I’m proud that I could make a difference to chess in my country, says Viswanathan Anand

The five-time world chess champion remembers his highest and lowest moments

Updated - September 26, 2018 12:26 am IST

Published - September 26, 2018 12:15 am IST

Viswanathan Anand.

Viswanathan Anand.

Viswanathan Anand is among India’s greatest sportspersons of all time. In 2000, he became the first Asian to win the World Chess Championship. He went on to lift the world title four more times. He is also one of the most durable champions in any sport. Last year, at 48, he won the World Rapid Chess Championship. His greatest contribution, however, is that he almost single-handedly turned India into one of the major powers in chess, by inspiring thousands of children to take up the mind sport as a career. On a pleasant morning at his residence in Chennai, he spoke about his extraordinary career, longevity, triumphs and defeats, and varied interests, including astronomy and books. Excerpts:

Before you became a Grandmaster (GM) in 1988, India didn’t have any, but now there are 54. India is ranked sixth in the world among men and seventh among women in chess. It must be gratifying to note that you are largely responsible for all this.

Yes, it is. I am proud that I could make a difference to chess in my country and that I could be a catalyst. I remember how unattainable the GM title felt once upon a time. When I played Alexei Shirov for my first world title in Tehran in 2000, I had felt that my time would come, if not then. But I don’t think I could say the same thing about the GM title. I had no way of knowing if I would become a GM or not. It took me two full years to get it.

For India to have 54 GMs is a very impressive feat. There was a time when we didn’t really exist in world chess.

And chess originated in India.

Yes, it feels like chess is coming back home. When [World Chess Champion] Magnus Carlsen was asked — last year, I think — who would be the world champion in 2050, he said, “By that time India will have had many already”. There are also jokes doing the rounds that planes full of Indians are travelling around the world always ready to land for an open tournament. Even in top events, you see Indians like Pendyala Harikrishna, Vidit Gujrathi and Krishnan Sasikiran.

And there are some exciting prodigies like R. Praggnanandhaa, who recently became the world’s second-youngest GM, and Nihal Sarin.

They are very promising. Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was telling me only recently that he was impressed with Praggnanandhaa. Besides him and Nihal — I was happy to find him raising funds for the Kerala flood victims through YouTube — there are also others like Arvindh Chithambaram, P. Iniyan and Karthikeyan Murali.

You broke into the world top 10 for the first time in 1991 and you are still there.

When I got there in 1991, I was just thrilled to be in the top 10. I remember that whole year and 1990 as well, when I qualified for the Candidates tournament [qualifying event for the World Chess Championship] from Manila. That whole period was just wonderful. At that time, I didn’t think that I would still be among the world’s elite 25 years later. It is a great feeling that I am still in the top 10, that I continue to play chess and enjoy it, though my perspective has changed. Becoming the world champion was more important, but being in the top 10 shows that I have been consistent. When I got into the top 10, I was thinking what are the things I would accomplish.

Becoming the world champion must have been one of those things, which you did in New Delhi-Tehran in 2000.

What I most strongly remember from that tournament, though, is the nightmare I had against Alexander Khalifman in the quarterfinals. And it happened on my birthday. The whole morning I was trying to avoid people [because] I didn’t want them to wish me. A birthday will happen whether you make an effort or not. I was the best-performing player in the tournament, having won my matches without difficulty. But against Khalifman, there were a few moments when I was facing certain defeat. It looked as though I was giving everything away and I would have to wait for another year and a half for another crack at the world title. But a miracle happened. He made a mistake and I won the match.

It is almost two decades since. What keeps you going?

I still like playing. I know that in order to like playing, I must be able to play reasonably well, and for that I have to make efforts. And it is the efforts that you make in any field that make the successes rewarding.

I continue to find chess fascinating. There are so many new things to learn. I find it extremely challenging to compete with all these youngsters. I am nearing 50 and they are in their 20s and 30s.

Having won five classical World Chess Championships, how important was it for you to win the World Rapid title in Riyadh last year?

Sometimes, even for a person who understands that success is not guaranteed, you need an occasional success. Otherwise you have no idea [whether] what you are doing is right or wrong.

Before the event, given the form I had been in, I thought if I could finish in the top six, that would be nice, and that it would be worthwhile going there. I can tell you that for a few hours after I won the title, I experienced something I cannot describe or recreate. Then I finished third in the blitz, which again was something I didn’t expect. You felt so happy you wanted to talk to someone, but you understood that those players might not be feeling the same after bad results and you may irritate them. I had a flight to catch at 3 a.m. to Abu Dhabi and then to Kochi, where my family had been holidaying. You know, when you celebrate something great you have achieved, you don’t feel guilty about celebrating.

That same pattern had happened before: in Mexico, Bonn, Sofia and Moscow [where I won the classical world titles]. I remember those victories fondly.

Then there was the Candidates tournament you won at Khanty-Mansiysk in 2014, at a time when many had begun to write you off, after the loss to Carlsen in the world title match here in Chennai.

Indeed, the only other event I could compare with Riyadh is that tournament, from where I earned the right to challenge Carlsen for the world title. The crisis I was in then was even bigger than the one leading up to Riyadh; the Chennai match in 2013 was the biggest disaster of my career. I had felt that I might not be able to play in another Candidates again. I was in a situation where I didn’t know what to do in chess. My results were so bad that I was depressed.

Then I won the tournament with a round to spare. These moments of intense joy come only once in a while. They go away very quickly. But those are the moments I live for. I will remember the win in Riyadh all my life.

Maybe the win against Carlsen, against whom you went down twice in the world title match, was the icing on the cake?

Yes. There was a point when he overtook me and I thought, “Oh boy, he’s again going to win the tournament!” But I came back and tied for the top spot and then won the tie-breaker against Vladimir Fedoseev rather easily. I remember trying to call [my wife] Aruna to tell her what happened, but before I could, she texted me: “I would take a flight and come there now if I could, but you know I can’t.” I knew what she meant.

And Aruna was the one who persuaded you to play at Riyadh...

Yes. She has been such an indispensable part of my career that I cannot make a list of the things she has done for me [as my manager].

Recently, Soumya Swaminathan had to pull out of the Asian Team Championship in Iran because she didn’t want to wear the hijab.

That was unfortunate. No player should be forced to face such a situation.

Talking of women in chess, you have had some interesting battles with Judit Polgar, who defeated all the top male players and broke into the men’s top 10.

And she did that at a young age. What she did for women’s chess was remarkable.

You have been described as the world’s nicest GM ever. But nice guys are said to finish last. Did that thought occur to your during your unsuccessful attempts before becoming the world champion?

Yes, there were times when I wondered if it was the thing that stopped me from crossing the final hurdle. But of course, I could not have become what I wasn’t.

You were once dismissed as a “coffee-house player” by former world champion and rival Garry Kasparov.

That didn’t bother me at all. Viktor Korchnoi had said even worse things. He had said I could not play chess at all and that I played only for tricks. But my Dutch friend, Jeroen Piket, told me something very perceptive. “You know, Korchoni told me that I was a wonderful player,” he said. “But I never beat him and you never lost to him.”

But Kasparov also gave you tips for your world title match against Veselin Topalov in 2010.

Yes, he did. And I was surprised by how Vladimir Kramnik, as part of my team, worked hard for me for that match.

You have a minor planet named after you.

Initially I thought it was an April fool’s joke, since the news came on April 1. I felt honoured because astronomy has been a hobby for me.

What are you reading now?

The Billionaire Raj by James Crabtree, who has interviewed me a couple of times. I find the book pretty interesting and well-researched.

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