'An improved Fischer'

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

IT was a casual remark by Evgeny Vladimirov on a rainy evening at Kozhikode. "Anand is an improved Fischer," the bespectacled super coach from Kazakhstan had quipped during the course of a lengthy chat with The Sportstar a few weeks ago.

Viswanathan Anand, the World chess champion from 2000 to 2002 and India's greatest-ever sportsman, would be happy to hear that observation about him by the Grandmaster who helped Garry Kasparov win his first World title. Vladimirov, in his own charming way, had hit the nail on the head in analysing Anand.

Viswanathan Anand is greeted by his fans and the media on his return to India after his World Cup triumph, last year. Anand will be defending his title in this year's edition in Hyderabad.-K. GAJENDRAN

Possibly, the 32-year-old genius from Chennai may not receive many better compliments than that. The American could have dominated world chess for as long as he wanted, but sadly for world chess, and for Fischer himself, he chose to renounce the game after he won the World championship in 1972. That title match, against the then Soviet Union's Boris Spassky in Iceland, was a turning point for chess, because the game caught the public imagination for the first time throughout the world. Perhaps chess wouldn't have been so attractive, especially as a career option, when Anand made the opening moves of his international career in the 80's, if Fischer hadn't happened.

He may have been the World champion only once, but Fischer is regarded as the most gifted chess player ever. He didn't learn the game from qualified trainers, like Spassky and all the World champions from Russia before him did. He was a natural player. Chess was an alien game - and it still is, more or less - to the Americans when Fischer was taught how to play the game by his older sister. Chess was invented by the Indians, about 15 centuries ago, but the Soviets monopolised it until Fischer decided that enough was enough and showed the world that you did not have to think only in Russian to win the World championship.

However, the World champions continued to emerge from Russia after Fischer abdicated his throne - he did not bother to defend his title - as Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov, Alexander Khalifman and Vladimir Kramnik ensured that the World title did not go out of Moscow (the Soviet Union by this time had become just a concept from one of the world's two super powers). Then one unforgettable night in Teheran in December 2000, a new World champion was crowned. And this one spoke an Indian language.

India had at last produced a World champion in a truly global and competitive field. It was the most defining moment in the history of world chess after Fischer's triumph.

Anand has often been compared to the legendary American for his natural abilities (Anand's only coach for many years after he learnt the moves was his mother Suseela, who did not ever play even in a club tournament). Like it was for Fischer in America, there was little support for chess in India when Anand grew up. Like Fischer, Anand walked up to the summit of world chess on his own. Like Fischer, Anand is known for his amazing, almost unnatural, memory.

But unlike Fischer, Anand did not fritter away his god-given gift. He has stayed focussed all along. That's why he's an improvement upon Fischer. He took wonderful care of his own genius. And he has remained one of the world's two or three top players for over a decade.

The interest in chess in America diminished along with Fischer's own. He wasn't exactly a role model for a young American interested in chess, and he shone for a period too brief that it wasn't enough to leave an impression on parents to persuade their children to take up chess seriously. But Anand has been able to influence young Indian kids and their parents greatly. The result is there for everyone to see: chess has blossomed in India, and the nation is poised to be a major power in world chess, with an array of eager and talented youngsters ready to take on the world.

Sometimes he feels justifiably proud of the fact that he is responsible for it. "When I started out in chess, the game was just completely different," he told this writer in an interview after he won the Mainz Classic in Germany, recently.

"Information was hard to get. The Soviets always had the edge, as they had all the information about games. To me if a Soviet Grandmaster had analysed something, that was like a gospel. It makes me feel happy that now the situation is different. Many of those Grandmasters now study my games, and tell me how much they liked it.

"I feel happy that chess is now an accepted sport. There is a lot of encouragement from parents and corporate sponsors. There is a young generation that is doing really well. This makes me feel very proud. When I see so many children playing chess I feel really happy that in a way they will ensure that the chess revolution is a continuous process."

How does he feel when he sees so many Indians making their mark in international competitions?

"I feel really happy. It is nice to see a lot of Indian flags at tournaments. It is usually a whole lot of Russian flags and a lone Indian flag, it is nice to see that is changing. The players all seem to be working very hard and are in touch with the latest theory."

He is all praise for the young Indians such as Krishnan Sasikiran. "Sasi has been playing very well. He has matured considerably in the last few months. I have interacted with him on many occasions, he works very hard and seems to be very determined."

Anand is also impressed by the way R.B. Ramesh and Koneru Humpy played at this year's British championship. "I did follow their games," he said. "It was truly an Indian summer at the British Championships. I heard from a journalist a funny comment that 99 per cent of the prize fund left Heathrow for India. It was a clean sweep."

A month ago, Anand conducted a training camp in Chennai for India's top youngsters in Chennai. That was an act of commitment by a world beater.

He is fairly pleased with his own performance so far this year.

"I had an average performance in Linares. My performances at Prague (Eurotel Trophy) and Mainz are of course the high point. Eurotel will remain one of my best victories. It was one of the strongest and hotly contested tournaments. To win it without much difficulty was very pleasing."

About his brilliant victory in the final game at the Mainz against the World champion Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine, he said he enjoyed it. "That game was very nice. I decided to play aggressively and risk a bit and it worked out very well.'

Anand had surprised his opponent with a Queen's Gambit opening in that game. "He had come armed to the teeth against 1. e4 and his improvement in game six was hard to deal with in a short time," he explained. "So I wanted to surprise him. This year was my first chance in a while to play a new and dangerous rival. (the others are 'old acquaintances!') Ruslan is a tough opponent and I needed to understand his style."

Anand is keenly looking forward to the World Cup. "I hope to do well and give it my best shot," he said.