A chess match is an exciting struggle between two persons which, in most cases, allows one to find out which of them is the better player. The more games, the more justified the result (as long as no one dies from exhaustion). Therefore, it is not surprising that World Chess Champions have practically always been determined in a match.
Chess matches are specific and require a special approach, different from the way one prepares for tournaments. The following factors should be considered:
1) Openings. First of all, one should have a few sound openings for both colors in his repertoire. If your opponent finds a serious flaw in one of your pet variations, the last thing you want to do is try to fix it along the way. You have to deviate, choose another opening (variation), otherwise you will most likely lose precious points. Secondly, you would want to have both very safe (allowing to quickly equalize and draw, e.g. to achieve overall victory in the match) and aggressive (aimed at a ferocious chess fight, e.g. when down on points) openings at your disposal.
2) Chess psychology. One should try to lure his opponent into the positions he likes least. If your opponent is great at positional chess, you should complicate things and force him to blunder. If he loves dynamic positions, sacrificing pawns for initiative, you may offer him a quiet strategic endgame. However, you should also keep in mind your weak and strong sides. For example, if he is bad at tactics, but you are even worse, you may not want to compete with him on that ground.
3) Physical shape. Matches usually last longer than tournaments and make one feel like a dried lemon by the end of the competition. A good physical shape, underestimated by many inexperienced players who laugh at the statement “physical form is very important for chess”, is a must-have for a serious match player.
4) Match strategy. Each player decides for himself how to act in the match. Some try to play for a win since game one; others start slow, and then suddenly leap at their opponent like a rogue during an ambush. This stuff is very tricky. One should be flexible in changing his/her strategy during the game (e.g. if your aim was to make 5 quick draws, and you have lost game one, you will definitely have to change gears).
5) Human psychology. In a match one of the key components is human psychology, being able to outwit your opponent, recover from lost opportunities quickly, put mental pressure on him/her. Sometimes being in the right state of mind is much more important than having a 20-move analysis perfectly memorized and played out.
And where is Anand, you might ask?
Sorry, he doesn't drink red wine!
Let’s take a look at the current World Championship match by Anand and Topalov from this perspective:
1) Opening. Top players have a great arsenal of openings at their disposal. 1.d4 is clearly dominant in this duel, but Anand has also tried 1.c4 in game 11. Both players must have spent a huge amount of time analyzing openings starting with 1.e4 (in case someone finally goes for it). After suffering a painful defeat in the Gruenfeld in game 1, Anand changed his strategy and opted for the Slav Defense. Then, when he managed to fix his preparation there and encountered difficulties in the Slav, he returned to the Gruenfeld. Topalov has been acting in a similar fashion.
2) Chess psychology. Topalov is a very dynamic player who favors “boring” endgames much less. To exploit that, Anand has conceded to worse endgames during the first few rounds.
3) Topalov is younger than Anand and more physically fit. That’s why he’s trying to follow the Sofia rules and play out all the games. This way he makes Anand squander precious energy. In fact, both of them have become tired by the end of the match. This resulted in many mistakes by both players.
4) Match strategy. Initially, Anand’s match strategy was to play for a draw with Black, and put Topalov on the defensive with White (by sacrificing a pawn each game). Veselin’s strategy was more straightforward – take no prisoners, play for a win in every game.
5) Human psychology. Both Topalov and Anand have their seconds, friends and relatives at hand to support them. So far both of them seem to handle the pressure well. Topalov generally seems to play even better after losses (unlike most people). Anand has been reported to “break” after painful and “undeserved” losses. However, this time he has been doing ok in this respect.
When my friend IM David Pruess asked me if I could write a column on chess matches, my initial reaction was like “I haven’t played a World Championship match, how can I relate to them?” On the other hand, I still have some experience (European Championship tie-breaks, training matches against GMs, etc.). Today I would like to share with you a story about my first serious chess competition of that sort. It happened in 2004 at the World Women's Chess Championship. Those are typically knock-out events: 2 games with standard time controls, then (if the score is 1-1) rapid, blitz, Armageddon. You basically have one shot here, and it’s very important not to lose (even more than usual) since it’s very hard to come back after a defeat. Under these circumstances most people try to play it safe with black and secure a draw, and play for a win with White.
So, I was facing Marie Sebag, the strongest French female player. We are peers, and our chess careers have been quite similar: FIDE 2100+ ratings in the year 2000, medals at European and World Junior Championships, WGM titles and almost 2400 by 2004. Even now we’re at #10 and #14 in the world female rankings, separated just by a few rating points (she’s 2524, I’m 2501). By the way: when you’re at the top, you play virtually the same guys/girls all the time.
One of my Dragon friends, got him at the North Urals Cup super tournament
At that time I was very conservative in terms of opening choice. My only weapon against 1.e4 was the Dragon. Naturally, it suits my style, I have a lot of experience in the Dragon (having played over 120 FIDE-rated games with that opening), and it has served me well. However, it has serious drawbacks: with Black you have to memorize very many variations, otherwise White may simply follow Fischer’s classical “Dragon is push the h-pawn, check-check, mate.” Even a relatively weak player may look up your games in the database, opt for a variation where you are forced to go for a worse ending, and steal at least half a point from you. That is unacceptable when participating in open tournaments where you have to play for a win with both White and Black. Being a strong player, Marie had prepared well and put me on the ropes:
As you can see from the game, I somehow escaped. Unfortunately, my luck had run out by that time. Having mentioned all the similarities between us, I have neglected the fact that by 2004 Marie was way more experienced than I in terms of match play. She had participated in a few very strong events of that type, including a duel vs Alexandra Kosteniuk, while my match experience was quite limited. Thus, in the second game, where I had White (and was supposed to fight for a win) her team outwitted mine: I ran into home preparation and eventually lost. That definitely hurt pretty bad, but contributed a lot to my evolution as a player. Matches always do.
Not all of us get a chance to compete at the World Chess Championship, but we can all feel the excitement of the struggle, and play in our own chess matches. Try it!