Few people in the current generation realise just how difficult it could be to follow chess in India in the 90s. The internet was a luxury. Cable television was in its nascent years. Books were hard to procure and following your favourite player was possible only through newspapers.
But even then the analysis would be limited. Most papers would report the news. A greater analysis of the games, which would lead to greater understanding, was often missing.
However, as Viswanathan Anand, climbed up the ranks after becoming the first Indian to become a Grandmaster in 1988, coverage increased. It still wasn’t as much as a chess enthusiast would have liked, but it was better than nothing.
Then, the 1995 Professional Chess Association’s title match came along. India’s Anand was going to take on Garry Kasparov, the best player of his generation, and perhaps the best player ever. It was to be played on the Observation Deck on the 107th floor of the World Trade Center in New York City. The prize fund was $1,500,000. And best of all, it was going to be shown on good, old Doordarshan.
A chance to watch Anand in action, with good analysis, was too rare to pass up on even though the games often went on into the wee hours of the morning. My elder brother and I were determined to watch it and we set up our tattered chessboard and played along... trying to analyse each move and see if we could follow the lines to their logical end. Of course, the greatest thrill was being able to pick the right move. It was like solving chess puzzles in real-time (with no Stockfish, Fritz, or Chessbase databases to help).
The match, which was to last 20 games instead of the traditional 24, started with eight straight draws (a record for the opening of a world championship match) until Anand drew first blood by winning game nine.
That moment seemed to tick off Kasparov. His preparation for Game 10, with white pieces, was magnificent. He drew level right away and to us amateurs, it had then seemed like Anand had had no way out of it.
Game 11 was seen by many as a chance for Anand to bounce back. He had the advantage of white pieces and a chance to lead the game to a position where he felt more comfortable. But Kasparov pulled a rabbit out of the hat by playing the Sicilian Dragon with black.
Anand still had the advantage but he missed a relatively simple combination and lost. It was a combination that even my brother and I saw but Anand didn’t. After losing Game 9, Kasparov won four of the next five games to effectively end the contest.
The 1995 PCA title match - Game 9 to 14
|Game 9||Game 10||Game 11||Game 12||Game 13||Game 14|
For the 25-year-old Anand, this loss hurt. For all the fans, the loss hurt. Still, my brother and I were hooked. In the 25 years since The Lightning Kid has more than made up for it and as he celebrates his 50th birthday today, it’s hard not to be awed by his achievements.
In very few sports around the world can a starting point be identified, but for India and chess that starting point is Anand.
He held the FIDE World Chess Championship from 2000 to 2002, becoming the first Asian to do so. He then became the undisputed World Champion in 2007 and defended his title against Vladimir Kramnik in 2008, Veselin Topalov in 2010, and Boris Gelfand in 2012.
In 2006, he also became only the fourth player ever to achieve an Elo rating of 2800 and but for a brief period in 2016, when P Harikrishna went past him, Anand has remained the highest-ranked Indian player and perhaps that defines his quest for excellence better than anything else.
But after 2012, Anand ran into the genius of Magnus Carlsen. The 2013 World Chess Championship match was played in his home town of Chennai and by the end of it, the Indian GM was well beaten by a 6.5-3.5 margin. So much so that it took him a while to get back to the chessboard.
But then, somehow, after going through the motions for a while, he seemed to pick himself up again. The joy returned to his chess and he fought his way to beat all comers in the Candidates Tournament and book himself another chance to beat Carlsen.
This time, Carlsen was the champion and Anand was the challenger. It was also the first time the same two opponents met in consecutive World Championship matches since Kasparov played Anatoly Karpov five times between 1984 and 1990.
But despite Anand entering the match in a relaxed frame of mind, Carlsen was just too strong. The Norwegian had a game that just seemed to get the worst out of Anand and he won by a 6.5-4.5 margin. This time, Anand won a game but the rest just didn’t go as he would have imagined.
After this defeat, Anand almost seemed to cut a detached figure, as one driven not by ambition but by the joy he derives from the game. He was still very competitive and beating him was never easy but this wasn’t the same Anand.
He had some good results but most reckoned that he was never going to be world champion or world No 1 again. Still, in 2017, he produced a result that even seemed to shock him – he became the 2017 World Rapid Chess Champion.
“I [have] won many world rapid titles but recently I had the feeling it was slipping away,” Anand had 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.”
And for a while, the halo remained. The triumph seemed to lift Anand, it seemed to allow him to dream again... it allowed India to celebrate him once again but the younger players kept getting stronger and once again, the now 50-year-old settled into a comfortable space.
He is still enjoying the game, he hasn’t put up his feet yet and as he showed in December 2017, one can never count him out. But at 50, he probably looks at the chessboard a little differently now and that’s alright.