Topalov is an even more spectacular example than Viswanathan Anand of a player whose career took off after Garry Kasparov retired from chess. Up until that point the Bulgarian was a fixture among the elite – one whose attacking style of play made him popular with chess fans – but seldom a serious contender for the top prizes. That all changed when he turned 30 in 2005. First he beat Garry Kasparov in the final round of the Linares supertournament in a game that was immediately followed by his opponent retiring from professional chess. Then he confirmed he was ready to pick up where Kasparov had left off with a stunning victory in the FIDE World Chess Championship in San Luis, Argentina. Topalov started that double round-robin with an almost unheard of 6.5/7, before cruising home with seven draws in the second half to win by 1.5 points.
The new FIDE World Champion also topped the rating list of active players, but he faced one final challenge – Vladimir Kramnik, who didn’t participate in the tournament and was still acknowledged as the World Champion by most chess fans. A “reunification” match was organised in Russia in 2006, and became one of the most acrimonious in chess history. After Kramnik took a two-game lead Topalov’s manager, Silvio Danailov, made thinly-veiled accusations that Kramnik had cheated during toilet visits (perhaps echoing accusations made about Topalov in the San Luis event). Kramnik forfeited game five after refusing to play when the organisers seemed to accept his opponent’s claims had some validity, but ultimately chose to fight on and emerged triumphant in tiebreaks.
The legacy of that match was that Topalov, and especially his manager, became among the least popular figures in world chess. Nevertheless, he remained near the top, and managed to engineer a new path to a World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand in Bulgaria in 2010. In the aftermath of a final-game defeat Topalov married and almost withdrew from competitive chess, but a couple of years later he began to stage a comeback.
Victory in the 2012/3 Grand Prix series saw Veselin qualify for the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk. His deep and sharp opening preparation recalled his glory days, but his technique was unable to keep up, suggesting he was rusty due to a lack of tournaments. Only first place interested him, which paradoxically helps explain why he ended up in sole last place.
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