The King and I

(This article, about  Viswanathan Anand’s ascendance as world chess champion, was published in DNA edition dated May 16, 2010.)

Venky Vembu

Growing up in Chennai, in the 1970s and early-1980s, I used to frequent the Mikhail Tal Chess Club at what used to be the Soviet Cultural Centre. And although I did not then – or ever since – play the game with any distinction, it was there, amidst a flurry of thunderous checks and crafty stratagems, that I fell headlong in love with the Queen of Mindsports. It was also there that I bore first-hand witness to the prodigious talent that underlies Vishy Anand’s subsequent ascension as the foremost King of Chess.

Anand was a roly-poly schoolkid back then, just about taller than the long tables on which club members squared off for laid-back skittles or rapid-fire shootouts with just five minutes on the clock.  In every other sense, however, he was among the tallest players on the circuit, and already something of a star, and took particularly perverse delight in humbling then-reigning International Masters, especially in the lightning-fast version of the game in which he excelled. 

One of the more subtle strategies in chess is to advance pawns down the centre of the board and control territory, and players delight in the opportunity to “fill the gaps” in the opponent’s defence with some aggressive pawn-pushing. In the vernacular languages that the Tal club’s playing hall resonated with, the expression “fill the gap” – which pawn-pushers would shout out like a war cry to punctuate their penetrative moves – acquired unsubtle sexual connotations. For a while, the club considered asking members to go easy on the double entendre as a concession to the presence of the new “kid” on the block, but it was already too late. For by then, no one was more joyfully shouting out the “fill the gap” war cry than the delightfully innocent ‘Lightning Kid’ Vishy Anand!

For all his distinction on the 64 squares, Anand has also brought to the game a gentlemanly refinement that has eluded world champions down the ages. Former champion Garry Kasparov once said that “the beautiful thing about chess is that it teaches you the humility of defeat.” But although Kasparov has a place in history as one of the most flamboyant players of all time, he couldn’t always summon the stately deportment, the endearing “humility”, that so signally characterises Anand.

Of former Cuban chess maestro Jose Raul Capablanca, it was famously said that “there is no greater gentleman in chess. No one can lose as graciously as he does, or win in a more detached manner.” But even he was embroiled in a very bitter professional rivalry (that oftentimes bordered on the personal) with former Soviet champion Alexander Alekhine. The latter himself was a notoriously poor loser: at a tournament in Vienna in 1922, he resigned somewhat spectacularly against his opponent – by hurling his king across the room!

For all the popular perception of chess as a pacific game played by genial old blokes, it’s been characterised down the ages by much physical violence. Grandmaster Nigel Short once said:  “Chess is ruthless: you’ve got to be prepared to kill people.” About two years ago, a new hybrid version of the game – called ‘chessboxing’ (a fusion of chess and boxing) – was conceptualised precisely to capitalise on the fact that chess perhaps has something in common with bloodsports. Even in the modern era, rivalry between chess players have tended to spill over from the 64 squares. In 1977, for instance, Viktor Korchnoi and Tigran Petrosian squared off in a ‘Match of Hate’: at one point, the organisers had to install a board under the table to stop the two Grandmasters from kicking each other!

It is in this context that Anand’s double distinction – as the King of Chess who also breaks the stereotype of the cranky, cantankerous, nerdy chess buff – is striking. Above all else, his ascendance is testimony that nice guys sometimes finish first.


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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