The world at his feet

Anand started promisingly against Garry Kasparov in the World title match in 1995, but then faded away.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

Viswanathan Anand’s pursuit of the sport’s ultimate prize began with the 1990-93 World Championship cycle, which ended in the quarter-final defeat to former World champion Anatoly Karpov in 1991. Rakesh Rao looks back.

Every generation produces prodigious talents but not all realise the potential reflected in that initial promise. In a country bereft of world beaters in most individual sports, each time a young performer exceeds expectations, the question asked is whether the talent is good enough to bring home the World title.

Viswanathan Anand was one such exceptional talent. The promise he showed at sub-junior and junior levels made the chess world sit up and take note of his extraordinary skills. The 1987 World junior title only reinforced the growing belief in his abilities. In the space of five months, he became the country’s first Grandmaster and ended the year on a high note.

Anand’s pursuit of the sport’s ultimate prize began with the 1990-93 World Championship cycle, which ended in the quarter-final defeat to former World champion Anatoly Karpov in 1991. In 1993, the chess world was split when former World champion Garry Kasparov broke away from the World Chess Federation (FIDE), and floated the Professional Chess Association (PCA). Anand took part in the 1993-95 PCA World Championship cycle and lost the final to Kasparov.

This loss was a shattering one for Anand, who had earlier lost in the concurrently played 1994-1996 FIDE World Championship to Gata Kamsky after reaching the threshold of a quarter-final victory at Sanghi Nagar.

Anand’s second World ‘title-clash’ came against Karpov in January 1998, after he won the knockout phase to emerge as the challenger. An exhausted Anand left Groningen for Lausanne, where a well-rested Karpov eventually prevailed in the two tie-break games.

Anand’s wait for the World title finally ended in 2000. New Delhi hosted the championship before the finalists flew to Teheran for the final. As the top seed, Anand sailed through the knockout format but lived dangerously against defending champion Alexander Khalifman in the quarter-finals. The narrow escape proved a wake-up call for Anand and he overpowered Michael Adams to face Alexie Shirov in the final. An inspired Anand destroyed Shirov 3.5-0.5, with two games to spare in their best-of-six games clash.

In 2001, Anand was dethroned in Moscow where he surrendered to Vassily Ivanchuk in the semi-finals. Thereafter, even as attempts for a unified World Championship continued, Anand took part in the 2005 edition at San Luis. He finished joint runner-up to Veselin Topalov in the eight-player double round-robin format.

In 2007, the battle for the undisputed World champion began in Mexico City, in a similar format seen in 2005. This time, Anand regained the title by remaining unbeaten in an elite field.

Like in 2000, when Anand’s title did not earn him the respect reserved for a World champion; the triumph in 2007 in Mexico City also fell short of silencing his detractors. Many questioned the format to decide the World champion. The chess world, that followed the time-tested match-play format — where the champion faces a challenger — was not convinced that tournament format was the best way to find the World champion.

Viswanathan Anand shakes hands with Boris Gelfand of Israel after defeating him in the FIDE World Chess Championship tie-break match at Moscow's Tretyakovsky State Gallery.-AP

Finally, Anand proved a point in 2008. In the best-of-12 games to decide the world title in Bonn, Anand defeated a previously-unbeaten Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik, the man who had dethroned Garry Kasparov (2000) and kept the crown from Peter Leko (2004) and Veselin Topalov (2006).

The chess World finally had an “undisputed” champion, though officially FIDE had awarded one to Anand in 2007. Having won the title in all three formats — knockout, tournament and match-play — Anand firmly established himself as the first universally accepted World champion since Kasparov in 1993.

But Anand was not done yet.

In 2010, he travelled to Sofia, in trying circumstances, to take on challenger Veselin Topalov. Anand who started with a defeat, defended the title with a victory in the 12th game. In a match for which Topalov is believed to have used ultra high-tech ‘computer clusters’ with mindboggling speeds, Anand found help from Kasparov, Kramnik, Magnus Carlsen and young Anish Giri, a rising GM from the Netherlands.

For Anand, if there was one bastion left to be conquered, it was winning in Russia, home land to several chess greats. Boris Gefland, formerly from Russia now representing Israel, was the challenger in Moscow and an obvious Russian interest ensured that India lost the bid to host the tie.

Anand, considered the favourite due to his superior rating and world ranking, struggled all the way. After six games, Gelfand won the seventh to lead. Anand hit back in the eighth, winning in just 17 moves; the shortest decisive game in the history of World Championship final. Rest of the games were drawn and Anand eventually emerged stronger in the tie-break rapid games.

A fifth World title placed Anand alongside the greats of the game. He now faces a new, young challenger in Carlsen, the highest ranked player in chess history. It will also be a clash where the World champion starts as an “underdog”, a tag he does not seem to mind.