December 28, 2000

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Vishwanthan Anand - The King

Mr Cool gets his due

Dibyendu Barua

I've known Anand since 1982. He was around 15 years old at the time, and we met for the first time at the National Junior Championships in Delhi.

That was a time of rapid progress in his career -- shortly thereafter, he won the national championships, then the World Junior Championships, and went on to achieve his International Master and Grand Master norms in short order.

And now he is World Champion -- the only Asian to achieve the feat, and in fact the only non-Russian to hold the title since Bobby Fischer.

Even when I first saw him play, Anand used to play very fast, prompting us to christen him the 'Lightning Kid'. His game was always characterised by courage, by boldness. He would take just a few seconds to assess the position and respond to his opponent's moves. You might have thought, at the time, that it was just that he was so young -- but it is noteworthy that after all these years, that ability to play accurately at high speed is still a characteristic of his game. In fact, he is easily the most accomplished blitz player in the international chess arena.

Dibyendu Barua At the same time, without forsaking his speed, he has improved his all-round game tremendously. He has also learnt the value of caution, when required -- thus, you find him more willing, these days, to take some time to analyse a tricky position. Earlier, because of the sheer speed at which he played, he would miss out on some winning positions, he would falter during crucial moments. But not any more -- today, he has the right balance between speed and caution, and that makes him an even more finished player. In fact, today there are very few players on the circuit who can match his ability in the opening and middle games. Thanks to his mastery of these two crucial aspects, and his speed of thought at the end, he is now one of the most dangerous opponents on the international circuit.

Those who have known Anand from the beginning of his career have always been sure that he had what it took to be world champion one day. Yet, there was also the fact that such a feat has seemed outside the ambit of players from Asia.

Till recently, the players from the erstwhile Soviet Union, and a select few from Western countries, have dominated the chess arena. For an Indian to rise to the top level, to exist in the competitive environment, and to become world champion, was very difficult. To be very frank, though I thought Anand had the talent, I had personally thought he would never make it to the very top. I thought he would be among the top five or ten in the world, and that would be that. Not because he did not have the ability, but because it takes more than ability to wear the crown.

Now, that situation has changed. We have an Anand -- and now that we know we can do it, that an Indian can dominate in the game, we can think, dream, of producing more champions.

I am often asked to point out Anand's strongest point, and to differentiate between him and his nearest rivals. I think that would be a difficult, in fact impossible, task. I don't think there is much to chose between Anand, Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik and Adams in terms of talent -- to me, these are the elite five of world chess.

The average player is good with either white or black, depending on whether he is an aggressive, or defensive, type of player. But the top five are equally facile playing either colour, and that is their chief characteristic.

Sceptics suggest that Anand was lucky to play a weak opponent like Alexei Shirov for the title, but that is nonsense. Judging by Anand's victory margin and his three straight wins, you might say Shirov is weak -- but you have to remember that both Anand and Shirov went through the gruelling qualifiers to reach the finals, they played the best talents in the game and came out on top.

The World Championship Final The reason why Anand's win looks very easy is because Shirov, by temperament, is a risk-taker. Against some opponents, that makes him formidable, because of the unpredictability of his game. Against Anand, however, that proved fatal -- Anand plays at his very best against risk-taking opponents, he has the advantage of incredible speed of thought, which means that even when his opponent moves away from the regular line and tries a risky novelty, Anand is very quick to analyse the position and come up with the right counter. Being aggressive himself, Anand is also very quick to pounce on the little mistakes that can creep in when his opponent is playing a high-risk game.

One aspect of Anand that I admire is his warmth, his softness, his human-ness. He is almost too nice to be the world champion. Top level chess players are generally short-tempered, egoistic, but Anand is the opposite -- he is very friendly, very lovable, and he has the ability to take victory and defeat in his stride. You will see top chess players getting surly after a defeat, they will refuse to meet the media and their fans. Anand is the opposite -- no matter what the result is, he is the same, he will be as polite and courteous to his fans after a defeat, as after a win, and that is what makes him such a universal favourite.

Anand never shows the strain, but the fact is it has been a very tough journey for him. What has helped him achieve the ultimate accolade is his single-minded devotion to the game. And a tangential factor has been the breakup of the Soviet Union. If one looks at the history of world chess, about 90 per cent of our world champions hailed from the USSR. However, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the government lost control over chess bodies and federations there. The structured system was broken, players went their own ways, and this exodus helped make players from other countries stronger.

To return to the question of pressure, someone like Anand around whom so much expectation is built, goes through immense mental pressure. As a grandmaster myself, I can tell you that such pressures can impact even on your personal life. A top flight player is relaxed only when he is winning -- defeats bring out the worst in us.

It takes tremendous courage to recover from a defeat and to sit down at the table next day, players have been known to lose sleep for nights on end when things are not going well. Which is why Anand comes as a complete antithesis. In fact, I have only seen him lose his temper once, in the 1988 Chess Olympiad when after losing a game he should have won, he threw away his hotel key in sheer frustration. But that was over a decade ago.

It is this ability to take defeat in his stride that has helped Anand deal with traumatic moments during his career. He came so close to winning the coveted World Championship twice in the past, he lost both times, yet he didn't lose the zeal, the drive to keep trying. Defeats in fact only motivate him to improve, to do even better.

People might say that the absence of Kasporov and Kramnik helped Anand to an easy victory. BUt I beg to differ. Firstly, you should understand that this knock-out system was introduced only three years ago. The first time, Anand went through the knockout rounds, which can be very tiring, and then played a fresh Kasparov who was given direct entry.

Garry Kasparov In the last world championships, both Kasporov and Karpov boycotted when the organisers refused their request that they be made to play only from the quarterfinals onwards, skipping the earlier rounds. That should make you think -- why don't the top players want to go through the full cycle? Because it is gruelling, it is very had to maintain consistency. But consistency is what makes a champion -- and in that sense, Anand is to be applauded for having the courage to go through the entire cycle, make that gruelling effort and come out on top.

Anand has never shied away from challenges, he has never asked tournament organisers to favour him, he accepts whatever draw he is offered. While Kasporov and Kramnik were visibly scared of playing in earlier rounds fearing defeats, Anand accepted the challenges without grumbling. Playing the initial rounds has many disadvantages, since each match consists only of two rounds. This in turn means that a minor lapse of concentrate could prove fatal for a top player, resulting in an early exit.

Of course, it would have been more satisfying for Anand had he defeated Kasparov or Kramnik in the final -- but it isn't his fault that those two players ducked out and refused the challenge of the whole cycle.

Anand's emergence as world champion will do a world of good for the morale of the cash-starved Indian chess federation and associations throughout the country. It will encourage youngsters to take up this game more seriously in future. The Indian chess federation has plans to expand its operations and attract many more youngsters to the game, and Anand's win will help that effort. Further, the win should encourage corporate giants to sponsor chess events, and this should in turn help the game grow.

In the final analysis, that is probably the biggest gain from this title win.

As told to Rifat Jawaid

Vishwanathan Anand - The Complete Series

Mail Sports Editor