Chairman of the board
Nicknamed 'the Madras tiger,' India's Viswanathan Anand is the world's best chess player. He talks about being a national hero, embarrassing losses that almost made him quit, and his preparations for next year's World Championship match against Boris Gelfand.
FRANKFURT - Some people say that the passage of time does not affect serene, positive, happy people - even externally. My previous meeting with Viswanathan ("Vishy" ) Anand was in the mid-1980s, in the Swiss city of Biel, the venue of a major annual chess tournament. Anand was then 15 or 16 and already a rising star in the chess firmament. Lean, modest and polite, he possessed acute analytical capability and astonishing mental speed, even when pitted against experts in rapid chess (about 25 minutes for each player ), of which I considered myself one, with a certain degree of justification. We played a few friendly blitz games (five minutes for each player ), which I finished with a small minus and the feeling that I had been doing battle against a concrete wall.
This month I met Anand again, in the town of Bad Soden, near Frankfurt. He really hadn't changed much; his boyish looks clearly belie his 42 years. He had come from Moscow, where he met with the heads of the Russian chess federation to clarify a few details about his world championship match next year against the contender: Israeli grandmaster Boris Gelfand.
My encounter with the reigning world champion, held at the Chess Tigers training center, was arranged with the generous help of Hans-Walter Schmitt, a businessman and avowed lover of chess, and a close friend of Anand's. For years, Anand has come to Bad Soden to rest, focus and practice; he has an apartment a short walk from the training center. From here he was to go to Brazil, to participate in the first stage of a large international tournament, which will conclude in Bilbao, Spain. Anand and Gelfand will also cross paths in the middle of November, in Moscow, for a tournament commemorating the late Jewish world champion, Mikhail Tal. Anand will then participate in two more tournaments, before the moment of truth: the match against Gelfand, in May 2012. Anand says he is already preparing.
"Professional players work almost every day, for hours on end, and the emphasis is on the word 'work,'" he says. "It can be with a partner or it can be alone, but professional chess is always a pursuit of something new and surprising."
The Anand-Gelfand match in Moscow will be an encounter between "pensioners." Chess may not be athletics, swimming or soccer - but here, too, an international encounter between a champion of 42 and a contender of 43 is unusual. In our computer generation, young chess players reach the heights far earlier, often between 16-17 and 20-22 years of age. A 25-year-old player can be considered mature and experienced, after taking part in dozens of major competitions.
How significant is a player's age in chess?
Anand: "That is a complex question. Preparedness for a game that usually lasts four-five hours requires good physical condition and also steady nerves. I don't know how many calories an average chess player burns per game, but it often exceeds that of a player in ball games. It is not only the chess as such: You need to be fit and undergo complicated preparation."
Like the running and swimming that Garry Kasparov used to do, or Anatoly Karpov's swimming?
"I personally prefer long-distance walking, but we are talking about pre-tournament preparation. During a tournament I make do with walking, mainly to concentrate before a game."
This should not be taken to mean that Anand has given up swimming, which is one of his favorite pastimes along with reading and listening to music.
"As for the age of professional chess players, which is getting younger ... it is not a decisive factor," he explains. "The computer era is bringing many young talents into the game, and some of them are developing into a serious power in world chess. Magnus Carlsen, who is 19, is a full-fledged, top-ranking player, and there a few other mega-talents. But still, the 'veteran generation' - Boris Gelfand, me, Vladimir Kramnik, [Vassily] Ivanchuk, [Veselin] Topalov - all those who are scraping the age of 40 or have already passed it, are coping successfully with the challenge, at least for the time being."Tough adversary
Following Boris Gelfand's victory in the World Chess Federation's Candidates Matches held in Kazan, Russia last May, the prevailing opinion among the world's top players - whether off or on the record - was the same: The reigning champion, Anand, is the clear favorite to win the 12-game match next May and will almost certainly retain the crown he has held since 2007. (In fact, he had been world champion from 2000 to 2002, but at that time world chess was split into two competing federations, and Anand was crowned by only one of them: the World Chess Federation, or FIDE. )
"The favorite?" Anand repeats the question. "There is no point trying to figure out who is better on paper, you simply have to play better at the right time. I have known Boris well for many years, and have a high regard for him. He has been in the top ranks of world chess for almost two decades and has nothing to prove to anyone. In fact, if you examine his win in the World Chess Cup at Khanty-Mansiysk [in Russia] and in the Candidates Match in Kazan, you have to be very impressed, even if your name is Anand and you are the reigning world champion. Gelfand is a chess player who works very hard, and ahead of the match against him, it is necessary to work very hard, too.
"I have known Boris long enough to know his power as a chess player, and I never ruled out the possibility that he would reach the tournament for the title. Boris and I are old friends, and I can tell you clearly that in the Candidates Matches, which he won impressively and justifiedly, he was not the underdog against anyone, even if on the eve of the tournament Vladimir Kramnik and Levon Aronian were considered more 'threatening' and more impressive. But it is not at all certain that they are more diversified than Gelfand, a player who lives the game possibly more than anyone in the top world ranks. From this point of view, Vassily Ivanchuk is perhaps his only equal."
During the conversation, the monitors at the advanced training center in Bad Soden showed positions used in the World Chess Cup tournament, which was then under way in Khanty-Mansiysk. Playing in one of the decisive games was Peter Nielsen, from Denmark, who has worked as an assistant to Anand for many years. Anand excused himself and gazed at the chessboard. Within seconds, he figured out how Nielsen could extract himself from an inferior position. To Anand's disappointment, however, the telepathic waves did not convey his idea across the thousands of kilometers and Nielsen lost.
Well, not everyone is Anand.
Our conversation resumes. The next question concerns the decision by FIDE to reject the candidacy of India and of the Tamil Nadu State government to host the match against Gelfand. Is Anand disappointed, I asked, especially because India's financial offer, $4.5 million, was higher than that of Russia?
"I don't know if the word 'disappointed' is appropriate here. It would have been intriguing to play in India, especially in Chennai, where I was born. In my opinion, India has never once been truly exposed to a chess event on this scale, and it's a bit of a pity - it would have been exciting to play there. But I have no objections to playing in Moscow, either, in the capital of a chess power like Russia."
Anand, it turns out, is not acquainted with the Russian billionaire Andrei Filatov, who donated more than $3 million and thus tipped the scales in Moscow's favor. Formally, FIDE says that the decision to award the match to Moscow stemmed from the higher cash award it offered ($2.55 million, an offer that was "revised" at the last minute, against the Indian offer of $2.25 million ). Knowledgeable sources relate that behind-the-scenes political pressure was exerted to grant Moscow the right to host the upcoming championship match, for the first time since the unforgettable battle between Kasparov and Karpov in 1985. In his recent visit to Moscow, Anand was told that "everything will be all right" on all counts.
Is Moscow preferable from Gelfand's point of view?
"I imagine that Boris preferred Russia, which is of course legitimate," the world champion replies. "As far as I am concerned, it is not important where to play, as long as the conditions are comfortable for both contestants."
Anand has already proved his ability to tackle a tough adversary on the latter's home court and under adverse opening conditions. Not many in his place would have agreed to hold a match for the world title against the Bulgarian grandmaster Veselin Topalov in Sofia, of all places, in light of the rumors that the contender for the title - together with his manager, Silvio Danailov - resorted to provocative methods in order to rattle his adversary. Anand had arrived for that match, in April 2010, by bus, because of the cloud of volcanic ash which grounded flights in Europe at the time.
"We made a decision to take a minibus and drive straight to Sofia, with the damned cloud on our trail," he relates. "We spent 40 hours on substandard roads. We tried to work on the way, but finally accepted the situation, and the bus became a hotel and a cinema on wheels. All in all it was fun, a type of picnic, with a stop in Budapest."
During the competition, Anand displayed the character of a winner, and, after being beaten in the first game, recovered to take the match at the very last minute, 6.5 to 5.5.
Anand has good reason to view Boris Gelfand as an equal rival, and perhaps even to be a little nervous about next May's match. Early on in their professional careers, it was Gelfand who dominated the encounters between them ("plus 4," according to Anand's excellent memory ). Afterward, things evened out. In fact, among the leading first-rank players, Anand has a negative score only with Levon Aronian, the Jewish-Armenian grandmaster, who is considered the most talented of the young generation, along with the "baby" Magnus Carlsen.Comfortable circumstances
Anand terms himself "lucky," and indeed uses that word more than once in our conversation. He was born to an intelligent and very affluent family. His father was the director general of the rail service in southern India. His mother, a well-known society figure, taught her son chess when he was six and was the driving force in that realm, even when the family spent a year in the Philippines. Anand, it can be said, never had to worry about making a living - at least not to the same extent as most international masters and grandmasters who, even today, often have to find other sources of income. The situation of the world champion is different, with an income of tens of thousands of dollars in grants for playing in every tournament and exceptionally high awards to the winner.
Anand: "True, I was lucky to have been born into the family of a person who possessed high economic and social status. Until the age of 13 or 14, the family still thought chess might be just a hobby, but then, at the age of 15, I received the title of international master; at the age of 17 I won the world youth championship; and in 1988 I received the title of grandmaster, at which point it was an easy decision to continue into professional chess."
Anand, the first Indian to be awarded the title of grandmaster, completed his studies at Loyola College in Chennai, a Jesuit institution, and obtained an academic degree in commerce; already then he was a potential candidate for world champion. In 1998, he lost the FIDE championship match to Karpov in a playoff, but two years later, in Tehran, he defeated the Spanish-Russian Alexei Shirov 3.5 to 0.5 (three victories and a draw ) to win the FIDE title.
"There is no doubt that luck was always on my side at the right moment," he observes. "The answer to the question of how to deal with a crossroads or important juncture in life was always there, in front of me: a supportive family and circumstances that combined to point in the right direction. In fact, I did not even have to decide: Fate made the right decision for me."
But it is not just the goddess of luck that has been instrumental in his success: Anand has often been described as one of the most diversified, brilliant and impressive players in the top echelon of world chess, where he has been ensconced for more than two decades. Competitor Gelfand said not long ago that the world champion has very few weak points, if any. Furthermore, about two months ago, Kramnik - a former world champion who lost to Anand in the championship match of 2008 (6.5 to 4.5 ) - said of his adversary: "I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess... I think that in terms of play, Anand is in no way weaker than Kasparov ... In the last five to six years he's made a qualitative leap that's made it possible to consider him one of the great chess players."
Perhaps the best luck Anand has is being married to Aruna: An efficient and effective manager, his wife of 14 years makes it possible for him to concentrate on playing.
"When we met, she knew nothing about chess, nothing about the game itself, and she didn't quite understand why I would sit and think for hours," he remembers. "It started in Dortmund, and then Aruna began traveling with me everywhere. Eventually, she took the reins with respect to all the other matters - organizational details that can make you lose your concentration on the primary occupation. Aruna definitely allows me to concentrate on the game itself. She provides great help, psychologically as well. As I said - luck."
On April 9, 2011, the couple had a son, whom they named Akhil.Passage to India
The conversation loops back to the tensions characteristic of professional chess - the preparation, the physical demands, the concentration on the goal.
Anand: "In the end, what Ivanchuk said is right: If you succeed, everything around you blooms and smiles. I have always enjoyed tournaments ... but if something doesn't flow, you start to look for reasons, sometimes imaginary ones, because it is never easy to blame yourself for failure."
More than 15 years ago, the Anands decided to settle in Spain, about an hour's drive from Madrid, but for four years the family has begun to make a "gradual return" to India.
"I have been in Spain for many years - I loved the country from the first instant, and the people, who are easy to live with," Anand says. "The major stumbling block about the decision [to move somewhere] is the language, but when you learn Spanish, everything works out by itself. From 1997, we spent most of our time in Spain; it is also easy in terms of traveling to tournaments. Now things have changed. We spend five months a year in India, in Tamil Nadu, another month and a half to two months in Spain, and the rest of the time traveling the world to matches. The birth of our son, Akhil, only accelerated the process, but the idea of going back to India to live took hold some years ago. It is important for us, it is a natural process: going home, without being severed from the places and the people you have learned to love and appreciate."
You are a national hero in India, aren't you?
Anand looks directly at me, hesitating, but as befits a modest but honest person replies, "Yes, that is so."
The truth is that to describe him as being popular in India is an understatement. As far back as 1992, when he was only 23, the first Indian chess grandmaster received the first-ever Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, the highest honor for someone engaging in sports (chess is considered one ) in India. In 2007, after winning the world championship, he became the first figure from the world of sports to be awarded the Padma Vibhushan, the country's second-highest civilian honor. (Maestro Zubin Mehta received the award in 2001; the only other figure from the world of sports who received it, a year after Anand, was Sachin Tendulkar, known in India as the "god of cricket." ) After winning the FIDE world championship in 2000, some 50,000 people turned out in Chennai to greet the "tiger from Madras," as Anand has been dubbed. Afterward, he met with senior officials from the local government, then flew to Delhi, where he was received by the president of India, and then immediately flew to Tamil Nadu, for a series of ceremonies in his honor which were broadcast live on local television.
Six years later, the two competing federations merged, and FIDE remained the name of the unified body. The two champions at that time, Kramnik and Topalov, met for a definitive match - and Kramnik won. In September 2007, in a tournament held in Mexico City with the participation of the world's eight leading chess players, Anand triumphed with an excellent score of 9 of 14 possible points - one point ahead of Kramnik and Gelfand.
"That was a great moment for me," Anand recalls, "especially because I no longer had to explain why modern world chess was split and why there were two world champions. I was one of them - but so was Kramnik."
In October 2008, Anand had to defend his title against Kramnik, in Bonn, when the latter for some reason received a "gift" from FIDE in the form of a rematch, a decision Anand termed "ridiculous." Anand opened marvelously, and after six games everything was clear: three wins and three draws, a convenient advantage on the way to a 6.5 to 4.5 victory.
"Maybe it is a matter of timing, of a gut feeling," Anand says. "The feeling that those six-seven games are going in your favor, as though you are doing everything right, all your preparations at home have succeeded and the adversary is encountering one pitfall after another. From 1989 to 2007, I played Kramnik more than 100 times, and the results were even - I think 5 plus for me in rapid chess and 2 minus in classic chess. And here, suddenly, it's 3 plus after six games.
"You know, it's clear that Kramnik was no less motivated than I was. He simply was not able to guess the way, and I was. You know, in the match in London where Kramnik made Garry Kasparov absolutely miserable and won the world championship, Kasparov, who is perhaps the greatest chess player of all time, fought with the clear goal of winning - but did not win a single game."
After matches of such great importance, doesn't the loser feel some hostility, or at least resentment?
"Kramnik and I always maintained good relations. Obviously, after the world championship match, which he lost, he kept a certain distance. Relations cooled a little and that lasted almost a year, until they warmed up again. I don't know how I would have reacted in the event of a loss - maybe I also would have backed away for a time."
And how does someone who has just won the world championship feel?
"I am supposed to be happy, right? But with all the melee, all the scurrying around me, I preferred to be happy in my way: to enjoy the feeling at home later, to live the moment there."Boards in schools
Beyond the realm of chess, Anand has many areas of interest. For example, the world champion - who keeps his political and social opinions to himself - is an avid reader of the press, including the English edition of Haaretz on the Internet; he is thus quite informed about the Israeli political scene.
We talk also about soccer, spurred by his adversary Gelfand's well-known and almost fanatical support for Barcelona. The Israeli grandmaster even mentioned once that he and his daughter sing the "Barca" anthem together. As a bonus for Gelfand's victory in the Candidates Matches, a fan from Russia paid for his flight to London and a ticket to last season's Champions League final between Barcelona and Manchester United.
As for Anand, he has an "Israeli connection" in soccer. Unlike Gelfand, he does not go to many games, but 10 years ago he attended one at Stamford Bridge in London between Chelsea and Hapoel Tel Aviv: "I quite enjoyed it. I think Hapoel did well." (Indeed: The game ended in a 1-1 draw after Tel Aviv won a sensational 2-0 victory at home and advanced to the next stage of the UEFA Cup. )
Anand was the only sportsman in the delegation of Indian Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to a festive dinner given by President Barack Obama in the White House last November. He acknowledges that the most popular sport in his homeland is cricket, but he is working vigorously to promote chess in India.
"Many young people in India are learning chess, and that is important, both in terms of the national team and in order to upgrade general education," he says. "The Mind Champions Academy, which we founded in association with NIIT" - a global talent development corporation - "operates in more than 6,300 schools throughout India and reaches at least a million children. Of them, about 150,000 continue to learn chess regularly, with professional instruction. So far, we are having more success in southern and central India, less so in the north and the east. Under the governmental initiative, the goal is to teach chess in every school, for free. The district states are increasing the number of hours of instruction, in the clear knowledge that chess upgrades knowledge and the desire to advance in other academic subjects by 15 to 20 percent at least."
The Tamil Nadu government has already made chess a mandatory subject in all state-run schools. "That will undoubtedly influence others, the results are encouraging," Anand says. He makes a point of attending all the regional and national school finals, if he is in India.
As to the subject of the large gap in the level of chess between men and women, Anand has no definite answers, but says, "I am convinced that it should not be like this, but in practice there are large differences - naturally, if we do not take into account the phenomenon of Yehudith Polgar [Jewish-Hungarian grandmaster ]. I don't know if the gap will ever be closed, but in the light of the emergence of a few strong Russian, Chinese and Indian women players, I believe that it will."
I ask if he has personally ever experienced a disappointment in chess that almost made him abandon the game altogether.
"Yes, at least twice," he recalls. "The first time was in a major tournament in Linares, Spain, in 1991. In the first two games I defeated Karpov and [Gata] Kamsky, but then I lost to the Ukrainian [Alexander] Beliavsky after enjoying a situation of an absolute advantage in my favor, in a way that left me in complete shock. The second time was in the Dortmund tournament, a decade later. I played so badly that for two months I had serious doubts about continuing in chess - and that, it is worth remembering, was at a time when I was already a legitimate top-ranking player."
When will you start teaching your son chess?
"He is now five months old. In the year ahead I will let him 'smell' the pieces, and then I will put them aside for a few years. When the time comes, Akhil will decide for himself."
Anand has played in Israel a few times: in tournaments held in Haifa in 1998 and in 2000, and in the world championship of blitz chess, which was organized in 2006 in Rishon Letzion.
"Give my regards to Alon Greenfeld," he said at the conclusion of our conversation, referring to the captain of the Israeli team. "Will I be willing to play in a tournament in Israel? Always - just let me know in advance, preferably quite a few months ahead. After all, my tournament schedule is quite crowded."
At this point, Anand bids farewell - until the match in Moscow next May. There, he and Gelfand will once again become adversaries for a short time, but, whatever the result, they will likely remain friends. W