A long walk ahead

Viswanathan Anand stopped being ‘just another’ Indian sportsman a long time ago, simply refusing to acknowledge the line between the impossible and the possible.

Published : Dec 14, 2017 17:34 IST

“In chess if you make one mistake the game is over for you,” says Viswanathan Anand.
“In chess if you make one mistake the game is over for you,” says Viswanathan Anand.

“In chess if you make one mistake the game is over for you,” says Viswanathan Anand.

The handsome young man was walking alone on the beach even as the noon-day sun beat down upon the sands. The waves gently lapped against his feet, the froth kissing his ankles and dying a bubbly death almost at once. Watching the young man, in trendy beachwear, seemingly lost in his thoughts, it was easy to imagine that it was just another boy-next-door dreaming just another impossible dream on just another of Madras’ warm, lazy afternoons.

But, then, Viswanathan Anand stopped being ‘just another’ Indian sportsman a long time ago, simply refusing to acknowledge the line between the impossible and the possible.

Genius, wrote Vladimir Nabokov, is an African who dreams up snow. In the event, genius is also an Indian who dreams of world champion status and then strives to turn it into a reality in the most mind-boggling of all sports played by mankind.

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Aged 23 and within two rungs of the top spot in a sport where the Gods and Kings are either Russian or eccentric or both, Anand is a rare island of excellence in a sea of mediocrity in the context of Indian sport.

Not only is he a pioneer venturing into an area — the world of chess — where the typical Indian myth rather than the mind seemed to have had a greater impact over the years, but he also dared to set his sights so high that it would have been laughable if somebody less special than Anand had harboured such an ambition.

Now, at the end of yet another eventful season, Anand seems to have crossed the bridge of dreams and is within handshaking distance of a tryst with the No. 1 spot in top level chess.

Since becoming the first Asian to win the junior World Championship in 1987, and then becoming India’s first Grandmaster soon after, Anand’s rise in the rankings has been nothing less than phenomenal.

Today, he is not only a fixture at the top but he is also one of only six players to have broken the 2700 barrier in the ELO ratings. He expects to end up with 2710 when the new list is released early January and this should put him possibly in the third spot, behind the world champion Garry Kasparov and the former champion Anatoly Karpov.

And to think that Anand turned 23 only on December 11! Well, events have moved on fast-forward over the last few years and the young man already feels that he is something of a veteran (’I feel like I am one of the boys up there now’) in the chess circuit.

He lost a close Candidates’ quarterfinal to Anatoly Karpov and knows that the next cycle of the World Championship will be his best chance to mount a serious challenge. His primary objective now is to prepare himself the best he can to achieve that greatest of goals.

Talking to The Sportstar  the other day — at home in Besant Nagar, on the beach and at a beachfront hotel — Anand, who is taking a much needed break from the game before leaving for the Linares tournament in February 1993, looked back at what he’s done, looked forward to what he wants to do and then looked at his game and career in the present context.

In conversation, he is as sharp as he is at the board — he sees five moves ahead, in the least. In this, he is both an interviewer’s dream and a nightmare. It is often tough to keep pace with him, because he thinks up the next logical question when you are yourself struggling.

Anand, in the process, turned his attention to a variety of subjects.... from his own career to Kasparov, Bobby Fischer, the Indian scene et al.

Question: When we met two years ago, you told me that the World Championship was something of a dream. So much has happened since then. Now you are a fixture at the top, you have already been through a Candidates series and there are only two men ahead of you in the world rankings. Now, do you feel that the dream is closer to becoming a reality?

Answer:  In a way, yes. But the World Championship cycle is an unpredictable cycle. Anything can happen there. I don’t think the format, as it is, is the best through which to decide such an important issue. But chess has its own tradition. As for the world championship chances, you can’t really get worked up about it. At the same time you cannot let it out of your focus. If I don’t start working now I am not going to have any chance in two years’ time. It might mean focussing entirely on the World championship for some time, sacrificing a few tournaments. But if you have to do this you have to do it.

Besides yourself, who are the other young players in with a chance to take the world crown in the next cycle?

There are quite a few around. Vassily Ivanchuk, Boris Gelfand, Vladimir Kramnik, Michael Adams, Gata Kamsky and Shirov. Guys like Ivanchuk, Gelfand and myself would imagine the next cycle is ours. But upsets can happen. And for the younger ones like Kamsky and Kramnik, it will be the first Candidates’ series, should they qualify.

You just mentioned that the World championship format is not really the best it can be. Why? Can the Grandmasters Association and FIDE do something to change it?

It can be better, really. For one thing, the defending champion has to play only one series of matches, awaiting the winner of the Candidates’ final. This is lopsided. It is highly elitist in concept. But that is part of the tradition in chess. The challengers go through a tough series and the man who makes it to the last round almost heaves a sigh of relief, as if it is all over. And then it begins all over again. But, then, a lot of things in chess are elitist.

"When you have a low rating, you improvise, gamble a lot. When you have a high rating, you tend to play safe and protect it,” says Anand.

Most of the top tournaments are limited to the elite group of players. Why should this be so? Is it not unfair to the up and coming player who would look for some kind of matchplay experience against the top ones?

There are several factors to consider here. From the point of view of the spectators, only the top players seem to provide some kind of attraction. And chess is not a money-rich sport like tennis. The organisers work with a limited budget. It is not always possible to have as large a field as one would like to have. But slowly it is evolving in that direction.

If it is evolving in that direction, then does it also mean that the depth of talent and intensity of competition down the line is that much greater now in the game than, say, 10 years ago? Can a No. 100 ranked player beat the No. l as it often happens in a game like tennis?

Yeah, to some extent it has become unpredictable. But tennis is different in the sense that in a five-set match, the better player always has a chance of proving his worth. But in chess, if you make one mistake the game is over for you. In Tilberg recently, the No. 70 beat the No. 5 (Jan Timman). In open tournaments these days, the average ELO 2400 player is much, much stronger. You cannot take it for granted anymore that the 2600 player will always beat the 2400 player.

Talking of ratings, you have registered an incredible pattern of rise. Two or three years ago, when you were up and coming and in the region of 2500, you were the underdog when you went up against a lot of top players. Now you have only two men ahead of you, both world champions. What kind of a feeling is this?

Once you get to where I am now, the first thing to do is to try and avoid accidents (unexpected losses to lowly ranked players because of a rush of blood). You have to concentrate more. But then, you shouldn’t worry about the ranking and the points too much. You can bring unnecessary pressure on yourself. If you are good enough to play and beat the best then the ranking will take care of itself. At the same time, you have to remember that there are no easy matches, no pushovers. In the top tournaments now, I feel I am one of the boys. I feel I belong. But the pressure is always there. You have to face it. But you cannot really afford to get used to the smug feeling of being one of the boys. This can be detrimental to your chances of advancing further. In order to have any kind of chance to challenge Kasparov, I have to force the pace much more. I have to try for the first place and not settle for the semifinal finish or the final appearance. I have to do this to keep my ambitions on the boil.

Do you feel the pressure of expectations more at home than abroad?

I can’t really say I feel it that much here. Abroad, they think I am one of maybe two or three young players who can make it to the top, take the world title. At home, perhaps I am the one of... well, only one. That’s the difference.

A study of your ELO points pattern over the years shows that you have never really suffered a serious slump in your career. Spectacular as this is, how do you guard against a slump and the negative feelings that this might engender?

My ELO ratings have been fairly stable, I should say. But this can be deceptive stability. One can settle into a steady, comfortable pattern. At some point you have to tell yourself that you have to break it. It is often a problem of confidence. When you have a low rating, you improvise, gamble a lot. When you have a high rating, you tend to play safe and protect it. For instance, earlier this year, I found myself settling into some kind of a comfortable pattern. Then I saw the danger. A trainer in Moscow told me my openings showed that I was trying to be what I was not. You have to design openings for your style. Talking of a steady pattern, I found that I always used to have easy wins early on, get to the semifinals and then crash out. I would self destruct when it came to the crunch. In the Immopar tournament (France), I finally solved the problem. I made some conscious efforts to deal with the internal pressures. Then in Moscow (where he won the category 18 tournament), it paid off. Of course, I am not going to become a consummate fighter overnight. But I am sure this will happen with greater knowledge.

Surely, it takes more than knowledge to survive at the top in chess?

It does. More than knowledge, you have to feel good on the day. You shouldn’t always think of your rating. For instance, in the top tournaments now, I have to score at least 50 per cent to hold on to my current rating. And this itself can bring a lot of pressure. But ultimately it is all about confidence. I lost my eighth game to (Anatoly) Karpov (in the Candidates series) because of a lack of confidence. Halfway through, doing well, I thought it was over. He hung in there and it was soon over for me.

Anand sometimes works up to six hours a day, analysing games and thinking up counters.

The form swings that the top players show... obviously, this is also because of confidence to a large extent?

It is. Nigel Short was once No. 3. In seven or eight months he slipped to No. 18. He collapsed completely. It can be a traumatic experience. But it can also be rewarding in a way — it pushes you to make changes that you would not have made otherwise. I have had such experiences, although not such wild swings of form. There were losses that shook me up, like the one against Tiviakov this year. You go back to the board and work things out. But in the chess circuit, there are some violent movers and then some stable ones.

Well, at the very top, Kasparov has been something of an immovable object. What makes him tick? Has he reached his peak yet?

Kasparov is extremely well prepared when he comes into tournaments. He finds out well in advance who he’ll be playing and prepares for each one. He is a very confident man and he does a lot of home work. But I personally like playing him. I have had my share of success against him, playing black pieces. This has put a lot of pressure on him. He had to prove his advantage. But there is no doubt that he has had excellent results over the years and he deserves to be the No. 1. He evolved a completely new analysis — he analysed moves all the way to 30. He hit upon the idea of linking the middle game to the opening. He was invincible from 1986 to ’88. But now the chinks are beginning to show. In a lot of games he is often in difficulty. He is still ahead of the rest, but the others are catching up.

From a layman’s point of view, you seem very comfortable playing the top men like Kasparov and Karpov. You have had good results against them. But sometimes you run into trouble against some of the lesser ranked players. Is this because you cannot get enough data on some of the newcomers for evaluation or because of a sense of complacency?

The point is, when I play Kasparov or Karpov, I am the underdog. I have little to lose. But against some of the lower ranked players — Tiviakov for instance — my approach is not broad enough. I can’t catch them where I have to. Kasparov’s games are also well annotated. Whereas some of the new players... their games are hardly public property. Also, sometimes, you relax too much and make very silly mistakes. At the same time you have to give credit to someone like Tiviakov. Against him, I have consistently had trouble in one opening.

Looking back at your career, what kind of evolution do you see in your style of play? You started out as the lightning kid, making your moves before the other guy could so much as blink. Are you a little more ponderous now?

I am certainly a deeper player now. A more complete player. I used to neglect a lot of things — like psychology — before. Now my preparation is more specific, deeper. My attitude is also more stable. I am spending more time for my moves because I have greater knowledge now. Now I have something to think about.

Do you feel as though you have compromised your natural style?

I have had to give up a few cranky things. Nowadays I like to stick to a more conservative repertoire. Childish follies I have left behind. But you don’t really have to give up everything and start afresh. In Paris recently I realised I hadn’t played an opening for two and a half years. For two years I gave up the Sicilian and came back to it again recently. Like that, I did give up a few childhood favourites.

You are still in your early 20s. But you have been playing top flight chess for a few years now. Do you feel the same hunger, the desire now as you did when you first broke in?

It’s a question of attitude. If you are ready for your tournaments, you can be as hungry as you want to be. Sometimes you need a bad result to wake you up again. The biggest danger is, after you become a GM you can become complacent. Unless you set yourself new goals and focus on them, you will stop at the next island and forget the ocean. You’ll have to keep going. For me, right now, hunger is not a problem. Maybe at 35 or 36... not now.

Still, a few months rest every year can do a lot to a top player. How will these two months at home help you?

I will try to evaluate what I did this year. In order to sustain the momentum I have to do a lot of work. Soon, after December 15, I will probably put in five to six hours each day. This time I have decided to work alone. I don’t have a Second. But I have made up my mind not to have a permanent Second. I like working with different people.

Can you look back at what you saw as your goals four years ago, at age 19, and look at yourself now and say, ‘Well, 1 have done okay’?

I did not set myself a timescale. Basically I am quite happy with the way things have gone. The World championship is obviously a big goal now... the biggest perhaps.

Talking of goals, Bobby Fischer seems to have a few fresh ones. He is not only back but he is winning and talking and taking the world by storm. What is your reaction. How good is he now?

Initially I was a bit upset when he decided to come back. You had this legend. When a lot of us talked of the greatest ever, we picked Bobby ahead of Kasparov. The myth was awesome. He was the guy who beat the odds, the system. A lot of people started chess because of Fischer. And he has done quite well for himself against Spassky. I thought he played very well in games one, eleven and then in the last game. In the final game he came close to overturning a system that’s been there for a long time. After 20 years away, this is a great performance. But what he plays now is genius for 1972 not 1992. It takes different things. It’s like the wooden racquet in tennis. Theories have evolved and Bobby has to catch up. Right now, someone like Kasparov will wipe him out.

How would you like to play Fischer?

It would be interesting. It would take a lot of my time and a lot of adjustment. But if someone came forward to sponsor a series, why not?

What are your thoughts on the chess computers? Do you see a point where they can beat the top players?

When you play a new machine, you can win some and lose some. But after a while you can overwhelm them. They can calculate a phenomenal number of openings. But that is raw calculating power. Doesn’t entail evaluation. The new super computers are going to beat humans more often. But I am not going to be worried about losing to them in my lifetime.

Single-handedly you have changed the face of chess in India. Now there are so many more kids taking to the game. Do you see the change yourself in any kind of way?

I think I do. I should tell you this. A few years ago, at airports, people used to come to me and ask the usual questions like ‘How good is Kasparov?’, ‘How good are chess computers?’ and things like that. Recently, a guy walked up to me at the airport and said: ‘Anand, you know you kept on playing the Slav defence against Karpov. Why?’ I was stunned. I guess the game is becoming more popular.

This article was published in The Sportstar of December 19, 1992

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