The semi-finals of the Fide world championship will begin this afternoon in Sanghi Nagar, India, with the title-holder, Anatoly Karpov, playing against Boris Gelfand and Gata Kamsky meeting Valery Salov. The winners will contest a title match lat er thisyear.

This is the first time in the history of the Fide championship that the reigning champion has been required to join in the semi-finals, rather than waiting for a sole challenger to emerge from the long cycle of eliminators. That Karpov must do so is a hangover from the turmoil of 1993, when the PCA took the Kasparov-Short match out of Fide's control.

The Karpov-Timman match, held to fill the vacant Fide throne, had the respectability and tradition of the world governing body behind it, but was recognised, even by the players, as a second-class title contest. Which is why the winner had his world title privileges trimmed slightly to deny him a free passage to the next title match.

Now 43, Anatoly Karpov is 13 years older than any other semi-finalist, and two years older than Graham Gooch, but seems unwilling to admit that his star is fading. Last year, in Linares, he scored the best result of his career. But he did follow it with some of his worst results of the last decade.

Karpov's opponent, Boris Gelfand, 26, has been one of the most impressively consistent grandmasters over the past five years. Between third and fifth in the world on practically every rating list during that period, he has demonstrated great powers of concentration and the ability to control positions of bewildering strategic complexity. With a touch more brilliance and an injection of venom, he'd be favourite to win the world championship. At present, though, he looks just a super-grandmaster, not quite a mega-grandmaster. So Karpov is still tipped for the final.

The other match is more difficult to call. Gata Kamsky, 20, has had a phenomenal career. In 1990, before he was even an International Master, he shot to number eight in the world rankings after gaining a record 300 rating points in a year. The following year, catapulted into the super league before he was ready, he finished a miserable last in Linares. Unter the tutelage of his father, an ex-boxer, Kamsky has studied chess for 14 hours a day since the age of 13. While his innate understanding lags behind that of other top players, he makes up for it with fierce fighting ability. In the quarter-finals, he beat Anand after being two down with three to play.

He will meet a worthy opponent. Winner at Tilburg and Buenos Aires last year, Salov, 30, looks very much a man at the peak of his form. He is also a remarkably objective and intelligent player - precisely the qualities most likely to defeat Kamsky.

William Hartston

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