Win by Kasparov's protege puts the master's title under serious threat

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For the first time since he became world chess champion in 1985, Garry Kasparov could be in serious danger of losing his title. After a draw in their opening game in London last Sunday, Vladimir Kramnik, who at 25 is 12 years Kasparov's junior, played brilliantly on Tuesday to take the second game as the champion fell behind on the clock and blundered badly.

For the first time since he became world chess champion in 1985, Garry Kasparov could be in serious danger of losing his title. After a draw in their opening game in London last Sunday, Vladimir Kramnik, who at 25 is 12 years Kasparov's junior, played brilliantly on Tuesday to take the second game as the champion fell behind on the clock and blundered badly.

Unless the champion starts winning in the next few days, his reign will soon be over. Kramnik is a genuine contender. He recently had a run of 80 games without defeat and in serious play with Kasparov the record is even: three wins apiece and 17 draws.

Kasparov-watchers believe he is looking unfocused, although his camp denies it. On Thursday, with the white pieces, he was expected to wreak revenge on Kramnik but could not break down his opponent's defence and an exciting game ended in a draw.

Seven years ago, when Kasparov last defended his title in London, against the Briton Nigel Short, the match was played in a blaze of publicity, with three million people watching on television. This time, the cameras are absent and most people are oblivious to the two Russians silently going about their business at the Riverside Studios, west London. On Thursday there were empty seats in the auditorium, which has a capacity of slightly more than 200.

There is live coverage on the internet, thanks to Brain Games Network, the company organising the event and which has put up the $2m (£1.4m) purse but no figures have been released of those watching around the world on their computers. All in all, the championship has every appearance of taking place in a vacuum.

The outcome will be decided over the next three weeks across a small table in the centre of an angular, blue-lit stage set. More often than not, only one player will be present at a time, as each prefers the comfort of his private rest room at the side of the stage while his opponent is taking his turn.

Kramnik, a 6ft 4in giant, tends to tiptoe off the stage in a perhaps overly deferential manner. Kasparov, for his part, stalks off with the brooding air of Achilles retiring to his tent.

The schedule of 16 games in four weeks is hugely demanding, and both players undertake regular physical training to help maintain their mental stamina and alertness. Kramnik has even given up smoking.

The chess preparations are also intense and each player has experts to help. Kasparov's camp includes four Russian grandmasters, while Kramnik has the French and Spanish champions in his corner.

The rules do not allow players to bring written material into the auditorium. Spectators are scanned with a metal detector, in response to an incident at a tournament in Philadelphia when a player used a bug in his shoe to receive help from an accomplice with a chess computer.

Past world championship matches have often been marked by enmity between the competitors but Kasparov and Kramnik are friends. Kramnik was one of Kasparov's team when he last contested the championship, in 1995.

However, on Thursday there was a hint that perhaps a little bad blood may be seeping into the proceedings. Towards the end of the game Kramnik appeared to offer Kasparov a draw when it was not his place to do so. A few terse words were exchanged and Kasparov made clear by his body language that he was not impressed by the young man's impudence. If Kasparov does not win a game soon, he could become yet more ill-tempered.

Even the champion seems to be aware there is a real chance that in two or three weeks from now he may be forced to hand over his crown. The only question is, will anyone notice?

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