A file photo of Anand who is part of the Indian contingent for the Chess Olympiad later this month. It will be his first appearance in the tournament since 2006. Photo: AFP
Former World Champion Viswanathan Anand finally regained some form at the Sinquefield Cup that ended on 29 August in St Louis, US, after a bout of uninspiring performances since May. Anand, the first Indian to become a chess grandmaster, went undefeated in the tournament, though he didn’t manage any wins either, and finished sixth out of 10 participants.
Ranked 10th in the world currently, Anand is one of the strongest players in the world, even at 48, and his performance has put scepticism around his age to rest. At least for now.
And this is why his inclusion in the Indian team that will participate in the 43rd Chess Olympiad—the sport’s biennial equivalent of the Olympics—starting in Batumi, Georgia, on 23 September has sparked a fresh sense of excitement. This is the first time since 2006 that Anand is participating in the tournament. His presence not only boosts the morale of the team, but also gives it a stronger chance to win.
The Indian men’s contingent won a bronze at the 2014 Olympiad in Norway. In Azerbaijan in 2016, both the men’s and women’s teams finished fourth, agonizingly close to a podium finish. In fact, the men’s team of Pentala Harikrishna, Vidit Santosh Gujarathi, Baskaran Adhiban, and S.P. Sethuraman lost its way in the second half of the tournament after dominating the first half. Anand’s experience should help this young team navigate the pressures of the competition this time.
The Chess Olympiad features male and female teams of five players each from all the chess federations affiliated with FIDE, the world governing body for the game. The format is the Swiss-system, a non-elimination format in which the number of rounds are predetermined. In each round, a player plays an opponent who has a similar score but never faces the same opponent twice. The winner is decided by points at the end of all the rounds. Players earn one point for a win and half a point for every draw. The uncertainty of the format gives players very little time to prepare for an opponent or a team. Pair that with India’s ratings—the country is ranked sixth in the world by average ELO ratings in the men’s section (also called the Open section) and seventh in the women’s section—and Anand’s inclusion, and India seems to have a fighting chance of a podium finish.
“Last time we were fourth. This time, with Anand around, I’m sure we can do better,” Gujarathi, India’s latest Super-Grandmaster (an unofficial title for players with an ELO rating of 2700+) told The Hindu in March during a training camp with the Olympiad team in Delhi. His teammate Adhiban expressed a similar view. “It was my dream to interact with Vishy Anand and to play the Olympiad in the same team with him,” he said.
Anand represented India in five Olympiads between 1984 and 1992, then India’s only Grandmaster, and again in 2004 and 2006 at the peak of his career. He has delivered some exquisite performances, like his unbeaten run on Board 1, (where the strongest players from each team play) in the 1992 edition in Manila. And then he was also a part of the 2006 team which was seeded second in the tournament but finished 30th. The Indian grandmaster had distanced himself from the Olympiad over the last decade owing to several issues, including the “zero-tolerance” policy (the policy forces a player to forfeit a game for being late by even a few seconds) and the unpredictability of the Swiss format.
Despite his misgivings, this time, “the camaraderie, the team and the positive vibes will more than make up for it,” the Press Trust Of India quoted Anand as saying in January when he announced his interest in playing in the tournament.
Anand’s first job will be to foster the team-spirit that was absent in his last outing in 2006. He will almost certainly play on Board 1 and India will rely heavily on him to lead from the front. “The most important thing is the ability to overcome any individual setbacks as a team”, he told Lounge.
This is also where Anand’s personal form and age become significant factors. Anand finished the Grand Chess Tour 2018—a combination of blitz, rapid and classical time-control tournaments comprising four major events—in last place, with only 15 points scored against the leader Hikaru Nakamura’s 34.5. His last tournament victory came in March at the Tal Memorial rapid tournament in Moscow. At the Sinquefield Cup, Anand had his last chance of playing against the strongest players ahead of the Olympiad, many of whom he is expected to compete against in Georgia.
Chess has increasingly become a young people’s sport. The classical format sees gruelling matches that often go on for more than six hours. Many more hours have to be spent in preparation. The physical and mental demands on a player, over a tournament as long as the Olympiad, are immense. It is here that Anand’s experience will come handy—he is likely to have a strategy to deal with the fatigue that killed India’s chances of a medal in 2016.
Asked about it, he doesn’t seem to be too worried. “Every classical tournament you play, you bring your age to the tournament. This is something we deal with on a daily basis. Players can be rested during the Olympiad (since there are 5-member teams for 4 spots) and that should help us cope,” he said.
It would be fair to say that this contingent of players is closer in strength to Anand than others he has played with in the past. Therefore, it will be interesting to see what influences Anand adapts into his play. Anand has an uncanny knack of making strong comebacks after a string of bad performances. His performance could end up determining how far India goes in Batumi.