On September 29, 2007, in Mexico City, India conquered the world.
Seventeen days earlier, eight elite chess players had gathered there to play a gruelling double round-robin tournament. Each player would play all the others twice, once each with white and black. Fourteen rounds against elite opposition. Such super-grandmaster tournaments were common, but this one was special, not just because of the strength of the field assembled but because the winner would be crowned the undisputed world champion of Chess. Therefore, unlike in other tournaments, only first place mattered. There would be blood on this dance floor.
At the end of 14 rounds, one man remained unbeaten. Viswanathan Anand of India had ten draws and four wins to his credit, and with nine points out of 14, won the tournament by a full point. Anand, at 37 years of age, was among the older world champions in what was increasingly becoming a young man's game. He was no journeyman, though, but one of the greatest talents in the history of chess, who, as a young prodigy in the late '80s and early '90s, had threatened to be the first man after Bobby Fischer to challenge the Soviet School of Chess. It is impossible to overstate what a monumental achievement this was.
Vladimir Lenin enjoyed playing chess, but institutional support for chess in the Soviet Union had less to do with love of the game and more to do with ideology and geopolitics. Nikolai Krylenko, a senior functionary and the head of the Soviet chess association (until he was purged by Stalin in 1938), once said: "We must finish once and for all with the neutrality of chess. We must condemn once and for all the formula 'chess for the sake of chess', like the formula 'art for art's sake'. We must organize shockbrigades of chess-players, and begin immediate realization of a Five-Year Plan for chess."
"A study in 1946 found that grandmasters don't actually calculate more moves ahead than novice players. They just calculate the right ones. What they see on the chessboard is not just a collection of pieces but a collection of existing patterns and possible patterns, all with their own characteristics and weaknesses"
Chess was taught in schools, and chess players received special dispensation from the regime. In 1927 they even had a world champion in Alexander Alekhine. But Alekhine turned against the Bolsheviks and left for France, whom he represented in the 1930s. It was after World War II that the Soviet School of Chess really took off.
One of the imperatives of the Cold War was that the Soviets had to find ways to demonstrate that their vision of the world was superior to that of the capitalist, decadent West. Chess was an obvious domain. Alekhine had died in 1946, but around half of the best players in the world were Soviet. A five-man quintuple round-robin tournament was held in 1948 to decide the World Championship; three of the participants were Soviet. Their chosen man, Mikhail Botvinnik, won easily. Botvinnik became a central figure in the decades-long Soviet domination of chess that followed. Indeed, his work ethic and his values formed the template for the Soviet School.
The School placed an emphasis on preparation, both mental and physical. In 1926, the scrawny 15-year-old Botvinnik found himself running out of energy during games, and on his mother's advice, began a daily exercise routine to raise his fitness levels. (Intense concentration at a chess board can take up a surprising amount of energy, and stamina matters.) Physical fitness became a credo for the Soviet School. Far more impressive, though, was the work they put into theoretical preparation.
The key skill in chess is not calculation but pattern recognition. A famous study by Adriaan de Groot in 1946 found that grandmasters don't actually calculate more moves ahead than novice players. They just calculate the right ones. This is because what they see on the chessboard is not just a collection of pieces but a collection of existing patterns and possible patterns, all with their own characteristics and weaknesses. The more they study and play the game, the more patterns they understand, with greater depth and subtlety.
The Soviet School began training schoolkids in the basic principles of chess, exposing them systematically to an increasing number of patterns, and teaching them basic heuristics to help them deal with common situations. This gave Soviet players an enormous edge over others who did not have this training. Insights that others had to labour to achieve were intuitive for them. Others such as a kid growing up in India in the 1980s, before the advent of computers, with no access to the kind of information and training that the Soviets had.
Devangshu Datta, a writer who played serious chess in the 1980s, and knows Anand well, once told me: "When I started playing East Europeans [in the '80s], the difference in 'chess culture' was stark. We knew so much less, it wasn't funny. To take an analogy, it was like putting a bunch of talented kids with a basic knowledge of, say, self-taught HSC level maths into direct competition with people who had post-grad math degrees.
"Anand did not have the mental toolkit that Soviet players did, and had to figure it out on the fly. Think of it as playing Wimbledon today with the kind of wooden racket they used 30 years ago"
"We'd struggle through the opening and hit the middle game and start wondering what to do, then in the post-mortem, the opponent would say, 'Oh, my trainer AN Other taught us that with this structure you have to play this way', and you'd be like, 'Shit.'"
For Anand to come out of this environment and establish himself as an elite player was mind-boggling. He did not have the mental toolkit that Soviet players did, and had to figure it out on the fly. Think of it as playing Wimbledon today with the kind of wooden racket they used 30 years ago; or, as I like to say, taking a Maruti 800 into a Formula One championship and actually competing for the title. What manner of special talent does it take to do that?
Appearances can be deceptive in chess. If you look at Anand, you see a polite, sedately dressed conventional Tamilian gentleman - but his chess style was something apart from this. Think of him as the Viv Richards of chess - flamboyant, attacking, pulling off moves that would leave his opponents in awe. Anand was known in his early days for his creative, attacking play, and he also played quickly, often taking minutes on the clock where others would take more than an hour. He didn't only have attacking strokes in his arsenal, though. He was what is known as a universal player: comfortable in all kinds of positions, with no weaknesses in his game.
The chess world that Anand set foot into as a teenager in the late 1980s was a bipolar one - and both the poles were Soviet. Anatoly Karpov, the blue-eyed boy of the Soviet establishment, had become world champion in 1975 by default after Bobby Fischer refused to defend his title against him. (Some say Fischer was scared he would lose to this phenomenal young talent.) Karpov was a positional genius, and his style was likened to that of a boa constrictor, squeezing with precise, quiet moves till there was no life left in his opponent. Garry Kasparov, who beat him for the World Championship in 1985, and in a series of epic matches after that, was an unreal talent. He combined the strong points of every world champion before him, and unlike Anand, his personality matched his playing style: relentlessly attacking, uncompromising, fearless. (He would later battle Vladimir Putin with the same ferocity with which he took down Karpov.) Kasparov was the rebel to Karpov's establishment man persona - but both were solid products of the Soviet school, and both had been personally trained by Botvinnik.
Anand won the World Junior Championship in 1987, but his big breakthrough to the elite level came in 1991, when he won a strong super-grandmaster round-robin tournament in Reggio Emilia. He finished ahead of Kasparov (whom he beat with black), Karpov, and upcoming superstars Boris Gelfand and Vassily Ivanchuk. For the first time since Fischer, the domination of the Soviet School of Chess was threatened by an outsider.
Anand's quest to be world champion was complicated by a split in the chess world in 1993. Garry Kasparov fought with FIDE, the world chess body, over terms for his World Championship match against Nigel Short, and Kasparov and Short quit to set up a rival association, PCA, with its own World Championship matches. FIDE continued holding World Championships without Kasparov. Anand qualified through a rigorous process to play Kasparov for the PCA world title in 1995. They met in New York, and after eight draws, Anand won the ninth game with a sparkling exchange sacrifice. But Kasparov rebounded ferociously to win four of the next five games to put the match away.
Anand's next shot was at the FIDE World Championship in 1997-98. Its format was absurd: 97 players would play in a month-long knockout tournament in Groningen in the Netherlands, ending on December 30. And the winner would immediately travel to Lausanne in Switzerland to play a match against a fresh Karpov, who was seeded directly into the final, on January 2. Anand won the knockout tournament, beating Michael Adams in the final match, but was naturally drained by the effort. He later said that he was "brought in a coffin" to play Karpov, and chess enthusiast Sreenivas Lakkineni was quoted as saying that Anand's condition was similar to "a runner being asked to immediately start a 100-metre race from the marathon finishing line". To his credit, Anand drew the match 3-3, but lost the Rapid playoff.
"Chess is played in many more countries and by many more people than any other sport that Indians have excelled in, and Anand has been at the pinnacle of the game for two and a half decades"
A couple of years later, in 2000, Anand finally won the FIDE World Championship, triumphing over another 100-man field in a knockout tournament. (Large-field knockout tournaments are very high-variance, so winning two of them within three years was remarkable in itself.) He wasn't the undisputed world champion, though, and craved a shot at that title. The PCA had no qualification system in place, and Kasparov basically picked who he wanted to play. That same year, he overlooked the World No. 2, Anand, and picked fellow Russian Vladimir Kramnik for a World Championship match. To everyone's surprise, Kramnik beat Kasparov.
The early 2000s were a frustrating time for Anand. He had won one half of the world title, but the other half was held by Kramnik, and Kasparov was still World No. 1. (Anand was No. 2.) Anand won the World Rapid and Blitz titles (players get around 30 minutes each in Rapid and around five minutes each in Blitz) and also won a series of super-GM tournaments. But the chess world was disorganised, and there were no signs of a unified world championship. Kasparov retired in 2005, opting to take on Putin on a larger chessboard. FIDE then got its act together and organised a reunification match between Kramnik and the FIDE world champion at the time, Veselin Topalov. Kramnik won, and was thereby the undisputed champion. And the next year, for the first time since a 37-year-old Mikhail Botvinnik won in 1948, a tournament (instead of a series of knockout matches) was held to decide the new undisputed world champion.
For about four years starting in 2007, Anand played chess as well as anyone has in the game's history. He was World No. 1 now, and after winning the title with a solid performance in 2007, he defended it in matches against Kramnik (2008), Topalov (2010) and Gelfand (2012). His play in the matches against Kramnik and Topalov, in particular, was "as close to perfection as you can get", according to Datta.
Where does one place Anand in the pantheon of Indian sport? Chess is played in many more countries and by many more people than any other sport that Indians have excelled in, and Anand has been at the pinnacle of the game for two and a half decades. By this reckoning, he is incomparable. And his 2007 world title has special meaning.
Had the world championships never been unified, indeed had they not been held at all, Anand would still have been a dominant player and perhaps played games of the same quality. But sporting greatness is not just about how well you play the game in a vacuum, but how well you play it under pressure. Context matters. With his lifetime's dream within his grasp, to display the solidity he showed in 2007, and then the versatility (and mastery of his opponents) he did in the subsequent matches against Kramnik and Topalov, was extraordinary - and so very unlikely. A soft-spoken Tamilian boy from India taking down the Soviet School of Chess? Who'd have thunk it?