It's a scenario Viswanathan Anand is not entirely used to. But one that's assuming a disconcerting regularity in his calendar and mind space. For the second successive time, the Indian has been ruled out of reckoning for the World Chess Championship, and it's not a comforting truth for someone who has been part of almost every title match over the past decade.
This year, it's a cut harsher. It will be the first time since he became World champion in 2007 that Anand won't even be part of the qualifying process.
"I guess it's easier this time since I've done it already," Anand, a five-time world champion, tells ESPN, "In a way my focus has just shifted to other things. My next shot at anything will only be in 2019 so till then I'll just play whatever tournaments are available in circuits I go to."
His fate became clearer and chances of a spot at the Candidates, a qualifying tournament which determines the challenger for the World Championship, came to a naught after a draw against Anton Kovalyov in the second round of the World Cup in Georgia. He had lost the first game to the Canadian and had to win the second to equalise and force a tiebreaker in the 128-player knockout tournament.
"When I'm asked if it's a relief to not have qualified for the Candidates to go over the World Championship grind all over again it's like asking someone if they're happy not to have won a lottery so they don't have to pay taxes. The World Championship is a lot of hard work but you do it because you find it fascinating. Now, I'll have more free time on my hands. I'll be still preparing for matches and tournaments but obviously not with that kind of manic intensity."
The winner of the Candidates, an eight player double-round robin tournament to be held in March next year in Berlin, will move on to contest reigning champion Magnus Carlsen for the world title in November 2018. To qualify for the Candidates, a player would have to finish -- winner or runners-up at the World Cup, among the top two at the World Chess Grand Prix Series, the top two highest average 2017 ratings or win a wild card.
"At 47, he's yet to consider a life disengaged from playing, trying and trying again, much like the average Indian who doesn't really care for the sport's algebraic notation of alphanumeric co-ordinates, with chess and Anand fused together in a singular concept. You take one away, and the other loses meaning."
Calling the size of the Candidates field a 'severe reduction' and one that could do well with at least 16 players, Anand is quick to sum up that all his probabilities for qualification are now firmly shut. "To qualify by rating now, I would need to play a tournament soon and win some unimaginable number of points, so basically I'm out of the running mathematically and I don't see any wild card chances either. Some speculation seems to suggest that it (wild card) could go to a Russian player this time."
Anand, who had an unbroken World Championship reign from 2007 up until 2013, before he fell to Nordic prodigy Carlsen twice in two years, has lived his days, weeks and months around the title match. Suddenly, in its place there's a gaping void and more free time than he's used to.
"Last year I found it impossible to watch a World Championship game without thinking what would I be doing if I was in front of him (Carlsen). I think I've been in that scenario too often to be able to completely detach myself. But in the end there's no tension the night before I go for the first games or a week before, it's clearly not me who's playing."
When the next opportunity for a 2019 World Championship appearance presents itself, Anand will be trudging towards the rear end of 40s. He's clinical, almost unemotional about his prospects, straddling the benefits and challenges of hope, both actual and conceived. "I think my probability of winning another world title is greater than zero. Part of the fascination is just trying to see how far you get. So even if I don't go all the way, pushing yourself to try is motivating. There are an incredible number of strong players and to qualify for the Candidates, then there's Carlsen and I'm not getting any younger. So clearly my chances are going down, but I'll still try."
"When I'm asked if it's a relief to not have qualified for the Candidates to go over the World Championship grind all over again it's like asking someone if they're happy not to have won a lottery so they don't have to pay taxes."Viswanathan Anand
After an early World Cup exit in September, Anand had an impressive run at the recent Isle of Man championship, finishing joint-second with American Hikaru Nakamura and just half a point behind title winner Carlsen. Slightly favorable pairings, avoiding Carlsen, Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana, also worked to an advantage for the World No. 9. His next tournament -- London Chess Classic -- is more than 45 days away and the Indian has plans with family at the center of his extended break. "When you get three or five days, you just stare at the ceiling and recover a bit before you catch the next flight out," he says. Now, he can probably tick-off family holiday destinations from the back of his organiser.
At 47, he's yet to consider a life disengaged from playing, trying and trying again, much like the average Indian who doesn't really care for the sport's algebraic notation of alphanumeric co-ordinates, with chess and Anand fused together in a singular concept. You take one away, and the other loses meaning. From here, Anand's attempts could only grow more daunting and questions over his retirement move into an overkill. He wears all of it lightly, and still finds excitement in an interesting move or a dominating performance.
"Trying to do something for the fifth or sixth time (World Championship appearance), no matter how much you talk yourself around, it is not the same as doing it for the first time when you don't have to talk to yourself at all... There are still new things to learn and good results in tournaments still give me a rush. That feeling is still there," he says.