Shonali Muthalaly joins avid fans of chess, especially hordes of children, at the Hyatt Regency to watch Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen battle it out
Viswanathan Anand walks in. There’s uncertain applause. Seated in a dim room, quiet with anticipation, the audience isn’t sure how to react. Rock star treatment, with its hooting and whistling, seems too blasé for the setting. So they clap indecisively, whisper furiously and then fall into a tense silence. As Anand sits down, his perfectly-pressed blazer hung neatly on the back of his chair, and a cup of green tea at his elbow, the room quietens. Then Carlsen swaggers in. Another smattering of applause.
As the Fide World Chess Championship audience, which includes serious six-year-olds, leans forward, the two players settle down opposite each other, studiously avoiding eye contact. Although they are behind a sound-proof glass, and the room is darkened to avoid distractions, nobody moves for a breathless minute. Then Carlsen swivels his chair, and looks straight into the audience, prompting about two dozen photographers to lift their cameras. Anand continues to look at the chess board. And the game begins.
Chess fans are clearly an unusual breed. Ponderously dignified and earnestly industrious, even when they are 10-year-olds. Or perhaps especially when they are 10- year-olds. As the battle between Anand and Carlsen is fought in the Hyatt Regency ballroom, swarming with security, crowds of fans gather in the lobby. They seem to be chiefly comprised of clutches of solemn children with clipboards and pencils. As each match can be anything from two to seven hours, the congregation occupies itself in different ways. Some work out chess moves. Some bring their boards, and sit in front of the television providing a live telecast of the match, so they can imitate the players. Some talk strategy. What’s impressive is their patience. They rarely get to see the players, who are encased in a protective bubble over the course of the month, with individual lifts, separate wings of the hotel to stay in and tight security. Yet, they stay, till the match ends. Everyday.
We bump into Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein in the lobby and he tells us how the team made an ‘inspection tour’ in August to familiarise themselves with Chennai. “I came with Magnus, his father and some Norwegian journalists. We wanted to check out the venue, the city and the food, just so there were no surprises,” he says. They quickly found out that they needn’t have worried. “Magnus loves spicy food. His favourite cuisines are Indian, Chinese and Italian, and since this hotel offers all three, he just eats at the restaurants.”
The team, which includes a Norwegian doctor who’s an expert on tropical diseases (and also a chess player), has a chef (coincidentally named Magnus). Chef Magnus Forssell’s evidently got eclectic taste in literature, as he begins our conversation by sliding over a bound copy of Swedish writer, Jonas Jonasson’s book. “It’s called The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared,’ he grins, before going on to describe Carlsen’s typical diet. “He eats almost everything; we just need to keep him off too much sugar. So maybe he’ll have dessert before a rest day, but otherwise he avoids sweets. Even his orange juice is mixed with water.”
The hotel’s executive sous chef, Chef Gopi Nandakumar discusses Carlsen’s daily three-egg omelette breakfast. “He likes bacon and small potatoes mixed into the omelette and he eats it with a whole wheat or multi-grain croissant,” says Chef Gopi adding with a grin, “but yesterday he had palak paneer with steamed rice and Malabar paratha.” Sounds like brunch? For a good reason. “He normally goes to bed late, and wakes up only by noon. This way, there’s less time to build tension and nervousness. He also feels his brain works best three-four hours after he wakes up.”
While the game is on, both players snack from individual fridges set in the players’ lounge. “Carslen’s has Norwegian yoghurt mixed with regular yoghurt made here. Orange and sweet lime juice mixed with water. And chocolate milk, mixed with regular milk,” says Chef Gopi. “Anand has tomato and cucumber sandwiches and a mix of cashewnuts, almonds, raisins. He drinks green tea.”
On the rest days, Carlsen heads to the Vivanta by Taj-Fisherman’s Cove to swim, play football and beach volleyball, according to Agdestein. “He likes sports, and it’s a good way to release the tension in his shoulders.” On other days they play at a school nearby the Hyatt Regency. “We play football and basket ball, mainly. Or he plays cards with his sister in the room.”
At the Vishy lounge, festooned with photographs of Anand interspersed with ‘I Love Anand’ tee shirts, Eric Van Reem sits watching the match. He represents ‘Team Anand.’ “Whether we are in Moscow, Tokyo or Chennai, our job is to create a comfortable environment so he can play,” says Reem, adding that this match is possibly more tense than most because Anand is playing in his hometown. “There’s a lot of pressure. When he lost, people came to us and said they feel physically hurt. The city is very emotionally involved with him…” Anand doesn’t leave the hotel on rest days, choosing instead to either go to the gym, or watch old episodes of Fawlty Towers to relax. Reem chuckles, “He knows them by heart now. Every sentence.”
Back in the lobby, there’s a frisson of excitement as the match ends in a draw, and everybody charges to the press room. Although beefy policemen keep the crowd out, there is a fair amount of polite pushing. Finally wriggling past the barrier, we enter the room, awash with different languages and the scent of coffee. As Russian, Norwegian and German journalists throw questions at the two players, there’s some banter and the tension eases slightly.
Then, suddenly it’s over. Magnus strides out. Anand strides out. The autograph hunters sigh, and busily gather up their papers. They’ll all be back tomorrow.