A DASHING young genius from India embarks today on a journey no one from his country has ever undertaken - a quest for the world chess championship.
By winning a series of elimination matches over the past two years, Viswanathan (Vishy) Anand has stamped himself as the official challenger to reigning titleholder Garry Kasparov. Now, in a spectacular setting atop New York's World Trade Center, he gets his chance to accomplish what no one except Bobby Fischer has done in more than half a century - break the monopoly on the title held by players born in the former Soviet Union.
Indeed, the very idea of anyone coming out of a developing nation to challenge the historic supremacy of Europe and the United States was once unthinkable. But boundaries are breaking down rapidly these days, as evidenced by the ascendancy of China's Xie Jun to the women's world championship and now Anand's challenge.
Despite Kasparov's stature as arguably the greatest player in the history of the game, Anand is a worthy challenger. The twenty-something grandmaster, known for his attacking flair and rapid-fire calculating ability, won the world junior championship as a teenager and has been on a meteoric rise ever since.
Hardly anyone can keep pace with Anand in "blitz chess," in which each player has five minutes to make all his moves. In serious international play, Anand has quickly established his place among the world's elite. During the qualifying matches, Kasparov cited the Indian as his most dangerous potential challenger, and predicted he would win - a confidence Anand justified by rolling through the quarterfinals and semifinals, then decisively defeating Soviet defector Gata Kamsky of the United States in the finals.
Now comes the big test, when despite his impressive credentials Anand is a decided underdog against a champion who has completely dominated his peers over the past decade. The Indian whiz may indeed be the heir apparent, but few observers think he is ready yet to seize the crown from a champion in his early 30s still at the peak of his formidable powers - as Kasparov showed in his most recent defense in 1993 by annihilating the brilliant young English grandmaster, Nigel Short.
Upsets have happened before, however, in these gruelling tests of skill and stamina. Over the next several weeks thousands of spectators - ranging from curiosity-seekers to serious chess enthusiasts - will turn out to see if Anand can succeed, or if Kasparov will add more luster to his immense reputation.
The winner will also add $1 million to his bankroll while his victim can console himself with the $500,000 loser's share - perhaps not enough to tempt Mike Tyson or George Foreman, but a fair piece of change even by today's inflated standards. The comparison is apt, too, for just as boxing confuses the issue with rival organizations and multiple champions, so chess has its own "war" between the long-established International Chess Federation (Lucerne, Switzerland-based FIDE) and the newer Professional Chess Association (PCA) in London, which is sanctioning this match.
Indeed, another "world championship" featuring Kamsky and Anatoly Karpov is scheduled later this year under FIDE auspices.
First up, though, is Kasparov-Anand - a best-of-20 affair to be played four games a week for as long as it takes to determine a winner. The setting will be the Trade Center's 107th-floor Observation Deck, with the players isolated in a soundproof glass enclosure surrounded by seating and display areas to accommodate more than 1,000 spectators.
The combatants are already well acquainted, having played many games of speed chess (25-30 minutes per player) as well as nine times using classic international time controls (3-1/2 hours per player, in effect). In the latter contests, Kasparov has a 5-2-2 margin, which may be partly explained by the fact that he enjoyed the advantage of the white pieces an unlikely eight times.
The Russian world-title monopoly began with Alexander Alekhine in the 1920s, and continued with a series of Soviet champions throughout the '40s, '50s, and '60s until Fischer broke the spell with his famous victory over Boris Spassky in 1972. The enigmatic American declined to defend his crown, however, forfeiting it in 1975 to Karpov, who held it until dethroned in 1985 by Kasparov, an ethnic Armenian who was born in Azerbaijan but now lives in Moscow. Kasparov defended successfully in several matches with Karpov over the next half-dozen years, then routed Short in London two years ago.
It was this latter match that led to the current division of the title. Short had won the challenger's role in the traditional FIDE competition, but when he and Kasparov couldn't get the conditions they wanted for their match they broke away, formed the PCA, and played under its auspices. FIDE retaliated by declaring the title vacant and staging its own "world championship" in which Karpov defeated Dutch grandmaster Jan Timman.
The rival organizations have continued going their own ways, culminating in this year's second set of separate competitions. Both sides recently announced they would hold a match next year to clarify the title.