GM Veselin Topalov

Veselin Topalov at the 2016 Candidates Tournament. Photo: Maria Emilianova/Chess.com.
Full name
Veselin Topalov
Born
Mar 15, 1975 (age 45)‎
Place of birth
Ruse, Bulgaria
Federation
Bulgaria
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Bio

GM Veselin Topalov is a Bulgarian super-grandmaster and was the FIDE world champion in 2005. He was the world number-one player from April 2006 through January 2007 and again from October 2008 until January 2010. According to 2700chess.com, he reached his peak rating of 2826 on August 24, 2015—the 5th highest rating of all time. 

Topalov played GM Vladimir Kramnik for the world championship in 2006 and also played GM Viswanathan Anand for the world championship in 2010. He has consistently been among the world’s greatest players for over two decades and has participated in nine Olympiads.


Style

Topalov's style is universal and dynamic. He is more aggressive than most world champions but just as well-rounded. Topalov's proclivity for energetic counterattacking and crystal-clear calculations in messy positions can be seen in his best games. His almost lifelong use of the Sicilian Defense as Black and his many wins against it with the white pieces is notable.

In the following game, Topalov conducts an instructive kingside attack against GM Lazaro Bruzon Batista. After White captures the c5-pawn on move 29, Topalov immediately punishes this pawn-grab with a decisive attack starting with 29...Nxf4. It is worth noting the position of White's knight on a3 and queen on c5 that are unable to help defend the king.

Early Chess Career 

Topalov learned to play chess at the age of eight and quickly became a chess prodigy. In 1989 he won the World Under-14 Championship and became an international master. In 1992 he earned the grandmaster title at the age of 16.

Two years later he would play in his first Olympiad and defeated World Champion GM Garry Kasparov on board one. In this game, Topalov and Kasparov have a classic Sicilian slugfest. After an extremely tactical middlegame, Kasparov errs on move 23. By move 25, Topalov achieves double rooks on the seventh rank, and the game is decided quickly.

From Grandmaster To World-Class Player

From 1994 to 2004 Topalov became one of the best players in the world. In 1996 he won multiple tournaments, including shared first place with Kasparov at the Max Euwe memorial ahead of GMs Nigel Short, Anand, Kramnik, Joel Lautier, Yasser Seirawan, Boris Gelfand, Jereon Piket, and Jan Timman. (Topalov defeated Kasparov in their individual game.) Topalov scored 5/10 in the 1996 Las Palmas tournament—one of the strongest tournaments ever held with GMs Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, and Anand all participating.

Topalov's game against Kasparov in the 1999 Wijk aan Zee Tournament is historic. This game is considered one of the best games ever played and has been voted as the number-one chess game of all time by the Chess.com staff. It was also in 1999 that Topalov began playing in the FIDE World Championship knockout tournaments. 

Veselin Topalov 2007
A young Topalov. Photo: Karpidis/Wikimedia, CC.

In the 1999 FIDE World Championship knockout tournament, Topalov entered as the ninth seed and was eliminated by the top seed, Kramnik, in the fourth round. In the 2000 FIDE World Championship knockout tournament, he entered as the seventh seed and made it to the quarterfinals (top eight) before being eliminated by the third seed, GM Michael Adams. In the 2002 FIDE World Championship, Topalov entered as the eighth seed but lost in the fourth round to the ninth seed, GM Alexei Shirov.

Also in 2002, Topalov lost in the Candidates final vs. GM Peter Leko for the right to face the classical World Champion Kramnik. In the 2004 FIDE World Championship knockout tournament, Topalov entered as the number-one seed but lost in the semifinals (top four) against the eventual winner, GM Rustam Kasimdzhanov.

2005 And The World Championship

The year 2005 was a fantastic one for Topalov. He began it with a third-place finish in Wijk aan Zee at the Corus tournament and then shared first place in the 2005 Linares tournament with Kasparov (ahead of GMs Anand, Leko, Adams, Kasimdzhanov and Franciso Vallejo Pons). In the last round of the Linares tournament, Topalov defeated Kasparov. After the tournament, Kasparov announced his official retirement from chess.

Here is a wonderful game example from 2005, where Topalov quickly defeats Kramnik. Playing the white side of the Sicilian Najdorf, Kramnik grabs a dangerous pawn on move 12. Topalov's counterattack is swift and decisive. By move 15, Topalov's knights are dominating the center of the board, and Kramnik's queen is stuck in an awkward position. After 19...d5 Kramnik loses a piece by force and resigns on move 20! When is the last time you saw Kramnik lose in 20 moves with the white pieces?

Later in 2005, Topalov entered the 2005 FIDE World Chess Championship tournament as the highest-rated participant (alongside Anand, who had an identical rating of 2788). The tournament format had changed from the knockout system that FIDE had used from 1998 to 2004 and was now basically identical to the current Candidates tournament format: eight players, double round-robin.

Topalov had a wonderful tournament and scored an outstanding 10/14, one and a half points ahead of second and third place Anand and GM Peter Svidler. Topalov's performance rating at the 2005 tournament was a staggering 2890! He had achieved his lifelong goal and became a world chess champion.

2006 World Championship Match vs. Kramnik

Topalov's reign as FIDE world champion started well. He shared first place with Anand in Wijk aan Zee at the 2006 Corus tournament, ahead of GMs Adams, Vassily Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Sergey Karjakin, Sergei Tiviakov, Leko, Levon Aronian, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Gata Kamsky and several other strong grandmasters.

Here is a game from this tournament where we see Topalov at his best against Aronian. After a standard opening out of the 4...Ba6 Queen's Indian Defense, Topalov sacrifices the exchange on move 17. The position becomes materially unbalanced but messy. On move 36 Topalov sacrifices a second exchange, and the resulting position on move 38 is memorable. Topalov's bishop pair and connected passed pawns on d6 and c7 are unstoppable.


By April 2006, Topalov was the highest-rated player in the world, but his match with Kramnik was looming. Topalov's FIDE world championship title was well-earned, legitimate, and respected; however, Kramnik (the classical world champion) and FIDE asked for a match to reunite the world championship titles. There had not been a unified or undisputed champion since Kasparov broke away from FIDE in 1993, and the winner of the Kramnik-Topalov World Championship match would be crowned the undisputed champion.

Veselin Topalov 2012
Veselin Topalov. Photo: Stefan64/Wikimedia, CC.

The Kramnik-Topalov World Championship match was highly anticipated. Topalov was the world number-one player while Kramnik was the number-four. Kramnik had been undefeated in match play as the classical world champion since dethroning Kasparov in 1999, and he showed why after winning both games one and two. Topalov's team accused Kramnik of receiving computer assistance, and after two draws in games three and four, Kramnik forfeited game five in protest.

The match eventually proceeded as normal, and Topalov won games eight and nine to gain a lead towards the end of the match. Kramnik came back and won game 10 to even the score and after two more draws, the match went into tiebreaks. Kramnik won the tiebreak section of the match 2.5-1.5 and was crowned the undisputed world champion. Despite losing the match, Topalov remained the world's highest-rated player until January 2007.

Topalov began 2007 by sharing first place at the 2007 Corus tournament with Aronian and GM Teimour Radjabov, half a point ahead of Kramnik (also ahead of Anand, Svidler, Karjakin, Shirov, Magnus Carlsen, and other strong grandmasters).

Here is a nice win from Topalov in this tournament against a 16-year-old Carlsen. Topalov sacrifices an exchange early, but Carlsen decides to give back a second piece to keep his initiative. After Carlsen's counterplay is stopped, it is clear that Topalov's two pieces are significantly stronger than Carlsen's rook. Topalov's technical prowess is on full display as his pieces find perfect squares until Carlsen resigns on move 26.

Magnus and Topalov
Carlsen and Topalov. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

In 2008 Topalov won several strong tournaments, including the 2008 Bilbao Tournament, where he finished ahead of Aronian, Carlsen, Ivanchuk, Radjabov, and Anand. By winning this tournament he reclaimed his spot as the highest-rated player in the world—a spot he would hold until January 2010. In 2009 Topalov faced Kamsky in a match to determine who would challenge World Champion Anand in 2010. Topalov won the match 4.5 to 2.5 and began preparations for his world championship match against Anand.

2010 World Championship Match vs. Anand

The 2010 Anand-Topalov World Championship match was another very close and highly anticipated competition. Topalov was slightly higher rated, but Anand had defeated Kramnik to become world champion (a feat that Topalov was unable to do a few years earlier). The match format was the same as the 2006 world championship match with Kramnik: 12 classical games with a tiebreak if necessary. 

Topalov began the match with a convincing victory. After a mainline Grunfeld opening, Topalov sacrifices a pawn for activity. This activity turned into a vicious kingside attack after Topalov's knight sacrifice on move 24. Only four moves later, Topalov's rooks both reach the seventh rank (similar to Topalov's victory against Kasparov in 1994) and the game ended quickly.

Anand struck back with a victory of his own in game two and another victory in game four. Topalov drew the match level with a win in the eighth game, and after three successive draws, the match was still tied with a final round to go. Anand won the twelfth game and the match to retain his title.

Life After The World Championship Matches

Topalov has continued to play chess at a high level over the past decade. In the 2012 Candidates cycle, he lost to Kamsky in the quarterfinals. He won the 2012 London FIDE Grand Prix event, as well as the 2013 Renova Grand Prix event. The win at the Renova tournament pushed him back into the world's top five players. Topalov won the 2012-2013 Grand Prix title, which earned him a place in the 2014 Candidates tournament. 

Veselin Topalov
Topalov in 2012. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Despite his poor performance in the 2014 Candidates tournament, Topalov won the gold medal on the first board in the 41st Chess Olympiad (with a 2872 performance rating) and finished in third place at the strong 2014 Sinquefield Cup (behind GM Fabiano Caruana and Carlsen). Topalov qualified for the 2016 Candidates tournament due to his rating but again had a bad tournament (he finished in last place). He continues to play in strong tournaments and finished half a point behind the winners of the 2020 Gibraltar Masters.

Topalov remains in the top-25 rankings, even after so many years as a world-class player, challenger and world champion. His games are still studied in books, articles and videos while the world waits to see what is next for the former world champion.

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