When I played Anand

Viswanathan Anand: What's the next move?   | Photo Credit: Misha Japaridze

Viswanathan Anand seemed slightly taken aback. I had gone to interview him and, after a pleasant half-hour chat at his Besant Nagar home, asked whether I could play a game with him. “This is the first time a journalist has made such a request,” remarked his father Viswanathan Iyer. This was in 1987. Though not the all-conquering champion he is today, Anand was a sensation even then, having become India's first grandmaster and the world junior champion

How good was my own chess? I had been a chess maniac during my Bangalore school days. During those long annual summer vacations for schools, my friends were lost in cricket or kabaddi all day till irritated mothers called them home. But I would pore over the chess columns of Sport & Pastime (India's first sports magazine, a sister publication of The Hindu) and relive the best chess games of Russian wizards Botvinnik, Smyslov, Bronstein, Keres, Geller and Petrosian. But I gave up my chess dreams after school. My best chess moment was as a journalist; an interview with former world champion Mikhail Tal when he visited Bombay in 1965.

Lightning kid

Back to my request to Anand. We played the Sicilian Defence, Anand's favourite opening. To my chagrin, he treated me like a novice, brazenly advancing the pawns in front of his castled king (normally a complete no-no, because that exposes the king to attack). I thought excitedly about attacking possibilities, but Anand struck as only a “lightning kid” can, with a bishop and a rook that came in from nowhere. My defence lay in tatters. I lasted some 20 moves; a victim, like hundreds of chess players worldwide, of Anand's speed and intuitive flair. Soviet Grandmaster Tukmanov once said of Anand's lightning fast game, “People play that fast only in coffee shops!”

These traits seem to have got sharper over the years. Mikhail Tal told me that a chess player peaks between the ages of 25 and 30. But Anand's genius found full flower a bit late; he became a world champion only at 31, regained the title at 37, retained it thrice at 38 and 40, and again now at 42. He is today a bridge between the Kasparaov-Karpov era and the new one led by Norwegian genius Magnus Carlson who is about half Anand's age.

Another Anand trademark is his phenomenal memory. His mother recalls how, even as a child of two, Anand remembered the songs in his favourite records. It is said that a player once recreated on a chess board a game between two great masters of chess played several decades earlier. Anand took less than a minute to name the two players, the tournament and the location.

Help from computers

Memory is vital when a game is on, but computers have taken over chess preparation. Which human mind can match the computer when it works out the permutations and combinations of 32 pieces acting in a 64-square board? Anand was far-sighted in harnessing computer expertise as early as the 1990s. One of his “seconds” during the past two world championship titles has been Peter Heine Neilsen, a Danish grandmaster who is very computer-savvy. Said Anand: “His desktop is like a pilot's cockpit.”

“A computer allows you to generate a hell of a lot of work and lots and lots of analysis. But you need to remember its conclusions during the actual game,” Anand says. A computer annihilates distance; you can play a game with someone in the farthest corner of the globe, or hold video conferences and discussions.

“But the computer can also be insidious,” says Anand. “If working with the computer means you stop taking risks, it's going to kill you. Managing a computer is I think very tricky. It is very powerful but it may not tell you what you want.”

In 2010, Anand was worried when his challenger for the world title match, Vaselin Topalov of Bulgaria, mobilised a monster for match preparation — a Blue Gene supercomputer with 8,792 processors seven times more energy-efficient than any other super-computer. But Anand himself got high-profile human help. To the astonishment of the chess world, former world champions Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik and Norway's powerhouse Magnus Carlson offered to help Anand. He “bounced ideas” off them and even sent Kasparov a list of questions relating to planning and strategy. He acknowledged their inputs as valuable. Anand beat Topalov by 61/2 points to 51/2 . Said former world champ Alexander Khalifman, “Anand is a genius. He emanates light.”

Anand has been the nemesis of the Russians who dominated chess for half a century from 1947 when Botvinnik was crowned king. Anand wrote in Time magazine four years ago: “In 1991, a Russian grandmaster condescendingly told me I could at best be a coffee-house player because I had not been tutored in the Soviet school of chess.”

The Soviet “school” (scores of grandmasters, tons of chess literature, superb infrastructure and coaching facilities, massive government encouragement) seemed invincible, and the Russians were for years dismissive about Anand. Kasparov and Karpov kept him at bay till 2000 — Anand suffered a morale-shattering defeat at the hands of Kasparov in 1995 — but the past decade has been dominated by Anand. Chess in India has blossomed too, thanks to him; today we have more than 25 male grandmasters and 12 women grandmasters as well.

Kasparov said of his Indian rival, “Imagine if Anand was actually born in the Soviet Union; how much more dangerous he would have become.” Other players laud Anand for his ability to “raise the game at will”, to rebound after setbacks, which is a hallmark of champions.

No gamesmanship

Chess is hardly the tranquil cerebral game outsiders imagine it to be; at least not at the highest levels where charges fly thick and fast about hypnotism, x-rayed chairs, mirrored sunglasses, door-slamming and periodic loo visits to distract opponents. Mind games precede actual games. Intimidation, even vituperation, is part of the preparation for big matches. But Anand has steered clear of such gamesmanship. He has learned to tackle mind games calmly and with a cultivated poker face.

Like cricket idol Tendulkar, Anand has a reputation for humility, fairness and impeccable conduct. One reason why he is the most popular of world champions. He has won the Chess Oscar (an award for the world's best chess player, decided by a poll among chess players) six times. More honours are inevitable, on and off the board.

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 4:42:20 AM |

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