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In champ, a game-changer

- Flamboyant prince dethrones beloved king

Chennai, Nov. 22: Chess has a new star, a lad who models with Hollywood actresses and has the flamboyance that many felt the sport needed after the long reign of the likeable but staid Viswanathan Anand.

Magnus Carlsen, a 22-year-old Norwegian with tousled hair and a pout, his shirttails hanging out of his jeans, today took the world crown off the studious-looking and formally turned out Indian who, at 43, is nearly double his age.

It was in keeping with Carlsen’s buccaneering style that, needing just a draw, he spurned safe play and made the five-time champion sweat before eventually agreeing to split points.

As chess buffs in Anand’s hometown of Chennai, where the tie was being played, sympathised with their fallen hero, even they seemed to concede that perhaps the game needed a more eyeball-grabbing champion than the prim and poker-faced Indian.

Many like Shiva, a Class XII student who heads his school chess team, had switched sides long before Carlsen completed his 6.5-3.5 victory at the Hyatt Regency today with three wins and seven draws.

“I wanted Anand to win in his hometown but the way Carlsen was playing, I started rooting for him after the first two games,” Shiva had confessed after watching the challenger win game No. 6.

“I loved his enthusiasm and energy. He played with the boundless joy of a youngster and without any fear.”

Some others had perhaps been converted even longer before.

Chennai had had a foretaste of Carlsen when he did a recce of the city in September. At one women’s college, the man dubbed the Justin Bieber of chess and listed by Cosmopolitan as one of the “sexiest men” of 2013 drew shrieks from the students as if he were a rock star.

“I have been treated very well in India. My every wish has been attended to,” Carlsen said after his triumph.

He quipped: “I’m sorry the match turned out the way it did.”

As the affable Anand comes to grips with the end of his reign — a future return as top dog is unlikely though not impossible — his ears will be ringing with the endorsement his vanquisher today received from Chennai’s chess fraternity.

He might remember the stupendous farewell Sachin Tendulkar received just days ago and reflect on how cruel non-spectator sport can be in denying its champions genuine intimacy with fans and then demanding they bridge the gap through off-the-field “flamboyance”.

A Tendulkar or a Lionel Messi, with focused personalities quite similar to Anand’s, would never be called dull because millions can see their sublime performances day in and day out. But 28 years ago, another swashbuckling 22-year-old had been hailed as a messiah for chess after sawing off a “boring” Anatoly Karpov’s decade-long rule.

Garry Kasparov, now 50, had this time backed Carlsen whom he sees as a sort of spiritual heir.

“Carlsen is a combination of Karpov and (America’s Bobby) Fischer. He gets his positions, then never lets go of that bulldog bite,” the Russian said. The Norwegian is the first Western chess world champion since Fischer in 1975.

The smiling genius from Oslo won over Anand’s fans by not just his intuitive play but also his boyish charm.

“At heart he is still a teenager eager to discover life. His approach to chess is fresh and open unlike the dour methodical play of the Russians,” said Benjamin Ree, who is shooting a documentary on Carlsen for a Norwegian TV channel.

“He got tired of tucking his shirt in during matches — it always slipped out as he sat down and got up repeatedly. So he just left it untucked, and soon that became a fashion statement.”

Ree said that though Carlsen was Norway’s most eligible bachelor, he had no girlfriend.

At the board, the young man would slouch on the chair, rumple his hair, and flit in and out of the glass-walled playing area. His air of informality made a striking contrast with Anand, who sat upright with not a hair out of place, occasionally sinking his face in his palms.

On match days, Carlsen woke only by noon and breakfasted on toast and a four-egg omelette spiced with garlic.

“He also gulps down lots of orange and sweet lime juice through the day. He loves his chocolate milk,” said Magnus Forsell, the player’s personal chef. Carlsen would gamely try the “dish of the day” from Hyatt’s restaurants provided it wasn’t very spicy.

As the championship wore on, the challenger did not give up his other passions, often visiting a local school to play basketball with his team. On the rest days, he would unwind at a beach resort near Mahabalipuram, playing cards with his parents and sister.

Stephen Balasamy, Team Carlsen’s Indian liaison officer and a former sportsman, described the 5’10” Norwegian as an excellent basketball player who played vigorously and to win.

“He never misses a Real Madrid match and loves watching NBA games,” said Ree, who felt that Carlsen’s ability to relax and goof around helped him overcome any home advantage Anand may have enjoyed initially.

Even Chennai’s home-grown chess experts accepted that Carlsen was the better player.

“If he has won so many fans in Chennai, it’s because he proved the stronger player. Chennai has its favourite sport stars but it is a greater fan of the better player. That’s why the Pakistan cricket team was cheered after a hard-fought win here (in 1998-99),” reckoned C.G.S. Narayanan, a leading chess problem composer.

Grandmaster and TV commentator R.B. Ramesh felt Anand had committed “blunders and defeated himself, which was unbecoming of him”.

But Tania Sachdev, International Master and commentator, felt Carlsen had forced the mistakes by piling pressure on Anand. “Carlsen plays with cool determination and will power,” she said.

Six years ago in Mexico, as Anand won his second world title, he had appeared to wonder if his countrymen realised how big the achievement was.

Asked if he expected the same reception on homecoming as that given to India’s T20 World Cup-winning team weeks earlier, he had said: “Yes, I heard about it. It would be interesting to see what kind of reception I get.”

Chennai has always treated its favourite son with deep affection and Anand, when he calls it a day, would leave behind a profound legacy.

He had taught a nation to dream of sporting glory, becoming one of its first individual world champions. India’s first Grandmaster at a tender 16, he had inspired his home state to become the nation’s chess capital. Twelve of India’s 34 Grandmasters are from Tamil Nadu.

Carlsen, who became a Grandmaster at 13, has had a similar impact in his country, whose population of five million is two million less than Chennai’s.

“Chess boards are flying off the shelves back home and this contest has been followed in cyberspace with greater interest than the Norway Winter Olympic team’s fortunes,” his coach Espen Agdestein said.

Vladimir Kramnik, a top player, attributed Carlsen’s success partly to his “excellent physical shape” and mental stamina.

Carlsen’s Facebook profile (facebook.com/magnuschess) describes him as an athlete. He has a solid frame, plays golf, football and tennis and counts diving as a hobby. He also plays beach volleyball with professionals and jets around in water scooters.

“But in spite of becoming Norway’s biggest celebrity, he remains the lovable kid one would like to spar with on the basketball court,” his coach said.

WHO IS MAGNUS CARLSEN?

Chess world champ. Also one of the sexiest men of 2013, according to the UK edition of Cosmopolitan, and model for Dutch designer label G-Star

WHY IS HE KNOWN AS MOZART OF CHESS?

Like Mozart, a prodigy. The Norwegian became a grandmaster at 13 (the third youngest in history), world No. 1 at 19 and world champ before his 23rd birthday on November 30. Won the Chess Oscars four times in a row since 2009, a feat comparable with Lionel Messiís four successive triumphs at the Fifa footballer of the year awards. In January, Carlsen overtook his former coach, chess legend Garry Kasparov, to garner the highest rating points in history

CAN HE HYPNOTISE HIS OPPONENTS?

Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura may have played Carlsen with his sunglasses on but there is no evidence of the Norwegian hypnotising an opponent to win a match. He does, however, get up and walk away from the board after making his moves, possibly to nettle his opponents. Such tactics are common

IS CARLSEN THE PIN-UP BOY OF THE BRAIN SPORT?

You bet. No other chess player has the fash frat and Hollywood knocking on his door. Carlsen, who looks like Matt Damonís Nordic cousin and is often called the Justin Bieber of chess, made his modelling debut for G-Starís Autumn/Winter 2010 line, along with actress Liv Tyler