Viswanathan Anand came into the World Rapid and Blitz chess championship feeling a little out of it. Well, it wasn’t surprising that he felt that way – not to him or other chess experts at least. He had blundered his way to last place at the recent London Chess Classic.
As the tournament came to an end, Susan Polgar, an old friend of Anand’s and a former GM herself, said with some authority that she thought the Indian Super GM’s time at the top was over.
“Unfortunately, age spares no one. He is still a very strong player and should play as long as he wants. But I see no chance to ever be world champion or No 1 again,” said Polgar in a Facebook post.
It was a grim prediction, one that irked his many fans but few would have then argued that the ‘Lightning Kid’ was running out of time. A few days later, Anand fell out of the top 10 in the chess world rankings for the first time since 1991. And in his own words, he wasn’t feeling very positive coming into the Rapid tournament.
“I [have] won many world rapid titles but recently I had the feeling it was slipping away,” Anand said after the final day of the rapid tournament. “Honestly I came here hoping for a good performance. I was not even thinking I could win.”
Still, this was rapid chess. Anand had once been the poster boy for the format. It all went back to his days at the Tal Club in Chennai. They would have blitz games where the loser would have to vacate his seat. Anand would win all the games and sit through the night. The speed with which he used to win earned him the title ‘Lightning Kid’.
So, with the expectation off – at the personal level at least – he perhaps allowed himself to go back to the Lightning Kid and played some truly marvellous chess. Chess that showed the child-like joy the 48-year-old still derives from the game.
You have to look at the rapid format a bit differently because in classical chess, one can spend 40 minutes on a position or something and get really deep into it. That is absent in rapid chess. You still think and the games will still make sense but essentially you trust your intuition a bit more. The intuition is born from thousands of hours of practice but still there is some risk involved. It makes it fun in a different kind of way.
As it turned out, Anand came from behind to win the World Rapid Championship in a three-way tie with Ian Nepomniachtchi and Vladimir Fedoseev. Fedoseev and Anand had the better tiebreaks and so played a two-game blitz match, won by Anand.
Anand's Rapid triumph
Read about the whole journey
In doing so, he took over from another 1969-born GM, Vassily Ivanchuk. And just what was it that they were saying about chess and age?
Still, these unexpected wins are important. When the world around you keeps asking you to retire (even if you don’t believe in it), somewhere along the way, it starts to grate on your nerves.
The morning after winning the Candidates 2014 challenge in Khanty-Mansiysk, Anand was up at six and then he pinched himself, just to make sure it was all real. He couldn’t sleep, he was too excited – this was too unexpected and after the hurt caused by his loss to Magnus Carlsen – this was sweet.
The unexpected wins are fuel for the soul. It keeps you going at an age when many believe your time is up. It gives Anand the license to dream – and that is what makes this Rapid triumph so great.
Chess, like any other sport, is a confidence-based one. When you are feeling good, the positive intent shines through and after an ordinary 2017 (he finished last in the Chess Grand Prix and lost in the second round of the World Cup), this might have been just the fillip he needed.
Knowing Anand, this was probably not a statement to the ones that demanded he retire. Instead, this was probably a statement to himself. Who knows, somewhere unexpectedly, he just might find his best in 2018 too.
Given that it is Anand, anything is possible.