Viswanathan Anand was barely 15 when he arrived in Dubai for the World Junior Championships.
It was 38 years ago when he saw this city for the first time, those empty sand plots and narrow stretches of roads are still vivid in his memory.
Anand, who went on to cement his place in the pantheon of the greatest chess players of all time with five senior world championship titles, is lost for words now when you ask him about this city’s glorious transformation.
Dubai has also officially become Anand’s second home with the legendary Indian sportsman receiving the UAE golden visa on Tuesday.
The 53-year-old hopes to play a part in Dubai and the UAE’s quest for sporting excellence by sharing his knowledge and experience with the local chess community here.
In a free-wheeling chat with Khaleej Times, the Fide Deputy President also revealed why he was not surprised by Indian prodigy Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa’s stunning run to the Chess World Cup final.
Q. Congratulations on receiving the UAE Golden Visa. You have joined an illustrious list of global sports icons like Cristiano Ronaldo, Luis Figo, Novak Djokovic, Paul Pogba and Roberto Carlos who have received the golden visa…
I am very honoured to be on this list. I have seen some of the other names. I am very excited. For a while, I have noticed that the UAE is becoming more and more important for me and for chess. So lots of chess events are happening here. Also, we see the trend of UAE becoming the melting pot with Dubai as the global city. So it’s very good that I will be able to participate in that (movement). The golden visa will help a lot, so I am very excited.
Q. Recently, we had the Tech Mahindra Global Chess League in Dubai. It was a one-of-a-kind chess event, inspired by the franchise-style T20 leagues. You were a part of the event as well…
I thought the Tech Mahindra Global Chess League was a very intelligent attempt at taking chess to a new audience. This works on the internet, but how do we make it attractive to television? Which requires slightly different production values. And then naturally the format and everything had to be modified to make it ideal for it. I thought it was very, very successful. I must say the scoring methods, the other innovations during the competition, having all members of the team play the same colour, the bonus points were black. All these are ideas I discussed with them initially, and I am glad that many of them worked very well. It was an attempt to package chess differently and I just hope the future editions will be built on this because it’s part of the process of taking chess to the new audiences.
Q. As you speak about taking chess to new audiences, there is a thriving local chess community here. You probably have had interactions with some of the young players here. And now hopefully, an event like the Tech Mahindra Global Chess League will help the game grow bigger in this country…
I hope to interact with them more often, obviously in many capacities. I will come here more often as the Fide Deputy President, but also as a chess player. I have noticed that for a while the UAE runs one of the best Asian chess circuits, you have the Sharjah Open, the Dubai Open, and the Abu Dhabi Open, there are four or five open tournaments here. I think the UAE will also bid for one of the Chess Olympiads, they have organised the Global Chess League. It’s good to see how a very exciting chess community growing here. Obviously, the best player is Salem Saleh. As more and more big events happen here, even more youngsters will take part. We were discussing yesterday (Wednesday) with the president of the UAE Federation, Mr Tarim Matar, and he mentioned that he has some very exciting plans for UAE chess. I think it’s the perfect time to introduce these plans.
Q. The UAE has over the years become one of the leading sports destinations in the world, with Dubai and Abu Dhabi hosting some of the biggest international events in golf, tennis, football, rugby, Formula One, pre-season NBA games and UFC. Now chess is the new edition. Not just the Global Chess League, but even the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship match was staged during Dubai Expo. Events like these will make the sport more popular here…
I think Dubai is an excellent venue. If you are a global event, then you look for a city where you can present it like that and Dubai turns out to be the best in many ways. It’s important for all major sports to come here, as you mentioned most high-profile sports are here. It’s very attractive for all sports to have a presence here because you can leverage that to increase your popularity everywhere globally. So there are quite a few major chess events in the pipeline and I hope many of them will happen in the UAE.
Q. What does it feel to look back at your career? The five world championship titles that you won and the legacy that you left behind will continue to inspire millions of people..
Obviously, I am very proud that I won those world titles and made an impact. Those moments are very special to me. But I am also glad that it resonated with other people and many of them started playing the game. There was definitely an increase in the number of chess players in India during that time. Now it’s a very exciting time again if you are a chess fan.
Q. Yes indeed. And India now have Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa, the 18-year-old chess prodigy, who has taken the country by storm. He is the youngest player in history to reach the Chess World Cup final. But he was surprised by his run to the final. You obviously know him for a long time now and you probably knew his potential much before the rest of the world came to know. Were you also surprised that he could achieve something of this magnitude so early in his career? Or you knew that he had the potential to do it so early…
He had the potential to do it so early. I would say it didn’t surprise me that he got there. But it would not have surprised if he didn’t get there this time. Maybe it would have happened sometime later. The format is slightly unpredictable. But it did not surprise me at all that he got there because he is good enough, when he is in form then it can happen. I knew the potential he had, but there is always a difference between potential and making it a reality.
Q. What’s the kind of future you see for him? He is only 18 now, by what age do you think he could reach the peak of his prowess?
You cannot predict things in that way, but he is growing fast and he is a very exciting talent. His next big target would be the Candidates Tournament in April in Toronto. He would be looking for a very good performance. I don’t think he is one of the favourites yet, he is still very young. But it’s a great chance for him to do something. He has four to five months at least to get ready.
Q. Chess was always very popular in southern India. But the impact you had in the 1990s and 2000s, the whole of India started following chess news in the media. Do you think Praggnanandhaa can make the same impact?
I think so. Also, we have quite a few other youngsters like Dommaraju Gukesh who are doing very well now. So I would like to call them the golden generation now. They are all under the age of 20, and they are all in the world’s top 50. They are all competing at the top of world chess. If you have four or five players who are capable of doing that, then it also means that as Indian sporting fans, we get to look forward to something very exciting. The impact is already big in India, I hope it’s also going to be big in Dubai, especially with the Indian community here. Another reason I was quite excited to get my visa here, there is such a big Indian community in Dubai. I hope the impact of chess is felt globally. But yes, I hope it will inspire a lot of Indians.
Q. Being the second home to a big Indian community and the platform for myriad global sports events, what’s the other quality of Dubai that appeals to you?
This city is willing to take everything from a clean slate. Dubai has the positive attitude of ‘if something makes sense, we will try it’. I visited Dubai for the first time just about 40 years ago. I came here for a World Junior Championships in 1985. I might have come for one tournament before that because this city used to have a lot of Asian events. And it is kind of amazing. Dubai doesn’t cease to surprise you.
Q. From a very small place back in the early 1980s to becoming one of the world’s most famous cities, Dubai is an incredible story. What are your memories of your first trip? And how does it feel when you see the glorious transformation?
It’s hard to visualise, so many areas that were empty are now filled with all these huge buildings. It’s a city which attracts more and more people. So it’s becoming very global, very cosmopolitan. And it has become a major destination. Equally, I would say Abu Dhabi, in a slightly different way. They also have lots of exciting projects. In that sense, it’s a perfect combination between business and tourism.
Q. Even the biggest sports icons have similar stories, many of them overcame great odds to reach the top. Who are your heroes from the other sports, people whose inspiring stories may have touched you?
I think countless sports people. You read about so many and you find always that each one in his or her own way has overcome some odds. And I am very fortunate that in India as well I get to interact with a lot of great Indian sports people from the past and the current ones as well. I am also involved with India’s Olympic Gold Quest. I get to meet a lot of people who are now trying for Olympic medals. It’s nice to watch how the sports scene has changed so much in India.
Q. As you said, the sports scene has changed quite a lot in India. How does it feel to see the steady improvement the country has made in Olympic events with the prime example being Neeraj Chopra?
It takes time. I think 40 years ago in India if you wanted to pursue sports, there were many people who didn’t understand it. People used to ask you if you could make a living doing that. So it seemed strange back then. Now I think Indians are totally open to the idea of sports. Indians follow all global sports, we are quite knowledgeable about the subject and we are very passionate fans. So the athletes know that if they do well, then they will get support, recognition and fame. Also, as the country has gotten richer, we are able to support these athletes. So the athletes have access to better trainers, and the Indian sports community is getting better and better. The trainers are getting better, the physios are getting better. So the ecosystem is pushing people along. That’s why we are making an improvement in Olympic sports. So Neeraj Chopra is a shining example, but equally, there are many others on the verge of becoming champions. So we are all waiting for the next Olympics.