He may be the world chess champion now, but it will be of interest to you if I revealed that Viswanathan Anand is someone whom I had left feeling checkmated long time ago.
It was in the early-90s, and I had gone to interview Anand, who was slowly making a good name for himself in the world of chess, and I even more quickly making a bad name for myself in the world of journalism.
Even as Anand was saying how his early chess was helped by his stint in Manila, where his father was posted as a Southern Railway officer, I, with the alacrity of a Kasparov out to capture a strategic rook, interjected and said, ‘but as far as I know Southern Railway doesn’t run any train to Manila. Are you sure your dad was in Southern Railway? I think you mean Air India?’
For all practical purposes, the interview reached a stalemate position then and there. But you couldn’t blame me for asking that question. For, I didn’t know, at that time, that Indian railways undertook projects outside of India. But today, I am wiser and would word the question a bit more smartly. Especially the part about Air India. For, today there is technically a bigger possibility of Southern Railway running a train to Manila than Air India landing a flight there.
Anyway, as a journalist I can tell you that reporting on chess is majorly different from writing on other sports: If you are writing on chess, you need to know chess. In the case of other sports, say cricket, you need to know — I will get a bit technical here — how to bluff. For instance, I have never even once seen Bradman in action, but I remember writing a rather impassioned piece about how Tendulkar is a far better technician than the Don. I cannot get away with a similar article on, say, the chess legend Boris Spassky, without ever knowing whether he was a right-hand player or a left-handed one. (For the record, Tendulkar is a better technician than him, too).
For long, sports desks in newspaper offices were riven with the doubt over what is the right formula to report on chess 1) If you get too technical the lay readers may not understand. 2) If you leave out the technical aspect, the serious chess aficionados may not have anything to read. In general, journalists overcame this problem by the practical expedient of filling the sports pages with just reports on cricket.
Now, after years of experimentation, I am glad to report, newspapers have hit upon the right mix, wherein chess articles are written in such a manner that both the technical follower as well the lay fan find in them something worth savouring. This was the headline that I espied on a news website the day after Anand’s triumph: ‘Special rasam awaits Anand on his return to Chennai.’ I mean, if rasam doesn’t interest both the sets of fans, I don’t know what will.
Anyway, the beauty of chess is when you see two cerebral players pit their will, wits and wisdom against each other, you as a simple but keen observer cannot but help marvel as to how the heck did it get labelled as a sport in the first place. For, sports, by definition, is something in which you run the risk of getting hurt while playing. I think, statistically, there is a higher chance of people getting injured while operating the TV remote than when playing chess.
The one major advantage of chess is that it is not a location-specific sport, quite unlike, say, cricket where only a fool can think of holding a Test match between, say, England and Pakistan, in, say Abu Dhabi. NO. Wait. Wrong example.
The point is the just-concluded World Chess Championship final, featuring an Indian and an Israeli, was staged in Moscow. But it didn’t matter to the common, committed Indian fans that the matches were not staged here. Moscow or Madras, their passion is same, as they can be counted to follow the result of the chess encounters during the strategic timeouts in IPL matches.
Anyway, whether you are a serious fan or not, it is a fact that thanks to the brilliant exploits of Viswanathan Anand, chess has become hugely popular in India. This truth hit me wonderfully hard during the beautiful parade, organised in the immediate aftermath of Anand annexing the world title in 2000, wherein he was taken around on the streets of Chennai on a colourful ceremonial horse-drawn carriage in celebration of his triumph.
A few of us journalists were accompanying on foot the slow-moving cavalcade, when a curious middle-aged man sidled up to us and asked: ‘That is Viswanathan Anand no?’ Mighty happy that we as a country had evolved to a situation where people had become aware enough to identify sportspersons other than from cricket, I, with a beaming face, said: ‘Yes’. To which he replied, ‘Avarukku ippo edhukku maapillai azhaippu?’ (Why the bridegroom procession for him now?)