Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Chess Book: From London to Elista by Evgeny Bareev and Ilya Levitov

The reviewer knew he was going to like this book when reading the following in the foreword: “the genuine World Champion, acknowledged by everyone, is the one who takes the title from the previous king in a one-on-one duel. Why is that? Because it just can’t be any other way in this game.” Exactly: no more needs to be said on the subject. The book is the behind-the scenes tale of Kramnik’s three world title matches as told by one of his chief seconds and supporters, Evgeny Bareev and PR man Ilya Levitov. Bareev tells the story in response to questions from Levitov in a sort of Socratic dialogue. Bareev, of course, has a reputation for dry humour and it is beautifully exemplified here, with extracts from the diary which Bareev kept during the course of Kramnik’s 2000 match victory over Kasparov. The first 170 pages of the book are on the London 2000 match and they are absolutely riveting. The candour with which Bareev (and others such as Lautier) tell the story, interspersed with annotations of all the games, is very engaging.

From the reviewer’s personal memory, the Kramnik camp in 2000 seemed very friendly and approachable in stark contrast to the Kasparov camp, but it is clear from the text that they were undergoing the tortures of the damned in private; not because of any animosity between the members of the team but because of the sheer weight of their workload as they sought to patch up the Berlin Wall as the world’s greatest ever player tried to smash it down. The end of the match was more a relief than a triumph – but with Kasparov defeated, they can now look back on that achievement as one of the greatest in chess history. There have been books before on all the sensational nonsense that goes on behind the scenes at various matches but it is rare for anybody to have taken the lid off the day-to-day work that seconds do and still rarer for them to have made it so interesting. It’s a bit like reading the military memoirs of Wellington’s staff as they describe how they helped their commander defeat Napoleon at Waterloo. But with more jokes.
The book could have ended happily at that point for this reviewer and be hailed as a masterpiece, but it continues with the 2004 Leko match. This was far from a triumph for Kramnik, as his health and form had subsided since the heady days of 2000. But the book is still very revealing as it tells how Kramnik’s seconds struggled to help the anxious shadow of the 2000 man to retain his crown.

he final 95 pages or so of the match are on the notorious match with Topalov in Elista in 2006. This time Bareev was looking at it from the outside as he was no longer one of Kramnik’s seconds. Though still entertaining and worth reading, it is less definitive and riveting than what goes before. It is not long before Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov gets it in the neck: “Externally Danailov resembles a character from a Balkan film – the noisy Mafioso in garish clothes with a loud voice and bad manners,,, in life this scandalous man has become practically the most famous chess manager... and you can be certain that nothing and no-one will stop him from striving for the big money and power.” Topalov by contrast is judged to be “a shadow following his mentor” who has changed from being a pleasant and sociable teenager into somebody who is more hardened and cynical. However, though he’s prepared to be fairly harsh on Danailov (without giving much by way of examples), Bareev is initially fairer towards Topalov himself, batting aside any accusations of cheating that have been levelled against him. Later, however, Topalov is roundly damned for what is seen as his craven behaviour during the ‘toiletgate’ saga: “trusting Danailov with control over his whole life... Topalov destroyed himself as a personality,” says Levitov, to which Bareev adds in italics “there was never any personality”.

Overall this is an extremely good, if somewhat uneven, book. The dialogue format adds to the humour but is rather overdone. It is sometimes not easy to work out which of the two co-authors is talking. Perhaps it could have been better edited and is a bit longer than it needed to be. But it emphasises, as few books have done before, just how much hard work goes into opening preparation during world championship matches, and makes one realise that modern matchplay chess is actually team chess in which everyone participates but only one person moves the pieces on the board. After reading this, the book I want to read next is Yuri Dokhoian on Garry Kasparov. Review by John Saunders.

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