`I see a bright future for India'

R. RAGU

World No. 1 Viswanathan Anand speaks to A. Rangarajan on his life and times in chess .

After a couple of hiccups and a whole day's delay, the ratings page of the FIDE website was finally corrected on April 2 to reflect the standings and Anand topped the list for the first time in his long and illustrious chess career. A day later, with his characteristic equanimity, he struck a picture of simplicity that seemed to send the message that no matter how heavy a crown may be it could still be worn lightly. And that picture also had in it a rare confidence and sureness that stood in an interesting contrast to that of his fans — while they were exhilarated and relieved at the same time,

Anand himself looked more like the man who was only keeping up a belated appointment with the number one spot.

Question: Anand, May I congratulate you at the outset on this extraordinary landmark achievement of getting to be world number one. It must be a very satisfying moment, sweeter than the FIDE World Championship victory in Tehran and Delhi in 2000. May I ask you, did it have to take so long and what are the reasons?

Answer: No it is quite funny, I was close to the number one spot on many occasions and either Topalov would come up with a burst and that would take it beyond my reach or something else would happen preventing me from getting there. And this time I had neither objective — I just went to play Linares not with any explicit aim of winning the title or getting to be the world number one. Somehow to have achieved both in the same tournament has been a pleasant surprise and some of the best things happen when they are totally unexpected. By the time I had finished the 11th round in Linares in March, I had an inkling that I was going to win the tournament. One point lead, three games to go — not an invincible lead but a comfortable position. On the penultimate day Topalov unexpectedly lost to Morozevich in a knight ending and suddenly I then realised I had scaled to number one as well!

You have been in the top 3, very consistently since the mid 1990s. This happens in the wake up of the PCA world championship against Kasparov — the famous September 11, Twin Tower match of 1995. One would think that after this match there is something that made you strong, what was it that made you strong?

To be honest, I would not really isolate this match in any sense, it was one match, I played it and I think you learn from that match. But then I learnt a lot from most of my experiences in 1994 and 1995. I think you first realise that getting to number one is very very difficult. My rise up to number 5 or 4 has been very smooth and from that point on to number one has been very arduous. Beyond that, say by 1996, I had moved on and had ceased to think about this match in any special sense — ok it was an important match but my game went on. In fact the very next year in Jan 1996 I won the Hoogovens Schaak Toornoi in Wijk aan Zee — the Corus tournament as it was known then. And in that period between 1992 and 1998 I think I was growing as a player, I had my vital breakthroughs by 1997/98 and 1998 was a special year and I won all the big five events — Corus, Linares, Dortmund etc..

Nevertheless, let us take the 1995 match out of this context and even then I wish to ask you, when did it occur to you that it is not just the game but also psychological toughness that has a big role to play in chess at the highest levels?

I don't think there has been one eureka moment. It is something you realise again and again. You forget and then you realise and you keep correcting yourself. There is also this element that some mistakes stick to you. They are a part of your overall strengths and weaknesses composite and some of your strengths become your weakness and vice versa. And some lessons I have learnt over and over again. How in critical tournaments you can't get carried away, regardless of results you have to stay concentrated etc. Victory could be very close and it could be snatched away. It is the same thing with psychological toughness. You have to keep working on it. This time at Linares it went great. I was stable and held on to my lead. I was feeling good and was in control. This going was good and I felt well. That doesn't mean I have nailed it for the future. This lesson will come up again and one has to be vigilant and persevere. Euphoria should not sweep me of my feet nor should pessimism get the better of me.

Is it more difficult to recover from a defeat than fight complacency? Is that when psychological toughness assumes importance?

Yes, I think it is important how you are able to take the pain of defeat. You learn from other people too. Some one like Topalov has learnt to deal with it well and one can learn from him. He recovers so effortlessly from so many defeats. I too now take my defeats less hard and then over dinner talk about something else. I don't torture myself over the lost game any more. In this context I can relate to Topalov. It has been impressive to see what he has accomplished over the last two years. This attitude helped me this year at the Corus tournament in February when I had a bad stretch. I took it cool and took the thought of winning the tournament out of my mind and started concentrating on the games at hand and then went on to win two games in a row and eventually landed 5th, which is not so much of a disgrace. Despite bad results it is important that you stay in control.

We have spoken at some length on the psychological tenacity needed to stay at the top. Remarkably you are the Mr. Nice Guy at the top. How do you cope with the tensions of high quality chess? You seem to reconcile these two sides so effortlessly, how do you do it?

I would say that most of my colleagues and particularly the younger generation are able to separate chess from the person. Occasionally bad relationships happen — it is not that everybody gets happily along all the time. By and large it is a good and healthy atmosphere at the top. When I talk to some one like Svidler or Carlsen the rivalry is there and we know we have to play each other tomorrow but then it never gets out of hand. On most occasions we are able to park the game and enjoy the rest of the day. The bonhomie is healthy and surely the atmosphere will provide feedbacks to you.

That means Botvinnik's axiom that you must hate your opponent is something that is no longer true?

That was typical of the Soviet era where the battle never ended at the board and the intrigue went way beyond. You could lose a game and yet win at the sports committee. With the right moves and connections you could have your opponent debarred from travelling abroad — though the Soviet Union itself was the most happening place as far as chess was concerned. Those days the intrigues were complex and there were cliques and at times they ganged against some one like Korchnoi who was a typical victim. It was very Darwinian and the whole structure was different. Fortunately things are more normal now and I guess the world has changed and the younger generation of players have changed with the times.

We spoke about Botvinnik now and I am tempted to ask you as to who were your favourite players from amongst the great masters of the yesteryear?

K. Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna and Koneru Humpy are celebrities in world Chess.-V. GANESAN

I would say that I liked Morphy always. I liked Tal and Fischer of course. I was fond of Capablanca. But then these are more or less superficial opinions. As a kid I found something fascinating about them — maybe their games or life stories and I decided that I liked them. I cannot say that I have studied their lives in great depth and came to this conclusion. But then I still like them.

You played against Tal in 1989 in the Veterans v Youth tournament at Cannes. How did you find that experience?

He was an unbelievably nice man and would play blitz against anyone who came along and asked. I have never seen such a great person who was ready to play with any fan who wanted to play with him. That was remarkable.

If I still wish to dwell on the question — if not the great masters of yesteryear, would you consider someone to have been a personality of great influence on your chess or has it been an amalgamation of inspirations from several people?

I would say that it has been an amalgamation of inspirations. I have even learnt from lesser-known players. They play a good game and you learn something from that. I really liked Tal and Fischer but I never modelled myself after them. I had my own style. I would remember their games but I was not trying to be them.

These players we talk of now are from the pre-computer era. Along with Kasparov you made the successful transition from the classical era into the computer era of chess. With the advent of computers, chess has become more predictable and thus robbing some of its essential charm?

It is very difficult for the bridging generations — the ones who have been used to one kind of technology having now to deal with another often have complicated views. Everything from my youth seems romantic and nostalgic. That is possible. But then the next generation that would know of no other form of chess other than the one that uses computers and databases would see things differently. When Chess Informant came out the earlier generation was furious and declared that this attempt to systematise chess was horrible and claimed that their ways of learning was the best. One should keep in mind that every time a new way of studying chess has come along people have resisted. Having said this I would add, computers have made a qualitative difference. Computers have made life tougher. But to be fair, computers have opened as many doors as they have slammed shut. Variations and lines of play previously thought impossible have now become mainstream — thanks to computers. Our understanding of end games and openings has been taken to great lengths with the help of computer-aided analysis. As preparations become deep and as the yearning to see natural chess talent increases formats like Fischerrandom will become attractive or for that matter Blitz too is an answer to deep preparation.

Talking of computers and chess, there is also this whole other perspective which is worth reflecting upon. One could have a 300gig data base of analysis to see the outcome from a given position. By extensive cataloguing and crunching the computer can give its finding, stating that options 2,190,7000 and 3 million lead to successful endings. It is only the human mind that can lend the beauty of comprehension to these findings by understanding the principles behind and the reasons that unite them!

Sponsorship in chess has become a major issue and the whole rivalry and politics amongst various organisations has left the amateur enthusiast of the game foxed. Do you see things improving in the foreseeable future?

The split in the chess world has ended. With the coming World Championship in Mexico we will have one world champion and not two. We now have a new beginning. Chess can benefit immensely from this development as I see an explosion of chess activities on the internet — where people can find a partner and play or watch tournaments and listen to analysis any time. I believe the full potential of the internet is yet to be realised and we are only making the initial moves in that direction. With such a situation emerging it must be very attractive for sponsors to back chess and that is beginning to happen. Yes I do see better days ahead.

The vast majority of the chess playing public wonder as to what is it that sets super-grandmasters like you apart from the rest. It is often said that in a position that looks seemingly equal for Black and White to the ordinary eye, the Master sees slight differences and imbalances and proceeds to exploit them. In other words do you hear music where none exists?

That is a good way to put it. The stronger you are you get to see more connections. The pieces and positions come alive with patterns. You start seeing possibilities in these patterns. First you think the white has the advantage and then you look carefully and realise that the black has the edge. As you refine your analysis the more sharp your understanding of the position gets. The pieces are there standing and suddenly when you see the connections they become beautiful. In specific openings you find pieces assuming their own distinct characters. The Kings Indian Bishop, for instance, becomes special and every grandmaster knows you better be careful — he is a very powerful character even though he is standing at g7 just as any other bishop. In yet other positions you will find pawns suddenly coming to a life of their own. In essence you are right, you hear music where none exists or see harmony where there was none.

You have literally single-handedly taken India to an illustrious spot in world chess. And inspired by your achievements you know chess has a strong following in India now. You have gone on record as saying that we should be taking chess to government schools. How do you see the future of Indian chess?

I see a bright future as the number of youngsters playing the game has increased phenomenally and you already see that in the Top 100 in the world, we are three of us — Sasikiran, Harikrishna and I. Some of the programmes I am associated with take chess to schools and I hold that by merely increasing the base the top of the pyramid can be heightened considerably and we should be able to produce more top class players. Besides there are also the other benefits young minds can have by playing chess and these include improved analytical abilities etc. These are proven. I see quality of chess improving and vast numbers benefiting from skills that could stand by them in the course of their daily lives.

FIDE World Championship, victories at Linares, Corus and the likes and now the World number one spot that had eluded you for so long. What next? What new height do you aspire to scale now?

The World Championship obviously! That is what I am now preparing for. The championship in Mexico City in September this year is an important tournament for me.

Wishing you the very best. Thank you.