`As a player, I continued to grow and experiment'

I guess in the World Championship in San Luis if I could have avoided a loss, it would have kept the title race close to the very end and put more pressure on him (Veselin Topalov).

RAKESH RAO

R. RAGU

VISWANATHAN ANAND, arguably the most consistent Indian sportsperson ever, continued to delight in 2005, although not as much as in the past two years. Ironical as it may sound, even without winning a title in classical time control this year, the World No. 2 ended up raising his rating to his highest after July 2001. He won the Amber blindfold and rapid titles before retaining the crowns in Leon and Mainz. Significantly, he had a podium finish in every outing in 2005.

Enjoying a well earned `break' from chess at the end of the year before starting his preparations for the season-opener Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee in January, Anand took time off for a closer look at 2005 and expressed his views candidly in this year-ending interview to The Sportstar. Excerpts:

Question: Chess wise, what do you feel about the year 2005?

Answer: It was a good year in terms of my chess. The years 2003 and 2004 were excellent where I was way above the competition. In 2005, may be competition caught up with me. I played at a high level in terms of chess technique. So as a player, I continued to grow and experiment.

The highs and lows of the year?

The high point should be the Amber event in Monaco. After the third round I forgot who had a theoretical chance of catching up with me. I won both (rapid and blindfold) events with a round to spare. It is not often that one wins so convincingly. The low point was probably the loss to (Alexander) Morozevich in San Luis. In every sense of the word! After that game, I was even the highest scorer for the rest of the event!

Your best and worst games of 2005?

My best game was against Michael Adams in San Luis. I played a strong `novelty', which I had prepared way back in 1995. I also played very accurately at the board improving at one point in our preparation. This was the sort of game that one remembers for a while. The worst game was easily the above-mentioned loss to Morozevich.

Although you begin the year 2006 with your highest rating since July 2001, do you regret not winning a classical title in 2005?

It's funny. Actually I have been playing with a good technique. In every event my rating has been inching up. I think in some games I tried too hard to win. For example, in a league game a draw was a just result but somehow I thought I really had to win. The game was a draw and I was so mad at myself, may be I expect more from myself. In some games I had a 75% chance of winning and wasn't able to get the full point. Nowadays with computers you tend to develop your defence skills and most players just defend and defend. I am considered to be a resourceful defender but nowadays you can just sit for hours and defend.

What were the missed opportunities in the past 12 months?

A drawn position against (Peter) Leko in Wijk (in the Corus tournament). A won-position against (Loek) Van Wely in the same event, which would still have kept me in contention for first place. I guess in San Luis if I could have avoided a loss, it would have kept the title race close to the very end and put more pressure on him (Veselin Topalov). Finally, the match in Corsica (in Bastia) was mine for the taking. One knows that all records come to an end, but it was a bitter pill to swallow given the positions I had.

Right from Corus to Corsica, one consistently noticeable factor was your ability to strike with black pieces. How did it come about?

Often it was a reaction to a loss, but in general it's a consequence of increasing my aggression with both colours. Nowadays computers influence opening preparation heavily and one is forced to change openings and constantly surprise the opponents. If I can combine this with more stability, then I can make further progress. With black this year I had some very good wins. In chess openings swing in and out of style. Sometimes one opening works horribly with white so you try to play it with another colour and you strike. I think my repertoire with black has become very strong and I try to keep changing so that I remain an unpredictable target.

After Gary Kasparov's retirement, it was natural for the chess world to expect you to take over as the new World No. 1. Did this fact ever bring you under any added pressure in the events that followed since Linares, in March?

I didn't really think of it. Somehow we got used to Kasparov sitting in his ivory tower so he was never in the scramble between the active players. Historically speaking, of course, Kasparov is a legend and surely his retirement means the end of a certain era in chess. On the other hand, for the game it is good to see a more dynamic list with all players competing in events for the top spot.

Compared to all other performances during the year, both in the longer and the shorter versions of the game, how would you now view your performance in the Amber blindfold and rapid championship where you led all the way?

If you asked a chess player what would be a dream performance, this would be it. I think I started with three straight 2-0's and after that the top spot was taken.

Where would you place the titles in Leon and Mainz, where you continued your reign?

For me it was important to play these events well. In Leon, I was a bit worried about the match with Magnus Carlsen. He is a very talented prodigy, so it was nice to go through smoothly. The final was anything but easy. Kasimdzhanov has radically altered his style after Linares and I faced problems in both my games with black. I had to adjust to a new opponent as it were and I was relieved to do this successfully.

In Mainz, I faced a very difficult rival, Alexander Grischuk. His play in the World Cup confirmed his strength. Since I expected a tough match, I was giving 100% on the first two days and scored 3.5/4! He had not yet found his groove and I gained a commanding lead. He recovered on the last two days while I made the mistake of trying to rest on my lead, but it was still enough. Obviously keeping my record in Mainz intact was great. It was a good note to start training for San Luis.

Coming to the World Championship in San Luis, Veselin Topalov's awesome run overshadowed everything else. Even your brilliant rally in the second half was lost in the background. How do you feel when you look back at the championship?

Topalov played excellently and deserved the title. No question. I started excellently, then two bad moments and finally I rallied to a great finish. I was satisfied with my wins against Adams and Kasimdzhanov. Against Leko I really pushed till the end. Bitter sweet.

In spite of the fact that you played well enough to gain some rating from the World Championship, many experts questioned your choice of moves in the crucial second game against Topalov with white pieces. What's your take on that particular match?

I believe it wasn't such a crucial match as people make it out to be. Topalov already had a huge lead, so flirting with suicide was not in my mind. My approach was vindicated later in the event. I was close to defeating Morozevich and had I done this, Topalov's last game wouldn't have been a mere formality.

Did you miss any winning opportunities in any of the drawn games?

Certainly nothing trivial. I suppose missed chances and great saves cancel out.

Your biggest regret of the championship?

The two losses (to Kasimdzhanov and Morozevich).

And your most satisfying moment?

Of course my wins. Most of them were strong novelties and preparation. I think I worked well and my preparation was really good.

Looking ahead, going by Topalov's statement that he was willing to play more tournaments (unlike Kasparov during the better part of his reign at the top), do you think the chess world could see a continued race for the World No. 1 spot between you two, with Peter Leko and Peter Svidler, too, fancying their chances of closing in the gap?

I hope so. That would be good.

Coming to the shorter version of the game, how do you look at the rare losses in rapid games (one in Monaco, and later to Alexander Grischuk, Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Vadim Milov) and even in a couple of blitz games? Did your awesome reputation in rapid play make you stretch too hard in the given positions?

I always get this, "Anand is a world class classical player but in rapid he has no competition." An awesome reputation. It is double edged. Sometimes you realise you need to be even more cautious but sometimes you get a little easy and get punished. I think in Corsica, I was very much aware of my reputation and the strength of the event. I won against Michael Adams very easily in the semi-finals. Somehow this is a pairing you would have expected in a final. When I won that I thought I was very close to winning the event. Of course, Milov eliminated Judit and played very well. I should have tried to block out the Adams match.

How difficult was it to come to terms with the defeat at the hands of Milov in Bastia in the Corsica Masters?

I had good positions but managed to make a mess of them. It has been a very long time since I had these problems in a rapid game. I remember walking after that game, I was so angry at myself but I won the second game. Usually the person who levels the match has a good probability of winning the tie-breaks. Maybe I was still euphoric after the win. He just played normally and I did get a winning position and then lost it. Milov showed he had sang-froid and won.

What are the positives that you will take into the New Year?

When I finished Corsica I think I was tired of playing chess. Basically I have been taking a break. Working on new areas in chess. It was fun to see the World Cup and that gives you pointers as to what your next area of work would be. I think in 2006 I would want to enjoy my chess and still be fascinated by the intricacies of the game.

In the year 2006, do you see some fresh challenges, apart from becoming the World No. 1 and breaking the rating barrier of 2800?

I would like to concentrate on Wijk aan Zee (in the Corus Tournament in January). By doing well there I hope to attain the other two. I would just like to keep working on my chess. I have some new opponents to train for and that would be a good stimulus.

Since the year 2006 also has the Chess Olympiad and the Asian Games (where chess makes its debut and offers two gold medals), how significant are these two events for you?

As I said, if rapid chess is part of the Asian Games, I would see no reason not to play. But I have not had any confirmation on the Asian Games.

Now, what is your opinion on the present state of Indian chess?

There is neither any dearth of talent nor achievement. We saw the World age-category events where we did well. I was touched to see these youngsters bask in the media attention and it is really a good thing for chess. I think in a few years time, it will be interesting to see how their talent develops. Always they will go through a lean patch before they rise again and it is important to just hang in there.

Your views on the rise of P. Hari Krishna in the last 14 months? What should he do now to reach the next level?

I think Hari has matured a lot, chess wise. His play in Bermuda and in China was impressive. Clearly, he has his set of opponents like Radjabov, Karjakin, Najditsch and maybe Carlsen. He has been able to get his rating up and I think he should look at each event rather than putting too much pressure on himself.

What would you like to see in Indian chess in 2006 particularly with the new set of office-bearers in place? What measures do you suggest for improvement?

I think it is time to turn the page on the previous administration. Chess has a good opportunity now and we should be looking forward. Last time round I met Mr. Srinivasan and Mr. P. R. Venkatramana Raja and we did discuss some long-term plans for chess. I would be willing to help if they have any concrete plans.

Finally, a word for the budding champions who look up to you?

Success and defeat are all part of life. You can't have one without the other. It is important that they enjoy the game, enjoy their childhood and develop skills and interests on varied subjects.