Viswanathan Anand rarely drums up attention around himself. Not even when he is the most obvious talking point.
He is making a return to the Olympiad -- which gets under way in Batumi, Georgia on Monday -- after 12 years, but spoke of the difference his presence could bring with the strictest of economy in emotion and hyperbole, focusing instead on the team's journey over the years. The best finish India have had at the biennial tournament is a bronze medal at the 2014 edition in Norway. Two years ago, they finished fourth.
"Even without my participation the team has set a very high bar," Anand, who has also been picked as the brand ambassador for the event, said during the team send-off in New Delhi. "So that leaves a very narrow scope for improvement."
He'd featured in five Olympiads between 1984 and 1992 and then in 2004 and 2006. "You know it's not that I planned to stop playing the tournament," Anand told ESPN. "With my years successively revolving around World Championships after that, it somehow didn't happen. So there's no one reason why I stopped playing, just like there's none why I chose to participate this year."
And Batumi in our sights!!
Red eye flights and sparkling Adhiban wit... what makes teams stick together!! Looking forward to the olympiad!
- Viswanathan Anand (@vishy64theking) 21 September 2018
Anand's last title came at the Tal Memorial in March this year. He was last seen in action in August at the Sinquefield Cup, where he finished unbeaten in sixth position in a 10-player field.
There were smiling faces of the team huddled around the dinner table at an Indian restaurant during the weekend, with Anand dressed casually in a grey tee and pair of blue jeans. He has had deep ties with Georgia since it is the land of one of his earliest trainers, Elizbar Ubilava, who worked with him between 1994 and 2005. Georgia also appeals to the doting dad in him. In the local tongue, 'mama' stands for father and 'deda' for mother. Their staple cheese-stuffed flatbread, khachapuri, is one of his all-time favourites.
The team, though, has been promised regular, steady supply of Indian food through the course of the tournament, much to the relief of most members.
Gastronomy aside, the chess promises to be just as exciting. India, seeded fifth, are billed to be a medal contender among the 189 competing nations. Played over 11 rounds in Swiss format with fixed rules for pairings, participating countries field male and female teams of four players and one reserve each in the tournament, with a time control of 90 minutes for 40 moves and 30 minutes until the end of the game.
While reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen is skipping the tournament, the US team could be among India's most formidable opponents with the likes of this year's World Championship challenger Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and recently-crowned national champion Samuel Shankland in their ranks.
India have a full-strength side in the women's section too -- and the team has a comeback story of its own to tell. The team, which finished fifth in the previous edition, has been bolstered by the addition of the country's first female Grandmaster, Koneru Humpy, who is returning to the board after a long layoff.
Humpy has been away from the game for the last two years following motherhood and returned to the competitive circuit only a few months ago. Just like Anand, her last Olympiad appearance was in Turin 2006.
A couple of days before he was to leave for the Olympiad, Anand was forced into a holiday he hadn't planned for. The water pipe in his Chennai home broke and the family took the excuse willingly for a brief getaway to the beach town of Mahabalipuram, an hour's drive from the city. "The hotel asked us what the occasion was. We were frank and said, 'We're here to take a shower,'" says wife Aruna, laughing. "Anand usually has great results after vacations. So maybe it's a good sign."