Interview: The ever-dominating Viswanathan Anand isn't done yet

Interview: The ever-dominating Viswanathan Anand isn't done yet

In an exclusive interview with CNN-IBN's Sanjeeb Mukherjea, Chess Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand said Anatoly Karpov was more closer to Magnus Carlsen than Gary Kasparov in terms of natural skills.

Viswanathan Anand, the 46-year-old chess legend from India, needs no introduction. And while his domination on the international chess board and hunger to achieve more refuses to cease, the world champion was gracious enough to talk to CNN-IBN and go through his life as a chess player - right from his early days. Here's the full interview:

How are you feeling today after a decade of having been right at the top of the world chess?

Anand: Last one decade was very, very important for my career. Essentially, the highlight was I finally attained the title of world champion in the match format and at the same time I became the undisputed world champion. So the first time around there was still the confusion, but second time around, I got it. I think that elevates you, that changes everything because your position in chess history suddenly becomes significant, especially being undisputed world champion was very, very meaningful for me. It happened on my second attempt, and I was able to retain my title for six years, from 2007 to 2013. Lots of good matches, but a lot of other results that I remember. So a very, very significant decade for me in that sense.

Let us get back to you in the past. How did it really start? In your case, you started your career quite early, guided by your mother. how exactly were those days?

Anand: I was six, I asked her (mom) to teach me how to play (chess). She used to play, her family used to play, so there was family background there. After a while they noticed that I was as interested in chess as a six-year-old could be, found a chess club for me, the Tal Chess Club. I started going there. It was those innocent years, I went there with high hopes. I had no idea what challenges were in front.

You were the youngest of three kids?

Anand: Yes, I was the youngest of three. For me, it was a journey of discovery, I had no idea where would it lead. There was nobody who you can relate to. In a sense chess was very, very innocent sport in India those days. So it was a journey to the unknown. There were no Grandmasters, we hadn’t won major things. So there were a lot of things to be done at that time.

I believe your dad got transferred somewhere abroad. How did that impact your playing chess in the country where you went to stay?

Anand: I would say it was very, very helpful. Through a coincidence my father was posted in Philippines, and exactly in 1977-78 Philippines was in the midst of a chess boom. They had just held the world championships match in Baguio city. They even had a one-hour programme on chess on TV, and my mother used to sit and take down everything they said because it happened during the school time, maybe they just didn’t think it was for kids. My mother would take down everything. We would sit and solve chess puzzle together and send it, and I won my first chess book. It’s like suddenly you go to a place where there is so much activity and you get caught up with it. My addiction to chess deepened in the Philippines.

If I am not mistaken, and I spoke to you a long time back, you also started playing tennis. So how did tennis and chess go along?

Anand: It started off quite well. I was very compartmentalised. I had my tennis, I had my chess.

Have you ever thought of taking tennis as you sport of choice?

Anand: I simply turned out to be very good at chess than tennis. I remember going through early morning drills and coaching camps, summer coaching camps in tennis and things like that, but somehow I ended up with one. And these things just happen, you can’t explain why, I would also say chess hooked me, and while I enjoyed tennis, I didn’t see any potential to go forward.

You were winning titles all across, and suddenly in early 1980s, just a year after when India won their first cricket World Cup, we suddenly saw this 15-year-old boy who became International Master, IM norm, at 15. That must have been an incredible feeling at that time.

Anand: Definitely, 1983 was also a magical year for me. That’s when suddenly I won the national sub-junior, national junior and then I went to the men’s national in January 1984. I finished fourth overall, so suddenly from a club player within six months I was a national No. 4. I got to represent my country abroad, so it also opened a lot of possibilities for me. New challenge, much higher level of competitions, better tournaments and competitors, all that stimulates you a lot. And then I won my IM norm at London. Then I was on my path to triumph to become a Grandmaster.

The moment you started representing India at the world stage, from USSR, which was later broken up in many countries, you played Karpov, Kasparov and Spassky, maybe a couple of times. What was the perception about an Indian chess player, because for the first time they were seeing a player who they didn’t know anything about?

Anand: It must have been exotic for them. First of all they used to call me a westerner, which I think in chess colloquial is something not meant for Soviets. Second was they found my playing speed extremely fast. I used to play incredibly fast, much, much faster than anybody else. I would often use barely 20 minutes out of two and half hours of time allotment. This something Soviet chess system would address at some time, I mean it’s not they will kill it, but you have to slow down a little bit. I came from a country where clearly there was no chess training system in place at that point of time, and it was all very natural. A famous chess Grandmaster came to play in India. He played in Coimbatore when I got my Grandmaster title, and when he went back, he said 'Well, I might have lost to a future world champion'. Few nice things they said: 'He is a coffee house player', in a usual disparaging manner when players play fast. I think they found in me something new.

In a sport like chess concentration is always the key to success, you played numerous times against the greatest player of all time Kasparov. Now Kasparov was not really a static player. He would move around, he had his mannerisms, he was pretty aggressive. How was it for you to suddenly confront a man who was not only a big chess player but had an aura which he carried?

Anand: It was difficult to get used to, because generally you associate concentration with being still. You sit, you stop fidgeting, these are not associated with concentration, but a lot of players do the opposite. They will be fidgeting, they will be nervous but at the same time they are fully concentrated at what’s happening on board, and they are not missing anything. They will be very nervous and edgy, but all the chess board things move the way they should. But Kasparov had presence, in the sense that the way he sat down, the faces he made, the way he made his moves affected you a little bit.

Was it distracting for you?

Anand: Yes, it affects you a little bit, because normally you try to be very even, very stable, but someone on the other side is fidgeting and nervous. Eventually it gets to you as well. See, you are also not sure whether you made the right choice on the previous move, whether the direction going is correct. You can suppress them but when the other guy is fidgeting, it took me a while how to play it. But someone like Karpov is the other extreme. He was generally very, very still the whole time, but he had this habit of running down his clock very fast because he was very confident that he can outplay anyone in time pressure. So like this a lot of these players presented different challenges, I think that’s part of growing at that time. When I started I was not big on concentration side, my talent kind of carried me everywhere. But slowly then I had to focus on other things because other players are not going to make a lot of mistakes.

So did you start making any extra preparation to make sure that you concentration never got disturbed by Garry Kasporov moving around you?

Anand: I started thinking about it. I started training with people who had some some insights into it. These are learning curves.

If I could ask you about chess, do you analyse your opponent like what could be his key strengths, what could be his core areas of weaknesses? How do you go about it?

Anand: Well, very soon when you watch a player’s game, you find certain areas of his personality, the things they aim for, the things they dislike, things they try to avoid, typical situation where they are much capable, situations where they are weak, they have average, level and so on. Once you get that insight, you try to aim for that. I would say you do it subconsciously, because it’s difficult to control things at that time but there are some things you keep at the back of your head. The first time I spoke to someone who helped me on things along these lines was during my match against Karpov in 1991. And the guy I spoke told me that Karpov was going be a different opponent you have faced so far, because he wouldn’t try to do things on his own, but he would try to interrupt all your plans. He will try what you are going to do, what are your plans for next two-three moves, and he will do something which breaks it, so you have to get to used to that kind of play, and I remember, once he showed me why he thought that, why he saw that. Then I was able to look for it when Karpov played, and it was helpful. And then you play, think 'My God! It was so easy to play against Karpov', as you just need to understand this facet of his personality. But I also realise that it is not the only tactic to beat him as you also need to have some good moves, but it was that insight which allows you to play at that level. Though I was playing that match when I was breaking into top level and he was there for a decade, I was able to run him very, very close.

All elite sportspersons earn a lot of money and, of course, they work hard for it. Recently I saw this movie called Pawns Sacrifice and Bobby Fischer has one dialogue that “Money is of extreme importance.”

Anand: Bobby Fischer really opened the door for chess and he was the first player who really saw that money in sports was not just about earning your next meal for living. He though money was a proxy for your worth in the society. He thought such probably because he was from the US, because in USA if you want to impress people with your sports, you have to show that you have a higher first prize. Their first question tends to be 'What’s going to be the first prize?' It’s the way they compare, because obviously you won’t know about every person’s walk of life, but you will know how much they earn. Bobby Fischer saw it very clear, so his initial demands were seen as very confrontational, but it was probably because nobody saw it that way till that time, because what he demanded became a routine for players like rest of us and that’s how many players recall him. He changed the sport for the better of others.

When Chennai was amid flood, we saw you tweeting about people and trying to help them out. Obviously you were not in the country but you and your wife literally opened the doors for people in Chennai. It must have been very troubling time for you to see people had nowhere to go, cut off, losing their homes.

Anand: When I was leaving Chennai, it was already getting bad, the flights were late, the roads to airport weren’t clear, my flight was two hours late, but I managed to fly and get to London. But for next few days the rain didn’t stop and pictures were coming out with waterlogged roads. I thought where was it going to end, and then it became worse to worse. The city’s morale was broken down, and I was completely unable to understand what was happening. The streets where I used to go for cycling were also not visible. Initially I thought it couldn’t go above a certain level. But what I also saw that people volunteered for help, to send medicines, food and whatever they could do. I was happy that we could also help people, thanks to Aruna since I was abroad. It is something you feel compelled to do, and now it is nice, the city is recovering. I will be able to see it tomorrow.

In an age when human values are deteriorating, was it great to see Chennai people going out of their way and helping each other?

Anand: It’s good that we will standby each other when things will get extreme. When such things happen to you, you really get to know who are your friends and care for you.

Your mother passed way early this year. On a personal front, it must have been a very tough time to reconcile the fact that the person who was probably the best teacher in your life, who taught you chess, is no more.

Anand: Yes, it’s (pain) still ongoing in a sense. There are days when you are suddenly flooded with memories. Initially it's much, much intense and that fades but it comes out that you are really intimately connected to your mother. Because in every situation you will think, 'Oh! It is something I did with my mother' or something I spoken about or something like that. One of the strangest things for me is to land back in Chennai and still I feel, 'Oh my God! I have forgotten to call her, I should call and tell her', and then one second you realize and it hits you. I guess it will be a long time [to recover]. You just can’t get used to so easily that you are not having her, but you try to remember nice things.

Let’s play cricket, T20 cricket, quickfire questions for you: Magnus Carlsen or Garry Kasparov, who do you think is perhaps a better player?

Anand: Well, they are from different eras. I would say Magnus is the perfect example of how to deal with computers, how to get around computers and I think that’s his great skill.

Garry Kasparov vs Anatoly Karpov?

Anand: I think Kasparov was much closer to Carlsen than Karpov is. Karpov has more natural skills, whereas Kasparov also has natural skills but in a very organised way.

A lot of people have written headlines after you lost to Carlsen, perhaps contemplating you might not be playing at all. I want you to set the score straight, once and for all?

Anand: No, I have no thoughts in that direction.

And what about going for the world title again?

Anand: Well, I am going for candidates in March, so that’s confirmed. I am going in March, and give it another try.

Tell me a little bit about the work NIIT is doing to help chess grow in India.

Anand: Well that’s the beautiful thing, because in 2002 we started with the NIIT Mind Champions Academy. The idea was simply that chess helps students, who are exposed to it, do better in school. That was the inspiration for whole venture. We have now got into 16,000 schools, more than 1.5 to 1.7 million students who have passed through it. And two things are significant: one, the best part of the NIIT Mind Champions Academy happened over the decade, and we get so much feedback from schools where there is chess and that students are benefiting, they are doing better in studies, they are more confident about their studies. That’s for me the validation of whole thing.

A final word for youngsters who are watching this interview. What should be the philosophy of anybody who wants to compete in any sphere of life?

Anand: My advice would to be to enjoy it. Whatever you do it has to be something you look forward to doing. Otherwise it doesn’t work, you can’t do it for other reasons. So I find even for me it’s perfectly co-related. When I really feel motivated about playing chess and I am enjoying playing chess, my results are far superior to when I am going through the motions.