By John Cheeran
Not many young geniuses fulfill their potential. Viswanathan Anand is a are champion who tasted success at a young age and went on to become world chess champion five times in an era when Russian players were still a dominant force.
Anand become world junior champion in 1987. At that time I had written that Anand will go on to become the world champion in a vernacular newspaper. Around the same time, The Indian Express sport editor Suresh Menon had written in a column that he is keeping a note written by the young champion so that he could auction it when Anand eventually became champion. Not sure whether Menon auctioned the Anand letter and landed a hefty sum.
Later in 2000, when Anand finally became the world champion, I had given an evanescent headline on the Times of India website, ‘Anand Is Viswanathan.’ That was a moment to savour. For in 1995, at a time when one was beginning a career in journalism on the Express sport desk, Anand was crushed by Garri Kasaparov in his first tilt at world title at the World Trade Centre in New York.
The thing about Anand is that he was not an overtly brooding player, he was the Lightning Kid. To take in the importance of Anand’s achievement over the last 30 years, you should realise that he was India’s first Grand Master. Today India has more than 64 GMs, but not another world champion. He had defeated the masters—Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov and then his contemporaries—Alexi Shirov, Kramnik, Gelfand and that ilk. That the split at the top in the FIDE meant Anand had to work extra hard to prove his authenticity as the world match after first winning the title in 2000—rematches and the tortuous qualifying processes. In 2007, he became the undisputed champion winning the world championship held in Mexico.
As he turned 50 recently, Anand has taken time to sit back and reflect on his long journey. Mind Master is a brilliant take on his career, world chess, sport and life. He does not gloat. In fact he looks at his vulnerabilities unflinchingly and tells us that how close were his battles and how despite an array of seconds and access to huge data, winning still calls for ingenuity at the board. He, of course, admits that it is a game that requires talent but without nurturing it with long hours of hard work, success would not come to you.
It is very easy to look at your success and elaborate on. Not so with your slide in fortune and the crisis of confidence. The defeat in chess can leave you so crushed that recovery can be an agonizing process. Anand has gone about in an unflinching manner to look at fall from the top without any sentimentality. He concedes that faced with a younger crop of players like Magnus Carlsen and his tribe, life has become tough for him. Anand also writes that his ascent to the top owed to the fact that he largely won against players older than him or nearly his contemporaries and did not have to be that novel and inventive at that time.
Anand says that when he is under stress he does not fall back on what other champions usually do—positive thinking. Champions are often said to recall their high points and visualize the impending success ahead of a crucial encounter or under stress. Anand tells in Mind Master that he thinks about how far he can fall and that calms his mind. This is a revealing aspect of the man from Chennai who lives up to the cliché of a south Indian gentleman sport hero.
Chess, and how it is played, has changed over the course of time. The game is evolving, Anand reminds the reader. When he began as a junior player, getting hold of a chess book was in itself was a minor coup. Today there are powerful computers that offers you access to huge loads of data. But the human element still determines success.
Mind Master is a remarkable book. It is not about great chess openings or dour defence strategies. It will not win matches for you. But his account will help you understand life a little more better, with all its crooked nuances and all that.