make a crazy road trip that took him through five countries, 2000 kilometres, about a million potholes, an unexpected ferry and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
It was April 2010 and volcanic ash had made travel around Europe virtually impossible. Tens and thousands of people were stranded in airports around Europe and while most of them didn’t have a world championship to defend, Anand did. So he needed to get to Sofia – any which way.
The route he had to take due to visa restrictions took him from Germany to Bulgaria through Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania and a few trysts with the police thrown in as well.
The build-up for his World Championship match-up against Israeli Grandmaster Boris Gelfand has been boringly tame by comparison. He just flew to Moscow and he was there. His opponent isn't the volatile Veselin Topalov either.
However, the two chess GMs go back a long way – they are contemporaries in the truest sense and that should hopefully ensure a battle of the highest quality. In 35 games of classical chess the score is only 6:5 in Anand's favour, with 24 draws – numbers that show how close this match-up will be.
“I met Gelfand for the first time in 1989 in Moscow. The game was a quick draw. Boris was ahead of me in terms of progress and was already playing in the GMA events. He played exceptionally well in Palma de Mallorca,” said Anand in an email from Moscow.
“He is a tough opponent for me and in the first four encounters, he defeated me. In 1996, I was able to defeat him in Wijk Aan zee and Biel. The last classical game I played against him was in Wijk Aan Zee 2006, where I beat him in the last round to win the tournament along with Topalov,” Anand further added.
Anand’s record in classical chess in 2012 hasn’t been great and that might worry him a bit. But he has tried hard to not think about it.
“My own tournament results have not been great in the last few months. I don’t want to dwell on how much the match plays a role or not. The introspection can wait till June. Now the focus is only Moscow and doing well here.”
But Anand also recognises that this will be a tactical battle. Against Topalov in his last World Championship match-up in 2010, both players had agreed to not play out draws. They would play till the end; till a result was arrived at. And that added a cutting edge dimension to the games. Gelfand, however, has some very different ideas about chess.
“As an opponent, he is a player who is very principled in his chess understanding. He is very well-versed in theory and I would say he is one of the best theoreticians in chess. He has a very classic understanding of chess,” said Anand.
Indeed, while Topalov plays a very aggressive brand of chess, Gelfand presents a different challenge and he has a different goal as well.
A short while back, Gelfand gave a press conference in Tel Aviv where he spoke about being a chess grandmaster in Israel.
“In the USSR if you tell people you are a chess player they tell you way to go, bravo. Here, you tell people and they say, OK, but where do you work, what do you do?”
Gelfand wants to change that perception. And what better way to do that than by becoming World Champion.
“I hope that in the coming years, there will be respect for the profession in Israel, and kids who study chess will get respect.”
For the moment though, Anand is giving him all the respect possible. His preparation began since the challenger was announced and was more concentrated since January.
“Since we have played each other for more than two decades, we know each other on and off the board quite well. We get along well and have visited each other's home in Spain and Israel respectively.”
However, the fact that you have played someone over a long period is a double edged sword of sorts. One might think that the fact that you've known someone's game for a long time makes it easy to anticipate what he might come up with. But there is also a danger that he just might change things around completely in a bid to surprise his opponent. Anand did that to Vladimir Kramnik in 2008, Gelfand might want to do the same too. But we’ll only know once the game starts and that’s the exciting bit.
The mind games are on already. In a tournament, you play a player, win or lose, you move on. However, in a situation where you play the same GM over 12 games, each match counts — even the drawn encounters.
“It’s a very different kind of preparation. You start taking in everything… body language, breathing etc of the rival,” said Anand’s wife and manager, Aruna from Moscow. “It’s only 2 people and the end of 12 games only one person goes home happy.
“You spend months just thinking of one person. Nothing can duplicate that. Here it’s just him and you. He just stays in your head.”
Which is why even though officially the World Championship match-up begins on 10 May, this battle is already past the opening stages and in the midst of a complicated middle game. Bring on the fun.
• May 10, 2012 Opening Ceremony
• May 11, 2012 Game 1
• May 12, 2012 Game 2
• May 14, 2012 Game 3
• May 15, 2012 Game 4
• May 17, 2012 Game 5
• May 18, 2012 Game 6
• May 20, 2012 Game 7
• May 21, 2012 Game 8
• May 23, 2012 Game 9
• May 24, 2012 Game 10
• May 26, 2012 Game 11
• May 28, 2012 Game 12
• May 30, 2012 Tiebreak games
• May 31, 2012 Closing Ceremony