Viswanathan Anand is making mental notes of the questions he wants to throw at his former fiendish rival-turned buddy, Vladimir Kramnik. The 44-year-old Russian, who beat Garry Kasparov in 2000, held onto the World Championship title until Anand ended his run in 2007. Now, Kramnik will be the trainer for the Indian men's team ahead of the chess Olympiad in August in Moscow this year. Five-time world champion Anand, who made his return to the biennial team event in Batumi, Georgia, in 2018 following a 12-year break, has decided to feature in this year's event as well. Having retired from competitive chess in 2019, Kramnik has since coached teenaged Indian Grandmasters through two short camps in Chens-Sur-Leman in France, and in Chennai. This time, he will transition to training and working with the country's strongest elite players including Anand, in the run-up to the Olympiad.
"I'm really looking forward to the pre-tournament sessions that Kramnik will have with the team," Anand tells ESPN. "It will be interesting to hear from him and I have lots of questions for him." The careers of Kramnik and Anand -- who is six years older than the Russian -- have been closely entwined, often finding each other in the way of their fiercest ambitions and vaunted dreams, most importantly that of turning world champion. The year Kramnik ended Kasparov's reign as world champion in 2000, was also the one that rung in Anand's first world title. It was the time when the chess world and the world title were split.
Following years of parrying and rivalry and after Anand's world title wins over Kramnik in 2007 and 2008, the relationship hit a curve. Kramnik volunteered to be a part of Anand's team during the latter's world title match against Bulgaria's Veselin Topalov, remotely assisting the Indian through Skype sessions. Their bond grew stronger with age, fatherhood and the wave of young players who've populated the chess scene. In many ways, the pre-Olympiad sessions this year will be a second coming-together of sorts for two of chess' brightest minds of all time.
"Kramnik has agreed to train the team over possibly two pre-tournament camps," says All India Chess Federation (AICF) secretary Bharat Singh Chauhan. "That should work as a huge boost for us."
There was an instance in the past, though, when Kramnik was part of the rival camp of trainers in a match against Anand. It was a piece of news that both surprised and pained Anand in equal measure then. It was in 1995 when a 26-year-old Anand found himself pitted against the reigning champion Kasparov for the world title on the 107th floor observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York City. Kramnik was handpicked by the latter to be a part of his close band of seconds for the match. These were still early days and Anand and Kramnik hadn't morphed into rivals yet since Kasparov was the man to beat anyway. When Anand learnt that Kramnik was part of Kasparov's team for the match, he felt almost betrayed. It was like a peer ganging up against him. Anand went on to lose that match and a couple of weeks later, he ran into Kramnik near the Champs-Elysses in Paris. Kramnik threw his shoulders awkwardly almost as if to convey that he didn't mean to team up against him and it was more that he didn't want to pass up on the chance to work with a brilliant mind like Kasparov. They exchanged smiles and wordlessly passed each other, but they knew right then that they bore no ill will toward one another.
Famed for his deep ideas in opening preparation, Kramnik has, through his games, decisively shaped the theory of the Berlin Defence to the Ruy Lopez and brought nuance to the Catalan Opening, as it's also called. "We have some really good memories from working together during the 2010 World Championship match," says Anand. "But this time I really have some serious opening questions for him."
Apart from Anand, P Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi are almost a certainty for the men's team. It's going to be a close race for the remaining two spots in the five-member team, with B Adhiban having the best chance currently to hold the fourth spot. K Sasikiran, SP Sethuraman, Surya Shekhar Ganguly and Aravindh Chithambaram are the remaining four players in contention for a spot in the team. Anand featured in five Olympiads between 1984-1992 and then in 2004 and 2006 before World Championships took up whole years of his career, nudging Olympiads out of his calendar.
"I enjoyed my experience in Batumi (2018) and I feel we have a good, competitive team that can fight for medals," Anand adds. "It will be nice to work and interact with my younger colleagues in India and exchange ideas because they are some of the strongest players in the world." In 2018, the Indian men finished sixth, while the women ended on eighth spot.
Anand is currently ranked 16th in the world and is followed by fellow Indians Gujrathi (22), Harikrishna (27) and Adhiban (83) in the top 100.
In the women's half, Koneru Humpy and Harika Dronavalli, ranked No. 2 and 9 respectively in the world, will pick themselves for the Indian Olympiad team, while the remaining three slots could have strong contenders in Tania Sachdev, Bhakti Kulkarni and R Vaishali.