In August last year, Viswanathan Anand spoke of his dominance in the faster time controls with a hint of nostalgia. It was just after he had finished ninth among 10 players at the St Louis rapid and blitz chess tournament. Six months since, he has already won two rapid titles: one offering him the crown of a world champion and the other coming after having beaten a 10-man strong field. He now addresses his earlier travails in the format like an inexplicable chapter.
"I was feeling quite down when we spoke about rapid chess last August," Anand tells ESPN from Moscow. "I had really wondered where it had gone. I'm in a completely different place now. I feel more comfortable saying that my rehabilitation in rapid chess is well under way."
Anand's last-minute entry and win at the World Rapid Championships in Riyadh last December was smack out of the blue. It wasn't expected that the 48-year-old Grandmaster would defeat reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen in 34 moves in the ninth round and go on to finish the tournament unbeaten. But his Tal Memorial win on Sunday was to serve as validation, telling the world that his story is that of a remarkable turnaround, not a one-time wonder.
"Actually when we spoke last year I really wanted to sit down and figure out what I should do about the faster time controls, but I never got the time to actually do it," says the five-time world champion. "I still had classical events to play before I could worry about tournaments in future. So my recovery in rapid chess, you can say, happened without any particular work or planning, and I can't even say why or how it did. Maybe sometimes deep down if you have the desire to change some trend it helps you focus. That definitely happened in Riyadh. It's good to have a confirmation and prove yourself in both formats [Swiss in the World Rapid Championship and single round robin at the Tal Memorial]. So now not only am I the current world rapid champion, I also have this very strong addition with my Tal Memorial title."
Having entered the final day's play sharing the joint top spot with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Anand broke away to take sole lead in the penultimate round with a win over Alexander Grischuk. He finished the tournament with six points out of a possible nine, a full point ahead of Hikaru Nakamura, Sergey Karjakin and Mamedyarov in a field that had four players headed to the Candidates tournament, to stake claim as the World Championship challenger.
Nine rounds of rapid chess at Tal were followed by 13 rounds of blitz, which Karjakin went on to win. Anand finished ninth with six points.
"On the last day -- I had two blacks -- I felt that with my openings it would be easier to strike with one white game that I had," Anand says. "I couldn't tell if Mamedyarov had slowed down considerably after the draws but it seemed to me that he took his foot off the pedal a bit. For me the critical game was one against Grischuk because in both the black games I had easy draws but in this game we had a very intense struggle. He's the kind of player who never really settles but always pushes for his chances. Even though he was trailing in the tournament, he was trying to catch up with the leaders. He believed that he was close to winning -- which I too felt about my chances -- or at the very least had a big advantage. And the strange thing is, though he was slightly closer to the truth, he underestimated my resources. After I finished the game, I turned back and saw that Mamedyarov had in fact lost to [Daniil] Dubov and that took the pressure off me completely."
For Anand though, the day of the final round didn't get off to a favourable start. He missed the bus from his hotel to the venue and just about managed to reach in time for his game.
"Our bus driver decided to play it safe and leave early because of the heavy snowfall," he says. "I got there in a cab with about two minutes to spare. For me the tricky bit would have been the first game but luckily I managed a comfortable draw with Karjakin, which took the pressure off right away."
It also helped that he wasn't entirely new to the experience.
During the 128-player knockout World Championships in 2001, the car ferrying Anand and his wife to the venue broke down in the middle of a traffic-choked road a kilometre from the Kremlin in Moscow. It was minutes before his tiebreak against French Grandmaster Olivier Touzane.
"We realized it was hopeless to wait for another car, so we just walked," he says. "Funnily enough that game was one where I could have been eliminated from the tournament but I survived that and won, and it ended up being a good day. And now so did this one."