Endgame

A year in which Viswanathan Anand played some of the best chess of his career,and yet lost a crown

Written by Jaideep Unudurti | Published: December 29, 2013 4:36 am

2013 was Viswanathan Anand’s professional annus horribilis. It was a year crowded with mis-steps,lost chances and some plain old bad luck. All of which culiminated with Anand losing his crown to Magnus Carlsen in the world championship match held in Chennai last month.

Looking back,the year too was littered with such so-near-yet-so-far moments.

The traditional season opener is the Tata Steel chess tournament in January. The world’s elite grandmasters all make the journey to the tiny village of Wijk aan Zee,which huddles on the gale-infested North Sea coast of The Netherlands. For two weeks,the village becomes the heart of the chess world. Victory here means entry into the rolls of history,for the event goes back to the 1930s.

Anand has won the event a record five times,more than anyone dead or alive,with the first win going back to 1989. This year was the special 75th anniversary edition and it was clear that Anand was highly motivated. He started well but could not capitalise on promising positions,failing to convert his advantages. Still,by the time the last round came along he was set for a decent second place finish. Pitted against the Chinese Wang Hao,he lost horribly. Last-round defeats are the worst way to end an otherwise good tournament,as they give the feeling that all the hard work has been thrown away,after two weeks of intense struggle.

This pattern was repeated later in May,in the Norway Chess event,in Stavanger. After a good start,it looked the Indian maestro had lost his way amidst the twisting fjords. He pulled himself together and chalked up some terrific wins,the dismantling of the Norwegian player Hammer being particularly gruesome. Meanwhile,Carlsen was put in the shade in his native land by the Russian talent Sergey Karjakin,who dominated the event.

It looked like Anand was on course

for a fine finish. His critical last round

opponent was once again the Chinese grandmaster. And once again,Anand lost — he got “wanghaoed”.

Of course,tournament losses,however painful,cannot even be compared to losing the crown. Fighting for your life on the summit of Olympus takes everything out of you. It is a sacrifice that can only be recompensed by final victory.

Losing a world championship does gouge out deep psychic wounds. It is a loss that

scars your soul. Last year in June,I’d talked to Anand just after his triumphant defence against Boris Gelfand in the world championship. As we discussed the match,Anand mentioned a situation where he’d been on the brink of elimination. “I was thinking what it would be like if I lost the match,” he said. It was clear he had mulled over the consequences. “I thought,(in a few days) I would be over it. In a certain sense,you understand it is gone and that is it. And then I thought for a couple of months,it won’t bother me but it’ll irritate me when people keep on bringing it up — oh you lost the match and that kind of stuff. Then you finally hit a phase which,I didn’t know,it could be (three to four months later),you have moved on — and even when people remind you,it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t impact you anymore,there is no emotional connection left. I thought more or less it would be like that.” 

It is clear that this kind of level-headedness,which has served him so well in his career,has helped him now. Anand looks like he has moved on,looking forward to new tournaments and new struggles. Of course,he had been world champion for nigh on seven years. Losing the title is like losing a limb,and there is bound to be phantom pain for a while.

So where does he go from here? There were flashes of lightning amidst the louring clouds. Anand in Wijk played arguably his best game of his life,despatching Levon Aronian in a stunning cascade of sacrifices. His 14th move in particular,was dubbed “the move of the year” by watching experts. He also found time to win the Grenke tournament in Baden,pulling ahead of a clutch of experienced grandmasters.

Even in the world championship,the final scoreline did not reflect the work that Anand had put in. He is still strongly motivated,and has significantly worked on specific aspects,like the endgame. Normally such work takes time to show in your results,but always pays off in the end.

In March,the Candidates tournament will be held in the wilds of Siberia. The winner will go on to challenge Magnus for the title. There is every possibility that Anand will skip the event. He could be done with the world championship,and simply focus on playing tournaments,just enjoying the game. A few more “moves of the year” are still there,waiting to be played. n

Unudurti is a freelance journalist

in Hyderabad

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