VISWANATHAN Anand’s hopes of regaining his world title are not looking good after a mediocre performance in a warm-up event on the French island of Corsica last month.
The Indian started well, with easy wins over Russian IM Roman Skomorokhin and GM Pavel Tregubov, but was knocked out by a lesser light, Ukrainian GM Sergey Fedorchuk, in the semi-final.
Instead, the honours went to Hou Yifan, the petite world women’s champ, who trounced Fedorchuk in the Corsican Circuit final.
You can’t place too much weight on one event, but this was the only event Anand has played in for quite a while. And it came just weeks before his world championship clash against title-holder Magnus Carlsen of Norway, which kicks off on Friday in Sochi, Russia.
Carlsen is heavily favoured for that 12-game match. That lack of competitive tension – and the fact it’s a repeat of last year’s match – may help explain the palpable lack of interest in the match from the broader chess community; for example, a quick scan of some major chess websites this week found many had not even bothered to mention the match. But the qualifying method may also be to blame. What the chess world wants to see is an exciting, unpredictable match between the very best players in the world; what they too often get is a match between yesterday’s heroes, who qualified for the showdown some time ago.
Anand, at 44, is ranked sixth in the world, and while still a fine player, is well past his prime; at one point, decades ago, he was vieing with the great Garry Kasparov for dominance.
In contrast, the world No 2, Italy’s Fabiano Caruana, is at the height of his powers right now – but may have to wait years for a crack at the title.
Certainly the world chess federation has made efforts to improve the situation by dramatically speeding up the qualifying cycle.
In the bad old days the world champions set the rules, picking and choosing their challengers, delaying matches and hanging on to their titles for as long as possible.
Back in the 1950s a three-year cycle was introduced, but this still tended to entrench mediocrity.
Today it’s a yearly cycle, which is much better, but still leads to unsatisfactory results. For one thing, the incumbent world champion has an advantage in not having to go through a gruelling qualifying process.
A better system, I’d suggest, would be to make the qualifying event the actual world title: simply invite the top 10 active players on the rating list to compete in a yearly world championship tournament. Exciting, unpredictable – and fair.