My first meeting with Viswanathan Anand, in the mid-1990s, broke the stereotype of the chess player that had been swirling in my head since the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky epic in Reykjavik. To my mind then, chess players had to be either loony or extremely sombre personalities. They either ranted or spoke too little, and what they did speak was gobbledegook from some other planet.
Anand, by contrast, appeared suave, well-spoken…and, well, spoke thirteen to the dozen. Quite unlike the champion of a game that demanded serious levels of concentration and complex strategizing, he was neither deeply introspective nor reticent, but matter-of-fact, with a winning smile to boot. Indeed, he looked and behaved like the archetypical boy next door.
Rooted: Viswanathan Anand. PTI
I must confess to never having been a chess aficionado (not one even now) but like millions worldwide, had been swept into the Fischer-Spassky conflict on the 64-square board. This had literally and figuratively divided the world into black and white and my loyalties were clearly on the side of the mercurial American even as he hogged the headlines and gave the organizers a massive headache.
Fischer, in those days, seemed everyone’s hero. The Cold War was still raging, and those who were growing up then will remember that the world was made up of two blocs (Bric was to acquire politico-economic significance more than three decades later) which were antithetical to each other not only in political ideology, but also where sport was concerned (the Olympics, for instance, were the playground for the two rival blocs to score brownie points for almost three decades, beginning from the mid-1960s).
While India was more closely aligned with the USSR, popular perception (fuelled largely by Hollywood flicks and spy novels by writers such as Ian Fleming) was that the Eastern Bloc produced the biggest villains haunting the planet.
Fischer, clearly manic obsessive, temperamental and an irksome character, seemed nonetheless more palatable than Spassky, who looked in urgent need of a purgative. When Fischer, after protracted stand-offs against Spassky and the organizers, won, it was as if good had triumphed over evil.
A deeply prejudiced Western media, of course, played its part in this triumphalism. Within a short time, Fischer’s paranoia was to make him turn against his own country and he was summarily dumped as an icon; charges of treason forced him to flee the US. By the time the Berlin Wall fell, signifying the end of the Cold War, Fischer’s image of a chess genius had been whittled to that of a raging megalomaniac-cum- schizophrenic.
In later years, Anatoly Karpov, the grim-looking Russian who looked like he could do with some laughing gas, became world champion, enhancing the stereotype of chess players as humourless, one-dimensional individuals; till Garry Kasparov came along, and more importantly from my perspective, Anand.
To get back to the aforementioned first meeting with Anand, 10 minutes into the interview for a TV programme (I was commissioned by Professional Management Group to meet him after he had beaten Kasparov in the Classic Rapid tournament in 1996), he had gobbled up the conversation, as it were. He spoke freely of his passion for chess, his matches, his adversaries, his favourite food, his family, et al, cogently, with a refreshing degree of transparency and, perhaps most pertinently, a dash of humour.
But through all this, his ambition to become world champion came through clearly. “Do you see yourself becoming world champion?” I remember asking him. “If I can maintain this progress, why not?” he countered. There were no theatrics or histrionics about this; no misplaced modesty or zeal, just a straightforward assessment of the game, his opponents and where he saw himself in a few years time.
I marvel all the time at what makes a sports champion, and after more than three decades of writing on various disciplines, have come to the conclusion that the mental aspect is more crucial than skills, however extraordinary these may be. Indeed, mental resolve can help overturn a disadvantage into an advantage, as Anand himself showed in his recent victory over Topalov.
In sports lingo, this is often referred to as “killer instinct”, and Anand’s demeanour has highlighted that to be a ruthless competitor, one doesn’t have to be a raging ogre. Like Roger Federer, Sachin Tendulkar and Tiger Woods (irrespective of the recently discovered shenanigans in his personal life) and even Muhammad Ali (whose byplay was largely a ruse to demolish his opponents psychologically before he stepped into the ring), to name only a few, the enduring champions display a greater sense of equanimity, rootedness, respect for their sport and themselves.
Whether Anand is the best chess player of all time is the subject of universal debate currently. With four different world titles to his credit, he probably is. Is he the greatest Indian sportsperson ever? Find me another, I say.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.
Write to Ayaz at firstname.lastname@example.org