Vladimir Kramnik, chess grandmaster

Vladimir Kramnik does not ride the Moscow metro. It’s not that the 25-year-old chess grandmaster is an elitist or a claustrophobe. The reason is simple: Kramnik, recently crowned the world’s 14th Chess Champion after defeating Garry Kasparov, does not have a Moscow registration permit and fears being picked up by the police.

The fears are not unfounded. A few months ago Kramnik was out for a morning jog and ended up being forced into a police van. His protests went unheeded. “We’ll see what kind of Grandmaster you are when we get to the local precinct,” the arresting officer quipped.

In fact, Kramnik is a chess champion very much unlike his predecessor Kasparov. Whereas Kasparov is disciplined in his training, Kramnik will often stay out late at a bar on the eve of a match. And if Kasparov has a reputation as an arrogant showman, as an aggressive and explosive player, Kramnik is much more like a quiet intellectual, and has been called “positional and python-like” in his playing style. Their nicknames draw further distinctions: Kasparov is known as “The Ogre of Baku,” “The Boss” and “Gazza.” Kramnik is simply “Volodya,” “Vlad,” “Ovik” and, oh yes, “Vlad the Impaler.”

Kramnik does not take his calling lightly. Indeed, in preparation for his November showdown against Kasparov, Kramnik quit smoking and undertook a serious workout regimen that trimmed his already slender 6’ 6” frame to a lanky 175 pounds.

The workout paid off. Kramnik was in top form at the London match, exuding self-confidence and a cool head as he executed a brilliant Berlin Defense, making his chess fortress impenetrable, in an approach Kramnik himself likened to Field Marshall Mikhail Kutuzov’s 1812 military strategy to defeat Napoleon.

Kramnik is truly an example of a pupil who has overtaken his teacher. A graduate of the famous “Botvinnik-Kasparov Chess School,” Kramnik has been studying Kasparov’s games since he was 11 and was for a time on Kasparov’s backup chess team.

Unfortunately, the teacher did not always express humility in his defeat. Citing personal reasons for his poor performance, Kasparov (who first won the top chess crown from Anatoly Karpov in 1985, at the age of 22) grumbled to Sport-Express that Kramnik “embodies the pragmatic, cynical approach” to chess, and that his playing style is “no fun.  … The method of struggle on the chessboard which Kramnik professes should not dominate. Besides, I just play chess better than him.” Kramnik was a bit more diplomatic, saying that Kasparov has been, for him, “the role model in chess … at least before this match.”

Kramnik’s victory in London makes him world chess champion only because he beat Kasparov, widely recognized as the world’s top player. The International Chess Federation (FIDE, founded in 1924, and with which Kasparov split in 1993, held its most recent world championship in India, where Vishvanat Anand beat Alexei Shirov. Now the world of chess expects to see a Kramnik vs. Anand bout as a “unifying match,” or  a “match of prestige.”

In any case, most chess observers agree that the Kasparov-Kramnik match was a battle between the world’s two strongest chess players, and that Kramnik deserved to win. As the New York Times wrote, “In his 15 years as world champion, Garry Kasparov has cultivated a fearsome reputation as the chess-playing equivalent of a trash-talking basketball player. That is why his behavior at the world chess championships seemed so perverse and baffling ... Confronted with Vladimir Kramnik ... Kasparov has been acting as if he has lost his nerve and maybe even his will to win.”

Ray Keene, a British grandmaster who was the director of the championship, went so far as to assert that “Kasparov seemed to collapse psychologically.”

In the first moments following his victory, the usually self-contained Kramnik raised his arms in triumph. Then he quickly made a phone call to his parents, who live a modest life in the Black Sea resort town of Tuapse. He wanted them to hear the good news directly from him: their many sacrifices to make his career a reality had paid off in the greatest magnitude imaginable. Not only had their lanky son walked off with $1.3 mn in prize money, but he also picked up the baton in the long tradition (broken only once since 1948, by Bobby Fisher) of Soviet and Russian grandmasters wearing the world’s top chess crown.

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