Bearding the Bulgarian lion in his own den

After his win over Veselin Topalov, Viswanathan Anand is now being ranked as one of the best of all time by pundits around the world. Should Anand successfully defend his title in London in 2012, he will be in rarefied company indeed, writes Ian Rogers.

Viswanathan Anand's successful world title defence in Bulgaria was, as the Indian champ admitted, the toughest, most intense contest of his career. After 12 draining games, many of them 5-hour plus marathons, Anand came through with victory by a single point, 6.5-5.5.

From the extraordinary start to the match — when Anand was forced to travel for 40 hours overland to reach Sofia on time due to the Iceland volcano cloud preventing air flight in Europe — to the dramatic winner-take-all final game, the advantage see-sawed between the Indian World Champion and the Bulgarian challenger.

“I have almost no match experience in a situation where every result is possible until the last game, and it comes down to nerves,” explained Anand shortly after he had retained his title and pocketed the 1.2m Euro winner's cheque. “We both showed a lot of fighting spirit and also made a lot of mistakes.”

However, the final error was Topalov's; a fatal pawn grab by the local hero three hours into the final game. “When he took my pawn I couldn't believe my eyes,” said Anand. “I knew that either I had missed something or he had just exploded. Fortunately it was the latter.”

At the age of 40, Anand seems to have the hunger and the fitness to rule the world for a few more years to come, even if his recent inconsistency in tournament play shows that the march of time cannot be stopped indefinitely.

Yet, after his Sofia victory, it is not too early to ask, after a career already spanning a quarter of a century where does Anand stand in the hierarchy of the best players of all time?

Anand is clearly India's greatest chess player, by a country mile, and also clearly Asia's greatest.

World Champion from 1963 to 1969, Tigran Petrosian, was geographically Asian, hailing from Armenia, but Petrosian successfully defended his title only once and his tournament record lags far behind Anand.

Anand, with his world title wins under multiple formats, can also lay claim to being the best player of the 21st century.

From his FIDE World Knock-Out Championship win in 2000, to his 2007 world title win under a tournament format, to his two world match title victories in 2008 and 2010 — plus of course his world titles at fast time limits and plenty of tournament victories — Anand has done it all in the past decade.

Anand does not try to dominate the opposition, as Garry Kasparov — most people's pick for the greatest player of all time — used to do, but when he is hunting for tournament victory he is hard to stop.

Since Kasparov's retirement in 2005, Anand has battled for the world's top ranking with Topalov (and very recently Norwegian teenager Magnus Carlsen) but Anand's victory in Sofia has made any comparison between himself and the Bulgarian moot.

However, just as results in Tests, not 50/50 or T20 games, are the key factor in assessing cricketers' reputations, for the chess purist, the only title worth discussing is the world match title.

Here Anand had a major setback, losing to Kasparov in New York in 1995. Anand was already a world class player at the time, with a number of victories to his name against the world number one but, aged only 25, Anand was just too young to appreciate the extraordinary demands a month-long world title match would make on him.

After breezing through the first part of the match, and even briefly taking the lead, Anand collapsed against Kasparov's superior preparation, psychology and practical play.

Circumstances conspired against Anand gaining a rematch in 1999 and it turned out to be 13 years before Anand would have another chance to play for the world match title. Anand had learned his 1995 lesson well and he overwhelmed Vladimir Kramnik — the player who had dethroned Kasparov as match champion in 2000.

For the match with Kramnik, Anand had started putting his team of Grandmaster analysts together a year ahead of time and that team — Denmark's Peter Heine Nielsen, India's Surya Ganguly, Uzbek Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Radoslaw Wojtaszek from Poland — stayed together to help Anand defeat Topalov.

“We worked together as a group in Frankfurt in September/October and then again in February/March of this year,” Anand explained. “Not everything we tried worked. Actually we expected the Topalov of four years ago — a hit-and-run match player — but he stuck to his guns and forced us to change tactics. It was the toughest match of my life.”

“Winning two world title (matches); that's something special,” added Anand after his victory over Topalov and he was right — even legendary names such as Mikhail Tal, Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer could not or would not manage this.

Producing a list of the best players of all time has long been a favourite pastime for chess fans, with opinions differing widely. Should one consider the impact a player has had on his own country's chess scene, e.g. Fischer in the US or Anand in India? Should one give Anand extra points for behaviour and sportsmanship or take them away from multiple match-winner Alexander Alekhine for his Nazi writings? How heavily should being overshadowed by Kasparov for a large part of his career count against Anand?

All these questions have no definite answers — comparing the great 19th century talent Paul Morphy with Anand today is comparing different worlds — but what is clear is that after his win over Topalov, Anand is now being ranked as one of the best of all time by pundits around the world.

Should Anand successfully defend his title in London in 2012, he will be in rarefied company indeed.

* * * A wonderful team

One of the keys to Viswanathan Anand's success over many years, but particularly in his title defence in Sofia, has been his wife and manager Aruna Anand. The two make a wonderful team and evidently are devoted to each other.

Married in 1996, Aruna has travelled the world with her husband, negotiating conditions, coordinating media interviews and supporting him at all his tournaments. However, competing in Sofia posed many new challenges.

Aruna travelled well in advance of the match to the Bulgarian capital, to inspect possible venues and hotels as well as negotiating to ensure that conditions for both players would be equal. Security from outside interference during the games was a high priority for both teams and Aruna organised for a special one-way curtain to be installed which blocked the players from seeing the audience. A mobile phone blocker was also supposed to be installed in the playing hall, but was apparently never implemented.

Prior to the match the hosts made many unusual suggestions, including playing the match in a glass box in the centre of town and banning draw offers, most of which Aruna rejected. “She shielded me well from all the organisational worries,” said Anand, “only telling me about the proposals which she thought I might (conceivably) wish to accept.”

The 40-hour land journey between Frankfurt and Sofia was another time when Aruna's organisational abilities came to the fore and what could have been a nightmare journey turned into a bonding exercise — albeit an exhausting one — for Anand and his team.

Throughout every game in Sofia, long or short, Aruna could be found in the back row of the audience, willing her husband on to victory and, after Topalov, she was the first to congratulate him when the title match was finally decided.

* * * Anand factfile 1969 Born in Madras. 1975 Learned chess from his mother.

1979 Family moves to Manila for a year. Anand builds up a chess book collection by winning prizes on Florencio Campomanes' daily television show ‘Chess Today.'

1984 First of 7 Chess Olympiad appearances for India.

1986 Youngest ever winner of the National Championship. Beats American Grandmaster Nick DeFirmian in London using less than 10 minutes on his clock.

1987 World Junior Champion. Earns Grandmaster title in the same year.

1991 Wins in Reggio Emilio, Italy, the highest category tournament ever held at that time.

1992 Awarded the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna.

1995 Loses first world title challenge to Kasparov in New York.

2000 Wins FIDE KO World Championship, crushing Shirov 3.5-0.5 in the final in Tehran, Iran.

2003 Wins FIDE World Rapid Championship in Cap D'Agde, France.

2007 Reaches world number one ranking for the first time in April, a position he holds until October 2008. Wins FIDE World Championship tournament in Mexico City, and is subsequently awarded the Padma Vibhushan and voted India's greatest sportsman of the past 60 years.

2008 Becomes 15th World Match Champion by defeating Kramnik 6.5-4.5 in Bonn, Germany.

2009 Suffers a dip in form, failing to place in the two classical events in which he competed.

2010 Defeats Veselin Topalov 6.5-5.5 in world title defence.