Viswanathan Anand, India’s first grandmaster
Viswanathan Anand created history when he beat great Russian chess masters in their backyard in a sport they dominated for decades. The chess prodigy broke into the elite club of players and helped India claim its glory in a sport which originated in the country nearly 1,500 years ago. India’s first Grandmaster and a five-time world champion paved the way for thousands of chess enthusiasts to dream big and make a mark on the global stage.
This is not to say that Anand did not go through tough phases of setbacks and challenges. But he wasn’t disenchanted and holds the distinction of being India’s top-ranked player for 37 years. How?
“The main reason is simply that chess hooked me. It was fascinating. It was the thing that I was best at, which is also good because you want to then keep doing it,” he says in a candid conversation touching upon what it takes to be one of the world’s greatest chess players, how artificial intelligence (AI) is shaping the sport, and why he is upbeat about the future of chess in India. Here’s a glimpse into the mind of the chess legend in part-two of an interview on Forbes India Pathbreakers
. Edited excerpts:
Belief system: ‘I compartmentalise’
I compartmentalise my beliefs strictly. I mean, I believe in God because it makes me happy and/or gives me some comfort. But I have long since... this idea that God is going to make a difference to my chess games... I simply do not follow that seriously anymore. But still, if I get into a really bad position, I might silently [pray]. It's almost a habit rather than a thing.
My belief system these days is that I am reasonably good at chess, but there are many things I don't understand, so there are lots of things that can go wrong as well. So, build in some caution in my assumptions. In other areas of life, I always tell myself, my ranking in chess is whatever… right now it's number 9. Few years ago, it was number 1. What's my ranking in this area? And then I think, well, I should probably not extrapolate too much from my assumptions.
I am superstitious, but I'm not superstitious. If I win a game the previous day, I will go back to breakfast the next morning, try to have it at the exact same time, try to repeat my routine. There is paranoia, but I am not superstitious, but I can't help it. Especially during tournaments. In other areas, I think I've reduced it a bit.
India's rising chess stars: ‘I think all of them will be around for a long time’
It's quite interesting. I got an offer from Westbridge. They said do you want to do something together in chess? And I said, well, we could do this, and pick some of our promising youngsters. That's been fascinating. You know, it's a chance to help them a little bit. I was seeking someone who will continue to represent India at the highest level at the top. We have succeeded ahead of time. I mean my time frames were between three and five years. But it happened in the third year. That's great. Gukesh is now in the top 10
and is ranked higher than me. Praggnanandhaa is playing the Candidates. So, for the moment, I'm just enjoying their good results. On the face of it, I think all of them will be around for a long time.
That's [mentoring promising chess players] certainly something I will do, but I do multiple projects now and I like it this way. I am the deputy president of FIDE, I am with Olympic Gold Quest; I am a board director there. For the moment that seems very enjoyable. Part 1: 'You have to give yourself opportunities to be lucky': Viswanathan Anand
AI in chess: ‘It calculates so fast that it's hard to keep up’
The way the game is played now, a lot of things which our coaches would have told us never to do, when I was young, are now commonplace. So, one of the things computers and AI is showing us already for quite some time is that the game is much richer than we had realised. But they are also closing a lot of doors because they calculate so fast that it's hard to keep up. But they constantly help the game evolve. So, learning methods are changing every year literally. But AI is also playing a crucial role with the fans because it allows them to understand what happens in the game, and so in that sense, I think it will help the game sell itself, because if a fan can understand what's going on, thanks to the help of these machines, then it's easier to appreciate the struggle.
Moral conduct: ‘Cheating has to be stamped out’
I don't know if it [cases of cheating in chess] can be brought down to 0, but as long as there is deterrence and punishment… So, there are two levels. One is to be able to stop everyone before they cheat. But the second is if someone cheats once and they get a two-year ban or a lifetime ban, then that changes the calculus. Is it worth it? So, you deter cheating just like crime. It's a problem which, unfortunately, people on the outside now think is rampant in the chess world. It is very common, but it is still a very, very small fraction. However, anything which starts to pick up a trend has to be stamped out, and cheating is something that FIDE and almost every online portal is working very hard to confront. So, you mentioned this simul a couple of years ago. Well, the computer said this doesn't match a player of his strength, and that's how they were caught. So, in a sense the matter started there, it ended there.
Connecting the dots: ‘Appreciate every single moment, not only special ones’
Travel is still the dominant thing in my life, but now more often than not I'm travelling not to play chess tournaments, so that's the new twist. Funnily enough, I'm spending more time at home as well. If your son simply has an assumption that in a few days, Appa will go again somewhere, and then for two weeks he realises wait, he's not going anywhere… that's a new relationship, almost. So that is nice. One of the things we do together very often is we play badminton. Maybe the one big thing for us will be to have some nice holidays again. We haven't had them in a while, so just a chance for the family to get out together, catch up with school friends, hang out. You know, as time goes on, you learn to appreciate every single moment, not only the special ones.
I am quite happy with where I've ended up. I believe that I started out aiming to be a chess player. I am quite lucky that I was able to play chess for a living because it's the one thing that I love the most. And so that tied up well. I am happy with the way many things have shaped up. I also know that many of the things that were hard and difficult… it is part of life. And in a sense, yes, the dots have connected. Some setbacks would be expected, but mostly if you drop a balance, you have to be happy with this.