One night in July 2001, world chess champion Viswanathan Anand woke up with a start at his hotel room in Dortmund, Germany. He had been unable to sleep off the pain of going through the worst losing streak of his career. He was hovering at the bottom in the tournament in progress there but more importantly, his worst fears were just coming true.
He was staring at a long phase of poor form.
Unable to bear his suffering, Anand’s wife Aruna suggested that he hit the gym as a way to take his mind off chess. So at 4 a.m. before a big game day, Anand ran on the treadmill. It didn’t help. Forty five minutes later, he was back in the room still feeling dejected. She suggested they take a walk in the darkness, perhaps a fitting metaphor for their state of mind. Then they tried watching movies. Nothing worked. The child prodigy, India’s first grandmaster who had stormed into the dog-eat-dog world of international chess 16 years earlier and had every great legend of the game run for cover, had hit rock-bottom. Of course, he finished last in the tournament with four losses, six draws and no wins. “Till date, if anybody mentions Dortmund, it hurts us a lot because Anand was struggling as if he was making an extraordinary effort just not to lose,” recalls Aruna.
Almost a decade later, in April 2010, a group of chess strategists in Bulgaria was trying to make Anand feel like a loser again. By now, he had gone on to become the world champion in every format of the game and was playing at top form even at the age of 40. And that was bad news for the handlers of Veselin Topalov, who was challenging Anand for the world crown.
They opened a barrage of taunts to get him to become nervous before his title match against Topalov in the hope that he might make mistakes and lose. They commented about his age, technique, temperament and the moral support he had received from former rivals such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik. The 12-game match was to be played in Topalov’s home territory, Sofia, and the Icelandic ash cloud had forced Anand to take a 40-hour road journey across Europe to reach the match venue. The authorities rejected his request for a longer postponement and gave him just one extra day. Forced to play in tiring circumstances, Anand did falter in the first game and lose it. Team Topalov believed their tactics had worked and that a panicky Anand would soon yield the championship to their hero.
True champions, as boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said, are those whose will is stronger than their skill. Sledging is a dangerous ploy to play against them because it only steels them further. Surviving in the snake pit is a key trick they have picked up on the way.
As it turned out, the Bulgarians had underestimated Anand. He came back into the match and took an early lead. He had saved all his aggression for the board while his rivals had dissipated theirs in thinking up new taunts. In the end, it was Topalov who failed to hold nerves and lost to Anand. The world champion shrugged off the win, took his team for a celebratory dinner and just moved on.
Viswanathan Anand started out as a shy child prodigy who liked to play hard and fast. But over time, he matured into a methodical player who could hold his nerves against any opponent. As he ages, his game has only sharpened. In the last three years, he has been virtually unbeatable. And despite all this, Anand remains fundamentally a simple guy, opening the door to visitors and helping his wife in laundry.
But then, just how did this nice guy finish first?
In 1988, Soviet grandmaster Efim Geller went to the southern Indian city of Coimbatore to play in a tournament. Geller was a legend and in the twilight of his career of four decades during which he had beaten other greats such as Bobby Fischer. But in Coimbatore, he lost to a little-known 18-year-old boy. When he went back to Moscow Chess Club, his peers teased him asking, “So we hear that you lost to a boy in India?” Geller replied, “Boy? I think I lost to a world champion.”
That boy was Viswanathan Anand.Image on left: An 11-year old Anand getting his first state award
Anand never left anyone in doubt about where he was headed in the game of chess. Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master and a nine-time national champion, recalls that even when he saw him for the first time in the 1970s, Anand exuded a kind of energy and focus that could be described only as world-class. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai where Aaron guided young players, Anand was a unique talent. At Aaron’s lectures on the great games of Soviet chess masters, it was only Anand who asked questions and even suggested alternative moves.
Anand, himself, recalls Tal Club as the crucible in which he was cast. “I would go there even on Sundays. I would finish all my homework early so that I could be there by 11 in the morning. And I would play till 7 in the evening when the club closed. I don’t know how many Sundays I had done that,” he says.
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Tal Club had more members than it could handle. So, play was of the blitz variety. The loser must leave the table and take his place at the end of the queue. But Anand would keep playing because he would seldom lose. Perhaps it was this practice that made his reputation as the one who plays at the speed of light.
Even at a young age, Anand aimed for the big stage. His long-time friend and international master, Venkatachalam Saravanan, talks about a Doordarshan interview Anand gave in 1988 after becoming a grandmaster. “The interviewer asked, ‘So what next?’ And Anand’s answers started something like, ‘To be on the world stage, I need to do this. To be on the top, I need to do that,’” says Saravanan. He was also coming into his own and didn’t hesitate to take the risky bets that would move him to the next level.
This quality was particularly evident in 2008, when he played Kramnik for the world champion title in Bonn. Anand, like most Indian players, is a king’s pawn opener. Kramnik, on the other hand, starts his games by moving the pawn in front of the queen. The two openings are completely different styles and lead to different board positions.
Anand, in a flash of daring, decided to play the queen’s opening himself. The message was clear: He was taking on Kramnik on the latter’s strengths. The world of chess was stunned. Even his wife was worried and asked him if he was sure. “Anand said he doesn’t want to end his career knowing he didn’t play d4 [queen’s pawn opening] and win the world championship,” says Aruna. “He said he wasn’t going to be chicken.”
The risk paid off. A surprised Kramnik yielded to Anand. The match was wrapped up in the Indian’s favour with one game to spare. Ironically, Anand went back to his old opening in the final game and a double-surprised Kramnik could only play for a draw. This was mind game at its shrewdest best.
But Anand was not always known to be a master of psychology. In the 1990s and even in early 2000s, people described him as lacking the killer instinct. In 1995, when he became the challenger to the world championship for the first time, he lost to Kasparov after being in the lead. After the match, the showy Kasparov, a veteran of six world championship matches, told reporters that Anand had prepared his game well but had not prepared psychologically. Fifteen years later, the same Kasparov was admiring Anand’s guts in going to the hostile territory of Sofia and taking on the local boy, Topalov.
When Anand became a grandmaster in 1988, he realised his Indian training was not sufficient to see him through there. “Working in India was spontaneous and improvised. I wasn’t used to working systematically,” he admits. That’s why he trained with grandmaster Mikhail Gurevich in the early 1990s. It was a steep learning curve. He saw the rigour with which the rules were followed. “I remember once asking him in the middle of preparation whether I could watch Star Trek. He said he could leave and come back if I wanted, but no, I couldn’t watch Star Trek while working.”
Anand doesn’t lack the killer instinct, but reserves it only for the duration of the game, says performance psychologist Dr. John Eliot. Dr. Eliot, whose book Overachievement explores sports performance at the highest level, contends that “killer instinct” is just a strategy and not a personality type. “Anand’s jovial, down-to-earth personality when not at the chess board only seems uncommon because he is compared to the broader pool of chess players as a whole, the more unskilled of whom have greater difficulty separating the game and being away from the game.”
Success and failure sit easy on Anand’s shoulders because he is able to separate his on-the-board and off-the-board personalities. His long-time second, Danish grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen, recalls how after losing his first game to Topalov in Sofia, Anand just came back and told his team of seconds, “Well, OK, it was stupid losing a game like that and I am one down. So let us try and get it back.” That’s all, no panic. The team, too, relaxed and started working on the second game. “For us, the emotions go along with the player. If the player goes to panic, we will sort of do the same. I think Anand was very pragmatic about the loss,” says Nielsen.
The transformation to the master of mind games took place over time, but perhaps the turning point was 2002. Anand went to play in the Eurotel tournament at Prague in April of that year, having lost the world championship and endured a losing streak of 10 months. There, the bigwigs of the world of chess had gathered to also discuss the next world championship cycle. It was supposed to be a reunification of the fraternity that had split in 1993 into two opposing groups. To Anand’s horror, the group left him out from the race. He felt hurt and insulted. This meant, he couldn’t play the world championship for three or four years. “I understood that I had kind of bottomed out,” says Anand.
But he resolved not to waste himself with worry. He was already rediscovering the joy of just playing the chess, irrespective of whether he won or not. He decided to just do that at Prague. And when all the bigwigs were plotting off the board, Anand quietly won the tournament and flew home. It is another matter that the Prague deal fizzled out.
He faced another mini crisis just five years later when he started losing with black. At the Corus Tournament in 2007, he lost to both Kramnik and Topalov. Anand was alarmed because he didn’t know why he lost. He and Nielsen went back to the basics and analysed. They figured his opening game was getting busted. He sharpened his line and worked to expand his black repertoire before the world championship tournament that year. Some of his biggest wins, in the 2007 world championship success, the defeat of Kramnik in 2008 and the decider in the 2010 Sofia adventure all came with Anand playing black.
Throughout these turbulences, Anand never once let go of his sense of humour, a quality that all his friends say is key to his success. At Sofia, when Topalov wanted to offer a draw in the third game, he didn’t just propose it across the table to Anand as is the normal practice. He followed a local rule and went through the match arbiter. The tension was palpable and in any case, the two didn’t shake hands during the match. Later, when they met the press, a reporter asked if this was the first time they forgot to shake hands with each other. To which Anand replied, “Maybe we should have shaken hands through the arbiter.”
(This story appears in the 30 July, 2010 issue of Forbes India. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com. To visit our Archives, click here.)