Speed was the cornerstone of their games, as Vishwanathan Anand, Leander Paes and Sardar Singh dazzled across three of India’s most loved sports. But as years began chipping away at their blitzy instincts, even a miniscule slowing down started casting long shadows. The Indian Express looks at three end-games being tweaked and chiselled, that are defying age and refusing to go gently into the night.
“I’m not so dead as a chess player myself, I beat the World No 2 last month!” Nigel Short guffaws when the English chess Grandmaster and commentator, once ranked World No 3, is asked to pinpoint the exact cognitive changes occurring in an ageing player. “I’m not completely spent as a chess player, though I might not be on an elevated level like Vishy,” the 51-year-old deadpans, inching threateningly close to a conversation-ender. But he knows chess had Viktor Korchnoi, the cantankerous genius, who turned ageing in chess into waspish art. “Korchnoi played at a high level for incredibly long lengths of time because he was angry, actually angry with the ageing process. He really wanted to show that it had no effect on him,” Short recalls of the Soviet great, loved for his delicious sarcasm. Some like Viswanathan Anand – he’s 47 now – cope better than most, though they aren’t at their best.
“In general, there’s a decline in abilities and it’s quite noticeable because the peak of chess players is 20s or 30s like in most sports. Obviously, chess is not quite same as running the 100m, but the cognitive decline is more gradual,” Short says. “Vishy is an extremely brilliant player and that’s why he’s still able to maintain high levels, but I think nobody would say he’s at his peak.”
The Indian legend’s first dips, Short noticed, came into sharp focus against Magnus Carlsen – spry and sensational. “Against Carlsen in his first match, Anand was sort of a sitting duck. He’d frankly been playing quite badly for some time but once he was freed from the burden of defending his title he played with more liberty and he was a more dangerous opponent for Carlsen the second time around,” the Englishman says. Anand even had his chances – and didn’t take enough of them. “But at least he created the chances!”
There were key moments in the match – a famous double blunder, where Carlsen erred and knew it was a losing mistake, “which Vishy didn’t see, and at a different time, he would’ve seen it immediately. It’s like cricket matches turn on dropped catches. Some moments you just got to seize.”
Chess, unlike other sports, doesn’t hear screaming creaks of bones. “But if you are in time trouble during the game, your heart rate doubles, and that is physiologically unpleasant,” Short says. “Because when heart rates shoot up, you are generally doing something physically active – like running, whereas in chess, you are stuck there at the board, and it puts strain on the person.”
Elevated heart rates mean not enough oxygen, and worse decisions. There are other matters like concentration. “It’s the plague for people who are ageing. For a couple of hours, you wouldn’t notice any difference at all in the concentration levels. But after 3 or 4 hours, fatigue creeps in suddenly. And in chess, a single hour can cost you half a point or a full point depending on the nature of the blunder,” Short explains.
Anand’s defiance shone through when after losing the World Championships, he qualified for the Candidates. “That was a remarkable achievement,” Short says. Having accumulated a broad repertoire, Anand bucked the other trend too – also focusing on physical fitness since 1993. “I think it’s really this tension – and younger players cope with this much better. Because chess is completely different when you are in the quiets of your study and you’ve got your engine running beside you, and you are absorbing information. Real problems happen when there’s tension of the board in an unfamiliar situation.
“He has a good memory, absorbs openings quickly, is extremely adept at using computers and works well with analysts, so the quality of his opening preparations is very good. It is when you are on your own, having to scrap it out that when memory can become suddenly fallible,” he says.
Anand, speaking to PTI this week, himself said, “You age, that is all. There are some things you can’t do as well as you did when younger and the preparation has to be different. One has to focus on strengths.”
Efim Geller won the Soviet championships in 1971 at age 54, when he was ranked 23rd in the world, while Vasily Smyslov was in the Candidates in his 60s – though these, alongwith Korchnoi, are exceptions. Anand, ranked 7 currently, has Zurich next and the September World Cup in Georgia and the three remaining Grand Prix Series before the November Candidates.
At 47, Short reckons there might not be radical reinventions but small shifts, going forward. At Bonn in 2008, Anand ambushed Kramnik twice playing black at what many reckon was his peak.
This last week, he was busy looking for puzzles to give 12-year-olds at his Masterclass in Chennai. ‘Mittelspiel on my mind’ he tweeted. Middlegame. That’s one way to go about it – defying age.