Sample this statistic: Of the top-four finishers at last week's St Louis Rapid & Blitz tournament, three players were below 30 years. The two senior-most players in the field - former World No. 1 Garry Kasparov (54 years), appearing in a competitive tournament for the first time since he retired 12 years ago, and five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand (47 years) occupied the bottom-most positions. Kasparov finished one spot above the ninth-placed Indian.
Stopping to catch a few days of rest at home in Chennai before heading to Tbilisi, Georgia for the Chess World Cup, Anand tells ESPN that falling behind Kasparov wasn't the worst part: "I think I played the rapid and blitz quite badly so pretty much everyone finished ahead of me. Losing to (Levon) Aronian in the rapid was very difficult, especially since I was winning. That loss really hurt." Anand began strongly against Aronian, the World No. 5 Armenian who went on to become the overall tournament champion, before blundering in the 23rd move and caving in to tactical challenges that followed on the first day of the rapid event.
"Passion is what makes us do what we do. Clearly, he (Kasparov) is very passionate about the game."
Anand's example, in fact, adds credence to the strong correlation between age and faster time controls. Not long ago he ruled the format, earning the 'Lightning Kid' sobriquet. Today, age is a little more than just a number. "There is a (age glass) ceiling no doubt," he says, "I was once the poster boy for rapid chess!"
At the other end of the spectrum is the reigning world rapid champion, 48-year-old Vassily Ivanchuk. Dismissing the age argument summarily, former World No. 3 Boris Gelfand tells ESPN that he doesn't go through the shortened time control games deeply and doesn't read much into the results. "I don't attach much value to them and don't think rapid and blitz games deserve to be analysed seriously. Less than a year ago, Anand won the tournament in St Louis in convincing fashion." The Champions Showdown in St Louis in November last year, which pitted two former world champions (Anand and Veselin Topalov) against the top two American players (Hikaru Nakamura, Fabiano Caruana) across two classical, two rapid and four blitz round robins, had the Indian taking home the $60,000 prize purse with seven wins, 16 draws and one defeat.
This year, at the St Louis rapid event, where all players faced each other in a round-robin format with 25 minutes on the clock for the entire game, both Kasparov and Anand seemed to flounder when it came to tactical decisions. In Anand's case, form doesn't seem to be the villain, considering his second-place finish at the recent Sinquefield Cup. "Clearly age is the defining factor when it comes to the shorter formats," Grandmaster Pravin Thipsay notes, adding, "For someone like Anand, who excelled in this format, to finish at the bottom is surprising. I've always felt that the faster time controls aren't indicative of strength or understanding of the game. It's more about reflexes, intuition and instant decisions."
All three games across rapid and blitz formats that old-time foes Anand and Kasparov played against each other ended in draws. Results, though, didn't seem to matter gravely. "We did discuss economy & politics," Anand says, "He has a unique perspective on world affairs. I think he thoroughly enjoyed himself in St Louis. Passion is what makes us do what we do. Clearly, he is very passionate about the game."
Up next is the World Cup, a 128-player knockout tournament, held every two years, which gets underway on September 2 and Anand will have to finish in the top two to progress to next year's Candidates tournament, which will determine Magnus Carlsen's challenger for the 2018 World Championship. Apart from Anand, six other Indian players - Pentala Harikrishna, SP Sethuraman, Deep Sengupta, Karthikeyan Murali, Vidit Gujarthi and Baskaran Adhiban - will also be part of the field.
In an almost unprecedented instance, reigning world champion Carlsen will participate in the World Cup. A self-admitted fan of the knockout format, Carlsen being part of the qualification stage for the World Championship could add intrigue to the already unpredictable contest.
"To play the tournament is Magnus's choice," Anand says. "I will just focus on my chances."