Topalov V. (2813)
Kramnik V. (2743)

Unification WCC (9)
Elista RUS, 2006

The 9th game was a rather one-sided affair. Kramnik made some early strategic concessions and could not get any kind of tactical compensation. Topalov did not seem to be in a hurry to convert his considerable advantage, but this was in fact the shortest way to a win, causing Kramnik to crack under the psychological pressure.

1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. Nf3 Nf6 4. e3 Bf5 This is the first time Kramnik deviates from the course of an earlier game of the match. In the seventh game he transposed to the Queen's Gambit Accepted with 4... e6 5. Bd3 dxc4 6. Bxc4 c5 5. Nc3 e6 6. Nh4 Bg6 7. Nxg6 hxg6 8. a3!? Almost neve r played before. Topalov usually plays ...a6 as Black in the Slav Defence and now he gives it a try from the other side of the board. I would allow myself a small divagation. Three quarters of century ago, the somewhat mysterious Indian player Sultan Khan (not the most erudite theoretician of his time, for sure) frequently employed the modest advance of the a-pawn with both colours and irrspective of the opening. Among others, he beat the great Capablanca in what is called today the Petrosian-Kasparov system and accidentally "invented" the Chebanenko - Slav much before the birth of the Moldavian trainer. Returning to our game, the point behind Topalov's last move will become clear soon. 8... Nbd7 9. g3 Be7 10. f4

After having eliminated the black light-squared bishop, White has arranged several of his pawns on dark squares. This is aimed to ensure the free circulation of his own bishop, which became the unchallenged master of the light squares. However, combining a3 with f4 also pursues a more concrete aim. White threatens to block the position with c5, when the thematic central break ...e5 would be impossible. At the same time, the attempt to undermine the powerful chain of pawns from the other side with . ..b6 is safely answered by b4, because ...a5 is inoffensive since the b4-pawn has been defended in advance. This would leave White with considerable advantage of space, without any possibility of counterplay for Black. 10... dxc4 Giving up the centre so easily is a risky decision. 10... a5 deserves attention, with the idea to answer 11.c5 with 11...b6. 11. Bxc4 O-O 12. e4 Looking at this position, I cannot stop asking myself: what does it mean to play a hypermodern opening? 1...d5 is supposed to be a classical way of starting the game, but isn't here White's advantage in the centre just as big or maybe even bigger than, say, in the Gruenfeld? One of the reasons why the Slav is so popular nowadays is that it allows Black choose any type of structure he wishes, according to the style of play or, why not, the mood in that specific moment. It can lead to more or less symmetrical positions or to very unbalances situations. As a compensation for White's advantage of space and powerful pair of bishops in the current position, Black is few tempi ahead in development. It remains an open question whether this is enough. Kramnik's play in the next phase of the game does not really sustain this hypothesis. 12... b5 13. Be2 We can see here a further merit of a3: in order to undermine the e4-pawn, Black needs to spend an extra-tempo, allowing White to transfer the bishop on the optimal square. 13... b4 This seemingly active move implies a big strategic risk, because it leaves Black's structure in ruins and it opens new horisons for the f3-bishop, by weakening the c4-square. If the piece pressure will fail to yield the expected effect, Black will find himself in a hopeless situation. 13... Qb6 was a more solid option. 14. axb4 Bxb4 15. Bf3 Qb6 16. O-O e5 This was the counterplay Black was relying on. However, White has sufficient resources to avoid any structural damage in the centre. 17. Be3 Rad8 Apparently, a logical move. The d4-pawn is pinned along the g1-a7 diagonal and, indirectly, along the d-file. However, these minor problems are rather easy to solve. 18. Na4 Black has to release the first pin now. 18... Qb8 This slightly mysterious move was probably connected with a concrete detail mentioned below. However, the moreactive 18... Qb5 might have been better and if 19. Qc2 then 19... exd4 20. Bxd4 c5 followed by ...Nb6, with certain counterplay. 19. Qc2 exf4 20. Bxf4 Kramnik's idea is revealed after 20. gxf4 when 20... Rfe8 creates the threat ... Nxe4 and the generally desirable Bf2 loses the f4-pawn. However, White's last move maintains the advantage in the centre intact. 20... Qb7 21. Rad1 Rfe8

Both sides have completed their development and time has come to make a first evaluation. Optically speaking, White's advantage is overwhelming. Hemaintained his control in the centre, has displayed his bishops actively and has the more compact structure of pawns. However, converting this advantage into something more concrete is likely to be a laborious process. It might look tempting to start advancing the central pawns, but this would just provide the black knights with stable squares in the centre. At least for a while, it is much wiser to create simple threats (be them real or imaginary) on the wings, maintaining the centre intact. This would most probably cause Black to gradually lose his coordination and then the pawns could advance unhindered. 22. Bg5 Be7 23. Kh1 Nh7 24. Be3 Bg5 25. Bg1 Of course, exchanging pieces would somewhat relieve Black's position. 25... Nhf8 26. h4 Not only restricting the enemy bishop, but creating the potential threat of an attack by means of h5. 26... Be7 27. e5 Now that the knights do not have access to d5, this move is well-timed. In order to defend his c6-pawn, Black is forced to retreat even more. 27... Nb8 28. Nc3 Bb4 29. Qg2 Now, such threats as d5 or h5 start getting contour. Black's main problem is that he cannot easily guess which are White's intentions and each minor slip could be decisive. At the same time, White can allow himself to miss one or two promissing continuations, because they would be there few moves later, too. 29... Qc8 30. Rc1 Enabling the knight's jump to d5, eventually followed by Nf4, in order to take under observation one of Black's last remaining outposts, the e6-square. 30... Bxc3? Black finally cracks under the pressure. This exchange is equivalent with unconditioned strategic surrendering. 31. bxc3

Nothing can stop White's pawns now, but it is remarkable that Topalov will employ the same method as in the previous phase of the game, maintaining the threat of advancing the centre in reserve. 31... Ne6 32. Bg4 Qc7 33. Rcd1 Nd7 34. Qa2 We can feel here the effects of the huge advantage of space: White's pieces can easily be transferred from one wing to the other. It might look that White is planning to put the a7-pawn under pressure, but we shall soon see that his target is much more important. 34... Nb6 35. Rf3 Nf8 36. Rdf1 Re7 37. Be3 White's last piece joins the attack, threatening Bg5. Suddenly, Black is just lost. 37... Nh7 38. Rxf7!

38... Nd5 39. R7f3 1-0 [Mihail Marin]

Game(s) in PGN