Viswanathan Anand: I am proud of the last few years that I’m able to fight

At 50, India’s first grandmaster reflects on his career and his book Mind Master that will be released in Chennai on Friday.

When it comes to his performance, Viswanathan Anand has few equals in the world of sports.   -  BIJOY GHOSH

When it comes to his performance, Viswanathan Anand has few equals in the world of sports. At 50, he is competing with the best in the business and remains among the elite chess players. A five-time world champion, India’s first grandmaster – he became one in December 1987 – continues to be India’s flagbearer on the global platform.

Having revolutionised the sport and inspired generations of champions, Anand is hailed as a pathbreaker like no other in the country. Today, the country has 65 grandmasters, and several world and continental champions across age groups.

To mark his 50th birthday, Anand’s book Mind Master, co-authored by Ninan Susan, was launched in New Delhi on Wednesday and will see a Chennai launch on Friday. In an interview, he throws light on the book and speaks about his career, both the past and the present, and more.

Taking fresh guard at 50, how do you look at the journey so far?

I think that, like all life stories, when it started you had no idea what the destination looked like, what you thought you were heading to. And as they say, you know, it’s been glorious. Almost everything I wanted to do, I’ve done. You can look back with a lot of pleasure. But I think you really only look back when you do it for others. You know, for me, everything I do in my life, I try to rewind it as if what does this mean in terms of the chess and so on. Really, most of life’s lessons I've learned are through chess.

Viswanathan Anand poses for a group photograph with his father Viswanathan and mother Susila during the 23rd National "A" Chess Championship in Bombay. (Circa March 1986)   -  THE HINDU ARCHIVES

 

I mean, to give another example, my parents had all these albums of all their old photos from their wedding, their early years. And at some point, maybe seven, eight years ago, I discovered this album for the first time. And for me, they were incredibly beautiful because I had no idea. I mean, these are my parents as 20 year olds. It’s in black and white and they’re visiting places. For me, it was amazing. It’s just mind-blowing, literally one of these things that I think is only beautiful because I think they enjoyed looking back on these photos because I enjoyed so much looking at them. By themselves, they can look at these photos once and they get bored. But it’s mind-blowing.

In all these years, have your interests other than chess helped you in getting over disappointing tournament results?

I remember, very early, may be it was 1994, and it’s not like some earth-shattering revelation. I was having dinner at the closing function of the Amber tournament and (Anatoly) Karpov and me were seated at the same table. And Karpov said something like, “Well, you recover from a bad result much faster if you can change the subject.” All I can say is, if I remember that statement vividly after 25 years, it must be for a reason.

The brain is the one organism that doesn’t heal by rest. It heals by variety. Every other organ or muscle group needs rest to recover, except the brain. The brain recovers during sleep but not emotionally. In fact, after a defeat, most of the time the nights are horrible. Sleepless night, tossing and turning. And the only other thing that can wipe away or get over bad memory is a good one. So you know, if you lose one game and you win the next game, you feel better right away.

These are things you just do in life. You have interest in other subjects, you have friends, that is a part of the joys of life. It’s not like I did these things because I realised that there’s a benefit to my chess. It’s the same with the physical training I do nowadays. I don’t train because it keeps me as a good chess player. I do it because it makes me feel good. And I bet I know that it has benefits for chess, but it’s a bonus.

Looking back at your chess in the last 10 years, do you feel the impact of age?

I don’t feel different but the evidence is there. I have noticed that I have become much more unstable, I’ve become much more inconsistent. And before I had a sense of control or felt a sense of control. I realised now looking back and forgetting the little details. I think the past looks much better now than when it was the present. But still I have the feeling that in many earlier tournaments or earlier years, I could still have the sense of being in control. Now, I don’t know what I’m capable of. I know what I’m capable of in a good sense, and that happens sometimes.

But nowadays, I don’t know what I’m capable of in a bad sense, because it's happened like in the Tata Steel tournament. It’s been like this the whole year. Absolutely ridiculous was my finish at the Isle of Man. Terrible... My missed opportunities in St. Louis. There are so many others as well. And in fact, if I had a good result and had been at least joint first in one of the tournaments, I probably qualified for London. So it’s insane. And so it goes. Now some of this comes with the territory.

Also, it has to be said that you shouldn’t see this only in terms of you. The chess world is becoming much more competitive, thanks to computers, and so when everybody’s more competitive, what you get is unpredictable results. So, I have the sense that I’m having fun and then lightning strikes out of the blue. I can play disastrously and then afterwards, I think, “What the hell happened?” But I don’t know, for the moment, I’m hanging in there in some vague sense. I mean, clearly, I’ve taken a drop, my rankings have dropped a bit and so on. But you know by now it’s muscle memory. You look at the rankings, you look at your play, you look at the statistics. It’s muscle memory again. Doesn’t stop that easily.

Would you say the sense of danger lets you down more often these days?

Yes, clearly so. But I think that’s also because nowadays it’s much harder to get the positions you’re familiar with. The canvas on which the players play nowadays is much broader than before. And as a result, you’re as likely as not to be lined up in unfamiliar territory. If you land in unfamiliar territory, your sense of danger, your threshold is much lower.

Coming to your book Mind Master. What makes you excited?

Well, it was a chance to look back. For me, it was a memory jog as well. As in any book, where your inner circle or your entourage is also asked questions, I don’t know the big picture, but a lot of minor details disappear. And these minor details actually make the whole story interesting. For instance, for me, game five in Bonn (at the 2008 World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik), which is the memory bit, I remember that game vividly not only because I won it, but also because of the panic attack I had in the car on the way (to the venue) and suddenly my my seconds not answering the phone and everything...

I think once an event is a triumph, you tend to, after a year, look back and think the event was glorious. There were no hard moments. But for me when I look at Riyadh or Khanty Mansiysk or all my (World Championship) matches and so on, what strikes me is the tension, the agony and everything that you’re going through while it’s happening and then the triumph. And then in two days, all the pain has disappeared, it’s washed away.

Viswanathan Anand and champion Garry Kasparov contemplate during the fifth match of the Professional Chess Association (PCA) Championship, atop the World Trade Center in New York on September 18, 1995. The fifth game of the Professional Chess Association world championship petered out to a draw when challenger Anand avoided an opening for a razor-sharp attack against title-holder Kasparov. After five matches, all drawn, the score in the 20-game contest being held at the 107th floor of the World Trade Center was tied at 2.5 points apiece.

 

The converse also works. I mean, after a tournament like the one in Kolkata, I will probably not remember that I made a few good moves as well.

The other thing I’m excited about is, I think, for a lot of Indian people, this will be the closest they come to the mind of a chess player.

I think there are far more Indians who follow my results than those who follow the moves. Self-evidently. And for those who follow the results, there’s a certain pattern, which looks very smooth, but it’s missing all the interesting stuff. So I hope that they will become acquainted with my chess journey and also my life lessons. And get a deeper understanding of me as a person as well. More to the point, you know, what I’ve gone through and everything. So in that sense, it’s meant for the non-chess audience and for people who are curious in some way. And personally, it was enjoyable. As they say, a trip down memory lane. It’s like pulling out an old album and looking at the stuff and say, “Wow, did that happen? Oh, my God!” So, you know, the photos have to be well forgotten before they have an impact on him. That’s where the beauty comes in.

And what was the thought behind having a game of your choice at the end of every chapter?

I think it was just to show that, in the end, is a chess game and these positions are not just pieces of wood moving around. These have some life and some quality. Some positions are beautiful to me and some positions will keep me happy to the end of my days, you know? I thought it’s just enough chess not to scare anyone away.

I always remember the joke about mathematicians, as they would say, “This is a book about mathematics. So please don’t put in any equations.” This is, kind of, the chess equivalent of that. Just enough to give them a flavour without intimidating. It adds a certain touch.

Also, there is a chess audience. I want them share that position with me and share my thoughts with me. So, its a helpful reminder for everyone else. You know, it’s like a snapshot.

How often you look back and reflect?

I don’t keep looking back all the time. I mean, everyone’s life has a starting point and you don’t want to drone on about how it was different. Like all 50 year olds, you start talking about good old days. And by the way, all my classmates are turning 50 years. So there’s one party after another. But I think I have a certain perspective, because my starting point is different from almost all my competitors.

But at the same time, when I was growing up, I would look at Ljubomir Ljubojević, Jan Timman and Karpov. Almost, exactly the same thing. They were all 19-20 years older than me. They had all finished the world juniors before I was born. You know, very, very similar. And they lived in a different era. For me. I could imagine them in their youth in the ’60s, you know, with all everything associated with being a teenager in the ’60s, and so you have a sudden mental picture.

Well, how should I put it? My life is ongoing. And I see how it has changed violently. How dramatic the changes have been. But we all feel that. Don’t we? I mean, even people who were 10-15 years old notice the things have changed. And they’re changing faster and faster.

How do you see this buzz around you turning 50?

If I happen to, for some reason, be alone somewhere and nobody could reach me, I wouldn’t care. It would be a day like any other. But I think it is because it means something to other people that it will mean something to me. So for me, it’s nice hearing from people. I think you have the feeling that you have to be excited because other people will expect you to be. At the same time, I deeply, deeply appreciate the warmth and the well wishes and everything. I hope I will never become cynical or dismissive about that.

At 50, are you conscious about being among the elite players, now that your peers, now commentators, are raving about how driven you are?

Viswanathan Anand with his wife Mrs. Aruna.   -  THE HINDU

 

There is a conflict between reality and the perception. I understand that I should probably cut myself some slack and look at things differently now. But I also feel that you don’t want to be patronised. And I’m not saying people are patronising me. But it’s like, “Oh you know, look at this dolphin, how you can make it smile? You know, he’s playing despite his age.” It can develop that feeling after a while. Many times Aruna would tell me this. And I think I understand that.

How do you look at the previous few years?

I am proud of the last few years that I’m able to fight and in what is becoming a very young sport very fast. At the same time, I can’t believe that too much because it’s a block then to compete, because you’re constantly patting yourself on the back and lowering your standards. And that can’t work as well. But at the end of tournaments, I have to remind myself that I’m aware of it.

I mentioned this earlier, this feels like the whistle has been blown. But now the referee has given a bit of extra time in football. So three minutes or five minutes or seven minutes or whatever. And it feels like I know this is just fun. And of course, you still have to challenge yourself.