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Like an epic, the trials & tribulations of a champ
There are three distinctive phases in Viswanathan Anand's chess life. It begins with his ascent to the world stage, his tryst with destiny and his trials until he won the World Chess Championship in 2000;the second phase is from 2000 to 2007 when he came to grips with the realities of professional chess, his phenomenal success as a tournament player until he became the number 1 for the first time;the third phase, undoubtedly the most productive and meaningful, is from 2007 when he became World champion again and retained the title for five years.
In all the phases, there was a common challenge for him, to prove to the world that he belongs to the hall of fame in chess. He had to prove time and again that he deserved to be in the same league as Garry Kasparov, or a Robert James Fischer because his detractors kept finding holes in his achievements even when he was winning the World titles until it seemed to have stopped when he crushed Kasparov's conqueror Vladimir Kramnik in 2008;it stopped only for a while as he was up for his next match against Veselin Topalov and they thought his form had deteriorated and tipped the scales in the Bulgarian's favour.
The tongues stopped wagging for two more years and when Boris Gelfand emerged as a challenger, they sensed the futility of their efforts and adopted a different approach: for once, they projected him as the firm favourite and when the match ended in a tie, they had a chance to have a go at him again...in all these, personal battles, Anand kept his cool, paid little attention to the harsh words and kept on adding numbers to his fan-club, probably not for his prowess on the board but for the great qualities that a true ambassador of chess should possess. In that if he has stolen a march on the great Bobby Fischer or his nemesis Garry Kasparov, it is also a tribute to India because his all-round personality would carry more thrust in taking chess to its desired status as a sport.
TRIAL I: RISE OF THE INDIAN TIGER
The World junior championship is acknowledged as the first stage in a chess great's career in the modern era. Many of them do not reach the level of a challenger nowadays but when Anand won it in 1987, it was immediately noticed in the Western world.
The big names before him on the list of World and World Junior champions included Boris Spassky, Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. The young Indian talent's style was what fascinated the world: he played fast, not just fast, he blitzed his opponents in classical chess and very soon, the Soviets and the Western chess world realised that he was a potential threat to them. Anand made rapid strides between 1987 and 1989 and started getting invitations. When he won the Interzonal in 1989, he was ready for the big fights. But he had a problem which Bobby Fischer had faced two decades before him. The chess world had been dominated by the Soviets and they never entertained a super talent from elsewhere. His first opponent in the World championship cycle was a Russian (Alexei Dreev) who bowed to him in his hometown Chennai but his second opponent, another Russian, Anatoly Karpov was a different proposition.
This was Anand's first major challenge and he learned many lessons in match play in his loss to the former world champion. The Indian went on accumulating rating points with creditable individual tournament performances against Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov. By 1994, he had a second visit in the Fide World championship cycle where he almost beat Gata Kamsky at home but lost in tiebreakers. Lessons learnt, Anand moved on and did better in the Kasparov-cycle. The run was smooth and when he qualified for the summit clash against Garry Kasparov in 1995, he had reached his peak. He threatened to unseat Kasparov when he took the lead and then buckled under pressure. He lost again. More was to follow in his Fide championship run in 1997-98 when he had to play all the qualifying matches in a month and face a fresh Karpov in the title clash. One more lesson and Anand was down in the dumps. The trials and tribulations had made him stronger and in 2000, he did not falter and won the knockout tournament cum match in Delhi/Tehran. It was probably the end of a marathon journey but the trials had just begun....
TRIAL II: TROUBLED WATERS
Anand was World champion but there was a parallel fight on in the chess world. Garry Kasparov played Vladimir Kramnik for a championship title in the classical format and at the end of it the No. 1 lost his status too. It only opened the door to further chaos as Kramnik could claim to be the world champion having beaten the strongest player in the history of the game. Worse, Anand lost in the Fide cycle in 2002 and now a new crop of world champions emerged. Though Anand continued to do well in tournaments, both rapid and classical, questions were asked about his right to be bracketed alongside the champions in the traditional format. His nemesis Kasparov retired, Ruslan Ponomariov became the youngest world champion, a relatively unknown Rustam Kasimdzhanov succeeded him in 2004 and then the unification talks began. In 2006, Kramnik beat Veselin Topalov in classical format to keep the tradition of match play alive but Anand was still in the background, his career dogged by those things which he could not do and someone like Kramnik did by beating Kasparov. When in 2007, Anand won his second world title, this time in tournament format, the knives were out again, asking him to prove his credentials against the more acceptable champion Vladimir Kramnik. The air had cleared, confusion had disappeared and the chess world was ready for the unification match....
TRIAL III: UNEASY LIES THE HEAD...
He was 38 when he prepared for the Kramnik match in 2008. He had to prove again that he was not just a tournament player with that unique style and the Bonn fight was to decide who would emerge as the worthy successor to Garry Kasparov, who was the last undisputed champion. Kramnik was the favourite of all as he had beaten Kasparov and he had the blessings of the chess gods in the classical format. Anand had basically worked behind the stage and the general impression was that he would probably end his career as a big-stage loser as age was against him too. But what followed was a turnaround in his career. He convincingly beat Kramnik, got ready for his defence of the title in 2010 against Veselin Topalov and enjoyed a dream run in his classical world title conquest. Having found a team that jelled with him, he proved that the chess world would not be able to throw anymore names at him... In came Boris Gelfand and he too vanished, though after a grim struggle.
PS: Three classical conquests and everything is over. But in the next one year, fresh names will keep coming up for sure. Magnus Carlsen of Norway, chess history's second-strongest player (in rating) and having a poor score in classical chess against Anand, and Levon Aronian of Armenia, who could not even qualify from the Candidates cycle but interestingly has a huge plus against Anand, and the whole lot of young guns. And you have Kasparov in the background taunting Anand that he is not the No. 1 player while he was both No. 1 and world champion. In a way, all these have helped Anand in redefining his position in the chess world. He will be required to prove as a 44-year-old in 2013 and more if Caissa smiles on him further.
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