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Viswanathan Anand: The tiger cub from Madras

Viswanathan Anand: The tiger cub from Madras

Priyadarshan Banjan

Published: 9 Feb 2018 1:49 AM GMT
It is like a guy taking a Maruti 800 into a Formula One championship to actually compete for the title and winning it. What manner of special talent does it take to do that? ' Amit Varma, Noted Sports Journalist and former Chess Player In the 1980s, it was impossible to imagine that India could throw up a serious contender to the World Chess Championship crown. Chess used to be a niche sport. It doesn't remain so. A single chess tournament has at times crossed the 500 entries mark and that on a regular basis. Today, it is a sport played by the masses in India, just like cricket, only not as rich. How did this transformation come to pass?
'So we brought this upon ourselves!' 'Vladimir Putin Viswanathan Anand was the first to challenge Russian chess hegemony since the American genius Bobby Fischer.  In 2007-08 the upheaval was completed with the defeat of Vladimir Kramnik. Ironically, Vishy was himself a product of Russian chess promotion. As a boy, he took his first steps in the world of chess at the Tal Chess Club, which was established in Chennai by the Russian Cultural Centre in 1972. Although chess was not a well-known sport anywhere else in India the Chennai chess scene during those days was bubbling with activity; a not so surprising antithesis in comparison to the rest of our nation, a diverse land. Growing up in an environment where lightning speed and a quick eye for tactics ruled the day and play, the cub from Madras sharpened his claws and teeth, those claws and teeth which would one day make the strongest names in the chess world run for cover. The players would come to the seat, punch their moves and go. Nevertheless, no one caused him to blink. Vishy kept beating one guy after another. The cub was maturing into a tiger at lightning speed.
Young Vishy with his parents. Anand played his first open tournament in 1977 when he was eight years old. It was the Larsen & Turbo Open, and like any debutant, at the open stage, he didn't win any prize. In those days category tournaments were a rarity, and if one wanted to develop chess skills it had to be in the rough and tough world of open tournaments. Nevertheless, it wasn't long before he won his first prize as consolation at the Madras district Sub Junior Chess Championship held in the same year. Although he was yet to reach his peak as a junior player, his remarkable speed and attacking chess stood as his hallmark and were the signs of the things to come.

The TV Show in Manila that started it all

Manila, the capital of Philippines, first shot to sporting limelight in 1975, when it witnessed the legendary Muhammad Ali take on Joe Frazier for the World Heavyweight Championships. In 1978, Philippines was again in the spotlight, this time it was due to chess. The city of Baguio was host to probably one of the most bizarre world championships ever witnessed in chess history when the Soviet Anatoly Karpov took on the anti-Soviet Viktor Korchnoi. In 1978, K. Viswanthahan was asked to take a posting in Manila, Philippines, as part of a work assignment for Asian Development Bank. Consequently he moved there with his family.  Anand's mother was adamant that Anand maintain his sporting life there too, which made her take little Anand to tennis and chess camps. Due to the 1978 World Championships, the Philippines were witnessing an unprecedented chess boom. Anand and his parents arrived a month after the World Championships had finished. Tournaments were conducted regularly, especially on weekends, where young and old would compete for prizes. Anand's parents would take him to the venue and wait as their child played his heart out. His speed and fresh attacking style of play actually earned him a lot of spectators who were naturally drawn towards the Indian wunderkind. Never did he return home without a prize in his hand. Motivated by the flurry of chess activities Philippines, a chess lover by the name Florencio Campomanes produced and hosted
Chess Today
, a TV show based on chess which would be aired from 1 to 2 in the afternoon. At his peak, Campomanes was a player of master strength and the programme featured important games played by grandmasters and International Masters. Young Anand was a fan of the TV show Chess Today. The problem was he used to attend school at the time when the show was aired. Not to let this hamper her child's progress, Anand's mother made sure to watch the programme herself and maintain the score of the game discussed on the show every day. In addition to the game, at the end of every episode, there would be a puzzle to be solved by the viewers and be sent to the TV station. Usually, it used to be endgame positions, and there was a prize for the correct answer. Anand's mother noted every position down, at times even managing to tape the episodes. As soon as Anand returned from school he would complete his homework and be ready to savour his daily dose of chess. He would use a small chess board, the only size he had, and go through the games, studying the moves, with his mother explaining the notes. His favourite pastime was, of course, the puzzle, which he would solve with utmost interest. Anand used to solve these puzzles daily, and his mother would mail the answer to the TV station. This routine made Anand go from a talented young boy to the feared tactician he became. The cub was indeed learning to hunt! The winner on Campomanes' TV show would be the one who got all the details correct, and his/her name would be announced in the very next episode and he/she would be given a chess book as a prize. Anand built up a sizeable collection of chess books in this manner. He won so regularly that the TV station were fed up with him: they called Anand to their library and asked him to pick up whatever book he wanted, but to stop sending the answers, so that others could get a chance! This played a crucial role in Anand's development as a chess player. There were no computers to prepare in that age and Anand relied heavily on these books to improve his chess. He used to read books like
1001 Opening Miniatures, Opening Traps and Swindles, how to avoid them
and other books, which could help him make a quick buck or two! He admitted that he, at least at that stage of development, didn't get into heavy theoretical stuff like Nimzowitsch!

The cub returns to Madras...

'Karpov is my choice, but if Bobby Fischer comes back I have to shift the reigning World Champion to the second spot'. ' Anand in 1980 (!) on his favourite chess player (photo by V. Kameshwaran) In 1980, Anand returned to Madras, and from then on he started playing chess tournaments basically every weekend. Of course, the Tal Chess Club was the haunt where Anand steadily built his legend. Every Monday evening, Thursday evening, second Saturdays and Sundays, whenever the Club was open, Anand would go there and played blitz chess, five minutes each on the clock, and defeated all comers. He would at times play through the evening till night staying undefeated. Anand played whenever he could, as much as he could. He was at his breathtaking best in the lightning events. He began to regularly finish at the top of the heap of lightning tournaments, even in seniors section.  The 1982 Tamil Nadu State Junior (U-19) Championship held at Salem proved to be a cakewalk for the young man: he won comfortably with a score of 6.0/7, beating players who later witnessed him becoming a tower over the chess world, yet remain close friends. It was around this time that the local print media ' and especially chess-loving journalists like V. Kameshwaran ' began to call him 'The Lightning Kid'.
Tamil Nadu State Champion, 1982 at Salem (photo by V. Kameshwaran) Tamil Nadu was basically hailed as a seat of learning in chess, and there were tournaments all around the state. Anand competed in many of those tourneys, developing his skills as a player. These events were frequented by players like Indian stalwarts Arun Vaidya, Pravin Thipsay, Raja Ravishekhar and other strong players. Anand watched these greats play and soaked in every bit of experience. He played across Tamil Nadu, in places like Salem, Sivakasi, Pollachi, Coimbatore and Palani, improving his game and biding his time. Like a young tiger he lurked in the shadows, waiting to pounce on his moment. However, it was not until 1983 that Anand got his first major breakthrough.
  • Old Chess Mate magazines. One of the best sources of Chess news in India.
  • Vishy Anand Interviews at rediff.com, 2000.
  • Saturday Extra, Tribune Magazine, October 16, 2004.
  • Anand on World Championships-From Square one to World Championships in Bonn, Chessbase, 2009.
  • Pictures from V. Kameshwaran, reputed chess journalist.
(A version of this article was published on ChessBase in 2014 focused on chess playing reader base. This article has been made for non-chess playing reader base.)
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