Will Anand be the Cinderella Man of chess?

What ended just a week back in Chennai, if described merely as a chess championship, may prove to be accurate in letter, but not in spirit.

Vishy and Carlsen did not play 10 rounds of just a board game. It should not be seen, as people usually do, as a battle between wooden pieces. The championship went beyond moves, castlings, gambits, checkmates and traps. Every move made, should be seen as a result of a series of electro-chemical reactions that took place in their brains.

On many levels, it was a mental boxing championship.

If in boxing, blood oozes out, in chess, neural synapses break. If in boxing, the boxer’s biceps are massaged between rounds, in chess, a team of seconds does the same with the player’s mental muscles.

Like the boxer’s handshake, in chess too, handshake is a protocol. In fact, Bulgarian grand master Ivan Cheparinov once had to forfeit a game against Nigel Short because he refused to shake hands.

Sometimes boxers go for the knockout punch early; sometimes they dance around and tire the opponent out and then strike. In the chess war, young Magnus did the latter. He kept on applying pressure even in seemingly drawn positions and squeezed out wins at the last moment.

Anand, a 43-year-old veteran, even though adequately prepared for the occasion, cracked under pressure and committed mistakes. It is for this reason Carlsen, 22, is nicknamed the boa constrictor. Even Anand has one, the lightning-kid.

The similarities with boxing are simply unavoidable.

Many boxers acknowledge that chess is a parallel to boxing.

According to Paul Koon, a professional in the World Series Boxing (WSB), “Boxing is like chess for me. The approach is the same. I like to play defensively. Jab, jab and force the opponent to commit a mistake, then…’checkmate’!”

In many ways, new world champion Magnus Carlsen is similar to Koon. In the final press conference after the 10th game, he said, “I want to take some credit for Anand’s mistakes. Even in world championships, players make mistakes under pressure.”

The 10 rounds of mental boxing

The first two rounds of the championship went exactly like any first two rounds of a pro-level boxing match. The players did not indulge in any rash play. Like boxers hold on to each other to minimise damage, Magnus and Anand’s pieces hugged each other and got sacrificed. It was clear that they were gauging each other’s preparation, setting the stage for more fierce forthcoming rounds.

Then came round 3, when Anand went on the offensive by landing a sucker punch at Carlsen’s queen.

Carlsen’s queen was on the ropes, cornered and helpless mid-game. When he was about to kiss the canvas, Anand made some suboptimal moves and prevented himself from going for the kill.

Carlsen used this minor slip-up to deliver some short arm jabs with his bishop and two knights and brought his queen out of the corner, snatching a draw. Carlsen later accepted he had no idea where the game was going and was happy to have survived.

Carlsen, even after losing advantage in the game, had not taken Anand’s draw offer. Instead he had kept on playing, gaining that intangible psychological momentum.

In round 4, the Norwegian was on the offensive from the outset. From this game on, mistakes started creeping into Anand’s play. He accepted that Carlsen had many winning chances in the game. Even though Anand didn’t deliver any solid punch in this game, his defensive skills saved him – much like a boxer saved by the bell.

Round 5, saw the boa constrictor of chess showing his endgame skills.

At the end of the championship, Anand would admit, “The turning point was round 5, I couldn’t recover from that defeat.”

Carlsen kept on playing the game till the end even though many computer engines predicted a draw. And finally he drew first blood in the tournament. A visibly shaken Anand, later in the presser, kept on looking at the board grudgingly, chewing his empty mouth. His terse replies to questions and his constant mumblings about “mistakes” probably allowed a rare slip that showed how much the result had affected him.

Fresh from defeat, Anand entered the arena for game 6. Being a master at hiding emotions, he continued his game apparently unaffected. He was determined to make that comeback, but he was in for a shock.

Again it was a long game like game 5 and when everyone thought it was heading for a draw, Carlsen trapped Anand in the endgame and extracted blunders. “Today was a heavy blow, nothing to pretend otherwise,” said Anand. By now, Carlsen had stamped his authority and there was an unmistakable air of “inevitability” around him.

There is a saying in chess – most rook endings are drawn. With Carlsen winning both game 5 and 6 with rook endings, maybe time has come to change the saying to – most rook endings are drawn, except when Carlsen plays.

Anand played out round 7 and 8 to tame draws. He wanted to break the losing streak. Carlsen, gladly accepted this line of play. His surefootedness was that of a boxer who had impressed the judges in the previous rounds and was weaving and bobbing, seeing the opponent’s punches sail past harmlessly.

Game 9 was after a day’s break. It was an enthralling match, with Anand going after Carlsen with aggression. But, in the end, he blundered again.

Anand’s play in game 9, reminded many of French grandmaster Savielly Tartakower’s words: “A chess game is divided into three stages: the first, when you hope you have the advantage, the second when you believe you have the advantage and the third… when you know you are going to lose!”

It was all over for Anand after he allowed Carlsen’s pawn to race to the other end of the board and get transformed into a queen.

After realising he had committed a blunder, Anand took a long and hard look at the final board position for a whole minute and then resigned. That look summed up everything. That defeated look sealed victory for the new world champion Carlsen. That look marked an end of an era. That look, brought a new era to chess, the Magnus era.

With Anand needing to win all three final games and Carlsen needing only a draw out of one of them, nothing much was left in the championship. As expected, the prodigy drew game 10 with ease and finished formalities to make the world champion’s crown his own.

Write off a five-time world champion?

Having analysed the similarities between chess and boxing, predicting Anand’s future on the same lines would be interesting.

When Anand was asked in the final presser if he would be back as a contender in the Candidates tournament, he replied, “I need a break now. I have to take stock of what happened and then only I can decide on how to move forward. I may be back, yes.”

Many feel Anand is done. Many have written off Anand, reasoning it is impossible to stage a comeback given his age.

At this juncture, it is important to remind both Anand and those writing his chess obituary of something that happened in a boxing match decades back, in Madison Square Garden.

On June 13, 1935, in a heavyweight championship title match, a 30-year-old boxer, considered a 10-to-1 underdog compared to his relatively younger opponent Max Baer (26), entered the ring.

There are not many adjectives to describe just how much of an underdog James J Braddock was to Baer.
Baer was expected to knock Braddock out in the first round.

But what happened that day is considered one of the most stunning upsets in boxing history. Braddock not only managed to survive 15 rounds, but also won the bout to become the new world champion.

He went from rags to riches over this victory and is remembered even today as the “Cinderella Man”, brought firmly into public consciousness by the wonderful 2005 Ron Howard movie.

Anand has not lost it all. He is neither living in poor conditions nor has he gone through the great depression like Braddock. But one thing is common – age.

Anand has nothing to prove. He is a five-time world champion. But is his career over? Or will he stage a comeback like Braddock did?

And finally, will he be the Cinderella man of chess?

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