You would almost forget, but for more than ten years the chess world was split into two. In 1993, the Professional Chess Assocation (PCA) separated itself from the World Chess Federation (FIDE) when Garry Kasparov and Nigel Short organized their own World Championship match – after a disagreement with FIDE. Apart from the discussion about who was the real World Champion now, this also provided the top players with extra opportunities: two qualifying routes to the top! Two of the players who were able to profit from this were Vladimir Kramnik and Michael Adams. Both came knocking at the world top in the early 1990s.
Adams won – shared with Anand – the first PCA Interzonal tournament, but had to yield to the same Anand in the semifinal. And this wasn’t the last time that Anand put a spoke in the Englishman’s wheel, although in the other cases this was always in FIDE events: in the final in 1997 (not until the Armageddon game) and in the semifinal in 2000. One more time Adams reached the final: in 2004, where he lost in the Armageddon to Rustam Kasimdzhanov.
In the meantime, Kramnik had also played in both qualifying cycles. Even though at the time he was already regarded as one of the strongest players in the world, he had been eliminated every time: in the PCA cycle by Kamsky (1994) and Shirov (1998), and with FIDE by Gelfand (1994) and Adams (1999). When Kasparov – after his match against Shirov hadn’t taken place – challenged Kramnik in 2000, the latter grabbed his chance and beat Kasparov without losing a single game. Interestingly enough, Adams had been involved with Kasparov’s preparation. Together, they had thoroughly studied the Petroff Defence, since Kramnik often employed that opening during that time. They hadn’t reckoned with the Berlin Wall…
The match between Adams and Kramnik in Las Vegas (1999) was the culmination of their mutual struggle. Almost as a matter of course, with white the scores of both Adams and Kramnik were many times better than with black. After all, both players adhered to the same principle: winning with white and blocking with black. In the first match game, Adams neutralized the Classical Variation of the Nimzo-Indian with pointed play, and the second regular game was quickly agreed a draw, with almost all the pieces still on the board. In the final position, White was about to win a pawn, and along the way Black had missed several good options – let’s assume that both players were eager to go over to the faster time limits…
Faster time limits meant first two games with 25 minutes thinking time each, with a 10-seconds increment, then two games with 15 minutes each and the same increment. In the first game, Kramnik, with black, managed to struggle out of the pressure and reached a 3 vs 2 rook ending, but this turned out to be a draw. In the second game, Adams used an idea by Kick Langeweg from the early 1970s, and achieved a draw fairly easily. In both cases, by the way, Kramnik played with the bishop pair, against Adams’s bishop and knight!
By this time, of course, the question was no longer who was the better player, but whose nerves would be the first to crack. Again, a bishop pair (Kramnik, with black) versus bishop & knight appeared on the board. At one point, Adams missed a golden chance, but a little later Kramnik sacrificed a rook for White’s dark-squared bishop. The hoped-for compensation failed to appear: Adams boarded up the dark squares, brought his king into safety on the queenside, and then struck mercilessly in the attack.
Now Kramnik had to strike back. He opted for the English Opening, and had the advantage all along, but missed – just like Adams earlier – a golden chance around the thirtieth move. Sticking to the main theme of the match, he eliminated into a position with bishop pair versus bishop and knight for the fourth time. This, too, was fine for White, but on the 42nd move Kramnik committed a terrible blunder, followed by an even more serious mistake one move later. Adams appeared to be going to exploit this, but then he gave away his entire advantage again in two moves. It was clear that by now the emotions were splashing all over the board. Abandoned by all gods, Kramnik threw everything away in one move, and although Adams didn’t choose the most direct path, he did manage to haul in the point.
So what was next, the reader will ask? Their mutual rivalry ended in a tie. Both players won six times against the other, with sixteen draws. Kramnik became World Champion one year later and would remain a world top player virtually until he stopped playing serious chess in 2019. Adams (who is four years older) remained stranded just below the top, but is still in the world’s top 40. And he keeps winning tournaments as well, but the World Championship matches were just one step too far… (PvV)