When Vishwanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen kick off their clash for the World Chess Championship today, they will be equal parts chess maestros and archetypes. The drama of the rising young challenger taking on the greying, seasoned champion — at 43, Anand is almost twice the Norwegian wunderkind’s age — is woven through the natural world. Anand will need every ounce of the experience and wiliness he has accumulated over the years if he is to defend the title he won in 2000 and has held again from 2007 onwards.
Carlsen is already reckoned a player for the ages and the odds-on favourite to win the contest; among others, he has Russian legend Garry Kasparov’s imprimatur. Little wonder a number of commentators have already compared the match to the 1972 duel between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky at a time when Cold War tensions were running high. But the subtext to that comparison is Anand’s place in the lineage of great chess players and in the pantheon of Indian sporting legends.
Great rivalries define great sportsmen. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier; their greatest battles sum up the quintessence of sporting genius. Chess, of course, had Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov, the greatest rivalry in chess history. Anand, by contrast, has suffered from the lack of any such rival — even more so because his rise to the top coincided with the tail end of Karpov and Kasparov’s careers, their rivalry recent enough to cast a long shadow over the chess world. But any sportsman can only confront the challenges placed before him. Anand has done so handsomely, from giving Karpov and Kasparov tough challenges as a young turk himself to beating Vladimir Kramnik in 2008. His dominance in his generation is difficult to question; on the whole, he is perhaps the finest player between Kasparov and Carlsen.
Anand’s pre-eminence among Indian sportsmen is even more assured. His playing Carlsen at the same time as India’s most loved sportsman embarks on his swansong serves as a strikingly apt metaphor for his career. Much as Sachin Tendulkar’s appearances in Kolkata and Mumbai are liable to draw far more attention than Anand’s contest in Chennai, cricket has dominated the Indian public’s imagination for the entirety of the latter’s career.
And yet, without the adulation, often away from the public gaze, Anand has staked a claim to being the country’s greatest sportsman ever; certainly among its most prodigiously gifted. Any tally of his achievements is astonishing — the youngest Indian to become an International Grandmaster in 1984 at age 15, national chess champion a year later, India’s first Grandmaster at 18, winning the Padma Shri the same year. Two decades of brilliant performances on the global stage and numerous tournament victories later — along with picking up the inaugural Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 1991-92 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2007 — he is still going strong.
Will he be able to cap a glittering career by seeing off Carlsen’s challenge? In a sense, it does not matter. If he does, it will add an intriguing twist to the tale; Carlsen’s eventual domination of the chess world seems all but inevitable, but the old champion living to fight another day makes for good drama. In every way that matters, however, Anand’s place in history is secure.