After a series of tumultuous games in the rapid leg of the recently-concluded Leuven leg of the Grand Chess Tour, Viswanathan Anand for the first time hinted at plans of retirement.
Talking to grandmaster Maurice Ashley about his topsy-turvy play, Anand said, “I think I was playing just mental. I think I shouldn’t bother playing like this. It makes no sense”. When Ashley asked if he wasn’t pleased with his play, Anand further added that “there’s no point playing chess like this.”
It is clear by his words after the Leuven Rapid tournament that the Tiger of Madras was feeling dejected after yet another bad show. After all, he had finished eighth in a 10-player event with a score of 8.0/18. But more important than his overall performance, perhaps, was his outing on the final day.
In the seventh round (which was the first round of that day), he was paired against the French number one, Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. Playing with the white pieces, Anand went for the open variation of the Sicilian defence, allowing his opponent to steer the game into the Najdorf variation. For those who don’t know, Vachier-Lagrave is the world’s greatest exponent of the Sicilian Najdorf and plays it almost exclusively with the black pieces against king pawn openings. It’s no exaggeration to say that he is the world’s best player currently in this particular variation of the Sicilian. However, as play proceeded, Anand went on to demolish the Frenchman’s opening by coming up with a crushing bishop sacrifice after Vachier-Lagrave made some inaccuracies. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Anand was on his way to produce yet another show of brilliance. Unfortunately, the Indian faltered inexplicably not once, but on several occasions; and what should have been a glorious victory turned out to be a bitter defeat.
In his second game of the day, playing against Magnus Carlsen, he was posed with some really difficult problems out of the opening. The world champion sacrificed a piece and had lashed out with a strong attack. But Vishy defended with stone cold nerves, and didn’t let the position go out of hand. In the end, though the position was equal, Carlsen was in horrible time trouble. He merely had 13 seconds on his clock. Anand made the most of it by finding a neat maneuver to exchange queens and come out on a very strong position. However, Anand slipped at the very end in this game as well and allowed Carlsen to get enough counter-play to hold on to a draw.
In the final game, Anand was pitted against the Georgian grandmaster Baadur Jobava, who had had a nightmare of an event in Leuven. He had lost his first seven games and had drawn against Anish Giri in Round 8. But despite his poor performance at the event, he was in a good spirit after scoring his first point. As the game began, Anand was able to build up a commanding position for himself. With two extra pawns to the good, Anand seemed to be cruising towards victory when he slipped for the third time in a row and allowed Jobava’s queen to enter his position. After the game, he admitted he got thoughts of losing this game as well. But objectively, the position was only equal. Fortunately for Anand, Jobava miscalculated on move 38 and allowed Anand to race his pawns to the queening square and win the game.
His performance in these games just goes on to show that Anand is undoubtedly capable of winning against the best in the world. But what is also starkly visible is that he isn’t consistent in his play, and isn’t able to finish his opponents off like he used to do in the past.
Many in the world of chess have felt at several points of time that Anand had lost his force and should retire from the game. But Anand had never really given up his hopes of winning back his world championship title and dismissed all talks about retirement. In fact, on many occasions he had shut down his critics by setting miraculous comebacks.
Before the 2014 Candidates tournament — after Anand had lost his world title to Magnus Carlsen — Russian chess journalist, Evgeny Surov went so far as to say, “If you asked me who would NOT win (the Candidates tournament) then I’d be glad to give you a clear reply: Anand. Let’s agree on the following: If Anand wins the tournament I’ll publicly admit I understand nothing about life or chess, and you’ll never ask me to take part in such a survey again.” Anand did not comment on this but went on to dominate the 2014 Candidates right from round one and won in style. After Anand’s victory, Surov had to publicly admit that he knew nothing about life or chess.
The bottom-line is that the world knows Anand to be a fighter. He has suffered bad form, bitter defeats and a lot more. But like a phoenix, he has always risen from the ashes. He is after all the man who made India a force to be reckoned with in the world of chess.
Today, India, with its 47 grandmasters and a plethora of upcoming talent, could be considered one of the super-powers when it comes to the game of chess. But this wasn’t always the case. Until the late 1980s, the country did not have a single grandmaster to boast of. Anand, Chennai's own lightning kid, was the one person who really catapulted the chess scene in India.
His success has inspired tens of thousands in India to take up the game as their profession, and as a result, the chess scene in the country is bustling. He has not only been a great player but also a great ambassador for the game in the country. It can only be hoped that the Tiger from Madras comes back with a roar yet again, putting behind all of these failures, like he has done so many times.
Note: Vishy Anand will be playing in the 2017 World Cup in Tbilisi, Georgia between 2-29 September. The top two players in the 128-player knockout event qualify for the Candidates 2018.
The author is an editor at ChessBase India
Updated Date: Jul 05, 2017 07:49 AM