When Viswanathan Anand arrived in Goa in 1983 to participate in the National Sub-Junior Chess Championship, he was a non-entity — just one among the several contestants. But in a matter of days, he became a star, after having demolished the challenge. He followed it up with victories in the National Junior Championship and the National Team Championship. He was all of 13 years of age then. In the three decades since he became a Grandmaster, he has won five world championship titles and numerous other tournaments.
Of course, those were days when Anand was still not the Anand. But from all accounts, he has not changed much even after becoming an international star.
That he is a sports icon, goes without saying. But Anand is more than that. In his decades-long career in chess, he has demonstrated every commendable feature of a leader of substance. This includes going for the kill when the momentum is in one’s favour, accepting defeat with grace without looking for excuses, complimenting rivals, forgiving if not forgetting acts of betrayal, and standing firm on principles even when odds are stacked against.
I have fond recollections of my interaction, though limited, with this great yet humble personality. Of course, those were days when Anand was still not the Anand. But from all accounts, he has not changed much even after becoming an international star. I was the joint secretary of Goa, Daman & Diu Chess Association when Anand came to play the Sub-Junior Championship in Goa in 1983. He was based in Vasco da Game, a town some thirty kilometers away from the capital city of Panaji where the tournament was held. Since I too lived in Vasco those days, Anand and I would often take the same bus to Panaji from Vasco for the matches. We would exchange a few words; he spoke little and was immersed throughout the hour-long journey in chess books. He was lean and wiry, and courteous to a fault. At times, he would be accompanied by his mother.
There was no pressure on him as he faced his rivals on the chessboard. Nobody had heard of him and nothing was expected of him. He had a habit of biting his nails while contemplating a move. As he piled up wins in round after round, suddenly everybody — the crowd and the other contestants — began to notice him. By the end of the tournament, he was both a victor and the talent to watch out for. There was no looking back from then on. He became the country’s first Grandmaster, the first to win a world championship, and the first to register international wins in all formats of the game — classical, rapid and blitz.
I recollect that in the National Junior Championship, all eyes were on Dibyendu Barua, the prodigy. Most people were expecting Barua to take home the title. But it was Anand who did, after having drawn his game with Barua. Suddenly, it was not Barua but Anand who became the toast of the nation. While Barua too would subsequently become a Grandmaster, it was Anand who would take the world by storm.
He speaks of his rivalry with legends such as Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov, politics that is played out in international chess, and friendships he struck with a few international players.
Anand revolutionised chess in India, triggering a massive interest in the game. Some credit for the subsequent crop of Grandmasters that the country has produced should go to him. The negative part, if it can be called that, is that Anand, with his international commitments round the year, had little time to devote to the growth of domestic chess. Thus, while he was bringing laurels to the country by his exploits across the globe, Indian chess was wracked by internal wrangling and mismanagement. The All India Chess Federation became a victim of turf battles between players and the management. If despite these crises, India has produced players of brilliance over the past decades, it is due to the fact that chess is an individual game and dedicated and talented players were able to shut themselves off from the chaos surrounding them and concentrated on their game.
Anand has authored a recently published book. Titled Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life, it is as candid and self-effacing as the man himself. He speaks of his rivalry with legends such as Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov, politics that is played out in international chess, and friendships he struck with a few international players. What comes out clearly also are the close bonds he shared with his parents and the way his life changed for the better after marriage and on becoming a father. But perhaps the most wonderful are the lessons that readers can absorb from the autobiography — how to cope with defeats and keep a cool head in victory. What goes into the making of a star is often forgotten in the dazzle of public adulation. Anand writes poignantly in his book: “When he (Anand’s son) looks up at the medals and trophies that now rest in glass cases in our living room in Chennai, I want him to know that each has its own story of battle and perseverance.”
What also comes out in the book is the philosophical side of a man who has seen many ups and downs in his illustrious career. He writes: “I can’t recall the first time I felt old… When you are young, it’s easy to ascribe a spate of poor results to nothing more than performance clefts. But as I progressed into my mid-forties, such explanations became implausible… The damning bit was that I struggled to remember details… I’d never felt this kind of a lull before.”
Here is another of those thoughts, in his words: “I increasingly feel that just as when I was younger and I couldn’t imagine what life would be like when I would be older, I now seem to have little memory of what it felt like to be youthful and vastly more successful. In the end, I suppose, you remember stories you want to remember.”
How true. But we shall always remember the Anand for the champion that he was — and is, even today, in many ways.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.
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