India may be the only country where a chess world champ gets mobbed in the street, so you can imagine the reception awaiting Viswanathan Anand in Chennai when he returns from his latest triumph this week. Anand beat Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand to retain his World Championship title in Moscow on Wednesday. This is Anand’s fourth crown in a row, and fifth overall. He defeated Gelfand 2.5-1.5 in the four-match tie breaker (the tournament turned into a tie-breaker as the players couldn’t be separated after 12 games).
The achievement is the more remarkable because chess champs are thought to be past their prime at 30. Anand is 42. To put that in context, you’d have to imagine Jack Nicklaus winning the Augusta Masters this year, at 72.
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But then Anand has always defied chess convention. His greatest asset, speed, was once regarded as irrelevant in a sport not known for swift action. There was an air of sarcasm about the nickname he warned early in his career: “The Lightning Kid.”
After winning the junior chess crown at 17, and becoming India’s first Grand Master the following year in 1988, Anand’s career departed from the traditional arc. Success didn’t come early. Instead, he toiled in the shadows of all-time greats like Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov. It wasn’t until 2000 that he won his first World Chess Championship, becoming the first Indian to bring the crown to the birthplace of chess.
Anand blossomed in his 30s, beating back fierce challenges from the likes of Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and the latest wunderkind, Magnus Carlsen. But he acknowledged that his win against Gelfand was the hardest. “He played stuff he never played before in his life, he told the Indian TV station NDTV. “I believe it was entirely a question of nerves, and my nerves held up till the very end, and that was the main thing.”
In 2008, Anand wrote about the history of chess for TIME International, noting: “I like to think that the arc of my own career has in some ways mirrored the journey of chess. I learned to play in India, then moved to Spain so I could play the European circuit, and won my first world championship in Iran. It’s nice when your place in chess history has something to do with the bigger picture.”
The throngs waiting for him in Chennai will have no doubt about Anand’s place in chess history.