By Cecil Rosner
Posted: 05/18/2013 1:00 AM
THERE isn't much that happens in the arena of world championship chess that is devoid of controversy, so the battle over this year's title match was predictable.
Viswanathan Anand, the reigning world champion and a popular figure in his native India, will meet challenger Magnus Carlsen of Norway in November. At 43, Anand is nearly twice the age of his upstart opponent.
Carlsen earned the right to challenge for the world championship by winning a nail-biting Candidates tournament in London. Though he is the top-rated player in the world, Carlsen had to rely on tie-breaks to squeak through the field.
Still, the oddsmakers are giving the advantage to the youthful Norwegian, who developed extraordinary chess skills at an early age and has just been getting better and better. Even Anand calls him "the greatest talent I have seen."
As the excitement was building for the upcoming match, FIDE (the world chess federation) unveiled a controversial decision. It awarded the tournament to Chennai in India, Anand's home turf.
Ever since Iceland hosted the iconic Cold War match between Soviet Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer, it's been taken for granted that neutral ground is important in world championship encounters. But FIDE is a highly politicized organization where favours and patronage can often trump common sense.
Carlsen wasn't happy with the decision, and he said so. "The lack of transparency, predictability and fairness is unfortunate for chess as a sport and for chess players," he said in a statement. Many feared the worst. After all, Carlsen had dropped out of the previous championship cycle over what he felt was unfairness in the rules.
Soon after Carlsen's statement, the mayor of Paris submitted a bid to hold the tournament, offering 2.65 million euros and another 800,000 euros as a contribution to FIDE, a cheeky 10,000 more than the Chennai bid. "Paris is the city where FIDE was born and ever since, chess has been part of our cultural heritage," the mayor said.
The Norwegian Chess Federation added its voice by protesting the process. But FIDE was not inclined to budge. Faced with the possibility of a world championship match without the world's top rated player, FIDE called Carlsen's bluff.
And faced with the prospect of perpetual political in-fighting preventing him from ever winning the world championship, Carlsen gave in. He agreed to Chennai, and has set about preparing for the match.
The tournament will be played Nov. 6-26, and is expected to draw the biggest online crowd in history. Though Anand has despatched Kramnik, Topalov and Gelfand in the last five years, he realizes this will be his toughest challenge ever. It's going to be an entertaining match.