Spawning winners

Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand has single-handedly raised interest in a sport that hitherto held the profile of a pomfret looking to avoid the local shark clan, writes VIJAY PARTHASARATHY.

IT IS difficult to pinpoint the precise moment when a long marginalised, motley bunch of knights, bishops and foot-soldiers, lurching forward under the banner of a willful queen and a weak king, resolved to reconquer modern India. Perhaps it does not matter. But a country that was sleeping off a colonial hangover has woken up suddenly, if not to the prospect of new rulers, at least to the possibility that life exists beyond that singularly spiffy pursuit known as cricket.

At age 18, Viswanathan Anand was thrust in the position of General, in charge of planning this unlikely invasion — not that his assent was sought or anything. His partiality for swift combinations notwithstanding, he is no Che Guevara aggressively manufacturing a cause and then promoting it among the masses through the sheer force of his charisma: the bespectacled Grandmaster with the schoolboy-earnest look hardly seems the kind to seek glory in lost causes.

Contrary to all expectations, however, today Anand, 35, has emerged as the rare one-man revolution that has truly succeeded in effecting change. Single-handedly, the general opinion holds, he has miraculously raised interest in a sport that hitherto held the profile of a pomfret looking to avoid the local shark clan.

Anand himself would most likely protest against any attempt to deify him. Manuel Aaron became India's first International Master in 1961, but more than a quarter of a century passed before an Indian would complete a third GM norm. As the country's first Grandmaster, Anand was elevated to God-like status — and, while he didn't exactly generate the mass hysteria that Tendulkar did, he still had his admirers — but it was a while before closet chess freaks began to emerge in public. It can be argued that Anand's role here was limited to that of a catalyst; that his ascension to the said position — and it might easily have been anyone else's — merely accelerated the pace at which serious players were subsequently produced.

Besides, the modern-day renaissance of a sport that was invented centuries ago, and was once a fashionable pursuit among royalty across the country, owes a great deal in equal measure to circumstance and good old-fashioned luck. Television and the internet have of course in the past decade exponentially increased access to information and raised awareness levels particularly among the middle class; the medium's need to discover new heroes and promote new images has made marginal sports commercially more viable to the point that some can now be fairly deemed as mainstream. Among these counts chess, a mind sport that requires little financial investment in comparison to say, a game like tennis, which in this country arguably remains an upper-class sport.

"Chess used to be elitist when it was played in royal courts," Anand says. "But a set is cheap by today's standards, certainly more affordable than tennis equipment. It's a mind game, sure, but again you don't need to be particularly brilliant to start playing. And, it's a fact that playing chess develops cognitive abilities." His logic is obvious: once one got over the intellectual elitism, by making chess accessible to millions the odds of spotting players with GM potential would increase significantly. The Soviets cultivated millions of chess players from all over the Union in their Pioneer clubs; they eventually dominated the sport for three decades in the mid-to-late 20th century.

Anand points out that whichever country has produced great champions has a history of generating a mass base of players. "In India," he says, "the best way is to take chess to government schools in every state." It's something he aims to do through the NIIT academy he is linked with; according to Anand, already some 70,000 kids have signed up to play.

India had no Grandmasters until less than a mere two decades ago; at the last count it had 12, by no means an insignificant number. Curiously enough, the progress has been charted during a period of crisis when chess as an organised sport threatened to break down. FIDE, the sport's governing body, has had to deal with revolt and a series of alternate cycles — first came PCA, then WCA and finally Braingames — for over 10 years, and its legitimacy now hinges desperately on its ability to organise a credible world championship at San Luis, Argentina, in September. The chaos didn't impede the charge of the Indian brigade but it affected the career-paths of the top GMs — players like Nigel Short and Anand, who played Garry Kasparov for the PCA cycle world title and lost.

It is difficult to grasp the political implications had, say, Anand managed to defeat Kasparov, the first and only player to have achieved a FIDE rating of 2800, in a world title play-off during that period. Certainly the Russian's credibility would have taken a beating (as has occurred in the case of Vladimir Kramnik these past few years), his bargaining power would have been significantly depleted; his stab at chess politics would have drawn as much blood as a rubber knife. That Kasparov remained afloat through those troubled years stands testimony to his greatness as a strategist, to his ability to conceive of stunningly far-sighted winning solutions from a known lost position. There is no denying it, evidence of which was never in clearer display than when he stung Anand senseless in four games out of five immediately after losing the first decisive game in their '95 match.

Vladimir Kramnik ... a fallen hero.-

Any sport thrives on its greatest personalities and the reverse is equally true; but men like Kasparov, Muhammad Ali, Imran Khan and Ayrton Senna proceeded in their time to transcend their respective disciplines. The clich�, "nobody is bigger than the game" in their case strikes as somewhat dubious.

Indeed now, there is the entirely valid fear that Kasparov's recent retirement could dampen spectator interest in the sport. It must be said, Anand in comparison appears to lack the effervescence, the spark of chutzpah which builds mascots out of men, icons out of mere celebrities — he is media-savvy, alright, but in a measured, erudite sense; and definitely not in the attention-grabbing, eccentric pop-star kind of way, which ironically is regarded as a requisite in modern public relations. That is not to say the widely respected Indian GM is not a continuing source of inspiration to his countrymen — only, Anand, unlike Kasparov, has to his credit steadfastly refused to market himself outside his sphere. (For one, it is unlikely Anand would ever pose as a right-wing politician, but that is grist for another story.)

Anand, who lives for the most part of the year in Spain, remains in touch with the growing breed of Indian GMs through email. "I'm regularly in contact with guys like (Grandmaster P.) Harikrishna," he says. "Sometimes we discuss specifics, like endings: I might put him on to the relevant literature or offer him my perspective. But in chess there's only so much to discuss verbally, so mainly I offer them moral support."

This moral support proved of great value recently in the case of the well-documented controversy that arose when the All India Chess Federation, under its former President, P.T. Ummer Koya, demanded that players surrender 10 per cent of their winnings to the administration. When the issue threatened to radically polarise players against the AICF, Anand stepped in on behalf of the players. "I felt it was extremely unfair," Anand explains. "The administration ought to have offered support to junior players instead of taking their money; so I decided to back the players on the issue.

"Obviously, I wouldn't have been affected if the AICF had decided to write a letter to organisers in Europe asking them to ban me from their tournaments; and I felt strongly enough about the issue to want to lend my name."

Anand's reputation anywhere in the world as an all-time great is now virtually secure. Here, his legacy will pass on to the subsequent generations of players like Harikrishna, Koneru Humpy and, now, Srinath Narayanan and Sahaj Grover.

It almost appears these days as if chess prodigies in India are bred, not accidentally discovered. As kids take to a board-game in droves; the message spreads: geek is cool. They might never match his brilliance; yet Anand's job, the one that he commenced at 18, is complete.