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Why this nice guy always wins
Cricket and chess: two sports, two cultures and at two poles in India. Mere hours before India were knocked out of the Twenty20 World Cup, bringing in its wake a veiled attack from skipper Mahendra Singh Dhoni on the IPL and its after-effect on his team, a soft-spoken Indian, weathering all odds, was scripting his own epic in the world of chess.
Viswanathan Anand is not a man of many words, but he will talk to you at length if you can draw him into a conversation on chess, its positions and possibilities. However, when you invite him to talk about the hardships that he had to face in a particular event, he prefers to say very little.
He came to Sofia two weeks back as a weary traveller, having traversed 2,000 km by road over two days after his flight from Frankfurt was cancelled following the disruption of air traffic in Europe. He requested a three-day postponement of his World chess championship match against Veselin Topalov of Bulgaria and was denied, just because he had to go to his opponent's backyard to prove himself again. The Bulgarian treatment was not surprising if you consider the mind-game culture of top-flight chess.
So, without dwelling too much on the handicap at the start of a major event, Anand focused on the championship. He lost the first game, but came back strongly to take the lead and subsequently won the last game with black to keep his crown - in adverse conditions. Our cricketers would fret and fume in those conditions because they are the pampered lot in Indian sport, their loss getting more eyeballs and attention on TV, media and the people's parleys than Anand winning mind games on 64 squares.
What's striking is that Anand has never complained about it. He remains the same individual, even after winning four World championships. He still goes through airports in India without being noticed, by his own admission, and that in his book would probably go down as an advantage, rather than a handicap.
Perhaps, there is a sociological reason for it too. Ask Manuel Aaron, India's first International Master and nine-time national champion, and he would look for a completely different argument. "Chess is not like cricket. One is action sport, the other one is participation sport. You do anything in cricket, it can be watched on TV, so naturally people will follow it," says Aaron. "I don't think if Anand were as eloquent as Garry Kasaprov it would have made any difference to the sport or to him," adds Aaron who feels things would be different only if both the person and the sport were different, citing the inherent weaknesses of chess as a spectator sport.
In a way, this personality trait also helped Anand overcome several obstacles and keep his focus on the sport. "I would say he has only benefited from his quiet nature. He could concentrate on the game and that is why at 40, he is still playing the best chess," notes Grandmaster Koneru Humpy, the world No 2 in women's rankings and a world champion in waiting (in women's ).
If you look at the positions that Anand chose in the match against Topalov, it was clear that he was playing on the weakness of his rival. Anand, the quiet one adopting quiet positions to drive an aggressive Topalov up the wall made for great world championship theatre. But a closer look at his career would reveal that his 'quiet' nature at times became a target for his opponents. Like when he had to qualify from the World knockout tournament to play the title match against Anatoly Karpov in Lausanne in 1997.
Anand never raised a storm when he was tired after the long qualification tournament while a fresh Karpov waited with all his energy. A quip was all that the Indian made; and that too about his own plight, that he was "brought in a coffin" to play Karpov.
Anand's nature never allowed him to get into controversies.
Rewind to 1995 for confirmation. Kasparov was down after Anand struck with white in the ninth game of the PCA (Professional Chess Association) title match in New York. In the next game, Kasparov came back with a demonstration of his arrogance by intimidating Anand - thumping the clock after each move and slamming the door behind his opponent every time he went out to the private area. Anand quietly took all the gamesmanship in his stride and waited for his time.
Aaron would probably recall the National A chess tournament in Kurukshetra in 1986 when all the players except a teenager called Anand (already the national champion) and himself (Aaron was the secretary of All India Chess Federation then and also one of the participants) complained about the playing conditions and boycotted the event. The federation had to change the venue to Tumkur. The world champion is not one to play politics, he would only play chess.
With his gentle image, Anand has been taken for granted by his own people too at least once because he could not say 'no' to the request of a sponsor during the World Championship Candidates matches in Sanghinagar in 1994. Sitting pretty with a 1.5-point lead with two games to go against Gata Kamsky of the US in the FIDE quarterfinals, the organisers wanted to host a party on the rest day and invited Anand, almost celebrating his victory in advance. He obliged while Kamsky skipped the party and the result was a knockout for the 'good guy' after the match went into the tiebreaker.
Anand must have swiftly learned his lesson because in a rematch a few months later, Anand crushed Kamsky in Las Palmas and his friends in Spain (the Pereas) protected him throughout the event, not exposing him to the media at all. After the match, the Pereas made an interesting comment that Indians did not know how to handle their champions (a dig at the Sanghinagar episode) and they wanted to show how it could be done.
If he was just the good guy then, Anand is smarter, wiser and more practical today. His world is chess, and there are no external pulls or distractions - no publicity, no controversies and no issues. He is a billion people's mind champion; and in his own quiet way, the special one.
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