Is this at gunpoint?” Viswanathan Anand wants to know when asked whether he has ever thought about his legacy. It’s a subject he would rather not talk about, for “your legacy should be written by others, preferably when you are gone,” he says. “I feel very much in the present still.”
That Anand, nearly 30 years since he was headlined the “Lightning Kid”, continues to be at the top of the game and talks of bringing into the sport millions of children through his collaboration with the NIIT Mind Champions venture is part of the legacy he consciously avoids talking about.
It’s a career that took off in the 1980s, but was consolidated over the next decade when Anand strode into the world of international chess, the only question being one of when, rather than if, he would be the world’s best player. The coronation took time, as the Soviet domination withered, the World Chess Federation (Fide) split, and Anand himself had a few strokes of poor luck. It fell awkwardly into place first in 2000 with the Fide world title and finally with his first unified one in 2007—a long journey during which the son of a former railway employee has remained one of India’s most admired sportspersons.
His “present” is being the world’s second highest rated (2817) chess player, current and three-time world champion (2007, 2008, 2010), the country’s first Grand Master (GM), the youngest Indian at 15 to become an International Master (IM), winner of several accolades, trophies and titles. His future hinges on how long he can remain motivated to put his mind to the 64-square board. “The motivation is still as strong as before,” he says, “ but it comes in phases. I can’t maintain it for long stretches.”
Grand master: Anand says if he had grown up in the Soviet Union, he would have had access to better training but would have had to compete for attention. Gerd Scheewel/Bongarts/Getty Images
The only two other individual sportsmen who can compete with him in defining the 1990s are cricketer Sachin Tendulkar and tennis player Leander Paes. All three men continue to occupy our consciousness in different ways. Tendulkar, just past his international debut at the ridiculous age of 16 in 1989, set about establishing himself as the world’s best batsman through the decade, challenged occasionally by partisan representatives of other countries who deemed their players to be better (remember Imran Khan calling Inzamam-ul-Haq more talented during the 1992 World Cup?). Tendulkar endures today, chasing further records in a tireless pursuit of excellence, while lesser men have come and gone. Paes battles on too, after his Olympic bronze medal in Atlanta in 1996 that signalled and promised so much more. His collection of Grand Slam doubles titles and the way he catalysed many Davis Cup victories with the national flag gleaming in his often tear-filled eyes, made him tennis’ greatest representative from this country for several years.
But neither Tendulkar nor Paes were firsts in their sport; both cricket and tennis have generations of high achievers. Chess had practically none, till the teenager from Chennai blitzed his way in.
“In the 1980s, I used to search for Indian names at the bottom of ratings in chess magazines,” says Arvind Aaron, chess correspondent for The Hindu, explaining Anand’s influence in the sport. “Now, I look at the top.”
The 1990s was the decade when Anand broke through the barrier of Soviet domination, helped by its own dismemberment, and led India, till then deprived of world beaters in individual sport, to believe that chess, indeed any sport, could be a career. “Anand was the driver,” says Aaron, “that brought sports into newspaper pages, made it among the top four-five sports in the country. The infrastructure improved, the number of events grew, as did the number of entries due to the Anand wave.”
“He proved to Indians that first, you could be No. 2-3 in the world and, second, you could earn a living from it,” says another GM, Pravin Thipsay.
The early years
At the lower level of Anand’s duplex apartment in RA Puram in Chennai, there are no visible symbols of his sporting resume. The cabinet is not filled with medals and trophies and the walls do not adorn pictures of him shaking hands with luminaries. There is just one exotic-looking chessboard in the living room. The sign outside on the common apartment wall merely says Vishy Anand, with a Westernized shortening of his father’s name. The colony watchman, an English-speaking, elderly man, accepts a request to meet him without suspicion. There is no army of staff buzzing about; it’s just a quiet household in late June attending to the new addition to the family, Anand and wife Aruna’s son, Akhil.
The centre of Anand’s attention, the reason why, in stretches from April, he has not been able to even think about chess, is too young to realize his lineage. Had this been England, betting company Ladbrokes would have offered heavy odds on the child becoming a world-beater by the time he turns 12. “The odds are pretty good,” says Anand. “He is going to have a lot of chances to learn the game. I don’t know how far he will take it. There are not too many cases where both father and son have played chess but, you know, exceptions can happen.”
The “lightning” sobriquet appears justified even now—though Anand admits he is much more measured when he plays—in the manner he speaks. His responses to questions come quickly, sometimes without a pause, even as he digs into memories that are over 20 years old. The names of opponents he has faced and periods of reference are stacked in the mind that has dominated an intensely challenging cerebral sport.
Anand’s well-documented rise to becoming a chess wizard began when he was 6, when his mother introduced him to chess. A little over a year spent in the Philippines, with a stronger culture for mass participation, fuelled that talent. By the time he returned to Chennai, aged 10, Anand was hooked. As a 14-year-old, he announced his arrival with the national sub-junior title and a perfect score of 9/9, winning the Asian Junior Championships (under 19) in 1985, the World Juniors two years later. The same year, he became India’s first GM.
He says winning the Asian junior and the GM title came at critical junctures in his life, after classes 10 and 12, respectively, when he could have faced crucial career decisions. “You can spend a lot of time waiting for success and if it comes at an ideal moment, it makes your decision process easy,” he says. “I was incredibly lucky; at the best moments, I didn’t have to worry.”
In the 1980s, sports was not a career, it was a supplement to a career, often a ticket to a job in the public sector. Though Anand went on to finish his BCom, he knew all along that he would never become an accountant. By the time he finished his last degree exam, he was ninth in the world of chess.
He narrates an incident during a train journey to Kerala in the late 1980s, when an elderly, well-meaning gentleman sitting next to him probed him on his career. When Anand insisted he played chess for a career, the passenger asked if Anand’s father had a business that could sustain the sportsman’s ambitions. No, I just play chess, Anand told him. A little irritated perhaps, the gentleman, who did not recognize his fellow passenger, retorted that only Viswanathan Anand could play chess for a career.
It was a time when the middle-class career trifecta of engineer-doctor-government job itself had not yet broken. “Now there are options. If I had told my dad then that I wanted to be a disc jockey, he would not have been approving,” says the 42-year-old, grinning.
A new world
The GM title opened several doors for him, Anand recollects. The pre-liberalization restrictions in getting visas, foreign exchange and direct flights out of Chennai now seem strange but India is less bureaucratic in several practical ways. “It’s amazing (to think) you used to arrive a day late for tournaments. Now that seems remarkable. But I cannot protest too much. If you don’t have the hunger to play, then it does not matter how luxuriously you got there,” he says.
Then there was the dominance of the Soviet Union, with its bulk produce of players who ruled the sport when this “exotic man from the Orient”, which Thipsay says was how Anand was perceived, started making dents. Those were days of ambiguity, fed by American maverick Bobby Fischer’s own conspiracy theories. “It was a mysterious world for outsiders,” remembers Anand of the Soviet Union. “You went there with the fuzziest of notions. Thanks to the Fischer-Boris Spassky ruckus, you believed every room was bugged. The KGB surely had better things to do than us!”
Anand’s quest for the world title had begun in the early 1990s, though in 1993 it became more complicated with Garry Kasparov’s split from the Fide. After losing to Kasparov in 1995 at the World Trade Center in New York—having prepared in a “naïve and guileless manner”—he lost controversially to the concurrent Fide champion Anatoly Karpov, after the latter was placed directly into the final. In 2000, Anand beat Alexey Shirov in Tehran, Iran, to finally become the Fide world chess champion.
“As long as there are two champions, it becomes clearer there are none. The two world champions concept is an oxymoron; you cannot have that. You may say that I won the only title available and that’s a perfectly valid argument, but there is something unsatisfactory about the whole thing,” he says.
It was seven years later that Anand got the unified title he wanted, but the movement he flagged off continues. Three Indians, K. Sasikiran (world No. 59), P. Harikrishna (76) and Sandipan Chanda (92), are among the top 100, while D. Harika became the 25th Indian GM in July. Anand himself will play Boris Gelfand in May in Moscow, Russia, to defend his title, a rare older opponent.
This time Anand will have to play for more than just his reputation. “There is a sense already that I have to do well, even though Akhil is too young, but you feel he might be watching,” he says, laughing.