Vlad Kramnik puts 'Drawnik' slurs behind him with World Cup victory
The Guardian, Friday 6 September 2013 14.58 EDT
Vlad Kramnik's victory this week at the £1.1m World Cup at Tromso embellished a fine career which includes the world crown. The 38-year-old's strategy in the decisive game against Dmitry Andreikin was so deep that he understood he was winning long before the super-computer Houdini did in its running commentary. Yet chess fans have ambivalent views on Kramnik's status, ranging from those for whom he is a model to sceptics who label the Russian as 'Drawnik'. How come?
When Kramnik captured the legendary Garry Kasparov's world title at London 2000 without losing a game there was shock at the manner of the all-time No1's defeat. Kasparov's fatal technical decision occurred when Kramnik launched his secret weapon, the Berlin Wall. Black invites what looks to be an inferior queenless endgame and challenges White to prove a plus. The principled Kasparov took the bait and wasted his Whites in vain attempts to rebut the Berlin. History has proved him wrong, for the Wall is still used at the highest level in 2013 and many grandmasters now prefer more complex lines to the queen swap.
Kasparov's generally limp play in the match, including a feeble quick draw with his penultimate White, also fuelled rumours that he had personal problems during the series.
All this made Kramnik a slightly tainted champion and the doubters swelled after his first title defence against Hungary's Peter Leko in 2004, when he was behind for much of the match and saved his crown only in the final game. Later it emerged that Kramnik's form crisis in 2004-05 was down to a rare form of arthritis which caused him chronic pain while playing.
He recovered, won the controversial Toiletgate series against Bulgaria's Veselin Topalov but then lost to Vishy Anand first in a tournament then in a match. Kramnik blamed it on the Indian's superior opening preparation and wanted another shot at the title and his hunger has increased since the 2013 Candidates, where he shared first place but an artificial tie-break rule made Magnus Carlsen the challenger.
Kramnik had some reverses this spring when he came last at Moscow's Tal Memorial, so he began the World Cup with a relaxed, low-key approach and booked his departure flight from Tromso for the day after the third round. Then he changed it to the fourth, the fifth.... His opponent Andreikin spent the rest day before the four-game final in intensive preparation. Kramnik instead went on a fishing trip. It paid off when he outmanoeuvred his opponent, 15 years his younger, in a two rooks versus queen endgame, assessing it as won far quicker than the 3300-rated Houdini program.
His success at Tromso qualifies him for the eight-player 2014 Candidates and that could be the defining moment of his career as he believes he has unfinished business with both Anand and Carlsen. The Norwegian is the likely winner, and so the opportunity could be there for Kramnik to win the candidates and then cement his reputation as one of the best world champions by becoming the only player to defeat both Kasparov and Carlsen in matches.
British chess fans will soon be able to watch Kramnik in action when he competes in the annual London Classic at the Olympia Conference Centre from December 7-15.