In sport, as in life, nothing is set in stone. No title is won till the last putt has been drained in golf; nor is a chess tournament won till the last move has been made. Yet, it now seems more probable than it has ever been in the past five or six months, that come November, world champion Magnus Carlsen’s challenger will be none other than the man he dethroned: Viswanathan Anand.
Surely a juicier story could not have been scripted. Until a year ago, it was a 43-year-old world champion being challenged by a 22-year-old “king-in-the-making”. A year later, the roles may well be reversed. Carlsen is now the world champion, and we could be seeing another “coming” of Anand, now in his 44th summer. Yes, the wheel has indeed turned a full circle.
Unbeaten for the first 10 rounds — at the time of going to press — in a gruelling Candidates tournament, Anand has been alternating between spectacular and consistent, even as others around him have blundered and stuttered. Those were the words many had used against Anand, when he swayed from one punch after another at the hands of a youthful Carlsen.
Vladimir Kramnik, a man who many felt could be the challenger to Carlsen, had said Anand was nervous and tense before the match against the Norwegian last year. He then added that the Indian had lost motivation and even seemed to suggest that age had begun to take a toll on his on-board performance.
Interestingly, it was Kramnik who had once said, “I am convinced, the way one plays chess always reflects the player’s personality.”
Wonder what the same Kramnik would have to say about Anand or his own game at the ongoing Candidates tournament, which will select the challenger to Carlsen later this year.
It is well-known that world championship matches require a lot of preparation — openings and other strategies. Each player prepares a few lines and then goes ahead with it. Mid-course corrections are rare in chess. Challengers often unleash their second or third lines when the first does not work, but invariably they have all been worked upon very intensely and are their main strengths.
Anand, acknowledged as very good at opening preparations, had done that for his match against Carlsen. But the Norwegian never really allowed him to get into control, even though there were times when the Indian seemed better. But it was never enough to convert into a win.
I remember writing about Anand speaking out in one of his rare interviews after the Carlsen match. Talking to Dutch magazine New In Chess, Anand accepted, “My problem was that I never really found him (Carlsen). I never managed to get a grip on his style.” Rarely has been so candid an admission of defeat!
It is never easy playing in your home country. Almost two decades ago, bogged down by overzealous and demanding fans and sponsors, Anand had lost a match in a tie-breaker to Gata Kamsky after leading by two points with three games to go in Sanghi Nagar in 1994. In 2013, he was more mature, had a better control over his time and he was also a five-time world champion, having won it in every conceivable format of the game.
The match in November 2013 in Chennai meant a lot to Anand. It was in his hometown. He was now in front of his fans, friends and family. He chose to live in a hotel and not his home, so as to create that atmosphere of a match. In the past, he had won in faraway lands and successfully shielded himself from all emotional trappings.
After becoming a father — his son was born in April 2011 — the only World title match he played was in Moscow, when he scraped past Boris Gelfand in the tiebreaker in 2012. He then rushed home to Chennai to see his newborn.
In 2013, being so close to his own home and not being able to spend time with a growing toddler might have played a role in the match against Carlsen. So, it was to him that he turned to forget the loss. The son was too young to understand his father’s achievement in 2011 and he was too young to understand his defeat in 2013. By then, Anand had other things on his mind, new relationships to treasure. It was a balm like none other.
Now relieved of the “burden” of the World title and removed from that cauldron-like atmosphere, Anand is looking fresh. His play is smoother and has fewer bumps. The new Anand is no longer flashy and spectacular. Instead, he is almost matter-of-fact. No more needless stretching for him; a half or full point is what he is looking for. This is practical chess. Yet, every now and then, as only he can, he can unleash brilliance that can dazzle the opposition!
In January 2013, Anand had played a gem of a game against Lev Aronian. But the year ended in disappointment. Now in the do-or-die Candidates, he was up against Aronian, now world No. 2, in the very first round. The Indian cracked open the Armenian’s defences and gave himself a superb start. Since then, Anand has won two games more — one each against Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, considered to be a gifted tactician, and against tenacious former world champion Veselin Topalov. With seven other draws, he moved to 6.5 points out of 10 and at the time of going to press, he has five more games to play.
Upsets are not unknown in the last stages of a crucial tournament. In a bizarre finish at the 2013 Candidates tournament in London, Carlsen lost two of his last three rounds, including the last one, but squeezed ahead as the winner — and challenger to Anand — on a better tiebreak score over Kramnik, who also lost his final round.
Right now in cold Khanty-Mansisyk in Russia, Anand is a full point ahead with four rounds to go and also has a massive tie-break score over his nearest rival, Aronian. Anand badly wants a date with Carlsen once more. He seems to be within striking distance of that and by the time you read this, you will know one way or the other.
Whether or not he makes it, one thing is clear. Anand is not through with chess. Never mind the age or the barbs.