Great Moments in Chess: Kramnik’s Crown


Table of Contents

As we continue with our celebration of New in Chess Magazine and the new sale of New in Chess courses, so we present the third part of our series on Great Moments in Chess. This time we look back on the story behind Vladimir Kramnik’s crown. How was he able to end Garry Kasparov’s 15-year reign?

Yesterday 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, title matches are currently just 12 games long. 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 Defenses

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.

Candidate Kramnik(?)

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. A Candidates match was organised 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 the 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-Hour, Quatermass 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 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?

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

Kramnik's Crown: Berlin Defense

The Berlin Defense

The game was drawn after 25 moves. The Berlin Defense 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 Grunfeld Defense 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 Defense, 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 Defense. 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 needed 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.

The Moment

Kramnik has just played 38…Rd8-d5 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 positions captures the moment Vladimir Kramnik became the World Champion.

Kramnik's Crown: The Moment of Victory

The Final Position of the Match

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.


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. 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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