Happy Birthday, Vishy Anand: The Joy of Chess, the Exuberance of Life (2023)

Who is the greatest chess player of all time? It is a question as hard to answer as ‘who is the greatest batsman or bowler or cricketer of all time’? Does one go by volume of runs scored and wickets taken, or averages? Across what formats – only Tests or newer formats too? Should longevity be a factor? And quality of opposition? How does one account for changes in rules and equipment that may have made it easier or harder for later generations?

Still, as Viswanathan Anand jokes, the press loves to ask such questions to generate clickbait answers, so pundits and players alike do their bit of kite flying even when everyone agrees – to flog the cliché — that “comparisons are odious.”

So in chess, would that GREATEST be Magnus Carlsen, who has touched the World Chess Federation FIDE’s highest-ever ELO rating of 2882 (it is named after Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor who devised a way to measure the relative skill level of chess players)? Or could it be Garry Kasparov, whose peak ELO rating was 2851, but who held FIDE’s top spot for the longest stretch to date of 255 months? Or could it be Bobby Fisher, who, when he crushed Denmark’s Bent Larsen 6-0 in a world championship face-off, was assessed as having the highest performance rating of 3080 just for that contest? How about Emanuel Lasker, who was the world chess champion for 26 years and 337 days in days there were no ELO rating and no computers?

Or how about this five-time world champion from India, a Grandmaster so versatile that heis the only player to have won the world chess championship intournament,match, andknockoutformat, as well asrapidtime controls, and who has graced the highest levels of the game for almost three decades…and is still going strong…at 50!

We are speaking on the phone in one of our occasional conversations a few days before his 50th birthday (December 11) and begin by joking about our vintage. Vishy Anand and I have been in touch so long that I still have a Compuserve email address (predating a Hotmail address) he had in the mid-90s, when I had an AOL address. If you know what Compuserve and AOL are, you belong to the Jurassic Era of Internet, an age of dial-up modems and 5 and half-inch floppy drives.

No, scrub that: we actually predate Internet; we go back to the rotary phone and fax era!

Back around 1990, this young kid had just won a major tournament and was passing though Delhi when I first called him. Following an engaging interview that left me convinced he was destined to achieve great things, I beseeched (and besieged!) the Editors of Times of India that the story should run on page one. Those days, sports stories, forget something as esoteric as chess, going on front page was unheard of. They agreed; and our passionate (and sometimes fanboy) coverage of the boy who was called the “lightning kid” — because of his speed of play — began.

A profile on the Sunday edit page headlined Vishy Anand: The Joy of Chess followed in 1992. Then in 1993, a Sunday Review cover headlined Veni, Vidi, Vishy outlining his exploits in Europe. By 1995, when he qualified to meet Garry Kasparov for the world title (for which New York City’s World Trade Center was picked as the venue), I had moved to the U.S. Two of my best friends who I had dragged with me to the event (they had only a marginal interest in chess) fell in love on top of the World Trade Center and checkmated each other for life soon after. On 9/11, they, and Anand, were the first people I harked back to — because we had spent time atop the iconic building that was rendered into rubble.

All this a mere 20-25 years ago.

The world’s Top Three Grandmasters of today were toddlers when Anand took on Kasparov. Top-ranked Magnus Carlsen was five, #2Fabiano Caruana and #3Ding Liren were three. In fact, all three were not even born when Anand became a grandmaster in 1988, a feat that earned him a Padma Shri right off the bat. A Bharat Ratna should be his, but more of that another time….

There was of course a time when Anand himself was a minnow, playing against elder statesmen. In 1989, he played his only game against Vasily Smyslov, a former world champion, who was 68 at that time, in Groningen, Holland (they drew). The same year, he played Boris Spassky (then 52) twice at Cannes, winning one and drawing the other. In fact, during Anand’s early playing days, there were plenty of grizzled veterans, sexagenarians and even septuagenarians, in chess.

Among the most colorful characters was Miguel Najdorf, who played competitive chess into his 80s, and whose play was said to be accentuated – or orchestrated — by the clicking of his dentures. There was also the partially deaf Tigran Petrosian, like Smyslov an eight-time world championship candidate and a one-time champion, and Mikhail Botvinnik, all of whom played well into their 50s and 60s. The apocryphal story goes that once Petrosian ignored a draw offer by an opponent because he had turned off his hearing aid and simply went on playing till he won.

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But those were days when chess was considered a game for the middle-aged if not the elderly, when chess wisdom was said to dawn on people much later in life. Now of course chess has increasingly become a young person’s game. Just as in life 50 or 60 is said to be the new 40, in chess, 30 is the old 50. By 40, most players are struggling to remain in the Top 25.

The average age of world’s top 100 Grandmasters now is only around 31. In fact, Anand, at 50, is the oldest GM among the Top 25 by some distance. There are less than half dozen GMs who are 50+ years old in the Top 100, and almost all of them are Anand’s one-time peers and contemporaries who are falling further and further behind: Vassily Ivanchuk, six months older than him is now ranked 45th. Boris Gelfand, a year older, is ranked 52nd. Alex Shirov, Alexei Dreev, and Gata Kamsky have fallen even further behind. Some like Evgeny Bareev and Gata Kamsky, have even dropped out of the Top 100.

Considering all this, it is staggering that Vishy Anand is still ranked 15th at 50, and duking it out regularly with guys young enough to be his sons – Carlsen at 29, Caruana at 27, Wesley So at 26, and some, like Polish prodigy Jan-Krzysztof Duda, a stripling at 21.

“Oh! You bet I feel it,” he laughs, when asked about what it means to be elder statesman of the circuit now. In fact, he can already see the difference in intensity between him and the new kids on the block. After a grinding day’s match play, the young titans relax with friendly blitz games with each other going into the night. Anand repairs to his hotel room to catch up on stuff like Narcos on Netflix and Skype with the pillar of his life Aruna and their son Akhil.

You wonder how much longer he can be at it as he deals with a Dhoni-esque dilemma: he’s still top-grade, the next best Indian GM (P. Hariskrishna) is ranked 27th, and 64 other Indian GMs his legacy has bequeathed are trailing further behind. He answers them with typical candor in his new book Mind Master (Published by Hachette with co-writer Susan Ninan, a former Times of India staffer) in a final chapter fittingly titled “Staying Alive.”

“I don’t can’t recall the first time I felt old…there was no definitive moment that yanked at my thoughts and filled me with cold dread over the approach of another birthday,” he writes, noting that he had borne the cross of performance-related anxiety right from his teens even when he was at the top of the rankings or winning world championships. When he was younger, it was easy to ascribe a spate of poor results to performance cleft. But as he gets into his 40s, doubts begin to surface, particularly when he messes up against a younger player, like he did against Carlsen during their first world title clash in Chennai (which he lost 6.5-3.5 without a win) — “my neural pathways literally light up, signaling, ‘Look, we told you this has to do with age!’” he writes.

Remarkably, after that disaster and months off the circuit (and cutting out any exposure to media), Anand bounced back to win another shot at the title against Carlsen. Though he lost 6.5-4.5, it was more competitive this time as he won Game 3 to draw level before losing Game 6 and Game 11. Carlsen now leads Anand 12-8 in classical chess with dozens drawn (Anand led 6-3 before the Chennai hometown debacle), but the springback at Sochi restored faith that the man 21 years younger to him is not unbeatable even now. Nor are the other young guns.Still, the results have been up and down since then.

In December 2017, Anand spectacularly won the won the World Rapid Championship in Riyadh and finished third in the World Blitz Championship that followed, even as he continued to beat all the top ranked players on the circuit – though not as consistently as before. Anand acknowledges it is getting harder and bowing out crosses his mind all the time – except that he’s still good enough to be among the elite even at 50 — and he still does not like losing.

Of his idol Mikhail Tal, it was said he hated defeats. In fact, Tal still holds the record for 95 consecutive tournament games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws) in 1973-1974. Astonishing, after a career spanning more than 30 decades, Anand has the lowest loss percentage of all current players who have played more than 2000 competitive games – a mere 13.67 percent; even Carlsen has a 15.07 per cent loss record.

Anand knows his day to retire will come, but there will be no half-measures till then. “You have to either compete very hard or not at all…there’s no such thing as playing for fun at that level,” he said on Saturday, our phono delayed by couple hours because of an accident he had to negotiate on the autobahn. “If it’s going to happen, I’ll have to go cold turkey.”

But perhaps not just yet, although there was revealing moment during the Tata Steel rapid and blitz tournament in Kolkota last month when he missed a qualifying spot at the four-man Grand Chess Tour Final in London by a whisker. Clearly beating himself up for mucking up, Anand nevertheless chose to see the bright side of life.

“The good news is Akhil (his son) won the second prize in a dance competition in school. I am very happy about that,” he chuckled amid the gloom the Indian chess fraternity.

The champion of chess had fully embraced the beauty of life.

Happy birthday, maestro!

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Views expressed above are the author's own.


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