Anand: I was not born ruthless

Viswanathan Anand became India's first chess Grandmaster in 1988 and was also the first recipient of the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 1991–92, India's highest sporting honour.

Viswanathan Anand and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan during a felicitation function in Mumbai.   -  PTI

India’s first Grandmaster, Viswanathan Anand, received the Hridaynath award, constituted by music composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar for lifetime achievers. He joined a distinguished list of awardees, among whom are Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Amitabh Bachchan.

Anand was honoured in traditional Maharashtrian style. Aamir Khan garlanded him, placed a pheta (turban) on his head and draped a ceremonial shawl over his shoulder, before handing over the award. The Mumbai chess fraternity and distinguished sportspersons from diverse fields applauded the chess ace.

Excerpts from a chat with Anand:

Question: You were felicitated with an award for a lifetime of achievement and excellence in sport. Is it right to state that India has moved on from a one-sport nation to a country where achievers from diverse sport are looked on as icons?

Answer: The Indian sports fan follows many more sports. People are watching many other leagues. Comparing the situation 20… 30 years ago, you can see a sea change. It is a healthy development. India has a sporting culture now. Chess is doing a lot as well.

Chess as a theme also figures in movies. Wazir (featuring Amitabh Bachchan as a wheelchair-bound chess master) and Shatranj ke Khilari (featuring Sanjeev Kumar) are two examples. How adaptable is chess for such ventures?

Often chess has been used to establish intelligence for a very long time. Sometimes those qualities are attributed to the villain, sometimes the hero. You can make interesting plots where chess forms a part. Recently, we had the Pawn Sacrifice movie, which is about Bobby Fischer. Chess was not just a part of the plot, it was more or less the story (Fischer’s 1972 World Chess Championship tie against Boris Spassky in Iceland). It is good that people are reminded of chess through such means.

So many movies have been made about sportspersons. People find that interesting to watch as they get an insight into the challenges a sportsperson faces. Perhaps chess is a sort of relative mystery, except for those who follow the sport a lot. Results they may know, not about what goes on in the background. Interesting movies can be made from that. Fischer was the obvious choice for a movie. Quite a few players could make an interesting theme. Maybe myself, let us see.

The Rio Olympics is coming up four months from now. Can you sense anxiety as well as excitement in sportspersons about how many Indians will climb the podium, compared to four years ago?

I believe these feelings are felt every time the Olympic Games take place. India has good prospects and depth in many sports… archery, badminton, shooting to name a few. I am hopeful we can get many golds and increase our medal tally steadily. I am associated with the Olympic Gold Quest, so we are more closely associated with the theme about pulling everyone towards a gold medal for India. It is a specialised set up, some sportspersons and some from the world of business getting together to develop a structure which pays a lot of attention at an individual level.

Indians are going on to win in international competitions, including the Olympic Games and World Championships. Their ambition has moved beyond mere participation. Does chess also reflect this trend, proving that there is no limit to Indian talent and ambition?

Yes, very much. Recently, I witnessed evidence of depth in Indian chess, first of all at the Gibraltar Chess Festival 2016. It is one thing to see it in statistics, another thing to see an event full of your compatriots (three Indian Grandmasters S. P. Sethuraman, P. Harikrishna and Abhijeet Gupta finished in the top 10). For a while now, people have been remarking about the number of talented Indians playing chess. We are steadily making our mark, not merely in numbers, but breaking through. Hari (GM P. Harikrishna) is world number 13 (world chess governing body FIDE list of April 2016) and then there is GM Sethuraman (23 years old) coming through. The Indian presence is very strong. India won the Asian Nations Cup 2016 in Abu Dhabi, beating China which is huge. China is a leading chess playing nation.

Indians are also breaking down barriers. Like the Olympic shooting gold (Abhinav Bindra at the 2008 Beijing Games) and in chess, you becoming the nation’s first GM in 1988. Now, have the doors opened?

Winning the first gold or becoming the first Grandmaster plays a part. When I was starting out, becoming a Grandmaster was a big achievement. We had none, for us that was a big goal to chase. Once you break that barrier, it becomes easy for everyone and we have moved past that. I expect that the number of Indians past 2700 (Elo points) will start rising. At the Olympics, the first individual gold medal has been won. People are not satisfied, everybody is dreaming a bit more. The country is backing them more, there is more support for training. Everything fits in together. Everyone wants to work with the best, travel abroad, set their sights higher. If you win a medal at the Olympics, fame and acclaim follow. The nation does not ignore it anymore.

The government stepped in to support Olympic hopefuls with the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). How will this change the way we look at performances in the Olympics?

I don’t know about targets. You can create the conditions for success and then it starts to happen more and more. Many countries compete at these events. Once you create the conditions for success and people are comfortable doing that, the chances are that it will lead to success. India needs to create a broad structure and wait for results. I am confident it will happen, I will be happy if it happens at Rio.

Sporting success is about intense competition, with a ruthless quality separating the winner from the rest. You are known for being ruthless on the chess board, ruthless with a smile. Was it natural?

Once you experience other people showing it, you learn. It is an acquired quality. I was not born ruthless, I had an aptitude for chess, then you keep trying, you have to figure out the recipe for success and find out what makes it work for you.

In a highly competitive world, shortcuts are sometimes taken to gain advantage over opponents. The Dubai Open Chess threw out a player for smartphone use between moves (GM Gaidoz Nigalidze of Georgia consulted a chess computer via a phone hidden in the toilet). What situations have you faced, like a rival trying to unsettle you?

People will try to destabilize you, a lot of it by legitimate means. Chess is about fighting your opponent, catching him/her at the weakest spot. Occasionally, players will cross the line, many will be on the line. Smartphone use is downright cheating, that is extreme. It can be a big problem in chess if we don’t pay attention to it. We do have our anti-cheating measures. There are electronic checks. So far I have not seen anything to doubt any of my colleagues.

Coming back to Indian sport, cricket’s reach and power is visible everywhere. Do you agree it is time that other sports federations picked up tips from the BCCI about promotion and marketing? Or do you feel that BCCI’s resources can help other Indian sport to come up to a certain level?

Cricket has done a very good job. In India, it was always the number one sport, it moved very naturally. They (administrators) have certainly shown that in cricket you can have very innovative formats. I believe it can be tried in chess. The most important factor in chess is explaining whatever is happening on the board to someone who is only casually interested. That is a gap.

The number of hardcore chess fans is not huge, so you need to get the casual fan interested. People interested in results have gone up and chess gets a lot of watchers on the internet, owing to excellent commentary and graphics. Watching a chess game on the Net, you can get behind many of the mysteries. Chess has always been a complicated game, no need to hide that.

The Net audience is growing, tournaments are putting in effort to get video streaming and live commentary. People are following chess games on their phones, PCs. It is more or less the same experience of watching cricket or football on television. Chess needs to work harder to get space in the public imagination.

From cricket to football and the La Liga. Atletico Madrid is proving to be a threat to the big two, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the La Liga, changing the league to a three-team race. You must be familiar with these names, from your days in Madrid as your chess base and travels across Europe?

Atletico Madrid has always been a threat for some years under Diego Simeone. This year the league in Spain has become a three-horse race. Just a few weeks ago, it was a one-horse race. Let us see what happens next. Atletico are a great team, but at times even dropped out of the main league. They have had a bumpy ride, but now are near the same level as the other two sides.

FIFA got entangled in controversies over television rights and tournament allotments. Where do you think a line should be drawn so that the football follower gets back faith in the sport?

It is a big question to handle. We have an international body. Fans just want to see football, they are not interested in the TV rights. Obviously, FIFA is cleaning up after the recent developments. I don’t have any particular expertise (about FIFA matters). My view is that if the football is good, no one will care about the structural aspects. You find a team to root for and follow your favourite.