It's tough even without Kasparov

Kasparov's exit has not made life easier for Viswanathan Anand. His rivalry with Veselin Topalov is getting really intense, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

VIJAY PARTHASARATHY

PHOTOS: R. RAGU

SOMETIME around 1986, Viswanathan Anand, then a teenager and not yet a Grandmaster, travelled to Moscow to play in a junior tournament. When he arrived, he found his baggage missing. "I had no idea what to do; it was the first time something like that was happening," recalls Anand, as I decline a cup of coffee and instead swill water in the slightly cramped, air-conditioned shack that his agent operates out of. "I could find nobody who spoke English at the airport, and the local Chess Federation people, I later found out, despite promising to help me out, had not even checked with the airline authorities.

"In those days Moscow didn't have departmental stores where I could at least buy some clothes. So I wore the same pair of jeans for a week, played my matches like that," says Anand, who, these days, might be relied upon to contribute the occasional piece, e.g. What the Well Dressed Man is Wearing, to assorted publications such as Milady's Boudoir.

"I wore the same unwashed pair until I finally found someone who understood English. As it turned out, the suitcases had arrived one day after me, but nobody informed me about that. Couldn't have expected anything else, I guess."

Anand and his wife, Aruna, who have resided in Spain for almost a decade, still end up losing baggage regularly enough — the odds guarantee it must happen a few times if you've travelled to almost 45 countries, and to each some ten times — but what distresses him more is that the couple is stopped almost every time before the passport control at Munich airport.

"Happens often in the Schengen zone, and for some reason, almost every time in Munich," he says. "Some plain clothes officer will stop us and ask for some kind of identification, even though the immigration desk is just ahead."

Terrorism has crossed continents; the London blasts have intensified safety concerns and a certain degree of paranoia might understandably prevail. But the point Anand makes is a relevant one: life is seriously messed up when civil liberties must take a backseat to security.

From an outsider's perspective, top-notch sportsmen are a lucky bunch: they get to traipse around the world (mostly at someone else's expense), soak in foreign cultures, and sample different cuisines, party away in indefatigable cities. But the truth is, not every pro gets to do all of that. Like Formula One driver-turned-commentator Martin Brundle observes in Working the Wheel, the life is often far less glamorous than many people may think; and specifically in the case of motor sport, one combination of airport, hotel and paddock can look exactly the same as the next. A tennis star might have visited Roland Garros a dozen times; but chances are, to catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower he'd have to make a trip post-retirement. (And, this isn't really about doing the usual tourist thing, which ironically, a journeyman second-round loser might manage.) Cricketers — not the brightest lot, to begin with — get to tour often enough, but it's asking too much if you expect them to appreciate history (or, for that matter, abstract expressionism) when only a few appear even vaguely aware of their surroundings. This is the modern curse upon the performing professional: his life is reduced to a sequence of never-ending public appearances with barely any time tucked away for personal pleasure.

With Anand, though, things seem different. He and his wife have just returned from a short vacation in Mahabalipuram, where they went swimming offshore and lolled about by the side of a large boat, in life-jackets, and enjoyed themselves thoroughly.

Anand advocates taking chess to the masses. He believes the future of Indian chess lies in government schools.-

Aruna talks fondly of a break the couple once took in Rio de Janeiro, impossible as it sounds, just ahead of a tournament Anand was competing in. "We took five days off, lazed around on the beaches," she says. "That was probably the best vacation we ever had." Such a regular personality is, well, alarmingly uncommon among chess champions, many of whom go off the rails socially and turn notoriously reclusive. Clearly, travelling has broadened Anand's already overarching perspective, and in the course of conversation he proves perfectly capable of discussing everything from the 14th century Spanish history to Israel's oil import policy. It's what makes Anand an interesting interview subject: he can offer an intelligent opinion on almost anything. He is, pardon the language, media-savvy, even.

SPEAKING of travel, Anand has confirmed he will make the journey to San Luis in Argentina towards the end of September to compete for the World championship title, perhaps the first in the while to carry the weight of legitimacy. Ironically, a portion of that legitimacy was earned because Garry Kasparov, possibly the greatest pusher of pawns ever, retired from classical chess earlier this year. In a way, that has significantly depleted the field, and yet, it has, according to Anand, energised the eight current contenders for the title, who all believe they now have a shot. Does he miss Kasparov, I ask. Anand shifts his weight forward and absently fingers a piece on the chessboard that the photographer has set up at the table. "I don't really miss him in a competitive sense," he says after the briefest pause. "I mean, obviously he was undoubtedly one of the greatest; but I simply haven't had the time to reflect on his retirement.

"When you talk of rivals in the direct sense, the differences are usually small. You win against one, but there's always another who could beat you. Once in a while you have a Michael Schumacher or a Roger Federer, who comes along and dominates a sport. But forget rankings, take match results: for a while in 1999 Kasparov was by far the best player on form. Then he got pegged back, got back in a muddle, as others improved.

Anand and his wife, Aruna, who have resided in Spain for almost a decade, still end up losing baggage regularly-

"What I mean is, even without Kasparov, life doesn't get any easier. Just now the rivalry between me and (Veselin) Topalov is getting pretty intense and ultimately it depends on how well you market these new rivalries."

But, Anand admits, interest among casual fans could temporarily dip: "Kasparov's appeal, after all, lay beyond the sport; he's a colourful character." Anand reckons that if one were to go strictly by current form Topalov, Peter Leko and he have the best chances of winning in Argentina. After that, he says, it's up to FIDE to market the sport better.

So, ideally, how ought chess to be promoted; is there a way of getting around the perception that it is inherently an elite sport? "We have to live with intellectual elitism," Anand shrugs. "But it is possible to take chess to the masses. The Soviets proved that with their Pioneer chess clubs: over five million children from practically every city in the Union belonged to them. They did stuff like that not only for chess, but also for gymnastics and athletics. Then there was Mikhail Chigorin (a Grandmaster in Tsarist Russia, who played towards the latter half of the 19th century) who is considered by many as the father of modern Russian chess. He helped inspire the Soviet school of players that dominated the game for some 30 years.

"Whichever country has produced great champions in chess has a history of generating a mass base of players. In India the idea is to take chess to government schools in every state. The NIIT Academy that I am associated with has managed to get 65,000 students to participate in its programme. In our country even if the chances of spotting a Grandmaster are miniscule, even if the percentages are low, the actual numbers in the end will obviously be pretty significant because of the size of the population." Chess players aren't necessarily nerds, he suggests; you don't need to be a swot to play well; on the other hand, playing chess is known to improve cognitive abilities. (That is a reasonable argument — except, at some point, Anand mentions that he is an Asterix comics fan; any hope he might entertain, of dispelling the notion that the best chess players are fundamentally geeky, is instantly dashed when the Grandmaster, smiling smugly, says: "I remember getting all the mathematical puns, like Chief Metrix in Asterix and the Goths, when I first read those comics in the 80s.")

Anand is of the view that one does not need to be a swot to play chess well.-

Elsewhere, Anand continues, the internet has worked miracles for those trying to popularise the game; but in India better use must be made of the television medium. "It's really very similar to the way Formula One functions: at one level you have cars whizzing past. How boring is that? Then some bright chap decided to install cameras inside the car, give the viewer multiple perspectives. Suddenly F1 gets a lot more interesting, doesn't it?

"You have got to be creative. Maybe get better commentators to tell the viewer exactly why a particular move was brilliant, I'm not sure. But it's certainly possible to do something about it. F1 could act as a model for chess."

To Anand, it is inexplicable that instead of speeding up the game, the governing body is debating stretching the classical form. Take cricket for example, he says, you have the one-day format and now something called Twenty20; to hold audience interest the sport is being re-packaged. It's not perfect but the rules are being modified to keep pace with time. "With computers, everything has changed; errors have been more or less eliminated, so the game should get faster," explains Anand. "But quite ridiculously we are making things slower."

ANAND, who is a big fan of Federer's, believes his domination could kill the sport if it lasts too long. "Schumacher destroyed interest in F1 especially last year; it's good to see this rivalry between Alonso and Raikkonen this year," he says. "With Federer, it's like one guy is playing gorgeous tennis while another guy keeps interrupting him. But let's face it, he could end up destroying it. You need two people to make a sport interesting.

"Then again, a quiet guy like Federer doesn't really need to sell himself, his game is so beautiful. But chess is different in the sense the beauty in a move doesn't outwardly manifest, so it's harder to sell it on TV."

Every top player has a responsibility towards marketing his or her sport; but a balance must be struck between the Anna Kournikova brand of PR spin and fulfilling initial potential. "We've learnt from Kournikova's mistakes. The idea is to hit a middle note somewhere, do commercials but never forget that you get to do them only because you can play."

It's interesting isn't it, I remark, how someone like Kasparov is the complete opposite of Kournikova: she doesn't get too far in sport but gets ahead in public life; while someone like Kasparov gets to be the greatest at what he does, then doesn't do so well when he switches careers.

Anand agrees: "I guess it's a kind of compliment in one sense, but he's never going to do as well, as he did in chess. He really was awfully good. In some ways he'll end up like Imran Khan, a great athlete but not-so-successful politician. With his mind, Kasparov might make a fantastic political commentator, but that's it. Politics involves huge masses, and I'm not convinced he has the kind of social skills required."

So, does he think there's a chance Kasparov might return to chess at some point? "Very unlikely," Anand shakes his head. "I doubt he'll even play rapid events, although he's attached a disclaimer clause to his retirement. Starting in early 2002, something in him started to go. He might come back for a huge amount or he could simply be positioning himself for a shot at the World Championship after Argentina happens, without qualifying for anything, but it seems very unlikely.

"But then it isn't like a footballer wanting to return after four years. In chess I think you could take a couple of years off and if you work hard enough, it should be possible," he says. "So we won't rule it out with Kasparov."