VISHY THINKS FAST
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