I often open chess articles with a question, "Is chess a sport?" It's obviously not a sport in the sense of American Football, or Rugby Union. It is surely a mental sport, however. It has the competition to back it up.
The 2008 World Chess Championship will be between Viswanathan Anand of India, and Vladimir Kramink of Russia. But how we got to this stage is confusing, but interesting.
In 2005, there were two World Champions, Kramnik, and Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria. The Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE) made efforts to reunite the World Championship after 15 years or so of separation. In 2006, they arranged a match between Topalov and Kramnik. Sadly, they had already planned the process of the 2007 World Championship, and only one spot was available for a defending champion. The 2006 Championship itself was a classic. There was huge controversy, with Kramnik accused of using a computer to cheat while using the bathroom. Kramnik forfeited a game in protest. Despite this, he forced the game into a Rapidplay playoff, which he won. Therefore, Topalov was absent from the 2007 World Championship, with Kramnik taking his place. In exchange for not being able to enter the tournament (despite being #2 in the world), Topalov was given the right to play for the 2008 World Championship, against the winner of the 2007 World Championship. The 2007 winner was Anand. So, the 2008 Championship should have seen Topalov taking on Anand. However, the match could not be organised, so instead, the 2006 Champion, Kramnik was given the opportunity of the match. Topalov will be seeded into the final stage of the 2009 World Chess Championship instead. The 2009 World Championship will see the winner of Topalov against Gata Kamsky of the United States play against the winner of the 2008 World Championship. But that is down the road somewhat. After that, it gets even more complicated, so we won't go there.
The 12-game match will be played in Bonn, Germany, between October 14th and November 2nd. Head-to-head matches between the two gives the slight edge to Kramnik, 6-4, with 41 draws. However, Anand is the higher rated player, at 2798 v Kramnik's 2788. Kramnik is also five years the junior of Anand. Recent form is not too indicative. Kramnik and Anand both struggled at the recent Grand Prix Final, in Bilbao, Spain, with Anand failing even to win a game. Interestingly, the tournament was won by Topalov. However, most commentators agree that Anand and Kramnik were hiding new preparation ahead of the 12-game match, not wanting to give anybody an idea of what opening will be played.
In chess, matchplay is a completely different skill to normal tournament chess. Most Grandmaster tournaments are Round Robin at the top level, meaning players pass freely from one player to the next, each with a different mental challenge. Conversely, a 12-game match has you playing the same person many times. This makes the support team of each player crucial. They will work hard to analyse previous games, so if any are repeated, they will find new avenues of attack to catch out the opponent. Most matches feature maybe two or three different types of opening, but Bobby Fischer famously won the 1972 Championship in part due to his unpredictable opening play. His opponent, Boris Spassky, simply didn't know what was coming next. Opening strategy will therefore be hugely important. Anand played Gary Kasparov in 1995, and famously lost a game when he repeated a line from earlier in the match. However, Kasparov's team had found a series of moves that improved on Kasparov's play. As a result, Kasparov played what is regarded to be the best game of recent chess history. Historically, Kramnik is strong in matchplay. Anand won his tournament as a Round Robin in 2007, and lost his match with Kasparov in 1995. You would therefore tip the 33 year old Russian to have the advantage.
In reality, the match is the toss of a coin, and anybody can win it. The better prepared player will be Champion. The parallel with other sportier sports, continuing.