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'Chess politics made me cynical', says Indian chess legend Viswanathan Anand

Viswanathan Anand
Viswanathan Anand
Ritam Basu
Modified 17 Feb 2020

How to keep yourself motivated to deliver optimum performance when you know that you’ve won all possible laurels in your discipline and traversed a large part of your life’s journey? Ask five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand and he’ll tell you that he draws inspiration from several big names.

For example, Tiger Woods’ victory at the Masters last year, his first major in 11 years, Roger Federer’s come-back-from-behind wins in this year’s Australian Open and also from legendary actor Kirk Douglas who lived for 103 years before passing away on 5 February 2020.

Today, India is a force to reckon with on the global chess stage, so much so that current world champion Magnus Carlsen recently tweeted that India will be the next superpower in chess.

However, until Anand became the first Indian to attain the status of a Grandmaster in 1988, chess had predominantly been a Soviet sport with players from other countries competing just to make up the numbers. At the moment India may have more Grandmasters than the number of squares on a chessboard, but what is Rome without Aeneas?

Anand, who recently visited Kolkata for the launch of his autobiography, 'Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life' spoke in an exclusive chat about the process of putting the book together, his mantra for recovery following a slump, the debate whether Artificial Intelligence is having an adverse impact on the sport, his superstitions, the malicious aspect of chess politics et al.   

Q. Kindly share with us the process of bringing the book to fruition.

The idea of writing an autobiography had been on my mind for a while, but the work for this project with Hachette started two years ago. In between my tournaments whenever I would return home, my wife Aruna would arrange meetings with my co-writer Susan Ninan so that we could plan the chapters together.

We sat for three to four hours a day continuously for four days in order to ensure that Susan had enough material to work with. Aruna and Poulomi Chatterjee (Editor-in-Chief, Hachette India) would also coordinate the stories; in fact, most of the time, Aruna would want her questions to be asked.

So, in this way the material flowed. I think the timing was perfect this time around. We had a convenient deadline with my 50th birthday coming up, and I was also able to get a lot of interesting stories in. I feel it’s a complete book in that sense. 

Q. Why did you decide to write your autobiography now? Why didn’t you embark on the project five years ago, or put it on hold till ten years down the line?


Well, there were earlier attempts but somehow we couldn’t finish the book. Something or the other went wrong, or else someone would be busy. We could’ve waited but I didn’t see any reason for it.

Q. When you joined the Tal Chess Club in Madras as a child, you didn’t have a rich tradition of world-class Indian chess players behind you. What were the pros and cons of that?

It must be said that Tamil Nadu had four International Masters at that point, and I was one of them. I got into uncharted territories only after I became a Grand Master and a world junior champion. But there was, of course, a strong chess tradition in Chennai and we benefited from that.

Grandmasters Anand and Dibyendu Barua unveiling Anand
Grandmasters Anand and Dibyendu Barua unveiling Anand's autobiography in Kolkata. Image: ChessBase India

Q. What happens when there is a sudden drought after a series of wins? How do you bounce back?


I’ve tried to cover this in detail in the book. You try to bounce back, but quite often I’ve found that it’s difficult to stop until you hit rock bottom and then climb up again. A lot of my recoveries came at unexpected moments. I think the main ingredient must be not to give up hope. You just feel that someday things will turn out right, and they do. Besides, when you are undergoing a slump, it’s a good time to understand what’s going wrong.

Q. How do you unwind yourself when such situations arise?

Earlier, I used to spend a lot of time on my Walkman. You also need to find some time to study chess and try to understand where you went wrong. A good break or a nice vacation also helps the mind recover.

Q. You must’ve experienced a saturation point at various stages of your long career. In the recently concluded Australian Open, we saw how Roger Federer eked out a five-set win against John Millman in the third round. Do you derive motivation when you see a Federer or a Tiger Woods compete at the highest level of their respective disciplines at their age?

It always feels nice when someone like Federer or Woods does well because it encourages you to think that it’s possible. So, yes. On the other hand, you feel equally motivated when you hear of some actor dying at the age of 103 because then you wonder, ‘Wow! That person made a hundred!’ (Smiles.) I think watching people do well and not act their age is nice to see.

Q. The impact of Artificial Intelligence on chess has been a major topic of debate for quite some time now. Do you think it hinders the players’ pursuit of novelty?


No. I think it increases the scope for creativity, but it increases the workload at the same time. Nowadays, it doesn't really matter whether you're born on the Pacific Islands, or in Moscow, or in Calcutta. The best thing about it (AI) is that it saves a lot of time. You no longer need to carry 15 kgs of books while travelling, but just a computer and a couple of floppy disks. So you have to decide whether it’s a positive balance or not.

Q. In chapter five of the book (entitled, Gathering the Troops), you discuss at length the contributions of your seconds. How have they helped you at various stages of your career?

Most of my seconds have had a significant impact on my career. When I was young, my seconds had a disproportionately high influence because they could teach me a lot of new things. I knew Surya (Shekhar Ganguly) personally for many years before we started working together for my team. Clearly, he has been a very important part as he was on all my winning teams.

He has been a huge pillar of support for me. Sandipan (Chanda), too, has been a very important member of my team over the years. He was with me during most of my recoveries.

He was with me at Khanty-Mansiysk and also in St. Louis, where we had a very good result together last year. I’ll remember him especially for the 2014 Candidates tournament held at Khanty-Mansiysk because that was the moment when I almost retired, but eventually, we won the tournament.

Q. In many of your past interviews, you’ve discussed the eccentricities of Garry Kasparov, Viktor Korchnoi, Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik. What kinds of superstitions does Viswanathan Anand have when he is in the middle of some intense tournament?


Most of my superstitions are harmless stuff like a lucky shirt or a lucky pair of trousers that I wear to matches. I get quite obsessive about pens like there are certain pens that I want to use repeatedly for match notes. I often switch pens for my Black and White games and try to stick to that pattern.

All these things are covered in the book. Sometimes, I wouldn’t want to have anything but an omelette for breakfast, thinking that I may lose the game if I eat anything else! There could be deeper superstitions of others that I may not know of, but for me, most of my superstitions lie within this range.

Q. How was the experience of playing your only game against your childhood idol Mikhail Tal in 1989?

It was very nice. It was a very special tournament called the Veterans v Youth tournament and was held in Cannes. I had the opportunity to play against both Tal and Boris Spassky. Having said that, I understood that my hero Tal was in his last days. I didn’t realise it would be over so quickly, for he passed away three years later. Nonetheless, I had this feeling that it was not the same Tal I had grown up admiring, but it was still magical talking to him. He was a very nice man.

Q. There’s a planet named after you—4538 Vishyanand. What was your feeling when you saw it for the first time?


It’s way too small to be visible in the asteroid belt. You need NASA telescopes for that. There’s a website wherein you can track its motion though. My son Akhil also knows this website. It was a very nice feeling to have a minor planet named after me, but that person Michael Rudenko (member, Minor Planet Centre) hadn’t asked me before proposing my name.

Funnily enough, I got to know about it the day my name was approved. And by a strange coincidence, it was approved on April 1. So, for the first few hours, I went on telling everyone that it was a joke.

Q. The last question. At various junctures of the book, you’ve described the malicious side of politicking that happens in the chess world. What has been your most bitter experience with it so far and would you always be averse to the idea of joining chess politics?

I got cynical about it. That’s what I would say. Later on, if there were two sides, I would try to take what I could from both because I became cynical more than anything else. I felt that if they could stab my back at any moment, why should I be loyal to one? I would look out for myself instead.

I don’t look back at one episode with a lot of bitterness. Even Karpov in Laussane (the reference here is to the World Championship final in January 1998, where Karpov had been directly seeded but Anand had to win the FIDE’s knockout tournament to qualify for it)—now I smile about it. There’s no pain left.            

Published 17 Feb 2020, 20:08 IST
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