Last week, the Indian chess master and world champion Viswanathan Anand, 43, set out to defend his title for the fourth consecutive time -- this time against a chess genius half his age, the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen.
Almost every expert has judged the odds to be against Anand, even though he is playing in his hometown, Chennai. After all, chess players inevitably begin to fade around the age of 40. They may continue to be very good, but it's unlikely that they can be the best. Garry Kasparov, the greatest player of the modern era, retired at 41. Were Anand somehow to best Carlsen, it would be one of the most thrilling chess stories.
Apparently not. In the run-up to the 18-day, 12-match contest, influential voices both within and outside the chess community seemed to say that, whether or not Anand remains good enough to be world champion, he’s just not cool enough to draw a new generation of followers to the game -- and Carlsen is. It seems chess could really do with its own rock star -- or in the terrible pun of some reports, a "pawn star."
The New York Times led the way with a piece titled “Looking to Norwegian, 22, to Revive Image of Chess”:
Mr. Carlsen, the world’s top-ranked player, is a rock star in the chess world. He models for the clothing company G-Star Raw and has appeared on “Charlie Rose,” “60 Minutes” and “The Colbert Report.” Mr. Anand, the reigning world champion, is a celebrity in his home country. But his star power pretty much stops at India’s border.
Despite a record number of chess players worldwide, the game has lost the spotlight it basked in when Bobby Fischer, an American, defeated Boris Spassky, a Russian, to claim the world championship title in the international sensation known as the Match of the Century in 1972. Chess enthusiasts say the game needs another big personality to energize it, and they are pinning their hopes on Mr. Carlsen.
Well, I'm a chess enthusiast, too, and I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks this is complete blather. Match-winning play at the world championships requires such mastery that it should provide "star power" without the necessity of a modeling contract or a talk-show appearance to garnish it.
This isn't after all "Big Brother" or a beauty contest we're talking about, but a game that has been played for more than 1,000 years. In its highest flights, chess can be as rarefied as quantum physics, yet accessible enough to be the pastime of choice of millions. That's energy enough. Must such a sophisticated universe, which bestows even on its more casual practitioners some the deepest experiences of rigor and rapture, be judged by the superficialities of mass culture? Even the Cold War rivalry projected onto the great Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, seems a narrative more palatable than this trivializing, one-dimensional notion of "star power."
The Times wasn't the only prominent voice to subject the match to the charisma test and find Anand wanting. In a preview of the match, Kasparov, who worked with Carlsen as his coach for a year in 2009, also argued:
Some have suggested my rooting loyalties should lie with my fellow “old man,” Anand, and not with the 22-year-old who broke my rating record and who will share my record as youngest world champion ever should he prevail in Chennai. But while I cannot say I feel joy when one of my records falls, a win for Carlsen will also be a win for the chess world. Changing of the guard, new blood, a fresh face -- all these clichés are clichés for a reason. Magnus is a dynamic young man eager to promote the sport, to raise its profile along with his own, and who can inspire a new generation of chess kids (and chess sponsors!) around the world.
Might this just be an expression of some residual competitiveness with an old "frenemy?" After all, as Kasparov himself conceded, it would actually be a much more startling and romantic achievement for Anand to beat Carlsen than the other way around. In fact, that would be a real win for chess, and in its own way as much a human-interest story as the more universal and accessible one of youth toppling the old order.
Indeed, the one advantage that Anand brings to the face-off is his previous big-match experience in such long-term engagements with a single adversary (beginning with the magnificent 24-game match against Kasparov in New York in 1995, when, after holding the champion to eight draws and then going a game ahead, he was crushed by the Russian's greater staying power). Carlsen, by contrast, is a master of tournament play (where he has previously beaten Anand and all other challengers) but still a neophyte at this kind of contest.
Meanwhile, in Chennai, the match began under the shadow of yet another cult of "big personality": that of J. Jayalalithaa, the power- and publicity-loving chief minister of the state of Tamil Nadu, which is the sponsor of the championship. The day of the first game, Nov. 7, readers of most major English newspapers around India were greeted with a bizarre full-page advertisement for the match, paid for by the publicity department of the government of Tamil Nadu.
The only place where the names of Anand and Carlsen could be spotted was inside a small picture of the two at the bottom of the page. The rest of it was devoted to a beatific picture of Jayalalithaa (in her youth a film star) and the news that she had "kindly consented to be the Chief Guest and Inaugurate the World Championship Match."
That's a lot of dross to have to get past before the real drama of -- to borrow from Jorge Luis Borges's wonderful poem "Chess" -- "Faint-hearted king, sly bishop, ruthless queen,/ Straightforward castle, and deceitful pawn." At the time of writing, it's still all in the balance: four games, four draws in the best of 12 contest.
(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)
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