‘It’s too early to write me off. When something like the World Championship rolls along,I give it a lot of my energy’

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24x7,Viswanathan Anand talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on winning the World Chess Championship for the fifth time,his rivalry with Garry Kasparov and India at the Olympics

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Published: July 24, 2012 12:40:59 am

In this Walk the Talk on NDTV 24×7,Viswanathan Anand talks to The Indian Express Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta on winning the World Chess Championship for the fifth time,his rivalry with Garry Kasparov and India at the Olympics

I am at Delhi’s Habitat Centre and my guest this week is somebody who has been the toast of India for more than two decades now—Viswanathan Anand. You are the greatest champion India has ever known and there’s a long way to go still. It’s a great feeling,isn’t it?

Yes. This year has worked out well. Obviously,everything was riding on this World Championship for me because I didn’t play any other event this year. And that has been very,very satisfying. And well,you wonder how the rest of the year’s going to match up because you can’t replicate that kind of excitement.

The word burnout has been thrown at you many times. Burnout,loss of motivation.

Some of it was part of an agenda. So they weren’t all objective evaluations. I’m not going to pretend that I’m able to play every single event at 100 per cent,but I still think when something like the World Championship rolls along,I’m able to give it a lot of my energy and I think it’s too early to write me off.

Looked like a whole superpower—Russia—was against you. I mean,a chess superpower,not just a political superpower.

Well it was mixed. It was really (Garry) Kasparov,and doing it in such a pointed way. I mean,he would come to the press room and make statements that were designed to get them going. As for the rest,I got the sense that a lot of people there were rooting for (Boris) Gelfand simply because he’s Moscovite himself. He studied there for a couple of years,he has his roots there. So I didn’t feel it was that personal against me.

I have a Kasparov-Vishy story. This was the January of 1990 and the Soviet bloc was breaking down. The Armenians,Azerbaijanis and Georgians were all protesting and the Armenians said that their spokesman was one Garry Kasparov. They took me inside what was then called the Armenian embassy,and I found Garry Kasparov. He said,‘Oh,you are an Indian journalist. India is a communist state without even the benefits of communism.’ So trying to get some self-respect back,I said no,we have a very free press,we are a non-aligned country. And we have Viswanathan Anand,who is a rising chess star. So he said,‘We know Anand. We’ve analysed his game. We don’t believe he’s going to go much further’.

I think for the last few years,we haven’t hit it off that well except for this one brief moment,but obviously,we’ve been rivals as well,so (there is) a certain amount of tension. I don’t think he’s someone who can separate his rivalry on and off the board.

Is it true of many chess players?

No. In fact,I have splendid relations with many of my other colleagues (such as) Kramnik (Vladimir). A few months after a match,we met in a gym in Monaco and started talking. I asked him about his new-born daughter and we hit it off and that’s it. We’ve been very,very close even though we played a match which must have left some emotional scars. We became very close friends and I now think of him as one of my warmest buddies. The same with Gelfand. With most of my colleagues,we have this ability to say well,the rivalry is there,but in the evening,we should be able to go out for a drink. But not with Garry.

Because chess is played so much in the mind,the stereotype is that chess players are more likely to carry the tensions of the chessboard to their beds,unlike,say,cricketers or footballers. Because for them,it’s physical,it’s over. Tomorrow is another game.

I think that is a stereotype. I was once speaking to Srikkanth and he had the same problem. We had this conversation maybe 25 years ago in Sharjah when they were having the series. He told me that he replayed the bad shots in his head over and over and he also had to find a way to disconnect. So I think the struggle is the same. How do you leave it behind?

You used to chant shlokas,I believe?

Yes,but the basic problem is,how do you leave a painful thing behind and move on to the next point or next day?

How do you do it? Do you remember god?

I am spiritual. I do pray to god. I think with disappointing games,you have to find a way to rationalise it in your head. Come up with any old story. It makes you happy,you try to put it behind and you move on.

In fact,can you win almost any game in retrospect? Or do you sometimes think,oh the other guy played so much better,I could not have.

I think you can find a way to explain everything—that you could have won it had things been a little different. It’s very difficult for chess players to accept that the opponents were superior because then it’s tough to play the next game against this guy. So the reaction is always,‘oh,but he was lucky’.

Have you faced some nationalism,like Russian nationalism or Kasparov’s anger because he has pretty much said the same thing about you as he said in 1990,that you won’t get much further?

There is some nationalism in chess. This time I felt that a lot of Israelis were so happy to have an Israeli playing for the world title that they were very proud and very much behind Gelfand. It’s strange though,because if you consider the Jewish heritage in chess,you’d think they’ve have had more than enough champions. But here you can see what they wanted was an Israeli champion. Very often,you’ll see it with the Russians. They’re just proud of what they’ve done for the game.

And is it also to do a little bit with the notion of brain power?

Yes. That was,in fact,the justification for the Soviet State to promote chess the way it did. It saw it as a kind of vindication of what they could do—that in a communist country,people would be able to dedicate time to artistic pursuits that they could not do in a capitalist (country).

When you are on the chessboard,who are you? Are you Viswanathan Anand,world champion defending your title,or are you Viswanathan Anand from India,playing also for the flag? I know you have been carrying the NIIT logo very proudly now for a long time,but do you also wrap yourself with the flag a little bit?

A little bit. I would say that 95 per cent is about forgetting everything else and getting into the nitty-gritty of the game. And then you have to be sure that your calculations were right. That’s a very bad time to start thinking of other angles like,you know,that I’m playing for this and pride and glory. However,I am conscious that a lot of Indians are proud of me and are rooting for me. You want to do well because you know that in some sense you are representing India. But when I get to the game,I try not to think about it. It’s not like during a game,something can fire me up.

But do you feel the pressure—that all of India is waiting? India is so desperate for champions.

There’s a little bit of that,but when I’m playing,I think I owe it to myself to do a good job anyway.

Before the big matches,do you cut yourself off? For how long?

I try to go for about a month without reading about chess. Nowadays,it’s much more likely that you’ll read somebody like Kasparov,who’s so clearly trying to hurt you. What’s the point of reading it?

There are players whose game changes completely between playing for what they see as the flag and what I might call the logo or the prize money. Leander Paes is one such example. He is a transformed player while playing the Davis Cup.

Yes,he is so clearly pumped up with these things. But one thing in chess is that people can’t scream or anything. I know people are rooting for me but of course you don’t have this visceral connect.

So how do you get tensions off your chest in a match?

I think most of the release happens after the game is over. And when I get back to the hotel,I try to go to the gym or something,do something physical just to relieve that tension. I know chess players who actually go for a punching bag because they really want to get it out of their skin. And beyond that,it is just experience and discipline.

Do you have to fight emotional attachment to pieces on your chessboard?

No,I think it’s based on factors of the board. I don’t get attached to individual pieces and things like that.

…like cricketers get attached to certain shots?

Oh sure,a lot of people say that I’m someone who instinctively goes for the knight rather than the bishop. I tend to trade my bishops for their knights. And there are people like Kramnik who very strongly like to have their bishops. So that’s about the only big stylistic difference you’ll find in chess players.

Let me ask you. Are you Tendulkar at 42 or is Tendulkar Vishy Anand at 40?

I have no idea. I can occasionally relate to him,when he tries to peak for one or two events,when there’s something missing in his list of accomplishments and he aims for it and so on. But well,I’m probably going to say he is me at 40.

Physical sports give you problems such as with the elbow,they give you wear and tear. Do mental sports also give you wear and tear?

Very much. Your calculating ability does drop with age. So you have to find a way to actively compensate for it.

Well,our politicians,the older they are,the more calculating they get.

Yes,but our politicians often stretch the rules a bit. I can’t do that on the chessboard. But you have to find a way to actively compensate for that—use your experience,and try to be intelligent about the things you do.

So the mental wear and tear will give you your own equivalent of tennis elbow or a bad wrist or a bad toe or a bad back.

Definitely. I think the equivalent of that does happen. You tend to make the occasional mistake. And a lot of things you used to do fluently,suddenly you get bumps,and you start dropping half points here and there.

So as cricketers cut out some shots as they get older or bowlers in cricket cut out certain deliveries because you can’t bowl well,does a chess player do something similar?

You can end up in that situation. But then,what I try to do is work even harder at those things. Because every tactical or strategic option you give up diminishes you somewhat. So if you can fight that a bit longer,then it’s nice. But the main thing is,as you get older,you need to plan your schedule and your calendar much more carefully. You need to decide which tournaments you’re playing and you have to accept fewer tournaments than you used to,because you know that you can’t take the strain.

Two other stars in their 40s that this country loves—Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes. What could they have done and what have they done wrong?

They’re actually still doing pretty okay,they still keep winning Slams. They’re still out there enjoying the game.

Yes,but why can’t 40-year-olds be more grown up?

I think only the persons themselves understand the tension of the game and clearly,they’ve come to a pass where they can’t take it. This is not something the outside world can understand easily. They’ve been friends always. There was some tension,but they often got back together.

Could you tell us when you saw the signs?

Well,I met them in Chennai once and I got a whiff that they were a bit uncomfortable with each other. Somehow all three of us ended up in a coffee shop.

So do you have advice for them,now that they’re going for the Olympics—with different partners?

I don’t think either of them needs advice. They know what they want. If you don’t feel like you can hit it off,then you can’t do it for someone else. I know that if something is annoying me,I can’t suppress it for the sake of the country. You need an alternative explanation. If you are uncomfortable,you will play badly. The only thing I wish is that they’d done this quietly behind closed doors. But still,redemption is in their hands. All they have to do is to win,everyone will forget this in a second.

Now you cannot get away from the fact that you’re a star. We saw kids mobbing you. It came late because chess is not that well-recognised but were there moments you felt philosophical about stardom? People confused you for a cricketer?

Well,once they even confused me for myself. I was in Kerala about 20 years ago. A fellow passenger on a train,an elderly man,asked me,‘What do you do?’ I said I play chess for a living. And he thought for a while and said,‘You know,beta,take a little bit of advice. A sports career is a bit unpredictable. If you were Viswanathan Anand,you could make a living playing chess,but I think you should really think about it before you take the plunge.’ That was very sweet. And last year,a man at the Chennai airport recognised me and I could see that he was really struggling to place me. When we got past security,he came to me and said,‘Sir,you were super in your last movie’. So that happens once in a while.

Did you ask him which movie?

No. That was a missed opportunity—just to know what he thought I was: comedian,villain… So,sure,with my last four world titles,with the series starting 2007,I’ve definitely felt that the attention and the impact in India has been much greater. Also,more and more kids are taking to the game. The Mind Champions Academy hit some important milestones this year—one-and-a half-million students. So I can see chess really developing some big thick roots in India and that’s very gratifying to see.

Transcribed by Joyeeta Biswas

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