Over the last couple of days I’ve taken a little time off (from writing chess blogs, producing chess videos, and writing the official auto tour for a major Civil War battlefield – yes, I’m a little busy lately) to think and reflect on Viswanathan Anand’s successful defense of his World Chess Championship crown. They say that time seems to pass more quickly as you get older, and I’ll verify that — it really doesn’t seem that long ago when Anand first burst like an A-bomb on the chess scene.
It was a far different world then, back around 1990 or so. The “Super K’s” (Karpov and Kasparov) were still the top dogs; in 1990 they were contesting their final of several world championship matches and even they were complaining about how they were sick of seeing each other across the chessboard.
Suddenly here came Vishy, this kid who was impressing (and scaring) everybody with his nearly Tal-like ability to rapidly calculate variations. Vishy really wasn’t “new” (check your database and you’ll find major games from as far back as 1984) and he really wasn’t a “kid” either (he turned 21 in 1990), but he started to really garner some major attention around the turn of that decade. For you young’un’s, Vishy really was the Magnus Carlsen of the day, the guy who most people thought most likely to snatch the crown away from Kasparov.
It took a while for Anand to get his shot. In 1993, Kasparov broke with FIDE and formed the PCA (which he later had a hand in destroying – that’s a long sad tale for another time), playing Nigel Short for the championship. The PCA really broke new ground for chess as far as the media was concerned. It seemed like chess was in all the newspapers and ESPN even carried major PCA events on TV (in a decent timeslot, too; while mid-afternoon wasn’t exactly “prime time” it was way better than 3 AM). A PCA innovation was a two-year World Championship cycle instead of FIDE’s three-year cycle, meaning that Kasparov would be required to defend his crown again in 1995.
I’d love to say that “we always knew that Vishy would become the champ”, but I’d be lying. In 1995, Kasparov and Anand squared off for a PCA World Championship match, a bout which seemed to please no one. The match was draw-laden; even mainstream media complained about the lack of drama (hey, I was thrilled that chess was even getting big media coverage, regardless of what they were saying). Even Don Imus was following the match (and rooting for Garry), but after several drawn games he complained on his radio show that Kasparov was playing “like a girly-man”.
Anand ultimately lost the match, and although I knew he wasn’t “washed up” by a longshot, I was afraid that he might not get another championship shot. Vishy would have to wait half a decade to claim the crown, becoming world champ in 2000 (at a time when the world championship title was still split between federations, though the PCA wasn’t one of them). In 2007 he grabbed the (now reunified) championship again and has held it ever since. Unfortunately, chess has long since dropped off the media radar and Vishy hasn’t received nearly the amount of recognition that he deserves. He’s living proof that nice guys can finish first and he has the potential to become the game’s best World Champion “ambassador” since Capablanca. But “nice guys” generally don’t garner media attention these days, more’s the pity.
As I said, it’s a far different world now than it was at the time Vishy first came on the scene. Did I mention where the opening of the 1995 PCA World Championship was played?
It took place on the observation deck of the World Trade Center in New York City…