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Between life and chess 

CultureBetween life and chess 

India’s first ever chess grandmaster and five-time world champion, Viswanathan Anand speaks to Bulbul Sharma about his just-published book of memoirs, Mind Master, the ups and downs of his chess career, and the life lessons he continues to draw from the sport. 


Q. You have dedicated your autobiography, Mind Master, to your mother and the book encapsulates several endearing moments between the two of you. How instrumental has your mother been in shaping you as this chess champion we see today?

A. Her role is crucial, because she got me into the game. She was the one who taught me chess. For most chess players, the critical start is that little encounter with someone who teaches them. More often that person is your father. In some cases, as in mine, it can be a mother, uncle or brother. It is the typical way most chess players start… My mother was very supportive and travelled with me till I was well into my teens. And I think personality-wise, too, I borrowed a lot from her. So probably, she shaped me the most.

 Q. Each chapter of your book culminates into a chessboard diagram, depicting a chess move, which is further explained in non-chess terms, almost like an important life lesson. What was the idea behind this literary device?

A. This book is the story of my life. With this book, we have tried to tell people the narrative of my life in a story format, which is chronologically followed. The idea was to incorporate significant moments that I remember very well and which I thought gave useful life lessons. In my case, most of my life lessons came from chess, simply because that’s the way it is and I have been playing chess since I was six.

There are a lot of similarities between life and chess and many people feel the same way. It is because you solve similar problems, even though in chess there is a much more controlled environment… Chess games are not lost on the board; they are lost by the player. You need to make a mistake to lose the game. It is very useful to understand what happens when things go wrong, and this is something that I try to do myself.

Besides that, the diagrams towards the end of the chapters are to give people a taste of the game. It is not a book with a lot of chess notations but I wanted to give people a little bit of it. It is for all those as well who don’t really play chess but can understand more about it through these life lessons.

Anand at the Tata Steel Chess India Rapid and Blitz 2019 in Kolkata on 22 November 2019.

Q. Were you at all anxious about revealing some details of your personal life in the book?

A. No, I have become more relaxed about it. Earlier, I used to be conscious. But as you grow older, you start to think, this is me and I don’t mind much. I also realised that people are genuinely curious about the game and if you keep things close to your chest, they don’t really find out much…

It wasn’t that difficult to talk about my life. Over the years, I have said similar things over other forums as well… There were some uncomfortable moments when I had to relive certain incidents, but I thought it was nice to talk about those incidents because this was the first time that I got an opportunity to put things on the record and share my version. It is not just to tell people what happened, everyone knows about it; but to convey to people what I thought back then and what I think now about the past.

Q. So was it cathartic to talk about those things that made you feel uncomfortable?

A. I enjoyed giving those details. As I said, it was nice to present my version. I also have a better understanding of what I think now about what I thought earlier in relation to certain things and incidents. It brings a nice perspective. In the end, if you are telling a story, you should tell it with honesty.

Q. In the book, you have talked about a moment in your early career, when, right after winning the Grandmaster title, you felt a void within you and were clueless about your future goals. Needless to say, at several points in our life we feel this kind of emptiness. So how does one deal with this phase?

A. The Grandmaster title was the first real moment when I realised that until then I was setting my goals on autopilot. I never set goals until that point. It was obvious what I should do next and I just went with it, and this continued to happen till I won the Grandmaster title. But this kind of approach works only when you are eight or 12 years old. There comes a point when it doesn’t automatically work and you have to work harder. That is one of my life lessons… I grew out of my Grandmaster title after six months. Bad results brought back my motivation and I found new things. It is a natural process, but what I mean to say is that if you set a goal for yourself, you speed up the process.

 Q. Apart from chess, you have an interest in amateur astronomy as well. How important are such hobbies for professional sportsmen?

A. Astronomy is my interest and hobby. When I pursue it, I completely forget about chess. But it can be anything—a curiosity, a desire to travel, it can be an ability to sit with your friends and genuinely forget about yourself and talk about them and there are so many ways.

What I am basically saying is that sometimes you need to get away from something to come back to it wholeheartedly. Your ability to disconnect is not something you need to force upon yourself.  If it doesn’t come naturally you need to look for something that absorbs your stress. In a shorter context, I have mentioned in the book that after a tough match during a tournament, I would go to the gym. It was not to burn calories but to get rid of the tension, come back to the hotel room and get a deep sleep.

Q. Winning and losing is all part of the game. But how do you stay positive and not let emotions get the better of you during big matches?

A. Life is all about these ups and downs. You work for something and then you achieve it and you have your share of emptiness that you feel later. I have shared some of those instances in the book. And similarly, after losing, you gladly want to let it go and recalibrate your expectations and rethink what you want. But it is always about finding a way to do what you like.

When you are winning, you inevitably think about how you can go higher, what to do next, how many points to score. But it is always nice to come back to the state that tells you, “I am going to have fun.”

Q. How much do you practice chess these days?

A. A reasonable amount. Not as much as before. But I still put in as much work as I need to be ready for a tournament. I think my heaviest work was when I was playing the World Championship. These days, I am still very active in playing all the top tournaments…

What I have also understood is the importance of not letting chess dominate my life anymore. There was a time when I wouldn’t think about anything else, but nowadays I think about my family, about meeting my friends. When [Vladimir] Kramnik [Russian chess grandmaster and Anand’s onetime rival] comes to Chennai, I always make it a point to meet him. I treasure these meetings, and would like to find more time for such things.

 Q. You have talked about several tournaments in the book. But which ones turned out to be the most memorable for you?

A. I have memorable tournaments from my childhood. I have memorable tournaments from the later phase as well. The childhood tournaments were not very important or prestigious, but at that moment they felt like they were the most important thing in the world…  Also, all the matches that I have mentioned in the book are very memorable because I would spend the whole year preparing for them. The matches in Mexico were also very special because they were very intense.

Besides that, there were some fantastic moments of recovery. So I have mentioned Candidates 2014. Then the World Rapid Chess Championship at the end of 2017. So yes, these are the moments. When you are more or less reconciled to the 10th or 11th place, and you are just happy to have a small tournament and then you suddenly win… I treasure these unexpected moments even more.

 Q. Despite rumours of, and unwarranted calls for, your retirement, you continue to play and win reputed international tournaments. What keeps you going?

A. I won’t say that I have completely ignored [the rumours]. There clearly comes a point when you are confronted with these questions and have to explain yourself. Generally, I consider these things as background noise. Let us put it this way: I play the best chess I can right now and I view the game differently as I have more experience… Age is a reality and I don’t see it as an obstacle, and there is no point thinking about it. I play the best I can and I am having fun.

Q.We don’t hear about many female chess stars. Why do you think that is so? Do you think chess is and has historically been a male-dominated sport?

A. Broadly speaking, yes.  There is a huge gap in performance between male and female chess players. Why this is the case, isn’t clear… Some people say that chess as a game has some physical component. But these are all theories. I myself have wondered about it…

Another thing I would like to add here is that the gender gap has been reducing. Once upon a time, there used to be a huge abyss. There used to be one top player and then one or two women players maybe 300 points behind, and then everyone else.  Now the gap between the top man and the top woman is about 100 points, and the gap between the best man and other women is around 250 points and so on. There are a lot of women who are very competitive these days. As more and more women participate, the gap would be reduced. But it hasn’t completely closed and I don’t have a clear answer why.

 Q. This is the age of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in chess. How has AI changed the way we play and practice chess now?

A. On the one hand, it is very nice. It helps us explore a lot of ideas and allows us to try many interesting things. You can ask questions and play training matches.  But having said that, the work load has also gone up enormously and that is part of the reason why chess takes a lot out of you these days.

Q. Which tournaments have you been preparing for these days?

A. Right now, I am preparing for a tournament in the Netherlands. That’s my thing right now. My schedule for the rest of the year is not clear, but I am hoping to have a few tournaments ready and looking forward to playing a lot next year.

‘Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life’,  by Viswanathan Anand (as told to Susan Ninan), is published by Hachette India


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