Viswanathan Anand, India’s first grandmaster
Chess legend Viswanathan Anand, India’s first grandmaster and top player for 37 years, stormed into the global league of top chess players at a time when USSR was known to be the undisputed nation of chess geniuses. In a free-wheeling chat, the five-time world chess champion recalls his encounters against some of the most formidable opponents and his historic rise as one of the world’s greatest chess players. “I am quite happy where I have ended up,” he says as he traces his extraordinary journey on and off the chess board. This is part one of edited excerpts from an interview on Forbes India Pathbreakers:
Being a world champion: ‘It was just obvious’
When I was six or seven years old, if you had asked me what is my goal in chess, I would have said, world champion. Some of the first books I had were collections of games played by world champions such as Karpov, Tal, Spassky. So, for me it was just obvious that that's what I was going to do. Now, is that a dream or a realisation? That’s a harder question. I would put it this way, for me it was always obvious that that's what I should aim for, and then every year, it seemed less unrealistic.
Facing great Russian chess masters: ‘You're constantly fighting your own imagination’
I played them confidently. Sometimes, they would surprise me and show me how strong they were. I realised very quickly, ‘Oh, my preparation does not come up to their level’. I mean, they're much deeper. But equally often, I would realise, ‘Hey, you know, what I had was good enough, I am doing quite well.’ So, you're constantly fighting your own imagination. I think this is the point.
In the end, as I got to know them better and better, they all became individuals to me. They became not some group called the Soviet Grandmasters, but they were individuals, and each one was very, very different. Their country was pretty strange on its own. Again, from the outside you see this kind of closed society. There was very little information and they had very strange procedures. It's a trip into the unknown, but slowly you find they have very, very nice people, very friendly. Once that gap opens, it’s fine. Most of my most memorable and beautiful tournaments were in Russia. Some of the best tournaments happen there because they have people who genuinely love chess and when they sponsor chess events, they do it at a fantastic level. I always felt much appreciated there.Also read: Indians no longer want to just play chess; they want to be the best: Viswanathan Anand
The game plan: ‘I put myself in my opponent’s shoes’
If I'm sitting in front of my chess board before I'm going to face a player, I think my opponent has two or three favourite choices, and he could pick and choose from any of these. Each of those has sub-variation and sub-plots. Something like 50 to 100 positions could happen today. Which one is it going to be? So, I have a preparation and you don't have the time to cover all the stuff in chess. It's just way too much. So, what am I going to do then? I exercise my judgment. I think about my opponent. What kind of person is my opponent? What kind of chess player is my opponent? What are their likes and dislikes in chess and things like that? What happened to them yesterday? What happened the day before? So, what is their mood? What physical shape are they in? These are just ingredients that go into the pot and something comes out. And then I will put myself in my opponent’s shoes. This is very important and most times we will prepare the five likeliest things in some depth because the odds of facing them are higher. Now, your opponent is sitting in his hotel room mimicking this process. Almost always your opponent is trying so hard to surprise you that they succeed. So, you end up having to improvise at the board. So, one or two moves I expect and then my preparation runs out, and I have to start improvising, and you have general training for that.
The winning edge: ‘You hang in there’
In chess, the person who loses the game is the one who's made the last mistake. So, making mistakes, you just have to bake it into your original assumption. And the rest is just execution. You hang in there. You say I'm going to defend a little bit longer. My position is awful, but I'm going to just somehow sit here and tenaciously defend. At first it seems like you are wasting your time, but after five moves, you realise your opponent is getting slightly annoyed. Maybe he thinks you should have resigned already and he's annoyed that he has to show it. 10 moves later if you still somehow find a way, you realise that your opponent is starting to make slight inaccuracies, and then suddenly you're back in the game. Couple of examples, there was a player whom I disliked a lot. So, ironically, against him, I’ve defended some very difficult positions. I could not imagine resigning to him. Equally, I'm sure there are people who dislike me so much that they have defended much more tenaciously. Certainly, I've had nightmares against Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, and so on. But hopefully they have some bad memories from me as well. But it's essentially about making good moves as long as you can and waiting for your opponent to make the first bad move.Also read: Routine without risk will stagnate: Viswanathan Anand
Strategy and tactics: ‘It’s all about execution’
In chess, strategy is, in eight moves I would like my knight to get to this square, and I would like to execute this plan, I would like to attack the king. This is strategy. Strategy is simply a human way of condensing lots of tactics. Somebody once said strategy is just long-term tactics. Now, computers are showing us that there is almost no strategy which doesn't have a few holes in it. Because the tactics have to work, and if the tactics don't work, the strategy is wrong. I'll put it this way. Chess is essentially only tactics. Strategy is one method by which the human brain deals with the complexity. Probably a term that companies are more familiar with is ‘it's not about your strategy, it's only about your execution.’ So, tactics is getting the details right, getting the execution right, that is more important than the grand plan. If you have a grand plan, but you can't execute it well or it's impossible to execute, well, same problem; it doesn't work.
Luck and destiny: ‘There are happy coincidences when you work hard’
There is luck. There are coincidences. Like my mother knew chess and she was able to teach me chess. That my parents moved to the Philippines a couple of years later. So, there are lots of happy coincidences and I could go on and on. There is an element of luck also when sometimes I get results which I don't deserve maybe, I haven't fully earned, come to me anyway. But I also realise there are results that I do deserve that don't come to me, and these things balance out. In the end you have to make luck… the more opportunities you give yourself to be lucky… so the harder the work you put in. Then there is pure luck, which is you did nothing, it happened anyway. Enjoy those lottery tickets. Also watch: To be a champion, you must want success badly enough: Viswanathan Anand
World Chess Championship 2010: ‘A great story for a Netflix potboiler’
The intensity of this match! So, this was the match I played with Veselin Topalov in Bulgaria. Then when I was trying to go to Bulgaria, this volcano in Iceland erupted. Airspace across Europe got shut down. We arrived five days late for the match. [There was a suspicion that there were] spies, so we got someone who could scan the room for bugs and we had some procedures to make it more difficult and we felt better. Again, one of the most important things is not to judge your feelings. If something bothers you, you should address it. Then in the match there were couple of unexpected turns even though that sort of thing is normal in a match. Hung in there somehow. Part of the aim was to survive from day-to-day, and that's a good strategy because you cannot win the match unless you survive from day-to-day. So, we were doing that. And then finally, in Game 12, he melted down and you think that's great because it's not something I did, but it's something I didn't do. I didn't melt down. The other great news for us was that, later that year, my wife was expecting. That's the other big memory from 2010.
Riding the lows: ‘I wondered if I'd have a career much longer’
In 2011, I kind of stagnated. In 2012, I beat Boris. Or rather, I survived. I understood it was a narrow escape. On its own it wasn't bad. But when you combine this with the fact that for months, I had not won a game, and then suddenly this match... very, very unremarkable results. And by now we are talking close to 18 months, 20 months without a decent result, except for defending a world championship or surviving it. At some point you have to drop the explanations that maybe this will turn tomorrow. I had brief spikes in performance after that in 2013. It did get better. I thought finally I found my energy again. But then it slumped again. At that point I not only accepted that my form wasn't good. I thought it's kind of over. I couldn’t sleep. I remember I went to the Candidates tournament in Russia. I turned up because I had a free entry. I had no hopes, no expectations, and I won the tournament. And then my form went up for a while. In 2015, I actually had so many good performances. I achieved my highest ever rating. And I was second in the world again. And since then, it's been okay, then after that again a slow descent. And in 2019, there were a couple of disappointing results when I finally decided, you know, maybe this is the one thing I'm not going to come back from. All your life you're used to this idea that everything is a cycle, and if you wait long enough, it will turn. And that cannot be true infinitely. So, in 2019, I came to the conclusion that probably it was better for me to play fewer tournaments, but play them well and with energy rather than try to compete the whole year. And then the pandemic happened, which helped me in this choice. So that's kind of how I ended up today. But there were moments in early 2014, when I wondered if I'd have a career much longer. It really felt that bad. Watch the full interview on September 4 on Forbes India Pathbreakers.