Expect nothing, live frugally on surprise.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Lord of the board

PETE SAMPRAS has won the most Grand Slam singles titles but does not have his name on the Roll of Honour of the French Open. Bjorn Borg won five Wimbledon and six French Open titles but fell short of claiming the US Open and Australian Open crowns. Ivan Lendl, winner of three straight US Open titles, could never conquer Wimbledon.These extraordinary talents attained greatness in their own way. But given a choice, these champion performers would have certainly traded anything for the titles that always eluded them. Unlike these great sportsmen from the world of tennis, chess maestro Viswanathan Anand has made sure he has no such regrets when he looks back at his achievements in a career spanning well over two decades. Having won every worthy title in the game at least once, he claimed the World crown for the third time in October by overpowering the Russian challenger Vladimir Kramnik. He not only retained the game’s most coveted prize but also made more than just history. And we are not talking about the whopping 7.5 million euros that came along with the title.Anand’s first success in the World Championship came in the tough 128-player knockout format in 2000. He regained the honour in a strong eight-player field in 2007 when the title was decided on the aggregate points scored in 14 rounds, played on a double round-robin basis. His latest triumph came in a best-of-12-game match-play format against Kramnik, who had been unbeaten in three World title clashes since 2000. Three titles in as many formats made Anand the only World Champion to prove himself in every possible way. Against Kramnik, the 38-year-old Indian reached the magic figure of 6.5 points following a tense draw in the 11th game. Kramnik, needing to win with black pieces to keep the contest alive, offered a draw after 24 moves and, with it, accepted Anand as the true, undisputed champion of the chess world.

A section of the chess world, mostly from Europe and certain parts of the erstwhile Soviet Union, wanted Anand to prove himself in the match-play format to earn its acceptance as a true World Champion. For over a decade, its spokespersons pointed to Anand’s not-so-impressive match record to substantiate their argument.

Personally for Anand, it was very important to win this match. Though he has been honoured with the prestigious Chess Oscar five times, the inability to prove himself in the match-play format gave the sceptics a reason to discount his greatness. Anand went down to Anatoly Karpov (1991 and 1998), Gata Kamsky (1994) and Garry Kasparov (1995) in matches. Though he settled the score with Kamsky in the same year, his four defeats in five games against Kasparov in 1995 left him with a baggage that he carried until the other day.

In a way, it was poetic justice that Anand defeated none other than Kramnik, in Bonn, to silence his detractors. Kramnik is the man hailed for dethroning Garry Kasparov, the mighty fellow-Russian regarded as the strongest player in the history of the game. Following that epoch-making triumph in 2000, Kramnik came out undefeated against challengers Peter Leko (2004) and Veselin Topalov (2006) to earn the reputation of being the strongest match player since Kasparov.

Last year, when Anand pushed Kramnik to the joint second spot on his way to the World title in Mexico, the dethroned Russian came up with some uncharitable comments: “On paper Anand may be the World Champion. But from my point of view, there is a difference in significance between a title won in a match and in a tournament. For me, the forthcoming match [in Bonn] with Anand is more important. If I lose that, I will accept completely the fact that I have lost the title, but right now, I have no such feelings. At present, I take the view that I have just lent Anand the title temporarily.”

The last sentence hurt Anand, but Kramnik went on: “Federer is better than Nadal, but cannot compete with him on clay. Everyone has his or her strong side. Mine is match play, whereas Anand’s is tournaments. He is very even and stable and can draw with the top players and beat those lower down.”

For almost one year, Anand waited patiently to silence Kramnik when the Russian exercised his one-time right to challenge him for the title. “Kramnik’s taunts helped me concentrate better and stay focussed through the match,” declared Anand after finishing the job. Indeed, when the time came, Anand gave a fitting reply – without uttering a word. The chess world heard the message loud and clear.

Anand needed to win in the match-play format against Kramnik to show that he was no less than the illustrious champions in the history of the game. He formed a team (called “seconds” in chess parlance) comprising former World Champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov, long-time associate Peter Heine Nielsen, surprise packet Radoslav Wojtaszek and fellow-Indian Surya Shekhar Ganguly. This support staff, finalised in April, worked tirelessly during the match and put in up to 16 to 18 hours a day to make sure that Anand realised his most cherished goal.

Kramnik, on the other hand, had Hungary’s Peter Leko, who assisted Anand before his match against Karpov in 1998, Frenchman Laurent Fressinet and fellow-Russian Sergey Rublevsky as his team of “seconds”.


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