Viswanathan Anand is seeking redemption.
Precisely a year after what turned out to be a highly disappointing World title defence against Magnus Carlsen, the 44-year-old Indian challenger will try to turn the clock back in Sochi, Russia, over the next three weeks.
Looking to avenge the 3.5-6.5 defeat in the best-of-12 game match in Chennai last November, Anand returns to a country where he won the last of his five world titles in 2012.
The chess world has tipped Carlsen as the runaway favourite, obviously not without reason. In the past year, the 23-year-old has raised the bar further to become the highest-rated player in chess history, and added the World rapid and blitz titles to his already-impressive collection.
From suffering to salvation, Anand has seen it all in the past 12 months. In March, he produced a performance that baffled the chess elite and the casual followers of the game alike, as he topped a select eight-player field to emerge as the challenger to Carlsen.
Anand, dominated and destroyed by Carlsen in front of his home fans, eventually managed to play the kind of chess associated with him.
To a great extent, he has managed to win back the respect of his peers. During the course of his two titles this year, Anand showed that he had shed the sluggishness that had crept into his game the past couple of years.
In the re-match, one can expect Anand to not repeat the mistakes committed in Chennai, be it in the choice of pushing the king-pawn to two squares (a move denoted by the notation ‘e4’) to start his games with white pieces, or opting for dull variations leading to equality in late middle-games and end-games, all considered Carlsen’s forte.
As Anand admitted after the Chennai contest, “Based on my tournament results and all, I felt it was better to concentrate on e4. It turned out to be a bad mistake. In hindsight, that was the worst move of the match.”
About the courage to take on Carlsen in long, dreary continuations that led to his defeats in Game 5 and Game 6, Anand was once again candid.
“I made the decision not to avoid long games. Well, not to be scared of them. If a long game happens, I should be ready to face a long battle and if I make my point and confront him there, in his strongest point admittedly, if I can play a good long game and defend well, then it takes the pressure off me for everything else.”
Many, including former champion Vladimir Kramnik, expect Anand to come up with a different strategy and perform better this time around.
“I’ll be very surprised if Anand fails to pull himself together and loses so limply again,” says Kramnik.
“I’ve got no doubt that this encounter will be much more interesting… I’m sure there will be a great deal of interesting middle-game positions and it will be a battle of nerves. We won’t see a Chennai 2.”
Without doubt, Carlsen’s chances are no less than they were last time. Going by the rating difference of 85 points, Carlsen was expected to win in 10 games. He did. At present, Carlsen is rated 2863 to Anand’s 2792. Again, the odds favour the Norwegian to win comfortably.
But, should a pro-active Anand succeed in bringing Carlsen under early pressure and sustain it for a bit longer, any result is possible.
Last time, Anand underestimated his chances in the third game and rued the missed opportunity.
It will be interesting to see how Carlsen responds to pressure, if an aggressive Anand manages to strike first.