Vishwanathan Anand's crowning moment

Last Updated: Fri, Jun 08, 2012 08:48 hrs

Who says chess isn't a spectator sport? Jaideep Unudurti reports from Moscow on a decisive finale he will never forget.

The pressroom at the Tretyakov Gallery is packed. Zero Hour is upon us.

After three weeks of attritional warfare, the chess world championship has entered the terminal phase - tie-breaks. The result, as they say, is on the knees of the gods.

Video screens show the players. The commentary box is next door, with top Grandmasters giving their insights. They explain the position drawing arrows and circles on a digital chessboard.

Software engines are spewing out possible moves every second, engines which can tell you who is winning to a fraction of a pawn.

It is all getting a bit too much. I decide to leave the pressroom and go to the actual playing hall.

The first thing that hits you is the silence. Used as we are to sporting encounters where there is a premium on making noise, this inversion is striking.

Viswanathan Anand wins crown for the 5th time

A glass screen divides the audience from the two players on the stage. It is spare. An arbiter with an unblinking stare is noting down the moves, a human backup in case the electronic relay fails. The table, two chairs. That's it. Higher up, a giant display board shows the moves and the clock times. 

The stillness is unnerving. Everybody's gaze is locked silently on the center of the hall, the players like some strange fish in a outsized aquarium.

Unsupported by computers or commentators, you begin trying to figure out what is going on, starting by guessing the next move.  

You also begin examining the players. Till now they were impersonal symbols, like numbers in an equation, but now you observe them keenly.

Each player brings a collection of tics and mannerisms to the board.

Anand occasionally leans down and pulls up his socks. His rests his head on his hands, finding the optimal placement after a long period of testing. He sometimes seems to be silently murmuring to himself.

Gelfand of course has a famous repertoire. From rapidly spinning a captured piece with the skill of a prestidigitator, to manipulating his eyebrows to express a range of emotions, Gelfand can do them all.

Now and then, especially after completing a move, both give each other probing looks.

The Israeli is trailing and this is his last chance. It is a must-win game for him and as Meatloaf sang, "There's desperation in the air/It leaves a stain on all your clothes/And no detergent gets it out".

Gelfand plays a sudden move, a bold idea involving moving his king into the danger zone. There is a frisson of excitement in the audience, a subdued murmur. The audience has immediately latched on to the concept.

The Moscow audience, famed for its perspicacity, is "house full" and the crowd has spilled onto the corridors of the gallery. It is the rarest of spectacles, chess as a public sport.

Every now and then a cellphone rings or a flash goes off. Instantly, business-suit clad bodyguards looking like black slabs of marble descend and eject the impudent one. They perform their duties firmly but with an air of sorrowful regret. 

I look around. There are whole families, a lot of women, teenagers in their themed black and white chess T-shirts.

I realise some of the older people around me have actually seen the great all-Soviet clashes of the 60s, at that shining moment, with America mired in Vietnam, when it seemed that with Stalin dead and Sputnik in the skies that the CCCP was the vanguard of the future.

Those long-gone encounters - Tal versus Botvinnik, Spassky versus Petrosian. Battles that every chess fan has played through again and again, the moves grooved into memory like a needle on a record.  

How perfectly did chess fit Soviet society, with its mathematical certainties. Just as it did the romantic bravado of Spain in the 16th century. Just as it did the stately air of gentleman's clubs in 19th century Paris.
Chess is a mirror of human society. Whichever culture plays chess, they see in it their culture's greatest virtues, its being, its soul.

Chess to the Soviet New Man, was the dialectic made visible. To the Church in 16th century Spain, chess was an excellent tool to teach the masses. Know your place, be it a pawn or knight, and fulfill His will.

The tie-breaks have been proceeding at a brutal pace. The players barely have 10 minutes to rest and prepare between the bouts. As the quote in Run Lola Run about football goes, “After the game is before the game.”

Amidst the technological pageant, the final movement of the game stretches back into the depths of time.

Anand finally wins through a manoeuvre called the Lucena bridge, named after the man who discovered it in 1497 (though modern historians dispute whether he was the true discoverer).

In the Lucena, the king and rook form a 'bridge' that the pawn crosses over, to its path of reincarnation, that eternal dream.

In the end, it happens so quickly, both looking at each other for a split second. Gelfand then stops the clocks, they shake hands, and leave the stage in a flash. It happens so quickly the audience barely realises what has happened.

A belated swell of applause lifts the hall, applause directed only to the vacant stage.

The traditional post-game press conference starts. It is a stuttering affair with long pauses as questions and answers are constantly being translated.

Gelfand is silent now. He has a far-off expression. He is endlessly replaying the game, his mind racing over the numberless variations, the moves that could have been played but weren't, the game that could have gone one way but didn't. A matryoksha doll of possibilities that has no final doll waiting at the heart.

We all make mistakes. But memory, thank the gods, is imperfect and it anaesthetises our past.

But a chess player knows. Knows with mathematical certainty, what went wrong, where the fatal thought entered. Errors that will endure for centuries, stored in chess books, in databases, in cautionary tales.

Woody Allen once said, "Heaven knows, we all make mistakes. That's life, and chess".

A long time fan of the game, Jaideep Unudurti writes for Vishwanathan Anand's official site. He is the co-creator of the "Hyderabad Graphic Novel" and also writes on travel & culture.

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