Last man standing

Viswanathan Anand proved his detractors wrong in winning the Candidates tournament.-R. RAGU

In the Candidates tournament, Viswanathan Anand reproduced the form of old to ensure the title with a round to spare. His opening-round victory over Levon Aronian set the pace, and he never trailed for the rest of the competition. By Rakesh Rao.

Recently dethroned World champion Viswanathan Anand, written off after his ordinary run of results for the better part of the last four months, silenced his detractors, choosing his time to make the right move.

The 44-year-old produced a series of rock-solid performances during the World Candidates chess championship to beat an elite field and earn a re-match for the World title against Magnus Carlsen.

In November last, the 23-year-old Norwegian outsmarted the five-time World champion in Chennai, to justify why he was the highest rated player in chess history. Anand lost three times and remained win-less in 10 games. It was evident that the veteran could not execute his plans and the challenger outfoxed him in more areas than one.

Non-committal about playing in the Candidates championship (where a select field of eight players battles to decide the challenger to the World champion) in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, Anand played in London within a fortnight of that painful loss to Carlsen. His results were below par, considering his reputation of being amongst the best in rapid chess. In January-February, Anand played in Zurich, in all three formats, and again his performances were far from inspiring.

The ever-so-cynical chess world was already writing him off as a man past his prime. His age, the added family responsibilities following the birth of his son, Akhil, the resultant lack of motivation over the chessboard, etc, were part of the reasons assumed for the Indian’s steady decline.

In fact, since regaining the World title in 2007 (first won in 2000), Anand had cut down on tournament-play. He concentrated more on the World championship, which was back on the time-tested match-play format. Many accused him of being serious only about the results of title-matches and hiding his “preparations” in the few tournaments he chose to play.

But Anand’s successful defence of the World title against Vladimir Kramnik (2008), Veselin Topalov (2010) and Boris Gelfand (2012) silenced his detractors.

So, when Carlsen played to his form and ranking to wrest the World title from Anand, criticism came thick and fast.

Therefore, when Anand chose to be part of the Candidates (qualifying by virtue of being the runner-up at the World championship match), none of the experts gave the oldest player in the fray any chance of winning. Bookmakers’ favourite was World number two Armenia’s Levon Aronian, closely followed by third-ranked Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik. Like Kramnik, the field also had another World champion in Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov.

Russia’s Sergey Karjakin (qualified as per World rating list) and Azerbaijan’s Shakhriyar Mamedyarov (Grand Prix runner-up) were considered unpredictable performers. Peter Svidler, the organising committee’s wildcard entrant, and the lowest-ranked fellow-Russian Dmitry Andriekin (World Cup runner-up) were expected to pull off a surprise or two.

Therefore, the field was much like the 10-man field seen in 1991 at the Reggio Emilia tournament, the strongest of the time. Anand, the only non Russian-speaking player back then, emerged on top in a field that included the likes of Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik.

In the Candidates tournament, Anand reproduced the form of old to ensure the title with a round to spare. His opening-round victory over Aronian set the pace, and he never trailed for the rest of the competition. His victories over Mamedyarov and Topalov consolidated the lead. Aronian, who caught up with Anand midway through the championship, fell back after his ninth-round loss to Memedyarov. Concurrently, the defeats of Kramnik and Topalov also made things easier for Anand as he enjoyed a one-point lead with five rounds to go.

Kramnik’s loss to Svidler in the 10th round put him out of reckoning, but Karjakin slowly emerged as the unlikely challenger to Anand. The 13th round proved decisive as Andreikin ended Aronian’s outside chance before Anand hung on to a 91-move draw against Karjakin to take the winning lead.

Anand’s steady form, coupled with the inconsistency of other contenders left the Indian a runaway winner.

“Certainly, I am very happy, pleasantly surprised with how I played and my results. Before the tournament I had no idea what to expect, but it went ridiculously well,” summed up a joyous Anand.