In a freewheeling chat with Mihir Vasavda, Viswanathan Anand breaks stereotypes & myths associated with chess players.
It’s been a quiet start to the new year for Viswanathan Anand after he spent the latter half of 2014 plotting and preparing for his world championship game against Magnus Carlsen. Following the second consecutive defeat to Carlsen, Anand had finished the year on a high by winning the London Classics title. Anand has already spoken about how the three tournament wins in 2014, starting with the Candidates triumph in March that triggered his comeback, has recharged him and rekindled the love for competitive chess again. The 45-year-old has said that 2014 was a “wonderful year” for him and that he would give himself 8 out of 10 for his performances. There is no world championship in 2015, and he plans to spend this year playing select tournaments starting with two events in February to be played in Zurich and Germany. Over the last couple of weeks, the five-time world champion has been mentoring top Indian athletes preparing for next year’s Rio Olympics Games.
While enjoying a rare break, Anand talks about the dating scene in chess, about how he was once confused for a movie star, and how he has a pretty poor memory.
Chess players are perceived to be serious and intense. Do you guys think about rooks and bishops all the time?
Well, I try to disconnect completely at times. But you can’t help it. Sometimes you wake up at 4am and you just know that Bh4 was the move in the position. Sometimes the best moves strike you at the most unlikely places. We were at the Kruger National Park in South Africa watching lions and I found a brilliant attack that I was able to use in Tata Steel Chess Tournament in 2013.
Do you fear that someday, you’ll run out of ideas or over-work your mind by constantly thinking about these things?
Our minds were over-worked a long time ago. Chess is much bigger than any one idea. It still continues to fascinate and surprise.
What’s the biggest misconception that people have about chess players?
Most people believe that our memory extends to other spheres of life.
It doesn’t? Like, do you remember normal things like phone numbers, birthdays, and such?
Ha ha ha! Not a chance. It’s normally a reminder from the wife.
But you play 10, 20 different games all at once and still win. Surely that kind of memory must be helpful elsewhere too?
It’s just pattern recognition. People are most amazed that we can play up to 40-50 boards. But that’s the easiest part of being a chess player.
They say a sportsman’s true character is revealed the moment he steps on the field. Is it true for chess players as well? Does your playing style reflect your personality?
Definitely! A person’s character translates into their style of play. I like dynamic play where there is a lot of chess to be explored. I hate boring, dry positions as it almost kills the joy of playing chess. I play much slower these days as maturity and knowledge make you think. But I still love to belt out moves quickly.
You’re 45 now and no signs of stopping. Is the age factor irrelevant in chess? You mentioned maturity. Do you get better with age?
Age is not irrelevant, not at all. It is definitely a factor. Like I said, your style also changes as you take age as a factor.
For around three weeks, you are locked in a cage of sorts with your opponent during a championship tie. What sort of things go through your head when you see the guy opposite you for the first time?
Not much. Most of the time, you are living in your own head. You don’t notice anything else.
In between moves, when there is not much to think about, do you drift into some other thoughts? At the World Championship in 2012, you had once said the nursery rhyme “Pat a cake, pat a cake” kept playing in your head during the tie break?
Now we are all in the Humpty Dumpty phase! In between moves you can’t keep the intensity. Your mind does wander. We normally gossip during that time. If you have to know who the hottest date is or who is dating whom, it all happens in between moves!
Really! Even Magnus Carlsen once spoke about the robust dating scene on the chess circuit. Is it that vibrant?
I think the chess dating scene has always been pretty vibrant. In fact, it has been around even before I started playing chess.
What do you do to release the tension that crops up say five, 10 minutes before a match starts?
I try to just keep calm and focus on my breathing. You just build a wall in your mind and try to stay in it. Because once the first move is made, you know the floodgates open.
Are there any subtle things you do before/during a match to psyche your opponents out?
I don’t think so. I like to have my knights turning outwards and like to check if my pen works.
During the inspection of a venue before World Championship matches, what do you look for?
Aruna takes care of all that. She has been in charge since I played in 2000 so she innately knows what I need and what I am comfortable with. She will tell me what it is and I have to only say Yes or No.
In terms of food and drinks, do you have a fixed menu in between a match considering the games last for several hours?
Yeah. Generally, it is almonds, tea, cheese, banana or a sandwich.
Do you also have a fixed routine before a big match?
During a match it’s almost clockwork. You wake up, have breakfast, work out for three hours. Have a light lunch, take a nap, shower, prepare and play. After the game, I like to work out in the gym and take a long walk after dinner. During tournaments I like to mix it a bit. I try to take long walks on a rest day so that the mind feels fresh.
Have you ever come close to shouting ‘oh no’ loudly during a game when you have blundered?
So how do you keep a check on your emotions?
Well you really cannot control emotions. During almost every game you have a mix of emotions. That’s why it takes me about 30 minutes to disconnect from a game.
When you’re socialising at parties or such events, do you casually drop into chess conversations? Or is it something you avoid?
People tend to ask me a lot on chess. I enjoy catching up on mathematics and astronomy. I like reading a lot on economy and politics. I could read about five Economists (magazine) almost non-stop. I enjoy being with people who have other interests. It broadens your horizon. I generally love reading on various subjects.
Do you follow any particular economists, then?
I follow Kenneth Rogoff, a chess player, Paul Krugman and Nassem Taleb.
And politically, what are your leanings?
I believe in a party that does anything for infrastructure to be in the right place.
What’s the most interesting conversation you’ve had during a tournament or while travelling?
The best would have to be one involving a co-passenger on a train in 1991. He asked me where I was working. I replied I played chess. He said, ‘that is ok ,but what do you do?’ I again said I played chess. He got testy and asked, “Do you think you are Viswanathan Anand to play chess?”
Then once at Chennai airport someone ran after me and said, ‘Your last film was really superb, sir! Your hero role was outstanding.’ Aruna was keen to ask which film. But I said it might be embarrassing that as the supposed hero, I don’t know my own films!
And what’s the most annoying question directed at you at a press conference?
Someone once asked, “Did you not see the move? The computer showed it in five seconds!”
Who among your opponents has been the most expressive and most poker faced?
Gary Kasparov is the most expressive. He would try as hard at pulling faces as he did at planning the next moves in chess. Kramnik is fairly poker faced. Although many think I am the most poker faced.
Who are your mates on the circuit?
We have our own groups. I get along well with Boris Gelfand and Vladimir Kramnik since we tend to discuss similar stuff, including children.
Does your talent in chess translate to other board games? Have you tried any with your son Akhil yet?
I do play a bit of backgammon. With Akhil, he is too young. It’s up to him what he would like to play. Although he finds 32 pieces a very nice handy weapon to attack me with.
You’ve travelled the world over to compete. Are there any weird rituals you’ve come across at the host nations?
Well, we have had worms in Mexico once. It’s nothing strange but it’s nice to see customs of different countries.
What are the three things that you always carry for tournaments?
Computer, mobile and an exercise band.
If not chess, what would your next career option be?
I would have been either a mathematician or an astronomer.