Mumbai

‘India has a sporting culture now’

Viswanathan Anand, seen here at a Mumbai hotel, recently received the Hridaynath award conceived by music composer Hridaynath Mangeshkarfor lifetime achievers.—Photo; Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Viswanathan Anand, seen here at a Mumbai hotel, recently received the Hridaynath award conceived by music composer Hridaynath Mangeshkarfor lifetime achievers.—Photo; Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury  

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India’s first GM Viswanathan Anand talks about the rise of Indian chess players, medal prospects at the Rio Olympics and more



India’s first Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand recently received the Hridaynath award, conceived by music composer Hridaynath Mangeshkar, for lifetime achievers. He joined a distinguished list of awardees, among whom were Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and Amitabh Bachchan. Anand was honoured in the traditional Maharashtrian style — Aamir Khan garlanded him, placed a pheta (turban) on his head, and draped a ceremonial shawl over his shoulder before handing over the award. The Mumbai chess fraternity and distinguished sportspersons from diverse fields were also present. The former world champion later spoke to The Hindu.

Excerpts



Is it safe to state that India has moved on from a one-sport nation to a country where achievers from diverse sports are looked upon as icons?

The Indian sports fan follows many sports. People are watching many other leagues. Comparing the situation 20, 30 years ago, you can see a sea change. It is a healthy development. India has a sporting culture now. Chess is also doing well.



The Rio Olympics is just four months away. Can you sense the anxiety and excitement about how many Indians will climb the podium compared to four years ago?

I believe these things are felt every time the Olympic Games take place. India has good prospects and depth in many sports — archery, badminton and shooting to name a few. I am hopeful we can win many golds and increase our medal tally steadily. I am associated with the Olympic Gold Quest, so we are more closely associated with the theme of pulling everyone towards a gold medal for India. It is a specialised set-up; some sportspersons and those from the world of business get together to develop a structure which pays a lot of attention at an individual level.



Indians are winning international competitions. Their ambition has moved beyond just participation. Does chess reflect this trend, proving that there is no limit to Indian talent and ambition?

Yes, very much. Recently, I witnessed evidence of the depth in Indian chess at the Gibraltar Chess Festival 2016. It is one thing to see it in statistics, and another to see an event full of your compatriots (three Indian Grandmasters S.P. Sethuraman, P. Harikrishna, Abhijeet Gupta finished in the top 10). For a while now, people have been remarking about the number of talented Indians playing chess. We are steadily making our mark, not merely in numbers, but breaking through. Hari (Harikrishna) is world No. 13, then there is GM Sethuraman who is coming through. The Indian presence is very strong. India won the Asian Nations Cup 2016 in Abu Dhabi recently, beating China, which is huge. China is a leading chess-playing nation.



Indians are also breaking down barriers, like the Olympic shooting gold (Abhinav Bindra at 2008 Beijing Games). In chess, you became the nation’s first GM in 1988 and now the doors have opened.

Winning the first gold or becoming the first Grandmaster plays a part. When I was starting out, becoming a Grandmaster was a big achievement. We had none, for us that was a big goal to chase. Once you break that barrier, it becomes easy for everyone and we have moved past that. I expect the number of Indians past 2700 (Elo points) to start rising. At the Olympics, the first individual gold medal has been won. People are not satisfied; everybody is dreaming a bit more. The country is backing them more. There is more support for training. Everything fits in together. Everyone wants to work with the best, travel abroad, set their sights higher. If you win a medal at the Olympics, fame and acclaim follows. The nation does not look past it anymore.



The government stepped in to support Olympic hopefuls with the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS). How will this change the way we look at Olympic performances?

I don’t know about targets. You can create the conditions for success and then it starts to happen more and more. Many countries compete at these events. Once you create the conditions for success, people are comfortable doing that, chances that it will lead to success. India needs to create a broad structure and wait for results. I am confident it will happen. I will be happy if it happens at Rio.



Sporting success is about competition among people at par, with a ruthless quality separating the winner for the rest. You are known for being ruthless on the chess board, ruthless with a smile. Was it natural?

Once you experience other people showing it, you learn. It is an acquired quality. I was not born ruthless, I had an aptitude for chess and then you keep trying, you have to figure out the recipe for success and find out what makes it work for you.



In a highly competitive world, shortcuts are sometimes taken to gain advantage over opponents. The Dubai Open Chess threw out a player for using a smartphone between moves (GM Gaidoz Nigalidze of Georgia consulted a chess computer via a phone hidden in the toilet). What situations have you faced, a rival tried to unsettle you?

People will try to destabilise you, lot of it by legitimate means. Chess is about fighting your opponent, catching him/her at their weakest spot. Occasionally, players will cross the line; many will be on the line. Smartphone use is downright cheating, that is extreme. It can be a big problem in chess if we don’t pay attention to it. We do have our anti-cheating measures. There are electronic checks. I am afraid at some point some sort of an electronic arms race can develop. So far I have not seen anything to doubt any of my colleagues.



Coming back to Indian sport, cricket’s reach and power is visible everywhere. Do you agree it is time other sports federations pick up from the BCCI about cricket promotion and marketing? Or do you feel BCCI resources can help other Indian sports come up a certain level?

Cricket has done a very good job. In India, it was always the number one sport. It moved very naturally. They (administrators) have certainly shown that in cricket you can have very innovative formats. I believe it can be tried in chess. The most important factor in chess is explaining whatever is happening on the board to someone who is only casually interested. That is a gap. The number of hardcore chess fans is not huge, so you need to get the casual fan interested. People interested in results has gone up, chess gets a lot of watchers on the internet, owing to excellent commentary and graphics. Watching a chess game on the Net, you can get behind many of the mysteries. Chess has always been a complicated game, no need to hide that. The Net audience is growing, tournaments are putting in effort to get the video streaming, live commentary. People are following chess games on their phones, PCs. It is more or less the same experience of watching cricket or football match on television. Chess needs to work harder to get space in the public imagination.



From cricket to football and the La Liga. Atletico Madrid is proving to be a threat to big two in La Liga, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, changing the league to a three-team race. You are familiar with these names, from your days in Madrid as the chess base and travels across Europe?

Atletico Madrid was always a threat for some years under Diego Simeone. This year, the league in Spain has become a three-horse race. Just a few weeks ago, it was a one-horse race. Let us see what happens next. Atletico were a great team, at times even dropped out of the main league. They had a bumpy ride, but now is near the same level as the other two sides.



FIFA got entangled in controversies over television rights and tournament allotments. Where do you think a line should be drawn so that the football follower gets back faith in the sport?

It is a big question to handle. We have an international body. Fans just want to see football, they are not interested in the TV rights. Obviously FIFA is cleaning up after recent developments. I don’t have any particular expertise (about FIFA matters). My view is that if football is good, no one will care about the structural aspects. You find a team to root for and follow your favourite.



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