`We need to develop the game further'

VISWANATHAN ANAND has been remarkably consistent since he became a Grandmaster. He has won well over 50 prestigious titles and three Chess Oscars since 1989.

G. VISWANATH

VISWANATHAN ANAND has been remarkably consistent since he became a Grandmaster. He has won well over 50 prestigious titles and three Chess Oscars since 1989. No other Indian sportsperson has done as much. A contented young man, who will turn 35 soon, Anand looks forward to fresh challenges; the immediate ones being leading India in the Olympiad at Majorca, Spain and winning the Corus title in January for another time and creating history.

RAJEEV BHATT

A plethora of titles this year made him the unanimous choice of chess journalists for the Oscar. Winning the Corus Super GM Chess in January 2003, Melody Amber Blind and Rapid Chess, SIS-MH Masters at Denmark, Chess Classic at Mainz, the official World Rapid at Cape d'Agde and the Corsica Open, finishing as the highest scorer in the German league helped him move to the No. 2 position, behind Garry Kasparov, in April 2004.

Big step

Anand and his wife Aruna, now the most famous NRIs in Spain, were in Mumbai, courtesy, NIIT for which he is the Brand Ambassador. He hopes to teach chess to a million school children through his manuals and online programmes. Tribal kids in Andhra Pradesh have shown a lot of interest and Anand is happy that NIIT's Champions Academy has taken the first big step. Two tribal kids took part in the inter-school championship and one of them finished second, he says proudly. "It has to come voluntarily and at the end of the day, they should play chess for fun to start with. It's also worth mentioning that playing chess regularly will improve their academic performance. On top of that if some of them turn out to be champions, that would be great."

Anand is happy that another Indian Krishnan Sasikiran has already made a breakthrough and is in the top 100 of the FIDE list. On the presence of only two Indians and three Chinese in the top 100, Anand had this to say: "I think any boom will produce results slowly. There was a huge wave when young Indians took to the game 10 years back. It takes time for this to build into an avalanche sort of a thing. I am quite hopeful in the next five to 10 years many more Indians will break the 2600 barrier. The next thing will be to get into the top 100. The numbers will come slowly. After I got into the top 100, it took a while for the second to come in. I think it will go faster with the other numbers. One must remember that a country such as Russia had an 80-year head start on India in the amount of interest and the effort they put into chess. So Russia is way ahead of the rest. That's not going to change for a while. Russia, Ukraine and Armenia are doing very well. In the other ex-Soviet countries, the numbers are not great. Israel has benefited because a lot of people emigrate there. The USA is partially benefited from that. Essentially Russia, Ukraine, Armenia and Israel are the big powers in chess."

Media coverage

Explaining further he said: "There's a world of difference in chess interest in India, when you go back in time to the mid 1980s. Having said that I would like chess to get more media coverage, for the people to follow. There are a lot of children who play chess, but often they don't know where to go next. The question is, are there any clubs to play chess? The media has done a very good job in promoting the game. There are two things we have to do now. One is to develop chess further. There have to be clubs and online communities. Secondly there has to be more Corporate sponsorship for the game. Certainly what I am doing with NIIT, the Champions Academy, I hope, is a big step because it will definitely broaden the pyramid. We are hoping to teach a million students and potentially that could have great implications."

Asked if the AICF could exploit his achievements and use him as a brand he said: "All sports federations use their best players as their brands. For instance this 13-year-old boy in Norway, Magnus Carlsen, is the world's youngest GM at the moment. Immediately the chess attention in Norway has gone up. It's had its influence in Denmark, Sweden and Finland. A story sells, but people also want to see one of their own. I think the AICF has to get a marketing agency to sell the sport. Otherwise we will miss a golden opportunity. I think the chances for chess are quite bright."

Uncle Anand

Anand is happy with the performances of youngsters such as Sasikiran, P. Harikrishna, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, Sandipan Chanda and Abhijit Kunte. "I will soon be 35 and sort of an uncle to them. They are young and proving themselves and are in the team for the Olympiad. I am 10 years older to all these guys. For the future, there are quite a few promising 12 or 13 year olds. There are two in Tamil Nadu — Sethuraman and Srinath.

Terrific Trio. Garry Kasparov (right), Viswanathan Anand and Anatoly Karpov snapped during an event in Sao Paulo, Brazil, recently. Sao Paulo's municipality sponsored a chess tournament for 450 children and the three were special invitees. — Pic. AP-

"If we have two players in the top 10, or three or four, then, with each step things will improve a lot. Potentially the rivalry would be intense. There are a lot of media angles to that. The AICF has to bring in more Corporates and build in on tournaments. An entry fee is OK, but it's not long-term. We need to build on a different model. We should find ways to attract Corporate sponsors and in return give some value to them. I think we have to put together interesting tournaments. Have more interactive events, put it more on television. It's just a question of getting the right people together. The sport has reached a stage wherein we need some professional sports marketing people."

Motivation

Talking about his own current form and the chances at the Olympiad, he said: "I'm happy with the way I am playing now. More importantly, I am able to maintain my motivation for a very long time. Essentially I started this run of success in April 2002. Things have been nice, but there are always new challenges. I will lead the Indian team in the chess Olympiad in Spain. I think our women's team should not go into the Olympiad with high expectations. If you have the kind of superiority that Russia has, perhaps you can afford it. Personally I think the Indian women should not think in those terms. Their chances are quite good this time. Definitely a medal is on the cards, gold is possible. It's a long tournament, and one should not put pressure. In team events, there is nothing much you can do about your other teammates' performance. They must have a comfortable team atmosphere. Also with the men's team, I would not like to build up too many expectations. The women's team has a better chance for a higher finish. The men have to deal with several strong countries. We have a good team and if we play it right in the finishing stretch, there is a good chance of both teams picking up medals."

Anand and his wife Aruna. "It's healthier if a chess player and his wife don't play chess because one can let go by many other things, but not chess, which is very personal. If you win or lose, it can get ugly," says Anand. -- Pic. P. V. SIVAKUMAR-

Anand is also training his thoughts on crossing the 2800 ELO points barrier. Talking of individual brilliance and seeking new goals he said: "Definitely you must have something to aspire for. For me it was the GM title first. Once I became a GM, it took me a while to adjust because simply having achieved it I did not know what to do next. It took me eight to nine months to get used to the title. Then I thought of the Candidates. There are two things in front of me now — the Olympiad and trying to push my rating up to 2800. It's just a number. I cannot really say that getting to 2800 means something. No federation, no fans, no sponsors can do this for you. You have got to do it for yourself. In fact, I find that if I don't have clear goals, it's easy to drift. There have often been periods when I did not set myself new goals. I was probably just drifting aimlessly. It's (new goals) almost a necessity rather than a virtue. You always need something to aspire for.

"I have always followed two/three good years with a lousy one. In 1997 and 1998 I won the Chess Oscars and then in 1999, I had a slump. From the second half of 1999 and April/May 2000 I was just drifting, there were indifferent results. And then it was boom. I just got all in one go. I had a very good result in Corus, and then starting late in 2001 to April 2002, I was just struggling. I hope I have learned something. Let me see if I can make it three and half years of good run, this time. Since Prague 2002, I haven't had any bad results. There's joy in maintaining a certain position in any sport. It's easier to achieve something than to hold on to it. For instance, if I win Corus next year, I would be the only person to do that five times and only the second player to win three in a row. It would be history."

Recognition

The Chess Oscar, he said, is nowadays the de facto recognition a chess player gets. "Because of the confusion with the world championship title, the Oscar is almost taking its place. It's voted by chess journalists and fans, so there itself you have a select audience, it's not a popularity contest."

Anand also talked about his interest for others games. He was away in Brazil during the Athens Olympics. "Brazil has its own priorities. They tend to focus on football and beach volleyball. I thought Anju George could achieve something. Rajyavardhan Rathore pleasantly surprised me of course. I think at some point India has to find a different way to approach the Olympics. Last year I saw Real Madrid play Majorca and Majorca won. Those were early days for David Beckham at Real. Having lived there I am slowly getting the bug, but I am probably not one of those fanatical fans. I like the team (Real Madrid), but there are also other sports I watch. This March I went and saw the Indian hockey team and they lost. If I go to the stadium, I am sort of unlucky for our guys! When you are in Spain you lose touch with cricket, there's so much football that it starts to grow on you. But I was following last year's World Cup in South Africa."

The last time he celebrated Diwali in Chennai (he still prefers to call it Madras) was in 1996. "Well, we celebrate a quiet Diwali at Madrid with sparklers, certainly not rockets. Aruna makes some sweets." And finally Anand is not keen to play the `Queen's Gambit' with his wife. "It's healthier if a chess player and his wife don't play chess because one can let go by many other things, but not chess, which is very personal. If you win or lose, it can get ugly. We can disagree on the house and the car. It's fine."