Kramnik will go down in chess history as the man who managed to wrest the crown from Garry Kasparov. Following that World Championship match in London in 2000, Kramnik held onto the title for seven more years before losing out to Viswanathan Anand. Far from signalling the end of Kramnik’s career, that sparked a renaissance, as he managed to reinvent himself and return to something approaching the swashbuckling chess of his youth.
Kramnik’s rise was meteoric. The provincial Russian boy’s talent was spotted by the famous Botvinnik School and when Garry Kasparov personally vouched for the 16-year-old’s inclusion in the Russian team for the 1992 Olympiad he didn’t disappoint – scoring 8.5/9 and the event’s best rating performance. Three years later Kramnik set a record for the youngest player to reach no. 1 on the rating list that was only later beaten by Magnus Carlsen.
Although the “early” Kramnik was a bold and fearless attacking player, by the time his moment of destiny arrived against Kasparov he’d transformed himself into the hardest player to beat in world chess. His deep opening preparation - employing the Berlin Defence in the Ruy Lopez is one of a number of innovations that went on to shape 20 years of top-level chess - and subtle positional feel left the legendary champion bamboozled and unable to win a game.
The period of Kramnik’s reign was troubled – the chess world was split with competing titles, Kasparov held onto the no. 1 position on the rating list and demanded an automatic rematch, and Kramnik suffered from a painful form of arthritis – but he nevertheless managed to compose himself at the vital moments. He won on demand in the final game of his 2004 match against Peter Leko and survived a nerve-wracking play-off against Veselin Topalov in 2006, after a match that almost collapsed in scandalous circumstances. When Kramnik lost the title to Anand in 2007 the silver lining was that it finally freed him of any responsibility for chess politics – he could simply play chess, and set about winning tournaments in spectacular style, proving he was still a match for the best players of the new generation.
The London Candidates tournament in 2013 saw
Kramnik come within a whisker of crowning his career by setting up a rematch
against Anand. He finished level on points with Magnus Carlsen, but lost out on
the tiebreak of most wins (he had 4 wins and 1 loss, while Carlsen had 5 wins
and 2 losses). Later in 2013 he added winning the World Cup to his list of achievements, sailing through the knockout event without suffering a single loss.
Kramnik's chances of forcing a World Championship match against Carlsen seemed good, but some calamitous errors saw him lose three games in the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk. He showed flashes of his best form to also win three games and finish in third place, but it was a big blow to the Russian's chances of regaining the World Championship title before he retires. He missed the 2016 Candidates in Moscow, with the wild card going to Levon Aronian since there was an Armenian sponsor, but he was then given the wild card in 2018, after narrowly missing out on automatic qualification by rating. Vladimir started with 2.5/3 but then fell away as Fabiano Caruana went on to win the right to challenge Magnus.
That proved to be Kramnik's last run at the title as on January 29th 2019, the day after finishing joint last in the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee, he announced his retirement from classical chess. He said he'd still play some rapid and blitz, and proved true to his word as he won 8 of his last 11 games to take the bronze medal at the 2019 World Blitz Championship, behind only Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura.
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