This, that and the other about chess

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Viswanathan Anand

Watching FIDE World Chess Championship 2013 live and not understanding anything has its unexpected “rewards.” For instance, one such “reward” came this morning at the start of the 7th game between the defending champion, India’s Viswanathan Anand and the challenger, Norway’s Magnus Carlsen.

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Magnus Carlsen

It was in the form of an amusing observation by one of the two commentators who said this after the 22-year-old Norwegian made a move: “How quickly he moved? Only after 4-5 minutes. That is surprising,” she said. That comment should tell you a lot of about the game of chess at its highest level. If a move made in about five minutes is regarded as surprisingly quick, then it is indicative of what it takes for those watching it to commit to in order to like the game.

Purely as a matter of record, some 200 million people were watching the championship worldwide.

Another thing that I noticed early on was how frequently Carlsen retreated to the rest area after making his moves. I saw him do that thrice in a span of ten minutes or so. It was as if Carlsen, who has been called the Mozart of chess, was feeling bored by Anand’s cautiousness. Of course, chess being as much a game of the mind as of the moves it may be Carlsen’s way of testing Anand’s mettle. Or it could well be what The New York Times’s Dylan Loeb McClain quoted Vladimir Kramnik, Anand’s predecessor as champion, as saying:“The only problem that I think Anand is facing is that he — this is just my opinion — is somewhat intimidated by Carlsen. He is playing unconfidently against him. He’s scared of him, I would say.”

At one point Carlsen got up, leaving his chair turned away from Anand and his coat hanging. I could not possibly tell you whether Carlsen was playing mind games with Anand through such extraneous moves.

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At 43 Anand, a five times world champion, does not have much to prove to anyone, especially to an adversary nearly half his age, but it is possible that his nerves were exposed.

As I said, since I do not understand the game much I have to focus on the trivial and the extraneous. For instance, couldn’t the organizers find a better desk than what appears to have been assembled from an IKEA kit just before the championship? Just saying. May be, the players asked for it particularly.

Chess is a great game. 200 million people couldn’t be wrong. I am not sure if it is a spectator sport in the classical definition of sports. In May, 2012, after Anand won his fifth championship I wrote the following:

Chess is as much a spectator sport as the National Spelling Bee. In other words, not at all.

Spectacle has to be an intrinsic part of any sport apart from some measure of athleticism. Ask the Romans if you don’t believe me. With due deference to those follow it, two intensely inscrutable players moving about pieces on a board falls short of that popular definition of a sport.

Whatever jousting that happens in chess, happens inside the two players’ brains. So unless someone develops an app which can, in real time, visually represent either in animation of the quality of ‘The Adventures of Tintin’ the movie, or find a way for real life actors to enact the moves live on stage, we have to accept that it does not get the buildup that cricket or soccer gets.

As India’s greatest chess player Viswanathan Anand won his fifth World Chess Championship title in Moscow by beating his Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand in a tense tie-breaker, there is some chatter in the social media about why chess does not receive the kind of attention that the just concluded cricket jamboree, the Indian Premier League (IPL), does. Well, for one every move that Anand makes is not followed by taut nymphs in tight tops gyrating in approval.  More importantly though, it is not a game that offers any peripheral entertainment at all which is what often draws large crowds to others sports, therefore more corporate money, therefore a much greater media profile.

When Anand or for that matter any player is contemplating their next move there is nothing that the spectator is privy to other than thinking of what they might do in their place. It is not as if Anand gets up from his chair and consults the audience or explodes in a tremendously entertaining rant. My point is chess will never have the obscenely well-endowed corporate and audience patronage enjoyed by other unabashedly spectacle driven sports. Chess demands considerable cerebral energy and imagination and most ordinary people’s idea of sport-based entertainment is anything but.

The image of Anand in a fully buttoned-up blue shirt or Gelfand in a suit and both looking dour hardly allows for popular involvement.

One can bemoan that Anand will never be carried by fans on their shoulders when he returns to his hometown of Chennai, although one can never be sure when it comes to India. Indians love celebration perhaps more than any other people on the planet with the possible exception of Americans.

Obviously, chess is a great game and demands extraordinary focus, imagination, foresight, ruthlessness and intuition. Those who excel in it are generally those who are able to see life from a 1000 different angles. Those great attributes notwithstanding it is not a spectator sport and will never attract a fraction of the attention that other sports do. Unless, of course, we thrown in some taut nymphs in tight tops in the mix.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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