Anand's crown of glory

Print edition : January 06, 2001

By winning the World Chess Championship final in Teheran, Vishwanathan Anand becomes India's, and also Asia's, first world chess champion.

GRANDMASTER Pravin Thipsay vividly remembers that hot summer day of 1983. He was playing in the National team chess championship at the Indian Institute of Technology, Mumbai, when some players told him that a boy was about to defeat Manuel Aaron, India' s first International Master (IM) of chess.

He rushed to that board and was surprised to find the boy wrapped in blankets and woollen clothes on that sultry May afternoon. Thipsay learnt that the boy, representing Madras Colts, was running high fever but had insisted on playing, and his mother was sitting next to him. He was astonished to note that Aaron was taking a lot of time on each of his moves, while his young opponent was replying instantly. When the 13 year-old, won the game, he had made all his moves within half an hour.

Grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand receives the World Chess Championship trophy from President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE) Kirsan Iliyumzhinov in Teheran on December 27.-VAHID SALEMI/AP

That boy, Vishwanathan Anand, who turned 31 on December 11, is the new world chess champion.

After two failed attempts, Anand finally claimed the crown that he so richly deserved at Teheran, when he defeated Alexei Shirov of Spain in the fourth game of the World Chess Championship final. On December 24, 2000, the country of one billion people at last produced a world champion in a genuinely global and competitive sport. It was the proudest moment in the history of Indian sport.

But Anand's triumph does not belong only to India. He is also Asia's first world chess champion, and the first non-white to win the title. There has never been a more popular champion. It is amazing how people from different parts of the world love this man. Truly, he is one of the nicest grandmasters ever.

During the World Championship in New Delhi where the matches up to the semifinal stage were held recently, this correspondent met Maia Chiburdanidze from Georgia, who became the women's world champion when she was 17. When Anand's name was mentioned, her face brightened. "What could I say about Vishy?" Maia exulted. "I just love him. He is like a diamond. He is my favourite chess player. He should become the world champion soon. He has everything - talent, ambition and all other attributes of a champion . Let's hope he wins this world championship, for the sake of the game."

The game needed someone like Anand at the top - non-controversial, humble, accessible, affable and brilliantly gifted. Had a lesser player emerged as the winner in this championship, he may not have been accepted by everyone as the world champion. It hap pened to Russia's Alexander Khalifman when he won the title at Las Vegas last year. He was always referred to as the FIDE (the governing body of world chess) world champion, for he was not even among the world's top 20 players.

Vladimir Kramnik of Russia was proclaimed the 15th world champion just two months ago after his victory over the "invincible" Gary Kasparov in the Braingames world title match in London. Never has the tenure of a world champion been so short as that of K ramnik. The 25-year-old has certainly a right to feel that he has a claim to be the champion. He defeated Kasparov in a match (where one played a long series of games with one player, unlike in tournaments), something no human being could ever do. He was the World No. 2 at the time.

But one also has to consider that Kramnik became the champion by winning just two games, against an opponent who was playing in the poorest form in his career. Anand, on the other hand, played 20 games, though not all his opponents were potential world c hampions, won eight and did not lose any. He played in a punishing knock-out format, which had no rest day before the final. And except for one game - in the 25-minute tie-breakers - he was always in command.

It was Khalifman, the most underrated world champion in history, who threatened to destroy the hopes of an entire nation. But he squandered his chances in that quarter-final game and, on that chilly evening at Hotel Hyatt Regency in New Delhi one could a lmost hear a collective sigh of relief from Anand's team, wife Aruna, the mediapersons and the spectators.

Last year's final was between Khalifman and Vladimir Akopian of Armenia, who do not belong to the cream of world chess. Nobody outside the FIDE was willing to acknowledge Anatoly Karpov as the world champion after his victory over Victor Korchnoi of the Netherlands in 1978. For all practical purposes, Karpov had lost his crown to Kasparov in 1985.

It was Kasparov's differences with FIDE that led to the confusion about two world champions. Since 1990, the Russian, considered the strongest player of all time, never played in a world championship organised by FIDE. He organised parallel world title m atches, which were widely accepted because Kasparov was undoubtedly the best player in the world. But now he is no longer the world champion - he could not win a single game in that series of 16 against Kramnik - and he cannot dismiss Anand as a FIDE cha mpion.

Even if one counts Kramnik, Anand is only the 16th world chess champion in its 114-year-old history. He is only the sixth champion of non-Russian origin, and the first since the American Bobby Fischer outwitted Boris Spassky in the unforgettable duel of 1972 in Iceland. That would give a fair idea of how remarkable this achievement of Anand is.

THERE was no Indian before him to show the way for Anand. Although chess was born in India, in the sixth century A.D., until the advent of Anand the country saw few top-quality players. The only Indian to make his presence felt at the highest level was S ultan Khan, who made headlines in Britain in the 1920s when he beat players such as former world champion Jose Raul Capablanca of Cuba.

Unlike the world champions from Russia, Anand did not have great players as trainers. He is a sheer genius, born, and not at all made. That makes his achievement even greater.

Even before he became the world champion, Anand had contributed immensely to the sport in the country. Single-handedly he inspired thousands of young children throughout the country to learn the game, and today India is among the world's best in terms of junior talent.

In the last five years, India has won six titles in the world youth championships. Two young Indian grandmasters, Abhijit Kunte and Krishnan Sasikiran, have already begun making a mark at the higher level. There is a 14-year-old lad in Guntur, Pendyala H arikrishna, who threatens to take the world by storm. Not far away from Guntur, 13-year-old Koneru Humpy has a collection of three world titles at her home in Vijayawada. Twenty-one-year-old S. Vijayalakshmi, who became the country's first woman grandmas ter in July (Frontline, August 18, 2000), won a silver at the chess Olympiad in November in Istanbul, where the Indian men's team was the surprise package of the tournament, finishing eighth, a splendid effort, without the services of Anand.

India is indeed the country to watch out for in world chess. Anand's victory could force the government and corporate houses to see chess in a new light.

Very few men have shaped the sporting destiny of their countries the way Anand has. "I decided to put my daughter into chess just because of Anand," G.Emayavaramban, the father of national Under-18 girls' champion J.E. Kavitha, said.

S. Krishnan, whose 19-year-old son Sasikiran, is the best Indian player after Anand, says it was indeed the Anand factor that gave him the courage to plan a career in chess for his only child. "I used to play the game, but it was Anand's success that con vinced me that my son could have a fruitful career in chess," he said.

FOR his parents Vishwanathan and Sushila, who taught Anand the game at the age of six, there simply was no such option. "We noticed Anand's extraordinary memory when he was three," Sushila Vishwanathan said. "He used to pick always the correct records of music from the shelf even before he learnt to read. He was very good at academics."

Anand went to Don Bosco School, Egmore, Chennai, and in the evenings he would head straight to the Tal Chess Club, at the Russian Cultural Centre, on Kasturi Ranga Road. Recalls International Master Lanka Ravi, who was Anand's teammate for two Olympiads: "At that time there were not many chess clocks at the club, so there was a rule that only the winner of the game could retain his seat. The loser will have to vacate his seat. More often Anand retained his seat through the night. If he had lost a game, he would come back the next day to defeat the same player in the same variation (moves), but this time he would be better prepared."

T.S. Ravi, who was also there at the club with Anand, says it did not take him long to realise that he was in the presence of a genius. "I was convinced that he was different from all of us when he beat Manuel Aaron in that national team championship in Mumbai," he said.

After he won the national championship, Anand made quite a stir when he became the first Asian to win the world junior championship in 1987. The same year he became India's first grandmaster. In 1991, at Tilburg, he became only the second player to beat both Kasparov and Karpov in the same tournament, and the following year he won the Reggio Emilia tourney, which was the strongest chess tournament held until then. By now, in British Grandmaster Raymond Keene's words, Anand had turned "from a promising a grandmaster" to a "definite future candidate for the world title".

Anand had his first crack at a world title match in 1995, but he lost to a supremely confident and well-prepared Kasparov in the Professional Chess Association match in New York. He should have won the world title in 1998 at Lausanne, but for a stupidly unfair system that made him play a series of tough knock-out matches at Groningen, while all his opponent, Karpov, had to do was just wait for a physically and mentally drained Anand.

But Anand used the experience he gained from those matches to win the ultimate crown in chess on his third attempt. He also silenced those critics who said that he lacked the psychological strength to become the world champion.

Both in New Delhi and in Teheran, it was Anand's rivals who seemed to have a mental block against him. It was a truly superlative display. He showed no pressure of playing at home, but seemed to enjoy it, as people showered him with affection. "It looks so easy to play chess when you see Anand in action," Grandmaster Pia Cramling, a trendsetter in women's chess, said.

For India, which won just three individual medals at the Olympics in 48 years, the very thought of Anand ought to be a thing of joy.

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