What Viswanathan Anand had planned as time off from the board turned out to be his most successful week in chess in an otherwise forgettable year. The last-minute sign-up for the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Riyadh ended up fetching him a title in a format he believed didn’t suit an aging multiple-time champion like him any more.
But the mini fist pump on Thursday, a rare visible celebration, which came after beating Vladimir Fedoseev in a two-game tie-break to reclaim the world rapid crown, was what one had probably last seen him break into after his 1996 win over Garry Kasparov at the Credit Suisse Masters, a major PCA tournament at that time, in Geneva, Switzerland.
It showed how much the victory at the fag end of an insipid year, where he’d knocked himself out of contention for next year’s Candidates line-up and a possible World Championship challenger berth, mattered. It was the perfect demonstration of his mastery over age and time. “I came into this tournament after a very difficult year — especially the London tournament was a big disappointment,” says Anand, 48. “To finish in last place was a heavy blow and didn’t seem to promise great things for this tournament either and my last two rapid tournaments have been nothing short of disastrous. I came with a pessimistic frame of mind but it has just been the most wonderful surprise. It was as though time had stood still.” Anand had last won the world rapid title in 2003.
The five-time world champion had his tournament calendar chalked out early — slotting a family holiday in Kumarakom during the month’s break between the London Chess Classic, which concluded on December 11, and the next tournament in Wijk aan Zee on January 12. But a casual query from a friend at the world chess body Fide and some cajoling by wife Aruna got Anand to change his mind. It was somewhat similar to how he played and eventually won the 2014 Candidates. Then it had been friend and fellow GM Vladimir Kramnik who had got him to cancel his vacation with family in Tanzania and participate.
What got Anand believing and backing himself to take home the title in Riyadh was a stunning win against world No. 1 Magnus Carlsen in 34 moves in the ninth round. Playing with black pieces, Anand says both players “had hallucinations that it was a draw offer”. “Since I had a guaranteed draw, I decided to spend a few minutes just looking for something else and after two minutes it suddenly hit me that I was winning and when I looked at his face I realized that it hit him as well,” he says. “In the last two years he’s won all the rapid events and with such tremendous margins really that beating him was crucial, an accomplishment and, given our history, there was an extra bit of feeling.”
To recover from all that went wrong and put the year behind him, Anand returned home to Chennai from London earlier this month and plunged headlong into a whole range of activities he usually doesn’t indulge in — from shopping, cake-eating to binge-watching Madagascar movies. The rapid and blitz tournament, which was announced late, was farther than the farthest thought on his mind.
Having once ruled the format and earned the ‘Lightning Kid’ sobriquet, Anand did poorly at the St Louis rapid tournament in August. Following an awful outing, he ended ninth, even one spot below former world No. 1 Kasparov, 54, who was making his appearance at a competitive tournament after 12 years. In the immediate aftermath, Anand was to allude to age being more than just a number in faster time controls. “There’s a [age glass] ceiling, no doubt. I was once the poster boy for rapid chess,” he’d lamented then. The ceiling probably was only an imaginary one.
But what moved him to board the plane to the Saudi Arabian city was the thought that any result couldn’t possibly be worse than what he’d already encountered.
After his win over Carlsen though, Anand’s hopes soared and he swiftly moved into a three-way tie with Russians Fedoseev and Ian Nepomniatchi at 10.5 points before finishing with the title — having remained unbeaten over 15 rounds with six wins and nine draws. “There were so many unexpected turns,” he says. “Once Nepomniatchi won his game and tied for first, I thought I would have to win against him but then a little later Fedoseev won and I realized my tiebreak would actually be against him. Even feeling euphoric, I had to keep containing my happiness because there was still work to be done.”
It has been five years since his last World Championship title and with this win Anand has shown why he can’t be counted out just yet. And his family is more than willing to forgive him for his transgression of ditching a quiet holiday getaway for announcing his return as world champion. “It’s an absolutely unbelievable feeling and just so unexpected after all the disappointments in rapid chess,” says Anand. “I wasn’t even planning on coming here to begin with. Becoming world champion again is the most amazing feeling.”
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