Moscow: India's Viswanathan Anand will play white on Friday as he launches his third defence of the world chess title against Israel's Boris Gelfand with questions lingering about his recent form.
The 12-match series marks the World Chess Championship's first return to Moscow since the epic 1984-85 clash between Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov was controversially aborted amid political intrigues during the Cold War.
Organisers added drama to this event by staging it amid the splendour of the State Tretyakov Gallery -- the first time a title has been decided in a museum since Soviet dictator Stalin ordered one played at the Pushkin Museum in 1935.
But both Anand and Gelfand enter the $2.55 million face-off smarting from a string of disappointing performances that saw the world champion slip to fourth in the rankings and below the coveted 2,800-point chess rating mark.
Anand finished fifth in his last tournament in December, while Gelfand ended up tenth in January.
"If Anand had not been so disappointing (in recent months), there would be no question about who is the favourite," Moscow Chess Federation deputy head Sergei Smagin told the RIA Novosti news agency.
But bookmakers in both Moscow and London make the Israeli a prohibitive underdog. Gelfand has not beaten his rival in the timed classical chess format since 1993 and is currently ranked 20th.
But he enters the match after putting together a dazzling performance at a star-studded 2011 championship qualification tournament from which Norway's top-ranked prodigy Magnus Carlsen, now 21, had surprisingly pulled out.
"I can only say one thing about my opponent's strong suits," Gelfand said on Thursday when asked to pick apart Anand's play. "He is a very good chess player."
The two grandmasters' first match-up in 1989 also came in Moscow and saw them settle for a draw with Gelfand playing black and enjoying a marginally better position.
Anand has held onto the world crown since 2007 and last defended it against Veselin Topalov on the Bulgarian's home turf in 2010.
Gelfand and Anand will play 12 games, with a tie-break on May 30 if needed.