Anand has the ability to bounce back

At 46,Viswanathan Anand is clearly finding it tough to play five rounds a day on three successive days. His diminishing energy levels meant he could not keep up the momentum in the later rounds of the day.

Viswanathan Anand... is age catching up?   -  AP

Magnus Carlsen... going great guns.   -  AP

For many, age is just a number. The undying spirit that overcomes the not-so-quick reflexes means more. How you feel matters more than how you appear. Knowing fully well the energy of youth has no substitute, many achievers have managed to delay the inevitable decline in this energy to surprise the world.

In sports, the champions have become younger in several disciplines. If golf and chess have shed the labels of being the bastion of the seasoned campaigners, today’s tennis, in contrast, presents champions who cannot be called young anymore.

If we look at chess, which has three championship formats that tests the skills of the serious practitioners, younger players have increasingly performed better. Gone is the belief that the wisdom of the older players plays a decisive role in competitive chess. For Viswanathan Anand, the form of rapid chess (usually played with 25 minutes of allotted time for each player with a five-second increment time for every move made) provided an identity which none of his peers enjoyed.

For over 20 years against some of the best names in contemporary chess, Anand dominated the rapid format, winning tournaments year after year, besides the World crown in 2003. Once he regained the World crown in 2007, he played less number of rapid events. Coincidentally, this period also witnessed the beginning of the end of some of the annual rapid events. Monaco, Leon, Corsica and Mainz held regular rapid events which Anand made a habit of winning.

Clearly one of the greatest rapid chess players of all times, Anand won the Leon Magistral event nine times, the Corsica Masters six times and the Mainz Classic 11 times. In the Amber chess tournament (with rapid and blindfold segments) Anand won the rapid title nine times. He remains the only player to have won both titles in the same year, twice.

In the past five to seven years, the decline in the number of premier rapid events also contributed to Anand losing his grip over the format. With more or more players, predominantly younger ones, playing online in the shorter formats like rapid and blitz chess, there are many stronger rapid chess players today than in the past.

Anand, who has defied time and age to be among the elite players for over two decades, clinched one of his five classical world titles by coming out stronger in the rapid tie-break games against Boris Gelfand in 2012.

As Anand explained, “In general, while I kept on saying that my skills at rapid chess are not the determining factor in the rapid [games], that is not to say they are irrelevant. I do play faster overall and in rapid chess, I more or less expect to get some time advantage. I think nerves weigh more heavily in these rapid games for the world title than your rapid skills. Rapid skills are not irrelevant. I did benefit from them.”

In fact, the ‘fear’ of facing Anand’s rapid skills became a factor in the 2010 World title match. Veselin Topalov pressed too hard for victory in the final classical game and Anand punished him to retain the title. Soon after the loss, Topalov admitted he wanted to avoid playing Anand in the tie-break rapid games, knowing the prowess of the Indian in the shorter format.

Last year’s bronze medallist in the World rapid championship, Anand faltered this year and tied for the 13th spot and finished in the 25th place. Magnus Carlsen, who lost to Anand in the previous edition, retained the title with ease.

At 46, Anand is clearly finding it tough to play five rounds a day on three successive days. His diminishing energy levels meant he could not keep up the momentum in the later rounds of the day. Anand lost the last two games on Day One and two of the last three rounds on Day Two. Once out of the race for the title, Anand played with less pressure and scored four points from the last five rounds.

As Anand maintains, “I think the average player today is stronger than the average player 20 years ago. More people are playing and more people have access to more tools. The average depth in chess is higher. More people are getting the GM title because the level is increasing. The players are stronger.”

But knowing the tenacity of Anand, no player underestimates the ability of this genial Indian to hit back in any form of the game. Anand has proved it more than once and that’s the reason he is among the most respected names in the game. Though he has nothing more to prove, Anand is the one who constantly looks to improve. Surely, the flesh may be weak but the spirit is willing.