Over the course of several hours in his Chennai home, Viswanathan "Vishy" Anand has held forth on Mitt Romney's chances of becoming President, the fate of the euro and the intricacies of Spain's "tiki-taka" soccer style. We've also talked about how he became and has stayed the world champion in the most cerebral game mankind has ever invented. Throughout the conversation, Anand has been cool, measured and unhurried. But now the afternoon has taken a surreal turn, and he's leaning forward in his chair, waving his hands and making faces. The smartest man I've ever met is acting out scenes from ... Ali G.
Yes, Anand is a huge fan of Sacha Baron Cohen's famously cretinous hip-hop persona. As he enthusiastically describes Ali G's most idiotic japes, I note the sign on the door to Anand's office, the sanctum where he sharpens his mind by poring over tens of thousands of chess games on his laptop computers and plots his continued dominance of the sport of geniuses. A gift from his wife Aruna, it is an homage to Ali G's first movie: VISHY IS INDAHOUSE. "It reminds me that you can't take everything seriously all of the time," he says. "You have to let yourself laugh."
Anand has plenty to laugh about. In May he retained his world title in Moscow by beating Israeli challenger Boris Gelfand. Anand has been undisputed champion since the end of the chess world's great schism in 2007, when competing titles were unified. Considered a national treasure in India, he may be the world's only chess grandmaster who risks being mobbed in the streets. That level of fame carries rewards. Anand endorses products and services ranging from cookies to computer chips to software training. These days there's plenty of money: his take from beating Gelfand alone was $1.4 million. And his personal life couldn't be in a better place. A year ago, shortly after he and Aruna moved back to Chennai, following a long stay in Spain, they had their first child. "This is the life I've been working for," Anand says. "I'm contented."
But to be king of the board is to wear a thorny crown: the chess world has long been a prickly place, where the size of a player's intellect is often matched only by the dimensions of his ego. Anand's victory over Gelfand was greeted by a chorus of criticism from current and former greats, including Garry Kasparov and British grandmaster Nigel Short. Their complaint: Anand and Gelfand played too conservatively, taking too few risks. Ten of the 12 games were draws, and after both players won one game each, the match was decided by a series of four rapid-fire tiebreakers, with each player getting 25 minutes, plus 10-second increments for every move. Three of those games were draws too. Before the match, Kasparov suggested that Anand was lacking motivation and "sliding downhill." Afterward, Short accused him of playing "middle-aged chess."
Grand Old Master
Anand, who has a reputation for being even-tempered during play and nonconfrontational off the board, has been stung by the criticism. Uncharacteristically, he snapped back at Kasparov, accusing the former world champ of sour grapes. "He's obviously been missing the limelight. Maybe he should not have quit chess [in 2005]," Anand tells me, echoing a sentiment he has expressed several times since May. "He's been trying to persuade every taxi driver in Moscow that I should retire as well." (Kasparov declined to be interviewed for this article.)
But Short's jab about Anand's age may be a more telling blow. At 42, the Indian is undoubtedly long in the tooth for a modern chess champion, old enough to be the father of Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, 21, who tops the ratings compiled by FIDE, the World Chess Federation. (The FIDE ratings are based on tournament play and, as in tennis, allow players to be ranked higher than the reigning world champion.) Eight others in the top 10 are substantially younger than Anand, including Russia's Sergey Karjakin (22); Azerbaijan's Teimour Radjabov (25); and Armenia's Levon Aronian (29), ranked second. Only Ukraine's Vassily Ivanchuk, ranked ninth, is a shade older than the champion.