Thursday, September 06, 2012

All the Right Moves


(Published in Fountain Ink magazine, September 2012, retrieved from http://fountainink.in/?p=2670&all=1)

Undisputed World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand is nearly as well known for his charming modesty and quick wit as his mastery of the game. Back in his hometown Chennai after successfully defending his title in the gruelling World Chess Championship, where he took on Boris Gelfand, Anand chats about his personal and professional life since he took to the chessboard as a child.



I first met Viswanathan Anand and his wife Aruna in 2005, when they had flown down from Spain for the charity work they constantly engage in. This particular event was a fundraiser for children affected with cerebral palsy, and Anand spent over 6 hours playing chess with nearly 100 people who had bought passes. As she waited for him to finish, Aruna divided her time between patiently answering media queries and cheerfully speaking to the star-struck children and parents who would benefit from the event. In the seven years since then, Anand has won the World Championship four times in a row, moved back to the city he was born in, and had a child. When I finally corner him for an interview, somewhere between a promotional tour, a family function, and several event appearances, he’s almost alarmed when I tell him it will take about half an hour. It hits me that thirty minutes is a rather colossal amount of time for someone whose moves are clocked in seconds, and I promise to try and make it quicker. As his one-year-old son Akhil learns ‘Baa baa black sheep’ in the background, Vishy speaks of the records he’s broken, how he deals with media reports, the moment he realised he wasn’t going to be an accountant, his worst nightmares, the future of competitive chess, and how his life has changed over the years.

You’ve come out of a very tough contest. What goes through your head during a game? Are there moments in each game when you know you’re winning, and moments when you know you’re losing?

Well, you always come to a position where the situation becomes clear. I don’t think a lot goes through your head. You’re more focused on getting the result that’s supposed to come. So, you get the job done and then think okay, and sort of take stock – if it’s a win, of course you know it improves the match situation, if it’s a loss, you know it’s worse. But, generally, you don’t think about such things.

How were your preparations this time, compared to your preparations when you played the 2008 and 2010 World Championship Games?

Well, it was very similar, since we intended to do the same sort of thing. You know, get a team together, work 10-11 hours a day, for a couple of months, that sort of thing. So it was very similar in that sense. But the thing is, of course, the opponent had more information about what I do and how I play. So he was able to come up with some good ideas.

You have maintained an unchanged set of seconds. Would you agree that it brings a certain familiarity for your opponents when they analyse your games? The margins have narrowed over the years – against Kramnik, the score was 6.5-4.5, and you had a round to spare; against Topalov, you won in the last round, with 6.5-5.5; against Gelfand, you had to go in for extra rounds. Is there a level of predictability?

Definitely. I think, if you have the same people, after a while, you may become slightly predictable. But on the other hand, we had the advantage that, you know, in the beginning of the camp, you needn’t explain to anyone what’s going to happen – everyone sort of knew their place, and we could get started very quickly. But, sure, the team does become a bit predictable.

In your interviews after the championship, you said Gelfand surprised you constantly. Where do you think he had the advantage, in being able to catch you off guard so often?

Well, he managed to come up with set-ups or openings that consistently caught me off guard. Either his stuff was very hard to predict, or it was aimed against something that I wanted to do, and this he managed to do very cleverly. He did it very well, I must say.

Tell us a little more about the eighth game, when he walked into the trap you had set up. Did you think he might fall for it, or did you expect him to sidestep it?

Well, one or two moves before, I saw that trick coming in. But I couldn’t believe that he would fall for it, because it is kind of, well, you could even say slightly na├»ve, to expect that. (Laughs) But then, at some point, I realised that he actually had done it. And, you know, it’s a mixture of things – of course, it’s a very pleasant feeling. But at the same time, you understand that he simply had a very, very bad day.

When you lose a game, do you dissect the moves, go over where you should have done something differently, or do you relax and focus on the next one?

I think in theory, the dream situation is that you forget about what happened in the past and you go on to the next game. But I would say, for a human being, it’s not easy to do that.

There have been several comments made by Grandmasters that this World Championship was not to decide who the best player in the world is today. Did these rankle for you in any way?

Well, it’s annoying...also, because it was so clearly aimed at disrupting the atmosphere during the match, especially by people like Kasparov. I mean, he timed it so that it would have the maximum impact in the press, and all the people would repeat it and that sort of thing. It was annoying. At some point, we tried to ignore it, but you know, it’s always there in the background. And even if you’vemanaged to block it out, either it comes back at you in the press conferences, or other people ask you about this or that. So it made it slightly unpleasant, sure.

You have been playing Gelfand for the last two decades. You as well as your second, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, have mentioned that Gelfand made moves which he had never made in his life before. How did you cope with this, first on the board when the moves were made, and later, when you discussed it with your team?

One thing I would say – he surprised me, but I expected to be surprised, so it wasn’t like his approach caught us off guard. But the problem was, we knew that whatever we did, he would have had more time to do some really good work, and he would have had more depth in that area. We knew that we would always be fighting to catch up. And that was a bit annoying. But beyond that, it comes with the territory. I mean, in a match, you expect the opponent to do something unusual.

If you have to play Gelfand again, how different would your preparations be from this match?

You know, if I played him again, it would be very difficult, because we would both have the influence of this match and I think actually, to play someone twice is a very tricky thing. I don’t know how we’ll react. I mean, if it happens, then we’ll sit and think, and we’ll cope somehow. But as a prospect, it’s kind of scary. (Laughs)

You were earlier identified as a predominantly King’s pawn player. In the last three World Championship Games, most of your games have been predominantly Queen’s pawn. What is your preference and why?

Well, against Kramnik and Topalov, it felt like the right thing to do. Against Gelfand, it’s a little bit more mixed. In Game 5, Game 10 and 12, all these games, I went E4. So, it was certainly a bit more mixed in this match. I think in general, it’s a bit opportunistic – you try to do whatever you think suits you best for that match, but as they say, your success rate is 50-50, you know. (Laughs) So, it’s very hard to tell afterwards whether you took the right decision or not.

Once the game was over, a lot was written about your “redeeming” yourself – you’ve spoken of how after Karpov and Kamsky, there was maybe talk of how your rapid chess skills failed you at critical times, and how the 2001 loss in Moscow may have been seen as part of a pattern too. Do these coincidences play on your mind – do you think about luck and things like that?

(Laughs) I had the thought, that if I lost my third rapid thing in a row, then what’s the use of being one of the best rapid players of all time, if it never helps you when the chips are down. So, that thought did cross my mind. But at the same time, what do you do with that thought? You still have to go there and just play chess. So, it went through my head, and I blocked it out, and that’s pretty much where it ended. Also, I lost that previous title in Moscow. In 2001, when I was World Champion, I went to Moscow and I lost my title there, you know. If you start thinking about these kind of random coincidences, well, it doesn’t help you very much.

In terms of statistics, this is the first time a game’s been won in seventeen moves in the World Championship, and it’s only the second time a Queen was lost, after the Fischer-Spassky game in 1972. When you think of these records, does it make you feel good, or do you just sort of dismiss them as statistics?

Yeah, I have the feeling it’s just some random thing. I mean, you can’t extract any useful information from this kind of stuff, can you? (Laughs)

But going back to that iconic game in the history of chess, I’d like to know what you think the impact of the Fischer-Spassky match was on global chess. Did it have any effect in India, in terms of capturing the public imagination and making people more interested in chess?

Well, I don’t know. I was three years old when that happened. (Laughs) But, even now, I meet a lot of people who still mention that match, so I think even in India, it had its impact.

How do you view the future of Chess Championships? Would they involve computers in a big way? At some point, do you think computer seconds would be allowed on stage?

(Laughs) Well, you’re getting a bit ahead of where the discussion is. I think, of course, computers are playing a bigger and bigger role in these matches. I don’t think, at the moment, still, there is a lot of discussion of changing the format that drastically. I mean, people are starting to murmur about it, and it’s in the background, but it’s still not treated as a very imminent thing, you know – not as something that has to happen by the next match or so.

How about the format itself? Do you think it should continue to be the best of twelve rounds or would you prefer any change in the format?

Well, I like it, actually. I think people project, sort of, unrealistic expectations on to it and then come up with these ideas. I mean, these matches have always been very tough, protracted affairs, so I don’t see why they want to tinker with it. And the other thing is, whenever we have tinkered with it, people have always complained and brought it right back. So, I don’t understand it. I actually like the match format, and I think it does well for itself.

There’s been a lot of hype over the Bharat Ratna now, both in the media and from some political quarters. A couple of years ago, people had raised questions about your citizenship when you were offered an honorary doctorate. Does this blow-hot-blow-cold attitude towards sportspersons, or to achievers in general, upset you, or make you feel cheated in any way?

No. I think, generally, we have a pretty restless media scene. And that’s just how it works. I don’t feel that people have neglected me, or treated me badly in any way. That’s just how the media scene works. And, I don’t pay much attention. What I try to do is to keep the chess rolling along, because that’s what matters.

Let’s get back to the chess, then. There have been times when you’ve had to play under extreme physical strain. Last year, Veselin Topalov refused to allow you rest time. You’ve once referred to playing Karpov in 1997-98 as “being brought in a coffin” to take on a well-rested man. Here, you came back from losing the seventh game, and took the eighth game after hardly any sleep. What do you think of, or turn to, at these moments? Where do you go for those reserves of energy?

(Laughs) I honestly don’t know! Before a match, I try to build up as much stamina as possible, because I know that, at some moment, I will need it. But in general, I’m always surprised when a match ends, that I somehow found that energy to keep going. And another thing that surprises me – I can tell you this, it always happens that when a match finishes, that day, your body completely goes on strike. And it’s fascinating. If you have a 14-game event, or a 16-game event, or a 20-game event, you’ll be able to find the strength as you go along. But then, when the tournament finishes, it’ll always happen that that day you can’t sleep, it takes a few days for you to get back to normal. And it’s independent of how many rounds it was! If the match is 12, after 12 rounds, I’ll feel it; if the match is 20, after 20 rounds, I’ll feel it. It’s like the body knows that its effort is no longer required, and it gives up. And you need those days to recover.

Carlsen, Kramnik and Kasparov helped you prepare for that match against Topalov. Do you think it’s because you’re so popular, or Topalov is so unpopular?

Well, I think at that time, Kasparov wanted to help me because he basically wanted a quid pro quo for the [FIDE] election. That, he made pretty clear this time. And about Carlsen and Kramnik helping me...I didn’t really ask them their reasons, I thought I shouldn’t. It could be one or the other, it could even be both. (Laughs) I didn’t ask. I mean, they were friendly this time, but it was clear that they were not going to help me this time.

Once, when Aruna was asked to put a question to you, she asked whether being Mr Nice Guy has been expensive for you, or whether it’s a pragmatic decision. And you said it’s usually a way of avoiding conflict. Does your wife get angry on your behalf, or feel you should be more aggressive?

(Laughs) Yeah, I guess so. I guess sometimes, she thinks I could have been more assertive here or there. But I don’t think she really gets angry. These are things we talk about, and even I myself, if I avoid conflict once, I may just feel, well, I’m not going to do this again, because I didn’t like the experience, and we’ll discuss it. So that sort of thing happens, sure.

Is it true that your interest in chess began while watching a TV show in Philippines, where your mother would note down games and then play them again with you when you got back from school?

Exactly. That’s how it began. And she would also accompany me to tournaments and that kind of thing. My mother played a very big role in my chess career at that point. And she’s still very supportive.

When did you know that this would be your life, and not just your hobby?

I think by the time I was finishing school, I had that suspicion. The year I finished, just after finishing school, I became World Junior Champion and I completed the requirements for a Grandmaster title. So that combined effect made it clear. I still decided to go to Loyola [College] and do my B.Com. But, somewhere deep down, I think I knew I wasn’t really going to be an accountant! (Laughs)

But you had to be a good Tam Brahm boy and finish your graduation?

I actually thought, independently, it would be a good idea. I thought it would give me a better perspective on life to have gone through college and do that sort of thing. And I figured also that it’s not really that if you do college, you’re taking time away from chess. I think college is a good experience to have in your life, and I don’t think skipping it is that beneficial. Unless, it’s a very demanding course – but a B.Com. is quite all right. My college also gave me a lot of flexibility, so it wasn’t such a big deal.

There must be tremendous happiness in your hobby becoming a passion, and then a profession. But do you miss playing the game just for the fun of it, not thinking about winning or losing?

It comes up at times. I don’t think even if I played for fun, I would enjoy losing. That’s never going to be fun. Though sometimes, it’s nice to play without risk. But I think by now, I don’t even know the difference. If I play something, I would want to win, and I don’t think losing is ever going to be fun.

Is there a certain loneliness involved in playing a one-man game that is as intense as chess? Of course, you have a team backing you up, but you’re quite alone out there.

Not really. I mean, I’m so used to it that by now, I probably don’t give it a second thought.

Tell us a little more about player relations. Sometimes, players can get so snide about each other, try to psych each other out before big tournaments. But then, there must also be a bond in the fact that, at your level, you all live such similar lives, and feel such similar pressures. So what are player relations like?

By and large, they are excellent. Most chess players get along very well.  Of course, like with any sport, people don’t notice the good relations. They notice the few conflicts that come up. So there is that. I think also, nowadays, people are getting to see a different side of chess, because thanks to social media and Twitter and all of those networks, a lot of chess conflicts are taking place in the public domain, and then you can actually see that there are things happening. I would say, broadly, though, that relations between players are excellent.

You’ve said you sometimes dream of chess, most often you have nightmares. Which is the worst nightmare you’ve had about chess?

Well, you know, the typical chess nightmare would be a blunder where I do something really embarrassing and ridiculous and then I’m locked. That’s the usual one, where it all goes wrong because of some error on my part.

And do you remember the opponent? Or does the opponent keep changing?

Sometimes, very specific opponents come there, and sometimes, it isn’t any single person. But usually it’s about embarrassing myself by doing something completely silly.

To get back to reality, your book, My Best Games of Chess covered the first fourteen-year period of your career, from 1986 to 2000. Now that it’s been twelve years, and very eventful years at that, do you plan on writing a sequel?

No, not really. I think it takes too much time, and I don’t want to spend that much time and effort making it a good book. At the time, I remember, that book took a couple of months out of my year. And, I don’t think I want to repeat that anytime soon. Maybe much later, I’ll look at it.

And I suppose with your little son around now, you’d rather spend all your extra time – those two months, let’s say – with Akhil rather than on a book.

Yeah, exactly. And there are so many other things to do, that somehow, blocking those two months to sit and go over all the stuff methodically...it’s just tough.

Are you looking forward to teaching Akhil to play the game, or will you leave it to his grandmother?

(Laughs) Probably a bit of both. I mean, I’ll teach him, but I’ll just see if he’s interested in chess to start with. Then, at some point, I’ll give him the rules and just leave it at that, I guess.

Do you think you might lose a couple of games to encourage him?

Well, in the beginning, I think you have to let them win a few games. But I would hope he’s smart enough to know when I’m completely faking it!

Having a child must be a big change for you and Aruna. Is it hard for Aruna to leave him behind to travel with you? And for you to be away from him? I read that he toddled over and began to kiss the TV when he saw visuals of both of you when the news of your win broke.

Yeah, that’s right. Of course, in fact, I would say that our life has changed quite a lot. She doesn’t travel with me as often as she used to, and that’s precisely because of him. But it’s just a natural development in your life. At some point, it comes about that you have a child, and your lifestyle is going to change a bit, that’s just very natural. Something like the World Championship, she thought, was important enough that she wanted to come anyway, but for the rest, not so much. I don’t know, it doesn’t feel like an imposition, it just feels very normal. (Laughs)

You go to all these exotic locations. Do you ever get to do anything touristy?

Sometimes. There are times when we do some sightseeing during the event, or sometimes we make an effort to go back to someplace we liked and so on. That is very interesting – it’s one of the nicer things in chess, the ability to travel.

Aruna has often spoken about your marriage, about meeting you. But before you met, when you agreed to start looking for a bride, were you worried that you wouldn’t find a partner who would be able to understand what chess means to you?

No, I didn’t have that fear. I just saw it as a normal development, and maybe it was a bit blind, but I somehow had the feeling that things would just work out.

Aruna has said in interviews that your one drawback is your absent-mindedness. Do you think of yourself as absent-minded?

I don’t know if I think of myself as absent-minded, but I probably am. (Laughs)

You’ve said you don’t have retirement plans. Obviously, chess is something you will always love and play. It isn’t physically stressful, but there must be a lot of mental fatigue in it, which makes people want to say ‘enough’ even when they’re only in their early forties.

Yeah, but you try to do some physical exercise and stuff to handle it better. And it definitely helps. I think, when you’re fit, you’ll deal better with tournaments than if you’re not.

Are you worried about whom you’ll play chess with, who’s up to your level, when you eventually decide to retire?

I don’t think about all that too much. There’ll come a point when I have to deal with that, but right now, I don’t give it much thought.

Chess in India has benefitted immensely from you. You’ve often said the best thing you’ve heard is kids telling you that you inspired them to take up chess. Now that you’re settled here, do you intend to actively promote chess, maybe by picking a few talented young players and coaching them personally?

Well, I’m trying to focus on numbers, rather than do one-on-one coaching. And I want to make chess a movement in India. So, that’s one of the things I’m doing with the NIIT Mind Champions Academy. And also, now, it’s very heartening to see many states join us in this movement. Tamil Nadu, for instance, had made chess a compulsory subject in school, and so I have the feeling that the movement is catching on.

Which country or Federation do you think has the best programme for promoting chess the world over?

Hmmm. I don’t know. I think India’s efforts are in the right track. But at the moment, probably nothing will come close to the levels created in the Soviet Union.

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