After a disastrous string of results in the Leuven Grand Chess Tour in July, where he finished eighth in a 10-man grid and a score of 8/18, five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand sighed: “There’s no point playing chess like this. I think I was playing just mental.” His stringent self-assessment was misconstrued as an imminent voice of retirement, more so after he finished last in the London Chess Classic, much to his displeasure. “I’m not harbouring such negative thoughts. I’m motivated as ever before,” he crunched his angst through his Twitter handle.
Five months later, by winning the World Rapid Championship in Riyadh, he defied the assumptions that he was clinging onto the circuit like an out-of sorts, over-the-hill veteran slogging forth in the fading illusion of another crown. Rather, he showed that he still breathed the absolute conviction that he could challenge the best in the business, like upending Magnus Carlsen, not just the world champion but considered the best ever in the rapid chess. The upset win and the title comes at 48, an age when most successful sportsmen would be thinking of settling at a fancy farmhouse in an idyllic countryside.
His great Russian rival, Garry Kasparov quit when he was 40 (and embraced the more brooding realm of politics). Or Bobby Fischer, the troubled (and flawed) American genius, who left competitive chess at 32 and drifted into self-imposed wilderness. So has most of Anand’s own contemporaries and several of his junior peers.
Even if Anand had occasionally flirted with retirement ideas, his child-like love for a game, which began with watching chess tournaments in Manilla where his father was posted, eventually reined over pragmatism. “I have never seen anyone so obsessed with game. These days, even a lot of youngsters quit the game in five to 10 years. Vishy has been playing for four decades, non-stop and with unbelievable consistency at the highest level,” says Grand Master RB Ramesh, who is 41, but already half a decade into retired life and coaching.
That chess, being a cerebral game not involving physical prowess, can be pursued until the mental capacities fully diminished is a misconception, he asserts. “It drains you, both mentally and physically. With physical reflexes, you lose the speed of your brain and sometimes you judgement too. Your game eventually slows down, but Anand has taken immense care of his body and it has ensured that his mental reflexes and responses have remained sharp as ever,” he observes.
Anand, in his younger days, would care less for his shape. But sometime in the late aughts, the necessity to keep his weight under check stuck him. Not excruciating bone-breaking regimens, but moderate cardio, weights and working on specific muscle sets , with, of course, U2 and Coldplay singing in the background. “Being fit gives you the nice, fresh feeling throughout the day and eases your tension. You also sleep profoundly. To compete with the younger opponents, you have to be quite fit too,” he had once said. Of late, he has been doing a lot of cross training and mountain climbing too.
It wasn’t necessarily the advancing age that drove him to the gym, but rather the necessity to reinvent himself. It’s what he told soon after he turned 40. “Grandmasters decline with age. That’s a given. There is nothing special about the age of 40, but age eventually takes its toll. That much is clear. Beyond that it’s about how long you can put off the effects and compensate for them. Mistakes will crop in but you try to compensate for them with experience and hard work.”
Chess, in a sense, is decided by mistakes; you provoke mistakes from your opponent. And you must necessarily survive your own mistakes. In the short-form world championship, too, he had his share of mistakes. But Ramesh says he was quick to size up where he had erred and made amends. “The energy and intuition he showed were like a youngster, a 20-something. He must be 48, but seems to have the mind of a 28 year-old, and in chess it’s the age of your mind that determines your success,” observes Ramesh.
To think that Anand was deliberating on quitting seems sillier now. If any, it could have the same liberating effect on him as it did to Viktor Korchnoi after he defected from the Soviet Union when he was 45. He maintained his strength in later years, attributing it partly to a daily routine of jogging, caviar and yoga, and at 75 was the oldest player ever to be ranked in the world top 100. Playing until 75 might be a bit of stretch—unlike Korchnoi, he didn’t have the burning ambition to win a World Championship–but it’s preposterous yet to carve his epitaph.
In the opinion of Herbert Alexander Simon, one among the founding fathers of artificial intelligence, Grandmasters can recognise at least 50,000 patterns on a chess board. The best draw upon this huge reservoir of reference to form mental images that allow them to reduce perceived complexities to simple positions. Or just to one position at a time. “I just visualise one move. But it’s always the right move,” he says. It’s a reproduction of the Cuban chess king Raul Casablanca’s quote, he says. But it’s the gist of Anand’s thinking pattern, too. What Anand could add to the line is that “the right move at the best time.”
Even in complicated positions, he rarely, if ever, uses all of his allotted time. This has allowed him to win most rapid events he has entered and to be generally acknowledged as the world’s best rapid player in his prime. “In his prime, he left his opponents devastated in rapids,” says Ramesh.
His classical game too bore his love for the rapid (where a player has between 10 and 60 minutes to complete 60 moves) or blitz (60 moves in 10 minutes or less). During the 1986 Dubai Olympiad, Britsh IM Robert Wads jokingly asked Manuel Aaron, India’s fist IM: “How do we stop this boy from playing so fast and winning?”
But with age, players generally tend/limit to relinquish either of the two. Anand thus limited his short-form appearances, a reason perhaps it took 14 years between his two Rapids titles. His interest didn’t fade though—he always carried a pocked chess board so that the day he met Fischer, who played online blitz anonymously, he could invite the American for a Blitz (He met him a year before his death in 2008, but couldn’t materialise his dream).
So competing in this championship hadn’t even crossed his mind– he was planning a vacation in Kerala—before his rival and friend Vladimir Kramnik urge him to. If it weren’t for the huge prize-fund—two million USD, split $1.5m for the two men’s events and $0.5m for the women’s—few of the elites would have even bothered to compete in the World Rapid and Blitz Championship either.
Understandably, his morale was low and admittedly decide to fight just out of fun. “The last two rapid events were nothing short of disastrous. I came here in a pessimistic frame of mind. But it has just been the most wonderful surprise,” he says. A surprise that make him feel like floating, his head repeatedly playing Queen’s classic, “We Are the Champions”. And a rare fist-up. As expressive as Anand could get beside the board. At 48, like a 20-something.