‘Always do something that you like’

The king is back home. V. Anand on his arrival in Chennai.-R. RAGU

“I’ve discovered some nice countries and made lots of friends that I would never have otherwise done. Chess has clearly opened a lot of doors for me,” says Viswanathan Anand in a chat with Rakesh Rao.

From learning chess to learning from chess, World champion Viswanathan Anand has come a long way. All along this fascinating journey, Anand has overcome challenges, stayed away from controversies, and charted his course to success by staying focussed on the job on hand.

Having regained the World title and reinforced his position at the top of the world rankings, Anand is now on a “vacation” in India. Now, the game’s finest ambassador has some time to acknowledge what chess has given him and also see how it can be promoted as a spectator sport in the country.

Anand also shared his views with Sportstar on next year’s World Championship match against challenger Vladimir Kramik of Russia; the complex rules, his preferred championship format, the possible return of the team of “seconds” and more. This “pretty practical” practitioner of the cerebral sport has lots to say.

On the influence of chess on his life: Chess has had a huge influence on how I’ve turned out as someone, who has travelled to a lot of countries. I like visiting countries and I think, at least, I retain little pieces of the many countries that I’ve been to. That experience wouldn’t have come to me without chess. Probably, there are a lot of lessons I’ve learnt from chess. Like, if you want something, you have to work hard and so on. The easiest analogy you can draw is from my chess experience. Probably, the reverse is also true but in this direction, it is much more. And a lot of my friends, perhaps a majority, have something to do with chess because of the nature of the sport. I’ve discovered some nice countries and made lots of friends which I would never have otherwise done. Chess has clearly opened a lot of doors for me.

Whether chess can be a spectator sport: It definitely can be a spectator sport. If you have seen chess online, then you see that it has all the ingredients to be a spectator sport. In fact, it is in a certain sense. The question is how we can translate that to say, television or something. The first thing is, we have to organise a classy, nice event here (in India). You need commentary. More than even time control, I’d say that commentary is more important. If we can have a short time control, then just highlight the main moments, what’s happening. I mean, I’ve seen spectators blown away by chess. It’s no longer that I am worried that chess can’t be a spectator sport, but we also have to break the perception at some point that chess can’t be a spectator sport because a lot of people say that ‘there is no point, I can’t watch chess’. So we have to get past that. I think, once you have one successful event and a few people can see what’s going on, then you’ll have something to build on. But in many places, they do pretty good events. I mean, at Wijk aan Zee or Linares, you have a lot of spectators. But I think commentary is the main thing that you have got to do.

On India holding a mega chess event: Basically, the Federation that will probably organise the event will need to get a big sponsor and just have a top tournament. I don’t know what’s the profile of the players that you need. But have an event with players with interesting styles and just try and promote it well. But you have to make all the arrangements — live broadcast, room for the spectators, etc. You really have to do a good event, especially the first time. You are not only showing chess as a sport but also fighting the perception that it can never be a spectator sport. Definitely, in India, the time is ripe now. You have all the ingredients around so I hope that someone can pull it off.

Whether the growing economy will impact sports in the country: Generally, a stronger economy means every one will have more resources. But thereon, I don’t see any correlation. I mean, you have extremely rich countries which don’t do well in some sports but do exceptionally well in others and the profile is different. It also depends on what people are interested in and so on. But all other things being equal, you would clearly prefer to be born in a country with more resources. That’s clear.

On the 2008 World Championship match against challenger Kramnik: Okay, at some point, I’ll have to defend my title. And now I’ll take a look at what my obligations are and see what my options are. I don’t want to comment more on that till we’ve actually done the negotiations. I am not taking it beyond that. This clause (of dethroned champion Kramnik getting a one-time right to challenge Anand) is ridiculous and I hope that it never comes back in the future. But we’ll deal with that. You’ve been in chess long enough to know that anything can happen any time. So hold your breath.

On the complex rules of the World Championship: I read something that was funny. They were talking about the tax code in the US and said, “It should look like something actually designed by humans, instead of this sort of complex thing it has become.” It will be nice in the World Championship at some point if it looked like something good. Somebody had started out a design and hadn’t changed it too much along the way. Right now, it looks like it is put together by a Committee. That makes no sense for the sport. I mean, if you are trying to attract people from outside the sport, or at least to take a casual interest in it, you need something they can understand easily. And we are making it so complex.

Anand, and his wife Aruna, with President Pratibha Patil.-V. SUDERSHAN

The choice of the World Championship format: I think you should accept whatever comes and play in it. Okay, I personally like the match format. It’s a much better format.

The preferred duration of the title match: I don’t know. I have not given that a lot of thought. I mean, I played Kasparov, actually, a 20-game match. If I had to say, which format is the best (for World Championship), then I think, what we had in Mexico (2007) and San Luis (2005) are the best. (In these championships, eight qualified players played on a double round-robin format). First of all, it’s attractive to have four games (involving all eight players) a day. If you have one game and that fizzles out, spectators have to come back two days later. Not a dream format, in my opinion.

Whether the team of “seconds” would be back for the World Championship: I already do a lot of work informally. I’ve grown from this phase of carrying three or four people for a match. Clearly, you need one permanent guy. Peter Heine Nielsen (a Danish Grandmaster) is clearly important in that sense. I’ve worked with a lot of people in the past few years. Specifically in India this time, I hope to do a lot of work. In May, I worked with Sasikiran for three days, then Sandipan (Chanda) came for about 10 days. Then I liked the idea so much that I asked Saravanan, Konguvel, Ashwath, Deepan and M. R. Venkatesh and so on to join me for a day. Every time someone comes along, you work a bit and I think the main thing is to build a pool of ideas and to work spontaneously. I cannot work like I did in 1995 (ahead of the World Championship final match against Garry Kasparov). In 1995, we worked for about a month and a half for the match. Nowadays I find that I like to work in different sessions. Like to work for 10 days, break for a week, work for a while, informal collaborations continuing all the time on emails. The nature of working has changed. I don’t know. Maybe next year (for the World Championship match against Kramnik), I’ll take a team of four. Maybe I won’t. But I am already working with a lot of people beyond Peter. But Peter is the sort of core.

The goals ahead: Actually, this is one of the trickiest questions to answer today. Before Mexico (venue of the World Championship), I was very motivated to play there. But at the same time, this implies that you sort of need a desire to play chess in the first place. That’s not the case for me. I mean, every January, I think, I should be in Wijk aan Zee, unless I am very tired or have some reason for not being there, or at Linares in February. I don’t need an extra motivation or to find a reason. In fact, may be, I am doing it subconsciously but I am perfectly happy to turn up and play a good game of chess. And I don’t seem to need a special motivation. Now that I’ve crossed 2800 (in world rating), I would like to park myself there. 2810 is nice, 2815 is even better, but I have not put it into any concrete goals yet.

Clearly, I would like to retain both the world title and the world number one rank as long as possible. At least, with the World Championship, it’s a more specific goal. (As for retaining) the world number one spot, you have to just play sensibly in every tournament.

But the worst part… well, I just think, I’ll get to Wijk aan Zee, (Veselin) Topalov will be there. If I am black, I’ll do this. If I am white, I’ll do that. In fact, I’m looking forward to getting there (in January 2008), meeting all my friends. The chess scene is good enough for me. Let’s put it that way.

What he would suggest to aspiring sportspersons: I would basically tell them to do something that they like. If you are doing something because it’s glamorous, or because it’s fun or you think that’s what you should be doing…, to me you have to do what you like and that’s what work is all about. Of course, many other sports can improve their situation. There is no doubt about that. There will also be these unfortunate situations for many people where they first give up the sport they really like because circumstances aren’t working. That’s the part and parcel of being a sportsman. If you are not doing something you like then that, for me, is crazy.

On being intimidated by anything in sport or life: I don’t have many things. In general, I am pretty practical. Like the World Championship, the format and all this. The concessions to Kramnik and Topalov. It bugs me but at some point, I am practical also. I realise that, okay, either I have to play or I have to be bugged. It is difficult to do both.