One of the greatest minds of our time didn’t deserve to be treated the way he was
Anticipation was in the air that bright October afternoon in 1987 at Pala, a bustling town in central Kerala known for its rubber plantations. Some 40 young chess players had come from across Kerala for the State junior championship.
For some of us, it was our first big tournament. So, the fact that we were playing at such an event was cause for excitement.
But there was another reason why we were so excited that afternoon: we were to meet Viswanathan Anand, who had recently been crowned the world junior champion in the Philippines. The State’s chess association was felicitating him.
Anand had come along with his mother, who used to accompany him for tournaments those days. He also took part in an exhibition event called simultaneous display, a term that has now become familiar because of a recent controversy following an online fundraiser.
In simultaneous chess, a strong player takes on several less talented opponents, ranging from 15 to 50 mostly, at the same time. There have been instances of Grandmasters playing against hundreds, too. In fact, Iran’s Ehsan Ghaem Maghami set a world record in 2011 when he took on 604 players at Tehran (for the record, he won 580 of them, drew 16 and lost eight).
Usually the number is much lower. The player makes a move on one board and then goes to the next one. While the multiple participants get plenty of time, the strong player has to make his calculations quickly. But as the statistics from Maghami’s simultaneous display suggest, the Grandmaster wins most of the games. Grandmasters can defeat a large number of opponents even while playing blindfolded.
At Pala, if I remember correctly, Anand won all games but two.
He did, in due course, go on to win games more important than that in a career that has had few parallels in world sport.
As a reporter of The Hindu, I have written on some of his finest moments over the years. I have also been privileged to interview him on several occasions, including a memorable one at his residence in Chennai three years ago. He greeted me with the same friendly smile which I first saw in Pala three decades ago.
It was a pleasure listening to him talk for well over two hours. Anand is one of the greatest minds of our time. The entire chess world – and those who have come across him anywhere – would agree that he is an incredibly nice, polite, humble gentleman, on whose head sit lightly five world championships and the credit for single-handedly revolutionising chess in India.
It is little wonder then everyone felt bad when news emerged earlier this month that some of Anand’s celebrity opponents had cheated, using the computer, during the simultaneous display organised by chess.com to raise funds for COVID-19 relief.
It would count among Indian sport’s great fiascos. Anand didn’t deserve to be treated like that. The celebrity event featuring film stars, singers and businessmen was supposed to gain publicity for chess, which isn’t as popular in India as other sports like cricket or football. It generated publicity alright, but of the negative kind.