Viswanathan Anand: A Grandmaster and an Underdog


Viswanathan Anand: A Grandmaster and an Underdog

Illustration: Palak Bansal

This morning, after a long time, Viswanathan Anand registered as a blip on the radar of Twitterers. In a big upset, the 48-year-old grandmaster defeated current World Champion and 28-year-old chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen in their latest meeting at the World Rapid Chess Championships. After nine rounds, the undefeated Viswanathan Anand remains tied for the lead.

Then, just the way he appeared all of a sudden, without warning, he disappeared. And the rest of India went back to ignoring the grandmaster, and turned its attentions back to the India-South Africa series, the momentous first cricket tournament after Virat Kohli’s marriage in the national eye. After all, cricket is our religion, we bleed blue, and is it even a sport if you don’t play it on the greens?

Viswanathan Anand has shown the propensity to return again and again, but after the ascendant Carlsen defeated him in 2013, it was fair to ask if Anand, who by then had been at the top of the sport for nearly 20 years, was past his peak. His current resurgence though, and the sheer timespan of his dominance in a sport played in over 200 countries, poses the question: Why does Anand remain forgotten when discussing India’s greatest sporting talents? For Anand — unpopular opinion trigger warning — and not Sachin Tendulkar or P Gopichand or Milkha Singh or Major Dhyan Chand, might be our greatest of all time.

He never missed time at his sport, with a tennis elbow like Sachin, was never rendered an icon for coming fourth in an Olympics race like Milkha Singh.

Consider this: Anand made the world top-10 list for the first time in July 1991, moved into the top-three in January 1997 and, remarkably, was ranked No 2 as recently as 2015. That’s 26 years of being one of the greatest at chess. He never missed time at his sport, with a tennis elbow like Sachin (Already playing a sport where sometimes half the time is spent sitting in an AC dressing room), was never rendered an icon for coming fourth in an Olympics race like Milkha Singh. He has just kept plodding along, building his case, play by play, move by move.

He became the youngest Indian International Master at 15, before becoming the first Asian — not Indian, ASIAN — to win the World Junior Title in 1987. In the long illustrious history of chess, he is the first player to have won the World Championship in three different formats: knockout, tournament, and matchplay. His success has spawned an era of chess greatness, birthing players like Pentala Harikrishna, Parimarjam Negi, Koneru Hampi, Krishnan Sasikaran, and Tania Sachdev.

The biggest hurdle to his candidacy is that in a blue-blooded country, we don’t consider chess a sport due to its lack of physical activity. But all sports aren’t created equal. Formula One, NBA basketball, boxing, swimming, etc are all far more taxing on the body than cricket. But where do we draw the line on physical taxation? Calories burnt?

I had the chance to play against Sachdev and Negi in school, alongside 25 others. At the same time. You want physical exhaustion? How about mental gymnastics? Negi and Sachdev, as teenagers, walked around the room that day, simultaneously playing 26 players each. They beat all of us, mostly under 30 moves. Anand regularly does this for “light exercise”.

Chess might never be as sexy as F1 and Viswanathan Anand will never have as many ads as Sachin, but his greatness is unparalleled. It would be nice to see him get his due before he fades away. His due, that is, that extends beyond a half-day Twitter trend.