'Motivation is the key'

I think probably it is the best Indian team. We have so much of young blood. There is a big difference in doing well in the age-group competitions and translating it into big time.

RAKESH RAO

ANY vehicle owner of New Delhi will tell you, driving through the Capital can be quite a harrowing experience. Traffic jams, pollution, non-functional traffic signals, blockades to facilitate `VVIP movement,' noise in the name of Bhangra pop blaring out of car stereos, and what not. In such a scenario, one cannot but wish: the distances were less and driving a more pleasurable experience.

S. SUBRAMANIUM

Mercifully, the experience is not the same on all days.

It was one of those rare occasions when going through the usually busy South Delhi roads was an experience to remember. The traffic moved smoothly but one wished the destination was farther than it actually was. There was no VVIP moving around with his motorcade and for once, one did not mind getting stuck in a traffic jam. In fact, you wished time could stand still.

Such thoughts come naturally when you are driven around in the company of Viswanathan Anand. After all, the sheer joy of listening to a genius sharing his experiences is simply too overwhelming.

Anand with his wife Aruna after winning the World Rapid chess tournament at Cap d'Agde in France. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

On a promotional trip for his sponsors NIIT, Anand took time off to discuss many subjects. From what it takes to move from Classical to Rapid chess or vice versa, to what he thinks of Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar, Anand was forthcoming in his views. Whether it was the present composition of the Indian men's team or the question of his returning to represent the country in the next year's Olympiad, the Grandmaster freely aired his thoughts. Needless to add, the country's most consistent sportsperson (remember, Anand has remained in the top-10 bracket of the chess world since July 1991) has a way with words, too.

For the benefit of the readers of The Sportstar, Anand readily agreed to go through his exploits of 2003, the year for which he can well win the prestigious Chess Oscar for the third time.

Excerpts:

Question: How would you look at the past year?

Answer: It started off well. In Wijk ann Zee, I was a bit hesitant because I was simply not sure of my form. Hyderabad (which hosted the World Cup in October 2002), in the end, worked out well though I was rather shaky, and Corsica Masters afterwards was the same thing. But in both Hyderabad and Corsica (in 2002), I had this feeling that I was able to fight back. When the going got tough, I could go up a notch. That was encouraging.

In Wijk (in January 2003), I simply did not know how things would shape up. On the first day, I had an average draw with Radjabov. On the second day, I felt I was under huge pressure against Topalov, with black pieces. I simply did not know what to do. Before the game, suddenly, many of my openings were not working out. I was nervous before this game.

When I won it, I knew this was going to be a good year. Sometimes, when you get these little boosts, these little breaks that inspire you the whole year. So, this Topalov game was very important because he has been a difficult opponent for me at this point.

Subsequently, I beat him in the last round of Monaco to win the title; I beat him again in Corsica. So you can see how these little things made a difference. (Back to Wijk), I was defending and suddenly, the game turned around and I won. And after this, my performance took wings. I beat Karpov in the fifth round, Shirov later and Ponomariov in the seventh and got my plus-four score and won this tournament. I realised it was pretty smooth, though it always looks smooth from the outside than from inside.

Master on the move. Anand playing simultaneous chess with 22 students during a demonstration of his prowess at the Sydenham College in Mumbai. The event involved champions from different colleges taking on the Grandmaster as part of an initiative by NIIT to promote chess. -- Pic. VIVEK BENDRE-

After considerable optimism, I went to Linares. There, I must say, I got two chances to win the tournament. Both times, I bungled. I beat Leko and immediately lost from a dead drawn position to Kasparov. Then my ambitions went down again. I just tried to get back into the tournament. After I beat Radjabov, I was again in the running for the first place but lost to Leko and finished third. Somehow — I am not claiming that I deserved to win — it was so annoying how these kinds of errors pop up and that too, in rather simple rook endgames.

Subsequently, I went to Monaco not sure what to expect. But Monaco went superbly. Again, I would say, what got me through was the slow-and-steady approach. I wasn't among the early runners. I kept making points and I outlasted every one. That was a very nice feeling. In the end, I even played some nice games. My game against Topalov was declared the Game of the Tournament, and so on. Then I took some rest.

I had been doing well in the Bundesliga events. My next stop was at Dortmund. In between, I had played this rapid event in Denmark. And that result was superb. I made 5.5 points from six games. I mean, reasonably, I expected I could win this one with 4.5 points but 5.5 was simply mind blowing. So that went well.

Dortmund, well, what can I say? (In 2001, Anand had a forgettable outing with just three points from 10 rounds). After three rounds, I started thinking: I can't believe this. This is some time warp. I am sitting in the same city, in the same place and after three rounds, I am on minus two. What the hell is this? That was very tough to swallow. This time, I decided, okay, things that didn't work in 2001, which was just to try to stumble through, I had to make a special effort and fight back and so on. And that worked brilliantly. I beat Naiditsh, Leko and Bologan. And Bologan was doing superbly. I managed to turn, what could have been unquestionably a disaster, into a moderate result. All this was due to the tendency that I've been developing recently to fight back all the time. I think, especially many people sit and read what a bad fighter I am and how mentally weak I am, but I think they must have been quite surprised.

Mainz was interesting. In the sense, I expected to win but I never expected it to be this difficult. Everyday (against Judit Polgar), I was trailing and I felt I should do better than this and everyday, somehow in the second game, I managed to come back. And may be for her, it was awkward to be in lead than to be on even points. And finally, on the last day, I broke the ice (and won 5-3) but it could have gone either way. It was spectacular for the spectators but I wouldn't call it the highlight (of the year).

Cap d'Agde (World Rapid Championship) and Corsica (Corsica Open Rapid) were what made my year. Cap d'Agde was pretty big and you saw the field. It was Category 19! Again, it was just like Hyderabad (World Cup 2002). The qualification was tough as hell. I barely made it at the last minute and then I just sailed through to the end. I mean, to beat Kramnik... , you know what it means to beat Kramnik. This guy hardly ever loses. So for me, that was a big, big plus.

Anand and Garry Kasparov battling it out in one of their encounters. "It will be nice to have a tournament of five or six top players and call the winner, the World champion," feels Anand. -- Pic. ARVIND AARON-

Then, Corsica turned out to be incredibly strong because a lot of players travelled straight from Cap d'Agde. Again, the strategy was to do just one thing everyday. First day, try to qualify and go to sleep. Second day, I beat Lautier and then went to sleep and so on. This went on well. And here I am.

How difficult is it to switch from Classical to Rapid chess?

Actually, it is easier to move from Classical to Rapid than the other way round. If I play a Classical tournament first and then move to Rapid, then you think that now I go a little faster. But if you go from Rapid to Classical, it is much more difficult to say, now I go a bit slower because your hands are itching to move. Whereas in the other, you get this heightened tension, this heightened expectations because you have to do everything fast and you are more tense. But how do you do the reverse? That's always a bit tricky. But this year I was lucky. Wijk aan Zee came before Monaco and Dortmund came before Mainz. So most of my Classical tournaments came before the Rapid ones.

If we look at your last few good years, where would you place 2003?

I've had five great years — 1997, 1998, 2000, 2002 and 2003 — and I don't really choose the best among them. Even some of the earlier years were nice like 1993 and 1994 were good but they were long back. In 2000 and 2002, I didn't win the Oscar. And hopefully, this year, I'll clinch it.

V. GANESAN

Considering your form, one would have loved to see more encounters between you and Kasparov?

I think it has been frustrating that we have this chaos in the chess world. Normally speaking, it is unthinkable that he (Kasparov) and I would hardly ever meet or we'll meet once in a year. In any sport, you try to make the top rivals meet as often as possible. It is really frustrating. On one hand, I understand the desire of the chess fans who say, that's the one I want to get excited about. It is like India versus Australia in cricket or whatever, the one we want to get excited about. On the other hand, frankly, next year, it looks we may not even play (each other). I don't know how we are supposed to do this. In general, the problem is that the chess world is so fragmented at the top. Even he seems to be wandering, playing machines and things like that. It will be nice to have a tournament of five or six top players and call the winner, the World champion. And start from there. At least, you get some legitimacy.

On the subject of Kasparov, what do you think makes him remain ahead of the rest, almost unchallenged?

One thing, he has been able to motivate himself very hard. Other reason, again, without criticising him too much — I do acknowledge that his motivation and chess stand apart — he does not play that much. It is only in the chess world that you have this system where by being inactive you can remain No. 1 for one year, because all you have to do is to turn up and play one or two games. In fact, by definition, you are removed from the rating list only if you are inactive. But what about two games in a year; does that count as active? Again, it is not to make fun of him. He can directly argue that he does not have all the right tournaments to play or there are not many tournaments, which pay him his fee. But somehow, it is ridiculous. I think you have to discount it from chess players. The rating list is your friend if you want to sit back and relax, especially if you have a big lead over other people. There is no way that we can make that entire stretch in one go. Generally, Kramnik, Kasparov and myself have been able to remain there, if you take the last 10-11 years. Even in periods when we have been able to take some time off, we have not been suffering, as a consequence. And none the less, the three of us, we have been able to keep it up.

How do you rate Judit Polgar?

I did not expect her to have this card up her sleeve. Suddenly, in 2003 she has her best year ever. I think that is remarkable. I always thought she was a very strong player. But you don't expect surprises. She is very young, but because she started in the circuit when she was 12, you have this feeling that she is a veteran.

It is said, it is easier to move to the top than staying there. What has made you remain in the elite top-10 of the world for over a decade?

The basic thing is not to take anything for granted. If you are to tell yourself, Ah! I am World number three and so on, it usually means you are on your way down. It is important to remember how narrow the gap is among the top players. And others, on a given day, can beat you. You always have to fight and keep learning. Sometimes you know it on your own and sometimes, it has taken a bad tournament to remind you of that fact, painfully. After one defeat, I usually get the point. Then you start working hard again and you are motivated. Again, the key is always motivation. If you can be excited about every game or somehow keen to do well, then it's better. I wouldn't say it's a piece of cake. It's a bit tricky.

What do you have to say about the role, or rather the diminishing role of trainers and `seconds' these days?

Basically, they give you a second viewpoint and they are able to take a detached view of you, your weaknesses and strengths. They take the heavy lifting off you.

Are they always sincere and committed?

You have to choose that way. You can get people who are around for just the thrill or the money, or you can also get dedicated `seconds'. But you have to make that choice. I would say, in general, the role of `seconds' is going down because we don't have the big matches. They were best when we had the big matches and still are in classical tournaments. But nowadays, the players are able to prepare more and more with computers. In rapid tournaments, their role has slightly diminished. Nowadays what happens is, the players tend to work together a lot and very few players have a permanent `second'. Even, with Ubilava, I work once in a while. Also, I found it nice to experiment, before Prague, to just start travelling alone and to work on my own during tournaments. And then to work together with a lot of people has been quite healthy.

What changes do you see in chess in India since you last played in the Olympiad a decade ago?

Anand is the main difference! When I last played, I was the youngest participant. And now, I am, by far the Grandpa of the team. In fact, Kasparov called up a mutual friend after my victory at Cap d'Agde and said, "I am very happy not because Vishy won, but because by far the oldest player of the tournament won. And that gives me hope." It was a like a double-edged compliment. And you thought it was cute. He said, "Of course my rivalry with Anand goes on but I am happy to see another veteran do well." (laughs).

Coming back to the Indian team, I think probably it is the best team. We have so much of young blood. I think there is a big difference in doing well in the age-group competitions and translating it into big time. I think, people are impatient like, why are we not doing better, what's going on? But the thing is, this transition takes six, seven years. For instance, Sasikiran is slowly advancing but this year, he had a couple of setbacks. He might take a while to come back again. You can see that he has broken the 2600-mark decisively. And this is a big group of Ganguly, Kunte and Harikrishna. Kunte has become very steady. Ganguly is doing well and you have Sandipan Chanda coming in. Harikrishna seems to have found his groove again after a long time.

Finally, what should happen for you to say `yes' for the next Olympiad?

I think I'll just take a decision on my own at some point. If I do play the Olympiad next time, it will be nice to see the whole team. It should be fun. (On January 8, 2003, Anand announced his decision to represent the country in the Olympiad).