The first time I witnessed Viswanathan Anand cut a birthday cake was in 2000, in the middle of the FIDE World Chess Championship. He had just won the match in the stately banquet hall of Hyatt, Delhi when a cake was wheeled in, and Anand's petite wife Aruna along with several hundred chess enthusiasts wished him.
Slogans eulogizing him as the Mind Champion, from the 'Wish a Win for Vishy' by NIIT, which had anointed Anand as it's brand ambassador earlier that year, reverberated through the hall.
Many exciting games later in New Delhi and Tehran, Anand strode to victory as the FIDE World Chess Champion, defeating Bulgarian chess player Vaselin Topolov. A billion Indians cheered the Chess Grandmaster, a rare sight in a cricket crazy country like India.
His recent defeat to the 22-year Norwegian Magnus Carlsen might stand in a sharp contrast to that year, but it cannot cast a shadow on the way Anand has popularized a non-spectator sport like chess in India. The Anand-impact on a 'nerdy' game can be seen in urban homes, where even five-year olds are enrolled for chess classes. Its impact on the interiors of the country is an unprecedented story.
It began in 2001, with Anand's actively supporting NIIT MindChampions Academy (MCA) where he promised to dedicate several days each year. Today, NIIT MCA has grown to become the most comprehensive chess programme in the country, touching 17,000 government and private schools and over 1.7 million students voluntarily.
It works to a year-long calendar of tournaments that begin at the school level and go all the way up to the national championship. The numbers came as the academies were run in schools where NIIT provided computer education, but no one could have imagined that MCA would groom talent that will challenge the Grand Master himself, so quickly and in such large numbers.
The benefits of chess to school students go beyond the game itself, as revealed to NIIT chief Rajendra Pawar by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. As the President of the Russian state of Kalmykia, Kirsan found that chess improved concentration among students leading to a better pass percentage and a dramatic drop in crime rate in the state.
Since 2000, Vishy has won the world Chess Championship five times. He has been a world champion in all forms of Chess--Classic, including Rapid and Blindfold. Not every game was a cakewalk for Vishy, certainly not the one in 2013. Even though Anand had the satisfaction of bringing the World Championship 2013 home he was disappointed that he didn't give enthusiasts better matches in his hometown Chennai.
The loss, a crushing defeat for many fans, to challenger Magnus Carlsen, half his age, in November was a result of couple of mistakes during the game and non-stop chess for the past six years, including the recent World Championships where he defended the title.
Vishy who has seen several ups and downs in his career says stoically 'loss of the World title will perhaps be a negative but still the big milestone in my career'. "It's quite humbling that after so many matches you watch yourself implode, almost. It teaches you that even chess grandmasters can be human after all," he recently admitted in a televised interview.
Even as Vishy dismisses calls from distracters on whether it is time to retire, chess lovers in Indian hope that Anand will continue to dedicate time to develop a groundswell of young Indians who know the game, who benefit from the game, who enjoy the educational benefits of the game maybe even expand his role at the NIIT MindChampions Academy.
He can derive a lot of comfort from having ignited a passion for chess in the young minds - so that one day we could proudly salute not one, but a hundred Viswanathan Anands.
On his 44th birthday here is wishing Vishy lots of success and hoping that his dream of climbing the World Chess Championship summit a sixth time turns into reality.
(Sanjiv Kataria, a strategic communications counsel, served as NIIT brand custodian until 2006. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at email@example.com or @sanjivkataria)
--IANS (Posted on 12-12-2013)