Viswanathan Anand is readying to work with a studio for his recently-announced biopic, starting a chess academy, mentoring some of the country’s top juniors, and keeping an eye on the mash-up of E-Sports and chess. In an interview with The Indian Express, the 51-year-old former world champion talks about why Classical chess may go the way of Test cricket, but stops short of predicting the future in a pandemic-stricken world.
You would have been asked earlier about a biopic. What made you agree this time?
I guess sometimes everything just fits in. We had talks before (not with the same director) and many of them didn’t even go beyond the initial stage. It is not the first time the idea has popped up. But this time, they seemed serious. I think they will do a good job. Last year, I finished my book Mindmaster, my story and everything. So maybe, the timing was perfect. I am enthusiastic and a bit nervous because you always wonder what it is going to be like on screen.
You have had a long career. Is there a phase of your life you want to be the focus in the biopic?
I don’t know if I would really want to set that. It is interesting to see how someone from the movie-making background approaches it. For me, it is useful feedback. I could probably sit and talk for one hour about some position in the Sicilian. I expect to have 25 per cent of the say, but not more than that. It would be really nice to see how other people relate to it as well. In the end, I would like to have my story. But I would like it to be entertaining as well. I think I have to approach this with an open mind.
Will you be giving them a briefing in terms of how the story flows?
What you want is to see what appeals to them and what they think appeals to a broader audience. It will be a lot of back and forth. It is better to go there with your story and they will say, ‘this is interesting’ and ‘that is interesting.’ Only after you have talked for a while, something will pop in your memory. Of course, I would like it to be authentic and obviously help them with capturing the chess accurately. You know, for instance, concentration is a struggle; it is not a thing that you master. So, things like that.
If someone watches the movie, I want them to have a fair idea of what it must be like to sit there at that game. Then there is a personal side and I know that will be harder because I am generally quite private.
Chess is played over a board and unlike sports like tennis or cricket, doesn’t have a fixed pattern. Is that a challenge when you want to show it in the movie?
You will have to get the story in. Only someone who follows the game at a very high level will look at the story and understand what I am talking about. So, how do you bring it out? Why this position had me shaking in my boots but this position did not? I will have to explain that very well and then they will have to present it on screen. I will be very respectful and open because they (movie-makers) are the experts. Again, let us not exaggerate, it is not like we are from an alien planet.
What other people relate to could be focus and concentration?
Concentration, focus, the feeling of being down after a bad game, the feeling of euphoria, the consequences, what you feel today, what you experience tomorrow. These are things that are universal, everybody experiences that. So, what I get out of a chess game is probably what a doctor gets out of a consultation. It is that same thing at heart.
Is there going to be international casting? Say someone who plays a Kasparov or Karpov?
I don’t know if they can go back and forth and show stock footage and it will be interesting to see how we deal with that because there are some things you may want re-enacted. Most of the things I haven’t even talked about will happen. Yes, we will have to spend time in Spain (where Anand had shifted to). Whether we will actually go to Spain or not and how we will capture that, are we going to the Philippines for my childhood? I don’t know yet.
Which are the sports biopics you have watched?
This year I watched The Last Dance. And you know, without any particular expertise in basketball, I found that very interesting. But there is no acting there, they have taken all the footage from past interviews and assembled it together. I have watched a fair number of sports documentaries. But when you watch other people, you don’t sit and think too much about how it was done. Now you start to think how I will actually do it myself. It is almost like chess, when you watch other people’s games, you think, this was fine and this is what I will take away, but when you do it yourself you think, how does it actually work.
What are you watching these days and do you binge-watch at all?
Yes, I watch a lot of documentaries like David Attenborough’s, things about space. Earlier, I was watching a lot of cooking shows on TV, with no intention of cooking whatsoever – I cook very little. I watched Narcos and The Queen’s Gambit obviously, The Crown, a lot of popular ones. It has been slightly excessive this year, but it is a nice way to unwind at the end of the day.
Now that there is a movie being made, when you watch these documentaries, have you started thinking like a director?
When I was watching The Last Dance (Michael Jordan’s documentary) at some point I thought, whose perspective is this. And then you hear that some of Jordan’s teammates felt this or that. And you realise that even when you present a story, you can’t be 100 per cent objective. You have to pick what you are going to focus on. You realise, to make something easy for an audience, you have to focus, which means you zoom in on one person, and every time you zoom in on one, you are zooming out from someone else. It is not that I am thinking like a director but I realise when we get there, there will be some choices to be made.
Will there be an aspect which is new, which is not in the book, or what your fans will not know about?
There will probably be things we show unintentionally without trying to. I think with most public figures and famous people, you only think you know them, but in fact, you may not know anything about them. Maybe, you think you know what they are thinking about most of the day. For me, chess is a very important thing in my life, but I don’t think about it all the time. So, somebody who is seeing me only in chess terms is missing out a lot on what my daily thoughts are about. Nonetheless, they will at least know the big moments.
Have you watched any of the movies of director Aanand L Rai?
I have watched a few fragments but probably I should sit down and try to watch his stuff and read the reviews and see what people like, and go back and watch it a bit again. Try to get inside his mind and see what ticks.
Chess has grown in popularity during the pandemic. Did you expect the numbers we are seeing?
I underestimated the magnitude. It is amazing how big the number is of people, who had this idea that ‘one day I would like to play a little more chess,’ but never found the time, but suddenly found a lot of time this year. Chess stores started to run out of chess sets, and chess clocks and chess books. It is hard to fathom. You don’t have easy explanations because the numbers are too large for me to comprehend. People have alternatives, so why did this happen? Suddenly chess has become very cool this year.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen has this Tour for Rapid chess. What do you think is the future of Classical chess?
For someone like me and my generation, this feels like a loss because you think ‘how can you possibly enjoy the game when everything is spinning by so fast?’ But I have to concede that a different generation sees it differently. As long as the overall popularity of the game is going up, you don’t want to be complaining. Magnus said in a couple of interviews that Classical chess had some fundamental issues going forward, and that he thought computers had narrowed the space for Classical chess.
Would I be happy if there was only Rapid chess? I don’t know. But in 10 years, it matters more what the next generation does. In cricket, Tests will never again occupy the role it once did. In chess, also it could get that way. The question is how many of offline tournaments, or should we say ‘normal’ tournaments, will resume. But there are some problems in Classical chess, Magnus is not completely wrong. And will have to find a way to make all this attractive as well. But there is a lot of good in online chess.
But the world champion talking about the future of Classical chess not being certain should be a worry?
Yes, but he didn’t bring up something nobody has thought about. His evaluation was a bit stark for me. But he is running a series of rapid tournaments online. I don’t try to draw a conclusion. I am just saying it is out there. It is playing around in my head and like everything this year, we just have to wait and see.
Have you thought of starting a YouTube channel like some of the other players?
I will see, I am not against any of these things. I think you already need a search engine just for YouTube channels on chess by individuals sitting in their bedroom. At some point, I will get to it. But there are so many of them, I just don’t know what to say. Almost every chess player around the world has the same idea.
Now with streaming happening, how do you see the game changing?
It makes chess more accessible. Even when you had computers, you needed a certain amount of expertise to understand what they were telling you. Now what we have is the final component, the human explaining the game. And also for online chess tournaments, commentary is made a 100 times easier.
And once again I will say. I have stopped trying to predict the future. I am suffering from fatigue trying to predict the future. That is true with regard to streaming, the economy or how the world will look like. I have either been wrong with the magnitude or the duration.
You have announced the launch of a chess academy. How will it be structured?
There are a couple of things which inspired me. One thing is that I am a board member on the Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) foundation that supports athletes trying to win an Olympic gold. Another is the Mikhail Botvinnik Chess Academy founded in the 1960s. I think Anatoly Karpov was one of his students. Botvinnik felt he had to pass on his knowledge and think of the next generation. Just under two years ago, I went for the annual day of WestBridge Capital in Bangalore and at the end of the meeting was asked if there is something I want to do in chess. I said ‘yeah actually.’
I think a fellowship or scholarship captures it better instead of an academy. I pick a few people and support them thanks to WestBridge. I thought we will start with our youngsters. India has incredibly good juniors but we are not cracking the top-10. They do very well at the junior stage but later on, the impact is not the same. So, I picked younger players. All the boys are under 17, Nihal (Sarin) is 16 and the rest are younger. Vaishali (Rameshbabu) is 19 but a top junior girl.
Will you be focusing more on mentoring now?
It is not part of a plan, it has happened gradually. In the pandemic year, it has not had any impact on my chess because that has pretty much shut down. But on the other hand, I don’t even know when the chess circuit is going to resume. Next year? I don’t have a tournament yet which I know I am going to play. Maybe something will happen, but it also depends on how effective the (Covid-19) vaccine is. I am also excited about doing these other projects. In the future, I will definitely need time for chess and there is going to be a bit of juggling.