Chairman of the Board

March 31, 2013

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 08, 2013

Vishy Anand is India’s most unlikely sporting hero – a chess grandmaster who has encouraged thousands of youngsters across the subcontinent to take up the game. James Pratt, editor of The British Chess Magazine, assesses his impact.

The all-powerful king and queen, the middle-ranking bishops and rooks, and then, beneath them all, the lowly and dispensable pawns. You might say that chess mirrors India’s strict social caste system.

Now that India can lay claim to the world’s greatest chess player – grandmaster and world champion Viswanathan Anand – this cerebral sport is bigger than ever across the entire subcontinent.

43-year-old Viswanathan (or Vishy, as he’s known) has become a surprising role model for thousands of young Indians. He has none of the pizzazz of a Bollywood star or a top cricketer, yet he is so popular and instantly recognisable that fans regularly mob him in the streets. This mild-mannered, poker-faced, bespectacled son of a civil servant has suddenly made chess cool. Born in Chennai, Vishy became

India’s first ever grandmaster in 1988. (The title of grandmaster was only formalised in 1950.) The youngest of three kids, he learned the game from his mother and a TV show about chess he saw in the Philippines where his father was briefly posted.

This mild-mannered, poker-faced, bespectacled son of a civil servant has suddenly made chess cool

So what makes Vishy so special? Most obvious is his speed. Once nicknamed the Lightning Kid, he first made a name for himself in fast chess, a version of the sport which puts players under extra time pressure.

Yet Vishy later proved himself an expert in the sport’s traditional format, too. He prepares his moves with care and cunning, has a terrific memory, remains calm and, when necessary, can exercise caution. What sets him apart from many other top players is his ability to put comparative failure to the back of his mind. He is at his best during the most high-profile competitions. In 2007 he became world champion for the second time.

He has defended the title ever since, beating off three challenges.

What distinguishes him from India’s other famous athletes (for that read mainly cricketers) is that his sport is purely mental. It requires all brains, no brawn – a perfect match for a nation such as India which is now reinventing itself as the world’s greatest supplier of computer engineers. Indeed, Vishy’s many sponsors include computer products.

Thanks to his success, chess has blossomed throughout India. Since he became a grandmaster, 27 compatriots have followed in his footsteps. Granted, this may not sound so impressive when you consider Russia’s 200 or so grandmasters but with so many Indian youngsters inspired by Vishy to take up the sport – and such a huge population (1.2 billion) to choose from – that number will surely rise soon.

Two of India’s states, Tamil Nadu (Vishy’s home state) and Gujarat, have now added chess to the school curriculum. Could the sport eventually rival cricket in popularity?

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