Where are Anand’s successors?

Viswanathan Anand... can he win another World title?-AP ?

Even as Viswanathan Anand continues to defy his age, P. K. Ajith Kumar examines how the other bright Indian talents have fared on the global stage and what the future holds for Indian chess.

If you take a close look at the world chess governing body FIDE’s latest ranking list, you would find that four of the top 10 were born in the 1990s and three in the 1980s. Two others were born in 1975. Then there is one, just one, who was born in the 1960s. Strangely, it is that man who challenged for the World title in the last two years, not any of the much younger guns.

That man, Viswanathan Anand, at 45, is ranked No. 3. A month ago, he was No. 2.

If you want to find another Indian name in the list of the top 100, you would have to look further down. At No. 25 you would see Pendyala Harikrishna, and then Parimarjan Negi at 73.

Negi is only 22, but he has taken a break from professional chess to pursue higher studies at Stanford, United States. “He was one player I had high hopes about,” says veteran Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay. “When I looked at his games as a kid, I found that was mature, way beyond his age.”

Chess remains Harikrishna’s prime focus, though. “But I don’t think it would be easy to break into the World top 10,” says R. B. Ramesh, a Grandmaster who has turned into one of India’s more successful coaches. “Not that he (Hari) doesn’t have the talent, but chess is becoming increasingly competitive at the top level; his rating, which is pretty good at 2733, is not enough to get invitations for closed tournaments. It was by playing in such tournaments as a youngster that Anand was able to improve as a player.”

Koneru Humpy went out in the quarterfinals of the women's World Championship in Sochi this year, after winning her first six games on the trot.-AP

It would be a long time before India sees another world beater like Anand, Ramesh feels. “We see a lot of talented young kids in our domestic tournaments, but the question is: are we doing enough to nurture them properly?” he says. “Chess, these days, is an expensive sport. Finance, I find, is a major hurdle for several brilliant young kids.”

Ramesh knows it very well. He coaches Aravind Chithambaram, the most exciting prospect in Indian chess for a long time but who needs sponsors badly. “He comes from a very humble background and he cannot even dream of hiring foreign coaches or playing tournaments abroad without sponsorships,” he says. “He has the potential to be a very, very strong player.”

Then there are also young kids like Nihal Sarin and R. Pragnananda. “What we have to do is to identify such extraordinary talents and train them properly from a young age,” says Ramesh. “We could have Grandmasters giving them around 20 training sessions in four or five cities in India. Of India’s Grandmasters, only I have retired to become a full-time coach. I am sure other Grandmasters too would be willing to coach if they are paid well.”

So we will have to wait for a while before we see another Indian, apart from Anand, in a men’s World Championship match. The possibility of an Indian woman being crowned the World champion cannot be ruled out, though. Koneru Humpy could still do it, though she has flattered to deceive at the World Championship on quite a few occasions.

Yes, the gap between Humpy and World champion Hou Yifan might be getting bigger, but she has had her chances and she would get a few more. The World No. 1 from China had pulled out of this year’s World Championship in Sochi (Russia) and Humpy, the second-best active female player, was the firm favourite, but she went out in the quarterfinals after winning her first six games on the trot.

Rising star... Aravind Chithambaram.-R. RAGU

“I feel Humpy should have been the World champion some four or five years ago,” says Thipsay. “I think she still has the game to become the World champion.”

There is another Telugu-speaking young woman to give Humpy company in the world’s top-20 — Dronavalli Harika, who made it to the semifinals in the Sochi World Championship. She is ranked No. 15.

At No. 45 is Padmini Rout and there is Tania Sachdev, the glamour girl of Indian chess, at No. 60. “I had expected better results from Padmini,” says Ramesh. “Though she has stagnated for a few years, she has started playing well again.”

Padmini was, in fact, the brightest star when the Indian women won a historic bronze medal at the Chess Olympiad in Norway last year. India also continues to be a dominant force at age-group tournaments at the World level. Humpy, Harikrishna and a host of others have been World champions in various age categories, including the prestigious World junior championships. But only Anand has been able to win the crown that matters. And he did it on five occasions.

The last time he lifted the World title was in 2012, when he defeated Boris Gelfand. He wasn’t exactly at his best then; he was even worse against Magnus Carlsen in the 2013 World Championship in his hometown, Chennai. But after that debacle (though he didn’t play as badly as the 3.5-6.5 score would suggest), he bounced back, stunning the pundits who had written him off, by winning the Candidates tournament — the qualifiers for the World title — last year and forced a rematch with Carlsen, pushing behind his much younger rivals like Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura and Levon Aronian.

He may have lost again, this time in Sochi, but it was a much closer match. He had Carlsen in considerable trouble. “With some luck, he could have even won that match,” says Thipsay. “I was speaking to Anand in Mumbai recently and he also sounded pretty pleased with the way he fought. I think he has been playing exceptionally well over the last one and a half years or so.” True. His triumphs in Bilbao and the London Chess Classic and the second place in a photo-finish in Zurich defy his age. And he touched the magical 2800 mark in Elo points recently, for the first time since 2011. No player has performed this well at this not-so-young age. “I could think of Emmanuel Lasker and, in more recent times, Anatoly Karpov,” says Thipsay. “But they were not as strong as Anand at his age.”

Carlsen is way ahead of the rest of the world at the moment, but Thipsay feels it is still Anand who can give him the toughest fight in a World Championship match.

“Carlsen at his best is better than Anand at his best right now,” he says. “But, I would not be surprised if Anand wins another World Championship.”