Vishwanathan Anand is, and forever will be, a special part of an Indian sporting fan’s subconscious mind. He is, for one, not much older than the other ageless icon- Sachin Tendulkar, and it does matter in an indoor sport, where one starts late and finishes even later. His statistics are equally mind-boggling, if not more impressive, and one can go on and on in a debate about whether he represents the modern chess player better than the legendary Garry Kasparov. Often, there is no clear argument, because everyone seems to know the answer to that question.
Anand started quite early. He was almost a Chess prodigy of sorts, and at age 25, he already found himself in the harsh glare of the world media spotlight, in a sport largely dominated by the Russians. He was from a country that prided itself on its academic skills, and expertise with numbers, statistics, calculations and all sort of scientific theories. It was, therefore, a wonder that no Indian grandmaster before Anand had made a mark on the world scene.
Anand himself took a good decade to steel himself for real world domination. He discovered early, that brilliance and genius is not often inherited- as was the rare case with freaks like Kasparov- and struggled his way to the top after many failures, and constant nagging successes. And the tragic part is that nobody will ever remember Anand as the world’s best chess player. He will be remembered for making the most of his abilities, and walking away as World Champion on five different occasions, despite not being at the top of his game. People will always associate with Chess, the near-perfect domination of Kasparov- who was ranked no. 1 for longer than any other professional sporting icon (from ’86 to 2000), and Karpov’s hold over the game before that. And rightly so, because despite all the controversies and his breaking with FIDE, Kasparov was, at times, so invincible that only the computer ‘Deep Blue’ could beat him in 1997. Anand will never forget, for instance, the colossal heartbreak in 1995 at New York’s WTC, where Kasparov absolutely mentally disintegrated young Anand’s mind into pieces- and swept to victory in Anand’s first title match. Anand kept coming back, of course, to face different opponents like Karpov in 1998, after coming through the grueling FIDE qualifying tournament, only to fall at the last hurdle, an obstacle that he was soon to overcome in sweeping style- the rapid chess playoff.
Anand vs Gelfland 2012
Despite these early failures, Anand was highly respected in an increasingly competitive world of sport. His 97 and 98 Chess Oscar wins were indication of his consistently world-class performance, and his tournament wins began to stack up by 2000.
Finally, Anand was able to capture that elusive title, in the 2000 World Chess Championships- after beating Shirov in the final. Many will debate the sanctity of this win, because it wasn’t the undisputed title, with Kramnik holding the Classical World title, and Kasparov refusing to play.
Nevertheless, he was the first Indian to do so, and one felt that he had only scratched the surface of his ability yet. He was forced to come to terms with the fact, though, that he would never be ranked number 1 until Kasparov retired. And that only happened in 2005, after Anand suffered a dip in form that saw him lose at two consecutive world championships.
After a barren spell, once Kasparov bid adieu to the game, it was Anand who took over the reign- at long last. This was the window he had been waiting for, for over a decade. His greatness had been postponed, but there was another Russian waiting for him at the top- in Kramnik. In 2007, arguably Anand’s best year in professional tennis, he captured the undisputed World Chess Championship by finishing ahead of Kramnik and Gelfland (who he was to beat most recently in 2012), at Mexico City.
Many Indians will remember this year as the rebirth of their greatest sportsman, most notably coinciding with the inexplicable dip in form of the cricket legend and their team. Anand was the one who reminded a country, not through words, but by sheer single-minded pursuit of his goal- that ‘Team India’ could also mean a lot of other things. It was not only about cricket, and his massive title win meant that an entire population woke up with a silly, opportunistic grin on their faces, happy in the knowledge that they’re the best at something.
The Rock Behind The Wall
Because Vishwanathan Anand was finally World Number One.
Even if for a short period of time.
In 2008, just when the cricket team and Tendulkar (two separate entities at this point) were waking up to a new dawn, Anand defended his world title against Kramnik in Germany. He wasn’t number 1 anymore, and a third world title still meant as much to the country as it did to the man himself. In fact, he fell to number 5- a first in his long career, mostly due to the selective number of tournaments he was playing, and the insane number of smaller titles being won by Kramnik, Topalov and Carlsen.
He set his sights on regaining that top spot, and stuck to his goal. By November 2010, by expanding his schedule, Anand was no. 1 once again, after two long years. His victory over Topalov, where Kasparov helped him prepare in the buildup- helped him achieve his target. It lasted only for 7 months though, with Carlsen regaining the spot soon after. That meant that Anand began to dedicate all his time and preparation for the world championships, which paid off, because he beat Boris Gelfland once again in 2012. Anand has been World Champion continuously since 2007, and will defend his title in 2013.
His inability to be ranked at the top for a long period, though, has raised the question about his dominance over the game. It also drives home the extent of Garry Kasparov’s unmatchable skills (and questionable temperament)- for being able to win everything in his sight for almost two decades.
Beginning of a Beginning
Anand, still, will remain one of the game’s greats- not for his excellent world championship record or tournament victories, but the sheer passion and dedication it takes to stay on top of one’s ability, in a sport played in almost EVERY country in the world. Anand could end up as Chess’s Dravid to Kasparov’s Tendulkar, but in no means does that diminish his stature in the modern era.
Post-2000, much like his cricket equivalent, there has been no better and more humble champion in the sport.