For almost three decades, Viswanathan Anand has constantly raised the bar, set fresh goals and won honours for himself and the country.
From the early 1980s, the country's chess fraternity looked to one rare teen talent Viswanathan Anand to put India firmly on the world chess map. Immensely gifted, Anand had caught the imagination of one and all with his ability to analyse a given position over the board and the speed at which he found the right continuation. This earned Anand the tag Lightning Kid. It is to the credit of Anand that he lived up to the expectations, constantly raised the bar, set fresh goals and achieved them in due course.
Having won the World Junior Championship in August 1987, Anand ended India's long wait for its first grand master in December. Thereafter, the country's chess fraternity hoped to see Anand bring the world title home.
Between 1993 and 2006, the chess world was divided. The reigning world champion Russia's Garry Kasparov decided to move away from the World Chess Federation better known by its French acronym, FIDE after it failed to provide acceptable conditions for his title defence against England's Nigel Short.
Kasparov, a strong personality and the highest rated player of all times, floated the Players Chess Association (PCA) believed to be funded by the microchip major Intel and organised a more lucrative title match with Short.
For the better part of these 13 years, chess did not have an undisputed world champion. Anand twice played for the title. In September-October 1995, he lost the PCA final to Kasparov. Again, in January 1998, Anand fell to another former world champion, Anatoly Karpov. Undeterred, Anand continued to produce good results in events featuring the elite players of the game.
The monkey was finally off Anand's back in the 2000 FIDE World Championship. He raced past Spain's Alexei Shirov in the best-of-six game final 3.5-0.5 in Teheran after New Delhi hosted the 128-player event until the semi-finals. The four-match title-match was also the shortest in the history of the sport. Although Anand held the title recognised by the governing body of the game, the majority and the well-informed from the chess world did not consider the popular Indian as the champion of the world.
Around two months before Anand's triumph, Russia's Vladimir Kramnik ended Kasparov's undefeated run in world championship matches. Kramnik won the 16-game match 8.5-6.5 with a game to spare to earn the tag of the World Classical chess champion.
The term Classical was used to emphasise the match format which has been traditionally used to determine the champion of the world.
Anand, despite wearing the official world crown, did not lose sight of reality. He knew full well that the purists in the game did not accept him as the world champion ahead of Kramnik because of the difference in the two formats. Anand himself was among the first ones to view the situation in perspective.
In fact, the FIDE's World Championship somehow lacks some legitimacy because for two years they tried to parade [Anatoly] Karpov as the world champion, even when he obviously was not. In fact, they've been parading him for seven years when he's not been the world champion. If you do that, eventually you can't sell the public a lie any more. Whatever their reasons for doing it, you just can't take someone and say, We call him the world champion' and expect yourself to be taken seriously.
Anand began his campaign as the top seed in a format that seemed to suit his style. Since Anand's tournament record was impressive and with Kramnik and Kasparov staying away, the chess world believed the Indian master would come out on top. And eventually he did.
Anand got past seven rivals six of them in New Delhi after facing varying degrees of resistance. This path-breaking triumph saw Anand take his first step towards attaining greatness.
Looking at the title with pride, he said: I think, it's a milestone. First of all, if you have a competition and you become the world champion, it's something. Many people have more or less accepted careers in chess but this is the way to stand out. And it's the same as you have the distinguished services awards or they give a medal to the armed forces.
In sports, you have highlights. You can have a great player, who goes out in the semi-final here and there, keeps his ranking as World No.3 or whatever, but if he wins a big tournament, it's a way of standing out. I think, for instance, winning a whole lot of tournaments is not the same as calling one the world champion. Raising the stakes, raising expectations and then seeing how he performs under pressure. And if he does it, that makes him stand out.
He made no secret of his comfort level in the knockout format and revealed what works for him. I feel most comfortable in a knockout tournament by not having any plans. Whenever you have a plan for the fourth round, I have this feeling that something is going to go wrong in the second round. I've noticed already in a tournament where no knockout is happening but if I am worried about what is going to happen in the fifth round, I play like a moron in the fourth round. So, basically, my plan was to turn up for the tournament, play the second round (after the first-round bye) and take it from there. Given that, I have to say that my dream could not have gone any better.
Within days of beating England's Michael Adams in a four-game semi-final, Anand faced Shirov in Teheran. The result was a dominating triumph for Anand with two games to spare.
Contrary to what appeared to the chess world, Anand said, It was tough and very intense. His [Shirov's] style dictated the way it went, it went in four games. But had he been a more cautious player, it might have gone in six. Not to say that it was easy at all, but obviously, it's great if you've wrapped it up in four games. Interestingly, Anand revealed the toughest part of this one-sided match. The rest day [after the third game] was, probably, the toughest of the match, because, the whole day I sat and waited for the day to finish and start playing again. I couldn't handle the rest day, more than anything else, confessed Anand.
As time passed, it became clear that the chess world had indeed valued Kramnik's title more. Anand lost his title in 2001 after losing to Vassily Ivanchuk in the semi-finals. Ruslan Ponomariov went on to beat Ivanchuk to the title. Desperate to escape criticism for adopting the knockout format to determine its world champion, the FIDE decided to introduce an eight-man double round-robin tournament in 2005. Kramnik stayed away and so did the retired Kasparov. Bulgaria's Veselin Topalov won the event at San Luis, Argentina, with 10 points, ahead of Anand and Russia's Peter Svider at 8.5 points. The following year, Kramnik, who had successfully defended his title against Hungary's Peter Leko in 2004, defeated Topalov to become the first undisputed champion of the game since 1993. This match did unify the two sections but the confusion was far from over.
In 2007, Kramnik confirmed his participation in the eight-player double round-robin format but made no secret of his preference to defend his undisputed title only in a match (comprising an agreed number of games on the classical format). As things turned out, Anand topped the 14-round competition with nine points, one better than Kramnik and Boris Gelfand. Anand won four games and drew the rest. This time, Anand proved that he had the credentials to be the undisputed world champion. Asked to compare his 2000 triumph with the one in 2007, Anand said, Both [titles] came off quite smoothly. I was able to focus right through. He also remembered how close he was to elimination on the way to each of these titles. In 2000, I got a scare in the match against Alexander Khalifman and I was virtually eliminated. In 2007, it happened against [Alexander] Grischuk on the penultimate day of the championship. A defeat against Grischuk would have ruined all the plans. Honestly, I was fortunate to salvage that half point, the champion admitted candidly.
Elaborating on his success of 2007, Anand said, It was somewhat special because the field was very strong. It feels nice to come through without a defeat in 14 rounds, I took a strong lead in the beginning and basically, I had to maintain it. You knew everything is in your hands. After the Mexico City event, dethroned champion Kramnik exercised his one-time right to challenge Anand in a 12-game match, a format where the Russian was still undefeated. The much-awaited clash between two of the finest players in the world took place in Bonn in October 2008. Anand came up with a stunning performance to post three wins before his lone loss to finish the contest with a game to spare.
The triumph also meant that Anand had now won the world title in three formats knockout, round-robin and match and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that the Indian, armed with a universal style, was indeed the champion of the world.
The match against Kramnik went so well. He was a bit unlucky that the match started so badly, as though he was hit by a perfect storm. Everything that could possibly go wrong did. A three-point advantage and from there on something had to go horribly wrong for you to lose it. For me, that was an unusual experience because against Kasparov [in the 1995 world title match] I had the opposite problem. I was hit by a perfect storm for a week and there was a three-point deficit.
Asked to choose his best among the titles in three different formats, Anand came up with a detailed explanation: For me, I still believe, it is impossible to choose. In fact, I was talking with Rustam Kasimdzhanov [former world champion and one of Anand's seconds' for the match] and he said, It's actually nice that you've done all three. That has a special merit'.
I know, there are people who don't give importance to knockout [format]. But you have to try a format before dismissing it. Knockout is not easy [playing a maximum of seven opponents by turns in four weeks]. You've got to navigate it. It is not all luck. It is easy to say luck. But then what do you say in matches when people blunder? That also happens. It's pressure. I would say, mainly for me here, I know what they [the sceptics] would have said, if I had not won. In that sense, I had to deal with it.
Secondly, though ironically, if you want to make out a case that matches are just one format but you believe that are not superior to others, you have to win a match. Then you are more credible when you say that.
The title of 2007 [in Mexico] was in no way a lesser achievement. But if I had not won in Mexico, I could not have made it to Bonn. In that sense it is very nice. For me, Mexico was beautiful because you win the title for the first time the unified title and in Bonn, you hold it. Both are very nice. You really can't choose between memories. I can't even say that I prefer this more to my Baguio win (the world junior title in 1987). At that moment, it was very beautiful. And now, it is pretty much like that.
In June 2007, the FIDE decided to give Topalov a chance to be part of the 2009 world championship cycle by giving him a direct entry in the challenger match. He played the World Cup winner Gata Kamsky in Sofia in 2009 and won the eight-game match 4.5-2.5 to earn the right to challenge Anand. The circumstances leading to the start of the Anand-Topalov match in Sofia (in May 2010) were dramatic to say the least. Owing to the volcanic ash emissions from Eyjafjallojokull, all flights were cancelled in the region. Anand tried to fly out from Frankfurt to Sofia on April 16 but was stranded. He asked the organisers for a three-day postponement but was refused. Anand and his team finally reached Sofia on April 20 after a 40-hour road journey, thereby forcing a one-day delay in the start of the championship.
Anand lost the first round and later admitted he had forgotten his preparations on the 23rd move. But the world sympathised with the champion. Anand went on to prove what a fighter he was. Against Topalov, it was like waking up each morning with a sword hanging over your head, said Anand as he looked back on the match. Speaking of the first-round defeat, Anand said, It was one of those ridiculous moments that you are not supposed to have but it happens. The only thing I told myself was if it had to happen, it is best to happen in the first round. You still have time to recover. I knew it would be a long match. I was not worried at that point. But it was the worst possible start to the match.
Anand won games two and four, but Topalov levelled the match by winning the eighth game. But it was Anand who clinched the match with a victory in the final game. Pleasantly, the finish was a dream one winning the decisive 12th game with black pieces! exclaimed Anand as he reflected on the tense match. In one sense, I think, I misjudged Topalov. He made certain changes during the match. One of the things we assumed was, he always likes moving around in matches. This means, he'll play an opening for a couple of games and then move on to the next one. His match strategy in the past was never to stand his ground. But he stood his ground. He did not switch his openings. We started having problem in the second half because we were thin in the areas he had concentrated on. He started taking initiative during this phase.
Looking back at the decisive 12th game, Anand said, I think Topalov took a big gamble. Now it seems obvious to me that this gamble was wrong. Later, he did say he missed my queen-move and if he did, then I don't think it was such an unreasonable gamble. Towards the later part, the position became incredibly complex, though. It was nice to clinch it with a win and that too with black.
Providing an interesting insight, Anand said, You know, in the last eight decisive games that we played, Topalov won four times with white, and I won three. So after many years in the games between us, this was the first victory for black. It felt nice.