Viswanathan Anand may have won every Indian sporting title worth winning — most recently All Sport magazine’s award for Greatest Indian Sportsman of All Time — but he well knows that a loss in his current world title defence in Sofia will tarnish his legacy.
Although Anand has won the world title in almost every format of the game, he has only held the prestigious match title since 2008, when he defeated the man who ended Garry Kasparov’s long reign in 2000, Vladimir Kramnik.
His collaboration with sponsor NIIT is credited with improving computer literacy for many young people, though on the downside he is also responsible for a slew of preteen Indians leaving school and turning professional to try their luck at becoming the new Anand. (Many international players have returned from chess tournaments in India minus plenty of world ranking points and moaning about the army of 12-year-old monsters who have no respect for their chess elders and betters.)
Anand’s rise from teenage superstar to acknowledged champion nearing the end of his sporting ascendance has paralleled that of Sachin Tendulkar, although at 40 Anand is more than three years older than the cricket legend.
Despite Anand’s individual accolades, chess has never enjoyed the national sport status of cricket and the rise of T20 cricket, and the Indian Premier League in particular, has seen Tendulkar’s star in the ascendant over Anand, at least as far as the Indian media is concerned.
In decades past, a coterie of Indian journalists would follow Anand around the world reporting on his every move. The greatest chess natural talent of the modern era — the player who in his youth was described as “moving faster than God thinks” — was everywhere; on television, billboards and the newspapers.
However in Sofia only two Indian media organisations have an on-site correspondent, the rest relying on internet reports and videos to convey the ups and downs of the match to their readers and viewers.
In contrast, stories about Tendulkar have been wall-to-wall for months. He has his own tribute ring tone and he was recently named by the local edition of Time as one of the world’s 100 most influential people. (Well, if Lady Gaga can make the list, why not Sachin?)
Like Tendulkar, Anand has an unimpeachable public image; fiercely determined but always respectful to his opponents. In the current match against challenger Topalov Anand has refused to exploit games with Topalov’s eccentric decision not to offer or accept draws, repeating moves when he could easily have embarrassed Topalov by making a draw offer the Bulgarian could not refuse.
Still, it is heartening to mere mortals that Anand does at least have impure thoughts; more precisely after yesterday’s dramatic game seven, he admitted to an “Oh Shit!” moment when his opponent uncorked a series of home prepared sacrifices.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators on the internet, many with computers in the background whirring their approval of Topalov’s play, feared the worst for the World Champion.
To his enormous credit, Anand settled down to analyse his way through the complications and, despite using up most of the two hours allocated to him for his first 40 moves, found a way to survive.
The most eventful and longest game of the match so far was not front page news in India; not even one of the leading sports stories because the World T20 Championship had begun and India were winning.
However Anand’s amazing save today, which preserved a 4-3 lead was a credit to a great chess brain and a never-say-die spirit. The Indian media may not be as enamoured but Anand goes on producing performances of the highest level in the most demanding form of the game. He has sent Topalov and his team back to the drawing board wondering “If I can hit him that hard and he doesn’t flinch, how will I ever find a way through?”
World Championship 2010 Game 7
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 d5 4.g3 Bb4+
The first new try given that 4…dxc4 has not worked out well for Topalov to date.
“An idea of my second Ivan Cheparinov,” said Topalov. “We have played against each other so many times that it is very difficult to surprise Vishy. [This time] maybe I succeeded in surprising him.” Similar material sacrifices have been seen before but not in this form.
12.Bxa8 Qxa8 13.f3 Nd5 14.Bd2 e5! 15.e4 Bh3!
Another surprise. “Maybe I shouldn’t have ended up here,” was Anand’s understated comment after the game.
16.exd5 Bxf1 17.Qxf1 exd4 18.a4!
The only chance for freedom; without this move White’s pieces on the queenside may never emerge.
18…Qxd5 19.axb5 Qxb5 20.Rxa7 Re8 21.Kh1
“I’m not sure if this is best,” admitted Anand, but, already an hour behind on the clock — Topalov had only used three minutes to this point – Anand did not have the luxury of time for further cogitation.
21…Bf8 22.Rc7 d3 23.Bc3 Bd6 24.Ra7 h6
Played after Topalov’s first long think for the game. “Luckily after 24…Qh5 25.Nd2 Bxg3 I have 26.Qg1!,” said Anand.