Mystery before history

Mystery before history

Magnus Carlsen lands in Chennai,shuts himself off at secret location,possibly a beach resort.

Several people regard Magnus Carlsen as the outright favourite for the World Championship title. The destination of the crown might be foregone in some circles,but with the match impending,an air of suspense and intrigue lingers.

It was not until Friday that it came to light that Viswanathan Anand had chosen the quiet retreat of Bad Soden,a German town with a population of a little over 20,000,to train for the match. In the meanwhile,there has been a lot of speculation over where Carlsen had pitched camp. It made sense that the Norwegian would be training at a location with climate not too different from Chennai.

Carlsen landed in Chennai on Monday evening,deboarding from an Oman Air flight which had departed from Muscat. Carlsen confirmed to the reporters gathered at the airport that he had indeed been training at Muscat for a couple of months. Once Carlsen was out of the scrum at the departure terminal,though,the Norwegian’s team (including father Henrik,mother Sigrun and three sisters — Ellen,Ingrid and Signe) retreated to another secret location.

Anand and his entourage (including two-and-a-half-year-old son Akhil) had already moved into the Hyatt Regency last week,the venue of the final,and it was expected that Carlsen would follow suit. After all,members of the All India Chess Federation had claimed that entire floors of the hotel had been cleared to accommodate the players and their retinue.


Carlsen,if sources are to be believed,left the airport for a beach resort in Mahabalipuram,and will check in at the Regency only on Wednesday. Apparently Carlsen will use this location as a second base to both cut himself off from the media (just the Norwegian contingent is supposed to number 30; a Norwegian website TV2 quotes Carlsen as saying that he hadn’t expected the big fuss at the airport on Monday) and to make use of the open spaces around the luxury resort to indulge in a bit of sport. Floor number six at the Regency,the one assigned to Carlsen,will remain empty for two more days,said an employee of the hotel.

In a bubble

All this apparation and dis-apparation may seem a little excessive but in the context of a world championship match,it is to be expected. Most elite sportspersons thrive in a bubble and the need to cloister oneself is more acute the closer it is to D-Day. Also,in chess more than in any other sport,information is power. While keeping one’s location unknown or training in secret may well be a way of barring the media,there are far more serious things that rival camps do not reveal until after the match is over. The identity of the seconds is one such closely guarded secret.

It is well known that Indian GM Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Poland’s Radoslav Wojtaszek have been helping Anand for a while but it is very likely that there are at least two more seconds in the Indian’s camp.

Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Peter Heine Nielsen,part of Anand’s squad since he beat Vladimir Kramnik in 2008,are no longer with him and the identities of the two seconds who have replaced these men are unknown. Word is that Anand has roped in another Indian GM,Sandipan Chanda. There is a corresponding level of anonymity in Carlsen’s camp too. It was announced that French GM Laurent Fressinet and Norwegian Jon Ludvig Hammer are helping Carlsen prepare for the match,but there are surely others.

This does not of course include the help that the champion and the challenger might be getting from other elite players. Vladimir Kramnik,who had previously helped Anand against Veselin Topalov in 2011,has not been active on the circuit recently while Anand himself has said that someone like Boris Gelfand,who is older than the Indian but is currently enjoying a remarkable year,has a lot he could learn from. It is well known that former champion Garry Kasparov has been assisting Carlsen but again,he could be one among several others.

Closely guarded secret

The reason the identity of the seconds is closely guarded is obvious. Seconds are employed to perform time-intensive tasks that would leave the elite player to only imbibe interpretations. The other major task of these associates is to offer expertise in niche segments,mainly openings. By going through the repertoire of the second,it may be possible to guess the kind of openings an elite player might employ.

The gradual recession of the players themselves from the spotlight means that whatever little information is out there develops a kind of significance,and,in all probability,is intended as a signal from one camp to the other. Carlsen’s Twitter feed has photos of himself (bare-chested sometimes) playing tennis,golf and beach volleyball,or swimming and diving. It is difficult not to see the contrast.

Anand’s preferred mode of relaxation is to take long walks. However,a German daily from Bad Soden last week reported that Anand had shaved off six kilos in the last few months through a regime of swimming,running and cycling. Whether it was a gentle riposte from Anand’s camp or the kind of random information that is quickly incorporated into the narrative before a title bout,it only adds to the anticipation.