Friday 31 January 2014

Understanding Classical Chess through Viswanathan Anand & Co

If you ever wanted to know the meaning of 'concentration' - just Google in the name and you will find thousands of quotes and articles written on it. Concentration to me comes from self-learning  and embracing than merely reading. It is an adventure - shutting out the chaos outside and inside of you and remain focussed on the task at hand. I had a tryst with this virtue yesterday when I sat and watched a classical round of chess for just under six hours with just two small breaks!

I cannot remember when was the last time I sat through this patiently, concentrating on anything without moving around, talking or discussing; not having to click photographs or even murmur in few decibels to the neighbouring chaps.

There is a first for everything in this quotidian life we so carefully plan and strive to lead. Watching six of the top nine World champions of chess in action was one such thing. Chess as a sport is a not a new thing to me. As a kid, countless games were played with my sister just for the heck of it. In school, during the lunch breaks one could not resist but be a part of a chess playing pair giving advices and forming strategies. It was rapid chess or blitz chess at its best!

In 2009, Zürich Chess Club (one of the oldest in the world) hosted a grand tournament at the Zürich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) which had world's top players assembled under one roof to the audience as a part of 200th anniversary of Zürich Chess Club. In company of my friend who also happened to a former national chess champion; we were thrilled to witness Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Viswanathan Anand, Viktor Korchnoi, Vladimir Kramnik, Ruslan Ponomariov, Boris Spassky and Veselin Topalov engaging the upcoming chess talents in a Champions Simultan.

The event in 2009 was what you call a 'sponsor's delight' - to have all these big names of chess opening up to the audience, signing autographs and also pose for photographs. It was a carnival of chess.

The last two days were much more sedate, formal and an atmosphere where chess is being talked about constantly. It is serious, tense and silent not just for few minutes - it goes on for hours. Players on board take few trips to the toilet, have a cup of hot green tea, a glass of water, order a shot of espresso, ingest their own bottled drinks, chew few nuts, stroll around, observe the other two games in progress apart from staring at the chess board strategising your next set of moves or wait for the opponent to make a move. They make eye contacts with the limited viewing public, not for long. It is sometimes best to get distracted, just to get out of the zone they are held within and come out fresh. After all this is a pitched battle on the board and focus is paramount. 
                                       At the beginning of his game with Levon Aronian                                         ©Rajan Thambehalli
I stood for close to 90 minutes watching the action unfold, seconds ticking ever so slowly - with eyes flickering around the three boards projected on screen. It is such an intense involvement that, I ended up concentrating only on the game between Viswanathan Anand and his Armenian opponent  Levon Aronian. On the other boards were the recently crowned World champion Magnus Carlsen with Boris Gelfand and Hikaru Nakamura competing with Fabiano Caruana.

On the front row of seating as a result of a seated guest vacating, I got my opportunity to sit - just in sight to the Indian Grandmaster and I was seated there for the next 200 minutes. In those six hours of watching him play, one could see a lot of moods being exhibited - none so in a manner which compromised his overall composure. It was a lesson personally - having to fathom different scales of concentration and steadiness of mind under stress and constantly come up with various permutations and combinations and be totally present on the action in progress. At times, it felt the only thing that ever moved was the timer clock.

I observed Anand and he would not show any signs of frustration - not even a hint of it. I do not know him personally to decode his silence. Alas, I caught him off-guard, a face of a frustrated mind appeared when he had made a mistake in one of his moves. Out of the chess world, such a behaviour would not have made people sit up and take notice. This chess tournament hall with beautiful chandeliers was different. Such is the peak of concentration these players go to - that any slightest dip is easily noticed. At least, this was the case with Anand. 

Chess is a strategy and an error is weighed in gold's loss. The initial four hours bore no result and went to the extra two hours. The game had 73 moves the last of which proved fatal to Anand's hopes. 
Viswanathan Anand discussing with Levon Aronian at the end of the game                ©Rajan Thambehalli
He has four  games in the classical round and the competition is tough. As far as the rankings go, he is ranked 9th and rest of the five participants are all placed above him - though, none comes close to him in experience.
Magnus Carlsen struggled initially and spent a lot of time staring clueless at the board - a fact he acknowledged at the press conference. With time, he gathered enough momentum to break the strong defence of Boris Gelfand and a got full point under four hours. Fabiano Caruana would have joined Magnus Carlsen at the top only if he had not made a error which put him in a defensive frame right till the end. His mental duel with Nakamura ended in a draw.

At the press conference, Anand was visibly unhappy with the outcome and left with his wife Aruna immediately after the conference. Chess is a mind game and the frame of mind often dictates the end result. He has seen better days and as a fan I hope those days are replicated in the next few matches he plays in. After having been in the chess world for more than 30 years, Anand surely knows  everyday is a new day.  

Marathon Man vs Raging Bull - Federer vs Nadal at the Majors

Rafael Nadal lost in the final hurdle of Australian Open 2014 to a Swiss tennis player. It was not Roger Federer for once! Stainslas Wawrinka was the underdog going into the final men's singles match and at the end of it his achievements echoed the feelings of "Yo, Adrian, I did it". This was no Hollywood and Wawrinka's celebrations was nowhere close to the exuberance 'Rocky Balboa'  exhibited on-screen in Rocky II.

Important question - If Nadal were to be 100% fit, would Wawrinka be a threat to Nadal and his power play? Make no mistake the end result did appear as an upset and even with Wawrinka's confidence brimming sky high, it would have been a herculean effort to win against the quality player like Nadal. In fact age-wise, Nadal is a year younger to the reigning Australian Open champion; so there is no question of young legs over powering the might. In Wawrinka's defence, he is probably playing the best tennis of his life at the moment and his win must not be treated as a total surprise.

I rest the case of Wawrinka here and introduce another champion, his compatriot Roger Federer. It is interesting to note that, Federer this year was playing in his 57th Grand Slam event since Australian Open 2000. He is currently in his 15th year of playing non-stop at the premier events of tennis. That's in the level of a iron man if not a marathon man.

Top stuff! considering the number of events conducted around the four major tournaments and throw in few national tournaments in between, you are looking at a very packed and physically demanding schedule. He will be 33 years by the time he would be playing his first match at the US Open and honestly going by the past record, only few players have managed to win singles title at that age. His peak years are behind him and all he has with him are the years of experience and the inner desire to play tennis. He loves playing tennis - a fact pretty evident as he does not seem to be bogged down with legacy and terms like 'retiring on a high'.

Now coming to the pocket dynamo, the enigmatic Nadal and his performances at the Grand Slams. He turns 28 this June and he already has 13 titles to his credit - including French Open a record 8 times (Whoa, that's out of this world stuff!!!). In spite of all his muscles, his penchant for baseline tennis and what not (ask the ladies), I have a problem with him when it comes to consistency.

It is not that Nadal is extraordinary, even Federer had 15 titles to his credit when he was 28 years of age. And going by the trend in tennis, it is a lot difficult to win as age advances. This is one sport where there is no replacement for physical demands. Experience and skills can guide you in crunch moments - if one is not fit to run around and constantly play the strokes with ease and precise, you are asking for trouble.

Since the time Nadal has made his Grand Slam debut - forty three Grand Slam tournaments have taken place and he has missed six tournaments during this period. He has managed to play a meagre 13 major tournaments in a row. 

On the court Nadal exerts himself to such a degree that he is prone to injuries - a technical flaw in my opinion. Probably the number would have been much less than 13 if he had taken a more steady approach. It's his natural game! 

Talking about steadiness - it is interesting to note that Nadal is a natural baseline player who loves and prefers to drain out his opponents engaging in a series of long rallies. Federer is quite the opposite; he loves to play serve and volley. Though well adapted to playing long rallies, he is always short of answers when it comes to playing on slow surfaces against the top three. Off late he is struggling practically in every surface and he is relying on his skills and all the knowledge accumulated over the years to reach the top four or top eight.

Federer remains a disciplined student of the game like a school student who refuses to skip even a single lecture till his schooling days are over. On the other hand, Nadal epitomises the 'cool' college going student who is smart, pumped up and restless like a raging bull - prone to accidents now and then, only to make a comeback with a bang. The mixed fortune cycle of pain and glory repeats at regular intervals. How long can he sustain such a professional lifestyle? One, two, three, four years or more.... Luckily, age is on his side.

As to Roger Federer - the 'aura' of  awesomeness is missing from the past 3-4 years. Yet, he marches on year after year participating in many of the elite tournaments worldwide, travelling constantly with his young family, fighting to remain in the top five with a hope of one last victory at a Grand Slam. It's been a while he shed those tears of joy and kiss the winner's trophy - a ritual which he and a lot of his fans were so accustomed to. 

"Legend remains victorious in spite of history" - Sarah Bernhardt 

Monday 13 January 2014

Return of number 13 in Formula One

One of the interesting aspects in most sports is the tradition of using numbers. The numbers become the identity of a person with time and motorsports is no different. What started as just a plain identity, the concept of numbering evolved and in 1996, FIA decided to make it official and more systematic. The numbers were given to teams in the order of their standings in the constructor's championships. Unless one team has a steady run of consecutive championships, the numbers would change each year. This year and hopefully for a longer duration, the drivers have been given the choice to choose their own numbers.

Personally, I like this concept as it creates a special bond between the athlete and his/her fan base. FIA's tryst with numbers has a long history, evolved over a period of time and now has a sense of logic moving forward. Most other popular sports have athletes bearing a particular number - a unique connection.

Formula One has seen a lot of changes with respect to the use of numbers as a means of one's identity. Going back in time - the numbers were allocated to cars on a race-by race basis either through lottery or by the order in which the entries were received.

In 1969, first noticeable change was seen with the world champion being given the 'Numero Uno'  while rest of the grid numbers were chosen on randomness. However, few teams did adopt a convention over a period of time, with the legendary number of 27 being associated with Ferrari for as long as 1996 before the rules were tweaked by the FIA.

We talk about superstitious being part of our daily lives, sports is no different. To me, use of superstitious practices in sports is an extension of personal lives. In Formula One, the curiosity and the myth surrounding around the number '13' is one such episode. Pastor Maldonado, the mercurial Venezuelan driver has opted the number '13' for the 2014 season on his Lotus livery. Looking at the history, this number was used sparingly in F1.

Since 1976, F1 has not seen the number '13' appearing on a car. Divina Galica, one of the five female F1 drivers used the supposedly 'unlucky' number for her maiden drive in F1 at the British Grand Prix in 1976. Blame it on bad omen or lack of pace on the car, she did not qualify. She did get a run for two more rounds in the 1978 season and both times she failed to qualify.

Only Solana Moises has the distinction of racing a Formula one race (Mexican GP, 1963) with the number '13' on his car. He did not have much success in the race, classified eleventh for completing 57 laps before his British Racing Motors (BRM) engine failed.

In general, we have many instances of deliberately avoiding the number '13' owing to an irrational belief called 'superstition'. Despite this popular notion, we have seen in the sporting world - number 13 being used by 'well-known' athletes.

The list goes this way - Wilt Chamberlain (famous basketball player and first to score 100 points in a game) and the most valuable player  (MVP) of NBA for 2005 and 2006, Steve Nash using the number 13. In football, we had German player Michael Ballack who wore the # 13 jersey for both Chelsea and his national team (of which latter he was the captain); the world record holder for highest number of matches appeared in the history of football, Kristine Lillie (352 matches for USA) worn the so-called dreaded #13.

Other notable mentions include - Alex Rodriguez, Billy Wagner, Omar Vizquel - the baseball players; Alessandro Nesta, the Italian footballer; Jake Scott, Dan Marino, Kurt Warner and Don Maynard the American football players; Mats Sundin and Pavel Datsyuk, the ice hockey players. However, they form a pool of exceptions in grander scheme of things and Formula One going by the history doesn't belong to this pool of exceptions.

The story surrounding the ill-fate associated with thirteen goes back a long way in motorsports. It all started in 1925 when a car bearing the number 13 met with an accident - and its driver Paul Torchy died at the site of Delange Grand Prix. The very next year, Count Giulo Masetti died of a car accident bearing the number '13'. It was then decided by the French Automobile club to eliminate the number '13' from the races.

In Formula One, Mauritz von Strachwitz tried his luck first in 1953 at the German Grand Prix, failed to qualify and as mentioned previously, when Galica Divina attempted to qualify her Surtees Cosworth bearing the number 13, she finished 28th out of 26 cars that could be part of the race. 

Thus Brands Hatch, the site of 1976 Great Britain Grand Prix happened to be the last time one saw a Formula One car to have the number '13' on it. Hence in the previous system of awarding numbers to teams - FIA never gave the number '13'. Instead the seventh placed constructor received the numbers 14 and 15 to their respective drivers as opposed to numbers 13 and 14.

Australia 2014 - season opener in Melbourne. What will Maldonado do? Will he be able to change the perception of many cynics? Not to discount the past, Maldonado surely has a much secured drive than his predecessors who used the number thirteen. In that sense, it nullifies most of the myth surrounding this number.

After thirty seven years there has been an attempt to 'eliminate' the fear of number '13', known scientifically as 'Triskaidekaphobia' thanks to Pastor Maldonado. 

For now - let's wait and watch as the action unfolds in less than sixty days time.

Saturday 11 January 2014

That Long Pending Handshake

The two magazines which I picked up from the store 
I must admit, I am concerned at the present state of condition Michael Schumacher is in. Each passing day, we hear news about his recovery or him being in coma; his battles off-the field and several pleas from his family to leave them alone in what is most distressing time for the Schumacher and his extended family.

I was holidaying with my wife at the time of the incident and it has been just two days since we are back to our routine. A lot has been written and said in the media about his health; I am not sure what to read and what to believe. I stopped reading.

We are back to our routine and part of that involves shopping for groceries or as a last minute rush, one buys a thing or two from the local shop next to the train station. I have always been amassed with the collection of magazines they have - reminds me of India and those multi-purpose stalls where magazines of all possible genre adorn the sides of those tiny shops. I could notice about ten magazines in a jiffy; all had Michael Schumacher on its cover. Each magazine had at least 4-5 pages of coverage on his health, family, opinions from several experts, encouraging messages and many more. It was in German and I browsed through all of them before buying these two magazines. 
Looking at them, I was transported back to the time when I started watching F1 and how a certain red car driven by Michael Schumacher got me hooked onto these fast cars of Formula One. I am trying to recollect all the memories that I have and how the idolism of Michael Schumacher made me fall in love with F1 - its history, evolution and just about everything associated with the sport.
A world made up of billions of people - it is interesting to note the kind of impact individuals tend to have on masses. There would be plenty who took to F1 because of Michael and if not seriously, at least the sport has benefitted with his presence for more than two decades. I would like to share some of them.

More than his victories, the two seasons with Ferrari towards the end of his first term in 2005 and 2006 was a lesson in itself - personally. There have been several instances where I was inspired by the way he handled personal and team setbacks in those two years; the manner in which he fought back reducing the deficit of 34 points in 2006 to zero before his engine blew in the penultimate race at Suzuka (for the record, his last engine failure prior to Suzuka 2006 was at French Grand Prix 2000). He lost the championship to Alonso, but went down fighting. Not to forget the way he came back from his leg injury in 1999 - after which he enjoyed the most successful phase of his career. 

By the time I was a corporate, Schumacher had retired and my first race live on track did not feature him. Till date, I have dreamt of that day where I would shake hands with Michael; sitting together at some place discussing Formula One and him having a look at my personal collection of his photographs pasted and others (from different magazines) I collected as a student. What a thrill it is for a fan when that day comes true!

In 2009, Geneva Auto show featured several cars and in that magnificent spread of trendy cars - there were few collections from the world of Formula One. In a corner there was a tiny F1 car (compared to today's standard size) with 7UP advertised all over it. It was the same car in which Michael Schumacher had made his debut with Jordan, back in 1991 at the Belgian Grand Prix - the only time he raced officially in that car. Boy, was I excited! 
Jordan Ford - Schumey's debut F1 car 
When Mercedes announced its intention to participate in the F1 arena as a constructor, Ross Brawn called out for Michael Schumacher. He immediately agreed and returned to the team where he began his racing career in the late 1980's.

In his second term at Mercedes, he put his laurels at stake for the sake of driving. He was contracted for three years and it yielded him no victories. The Chinese Grand Prix win in 2006 remains his last triumph. Did he ruin his legacy? For the sake of numbers, he did; for the joy of doing what he loves - hats off to him. Not many have the guts to pursue what one loves irrespective of what critics have to say. 

Personally, I would have loved to see him drive a competitive car; securing pole positions; shattering the time sheets with fastest laps; spraying champagne all over after winning the race. A lot of us didn't get to see that and I have no qualms about it.

Over the past decade and a half, I have read a lot of books written on him, absorbed a lot of words scribbled by various writers on varying aspects of his life - on and off track. Let's just say, he is no saint - but he is as human as anyone could be. Though heavily talented, he was prone to driving errors, learnt from his mistakes of the past, something we are all inclined to do - improved immensely and became the multiple world champion he is.

When he announced his retirement for the second time and for good this time, I was fortunate to be in India at that time. I did not hesitate once and immediately booked the tickets for the Indian Grand Prix 2012 along with the travel tickets. It was expensive, no doubt! every penny was worth it. After all, this was once in a lifetime experience I didn't want to miss.

At the circuit, all I could see was his car zooming past me during the practice sessions and qualifying; struggling on the race day. Amongst all this, I did manage to spot him sans the helmet and the racing gear, waving his hands - a sort of goodbye to all his fans on the driver's parade. 
Schumey waving at his fans - Driver's parade Indian GP 2012 
Schumacher in action at Indian Grand Prix 2012 
On a road trip last year, I convinced my wife to visit a small town in Germany called Kerpen. It is a small town about 30 km south-west of Cologne. All I wanted to do was experience the town from where the legend of Michael Schumacher began. 

Be it a local café or a Bäckerei - all knew their most favourite son. With our limited knowledge of Deutsch, we somehow managed to located his carting track - a haven for budding drivers. We walked around the circuit, scanned possibly every item in the memorabilia store and did not return empty-handed. 
Collage of Michael Schumacher's Kart Center at Kerpen
This is how close Michael Schumacher has been in my life. I have never met him personally till date and I continue to dream of that day when we finally get to meet. I am not sure of the timeline - but I am optimistically hopeful of this occurrence in the near future. If not more, at least that long pending handshake.

Till that time - I wish him a speedy recovery from the injury! 

Friday 10 January 2014


Jerry Bujakowski in action
At the 1964 Winter Olympics edition held at Innsbruck, Austria, India had a representation. It was the first time an athlete from India was participating in such a event - Jeremy Bujakowski, known by his nickname 'Jerry'. He was born to a Polish father in Lithuania before acquiring citizenship of India, courtesy of his father's involvement in building of oil refineries in India and subsequently becoming its naturalised citizen.
Jerry was sent to United States for higher education after his preliminary education at St. Joseph's North Point, Darjeeling and St.Xavier's College, Kolkata. Language barriers coupled with occasional cultural jolts - did not deter his love for skiing. He started out skiing in Boise, Idaho and very soon he was offered a full scholarship at the University of Denver.

Apart from mere representation at the 1964 Olympics, he had his share of his injuries which threatened to shorten his career in skiing. At the Olympics downhill event he suffered a broken back and concussions.  Damaged internal haemorrhages along with badly fractured leg ended his maiden Olympics. It was an uphill battle to complete recovery.

At an interval of every six months since that dreadful accident, Jerry went through four operations in that period - each time surgeons re-tied the nerves in order to prevent bleeding. He was eager in spite of this set back and resumed training at the Mammoth Mountains with one ski and his left leg under a cast! All these efforts - in order to regain fitness and participate in the next edition at Grenoble, France.

By the time he became fit enough to compete (though not completely healed) he had met Janet Evans; popped the question and was married to her. At this juncture, Jerry also had the opportunity to meet Dave McCoy, former coach of the US ski team and also the owner of a resort at the Mammoth Mountains. Dave took a keen interest in Jerry which resulted in him being the mentor/coach at the Grenoble Olympics.

On the day of parade of nations,  Janet accompanied her husband Jerry - who held the Indian flag proudly. He was the 'sole' representative of India once again at the Olympics in the capacity of an 'athlete'.

Apart from being the athlete, he was also India's 'Chef de Mission' ( head of the delegation) and aptly appointed his American wife Janet Evans as 'Chef d'Equipe' - to coordinate in matters related to technical aspects of the sport. I am not sure what her credentials were apart from the fact that her father, a real estate broker comes from a skiing family and her first meeting of Jerry happened on the mountains.

In total, Jerry participated in three of the skiing events - Downhill, Giant Slalom and Slalom. He finished with a rank of 53 at the downhill event, 65 at the giant slalom event and did not advance further at the slalom event.

I am not sure how many in India remembered when he went into race that day in Grenoble. A family from San Diego woke up early that morning (4 am) in order to catch his friend Jerry on his downhill run. ABC cut to commercial at the time of Jerry's run. A furious lady, mother of Jerry's friends called up the local ABC station; endlessly she tried to catch hold of the responsible person who made the call to show commercials. She did manage to get hold of somebody at New York city and by the time she returned to her children to the living room, the sportscasters on the mountainside of Grenoble were making an announcement about them replaying the run of the 'Indian' skier, Jerry Bujakowski for his fans in San Diego, California!

India had to wait a good twenty years before there were to be any athletes at the Winter Olympics. Since 1988 with the exception of 1994 Lillehammer Games, there has been consistency even though the numbers never swelled beyond four for a single edition.

Sochi Olympics 2014 would have been an occasion to celebrate for the Indian contingent. The event would have coincided perfectly with the fifty years celebration of an Indian athlete participating at the Winter Olympics. There is one problem though - no visibility of India flag during the event.

The four athletes who have qualified for the event from India has a four-time Winter Olympic participant by the name of Shiv Keshvan, who incidentally will be participating for a fifth time at the event.

The decision to hold the IOA general elections on February 9th and not before the start of the event (7th Feb is the deadline set by IOC) is appalling to say the least. No doubt, the four athletes will participate but with the generic flag - under the Olympic flag.

It would have been interesting how Jerry would have reacted (he passed away in 2010) for the current state of mess Indian Olympic Association is in and for the incumbent officials failing to look at the bigger picture of the athletes.

Nevertheless, I will celebrate the occasion and writing this article is one such way to acknowledge the man, Jerry Bujakowski and the painstaking efforts he took to make India become a Winter Olympic nation.