‘Computers have shortened the learning cycle’

Anish Giri... prodigious talent.-FRANS PEETERS

Anish Giri has been steadily climbing the rungs on the ladder of fame. He became the youngest grandmaster at the age of 14 years and seven months in 2009. And earlier this year, he finished joint second at the prestigious Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the Netherlands. Taking time away from his hectic preparatory schedule, Anish speaks to A. Rangarajan.

When Anish Giri — playing with black pieces — dealt a decisive defeat to Peter Svidler on February 15, 2015 in the Tbilisi Grand Prix, he broke into the Super Grandmaster league of 2800 points in the daily ranking of the ELO ratings. There was a one word Tweet from Giri’s handle — “Euphoric!” Giri has been steadily climbing the rungs on the ladder of fame.

He became the youngest Grandmaster at the age of 14 years and seven months in 2009. And earlier this year, he finished joint second at the prestigious Tata Steel Chess Tournament in the Netherlands. He has also been the Dutch national champion three times. His father hails from Nepal and his mother from Russia, the country where Giri was born and where he took his first lessons in chess. His father’s work brought the family to the Netherlands, a country which is proud of him now and celebrates him as a sports icon. Giri is a contributing editor to the leading ‘New in Chess’ magazine and his first book ‘My Junior Years in 20 Games’ was recently published. He is refreshingly humble in acknowledging that he was lucky at important turns, which helped in his rapid rise.

Taking time away from his hectic preparatory schedule, Anish gave this interview in his own inimitable style.

Question: Anish, only recently, chess has become a full time occupation for you. You were juggling academics and chess even a little while back. How did you manage to do that?

Answer: School has always been important for me, be it in Russia, Japan or even after I moved to the Netherlands. Both my parents went to Universities and so quitting school was never an option for me. But even then, I was always preoccupied with chess. Though, I had to balance it with my studies. In Holland, it’s quite common for students to take a year’s break after high school. So, I have decided to take chess as a full time profession and devote more time to it. The choice to return to the University is there and I plan to take one day at a time.

You are already a star — a prodigy of the computer and software-dominated chess era. Have you studied and analysed the games of great players from the pre-computer era like say Karpov, Fischer, Tal or Petrosian. What do you make of their games?

I have of course studied the players of the past and every young chess player does that. When I started taking chess seriously in Russia, my trainer gave me books, which documented their games. These games from the past have been annotated without the aid of computers. The Master explains through his moves the realisation of a great plan. The concepts are shown beautifully. Botvinnik was fighting for the centre through an attack on the flank and etc…

Any ordinary follower was taken through this grand scheme in a rather clean manner. But today, with the help of computers, people analyse the games of current players almost instantaneously. People, who can barely make a move on the board, watch an Anand–Carlsen game, and immediately proclaim that Anand has made a red move! In the past, the Master knew more and was always stronger than the audience, but today the audience follows the computer variations and are quick to criticise the Master, without understanding and depth. The romanticism is lost, but a true fan appreciates all great games, whether from the past or from the present day.

Continuing on the role of computers in modern chess, one wonders what part do computers play in preparation and where does the genius and innovation of the player come in the fray…

Well, everybody has the same hardware and software and use the same tools for preparation. The computer is just a tool. Every player has his or her own repertoire and style and chess can be played in many ways. The same position can be played aggressively or defensively. You can play conventional style or opt for a non-standard approach. Each one uses the computer differently to analyse and help prepare his or her style. Computers have not taken over chess completely, though they have changed it a lot. Computers also give the impression that chess is all about making mistakes. The so called red moves — computer identifies, marks mistakes and shows them in red. But chess is deeper than that. It is about putting pressure on your opponent, about coming up with creative ideas, coming up with original plan or deploying devilish tricks. These dimensions cannot be measured by computers. It is indeed hard to evaluate the real significance of a game just by looking at computer analysis.

How important is the mental aspect at the highest level?

I think 50 percent happens in the head. So, psychological toughness is a big factor.

You are comfortable with a wide a range of openings and defences. How do you account for this versatility?

Yeah! Nowadays it has become easier to study openings. Earlier, one had to collect articles, analyse them and then sharpen the preparation of a particular opening or defence. You had to put the information together, collate and investigate a position all by yourself. Today, with a single click, you can see all the games played from a certain position for a certain opening. You can immediately switch on the chess engine, which will tell you which options are good and which are bad. Therefore, opening preparation has become easier and hence players have a broader repertoire. I am not unique in that.

Do you have your favourite openings?

There are always certain patterns where I do better. For example placing the bishop in the g2 square — the fianchettoed bishop — and the variations therein tend to give me good results. But at this level, playing well overall — beyond the openings — is very important. It is also important to opt for openings keeping your opponent in mind. This guessing game is vital.

Do you contribute to opening theory?

I do contribute my bit and I have invested my time and have introduced new ideas in openings. It may not be as much as someone like Kramnik or other theoreticians. Many players now come up with ideas. I have also contributed to the development of early variations and positions. For example, I have played the Petrov defence frequently. It is considered dull, defensive and draw-ish, but I have had considerable success with that in Corus B tournament. I have also played the Grunfeld defence and I have some new ideas there too.

In the 2011 Corus tournament you defeated Magnus Carlsen after 22 moves, playing with black. This year at the Tata Steel Chess Tournament you drew with him. You have never lost to him. Is there something specially common between the two of you — the young pack at the top? Can we see you as a world champion any time soon?

The game you mention against Carlsen was an emotional experience for me; he was already World No. 1. You should remember that we have only played seven games or so and fortunately I have done well. But seven games are not much. As we play more, there will be more losses and wins. You should also remember that to become a world champion it is not enough to have a good score against the world champion. You have to go through a hard cycle of training. I have just started on that and it has helped me break into the top-five. There’s a long road before I can think of fighting Carlsen for the world crown.

The computer has helped us, the younger generation, to reach the top. It has made the learning cycle shorter. You needed to play 50 classical games in a variation to master it. Now you can play online games, consult a chess engine and study games of the past in one click. Carlsen, Wesley So, Carauna and I are players born between 1990 and 1994.

You recently played in the Qatar Open and finished second. Are open format tournaments gaining more popularity?

That is an interesting question, because many aspiring amateur players feel that the top-10 players think themselves to be a special breed, playing just each other and pocketing huge prize monies. If you put them in the wild, to compete with others, they’ll falter. But, both in Gibraltar and Qatar, the players from the top-10 dominated.

We understand that you had helped Anand with his preparatory efforts in the past. How was that experience?

The first time when Anand invited me, he was training in Germany and I was just 15. We played a lot of games and I lost most of them. I think, I won just two and have saved these games in my database. So, I think, I benefited more. Then I helped him to prepare for his match against Boris Gelfand in 2012. I was a better match then and won more games. We have a very nice and cordial relationship. When I play well I get encouraging and congratulatory messages from him over Skype and I do the same when I see him playing well.

How do you plan to contribute to the development of chess in Nepal?

I was three when I first visited Nepal and then again when I was 12. But, I wish to travel there more. I have contributed to fundraising efforts for projects in Nepal. I did that with my former high school. My school in the Netherlands was supporting a school in Nepal. A close look at the ground condition there makes you wonder whether to support life or the development of chess there. But, I am confident that chess has a huge potential in Nepal. Fortunately, it is easy to develop chess as you don’t need much investment in infrastructure.