Viswanathan Anand on his new opening move in FIDE

By, Chennai
Aug 22, 2022 08:04 PM IST

India’s five-time world chess champion explains why he has taken on the role as deputy to Russian FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich in politically testing times.

Over the past 10 days, Viswanathan Anand has stood up at a General Assembly and addressed voters, navigated sticky political questions and assumed the deputy president's office at the world chess governing body, FIDE. A 40-year-old Anand would’ve probably snorted at the incredulity. At 53, the five-time world champion is in the early days of having picked a side.

Viswanathan Anand. (Getty Images) PREMIUM
Viswanathan Anand. (Getty Images)

It’s not exactly familiar turf. India’s first chess grandmaster has for most of his career stayed at arm’s length from matters that didn't involve playing the sport.

New to the job, Anand is reading up, making mental notes of the meetings with dozens of delegates during the election run and learning about the chess aspirations and challenges of their respective nations.

He recently visited the southern Polish cities Katowice and Ustron and is learning to live with his presence in the team of Russian FIDE president Arkady Dvorkovich being interpreted politically in the current global context.

“I recognise that some people will take it that way,” Anand says. “It’s tricky. Things can get more political than you imagined. But you cannot live without just taking a stand on anything. I support Arkady’s vision for chess over that of the others. I genuinely believe he is a great administrator who’s made a difference.”

Old ties

Anand and Dvorkovich go back a long way. He has known Dvorkovich’s father Vladimir, a former chess arbiter. The night Anand lost a second successive world title contest to Magnus Carlsen in Sochi in 2014, Dvorkovich was among the first to reach out with commiserations and a dinner invitation.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Dvorkovich was up against a choppy tide with his re-election announcement. In April, he made public Anand’s inclusion as his prospective deputy. To have a former world champion with an unblemished public record on his side was a smart move. It promptly steadied his rocky campaign.

When offered the deputy president’s post, Anand had one concern—its possible effect on his already scaled-down tournament calendar (he plans to play the European Club Cup and's online championship this year). It wouldn’t be a problem, he was assured. Wife Aruna calls it a collective decision. “It’s after all a commitment from being strictly a player to sort of going the other way, so we sat down as a family and discussed it before he said yes.”

Anand is part of the FIDE council which takes the executive and legislative calls and comprises the president, council secretary, seven vice-presidents, treasurer and four continental presidents. “Once I attend my first council meeting, I’ll probably have a better hang of things. I’m looking forward to it,” he says.

Perception battle

As the president’s principal assistant, he’s also required to fill in for Dvorkovich on occasion. If Dvorkovich faces sanctions, Anand would have to step in as president (for a maximum six months) before fresh elections are held.

Anand understands being in an administration led by a Russian might alter some of his friendships. “My feeling is I might suddenly discover people have changed how they feel about me. I don't think they'll come at me, subject me to verbal abuse. A few, I suspect, might suddenly feel uncomfortable, some might drift away.”

One reason Anand believes the time is ideal for him to step into FIDE is Indian chess’ bullish present. India’s young GM flock is currently at the heart of global chess conversation. The country hosted the Olympiad for the first time recently and will stage the Women’s Grand Prix next year. Anand being in FIDE is crucial in bringing tournaments and corporate funds to befit India’s chess standing.

“We have to keep engaging with sponsors and going back to them with new and interesting tournaments,” he says. “The way business houses in India view chess is definitely changing. The Olympiad created a buzz; the job will be to convert that momentum into something more meaningful.”

Mentor’s role

Mentored by him, India’s teen GMs R Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, D Gukesh, Arjun Erigaisi, Raunak Sadhwani have been going gangbusters on the world scene. Arjun and Gukesh have breached the 2700 elo mark inside a month and the latter is coming off an incredible Olympiad where he crossed a performance rating of 2800. Praggnanandhaa has been routinely beating world champion Magnus Carlsen—thrice in six months so far, in rapid and blitz. “It almost feels like this isn’t the same bunch of boys I was coaching a month ago,” he laughs.

Anand’s own journey in the elite circuit, starting more than three decades ago as the odd name from a geographically insignificant chess location at a time when Soviet domination was writ large, came at a cost—having to prove his worth across World Championship formats, being excluded from negotiations (read: 2002 Prague Agreement; he went sightseeing instead), and having to grit through difficult and sometimes unfair match conditions en route to world titles.

“The feeling of being on one's own, Anand knows that well,” says Aruna, “It’s why he wants to be around for this bunch of Indian players during their rise, looking out for them. Also, for players everywhere who need that one guy they can reach out to in a crisis, certain he's got their back. It’s something he never had.”

Susan Ninan is co-author of Viswanathan Anand’s autobiography Mind Master: Winning Lessons From a Champion’s Life

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