Great Moments in Chess: Kramnik’s Crown

Vladimir Kramnik is the player who managed to end Garry Kasparov’s 15-year reign of terror as World Chess Champion. The current World Champion Magnus Carlsen rates Vladimir a “very strong 9” out of 10 for influence on the game, and in Part 3 of his Great Moments in Chess series, Sean Marsh looks at how the then 25-year-old Kramnik managed to topple arguably the greatest player of all time.

The New in Chess Classic ended on Sunday with a first Meltwater Champions Chess Tour victory for Magnus Carlsen, and it’s time to wrap up the Great Moments of Chess series celebrating the New in Chess Magazine and the New in Chess courses on Chessable. That began with Great Moments in Chess: Carlsen Crowned before turning to the Beast from Baku with, Great Moments in Chess: Kasparov Seizes the Crown.

We covered the story of how Garry Kasparov seized the crown from Anatoly Karpov after two extraordinary matches and a total of 72 games. The tally of wins over the two matches was 8-8. This puts two other matters into context. First, recent title matches have been just 12 games long (Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi will be 14 games). Second, Bobby Fischer wanted to play ‘first to 10 wins’ in his (aborted) 1975 title match with Karpov. Just imagine how long that would have taken.

Kasparov’s Successful Title Defences

Kasparov defended his title against Karpov three more times (1986, 1987 and 1990). He then defeated Nigel Short in 1993, in a match which effectively split the World Championship in two, as it was played under the auspices of the short-lived Professional Chess Association instead of FIDE.

FIDE reacted by setting up their own title match, featuring Karpov and Jan Timman. As Nigel Short had defeated both of them in the Candidates Matches, it was generally recognised that the ‘Kasparov line’ was the true one to follow. Anyway, Karpov became FIDE champion once more. To complicate matters further, Bobby Fischer had returned to action after 20 years in obscurity and he claimed he was still the World Champion after defeating Boris Spassky again in 1992 – although this option held even less water than FIDE’s “crown”.

Kasparov’s next title defense came against Viswanathan Anand, in 1995. Anand’s time as champion would soon come, of course. In fact he would later be instrumental in reuniting the titles and bringing the embarrassing situation to an end.

Enter Vladimir Kramnik

Vladimir Kramnik grew up in the sleepy provincial Black Sea town of Tuapse, but soon appeared on the radar of Garry Kasparov, who accepted him into the school he ran with Mikhail Botvinnik. New in Chess Editor-in-Chief Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam tells the story of how the youngster shot to prominence when he scored 8.5/9 for the Russian team as a 16-year-old at the 1992 Olympiad.

The youngster would go a long way, with current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen assessing the career and impact of his great predecessor.

Candidate Kramnik (?)

After 1995 there wasn’t to be another match for Kasparov’s title for another five years. The Professional Chess Association collapsed and the World Chess Association was created. There were competing World Championship cycles, with the Candidates final of the one that mattered most being played between Vladimir Kramnik and Alexei Shirov. This took place in 1998 and was won by Shirov, who then earned the right to challenge Kasparov.

‘Money, Money, Money…’

Somehow, the funds could not be raised for a Kasparov – Shirov match. Incredible, but true. Attempts were made to create another match with Anand, which failed to reach fruition. Even more incredibly, yet another organisation was created – – and a title match was finally organised between Kasparov and… Kramnik. Shirov, who had defeated Kramnik by the score of two wins, seven draws and no losses, was unceremoniously pushed aside. It is hard to imagine such a scenario happening in any other sport. Chess was sustaining damage, due to egos and the coming and going of too many temporary organisations.

Destination: London

The ‘Braingames World Chess Championships’ took place at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, London, from 8 October 2000 to 4 November 2000. Riverside Studios had witnessed the filming of numerous popular television shows, such as Hancock’s Half-HourQuatermass and the Pit and Doctor Who. In the Autumn of 2000, a different kind of drama was about to take place.

After all of the politics, chaos and confusion, it was a relief to have some important chess games back on board. 16 games were scheduled. English Grandmaster Raymond Keene was at the helm, as he was for most of the important chess events in London from the 1980s up until the 2009 London Chess Classic, the first in the wonderful series created by Chess in Schools and Communities.

I was present for part of the match and it was the first time I had seen electronic scanners used on the audience as a matter of course. There were also numerous arguments at the reception desk, when people were asked to hand over their mobile phones before entering the auditorium. Chess had entered a new age. Machines were stronger than humans; devices were small enough to enable people to send messages to discrete earpieces if people were intent on cheating at chess. It all sounds like a leftover plot for one of the Doctor Who shows.

The Favourite

Kasparov was the favourite to win the match, of course. Yet there seemed to be an element of the ‘self-fulfilling prophesy’ at work when it came to his thoughts on Kramnik. The former definitely saw the latter as his natural successor. Did this have any impact in the match?

Kramnik described his own motivation in a chess24 Q&A session:

It’s clear that I was already a strong player, winning some top tournaments, from time to time, and clear that I’m a good player, but such a test when you play a 16-game match with the best player of current times, and maybe one of the best in history, it actually shows you who you are in chess on a big scale. I didn’t want to show anyone who am I, my main motivation was to learn myself, to understand myself, what am I worth in chess? Am I just a very good player, a very strong player, or maybe I can even try to get a fight with Garry? Maybe I can actually have a chance, or maybe even, miraculously, I can even win. I didn’t know myself. So that actually was very important for me – it was more to know my limit. 

Game one brought a very important moment on the third move: Kramnik used the Berlin Defence against Kasparov’s Ruy Lopez. 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 Nf6.

The game was drawn after 25 moves. The Berlin Defence would not be breached at any time during the match. Kasparov’s fearsome Ruy Lopez was shorn of its power. He even tried 1.c4 on two occasions, presumably to give his team the time to work on the Berlin, but they ended up being wasted Whites. One of them was drawn after just 11 moves. Was Kasparov really out of ideas?

Kramnik’s Powerful 1.d4

Not only could the champion make no headway with White, but he was also struggling with Black. A defeat in the second game saw his favourite Gruenfeld Defence retired from action for the rest of the match. Kramnik came very close to winning again in games four and six. Then came a second victory for the challenger, in game 10, with Kasparov – having to rely on the Nimzo-Indian Defence, with which he never did have a good score – being crushed by pure preparation. Kramnik was firmly in the driving seat and there were just six more games to go. Kasparov was unrecognisable, but he had been in tight situations before. He would hit back strongly… wouldn’t he?

The End is in Sight

Three more draws followed. Game 13 lasted just 14 moves, as Kasparov once again showed nothing significant with White against the Berlin Defence. It was hard for Kasparov’s fans to take. All of his other matches had been filled with fighting spirit, energy and extreme determination. Why was the World Number One sleepwalking his way to the end of his reign?

The next two games brought back some of the fighting spirit. Kasparov had the advantage – with Black – in game 14, but Kramnik held firm in the endgame. This left Kasparov needing to win the last two games. There was no safety net.

Game 15 finally brought a change, as Kasparov opened with 1.d4. The game developed into a Catalan Opening. For a while, Kasparov seemed to be building an edge, but accurate play by Kramnik ensured it was never going to be enough.

Kramnik has just played 38…Rd5 and this is where the players agreed to a draw. Game 16 was no longer required; Kramnik’s lead of 8.5-6.5 was unassailable. This position captures the moment Vladimir Kramnik became the World Champion.

The Moment

For chess fans of the 1980s onwards, it was hard to believe Garry Kasparov would be dethroned without winning a single game. This was the first time a champion had lost in such a way since Emanuel Lasker lost to José Raúl Capablanca in 1921. There were rumours of Kasparov being under hidden pressures, but nothing has ever been confirmed. There is no doubt that he was completely outplayed – and out-prepared – in 2000.

Kramnik would later describe how snatching the crown wasn’t as overwhelming an experience as he had imagined. How did he celebrate?

Nothing too big. The Eastern wisdom goes that the path is much more important than the result. Of course I was just imagining, what if I would win? I thought I would be happy for one year. No. Ok, it was fine, I won, very nice, but that’s it, it’s past already, there’s some new challenges, new things. Maybe even I can tell you I was a little bit disappointed by the lack of this amazing emotion which some people used to have after becoming World Champion – like Garry Kasparov himself wrote that he was half an hour just shouting in his room after he won the match, that he was just getting his emotions out. For me, no, quiet conversation and next day already things were as usual.


Garry Kasparov spent some time trying to force a rematch with Kramnik, but to no avail. He remained the World’s Number One player in terms of ratings and his tournament performances remained excellent. 

Plans to play matches against FIDE World Champions Ruslan Ponomariov (in 2003) and Rustam Kasimdzhanov (in 2005) also came to nothing. Kasparov was unwilling to ever play in another Candidates event and that left him without a route back to being champion of the world. In 2005, after winning the Linares tournament, he announced his retirement from chess. It was a strange end for the man who looked to be very much on course to maintain his title for many more years to come.

Vladimir Kramnik – who effectively qualified for a title match by losing a Candidates match – played his part in the unification of the two world titles, defending his title against Peter Leko in 2004 and Veselin Topalov in 2006 before conceding the title to Vishy Anand in 2007 and 2008. That, of course, is a story for another day. Today’s piece is all about his moment of triumph in 2000, when he famously dominated Garry Kasparov in a match which still leaves plenty of unanswered questions.

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