The Curious case of Vishy
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There is no denying the prestige associated with the biggest prize in the chess world, and the World Championship cycles have, over time, come at an increasing frequency. Viswanathan Anand defended his title against Israeli Boris Gelfand in May 2012 and will face a challenger again in December 2013. Typically, the contender and the champion immerse themselves in insular preparation, three to four months before the bout.
And there is also an equally lengthy cooling off period after. The ongoing Bilbao Masters Final is Anand's first tournament in close to eight months around this year's triumph. So it's difficult to completely set aside the sub-text of the title defense each time the champion participates during the constricted time band between one championship bout and the next.
The Bilbao Masters stars an ensemble cast: Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian are FIDE's current top-two; Fabio Caruana and Sergey Karjakin figure in the top-ten. Vallejo Pons, the lowest ranked in the field, is still top-50. The average age of this field is 24.8, and Anand, 43, is nearly 20 years over.
There will also be the usual suspects (Kramnik, Ivanchuk and Gelfand), but by and large, this precocity could well represent the age profile of Anand's contender for the World title, come 2013.
Tournament and match-play vary in their format and demands, so what clues the Masters Final will provide regarding the immediate destination of the world title is open to interpretation. Anand has been particularly patchy in tournaments in the last few years, but has nevertheless successfully defended his title in the period — he had a 3-21-3 (W-L-D) run before beating Gelfand in a tie-break this May.
In Bilbao, Anand has started with five draws, ranging from the routine to the last gasp. If there is going to be a new young champion next year, he is certainly going to have to earn the win. (The writer is a senior correspondent based in New Delhi)