Conventional opinion might have it that chess grandmasters are governed by logic, rather than superstition. Yet it was the tritest of superstitions that seemed to have cost the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov the world championship he had coveted for so long.
On May 11, he sat down to the 12th and last scheduled game of his challenge against the world champion, Viswanathan ("Vishy") Anand. The scores were level, each player having won two games, and drawn the others. If this game were also drawn, then the two would play a series of rapid games to decide the outcome — and those were to be played on May 13. These weren't needed. Anand won that final game of the match proper after Topalov spurned the opportunity to gain a draw by repetition of moves. I had thought, when watching the struggle live, that the Bulgarian had simply overestimated his position — his greatest strength and weakness as a player is an insatiable urge to win every game. Yet at the press conference at the match's end, Topalov explained: "I just did not want to play on the 13th. I felt bad about that."
There was a little more to this than pure triskaidekaphobia, however. Four years ago, Topalov had also come agonisingly close to capturing the title against the then world champion, the Russian Vladimir Kramnik. After the end of the scheduled 12 games, the two were tied, and the match went into the chess equivalent of a penalty shoot-out: a single day of rapid games. They were played on October 13 — and Topalov lost.
In the chess world outside Bulgaria (where Topalov's visage is even to be seen on postage stamps), Kramnik's victory was greeted with universal relief. Topalov, when trailing in the match, had via his manager made the scandalous and completely unsupported allegation that his opponent was cheating by consulting a computer during his loo breaks. Kramnik, a dignified and sporting figure, was deeply upset by this accusation and almost lost the match before regaining his mental equilibrium.
It was for this reason that most chess fans, and not just the millions of Indian supporters of the champion, would have wanted the 40-year-old Anand to overcome Topalov. These feelings became even stronger when the easygoing Anand did not object to the match being held in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, and especially so after the local organisers rejected a request by Anand's team that the event be postponed for three days after they had spent more than 40 hours crossing Europe by car because of the suspension of air flights. In those circumstances, it was not entirely surprising that Anand blundered away the first game, or that Anand's wife, Aruna, remarked after the match: "At every stage, I felt the dice were heavily loaded against us."