Few would’ve given Viswanathan Anand a chance to return as strongly as he has following his crown-toppling loss to Magnus Carlsen in Chennai last year. But following his win in the Candidates Tournament earlier this year to book a rematch against the Norwegian for the title, the 44-year old believes that in a winner-takes-all clash there is little difference between fighting as the challenger or as the defending champion. Excerpts from an interview with The Indian Express.
Six years as undisputed champion, and this time you enter as the challenger. What is the feeling?
Last year really felt like a blow. But surprisingly, I found that I landed on my feet. It wasn’t the end of the world. And then the Candidates Tournament happened and suddenly I’m right back in it. I haven’t really thought about the prospect of what it’s like to be champion or challenger, but to be honest, the moment I won the Candidates, we (him and Carlsen) were in the same boat. There are no more differences. We are both entitled to play a match. The advantage he had and the disadvantage I had evaporated when I won the Candidates. Carlsen is a formidable opponent, no doubt about that. But I’m trying to feel better about myself.
How has preparation for the Championship match been this time around?
There were some things I was unhappy about the last time. I have had to change my approach and try and do a few things differently this time around. Beyond that it’s pretty much the same. But again, after the Candidates, I feel good, positive and I want to carry on with that. It was a result that gave me a lot of confidence. So I’m trying to take that forward.
Will you treat the match as a chance for revenge?
These thoughts do go through the head. This isn’t the first time we’re playing each other. Very clearly, we’ll have some memories and there will be all sorts of thoughts floating in your head. But beyond that, I’m not obsessing about revenge. Of course, I want to take revenge, but I’m not focusing on that aspect. More importantly, I feel disappointed about how I played last year. Especially at home. And I’d like to make amends.
Will there be any pressure on Carlsen since he’s defending the title for the first time?
His play doesn’t seem to show anything so far. He’s playing at an extremely high level and he seems quite comfortable. I don’t think it’s something that affects him negatively.
How different will it be to play away from home?
A home crowd amplifies what you already experience. If you’re doing well, the home crowd is wonderful. If you’re doing badly, it’s even more awful. But I wouldn’t blame them. It’s not that I lost the match because I played in Chennai. Far from it. There were things I was doing wrong. In the end it comes down to making good moves on the chessboard.
Should the game be held in Sochi, how much of an impact will the conditions play?
It’s one of the warmer cities in Russia. It will be cold but not absurdly so. But that’s fine. It’s the same if you’re playing in December or January. You know it’s going to be cold so you take some warm clothes and that’s it. There’s not much more to it than that. In fact, I quite like playing in cold weather. The chess circuit used to be more active in winter actually, so that was the perfect time to play chess. So I’m quite okay with that. And I’m curious to visit the site of the Winter Games.
You have always focused on your fitness. At 44, has it become harder?
It takes its toll. It’s clear that your age slows you down in many aspects of playing chess. The fitness I would do anyway, at any age. But for someone over 40, you have to start paying attention to fitness. I don’t know how much to connect these things, but I know the time I spend in exercising is also very good in removing tension.
No doubt staying fit is easier for Carlsen. It’s clear that your best years are when you are younger. When you’re in your late thirties, you’re compensating for many things with your experience. So age is not going to be a handicap.