Viswanathan Anand shows the heart of a champion in winning fifth world title
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They trash-talked him, ridiculed him, and wrote him off. They said he had slowed down, lost his flair and chutzpah, and become conformist and traditional in his play. But Viswanathan Anand took on everything the Russian-Israeli chess mafia and his growing band of critics threw at him and emerged on top yet again on Wednesday, winning the world chess title for the fifth time, and shutting up detractors for now.
For sure, they will carp and crib at Anand’s struggle to retain the title, the same way critics put down Sachin Tendulkar when he’s going through a lean patch, or plays conservatively. But these two heroes of India have set such stratospheric standards for themselves that any hint of a slowdown or downturn in form is enough for detractors to write finis to their careers.
However, 42 is not 24; even the greatest don’t have the same reflexes and mindset they when they push 40 — much less in the twilight of a career — that they had in their teens and twenties. But when it comes to the crunch, great champions find a way of winning. The flesh and bones might have sagged a little, but a lifetime of experience and a capacious heart comes into play. That is pretty much what Vishy Anand summoned on Wednesday to win the world title in a tie-breaker after Boris Gelfand, an Israeli challenger from the Russian stable of chess greats, held him to a 6-6 tie in regulation play.
The stakes were enormous. Anand has not been in top form for several months now; he’s given up several titles he routinely won on the chess circuit. He’s also the happy father of a year-old son who is more important than anything on the board. And to top it all, the Russian chess mafia has long been smarting at the loss of the chess crown to the genial Indian after the Karpov-Kasparov combine dominated the game for decades.
Anand has taken on everything they have fired at him from since 2000, including a divided and discredited world title. But since 2007, he had been the undisputed world champion, defeating the Russian Vladimir Kramnik, whom Moscow regarded as the heir to the two Ks, and the Bulgarian Veselin Topalov in 2010.
In each instance, Anand has had to battle not just his opponent, but also a mighty chess establishment, and sometimes even forces of nature. In 2010, he had to drive from Spain to Bulgaria, a distance of nearly 3000 kms across Europe, after the volcanic ash disrupted flights and the (challenger’s) host country refused to delay the start, citing TV rights issues. He got to Sofia just in time — and went on to win.
This time too, the biases were evident. After the two players were tied 6-6 in regulation play, the Russian news agency Ria Novosti ran a preview that, citing ”Russian pundits,” said ”Boris Gelfand is the favorite to dethrone India’s world champion Viswanathan Anand now their title match in Moscow has gone to a rapid chess tie-break.” This, despite Anand’s well-known prowess in rapid and blitz chess.
So even the most cerebral of all sports was not exempt from mind games. In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a giant screen installed in his office to follow the live telecast of the games, often conferring with his former cabinet colleague Natan Sharansky, a chess player himself, about the moves. In Moscow, Sergei Smagin, the Moscow chess federation vice-president, described Anand as being “in terrible shape, which forced him not to play to win, but to struggle all match long,” demonstrating “a tremendous lack of confidence and lot of mistakes.”
The situation is likely to be the same at a tie-break, giving the Israeli better chances to win provided that he copes with nerves, Smagin added.
Smagin hadn’t factored in the heart — the heart of a champion.