In 1988, the then Junior World Champion Viswanathan Anand won a tournament in Coimbatore. It wasn’t an event that could rival the big competitions on the chess circuit, but it was one that made the 18-year-old India’s first ever Grandmaster. For a sport that had been dominated almost solely by the Soviet Union, an Indian had made a mark. 30 years on, Anand has won five world championship titles, and has consistently remained India’s highest ranked player throughout the three decades. “I’m not particularly waiting for someone to catch up,” jokes the former world no 1. Later in September though, he will join ranks with his compatriots to compete at the Chess Olympiad – the first time he will participate since 2006.
“We’ve already had one training camp together (in March),” says the veteran. “But we know each other well and meet quite often in tournaments. In the last two Olympiads we’ve done spectacularly well, both Tromso (2014) and Baku (2016). So I hope my participation will improve on that.” The focus will be on the current world no 11, especially after he overcame a title-drought by winning the World Rapid Chess Championship last December.
The rapid/blitz format is one that Anand had once dominated in the 1990s and 2000s. The latest win though gave him a shot in the arm and helped him recover lost confidence in his game after his run in early 2017.
“It’s more of a personal validation,” he says. “Every once in a while you need a good result to feel good about playing rapid chess. When I won the World Rapid, I remembered that I had won it before (2003), but for many people they had forgotten that I had played this, that I was once the best rapid player in the world.”
He was once the best in the world in the classic format as well, till Magnus Carlsen dethroned him in the 2013 World Championship match. But now he had another world title, albeit in a different format. “A lot of people would come to me and say ‘congrats World Champion,'” he says. “My first reaction would be to say, ‘Ex-World Champion,’ then I’d remember, that no, it’s current. So that’s a wonderful feeling.” He’s still among the most prominent players present in the chess circuit. In India, a total of 51 players have gone on to achieve GM norms after Anand’s feat in 1988. None though have come close to matching his achievements.
In the latest ranking list, P Harikrishna is the closest to Anand, slotted 22nd, followed by 23-year-old Vidit Gujarathi on 29. In all, seven Indians currently stand in the top 100. “Both Harikrishna and Vidit are very close,” Anand says. “We’re all in the 2700 range. On top of that if you look at Sasikaran Krishnan and B Adhiban, they’ve had issues with consistency but they’ve also had performance ratings that are much higher.”
The focus now is steadily shifting to the Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia this September. “In fact, I think we are now one of the most balanced teams, with our top five player ratings,” he adds. After 12 years, the veteran who was the first non-Russian since legendary American Bobby Fisher to win the World Championship (1972), will be competing at the Olympiad. In the 2014 edition, the Indian team won the country’s first medal, a bronze, at the event. But now with Anand back in the squad, with a spring in his step, there is a chance to go one better.