'Human competition is fascinating': Viswanathan Anand
He sparked off a chess revolution in India and Asia, at large, in the '80s and '90s. And while technology may have simplified the complicated, former world chess champion Viswanathan Anand tells Allan Jacob, why human mind will prevail over machines
It's a futile effort breaking through six-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand's defences. The effort to demystify a genius isn't going too well either, a gargantuan task during a phase known as writer's block, when the mind fails to respond to simple challenges like firing off questions. So, the interviewer simply stops and listens to a remarkable talent, only to be left feeling inadequate and shallow.
But the lightning kid who went on to become emperor of the board still has the common touch, one of the reasons why he is held in such high regard. He remains a mass champion in a sport where it is thought the brain often overrules emotions. And it helps that he hails from Chennai where this writer spent some memorable (and forgettable) years. There is a sense of camaraderie. He's a home lad.
Anand now lives in Spain but remains an icon in India where he is feted and even revered by the chess fraternity. And why not? He sparked off not just an Indian but also an Asia chess revolution in the '80s and '90s with his exploits on the world chess stage.
So much has been written about Anand, his game dissected both by aficionados and rivals, but much remains unsaid about the man who appears deceptively normal, yet charming during the conversation. He thinks and calls the last question dodgy, and one is scratching the head wondering if he meant deceitful or smart. The poser, perfectly innocent: "Where do you see yourself in the pantheon of chess greats?" He refuses to be drawn into such a situation. Is he wary about his challengers, those from the past, present and the future? A question best left unasked.
Realisation dawns late on this writer as he remains stoic in defence till the end - Sicilian or Queen's Indian, one cannot fathom. He is tactically sharp and politically correct, the wealth of experience of being in the spotlight coming to the fore on the occasion. Who knows, the next phase could see his big game to seal his legacy and remove those lingering doubts about his greatness.
You could be called chess's evergreen hero. What's the secret of your staying power in such an intensive sport where stress levels can shatter lesser mortals and lead to early burnouts?
There is no doubt that chess is becoming more intensive and younger as a sport. However, I feel that because I love playing and enjoy working, I try to manage my schedule and pay attention to my fitness. I am still able to compete at the top. There are a couple of other players also of my generation... who are in their early fifties and are ranked at the top: (Vassily) Ivanchuk and (Boris) Gelfand. I hope we can continue doing that.
Do you think experience matters in chess, or is it intelligence and IQ? At 50, what more can Vishy Anand accomplish? Does your wisdom and experience matter?
Experience and intelligence matter, but you need to think intelligently on how to bring it to bear. To make my experience work. it doesn't mean I can avoid working on modern methods. What I've got to do is to try and see if there is some experience or some lesson captured in my experience that isn't available today. Very often, recalling some of my own victories and defeats, I can plan for various scenarios. And that makes a difference in the final result. So, it's a skill you have to actively learn to use. But, yes, it can be brought to bear, not in isolation but in conjunction with today's methods.
In your book, you (rightly) say that it rankles that you have not been given your due. The game and experts never saw you in the same light as the other champions, like a Karpov or Kasparov. Was it because you were Indian?
I say that at times, it has rankled and I wasn't given my due, but that isn't the case today. Anyway, chess doesn't speak with one voice. So, I feel my achievements have been recognised enough.
How much has technology affected or hurt your game? Do you miss the human factor? Or has tech helped you become a better player?
Tech disruption, obviously, has impacted everyone. It is one of these developments you cannot ignore. And it has helped us improve in many aspects, and has taken the game forward in many different ways. That said, I do miss the human factor of yore, but it was a different kind of game. It is a question of remembering what it was and appreciating it rather than trying to recreate the past. It should be said that technology has affected the area of preparation. the actual over-the-board combat is still based entirely on the human factor.
What do you consider more important - talent or hard work? Would you have come this far without spending those sleepless nights and pushing the limits on the board?
Hard work. I answered this question in my book. I believe talent is the extra factor that you have, but without hard work, it is useless. Hard work helps that talent mature and, equally, hard work benefits from talent because you accomplish more. Nothing can be accomplished without hard work.
You have inspired a generation of players, both in India and internationally. Any favourites from this generation of players?
I can't pick a player that I have inspired. I like (Fabiano) Caruana's play, for instance.
Do you credit your success to your family life? You appear grounded than most champions?
I believe that my upbringing helped me in some ways in dealing with the stress and rigours of competition. I also talk in the book about how I was brought up to be polite. Sometimes, it worked well, sometimes, I felt I should have asserted myself more forcefully. In the end, I concluded that it's just the way I am. I am comfortable being myself. I cannot say I appear more grounded than other champions. I have my personality and I try to be faithful to that.
Man versus machine - what is the future of chess? Why have humans when you have AI that can analyse and beat humans in chess?
Man versus machine is over. Machines play better than men and we are never going to catch up. In this case, we are using machines as tools, to probe more deeply into the secrets of chess. Only human competition is fascinating. Very few people have any interest in chess as a sport between two computers.
Reading Mind Master, some parts of it made me think more about human frailty. It's intense and exacting. No amount of preparation and obsession about the game can help you against an opponent who is more crafty. Are you prepared for such eventualities?
I tell myself that you imagine 10 eventualities and try to prepare for them. Inevitably, when you are confronted with the 11th and 12th situation, it still allows you some sort of planned response. So, even if you are unable to completely visualise what can happen, doing some work in that direction does improve your reaction.
Looking back, what is your most cherished win or title? I thought you never seemed satisfied as a person after reading the book.
On the contrary, I was incredibly satisfied after winning some games or tournaments, and I have mentioned them in the book. Tournaments that meant a lot to me. they came at difficult moments and how much I cherish them! But you cannot live on that forever. So, if you mean that I get restless after a while, yes, I am guilty. But you have to appreciate and not take things for granted... and have to move on as well. By the way, you asked me about my most cherished win... I don't think such a thing exists. My important wins were certainly the world championships.
Does the game help your creativity? Would you suggest that mere mortals like me play it more and have fun? Can you say from your heart that chess is fun? I missed the fun element in your book.
I think chess teaches you some skills that you can apply in some other areas of life. But obviously, you have to work hard. The game does influence your way of thinking, but it's very hard to isolate an example.
Do you think the game has become secondary to you at this stage of your career?
I enjoy playing. I mean, at the heart of it, chess is a problem that you like to solve, and when you solve it well, you are happy. I am certainly enjoying the game... I am not certain if it is more or less than before.