Vladimir Kramnik is the player who managed to end Garry Kasparov’s 15-year reign of terror as World Chess Champion.
Vladimir Kramnik grew up in the sleepy provincial Black Sea town of Tuapse, but soon appeared on the radar of Garry Kasparov, who accepted him into the school he ran with Mikhail Botvinnik. New in Chess Editor-in-Chief Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam tells the story of how the youngster shot to prominence when he scored 8.5/9 for the Russian team as a 16-year-old at the 1992 Olympiad. The youngster would go a long way, with current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen assessing the career and impact of his great predecessor.
Candidate Kramnik (?)
After 1995 there wasn’t to be another match for Kasparov’s title for another five years. The Professional Chess Association collapsed and the World Chess Association was created. There were competing World Championship cycles, with the Candidates final of the one that mattered most being played between Vladimir Kramnik and Alexei Shirov. This took place in 1998 and was won by Shirov, who then earned the right to challenge Kasparov.
‘Money, Money, Money…’
Somehow, the funds could not be raised for a Kasparov – Shirov match. Incredible, but true. Attempts were made to create another match with Anand, which failed to reach fruition. Even more incredibly, yet another organisation was created – BrainGames.com – and a title match was finally organised between Kasparov and… Kramnik. Shirov, who had defeated Kramnik by the score of two wins, seven draws and no losses, was unceremoniously pushed aside. It is hard to imagine such a scenario happening in any other sport. Chess was sustaining damage, due to egos and the coming and going of too many temporary organisations.
The ‘Braingames World Chess Championships’ took place at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, from 8 October 2000 to 4 November 2000. Riverside Studios had witnessed the filming of numerous popular television shows, such as Hancock’s Half-Hour, Quatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who. In the Autumn of 2000, a different kind of drama was about to take place.
After all of the politics, chaos and confusion, it was a relief to have some important chess games back on board. 16 games were scheduled. English Grandmaster Raymond Keene was at the helm, as he was for most of the important chess events in London from the 1980s up until the 2009 London Chess Classic, the first in the wonderful series created by Chess in Schools and Communities.
I was present for part of the match and it was the first time I had seen electronic scanners used on the audience as a matter of course. There were also numerous arguments at the reception desk, when people were asked to hand over their mobile phones before entering the auditorium. Chess had entered a new age. Machines were stronger than humans; devices were small enough to enable people to send messages to discrete earpieces if people were intent on cheating at chess. It all sounds like a leftover plot for one of the Doctor Who shows.
Kasparov was the favourite to win the match, of course. Yet there seemed to be an element of the ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ at work when it came to his thoughts on Kramnik. The former definitely saw the latter as his natural successor. Did this have any impact in the match?
Game one brought a very important moment on the third move: Kramnik used the Berlin Defence against Kasparov’s Ruy Lopez. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6.
The Berlin Defence
The game was drawn after 25 moves. The Berlin Defence would not be breached at any time during the match. Kasparov’s fearsome Ruy Lopez was shorn of its power. He even tried 1.c4 on two occasions, presumably to give his team the time to work on the Berlin, but they ended up being wasted Whites. One of them was drawn after just 11 moves. Was Kasparov really out of ideas?
Kramnik’s Powerful 1.d4
Not only could the champion make no headway with White, but he was also struggling with Black. A defeat in the second game saw his favourite Gruenfeld Defence retired from action for the rest of the match. Kramnik came very close to winning again in games four and six. Then came a second victory for the challenger, in game 10, with Kasparov – having to rely on the Nimzo-Indian Defence, with which he never did have a good score – being crushed by pure preparation. Kramnik was firmly in the driving seat and there were just six more games to go. Kasparov was unrecognisable, but he had been in tight situations before. He would hit back strongly… wouldn’t he?
The End is in Sight
Three more draws followed. Game 13 lasted just 14 moves, as Kasparov once again showed nothing significant with White against the Berlin Defence. It was hard for Kasparov’s fans to take. All of his other matches had been filled with fighting spirit, energy and extreme determination. Why was the World Number One sleepwalking his way to the end of his reign?
The next two games brought back some of the fighting spirit. Kasparov had the advantage – with Black – in game 14, but Kramnik held firm in the endgame. This left Kasparov needing to win the last two games. There was no safety net.
Game 15 finally brought a change, as Kasparov opened with 1.d4. The game developed into a Catalan Opening. For a while, Kasparov seemed to be building an edge, but accurate play by Kramnik ensured it was never going to be enough.
Garry Kasparov spent some time trying to force a rematch with Kramnik, but to no avail. He remained the World’s Number One player in terms of ratings and his tournament performances remained excellent.
Plans to play matches against FIDE World Champions Ruslan Ponomariov (in 2003) and Rustam Kasimdzhanov (in 2005) also came to nothing. Kasparov was unwilling to ever play in another Candidates event and that left him without a route back to being champion of the world. In 2005, after winning the Linares tournament, he announced his retirement from chess. It was a strange end for the man who looked to be very much on course to maintain his title for many more years to come.
Vladimir Kramnik – who effectively qualified for a title match by losing a Candidates match – played his part in the unification of the two world titles, defending his title against Peter Leko in 2004 and Veselin Topalov in 2006 before conceding the title to Vishy Anand in 2007 and 2008. That, of course, is a story for another day. Today’s piece is all about his moment of triumph in 2000, when he famously dominated Garry Kasparov in a match which still leaves plenty of unanswered questions.
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