Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Anand is the greatest sportsman India has seen

This story dates back more than a quarter of a century ago. A 17-year old boy traveled by train from Madras to Sangli, a small town in the heart of the sugar belt of Maharashtra. In the train, the boy immersed himself in books on chess, playing out games of champions of the past on a board spread out in front of him. An elderly co-passenger, amused at the boy’s interest in the game, asked him if they could play a game or two. The boy agreed, and it was soon clear to the gentleman that his age and experience was no match to the boy’s talent at the board. “What is your name? You play quite well!” asked the somewhat shaken gentleman, trying to salvage his bruised pride at having been beaten by a young lad perhaps one-third his age. “My name is Anand”, came the reply, “I am the champion of the country”.

A young Vishwanathan Anand, at that time in 1986, was on his way to the National Junior (Under-19) Chess Championships at Sangli, but he was already a National Champion (seniors) then, having won the National Chess Championship a year earlier at the age of 16. Needless to say, Anand won the Sangli Juniors with ease, went to the World Junior Championship, won that too and in the next few months, became the first Chess Grandmaster of the country.

The rest, as they say, is history. But my intent here is not to profile Anand and his trophies, of which there are many, as enough material is already available on the internet. Nor do I plan to write about the other qualities of this exceptional gentleman, such as his extraordinary memory, amazing speed and spotlessly clean character. Why then do I say that Anand is the greatest sportsman this country has ever produced?

Vishwanathan Anand walks in for his game against Boris Gelfand in the World Chess Championships, Moscow 2012 (Photo Courtesy:

Anand has spawned an industry. Thanks to Anand, the game has acquired the status of a 'sport' and become a household name in the country. Today, hundreds of eight-and-ten year olds can be seen sitting across the board and fighting their wits in inter-school chess tournaments. A plethora of chess commentators, journalists, organizers and coaches are able to make a comfortable living solely out of the game. The game has been introduced in schools in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu, while Punjab Government would be recruiting chess coaches, the newspaper announced last week. The country now boasts of a staggering 26 Grandmasters, 12 Women Grandmasters and an astonishing 76 International Masters of the game. When Anand started playing, India had no Grandmasters, and the number of International Masters was probably in single digits. India now ranks 8th on the FIDE’s (World Chess Federation) ranking of countries, a ranking based not just on Anand's strength but on the average strength of its top 10 players. This is far better than India’s ranking in any other sport that is played in a large number of nations and would make India a serious contender for a medal at any Chess Olympiad. India’s success at chess is not restricted to Anand’s individual talent alone; it has percolated down to the rank and file in the country. Clearly, Anand has elevated the status of the game in the country of its origin, and this, to my mind, is Anand’s biggest contribution to the game.

Before Anand burst on to the national scene, Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi, which portrayed chess in none too flattering a fashion, dominated public memory of the game. Like that gentleman in the train, the game would evoke amusement & curiosity at best, and contempt at worst. A chess player would be seen as a wayward maverick, who had lost his way and was unable to do something more meaningful in life.  Anand gave the game a respectability it deserved. Anand created benchmarks that are worthy of emulation.

As I drove home from office, an advertisement announcing an upcoming chess tournament in the city played on the radio. As I listened to the ad, these were the thoughts that rankled in my mind….

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