Only a few months ago Viswanathan Anand was a bruised warrior lying on the mat and writhing in the distinct pain inflicted upon him by a man, nearly 20 years his junior. In a sensational performance that shall decorate a few pages in the history books of chess, Anand erased some of the pain by winning the Candidates tournament in the Russian mining town of Khanty-Mansiysk. The stunning victory over a top class field, with some room to spare has given the 44-year-old another shot at Magnus Carlsen and a chance to avenge the stinging defeat he suffered last year. It was an epic resurrection – mightily impressive both for the speed at which it came as well the forceful manner in which Anand dominated his peers to emerge as a worthy challenger yet again.
Incredibly, Anand arrived in Russia with few, if any, giving him even an outside chance of winning the tournament. As it is, the Indian was having an ordinary year. It appeared that he was still suffering from the after effects of the mauling he received in Chennai during the title match last year. Below par performances in the London Chess Classic and the Zurich Chess Challenge fueled speculation that the great champion was in general decline.
At times, the scars that Carlsen had left seemed too obvious. Anand appeared to be weighed down by the burden of his defeat and he carried it on his visage. His outings in London and Zurich seemed to only confirm the perceptions that were building about the future of the 5-time world champion. But then, Anand has always been a keen student of the game. Even though it wasn’t apparent on the outside, smarting as he was from the loss to Carlsen, Anand was eager to learn from the experience.
Humility has always been a deep-rooted trait for Anand and despite being caught on the wrong foot in his title bout, the great Indian realized that his preparation and plans were not the most effective. Being a seasoned maestro, Anand deserves immense credit for not allowing ego to cloud his understanding of the situation. Anand’s honesty enabled him to appreciate the reasons for his lacklustre showing against the intuitive ways of his young opponent.
As he arrived in Russia to join some of the best chess players in the world – including world No. 2 Levon Aronian (2,830) and No.3 Vladimir Kramnik (2,787) – both rated above Anand (2,770) – as the anointed favourites to earn the right to challenge Carlsen for the biggest crown in the game of chess. Even the most learned of pundits could not have predicted the course taken by the event.
Buoyed by a sensational start, Anand built upon his 47-move victory over Aronian in the first round, building up his campaign one game at a time. In fact, Anand held the lead throughout the event, start to finish, not once relinquishing the advantage he gained on the first day.
As talented as Aronian is, the world No.2 has known to be fragile under pressure. The Indian used his experience well, boxing the Armenian’s knight to a cramped corner to snatch a sensational victory to begin his campaign in the tournament.
Admittedly, Aronian made some poor moves early in the game, but you would expect a man of his caliber to recover and salvage a draw. As it turned out, the 31-year-old wilted under a probing game from the former champion. Even as key opponents kept stumbling through the stiles, Anand managed to keep his slate clean under demanding circumstances. The big turn came in round nine – when both Aronian and Kramnik lost their matches, just as Anand found a way past Veselin Topalov.
There were five more rounds to go, but Anand already enjoyed a nearly decisive edge over the classy field of opponents. More importantly, the boyish grin was back on the face of Anand, a clear sign that the wise old man was enjoying his arm chair exploits yet again. But there was one last hurdle to surpass, just to ensure that he sailed through without having to deal with a tense tie-breaker at the tail end of the event. Sergey Karjakin, another outside bet, pushed Anand to the wall in the penultimate round of the event.
Karjakin knew he needed a victory to challenge Anand, but try as he may, the Indian proved equal to his opponent’s probing questions. Eventually, Anand was able to showcase his fitness to quell Karjakin and take a draw after battling for as many as 91 moves.
In a tournament where everyone but Anand lost at least twice, the Indian’s clean slate helped him seal a classic victory with a round to spare. Speed and agility have always been Anand’s forte, but in negating a probing end game – the kind of which Carlsen used to devastate him last year must have given the man from Chennai immense satisfaction.
In the end, Anand’s surprising success over the mighty collection of Grand Masters served to remind several of his detractors that the 5-time champion could still muster his best despite the advancing years. It is even more poignant that Anand has managed to use the scars of his defeat to fuel his resurrection in such a short span of time.
The World Championship, a rematch from last year, is set for 5th through 25th November and Carlsen can expect some stiff resistance this time around from the veteran warrior. Anand might well be bleeding, but the pain seems to elevate this great champion into a state of heightened performance.Published 01 Apr 2014, 13:51 IST