MOSCOW - The final stage of a long journey toward a grand objective gets underway today for chess grandmaster Boris Gelfand. The Israeli chess champion faces current world champion Viswanathan Anand of India in a duel that will last nearly three weeks.
The tournament will demand of Gelfand and his opponent all their reserves of mental strength. In this first world chess championship to be held in Moscow since the Cold War, the winner will take home $1.5 million in prize money.
Gelfand, who immigrated to Israel in 1996, has competed among the world elite for over two decades. Thanks mainly to him, Israel won two Chess Olympic medals - silver and bronze - in 2008 and 2010. The world championship, however, is a completely different challenge - the high point in any chess player's career and a distant dream for many of the best who don't manage to peak at the right time.
Gelfand managed just that over the past couple of years by first winning the World Cup and then the challenger final, the latter earning him the right to face Anand for the title of world champion.
This championship differs from its predecessors both in competitors and location. Andrey Filatov, Gelfand’s billionaire friend from their school days, put up $7 million to hold the event in Moscow. He is combining his expressed affinity for chess and the arts by holding the tournament in the Tretyakov Gallery, which holds some 170,000 rare art objects.
Gelfand, at 44, and Anand, at 42, are relatively old to be at the top. The two are also close friends, to the point that they agreed not to block access to electronic communications. Previous matches have done so out of concern for cheating, suspicions of which arose in the 2006 world championship match between Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik and Bulgarian Veselin Topalov. The prospect isn’t seriously considered with these two gentlemen.
Anand is formally the strong favorite. He has an enormous amount of experience in world-class matches, especially for the title. Gelfand has a lot less experience, though in 1990 he was No. 3 in the world behind Kasparov and Karpov. Anand, one of only six chess grandmasters to cross the 2800 threshold in the rankings, currently ranks fourth, while Gelfand is ranked 20th.
Garry Kasparov, a former champion, recently said this match marked the first time a legitimate world champion and a legitimate top contender were not fighting for the title of best chess player in the world. That honor belongs to 21-year-old Norwegian Magnus Carlsen.
Nevertheless, the Anand-Gelfand match is arousing interest well beyond Moscow. Tens of millions of chess fans will follow it via hundreds of Internet sites. The hall where the game is being played seats only 400, and it will be filled as the two players go at it for up to seven hours a day. Hundreds of other fans will follow the game outdoors on huge electronic boards.
Chess in Israel is not the same as chess in India. Anand is a national hero known by hundreds of millions. Ahead of the match, the state of Tamil Nadu, where Anand was born, sent him a million greeting cards from 200,000 regional schools. It is doubtful many in Israel besides chess fans would recognize the modest-looking Gelfand, though some interest has picked up ahead of the match. Officials of Israel’s chess federation are forced to run between government offices to scrape together a meager budget.
Moshe Slav, chairman of the chess federation, says he would like to see chess become a national sport in line with its status abroad. He notes Israelis have brought home world and European youth titles, two silver medals in the European team championships and another two medals in the Chess Olympics.
Filatov said in a recent interview in Russia that he sees chess as a unique, cost-efficient way for a country to make progress. Russia − and the Soviet Union before that − always viewed chess not only as an intellectual sport but an efficient way of strengthening its status as a world leader in developing intelligent, talented youth.
In that regard the two competitors are perhaps the most fitting ones to promote the beauty and singularity of chess among the masses of their respective countries. After Anand won his first world title, some 30 million Indians began learning the game. Earlier outbreaks of the chess craze occurred in the Netherlands after Max Euwe won the world championship in 1935, and in the United States after Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky in 1972.
In the event of a Gelfand upset, will Israelis go similarly chess-mad? We’ll know at the end of this month.
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