The list of distinguished gentlemen at the top of world ratings given by the World Chess Federation (FIDE) is an indicator of two phenomena Viswanathan Anand speaks of. There’s little separating the players in rating points and at least one player in the top five was born in each of the last four decades, giving the competition unique variety.
Anand (2817 rating), Magnus Carlsen (Norway, 2815), Levon Aronian (Armenia, 2808), Vladimir Kramnik (Russia, 2785) and Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukraine, 2779) occupy the first five slots in the March list. Anand and Ivanchuk are the oldest at 41; Kramnik was born in 1975, Aronian in 1982, and Carlsen in 1990.
Mentor role: Anand is focused on driving mass participation in sports. Hindustan Times
Anand says it’s never been more competitive at the top, with players bringing in a range of skills that are a combination of the modern and the experienced.
“There are three people within 3-4 points of each other chasing the No. 1 spot,” says Anand, who will play the Melody Amber Chess in Monaco starting 11 March and the Leon Masters against Alexei Shirov in June. “Most tournaments are heavily contested, you have three- or four-way ties. When I go to tournaments, I am never the favourite—there is no single favourite. You are forced to fight for every game. That may be one of the big changes in chess.”
He calls it the “democratization” of chess, a sporting revolution, if you like, brought about by the Internet that ensures people don’t have to be born in Moscow to succeed, as used to be the case some years ago. It’s the second phenomenon Anand mentions. Players like him, Ivanchuk and Boris Gelfand (No. 16, 2733) come from a generation that was not born into computers; they had to adapt. “We had to start using them in our late teens and get on to the bandwagon,” says Anand. “Then you have Carlsen, who has never known chess without computers. So the perspective is different.”
“Gelfand once said our generation understood from experience and the knowledge from interacting with a great generation of chess players before us. Though we adapted to computers, we also bring some old knowledge and experience and we use that to stay competitive,” says Anand. “You have to keep up with this new technology, keep evolving as a chess player, and if that process is fascinating, it’s fun in itself. Overall, technology has been positive and helps spread the game. But every player has to learn how to handle this flood of information, which we are drowning into, like in every walk of life.”
Anand got his third world championship in Sofia, Bulgaria, last summer, beating Veselin Topalov 6.5 to 5.5 points for the €1.2 million (around Rs7.5 crore) winner’s prize. He earlier held the FIDE World Chess Championship from 2000 to 2002, when the world title was split. He became the undisputed world champion in 2007 and defended his title against Kramnik in 2008. Anand will next defend it in 2012 against a challenger chosen from a candidate tournament in May this year.
“I still enjoy playing and winning. I don’t feel like just because I won the world’s (title) that the well of motivation is drying up,” says Anand, of the kind of experience and expertise he hopes to bring to his new role as a mentor for the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ).
Signed on as a director last August by the non-profit organization formed to help win Olympic medals for India, Anand sees his role as broadly two-pronged: to mentor when needed and help bring attention to the group with the weight of his name. This might, in turn, help with much-needed sponsorship. “Often, at the highest level it comes down to a few moments and if you talk to someone who has been through those moments, it might help,” says Anand, who was in Mumbai last week at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum, which is also the venue of an exhibition, A Century of Olympic Posters.
“I might talk about how many times it took for me to become the world champion. I succeeded in the third attempt. Then, again I had to wait for many years,” adds the Chennai-born, who now lives partly in Spain. Chess is not an Olympic sport, but there are certain commonalities between sports, says Anand, which will help athletes relate to him—and where he can help them.
Anand wishes something on the lines of the OGQ had existed 20 years ago, when he was an upcoming player dealing with the vagaries of officialdom, travel and permissions. His father, a well-placed official in Southern Railway, did a lot of the “heavy lifting”, clearing the path for Anand when his growing prowess as a player meant he needed to travel and play tournaments. “Something like OGQ would have been nice to turn to at that stage. I don’t feel particularly deprived, but I can imagine a lot of people lose good chances for some reasons that can be solved easily,” he says.
If the attempt at OGQ is to try and win medals so “every four years we don’t mourn about ourselves”, he is also trying to drive participation in chess among schoolchildren through a partnership with the National Institute for Information Technology (NIIT). He believes mass participation will solve the problems with chess, which he says stems from an initial hesitance to get started.
So, whenever he is in Chennai, Anand meets a lot of young players and works with them, which he says helps both parties. “It’s fun to keep getting new ideas about the same moves. With the Internet, this has become even easier, that we are able to work virtually. If they see a game of mine and it’s an area they are working on, then they suggest an improvement and vice versa.”
The concept of mass participation and the Internet would have given a man Anand admires palpitations, for the reclusive late Bobby Fischer never got online. Instead, he used a pocket-sized magnetic chess board he bought in 1959 till 2006, the only time Anand met him.
Talk turns to the maverick American because of a new book on him titled the Endgame: Bobby Fischer’s Remarkable Rise and Fall—From America’s Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness, which Anand has not read yet. He remembers growing up at a time when Fischer was this “mythical figure” who had vanished and like the rock stars who die early, gone into “legend territory”. Anand met Fischer two years before he died, during an evening when the conversation was wide-ranging.
“He did have severe psychological problems but he had that all his life,” says Anand. “When I met him, he was relaxed and engaging on a number of topics. We spoke of Indian restaurants. He wanted to buy Amrutanjan balm and asked where he could get it, (and) if I could bring him some,” Anand says, grinning.