Anand vs Judit – a sweet dilemma

8/13/2003 – It is not easy being a chess fan these days. The battle for the unofficial title of the "best rapid player in the world" will be fought in Mainz, starting August 14th. GM Vishy Anand will be playing GM Judit Polgar in a match of eight rapid games. Those of us who like to take sides in these matches are faced with a very sweet dilemma – who do we root for this time around? You decide.

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Anand versus Judit – A Sweet Dilemma

By Ram Prasad

Things were a lot more black and white for those who followed chess a couple of decades ago. Fans learned of events and results mainly by reading newspaper reports on the next day. Whether they rooted for Bobby or Boris generally depended on whether they resided in the West or the Eastern Bloc.

Even during the marathon K-vs-K matches of the 1980s, there existed two distinct camps – those who wanted the old order to be maintained, versus those who loved the idea of a young upstart toppling the old regime.

But things are not so clear-cut now, especially when these two extremely popular GMs are about to battle it out. Chess may have become similar to boxing with more than one person with a claim to the title of world champion, but unlike boxers, chess GMs generally do not badmouth each other. They reserve the intimidation for over-the-board. In recent interviews, Anand has only nice things to say about Judith and her "brilliant results and tactical, but practical style." Judit, in turn, returns the respect, acknowledging Anand's reputation in blitz games.

The world press, ever eager for a story, is dubbing this encounter the "battle of the sexes." And chess provides them with the readymade metaphor to christen this the match of the King vs. the Queen. But to merely fixate on the difference in their genders is to actually do a bit of a disservice to these two top GMs.

Let's get past the cliches, take a closer look at the recent history of Mainz Classics and see if we can objectively look at the chances of both Anand and Judit in their match.

Previous Mainz Chess Classics

Anand-Kramnik in 2001

The odds of an Anand-Kramnik game resulting in a draw are phenomenally high. Back in 2001, these two played a match of ten games, compared to the eight games at present. Anand came to the match with four previous Frankfurt victories (the venue shifted to Mainz that year). Both Anand and Kramnik had a lot going on, and couldn't really have prepared for their rapid games encounter. The carrot of a possible match ("the Ultimate World Chess Championship" as it was then called) against Kasparov was always being dangled in front of Anand. He claimed that he couldn't concentrate on his game only when there was danger. Kramnik had just returned from that year's Astana super-tournament, and hadn't had time to prepare for the Classic against Anand.

Eight of the first ten games ended as draws, and each player won one and lost one to make the score an even 5-5. In the first tiebreaker, Anand won. In the second tiebreaker with seconds left on the clock, he managed to squeak by holding Kramnik to a perpetual check, and thus winning the whole match.

Anand-Ponomariov in 2002

In last year's Chess Classic, the FIDE champion Ruslan faced former champion Anand. The result was 4.5-3.5 in Anand's favor. The score hides the excitement that those hard fought and close games generated. Ruslan was no pushover for Anand. In fact, Ponomariov drew first blood, ending up the leader after Day 1. On Day 2, they equalized. And on Day 3, Anand managed to win the very last game of the three games that day to emerge the winner. If Judit can manage to do what Ruslan did last year, we should be seeing quite a few exciting games.

Anand vs. Polgar in 2003

Judit Polgar and her accomplishments are so well known that to restate them here is redundant. Last month, when this website ran an article on the occasion of her 27th birthday, 100s and 100s of adoring fans sent her wishes.

Instead, let's look at a quote of hers from an earlier interview, because it is very much applicable to her upcoming match. "Limits are in your head. I can't think of a world championship yet, but reaching the top ten is a very realistic goal. I deserve more in the game. It should be within my power to reach 2700 – but sometimes I just go crazy and lose rating points!" We should remember that she has already crossed the 2700 mark.

For people in India, when it comes to sports, Cricket is number one. But there are millions who follow chess results, especially when it involves their favorite player Vishy. Anand is revered in his home country. Plus there are tens of thousands who root for him in the Philipines and in his country of residence, Spain.

Anand stated earlier this year that he "wanted to teach chess to a million people." It is quite possible that he has already done that, albeit indirectly. Just like the Bobby-boom in the US, following the Fischermania of the 70's, there has been an explosion of chess talent, schools and activity in India. Much of it can be attributed to Anand's success.

Predictions

It is very difficult, if not impossible to resist the temptation to predict how the 2003 Chess Classic will turn out. After all, isn't that why we have such an elaborate and sophisticated ratings system in chess? To help us in our predictions, let's take a close look at the head-to-head statistics, and also at the individual ratings of these two players to see if that reveals anything.

Head to Head Statistics
 Rating 
 Win 
 Loss 
 Draw 
Vishy Anand
2774
16
4
6
Judit Polgar
2718
4
16
6

A quick scan through one database shows that these two have played over 25 games officially (include all different time controls). Clearly, Anand has won the majority of the encounters. But note that Judit has had her share of wins. Also interesting is the relatively low percentage of draws when these two meet – only 23%. The chess watching public notoriously hates draws, repeatedly echoing the sentiments that viewers will always be on the side of GMs who have "tried and lost, rather than those who have not tried at all."

In addition to looking at head-to-head games, there is yet another way of gauging the relative performances of these two. Both Anand and Polgar represented the Rest Of The World team in the match against Russia last year. This allows us to look at how each of them fared against the competition. Pitted against such a stunningly strong cast of Russian GMs (including the three K's) Anand obtained six draws, one loss and two wins. Judit, in contrast, had only two draws, four losses and one win. But what a crucial win it was – against the Number One in the world, Garry Kasparov. To discount Judit would be naïve.

Comparing Rating Points

Anand has been entrenched at world number three for a long time now, with a current rating of 2774. Judit is ranked at 2718, which makes her the number 11 in the world. Incidentally, she now has the exact same rating as the 2002 FIDE world champion Ruslan Ponomariov, who is slated to play Garry Kasparov this October.

The rating difference between Anand and Judit is 56 points. If we choose to believe in the formula used to calculate "Win Expectancies," we might conclude that Anand has a 58% chance of winning any given game. But win expectancies tend to be a lot more reliable around the 1600-2200 range where the chess-playing mortals reside. There is also a somewhat prevalent theory floating around which maintains that after the 2500 mark, every 50 points higher means that the GM is "one notch" better. Going by that theory, Anand could be said to be one notch above Polgar.

But all that is merely theory. In the rarified stratosphere of the Plus-2700s, anything might happen, mainly because too many other factors come into play. Also, we shouldn't forget that the eight games in the Mainz Classic are rapid games.

That Roquebrune Game of 1992

In a recent interview, Anand specifically referred to their 1992 game in Roquebrune. Which should make anyone curious wonder: Why that game? What is it that Anand remembers from that particular game, played 11 years ago?

Polgar,J (2550) - Anand,V (2670) [C18]
Roquebrune rapid Roquebrune (3), 1992

After studying the game closely, a very good guess can be made. The chess instructor and writer Bill Hartston has said that "a true sacrifice is a noble venture." In that game, Anand made a "true" exchange-sac, he gave his rook up for a bishop: 39...Rxd6.

There are many who won't even term it a 'sacrifice' when a chess player gives up a minor piece for an immediate gain of more material or a mating attack. They feel that it is merely tactics. In that Roquebrune game, Anand must have foreseen the pawn roll that would ensue. Even though he was down in material, he swapped off the queens. Judit defended well, and gave Anand a run for his money. And because he persevered and won, this is the one that is still vivid in Vishy's mind.

After all this, we must ask ourselves again: Is being a chess fan really all that difficult? We chess fans are royally spoiled. We get to follow all the moves via the Internet even as they are being made. We have GM-level software programs to point out why our own ideas for candidate moves in those positions are tactically flawed. We even have GM and IM audio-commentary, being piped right into our home speakers and screens. Deep analysis, post-mortems and refutations are readily available within hours of each game's completion. So, if we are to be objective, we must admit that the assertion about how difficult it is being a fan is blatantly false. It is actually wonderful being a chess follower these days.

In Mainz, we will get to experience the adrenaline rush that comes from watching eight terrific games of rapid chess between two aggressive players. Sweet dilemmas are wonderful to have.

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Ram Prasad is a Chicago-based software engineer, originally from India. He is a part-time writer and a full time chess junkie who is fascinated by super GMs and mega-tournaments. His interests include chess-playing computers and all aspects of chess improvement.


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