Kasparov on verge of defeat by 'Steve Davis of chess'

World championship: In a sensational match, the champion for 15 years has been outfoxed at every turn by his younger pupil and fellow Russian
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The Independent Online

The king has lost his crown. After yesterday's shock draw in the 13th game of the Braingames World Chess Championship at the Riverside Studios in West London, reigning champion Garry Kasparov, 37, almost certainly faces a sensational defeat at the hands of his former pupil and fellow Russian, Vladimir Kramnik, 12 years his junior.

The king has lost his crown. After yesterday's shock draw in the 13th game of the Braingames World Chess Championship at the Riverside Studios in West London, reigning champion Garry Kasparov, 37, almost certainly faces a sensational defeat at the hands of his former pupil and fellow Russian, Vladimir Kramnik, 12 years his junior.

Two games down with just three to play, and with only one more opportunity to use the advantageous white pieces, it will now take a miracle for Kasparov to retain his title.

After only 14 moves of yesterday's game, the audience was stunned to see Kasparov push a button on the table next to him, turning on a light above the small stage where play has gone on for the past three weeks. It signified he was offering a draw to his opponent, even though he appeared to be in a strong position and the game was in its early stages. As in many previous games, Kasparov had seemed ill-at-ease throughout, shaking his head and looking up to the ceiling as if in an agony of despair.

At a brief press conference after the game he was asked bluntly what was wrong. "It is a long story and I will tell all when the match is over. But obviously there are reasons which prevented me from playing well," he replied, adding that the schedule of four games a week had been difficult for him. He would say nothing more. He looked a broken man, both physically and mentally.

His short statement added fuel to speculation that some kind of personal problem has been weighing on Kasparov's mind. He made similar hints after the seventh game, which ended in him offering a draw after just 11 moves. It was the shortest game of Kasparov's career, and on that occasion he said enigmatically, "I'm not very happy with what happened today, but the reasons are entirely mine."

Throughout the championship, Kasparov has appeared a shadow of his former self. The player who is nicknamed "The Beast" is normally bullish and aggressive, treating his opponents with contempt, even on occasion laughing out loud at their moves.

But this time he has been oddly muted and has displayed an uncharacteristic respect towards Kramnik, who seems to have the Indian sign over him. In their previous games in serious tournaments the record is even, with three wins apiece and 17 draws. At the championship's opening press conference, Kasparov declared that he was facing his first real test for 10 years.

So it has proved. While the chess world was agreed that the contest would be close, few anticipated that Kramnik would dominate proceedings as he has done. The young challenger established an early lead after winning the second game and he has gone on to outfox the champion at every turn.

Much of his success has been the result of superior preparation. With the help of his backroom team, which includes the French and Spanish champions, Kramnik has been able consistently to surprise Kasparov at the table with unexpected planned moves. Furthermore, he has shown himself to be an inspired defensive player, resisting everything that Kasparov has thrown at him.

But Kramnik has also undoubtedly been helped by the unexplained inner anguish that has made Kasparov at times alarmingly unfocused. This was most evident in the 10th game, when he was annihilated by Kramnik in a humiliating 24 moves after falling into a trap he would normally have been expected to foresee.

Kasparov has dominated the world of chess for 15 years. Since winning the world title from Anatoly Karpov in 1985, he has remained unbeaten, with the single exception of a defeat to the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue three years ago, a result he still disputes. But the stage is now set for Kramnik to receive the £25,000 sterling silver Howard Staunton trophy and a cheque for two-thirds of the $2m (£1.4m) purse.

While Kasparov has been getting it all wrong, Kramnik has most definitely got it all right. Looking in the best physical condition of his career, after losing more than a stone in weight and giving up smoking, he has appeared totally focused and supremely confident. He is on good terms with Kasparov and knows the champion's game inside out, having been on his team when he last contested the championship in 1995.

The son of a sculptor father and music teacher mother, the 6ft 4in tall Kramnik is a laid-back, easygoing character, and will make a very different world champion to the often unfriendly and moody Kasparov. Jimmy Adams, editor of Chess magazine, describes Kramnik as "colourless", likening him to snooker's Steve Davis. While he welcomes the advent of a friendlier face at the top of the game, he worries about Kramnik's lack of charisma. "It will be hard to project him as a character on the world stage."

However, Kramnik may well prove to be a unifying force in what is a divided chess world. In 1993, Kasparov split from FIDE, the official world governing body, after an acrimonious dispute and he has since put his title on the line under a variety of banners.

He first formed the Professional Chess Championship together with the British player Nigel Short, with whom he played a one-sided title match in London in 1993. The PCA subsequently collapsed when computer chip maker Intel withdrew its sponsorship, and it was replaced by the World Chess Council. That too collapsed. This world championship is being contested under the aegis of Braingames Network, an internet company with big ideas for online chess tournaments.

Meanwhile, FIDE has carried on regardless, under the somewhat eccentric leadership of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the President of the obscure Russian republic of Kalmykia. He came to power in 1993 after promising free mobile phones to every one of his nation's shepherds, who have yet to receive them.

A billionaire whose wealth, according to Kasparov, is of "dubious origin", Mr Ilyumzhinov is obsessed with chess and has pumped millions of dollars into the game, including the $3m prize fund for last year's FIDE world championships, which were held in Las Vegas and were won by Alexander Khalifman.

The question now is whether the exclusive five-year deal Kramnik has signed with Braingames Network will prevent him from taking part in a unifying contest against Khalifman. And Kramnik could well expect a knock on the door from Alexei Shirov. The hugely talented Russian player, nicknamed "Planet Shirov" because his moves are often out of this world, beat Kramnik convincingly two years ago in what was meant to be an eliminator for a title match with Kasparov, but funding problems meant that the match never took place. Shirov recently announced that he was suing Kasparov as a result and he will doubtless feel Kramnik owes him a shot at the title.

But perhaps the most likely scenario will be a rematch with Kasparov, whose giant ego will almost certainly demand an opportunity to restore his reputation. In the meantime, the chess world waits with eager anticipation to hear his reasons for his downfall. The king is dead - long live the king.

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