Viswanathan Anand had to make some late changes to his itinerary last month. He had planned a holiday in Kerala along with his wife, son and close family friends from Spain, where he lived for the better part of his career.
Then came the world chess governing body FIDE’s announcement that the World rapid chess championship would be held at Riyadh in the last week of December. He decided he would give it a miss, but Aruna, his wife who also doubles up as his manager, felt otherwise.
“I thought Anand should play at Riyadh; I knew that he hadn’t done well in the last couple of editions of the World rapid championship, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t do better this time around,” says Aruna. “I also knew that he was upset with his disappointing performance at the London Chess Classic, the last event he played before Riyadh. I still felt that he should go for the World rapid championship.”
Managers might not be right all the time, but wives, it seems, most of the time are. So Anand boarded the flight to Riyadh, while Aruna took another, to Kochi, along with the friends from Corsica.
About a week later, Anand joined them at Kumarakom, a popular tourist destination in central Kerala, as the new World rapid chess champion. Aruna was a tad disappointed that she could not be there at Riyadh to share the happy moment.
“I was with him when he won all his previous World championships, including the five classical titles,” says Aruna. “And it would have been nice if I had been there at Riyadh, as well.”
Had she gone, she could have witnessed her husband winning not just the World rapid title, but the bronze medal at the World blitz championship as well. It indeed was five unforgettable days for Anand at the Saudi Arabian capital.
He played 38 games, and lost just one. That would have been an amazing feat for a player in the prime of his career. For someone to do it at the age of 48, it was quite stunning.
After the debacle in London, where he tied for the last place, it was with modest ambitions that Anand went to Riyadh. Though he had begun well, the early part of the tournament had belonged to Vladimir Fedoseev, the man whom he would beat in the mini- match to win the title.
The 22-year-old Russian had began with four wins in a row. But, Anand had shown that he was in form too, with a superb victory, featuring some eye-catching sacrifices, against Hungarian Peter Leko in the second round.
Then, in the ninth round, he came across Magnus Carlsen, the world’s best player by some considerable margin and the man he had lost to in the last two World title matches he contested, in 2013 and 2014. It was time for payback, finally.
Anand won, but there was a still long way to go in the tournament: 12 rounds remained to be played. “That win against Carlsen was special,” he says. “I was playing with black pieces and it came with a big margin. It was also important given the history of my games against him.”
The most crucial victory, however, he said, came in the penultimate round, against Russia’s Alexander Grischuk in the penultimate round. In the final round, his opponent was Bu Xiangzhi of China.
Taking a chance
A draw would not have ensured him the title, as Carlsen could have won the title if he could beat Grischuk in the final round. Yet, Anand took a chance, deciding against overstretching himself, splitting the point with Bu.
“In general, when you are black, with my kind of solid repertoire you leave things to your opponent; he went for the most solid line and offered a draw,” he explains. “There wasn’t much I could do. I could have gone all out in the last round; I knew where I was coming from. I felt, ‘if Carlsen wins, that is fine’. But within five minutes I saw he was getting into trouble against Grischuk.”
Now, Anand went through a short period wondering whether he would be playing in the tie-breaker to decide the champion (if some other player had caught up with him on 10.5 points) and, if that was the case, who his opponent might be.
“The thing is I was waiting for 40 minutes to see the result of the Carlsen game to find out if I would be playing tie-breaker or not; it was like I might play Carlsen I might not play Carlsen,” he says. “By the time that game finished, with a defeat for Carlsen, Ian Nepomniachtchi had won against Wang Ho and Fedoseev had defeated Vladilsav Artemiev.”
Even as those thoughts were going in his mind, the arbiter told Anand that he was going to play Fedoseev. Nepomniachtchi had also finished with 10.5 points, but his fellow-Russian and Anand had better tie-breaker scores.
“There were thousands of people moving around the hall and I hardly had time to think before the final match,” says Anand. “I just took a deep breath and was ready to take on Fedoseev. I knew he was a player who gave you chances even as he created them for himself.”
Anand won the match 2-0 to claim what was his first World title after triumphing at the World championship (the classical variety) in 2012. He was very much the favourite then against his rival Boris Gelfand of Israel as he played for his fifth World title.
At Riyadh, though, Anand, seeded 12th, wasn’t among the favourites by any stretch of imagination, but given his reputation as the Lightning Kid for the speed with which he made his moves, especially when he was younger you would have had to be very brave to rule out his chances completely. It is, however, also true that he had reached Riyadh in awful form.
Proving his critics wrong
And some people, including senior Indian players, had even gone on record that it was time for Anand to quit. This, though, wasn’t the first time that he was proving his critics wrong.
After his disappointing loss to Carlsen in the 2013 World title match in Chennai, his hometown, many were eager to write him off. This writer, who had covered that match, wasn’t among them.
What happened in Chennai was that Anand had underestimated himself even as he overestimated Carlsen. The match wasn’t anywhere as one-sided as the 6.5-3.5 scoreline indicated; it was some terrible blunders that decided the match, more than anything else.
After Chennai, very few would have betted that Anand would win the strong Candidates tournament at Khanty-Mynsk in 2014 and earn the right to meet Carlsen for the title once again. But, he did, as he came up with one of the best performances of his long career.
“Riyadh was quite like that Candidates tournament, in fact,” says Anand. “When it was all over, it felt great to reflect that I could have the title World champion before my name once again. This success has come at a time when I needed it.”
He said he didn’t bother too much about his critics. “When I have a slump in form, I wonder how I should go about it,” he says. “I don’t think about what others might be saying about me all the time.”
But, after Riyadh people were talking only about the way he reinvented himself to win a World title, much like tennis legend Roger Federer. Anand says he was moved by the messages he received from his supporters after his victory.
“It is nice to have people rooting for you, but you have to give them something to root for,” he says. “I am happy that I could make so many people happy.”
Anand says he is also very likely to play at the Chess Olympiad, to be held at Batumi, Georgia, after a long gap. His presence would strengthen the Indian team considerably and bolster its medal chances.
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