Is it time for Anand fans to look away? At the end of the Classical leg at Zurich this week, the 44-year-old had won just one of his last 15 games. It is not going to get easier either. Up next is the Candidates tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, which will determine reigning champion Carlsen’s challenger for the world title in November.
Admittedly, Anand has played only higher ranked opponents in the 15-game-stretch (11 against Carlsen), but that will not mitigate the disappointment of the results. Anand will head to Russia without form or confidence in his corner.
In fact, reports suggested that Anand’s participation in the Candidates tournament was not foregone, despite his direct-entry by virtue of being last year’s finalist. He may have had a think, but in the end Anand decided to give the Candidates a shot. His relucatance and eventual concession are understandable.
The championship cycle demands a player’s complete devotion, to the exclusion of the tournaments that dominate the chess calender. Anand has been a part of the cycle from 2007, when he was 37 and first crowned the undisputed champion. He has since defended his title thrice more, established himself as a great. Whether he would want to put himself through the grind again — considering his age and the current competition, it is surely not a percentage play— was what he would have considered.
That said, Anand will not start a total outsider in Russia. The Candidates field is a little diminished compared to last year, mainly because Carlsen, as champion, is not part of the qualifying tournament this time. Of those ranked above him at Russia, Anand has defeated Kramnik and Topalov convincingly before, in championship finals no less. It is the red-hot Aronian, who this month became the third highest rated player ever, that may prove the biggest challenge.
A loss in the Candidates, though it has the potential to end his championship ambitions for good, will not be the end of the road for Anand. Chess provides a greater leeway for the ageing practitioner than do most other sports — Karpov played competitive chess well into his 50s. There are no grand exits in chess but only a gradual fading out. Anand will rage against the dying light for a bit longer.
Raakesh is a principal correspondent based in Delhi