Beyond mind games

"I like Bob Dylan. There was a Dylan interview in some magazine recently, and someone wrote them a letter saying what a disappointment it had proved; that until then, he'd thought of Dylan as a messiah," Viswanathan Anand tells VIJAY PARTHASARATHY in this exclusive chat.

VISWANATHAN ANAND'S wife, Aruna, has confirmed over the telephone that he is expected at their Neelankarai beachside residence around 3.45 p.m., and that the interview can begin as soon as our subject has freshened up.

Shadows are beginning to stretch lazily on this clear Christmas afternoon in suburban Chennai, and the breeze, now wafting inward, is soaked in salt-spray. I stagger up to the gate nearly 30 minutes early; only to be confronted by the sight of one chess Grandmaster sunning himself out on the porch and drifting into space. I check my watch nervously to see if it has stopped. No — he's ahead of schedule. Evidently, the man takes his interviews seriously.

Anand is presently occupied with chewing his nails, which is why it takes him an eternity to register the wildly flailing arms and the screamed whispers from 20 metres away. He hesitates at first, perhaps wondering if this is some overenthusiastic fan hoping to discuss variations in the Nimzo-Indian defence; then grins.

Up close, our 36-year-old chess wizard looks like a chubbier, grown-up version of Harry Potter — he's got the same studious look, the glasses, that unruly mop of hair. Anand even has a scar; except it runs across his left cheek, and it's not in the shape of a lightning bolt. Although, they used to call him lightning kid, when he was younger.

Anand and Aruna are in town to spend some time with family and friends ahead of the Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee, which begins on January 14 (and where, incidentally, he is the defending champion). The couple has lived in Spain for nearly a decade now for logistical reasons; Anand plays a lot of tournaments in Europe.

"Both Aruna and I speak Spanish pretty fluently," he says. "We like the place, the people are nice." Anand, a huge Real Madrid fan, laughs at the suggestion that he is as famous in Spain as he is here. "I'm well known, yes. I've received the Jameo de Oro, one of Spain's highest civilian awards for a foreigner. But they have their own stars, you know, like Raul and Moya."

For someone on the verge of winning his fourth chess Oscar — the equivalent of cricket's Wisden Cricketer of the Year award — Anand appears dangerously sane. (Yes, he admits to having vivid dreams in technicolor, in which bishops and knights advise him on his moves. On the other hand, we all have our quirks.) The past two and a half years have been magnificent; he has never played so consistently well. He's currently ranked number two, and could soon become only the second player, after Garry Kasparov, to cross 2800 Elo rating points.

WHILE Anand might not hold the mass appeal of a Tendulkar, he does have his fans here.

"Yesterday, we went for a routine check-up to a hospital, and people there looked so concerned," Aruna giggles. "They were like, `Sir, you are ok, no?'"

In Anand's case it's not just the fame that might have twisted his sense of reality. There's also the minor matter of his IQ — he seems the type that could solve a partial differential equation in the time it takes a jock to recite the alphabet without cheating. He could so easily have turned into an intellectual snob. Yet, by all accounts, he's remained so unassuming that you suspect he might even agree to take his chessboard out and set the pieces — although, admittedly, it isn't known if his kindness extends to resigning in five moves. Even so, imagine getting to play against the world number two. That's like having a go at Rahul Dravid in the nets or facing Andy Roddick's serve at a practice session; improbable events by any stretch of the imagination.

"I don't feel trapped by fame. I mean, nobody would want to live in a fishbowl, but this is fine," Anand shrugs. "Occasionally, I've had people walk up to me and ask my view on an opening, but that's hardly oppressive. In fact, I think it's wonderful that people today have actually heard of such things.

"I suppose I was a catalyst of sorts: after me, we've had several GMs. Sasikaran and Harikrishna are currently in the top hundred. It's wonderful, but also a little intimidating at times, when people say you've had a major influence on future generations. Chess is getting to be a mass sport."

George Orwell once said sport was war without the bullets. Chess is fundamentally about battles, but is it truly a sport — as opposed to, say, a complex, open-ended puzzle?

Anand inclines his head in response. "Sure, it's completely different from a crossword or a mathematical puzzle; there are theoretically infinite variations, no single right answer. It feels so like a sport when you begin competing; I find I can relate perfectly to what other sportsmen feel."

Accepted, it is a sport — but is it genuinely mainstream? It's as elitist as tennis, isn't it, except in a more cerebral kind of way?

"It used to be elitist when it was played in royal courts. But a chess set is cheap by today's standards, certainly more affordable than tennis equipment. It's a mind game, sure, but again you don't need to be particularly brilliant to start playing. And, it's a fact that playing chess develops cognitive abilities," Anand emphasises. "The NIIT academy I'm associated with tries to reach out to as many kids as possible. Not everyone is going to be a champion, but at least this way your chances of finding a few improve."

The point he makes is particularly relevant to India, where mediocrity is promoted by an education system obsessed with standardisation through rote learning. There is an urgent need to endorse intelligence; this, in part, involves identifying chess prodigies.

Anand believes chess could be marketed more creatively on television, by introducing an element of interactivity and finding good commentators. "The Internet has been fantastic for chess; the potential is immense," he says.

When Anand says he would be surprised if he wasn't clear favourite to win the Chess Oscar for 2004, he isn't being brash. There's a huge difference between conceit and confidence. You can either be modest, or honest; and this man, clearly, is at the peak of his career.

Nevertheless, Anand recognises that careers in chess are getting shorter. "Kasparov and I are the oldest among the top ten today. The rest are either in their 20s or early 30s. Earlier you were through only when you were in your 50s. Alekhine, in fact, died when he was world champion," he says.

R.RAGU

Back then, players did their groundwork themselves — they didn't rely on seconds, and obviously didn't have access to computers. As the decades passed, he says, travel became faster and more literature on the game came to be published.

"You can't make a linear comparison. Today, a Korchnoi is more the exception; he just seems to go on and on," Anand says. "The Bohemian culture that prevailed once upon a time has vanished. People are more disciplined, more prepared; we are pushing ourselves to extend our careers a little maybe. We work out regularly, keep ourselves fit.

"Meanwhile, GMs are getting younger, you have 12 year-old prodigies. I became a GM at 18; Bobby Fischer was one at 15. I don't think it will drop below 10 for the next couple of decades though," he grins.

Anand draws a parallel between Roger Federer travelling without a coach and the fact that he isn't working with seconds regularly. "I guess at this level you get jaded beyond a point," he explains. "I find I'm playing a lot more creatively these days."

Over the past 15 years, advanced computing has impacted significantly on productivity. "That's a good thing, because it's opened up several new options for variations which, we thought, had been explored to the fullest," he says. "Matches are getting shorter because players analyse each other's games and copy great moves; consequently styles converge.

"Back in the 30s Capablanca complained chess was dying; look how it's turned out. Today, our knowledge might appear saturated. In theory, chess should be dead, but in practice, it's alive and kicking."

Anand became FIDE world champion in 2000, an achievement that earned him considerable attention. But, to his credit, he sounds dubious regarding the validity of such titles.

"A game like chess depends acutely on the notion of a world champion, but the term is devalued when you have splinter groups. That's what has happened with boxing," he points out. "Chess federations were built for the amateur era around the 1940s. Before that, the organising was disastrous; opponents were screened depending on their ability to generate funds. A world champion shouldn't be allowed to choose his challenger.

R.RAGU

"For nearly 10 years now we've had two world champions, which effectively means you have none, really. The reunification plan isn't really working out at the moment; Kasparov isn't hugely comfortable with the Prague agreement. He and FIDE have to reach a common meeting point."

Anand strongly believes there is a need to introduce a rating system to evaluate performance in a calendar year, like the ones employed in Formula One or tennis.

"I'm not saying this simply because it would favour me," he says. "You need a ranking system that rewards winning. Kasparov hasn't played in a while. Under the current system his rating won't drop; he doesn't need to play. I also think he's trying to conserve himself for the reunification, whenever that happens." So, is it true that things are a little strained between him and Kasparov, I ask curiously. Anand smiles diplomatically. "Let's put it this way: we've occasionally expressed diametrically opposite views in print; but when we meet we don't really discuss contentious issues, so we get along okay, I guess."

WE make our way towards the beach for the photo-shoot. Anand says he's a U2 fan; lately he's been listening to All That You Can't Leave Behind.

"I also like Bob Dylan. There was a Dylan interview in some magazine recently, and someone wrote them a letter saying what a disappointment it had proved; that until then, he'd thought of Dylan as a messiah," he laughs. "It reminded me of Fischer and his current troubles. I'd rather remember him for the guy he was in the 60s and 70s."

People gawp as Anand strikes a pose with Aruna.

"It's a little irritating when your grin begins to droop a little, as the photographer fiddles with the camera, and then he tells you to smile. It ends up looking forced," Anand says. "Happens all the time."

Anand stops to sign an autograph as we walk back. Does he consider himself an all-time great, I ask.

"I have a good case," he admits honestly, "but I won't think about it until I retire."