VISHY THINKS FAST

India Today - - INSIDE - —De­vang­shu Datta

When the World Rapid Cham­pi­onships con­cluded in Riyadh last month, the win­ner, Viswanatha­n Anand, wasn’t sure how many times he’d won a world rapid ti­tle. He thought about it, tried count­ing, ran out of fin­gers, and shrugged, “Quite a few times.”

The pop­u­lar web­site Chess­base later worked out that it was ti­tle #13 for the 48-year-old. That in­cludes win­ning the first for­mal World Rapid Cham­pi­onship in 2003, and 11 wins in 15 un­of­fi­cial world rapid cham­pi­onships pre­ced­ing the 2003 event. The first of those vic­to­ries came in 1997, when the Riyadh sil­ver medal­list, Vladimir Fe­doseev, was just two years old.

It is an in­cred­i­ble record, and win­ning a rapid ti­tle at age 48 bor­ders on the mirac­u­lous. Speed chess is one of the fastest and most phys­i­cally de­mand­ing of sports. “Blitz” is com­monly played

at three min­utes per player for an en­tire game (with two sec­ond in­cre­ments added back to your clock after ev­ery move you make) while “rapid” is played at 15 min­utes per player (with 10 sec­ond in­cre­ments).

As the clocks run down, most games end up be­ing played with no time but the in­cre­ment. Play­ers choose moves by in­stinct. The Rus­sians call it “play­ing by hand”—you stop think­ing and let your hand play the move that comes nat­u­rally. Play­ers slam out moves ev­ery quar­ter-sec­ond, com­mit ab­surd er­rors and pulse rates jump to 180/ minute. To do it for eight hours a day re­quires in­cred­i­ble stamina to re­tain a sem­blance of con­trol and fo­cus.

Anand has al­ways been a great speed player. After win­ning the rapids, with a win over the top seed and world cham­pion, Mag­nus Carlsen, to boot, he also took the bronze medal in the world blitz cham­pi­onship that fol­lowed. He was the only player with two podium fin­ishes.

Be­fore the com­pe­ti­tion, Anand was in two minds whether he would play Riyadh at all. The prize fund of more than $2 mil­lion was tempt­ing. But he felt phys­i­cally ex­hausted and men­tally drained after a “dis­as­trous re­sult” in the Lon­don Chess Clas­sic (he fin­ished last) and he was look­ing for­ward to a fam­ily hol­i­day in Ker­ala. He was chill­ing out in Chen­nai, watch­ing movies with his young son Akhil, “eat­ing cake”, when Aruna (Mrs Anand) per­suaded him to con­sider Riyadh.

The King­dom of Saudi Ara­bia (KSA) doesn’t have strong play­ers of its own, and some in­flu­en­tial mul­lahs think the game is ‘haram’. But KSA is on a moder­nity drive and has com­mit­ted to host­ing the cham­pi­onship for three years with an ex­panded prize fund. In an un­prece­dented con­ces­sion, it waived hi­jab for women and al­lowed them to play in the same hall as men.

Nev­er­the­less, a lot of top play­ers, in­clud­ing sev­eral high-rated Amer­i­can play­ers, and Anna Muzy­chuk, who won the women’s blitz and rapid ti­tles in 2016, stayed away be­cause they dis­ap­prove of KSA’s hu­man rights record and its re­pres­sive at­ti­tude to­wards women and LGBT in­di­vid­u­als. The Is­raelis, too, didn’t get visas, adding to the cloud over the fu­ture of the cham­pi­onship.

Still, it was an ex­tremely strong field. Anand blot­ted out the pol­i­tics and fo­cused on his phys­i­cal fit­ness regime. Im­por­tantly, he also worked out what he would do to re­lax be­tween rounds (“watch some shows, or read some­thing on the lap­top”).

That helped him keep calm and, as he says, “main­tain sta­bil­ity”. He lost just one out of the 38 games he played (15 rapid games, plus two tiebreak­ers, fol­lowed by 21 blitz games). In the rapids, he tied with Fe­doseev and beat him com­fort­ably in the tie break that fol­lowed. In the blitz too, he kept his cool, and took pretty much ev­ery chance that he was of­fered. Top seed Carlsen blasted to a lead in the blitz after mak­ing a slow start, and Anand ended up ty­ing for sec­ond-third with a steady per­for­mance.

In many ways, speed chess is the fu­ture. It is by far the most pop­u­lar on­line for­mat be­cause the fast pace makes it more dif­fi­cult to cheat (with com­puter as­sis­tance). It is also be­com­ing a more pop­u­lar for­mat in for­mal tour­na­ments be­cause a full speed tour­na­ment can be held over a week­end, with less ex­penses for or­gan­is­ers. It is a great for­mat for spec­ta­tors—er­rors are guar­an­teed, which means more ex­cite­ment and more un­pre­dictabil­ity.

That said, the for­mat favours young­sters. There are just seven play­ers over 40 in the top 50 rank­ings—and three of them are the for­mer world cham­pi­ons, Anand, Vladimir Kram­nik and the leg­endary Garry Kas­parov.

It’s only when you’re that good that you can tran­scend the phys­i­cal odds the way Anand did in Riyadh.

Speed chess is the fu­ture. Tour­na­ments can be held over a week­end

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