World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand is nearly as well known for his charming modesty and quick wit as his mastery of the game. Back in his hometown Chennai after successfully defending his title in the gruelling World Chess Championship, where he took on Boris Gelfand, Anand chats about his personal and professional life since he took to the chessboard as a child.
BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
I first met Viswanathan Anand and his wife Aruna in 2005, when they had flown down from Spain for the charity work they regularly engage in. This particular event was a fundraiser for children affected with cerebral palsy, and Anand spent over six hours playing chess with nearly 100 people who had bought passes. As she waited for him to finish, Aruna divided her time between patiently answering media queries and cheerfully speaking to the star-struck children and parents who would benefit from the event. In the seven years since then, Anand has won the World Championship four times in a row, moved back to the city he was born in, and had a child. When I finally corner him for an interview, somewhere between a promotional tour, a family function, and several event appearances, he’s almost alarmed when I tell him it will take about half an hour. It hits me that 30 minutes is a rather colossal amount of time for someone whose moves are clocked in seconds, and I promise to try and make it quicker. As his one-year-old son Akhil learns “Baa baa black sheep” in the background, Vishy speaks of the records he’s broken, how he deals with media reports, the moment he realised he wasn’t going to be an accountant, his worst nightmares, the future of competitive chess, and how his life has changed over the years.
You’ve come out of a very tough contest. What goes through your head during a game? Are there moments in each game when you know you’re winning, and moments when you know you’re losing?
Well, you always come to a position where the situation becomes clear. I don’t think a lot goes through your head. You’re more focused on getting the result that’s supposed to come. So, you get the job done and then think okay, and sort of take stock—if it’s a win, of course you know it improves the match situation, if it’s a loss, you know it’s worse. But, generally, you don’t think about such things.
How were your preparations this time, compared to your preparations when you played the 2008 and 2010 World Championship Games?
Well, it was very similar, since we intended to do the same sort of thing. You know, get a team together, work 10-11 hours a day, for a couple of months, that sort of thing. So it was very similar in that sense. But the thing is, of course, the opponent had more information about what I do and how I play. So he was able to come up with some good ideas.
You have maintained an unchanged set of seconds. Would you agree that it brings a certain familiarity for your opponents when they analyse your games? The margins have narrowed over the years—against Kramnik, the score was 6.5-4.5, and you had a round to spare; against Topalov, you won in the last round, with 6.5-5.5; against Gelfand, you had to go in for extra rounds. Is there a level of predictability?
Definitely. I think, if you have the same people, after a while, you may become slightly predictable. But on the other hand, we had the advantage that, you know, in the beginning of the camp, you needn’t explain to anyone what’s going to happen—everyone sort of knew their place, and we could get started very quickly. But, sure, the team does become a bit predictable.
In your interviews after the championship, you said Gelfand surprised you constantly. Where do you think he had the advantage, in being able to catch you off guard so often?
Well, he managed to come up with set-ups or openings that consistently caught me off guard. Either his stuff was very hard to predict, or it was aimed against something that I wanted to do, and this he managed to do very cleverly. He did it very well, I must say.
Tell us a little more about the eighth game, when he walked into the trap you had set up. Did you think he might fall for it, or did you expect him to sidestep it?
Well, one or two moves before, I saw that trick coming in. But I couldn’t believe that he would fall for it, because it is kind of, well, you could even say slightly naïve, to expect that. (Laughs) But then, at some point, I realised that he actually had done it. And, you know, it’s a mixture of things—of course, it’s a very pleasant feeling. But at the same time, you understand that he simply had a very, very bad day.
When you lose a game, do you dissect the moves, go over where you should have done something differently, or do you relax and focus on the next one?
I think in theory, the dream situation is that you forget about what happened in the past and you go on to the next game. But I would say, for a human being, it’s not easy to do that.
There have been several comments made by Grandmasters that this World Championship was not to decide who the best player in the world is today. Did these rankle for you in any way?
Well, it’s annoying… also, because it was so clearly aimed at disrupting the atmosphere during the match, especially by people like Kasparov. I mean, he timed it so that it would have the maximum impact in the press, and all the people would repeat it and that sort of thing. It was annoying. At some point, we tried to ignore it, but you know, it’s always there in the background. And even if you’ve managed to block it out, either it comes back at you in the press conferences, or other people ask you about this or that. So it made it slightly unpleasant, sure.
You have been playing Gelfand for the last two decades. You, as well as your second, Surya Shekhar Ganguly, have mentioned that Gelfand made moves which he had never made in his life before. How did you cope with this, first on the board when the moves were made, and later, when you discussed it with your team?
One thing I would say—he surprised me, but I expected to be surprised, so it wasn’t like his approach caught us off guard. But the problem was, we knew that whatever we did, he would have had more time to do some really good work, and he would have had more depth in that area. We knew that we would always be fighting to catch up. And that was a bit annoying. But beyond that, it comes with the territory. I mean, in a match, you expect the opponent to do something unusual.
If you have to play Gelfand again, how different would your preparations be from this match?
You know, if I played him again, it would be very difficult, because we would both have the influence of this match and I think actually, to play someone twice is a very tricky thing. I don’t know how we’ll react. I mean, if it happens, then we’ll sit and think, and we’ll cope somehow. But as a prospect, it’s kind of scary. (Laughs)
You were earlier identified as a predominantly King’s pawn player. In the last three World Championship Games, most of your games have been predominantly Queen’s pawn. What is your preference and why?
Well, against Kramnik and Topalov, it felt like the right thing to do. Against Gelfand, it’s a little bit more mixed. In Game 5, Game 10 and 12, all these games, I went E4. So, it was certainly a bit more mixed in this match. I think in general, it’s a bit opportunistic—you try to do whatever you think suits you best for that match, but as they say, your success rate is 50-50, you know. (Laughs) So, it’s very hard to tell afterwards whether you took the right decision or not.
Once the game was over, a lot was written about your “redeeming” yourself—you’ve spoken of how after Karpov and Kamsky, there was maybe talk of how your rapid chess skills failed you at critical times, and how the 2001 loss in Moscow may have been seen as part of a pattern too. Do these coincidences play on your mind? Do you think about luck and things like that?
(Laughs) I had the thought, that if I lost my third rapid thing in a row, then what’s the use of being one of the best rapid players of all time, if it never helps you when the chips are down. So, that thought did cross my mind. But at the same time, what do you do with that thought? You still have to go there and just play chess. So, it went through my head, and I blocked it out, and that’s pretty much where it ended. Also, I lost that previous title in Moscow. In 2001, when I was World Champion, I went to Moscow and I lost my title there, you know. If you start thinking about these kind of random coincidences, well, it doesn’t help you very much.
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