Getting his act together

Viswanathan to match wits with Magnus Carlsen.-R. RAGU

Viswanathan Anand speaks at length about how he dealt with the distressing phase that followed the loss of the World title, his play, ploy and performances that brought back his pride. Rakesh Rao listens in.

Down but not out after the dismal World title defence against Magnus Carlsen last November, Viswanathan Anand was looking for redemption. His results in London (in December) and Zurich (in February-March) did not help his confidence.

Lifting himself from the depths of despair, the five-time World champion got his act together when it mattered in the Candidates Tournament in Khanty Mansiysk (Russia). He topped a select eight-player field to challenge Magnus Carlsen in November 2014.

On his comeback, Anand said, “I kept faith that one day the phase will be over.” Indeed his faith paid off.

Back at his Chennai residence, Anand spoke to Sportstar at length about how he dealt with the distressing phase that followed the loss of the World title, his play, ploy and performances that brought back his pride.

Question: How do you look back at the disappointing results of London and Zurich?

Answer: London was more positive in a certain way. I felt I was playing more freely. Okay, I got punished by Vlady (Vladimir Kramnik). Beyond that, I actually played a good tournament. Zurich was a bit harder. I didn’t see why I was again starting the same way. In the last three rounds I kind of stabilised but nothing really to look back on.

What was your routine before leaving for the Khanty Mansisyk?

Before Khanty Mansisyk, the best thing I did was not to think too much. I spent two weeks doing nothing, fooling around with Akhil (son), and not thinking about what happened. Looking for explanations can sometimes kill you when you can’t do anything about certain things. So I decided to simply stop doing that. It’s a waste of time. No point looking for explanations, trying to understand what happened.

How were the preparations for the Candidates tournament?

I had a short training session with (Polish Grandmaster Radoslaw) Wojtaszek, and then I sent the results of that work to Sandipan (Chanda). Then I played a Bundesliga weekend. And before going to Khanty, I thought the best thing was not to look at chess but to let the mind just get away from it. I did not think of any opponent. Let’s say, I had done a lot of thinking over the last year.

You said that you arrived in Khanty without expecting anything.

That was exactly how it was. My mind was blank. I got on with the job of looking at my openings, going through scenarios. I was just working on the preparations. Since I had taken two weeks off from chess, I thought it was time to get back to it.

Your thoughts on beating the rating-favourite Levon Aronian in the first round.

It was nice to beat Aronian, for the first time in my life, with white (pieces). It was a nice game as well. Quite a few others said this about the game. Then I knew this was a wonderful result to put into the bank, forget about it and think about the next 13 games. At least, you know that you have some balance in the bank. Obviously, at that point, it was too early but I knew the tie-break would be nice and so on.

How was it to go to the first rest day after two wins in the first three rounds?

Generally, I was very contented. I slept very well that evening. It is also a very nice feeling when you have a good result like that and then you can have a rest day. So we (Anand and Sandipan) went to a Georgian restaurant the night before the rest day. That, more or less, became a habit to go to that restaurant every night before a rest day. That also gave some variety to our food. You start to feel positive. Suddenly, you find yourself thinking ambitiously and then you remind yourself to wait.

Three decisive results in the ninth round — you beat Veselin Topalov while Aronian and Kramnik lost — suddenly tilted the scales in your favour. How did you see it?

Back Home... Anand with his wife Aruna and son Akhil at the Chennai airport after his victory in the Candidates Tournament.-R.RAGU

I couldn’t deny something big had happened there and I had a one-point lead with five rounds to go. I knew it was very, very good. But I had to tell myself that the important thing was not to mess this one up. But again, you cannot take that thought any further. You remind yourself to be a bit more cautious.

Do you look back at the drawn (11th round) game against Dmitry Andreikin with a tinge of regret?

Well, a little bit but not too much. I understood that the tournament was very much in our own hands. And the funny thing was, it actually didn’t matter what I did against the others and what Karjakin did against the others. But the most important thing for me was, as long as I played well against Karjakin, there was no real problem. So I told myself, it doesn’t really matter. The main thing is the game that comes after this (against Karjakin). But yes, I was disappointed. It would have been a very, very nice game had I won (against Andreikin).

Your thoughts on the marathon drawn game against Karjakin (in the 13th round)?

In the game with Karjakin, I knew I had messed up something. In fact, I read somewhere that the most absurd thing was that I played defensively against Karjakin and I was punished as a result. I don’t understand this nonsense. This is so clearly wrong. Look at my game with Karjakin. I was not being punished for being defensive. I was punished for sacrificing a pawn, charging ahead and following it up incorrectly. So I knew I had made a tactical mistake. I had to sit and defend carefully. And I got on with it. Basically, the thought of losing was so repulsive that I raised my level.

Going by your reaction after the draw with Karjakin, you looked ready to mock-strangle him?

That is basically what I told him. I would have mock-strangled him. We both started laughing at that time. He was very sweet. The first thing (after the game), he shook hands and congratulated me. And then there was my mock reaction. I didn’t know that was being photographed.

Apart from the games you won, which were your other games that left you satisfied?

I was happy with the way I drew with Aronian. Despite the fact that it was a short game, I thought, in an unknown position, I actually went for the most courageous moves, or the most principled moves, if you like. No hanging back or second guesses. I just saw the best moves and that was good. The first draw against Andreikin and (Peter) Svidler were also good games.

Though you admitted you were tired after the 13th round, your energy levels appeared good.

I think it is a question of happiness. If you are winning games, playing well and you are happy with yourself, you won’t feel your age. If it is depressing and you are struggling, you’ll feel more than your age. In that sense, what I meant was, a result like this will boost my energy and my enthusiasm. That is more important than anything else.

You gained the right to challenge Magnus Carlsen, collected 15 rating points, a good share of the prize-money and much more. But what would you choose as your biggest gain from Khanty?

I had used this expression a couple of times... for me, it felt like ‘oxygen.’ I really needed it at that point. It is only so long that you can go on with bad results. For the first time, in a long time, I did not have to explain to anyone as to what happened and what went wrong. It was nice to just stop doing that.

How much of the unused preparations (against Carlsen) did you use in Khanty?

Definitely my play was based on my unused preparations for the match. But I did not get to use a lot from them, anyway. Obviously, I did not want to have a big training camp for this because I simply did not need it.

Did you play more aggressively than you did in the World title-match in Chennai?

I would agree that in a sense I tried to be a bit relaxed. I was trying to play in a controlled way and I gave up on that. I played a lot lighter when I was young.

How do you deal with the accusation (from some section of the chess world) that you keep your preparations under wraps for the tournaments and play seriously in the World title clashes?

Such a statement is one of those things floating around and I have no idea where it came from. I never withheld preparations from my tournaments. I would often say that my focus had been on the matches. I meant my mental focus. Not that I am playing second-rate stuff (in tournaments). My point is, I honestly don’t follow this stuff. The thing is, this is perfectly normal behaviour.

Fans in any sport have animated discussions, speculate what is happening between this and that. They try to get to ulterior motives. That’s how they enjoy their sport, which is fine. Equally, it’s my job not to read this stuff because it’s meant to annoy me. It’s relevant... well let them have their fun. That’s what they are supposed to do. I am not going to do it. I just think some of the explanations they come up with are reasonably good guesses, even if they are not correct. Some tend to be accurate but I cannot even see them. The point is, it doesn’t matter to me. It doesn't matter if they hit on something that might turn out to be a good explanation. I don’t particularly think the way you play chess is to solicit second opinion. At least, that is not the way I play chess. When I play chess, I am solving problems, having fun.

From my point of view, I can say that it is a very silly idea that I was holding something back (in tournaments). I would have gladly used all my ideas if I could. But may be, my preparation for matches was so oriented towards one opponent that it was hard to find ideas that I could use against others. Or, perhaps, I was unable to focus on tournaments with the same intensity as matches. These are statements that I can live with. But saying that I withheld something because I felt in some way playing tournaments like this was okay, I think it’s an insane idea.

On coming back, were there any celebrations at home?

Not in a formal way. I spent the afternoon tickling Akhil. It was a pleasant day of phone calls from friends. That’s celebration enough. Akhil came to the airport. He was very excited because there were planes in the background. He kept touching my photo and said papa... papa...When I came out, he was very excited to see the real thing. He came running to me and kept saying... aple... aple... (for aeroplane) and he kept pointing at the back. I couldn’t have asked for a more touching reception.