Analysis Room by Ilias Kourkounakis
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Last update:
03/12/2000 21:14









by Ilias Kourkounakis

After the struggle is over, it is appropriate to ask certain critical questions and reach some conclusions about the whole encounter. Did the best man win? Why and how? Is this the dawn of a new era in Chess? Is it the end of Kasparov?

To begin with, there is no doubt that Kramnik won fair and square. He simply played better that the ex-World Champion and dominated the match right from the start. He won only two games, but he was very close to winning at least two more and managed not to lose even one! This is a magnificent accomplishment, especially given that Kasparov had White 8 times in the 15 games that were necessary to decide the title. Kasparov has been one of the most fearsome and winningest players of all time, while Kramnik one of the most solid. This time the irresistible force gave way to the immovable object -simply because it moved towards the direction of the force!

Initially, it was neutralisation of Kasparov’s Whites that played the most important role in conquering the throne. The ex-Champion is famous for his ferocious attacks, but Kramnik would have none of it. He had detected a relative weakness in Kasparov’s play without Queens and when the pawn structure is stable enough to discourage significant pawn breaks. Kramnik correctly decided to play variations that limited his opponent’s creativity and thus undermined his confidence.

From this it might seem that the most crucial aspect of the match was opening preparation. However, as the match progressed it became clear that much more important was the energy level of both players and their relative ability in the endgame. In particular, Kasparov failed to summon enough reserves in two critical points of the match, namely Games 7 and 13, when he agreed in unprecedented quick draws in 11 and 14 moves respectively (and with White at that)!

Equally important, and possibly affected by the above considerations, was Kasparov’s inability to perform as usual in critical transitional phases. Several times he was unable to increase an advantage that normally would be enough for him to win or at least give his opponent much more difficult problems to solve, while in some instances he exposed himself to unnecessary danger. By steering the games away from positions that demanded primarily concrete calculations, Kramnik demonstrated that his positional judgement was at least equal and probably superior to Kasparov’s.

One problem is that both players made serious mistakes in the endgame. This can be attributed partly to the lack of adjournments, especially if one compares the level of play to previous World Championship matches, but there is surely more to it. Most of modern chess emphasises opening research, with the result that top players lack study time and experience with unbalanced endgames. It seems to me that either player could have swung the match to his favour by playing the endgame at a slightly higher level.

Another problem of the whole encounter reminds me of the chess world’s astonishment when Petrosian won the title. It seems impossible and even undesirable that somebody can reach the very top without creating some positive values in chess. No significant novelties, no memorable attacks against the King, not even some strategic masterpiece and, of course, no great endings. I think Kramnik’s best creative effort came in Game 6, when he imagined and brought about an amazing situation with Kasparov’s pieces better centralised but unable to move: a middlegame zugzwang at the highest level! Unfortunately, he was unable to crown this magnificent effort with a simple application of schematic thinking, probably because time trouble and the prospect of a second win so early in the match clouded his thinking. Despite its mistakes, this was probably the only game in which both players fought almost to the limit of their powers -a real struggle!

Without wishing to diminish Kramnik’s accomplishment, I believe this was a match both won by the Challenger and lost by the Champion. It was more of a sporting event than a creative clash, as both players have demonstrated in the past that they can play at a much higher level. Kramnik was the better prepared participant and also the most practical, but I sincerely hope there will be a rematch in 2002. Both Kasparov and the new World Champion have shown that they can be self critical and improve on previous performances, so I am eager to see them clash in Wijk aan Zee in January.

Meanwhile, it will not be so easy for them to adjust in their new roles, especially Kasparov. Adding an «ex» to his title should be psychologically very harsh, since he was groomed to be the best player in the world almost from infancy. As a matter of fact, the only people still around that are comfortable with the same «ex» are Smyslov and Spassky, the latter having been World Champion almost 30 years ago! Both Fischer and Karpov have shown great reluctance to accept that «their» title is no longer theirs, despite the fact that they no longer participate at the highest level -how will Kasparov react? If I understand him well, we shall see more of him in great tournaments, presenting great opening novelties and springing fierce attacks against the very best before long.

Kramnik will need a good rest, let it sink in that his life dream has come true and ponder his new responsibilities to a world that greatly appreciates his enormous talent and abilities. He will need to adjust to a much more positive environment, but this will not be easier -just more pleasant. A thorny issue will be possible reconciliation of the title business with the mess that F.I.D.E. has created, a F.I.D.E. Kramnik was never at the same odds with as Kasparov is. Hopefully, he will not be distracted by chess politics from chess itself.

There is no doubt that a new era is beginning -the younger generation has finally arrived. It will not be an era without Kasparov, who is not ready to retire conclusively beaten, but one with another worthy Champion. The King is not dead, long live the King!


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