Interview with Viswnathan Anand

by Karan Thapar, Ibnlive

What does the World Chess Championship mean to you?

It is the end of a long journey for me; it is the realisation of a dream. When I started out playing chess as a kid I thought I should be world champion. As a kid you have no idea what that means and you only sort of picture it. It is hard to imagine that I waited all those years and it happened in a late stage of my career.

You were surprised that it didn’t happen earlier?

It happened in Delhi in 2000 but under the cloud of two rival associations and all that. This time it has been devoid of all that. When I became World Champion this time and got the rating you knew I was just that: the World Champion.

In fact the World Champion title has led to many other recognitions. You will get the Padma Vibhusan from the President in Delhi. How does that compare with the World Championships?

Of course, it is (the Padma Vibhusan) very prestigious but in a way it is not about choosing. The World Championship led to the Padma Vibhusan in a sense, so it follows from that.

So the World Championship is really the special one.


You have got a lot of recognition but the truth is in India other than cricketers most sportspersons tend to get ignored. When people make that point they are usually thinking of the way the Twenty20 team was treated after winning the World Cup. Would you agree that other sports tend to get ignored or overshadowed?

I think in India cricket is a fact of life. You have to accept that but my reception when I became World Champion was spectacular—both times. In 2000 as well we had a parade in Chennai. In 2007, I was received in Delhi at the airport by what seemed to me a huge mob of people. The same happened in Chennai a few days later. I don’t feel neglected in any way. I think you can always try to promote your sport better. I don’t feel neglected or badly treated in any way.

Not neglected, but let me put a comparison to you. You were given Rs 25 lakh by the Tamil Nadu government when you became the World Champion and you got Rs 10 lakh more from the chess federation. In contrast, almost at the same time, Yuvraj Singh hit six sixes and he got Rs 1 crore from the BCCI and another Rs 80 lakh as part of the winning team. So you have a situation of Rs 1.8 crore versus Rs 35 lakh. Is that a fair difference?

What the state government did was very nice, and so was the Central Government. If the BCCI does something it is between them. You have wide differentials in prize money in various sports. I don’t really want to complain too much or in fact complain at all. The World Championship was very special and for a few days I felt like a complete star here.

What about the fact that if you had been a Russian you would have been lauded almost like Sachin Tendulkar is in India. Do you sometimes feel that chess in India doesn’t quite have the status and stature that it does in Russia?

Let us put it this way. If you compare chess when I started out and what it is today then you can see the sea change that has taken place. I am pretty proud that in some way I have contributed to that, but it is up to me to build that up from where we are. You have to build chess as a mass sport in India. That is why we are very keen to get the Mind Champions Academies into more and more states. We have already some 5,000 schools; last year about 115,000 students took part in this competition. But you have to build these numbers; success just won’t appear. You have got to build these numbers, and potentially we are building a huge chess fan base.

India is the No. 1 chess-playing nation in Asia and it has 17 Grandmasters. Do Indians have a special affinity for chess?

I think so. If you look at our sporting performance it is really in very few areas but chess is one sport which we have taken to naturally.

Why have we taken to it naturally? Is it genetic or is it some sort of special affinity, like our affinity for maths and information technology?

It could be bit of that. It is very difficult to pinpoint reasons. I think when India takes to something it really goes into it big time. The numbers have gone up 10-15 times in school and college competition since the time I started to a decade later.

So do you see a chess renaissance happening in India sometime soon?

Definitely, chess is going forward. I think it is important to keep promoting the game and not keep on focusing on what could be. Work hard and try and popularise the game at every chance. You have to acknowledge, chess has come a long way.

The problem actually is popularising the game. For most people chess seems to be a forbidding, cerebral and almost intimidating game. Is chess a prisoner of its own image?

To some degree, yes. A lot of people are intimidated by chess but once they come into contact with it they realise that it is just a game like any other. You play it; you try to outfox your opponent. That is what you do in every sport. It is a fairly simple game; of course there is lot of complexity behind it but it is basically a simple game. It is something, which people of any age can pick up very easily and in fact kids tend to pick it up very easily.

How much of the game is mental toughness of the player and how much of it is psychology?

Psychology plays a big part but I always say psychology will only be a differentiator when the players are of equal technical strength. If you keep working hard you will generally not encounter the problems of psychology and all that till you meet a rival of equal stature.
It is only at the highest levels that that psychology starts to become a big differentiator, because there both players have done all the technical work. They are approximately matched in most areas. That is when psychology plays a big part.

When you say psychology do you mean that is when they psyche each other?

Basically. That is when all the mind games happen—the idea of getting into the opponent’s skin and bringing out the mistakes. Things like nervousness, cracking under pressure, all that—you have to build up the pressure both off the board and on it.

So how do you protect yourself from your opponent?

One of the things I remember is how Victor Korchnoi in 1978 got obsessed that his opponent had put shrinks in the audience and they were staring at him. It later turned out to be mainly in his imagination but it did affect him. So, no longer matters whether those people were there or not.
I have always thought that somebody in the audience is looking at me. But the trick is just look at the board and forget about the rest. After a while he can’t affect you anymore. That is my preferred method.
There are others who look there, see that person, get angry and feed on it. If that works for you, go for it. But it doesn’t work for me; I like to sort of block out everything I don’t want to deal with and try to just focus on the board. Sometimes if there is someone you really dislike then you play them and get extra motivation by just thinking what it would be like to beat them. But generally I would like to block someone out.

But dislike can be a motivation?

Yes, definitely and it helps you concentrate much more. When I play someone I dislike I really don’t want to make mistakes; then your mind hardly ever wanders.

You have got a big match coming up in October, when you have to defend your World Championship title. (Russian Grand Master Vladimir) Kramnik has challenged you. Do you dislike him enough to want to beat him?

I think as the match goes along these feelings will inevitably surface but at the moment we are both not going down that road yet. But I am sure as the match comes along we will feel it.

You are not going down the road, but he has spent a lot of time taunting you. He says publicly that he has only allowed you to borrow, or he has lent you the World Championship.

He went down this road for a week, I replied and the matter just died. As far as I know neither of us has spoken much about that. I think it will probably surface again in July-August.

Something else he said was that there is a difference between winning a championship at a tournament and winning it in a match. In 2007 you won it in a tournament and in 2008 you have to defend it in a match. Will that make it difficult for you?

My own tendency is to just ignore him and to think well, that is what he would say. I would think what else would he say for he didn’t win the tournament and leave it at that. But once the match starts you have to make sure that these sort of things don’t affect you.
My own response to that is: the winner can say anything he wants after the match and the loser would have lost interest in this topic. So the main thing is to win. If I win it hardly matters what my opinion is or what his opinion is. Let’s just win.

The mind games begin long before the actual game. He or you start pressurising the other to get an advantage, so that when you meet face to face on the chessboard you have a point in your favour—at least a mental point.

Yes, I think it is important that you don’t let your opponent impose his style of play on you. A part of that begins mentally. At the chessboard if you start blinking every time he challenges you then in a certain sense you are withdrawing. That is very important to avoid.
It is very important to put pressure on your opponent (and) some of it is getting your opponent into unfamiliar territory. But some of it is also simply body language, showing confidence; showing that you are not affected by all sorts of interviews and remarks. You just have to ignore these things.

How do you compare yourself with the great chess players of the eighties and nineties. I suppose the two names that come to mind are Anatoly Karpov and Gary Kasparov.

It is very funny for me to compare myself with them because in the nineties they were my contemporaries but in the eighties they were people I looked up to. I could not associate myself with them in any way. I grew up studying Karpov’s games. I think it is very difficult to see yourself objectively. I hardly ever compare myself directly.

Just after you won the World Championship in October you said beating Kasparov would be a nice challenge.

I think I sort of wonder what it would be like. In 1995 I played a match against him but it is amazing that in the next 10 years I was second or third in the rankings—most of the times second and he was first for this entire period—and we just never played each other. I think it would be very interesting.

Would you be in awe of him if you played him?

I think to some degree that is gone because I have played him for so long.

PTI published your scorecard. They said you played 78 matches with each other—both classical chess and rapid chess—of which you had won eight and he had won 27.

It is pretty one-sided. He built up a huge lead from round about the time of 1992 to till about 1999. After that it is not so bad but in general when you have such a score it is better not to try and explain it. But I think I could do a very good job now. From about 2005 I have felt that I could confront him. I think I could face him now.

Is it right to say that one of advantages people like Karpov and Kasparov have over you is that they are products of the Soviet system—of rigorous institutional training. Yours is much more intuitively done. Would you accept that you might have been a more rigorous player had you gone through the mill that they have gone through?

It is possible. I would have been a different person and then it is like one of those science fiction questions. What would I have been in another universe?

I think I was right in working with the Soviets very early. Round about 1991 when I was going to play Karpov I just said ‘okay, somehow you have to learn from these guys.’ I think I learnt a lot of their techniques and over the years interacting with them I no longer feel that they are a mystery.

You are 38 today and chess world is getting younger and younger. You have grandmasters at 12 and 13. How do you get the motivation to keep carrying on?

It is basically I would say I enjoy chess. I enjoy the tournament circuit, the challenges of going to a tournament but also because I am just curious. I am curious to know how long it can go on.
Chess is getting more and more interesting. In the last few years we have had lots of young players coming along and that sort of livens it up.

Are you curious to know how long you can keep playing at this rate? Are you testing yourself?

Yes. Once you have won the World Championship; once you have won many events but I want to see how long I can go on like this. It is a challenge when you can keep competing at the highest level and keep the No. 1 ranking. It is an obligation as well, you have to work hard.

You have got a big challenge in October, when you have to defend your World Championship title. If you succeed, will the motivation slightly diminish because even that target would have been achieved?

It is possible. I think there could be a short-term dip. It is entirely possible that you go off for a month or so and that has happened frequently in my career. The important thing is to recognise it, at some point, stop it and start again.

And what happens if you lose in October? Will that fire you with the determination to come back and win it again?

I think we will deal with it when we get there. Before a match you shouldn’t prepare for those kinds of scenarios. If it happens it happens but I am going to give it my best shot and make sure it doesn’t happen.

But one day competitive chess wouldn’t hold the same appeal to you as it does today. Then what?

I don’t know. There are a lot of interesting things. I could find more time for my hobbies and I could find more time for the academy I mentioned. But I don’t think I will ever disconnect from chess completely.

Kasparov went into politics. Might you consider politics yourself?

No. Politics, I think, you can count me out of right now.

Writing books?

Perhaps. I think it is very difficult to imagine these things. I cannot see my life without chess being a very, very big part of it. What would I do the whole year without being able to prepare for the next tournament? I really don’t know how to deal with that.

Viswanathan Anand, good luck for October.

Source: IBN online