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Mind games before board game

Anand makes a move as he reveals his seconds,Carlsen refuses to return the favor.

Written by Raakesh Natraj | Chennai |
November 8, 2013 4:00:55 am

Press conferences,especially around the time of a World Championship game,are exercises in exchanging platitudes. Before the event starts,the players are too cautious and during the course of the games they are too preoccupied to add anything new. On Thursday,when Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen addressed the media together for the first time ahead of their championship match,large parts of it proceeded according to the script,with the FIDE officials hogging the mike for longer stretches than the players did. However,a few minutes into the interaction,there was a short period where Anand caught both the journalists and Carlsen off-guard.

Anand was asked about playing the final in Chennai,and he began in fairly prosaic manner. “I am very happy the World Championship is happening in my home town,I want to thank the honourable chief minister. I am a bit excited to play in my home city. I look forward to the match starting and getting on with it,” he said.

Now,the FIDE press officer fed Carlsen the same loosener. “Well,I am also happy to be here,” said Carlsen,with a slight bob of his head,and sat back with a grin. The officer,who had clearly expected a lengthier response,compensated by letting the FIDE officials (the president and a vice president) ramble on for a bit. Then,the floor was thrown open for questions and the first journalist to grab hold of the mike was rather ambitious. He asked Anand who his seconds for the match were.

Dropping a bombshell

For the fans of a sport that is closely bound to logic and reasoning,the period leading up to a championship match gives them an opportunity to indulge in some perverse speculation. But even this is done in a characteristically structured (read nerdy) manner. A list is made of players who aren’t participating in tournaments during the champion and the contender’s training period. This list is then whittled down on the basis of compatibility — whether the potential second’s areas of expertise,age,nationality and so on would make him less or more appealing to work with. Weeks after the match is over,and sometimes never,a kind of in-depth,behind-the-scenes interview with the players reveals the identity of these mysterious characters.

In effect,enquiring about a player’s seconds ahead of the title bout is the equivalent of asking a football manager his team composition and formation ahead of a World Cup final.

This question was asked,but unfortunately the mike had not been turned on. After a couple of repetitions,Anand leaned in towards the mike.”My seconds are (Krishnan) Sasikiran,Sandipan (Chanda),(Radoslaw) Wojtaszek and Peter Leko,” he said.

The media room,meant to accommodate 100,was over-crowded. The strident noise of last-minute construction work behind a wafer-thin partition provided a jagged background score to the proceedings. Maybe it was all this,or the fact that he generally cuts a distracted figure during compulsory media interactions,or that the first three names did not really come as a surprise to him,but Carlsen did not seem to register what was going on. In any case,he sat impassively.

A second or so after the last name,however,Carlsen raised his eye brows and scrunched his mouth into an upside down ‘U’. As Anand continued in a steady voice,Carlsen kept the smile on,but took a swig of water.

“I worked as I always did,which is a couple of months of training. I think I am well prepared,but let us see how it goes. But I feel ready to play and I am in a good mood,” said Anand.

After that,an obvious follow-up query came Carlsen’s way. “Magnus,who are your seconds?”

“Well,I appreciate Anand’s openness (here Carlsen let out a grin) about his team and…alas,I am not going to return the favour,” said Carlsen,pursing his lips and settling deep in his chair in a gesture of defiance.

For the first time since the interaction started there was a hush in the area. Then question followed answer followed question.

“Mr Anand,you have spoken about your seconds and Carlsen doesn’t want to tell you who his seconds are,how do you feel about his response to your openness?”

Both players smiled.

“Well since you can’t believe the whole truth about anything either of us say,it doesn’t really matter. I mean,I can answer a question honestly and you wouldn’t know if it is the full truth and the same goes for him,” said Anand.

“Mr Anand,in an interview to a Norwegian newspaper,Magnus describes you as someone who enjoys good food and is a bit lazy. How do you feel about that statement?”

Carlsen turned partially,facing Anand for the only time in the press conference. “Well I enjoy good food,that is for sure,” Anand said,smiling. “As for the rest,I mean,you say a lot of things during interviews,it makes no sense to respond to everything,” he replied.

Things were proceeding at this lively pace but the media-in-charge stepped in to announce there was time just for a couple more queries. One of it was in Norwegian (and obligatorily so,for Carlsen is sponsored by VG,a leading media firm from Norway,and is more or less contractually bound to speak to them on most occasions). Carlsen was asked to,but refused to translate the question and his reply (it later turned out that he was asked what he made of Kasparov comparing himself to Dumbdledore and Carlsen to Harry Potter,and whether he would like to be compared to Norwegian skiier Peter Northug).

Vernacular Impression

Almost as if in retaliation,someone asked Anand a question in Tamil. Anand’s response settled a discussion among local journalists. The World Champion could indeed speak Tamil,but for those who want to know,it was halting and seemed in need of practice.

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