In chess, like in any other sports, psychology plays a critical role. One doesn’t become a world champion having a weak character. However, even the bravest and most self-confident player isn’t guaranteed anything. The higher the stakes, the more nerves matter. Vladimir Kramnik mentioned while commentating on the match that probably the main difference between the very top players and the top-100 grandmasters is that the former can handle stress better. The game is not decided only on the board; it’s a clash of minds, personalities. One can be better prepared in the opening, generally play chess better, but still lose due to being overemotional. Even the best of the best falter sometimes.
I don’t know for sure what Anand and Gelfand are feeling, but even by observing them one can gather food for thought. From the psychological point of view the match can be broken down into two parts: before game 8 and after. Clearly, Anand is not in his best shape. One can tell that both by the way he is playing and by the way he looks. During the first 8 games Vishy gave the impression of an unconfident and passive person. He was hiding in his shell and avoiding answering questions during the press conferences. And I don’t think that was due to trying to save energy. Moreover, Gelfand had excellent preparation with Black, and this contributed even more to Anand’s psychological problems. Game 7 (which he lost in a terrible fashion) became a true shock for the World Champion. Many analysts were expecting him to pull himself together after the defeat, but that wasn’t the case. However, luck was on Anand’s side at this point: Gelfand blundered a queen, and the score became equal again. Now Vishy became way more relaxed and concentrated than before. For example, in game 9 he was defending a fortress against Gelfand’s queen. Having made a few quick and strong moves, he offered a draw to his opponent. Usually the stronger side is supposed to offer a draw, so this was a psychological trick in some respect. During the press conferences Vishy started smiling and making jokes, as well as answering the questions before Boris, not after.
Maybe Anand’s sapless play is connected with his lack of motivation. He has defended his title twice already. What else does he want to achieve in chess? When preparing for the match against Gelfand, Vishy was playing rather mediocre chess in tournament, apologizing shyly before his friends on Twitter. Probably he lost focus, and his thoughts were elsewhere. Alas, Caissa is a cruel goddess that rewards only her most loyal servants. By playing in an energy-saving mode one risks forgetting what it feels like to give 100% of yourself to the game. Not to mention losing self-respect by being a World Champion who doesn’t win the tournaments he is playing in.
On the contrary, Boris Gelfand knows no rivals when it comes to preparing himself for top tournaments. For him it is the very first WCC match, and he is clearly enjoying it. He is clearly more motivated to win than Anand, and it can be seen from the way he is playing. Boris dismissed a question about him not being experienced enough and being unused to handling the pressure of such a match by saying he doesn’t feel any special pressure. He is not afraid to answer even the most provocative questions. His opening repertoire is more flexible too. While Vishy is playing for a draw with Black and a minimal advantage with White, Boris is ready to seize the initiative with any color.
The critical point of the classical part of the match was game 8. Boris was obviously feeling that Anand had lost his balance. He decided to finish his opponent off: it’s very hard to come back after two losses at this level and in such a short match. After having played the opening in a creative way, he got into a situation where he had to play very precisely in order not to get a significantly worse position. Looking quite satisfied, he played the horrible move 14..Qf6?, thus implying that he thought he was winning. Anand reacted almost instantly; he had seen the trap coming a while ago. Nonetheless, one has to give credit to Boris: he wasn’t demolished by such a blunder.
Summarizing, before game 8, psychology was on the Challenger’s side. Now Gelfand and Anand are about equal in this respect. This will make the tie-break even more exciting. Who do you think will win?
Today I would like to annotate for you game #7. Anand’s loss was caused by his lack of self-confidence. In a somewhat inferior position he talked himself into believing that he was hopelessly lost already and started making one bad move after the other, not even trying to put up any defense.