India's talking about chess, thanks to Anand

India's talking about chess, thanks to Anand

The bespectacled man leans over the table and interprets a board.

He lifts a piece and moves it roughly two inches. It is a small distance, but it takes him minutes to take this journey. It has required leaps of logic, adventures through memory, explorations of ideas. He is not sure yet: has he composed a move of rare genius or committed the first act of unavoidable self-destruction.

In a southern corner of India, away from Sachin Tendulkar and emotional eulogies, the bespectacled man is fighting quietly for relevance in a room that resembles an isolation chamber. His name is V. Anand and he is the world chess champion. Five-time champion. Maybe soon not a champion.

Tendulkar, 40, bowed to age, Anand, 43, is bending to youth. His opponent is 22 and has the bored look of a man who'd rather be knitting. Magnus Carlsen is a kid; Anand has one who is two. In a world title match where the first man to 6.5 points wins, the Norwegian is leading 4.5-2.5.

Tendulkar debuted at 16 in 1989 and Anand turned Grandmaster at 18 in 1987. India adores the cricketer, it admires the chess player. One sport is familiar, the other more remote. Chess originated in India, but cricket worship is the newer and more popular invention in these parts.

Chess is older than cricket and cooler than cricket. It shows up in a Matisse painting and a James Bond film. Humphrey Bogart even plays it in Casablanca. Yet it is more torturous than cricket, quivering with intensity, two men just feet apart, for hours on end, yet never touching or tackling.

It is psychological fisticuffs, it is mental gongfu, it is as the artist Marcel Duchamp said, "a violent sport". Carlsen and Anand stare at each other and yet never meet each other's eye.

These are not your everyday sporting folk. Tendulkar endorses adidas; Carlsen is sponsored by Nordic Semiconductor. Tendulkar has cultivated a bland persona, Anand has comic timing. He can also evidently be tart.

Asked by a Norwegian TV journalist to explain what he meant by "doing your best", the Indian replied: "Doing your best means doing your best. I don't know why you don't understand English."

Chess threads its way into all sport. When Federer plots a clever point or Barcelona design a series of elaborate passes, we liken it to chess. These are sports' wise guys. Tendulkar is casually called a genius; Anand probably is one.

Chess people are also finer eccentrics than cricketers for the collision of overloaded brains breeds the strangest anxieties.

Indian chess writer Devangshu Datta tells a hilarious tale of a player who once accidentally locked his mother in a room before a game. When he won, superstition demanded he lock her in again for the rest of the event. Anand may want to do that to Carlsen.

Yet for all its history, colour and spread - it is reportedly played by 605 million adults worldwide - chess is impervious to many. As a sporting activity it is a slow dance in a rapping world. Its vocabulary - King's Gambit, Scandinavian Defence - is elusive, its moves require code-breakers to decipher them, its long hours of silence and stillness don't easily seduce a noisy planet.

In a single shot, Tendulkar's skills - footwork, timing, reaction, judgment - are evident. In a single move, Anand's gifts are indistinct. We cannot see patience married to memory, kissed by logic, laced with bluff. We cannot see conspiracy and calculation.

Yet for all we cannot see, Anand has still made India look at chess. The cricketer might live on the hoarding and the chess player in the shadows behind it. Yet even while mostly invisible, he is growing in numbers. If cricket was popular in India before Tendulkar, chess has ignited since Anand.

Since he became his nation's first Grandmaster, India has had 34 more. Datta calls him a "one-man revolution" whose talent and charm has led to a first world championship being held at home, live TV coverage and almost every major newspaper producing nuanced coverage.

In the 1990s, Anand told me of a hilarious encounter he had on a flight. Having mentioned in conversation to a fellow Indian that he played chess for a living, he was told it was not a sensible profession - unless, of course, he was as good as V.Anand.

The stranger at least knew of a player named Anand. Later he might have learnt his face. Like us, he might have considered chess. Possibly tried it. Read on it. Checked scores. Watched it on TV. Tweeted on it.

India does this now because of one man. The bespectacled one. Who might lose his title. But he has made a cricket nation talk about a silent sport. It is enough.

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