Even as one great man’s epic is about to draw to a weary ending, another man is preparing vigorously to sheath his story with one more epochal battle. Somewhere inside an elegantly dressed home in Chennai, Viswanathan Anand might be laughing in irony at the brouhaha that surrounds the departure of Sachin Tendulkar. The self-effacing genius enjoys living in the shade, long used to the skewed ways of the large masses of this nation.
As ironic as it might be, the World Championship of Chess, being held in India for only the second time ever is faced with the daunting task of competing with the farewell party of India’s foremost sporting icon. Not that Anand will be too fazed.
The modest man from Chennai has built a monumental career around his ability to navigate expertly around a complex maze of 64 squares. Matters of perception and market dynamics have rarely, if at all, bothered him or affected his love and hunger for mastering his craft.
Chess struggles for attention as it is and the hyperbole around the little maestro’s departure is only going to make matters worse. Anand might even afford a rueful smile in a private conversation with his confidant and spouse.
But under the glare of lights, he can be expected to deal with it in the most dignified manner possible. Their careers have run almost in parallel and both men have shown exemplary character to enjoy an almost blemish free run under intense public glare.
The similarities though end right there. A insanely cricket mad India cheered every run from the blade of the great cricketer. However, Anand had to content himself with only fleeting acknowledgement every time he won a World Championship.
Breaking new ground is a refined habit with both these gentlemen. Sachin has collected more centuries and runs than was ever imagined possible. Anand, the country’s first Chess grandmaster, usurped power from the customary champions from the Soviet bloc.
Sachin has been first among equals because his zeal for accumulation was unmatched. Anand was the first man from a famished third world to usher in a new era, by winning the FIDE World Championships in 2000.
It was a victory that broadened the appeal of Chess in Asia and expanded its market beyond the conventional hunting grounds around Europe. In a country abundant with patience even under duress, the success of Chess isn’t entirely an anomaly. But it took the genius of Anand to pave the path for others to follow.
Thousands of other players have paraded their talent, but not one player has come close to emulating the greatest Chess player India has ever known. He has been feted by the government – the Rajiv Khel Ratna and the Padma Vibhushan sit proudly in his overflowing cabinet of honours.
Ironically though, the unparalleled success of Anand is still not enough to excite nearly as much attention as anything to do with cricket might. Sample this – in 2010, a bevy of leading sportspersons donated their prized possessions to The Foundation, a charity run by actor Rahul Bose.
A bat with which Sachin scored an obscure one day international century in New Zealand fetched a whopping 42 lakhs. Even the racket with which Leander Paes won the 2010 Wimbledon mixed doubles title managed to get a bid for 7 lakh. In stark contrast, the 2008 World Championship medal of Anand managed a number that wasn’t worth a mention in the media around the time.
Anand has learnt well enough that, his is a pursuit in solitude, only occasionally acknowledged even by his ardent fans. As polite and polished as Anand might be to his fans, he is a Chess player driven by the quest for a place in the history of the game. It is this focus on his goals that lead Anand and Aruna to find home in Spain.
The relocation helped Anand avoid even the limited attention in India and allow him to pursue his ambition without the distractions that surrounded his time in India. The reigning champion has since moved back to India and was all set to celebrate a grand event of unmatched scale on his home soil. As fate would have it, Sachin’s plans intervened with the harvest plans of Chess.
Anand is the only Chess player to have won the World Chess Championships in all three formats – knock-out (2000), tournament (2007) and classical (2008 – current). While people close to the game of Chess might rue the likely travesty in November, Vishy may be secretly enjoying the fact that all the attention will be on Sachin.
Even at his tender age of 22, Magnus Carlsen is a once in a generation talent in the opinion of experts as well as his opponents. Anand will need his sharpest skills to overcome the challenge from the charismatic Norwegian, who is nearly half the champion’s age. It might help ease the pressure on Anand, just a tad that the event itself might escape the intense glare of the media.
Anand may have sincerely hoped for a big boost for the game of Chess in India, riding on the back of an exuberant campaign ahead of the World Championships. But considering the enormity of the occasion, the world No.7 will be happy to hunt his young opponent down in a quiet room inside the Hyatt Regency in Chennai between the 9th and 28th November.