New chess champ has a novel way of winning

Posted: 11/2/2005
By: Dylan Loeb McClain, New York Times

At 30, chess champ is a little older than the norm. Confidence and his unconventional middle-phase attack served him well.

Vaselin Topalov, a Bulgarian chess grandmaster, is on top of the world.

In mid-October, Topalov, 30, won the championship organized by the World Chess Federation by a margin of a point and a half over most of the world's best players. His performance was so dominant (he won six of his first seven games) that by the midpoint of the tournament, the suspense was all but over.

His victory was not a flash in the pan. Five months ago, at the Mtel Super GM tournament in Sofia, Bulgaria, Topalov scored two more victories than his closest competitor, finishing a full point ahead of a field that had most of the world's best players, including Vladimir Kramnik, a Russian grandmaster who is a rival claimant for the title of world champion.

And in March, Topalov tied for first in a tournament in Linares, Spain, with Garry Kasparov, the former world champion and No. 1-ranked player. Topalov achieved the tie by beating Kasparov in the last round, his only loss in the tournament. Afterward, Kasparov announced he was retiring from competitive chess.

As a result of his recent performances, Topalov will almost certainly be the top active player when the chess federation produces its next world ranking.

What has allowed Topalov to put some distance between himself and his rivals over the past year? In a telephone interview from his home in Salamanca, Spain, Topalov said he had recently become more confident and that was making it easier to handle the pressure of top-level competition.

Middle phase his best

Topalov's ascension is remarkable for a couple of reasons. Usually, a player who has not become a perennial challenger for the championship by his early to mid-20s is not as likely to rise to the top at the relatively advanced age, by chess standards, of 30.

And whereas Kasparov was known for preparing openings that could ensnare his opponents, giving him better prospects, Topalov usually emerges from the opening phase of the game with an equal or only slightly better position.

It is in the middle phase that he beats his opponents -- something that is very hard to do regularly against the world's best players.

Topalov could pinpoint no particular reason for this ability, other than to say that he is no longer so concerned about winning or losing, which has lightened the pressure. During the championship, he said, "I was not thinking about the result, but trying to play the best moves."

Now that he is champion, Topalov says he wants to keep proving that he is the best. "The world champion is the best player of the moment," he said. "If you want to really be the best player in the world, then you want to really play anyone. I have to try and play and not hide behind the title."

Immediately after the championship, Topalov's manager, Silvio Danailov, seemed to suggest that Topalov would be interested in playing Kramnik to settle the question of who is the legitimate champion, which has been in dispute since 1993. But, according to, an online database and news site, Topalov said in the recent edition of Sports Express, a daily Russian newspaper, that he would be willing to play Kramnik, but not with the title at stake, as Kramnik was currently not in his class as a player and therefore he did not have the right to challenge him.

Chessbase reported that Kasparov agreed with Topalov, saying that by virtue of his recent results and his ranking, only Topalov should be considered the world champion.

Chessbase also reported that Kramnik, in the current issue of 64, a Russian chess magazine, reiterated that he was the world champion and that he would welcome a match with Topalov to settle the issue.