Unanimous choice

LAST year, Viswanathan Anand played chess like Roger Federer played tennis. If you go by the tournament record, he fared even better than Federer.

P. K. AJITH KUMAR

LAST year, Viswanathan Anand played chess like Roger Federer played tennis. If you go by the tournament record, he fared even better than Federer.

P.V. SIVAKUMAR

If there were an Oscar award for tennis for 2004, that magician from Switzerland would've received four out of the five nominations (the remaining one should go to Marat Safin, for having the courage to think of — and then actually — beating him in the Australian Open). Federer, of course, was named the World champion of 2004 by the International Tennis Federation.

In chess, though, there is an Oscar. And if it were to be announced after shortlisting the nominations, well, there was no second thought in chess last year; it was Anand all the way.

For the record, Garry Kasparov was Anand's nearest rival (but `near' was never this far). The great Russian — and he is considered the best of all time — finished runner-up because somebody had to.

Of the 445 chess pundits who chose the Oscar winner last year, 279 voted for Anand. Just 60 thought Kasparov was the best (why they thought so would remain one of the mysteries of our time).

But even those die-hard Kasparov fans had to admit that the Indian was one of the best players of the year. You don't have to be on the top of every voter's list to get points (that would determine the winner) in the selection procedure of the Chess Oscar. Each chess expert will rank the players from 1 to 10 — 13 points for No. 1, 11 for No. 2, nine for No. 3 and so on. So even if you are ranked 10th, you will be awarded one point. Anand scored 5205 points and he made it to the top 10 of all the pundits (from 75 countries). Kasparov's score was 3664 and Hungarian Peter Leko's 3485. (See box for the complete list of the Oscar nominees).

For the last one decade, the Oscar has been awarded by the Russian chess magazine `64'. But the award's history dates back to 1968 when Russia's Boris Spassky (World champion, 1969-'72) won it in the inaugural year.

This is the fourth Oscar for Anand and he's become the first non-Russian to win it for more than three times. His first Oscar was in 1997 and he retained it the following year. Then he collected his third one last year.

He was an overwhelming favourite last year too, but the latest has been the most widely expected one of all his four Oscars.

For, the year 2004 was truly incredible for him. Just look at his tournament record. Played: 7. Titles: 7. Even Federer wouldn't mind having such a record.

It was at Wijk aan Zee, a quite town in the Netherlands, where Anand began his amazing campaign of 2004, as he retained the Corus title. Shortly after that, he moved to Bulgaria and beat the local hero and the current World No. 3 Veselin Topalov in a match.

Monaco was his next stop. He won the rapid title in the Melody Amber and finished third overall. That was followed by his twin success in Germany, at Dortumnd and Mainz, where he inflicted another defeat on Alexei Shirov.

Having conquered Europe, he set his eyes on the American continent and won the Sao Paulo rapid tournament in Brazil with ridiculous ease, by a three-point margin. He did no harm to his reputation as the world's best rapid player in the remaining tournaments of the year, either. He crushed the opposition at Corsica on his way to his fifth title in as many years. He drew his first game and won the next seven. Then, believe it or not, he got even better. At the Paul Keres tournament in Estonia, he won all his five games, finishing 2.5 points ahead of the second-placed Alexander Khalifman of Russia. He thus signed off the year in great style, just as the way he began it.

Also during the year, he led India to its best ever placing in the Chess Olympiad — he returned to the team after a gap of 12 years — and a Rest of the World side to victory against a formidable Armenian team under Kasparov.

Anand dominated the sport in 2004 the way only Bobby Fischer and Kasparov did in the past.

The Chennai champ himself admitted it was a great year.

"I just won everything I played. That is an awesome feeling," he had said looking back at one of the most memorable years of a two-decade-old career. The Oscar was hardly a surprise to him either, but he was happy nevertheless. "Chess has historically been seen as a Russian game and I think as an Indian to win the award four times over it is indeed a great feeling."

Anand may not have had the best of starts to the New Year, as he failed to win either of the two classical tournaments he's played so far — at Wijk aan Zee and Linares — but he's bounced back to top form with a splendid show at the Amber tournament in Monaco, where he claimed, for the second time, all the three titles. Annihilating the competition, he proved yet again that he's indeed the King of Monaco, and of rapid chess, too.

This year could also see Anand becoming the World No. 1. Kasparov holds that position at the moment, though he quit competitive chess after claiming the Linares title recently.

Had the world chess governing body FIDE's rating system been more been scientific, Anand would've been the No. 1 last year itself. There isn't of course a better or more deserving player than him to taker over from Kasparov, who's been the No. 1 for the last 20 years.

Garry is 41 now and he showed at Linares that age hardly matters in chess. Anand is only 35 and over the last two years has been playing some of the best chess of his life. He could very well reign as the No. 1 for quite some time.

An Indian being the World No. 1 in a truly global and competitive sport? It may sound rather unfamiliar of course, but it sounds wonderful, doesn't it?

Oscar 2004: how they fared 1. Viswanathan Anand (Ind) 5205 points. 2. Garry Kasparov (Russia) 3664. 3. Peter Leko (Hun) 3485. 4. Vladimir Kramnik (Rus) 3344. 5. Rustam Kasimdzhanov (Uzb) 2088. 6. Veselin Topalov (Bul) 1858. 7. Vassily Ivanchuk (Ukr) 1398. 8. Michael Adams (Eng) 1378. 9. Alexander Morozevich (Rus) 1128. 10. Alexander Grischuk (Rus) 868. 11. Peter Svidler (Rus) 366. 12. Alexei Shirov (Esp) 287. 13. Etienne Bacrot (France) 214. 14. Andrei Volokitin (Ukr) 167. 15. Rafael Vaganian (Arm) 165.