The trash talk gambit

The trash talk gambit

As Anand and Carlsen face off for the World Chess Championship, mindgames are part of play.


The image of Anand confabulating with trenchcoated KGB agents over a plate of thayir sadam is certainly evocative.

Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen are all set to clash for the World Chess Championship starting Saturday. The return match, held in the Russian resort town of Sochi, will see Anand aiming to wrest back the crown he lost last year in Chennai. Just days earlier, legend Garry Kasparov had hinted darkly that Anand may be in cahoots with Russian intelligence to “destabilise” his protégé, Carlsen. In an interview, he said that the democracy-hating Russkies might nobble the incumbent champion.

The image of Anand confabulating with trenchcoated KGB agents over a plate of thayir sadam is certainly evocative. While it may have sent ripples amongst the more credulous Twitteratti, long-time watchers of the scene know that this is standard operating procedure. Boxing has its storied tradition of “weigh-ins”, where the contestants and their supporters trash talk, if not brawl. Chess championships too have their equivalent, when the two gladiators and their representatives in the run-up to the match fire verbal salvoes at each other.

Kasparov was Carlsen’s coach and still considers himself a mentor to the Norwegian. His statements are part of the put-downs, faint praise and veiled threats that fans have come to accept.


Why is all this so important? Chess is a game of perfect information. You see all your opponent’s pieces on the board, and so does she. The mindgames are an attempt to inject what strategist Clausewitz called the “fog of war”. Each of the duellists wants to insert an element of uncertainty in the enemy’s mind that can paralyse decision-making.

“Lies and hypocrisy do not survive for long on the chessboard. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie, while the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite,” said the great Emanuel Lasker. He was world champ for 27 years and certainly knew what he was talking about. Grandmasters crave this certainty, this attempt to impose order
in a chaotic world, by reducing it to 64 squares. Shake this certainty, and you might just have that extra ammo in a gun battle.

Carlsen is a master at this agenda-setting, this brinkmanship as popularised by Henry Kissinger. Prior to the match in Chennai, he demanded that there should be a sickness clause, which would enable him to take a two-day break whenever he wanted
in the middle of the match. Why? Because of the possibility that his Norwegian constitution may collapse due to eating spicy Indian food. As Anand was an Indian and presumably used to the fare, this clause would expressly not be allowed for him.

Again, in the run-up to Sochi, he refused to sign the contract, agreeing to do only at the last minute after the global chess federation called his bluff and threatened to replace him. Carlsen showed his shrewd understanding of what makes a chess player tick. Grandmasters are used to strict objective rules governing the play. Undermine this by arbitrarily trying to tweak the rules around the conduct of the match, and you’ve won an important point. Of course, the lead-up to the match
is like water unto wine, moonlight unto sunlight compared to what happens when the first pawns are pushed in anger.

There have been world championship matches since 1886 — and there have been shenanigans, too. Fischer’s antics against Spassky in their celebrated encounter in Reykjavik are well known. The match between Viktor Korchnoi and Anatoly Karpov in 1977, however, was the perfect storm, the “how to” of psychological operations. Korchnoi was a defector while Karpov was the darling of the Soviet establishment. Their styles of play — Korchnoi was fiery and mercurial while Karpov was cold-blooded and calculating — also reflected their temperaments. The very first battle was over the flags — what would Korchnoi play under?
The Soviets wanted him to play under a white flag bearing “Stateless”, while Korchnoi counter-offered to play under the Soviet flag with “I’ve Escaped” printed on it.

As the match progressed, the two men’s bitter antipathy swelled over into almost every conceivable sphere. Just to give you a taste, ructions erupted when Karpov demanded, and was served, yoghurt during a game. Korchnoi sent a furious letter to the organisers, stating: “It is clear that a cunningly arranged distribution of edible items to one player during the game could convey a kind of code message.” A commission was appointed to investigate, and it was decreed that only the violet-coloured yogurt could be served.

Anand, of course, is famous for his ever-courteous demeanour.

But perhaps the very fact that Vishy doesn’t use mindgames is itself a statement of his confidence. Sometimes, the best psychological gambit is not using one at all.

Unudurti is a Hyderabad-based writer