Viswanathan Anand: Tiger of Madras and king of chess

Known as the "Tiger of Madras" by his adoring nation and "Vishy" by most chess fans, India's Viswanathan Anand strikes a remarkably humble figure for a man who is his generation's best.

Updated: May 31, 2012 09:18 IST
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Moscow: Known as the "Tiger of Madras" by his adoring nation and "Vishy" by most chess fans, India's Viswanathan Anand strikes a remarkably humble figure for a man who is his generation's best.

His world chess title retained and his latest challenger -- the emotive and brooding Boris Gelfand of Israel -- vanquished, Anand told reporters he had just had one very lucky escape.

"I simply hung on for dear life," the 42-year-old said softly after winning an astonishingly tense shootout that organisers said was witnessed by tens of millions of the brain sport's enthusiasts on the Internet.

"I understood that in all fairness, this match simply could go either way."

Facing criticism of being neither as sharp nor inventive as in his mercurial youth, Anand showed the poise of a legend in his third title defence, his claim of being the flagbearer of the first post-Garry Kasparov generation secured.

His status in India, meanwhile, showed with the jostling posse of reporters who followed him to Moscow, hanging on his every word and reporting it in breathless dispatches, the quiet man's daily habits laid out before the nation.

"Anand is, quite simply, the greatest sportsman India has ever produced," said Olympic Gold Quest, a foundation started in 2001 to support the country's top stars.

Like many of the mysterious sport's most gifted, Anand showed remarkable promise at an early age. But unlike most who often give up after their first major challenge, he persevered and won until there was no one else left to beat.

Born in a small town in the southern tip of India, Anand became an international master at 15, was crowned Indian champion at 16, won the world junior title at 17 and became the country's first grandmaster at 18.

The Indian government, taking note of the young man's rapid rise, conferred on him India's fourth highest civilian award, the Padma Shri, a few months short of his 19th birthday.

He won his first world title in 2000, becoming the first Indian to grab the revered trophy, before relinquishing it two years later.

But with his sport getting younger by the day, Anand felt like he was only getting started and in 2007 won the title again at the age of 35, keeping it ever since.

Now living in Spain with wife Aruna and one-year-old son, Anand has recently been dismissed as not actually being the world's best player, his top chess rating lost to the new wunderkind -- this one from Norway, Magnus Carlsen.

But many of today's best players still put Anand on a pedestal, not least the man he defeated for the chess crown in 2008.

"I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess," said Russian grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik.

"Each champion has had some sort of speciality, and his is creating counter-play in any position out of absolutely nowhere."

In 1992, Anand became the first recipient of India's highest sporting honour, the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, and the country's second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, came his way in 2007.

Anand started solving chess puzzles displayed on television as a six-year-old child.

"My mother and I solved all these puzzles and sent in our answers," Anand recalled. "At one point, they just said ... don't send any more entries so that others get a chance."

Anand's game is built on belligerent attack that catches opponents off-guard, but his unflustered approach ensures that he has the right defence in place when the going gets tough.

"If there is anyone close to perfection in chess, it is him," said fellow player Surya Shekhar Ganguly, a member of Anand's team that plots strategy for big clashes.

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