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How Vishwanathan Anand joined Sachin Tendulkar, Leander Paes as a ‘superstar’ in the 1980s

In '75 years of Indian Sports', Chandresh Narayanan talks about the spectacular rise of chess grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand.

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Towards the end of the 1980s, India witnessed the arrival of their first three superstars across sports. Cricket had witnessed the emergence of the teenage sensation Sachin Tendulkar from Bombay, tennis saw the boundless energy of Leander Paes from Calcutta, while a third quietly came onto the scene without much fanfare—Vishwananthan Anand, a chess player from Madras, who was quietly making big moves on the chessboard. He was born on 11 December 1969 to Krishnamurthy Viswanathan, general manager of the Southern Railways, and Susheela, a homemaker in Madras. He developed an interest in chess from an early age and started learning the tricks of the trade from his mother at the age of six. Another family friend, Deepa Ramakrishnan, also helped him in the early stages of his career.

The youngest of the three siblings, Anand complete his schooling at Don Bosco Matriculation Higher Secondary School before joining Loyola College in Chennai. It was around 1983 that he first gained national prominence when he won the national sub-junior championship. Then in 1984 he won the International Master (IM) title at the age of 15. By the age of 16, Anand was the national champion, a title he won two more times till 1988. Following this, when he won the World Junior Chess title in 1987, he became the first Indian to do so. It was then, in 1988, that he became the first-ever Grand Master (GM) from India by winning an international tournament held in Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu. He was instantly awarded one of India’s highest civilian honours: the Padma Shri.

By 1993, he was competing in the World Chess Championship, taking on the world’s best in Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. He became the first Indian to win the FIDE World Chess Championship beating Alexei Shirov in 2000. But when he lost the title the following year in 2001, it impacted him majorly. Anand told The Telegraph in an interview: Because within a year, I had lost my title. But I learnt a lot from that period. The second win came after six years. I lost my title at the end of 2001 and at the end of 2007, I became the world champion again. That was nice because I had had to persevere for it. I had to spend five or six years working on lots of things to get it back. This was a unified title again, so that was nice. I had started winning the title again in matches… not that I value these
championships differently, but it’s for the record that you have covered every kind of format.

Anand then became the world champion again in 2007 at Mexico City. He pocketed a cool $390,000 as prize money and became the first undisputed world champion since Mikhail
Botvinnik in 1948. He successfully defended the title against Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik in 2008 at Bonn, Germany. Anand’s win gained plaudits from his peers too. Kasparov praised Anand’s consistently stellar performance: Vishy deserved the win in every way and I’m very happy for him. It will not be easy for the younger generation to push him aside. […] Anand out-prepared Kramnik completely.

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Later in 2010, Anand donated his gold medal to a charitable society called The Foundation to raise money for underprivileged children. The 2010 World Chess Championship was being held in Sofia; however, Anand was delayed in reaching the city. On 16 April 2010, Anand was scheduled to take a flight to Sofia from Frankfurt. But he was stranded as all flights had been cancelled owing to a volcano ash eruption at Eyjafjallajökull. Anand requested a three-day delay in the tournament, but the Bulgarian authorities refused. Finally, Anand reached Sofia after a 40-hour road journey on 20 April. As a result, the first game was delayed by a day. Anand then defeated Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria in 2010 by winning the final game.

Then, in 2012, he beat Boris Gelfand of Israel to continue his unbeaten run in the sport in a rapid play-off. Anand still did not have the confidence required to win games consistently.
It appeared that he had taken hold of himself and solved the issue in 2013 when he won the Grenke Chess Classic in Baden-Baden. But when he lost to 22-year-old Magnus Carlsen in the World Championship match in his home town Chennai despite a good start, his unbeaten run came to an end. In that contest, Anand lost the fifth and sixth games to slip to a 3.5-6.5 defeat. But he showed he had not forgotten some of his old tricks when he won the 2014 Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk. He had set up another World Chess Championship clash with Carlsen at Sochi in 2014. This time, Anand was in a keen contest with Carlsen until the penultimate game. But just when it looked like he would upstage his younger rival, Anand committed a few errors and lost 4.5-6.5.

After the loss, he was asked point-blank by the media if he was planning to retire. Anand’s firm ‘no’ received a lot of applause from the audience. Anand will always be a pioneer when it comes to chess because he made it a career option for millions of younger players to follow suit. Anand was known as the Tiger of Madras or the Lightning Kid because of the swiftness with which he would complete his games. He was known, since a very young age, for completing six-hour chess games using only minutes on the clock placed on his table. He was second only to Kasparov when it came to blitz and rapid chess.

A split in the chess fraternity meant that Anand was caught in the crossfire, but he continued to ply his trade relentlessly. The split was led by Russian chess superstar Garry Kasparov and British Nigel Short. Kasparov and Short formed a rival organization called the Professional Chess Association (PCA) in 1993. This was to rival the world governing body International Chess Federation, commonly known as FIDE. The PCA organized its own world championship. The genesis of this problem started with the Candidates Tournament in 1993, where Short emerged champion. Short was then eligible to challenge Kasparov for the world title. But FIDE rules over the venue for the choice of the title clash led to a huge spat. Kasparov, as the reigning champion, and Short as the challenger, had an opportunity to nominate a venue, alongside FIDE.

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But both Kasparov and Short felt they were short-changed as the then FIDE president, Florencio Campomanes, announced Manchester as the venue unilaterally. In protest, Kasparov and Short formed the PCA, and named Bob Rice as the commissioner. The Kasparov vs Short title clash under the PCA was held in October 1993 at the Savoy Theatre, in London, sponsored by The Times. Kasparov won the contest 12.5-7.5 and became the first PCA World Chess champion. FIDE then snatched Kasparov’s title; they staged a game between Anatoly Karpov and Jan Timman, and the former emerged winner and was crowned the FIDE World Campion. Chess now had two world champions, with Karpov as the FIDE champion and Kasparov as the PCA’s.

Anand got dragged into the mess as he also went on to play Kasparov in the PCA circuit. Kasparov took on Anand at the World Trade Centre on 11 September 1995. Kasparov eventually snuffed out Anand’s challenge, winning the 20-game contest, 10.5-7.5. The PCA remained relevant till 1996. Intel, PCA’s major sponsor, moved away and hence they had to fold up. Later in 2000, Kasparov revived a rival movement again when he was challenged by Vladimir Kramnik in the Classical World Championship, in a contest managed by Braingames. The PCA–FIDE rift was finally sorted in 2006 when the unified World Championship was held. Kramnik took on the then reigning FIDE world champion Veselin Topalov. Kramnik won the title to become the unified world champion.

This excerpt from Chandresh Narayanan’s ’75 Years of Indian Sports’ has been published with permission from Rupa Publications.

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