• Hello and welcome to Walk the Talk. On a very chilly Delhi afternoon, we are at the IIT campus. This is where the finest young minds in India want to be and we have a couple of them today, trying out their skills at chess and they have a bit more than competition. Isn’t it (to the youngsters playing chess on the ground)? Vishwanathan Anand (standing next to them). He’s the guy to beat. But before you can do that, I think I’ll take him away from you ...
Anand, nice to be with you. Tell me, what is this mystery about your name? Are you Vishy or Anand? The whole world, at least the whole of India has got it wrong. You aren’t Vishy, you’re Anand.
That’s right. I’m Anand. My father is Vishwanathan. At some point people assumed that this must be my first name and Anand must be my last name. It’s common in the West. Vishwanathan was unpronounceable for them. Became Vishy.
But my father is Vishwanathan Krishnamurthy. I am Anand Vishwanathan. Of course, my wife is Aruna Anand. So among the mysteries we have to explain to many people is, though we are married, why we don’t share the same family name.
• It’s very interesting to be chatting with you here at IIT, Delhi, because we have seen the great Indian researchers, the great feel-good mood in India and overseas also. And much of it has been created by the kind of people who come out of the IITs or IIMs or young Indians in the IT industry. All Indians who basically use their minds to mark a few conquests of the world.
And if I look at that closely, I think you were the first to do so. Because you play chess, a mind game entirely. How do you look at the situation — do you see some change in the air in India ... And overseas?
I’ve felt this for many years now ... Already, four-five years back, you could begin to grasp this. And yes, definitely there is something in the air. Something is stirring in India and our image has changed abroad. For the better ...
We have gone from being non-existent to being on the radar. But out here sometimes you feel that people have gone a bit over the top. We have made progress, but it’s much too soon to declare victory. We still have a long way to go.
• But this whole ‘‘India Shining’’ mood, you feel ... it’s for real. A lot of Indians feel that way, a lot of Indians are saying, ‘We have arrived.’ And we usually think we have arrived on the strength of our mind-power. Is it exaggerated or for real?
I think it’s broadly for real. If you see a lot of these high-technology sectors, genuinely people are very impressed with Indians and their performance. And I think partly in chess as well. Our image has changed.
I am the last person to pour cold water on this. But I’d just say, ‘Take a deep breath and ...’ There’s still some way to go. Other countries are doing well also. Look at South Korea and ...
• Even Turkey for example ... Some of the old central European republics as well, they are turning around quite well. So we’ve got competition. But do you see a new respect for India and Indians as you travel abroad? Because your game is such where you mostly deal with non-Indians?
Like I said, we are on the radar and people do take India and Indians’ achievements seriously. For instance, India as a brand has come some way.
• If India as a brand has come some way, you could be a very worthy brand ambassador for India.
I think it was important to show that, okay, we can still play chess. You know India has this thing of ... the origin of the game. Then subsequently we really lost our way. So it’s nice to contribute.
• But what is it that’s so special about the Indian mind? We haven’t done so well in so many other areas. But it’s in technology ... to some extent in enterprise as well. But mainly technology and math.
I think education’s always had a big role in India. Indian parents, above anyone else, really take education seriously and expect their child to go through college and get a good degree and get good marks and get a good job.
This pressure was always there and that’s why we have such a huge pool of science and engineering graduates ... But other countries have their strengths too.
• We can’t be complacent. It’s not as if we have arrived and from now it’s only on the way up, up and up.
No, not at all. In fact, I think many other countries having noticed us are now starting to take these things much more seriously. I see more countries saying, ‘Well, we need more science and engineering graduates because otherwise all these jobs will go to India.’
• It’s quite ironical now to read articles in the press, in the US and Britain, about Indians taking away jobs.
Yes, it’s kind of funny, I never expected to see it. Because it’s the sort of thing you associate with manufacturing ... We are, for the most part, in services.
• An evil elephant taking away our jobs!
Something like that. But I’d say, basically, UK and US ... In continental Europe that hasn’t really been the case. Maybe because of the language, we are not taking any jobs.
• Anand, you’ve had your share of attracting curiosity as well. People have compared you to a yogi with your poker face. Even when you are losing a match, you don’t betray any sentiment. When you are winning — a streak of happiness, a wicked smile sometimes ...
I am happy, and in general when I am happy I think it shows. But when I lose also I think you can make out my mood’s not very pleasant. (Laughs) ...
But, yes, in general, sportswriters try to make their articles as entertaining as possible ... Like in cartoons I am often a raja sitting on a mighty elephant trampling everything in his path when I win ...
• The elephant must be moving very fast, because you are rapid-fire with your game.
This is all very good-natured humour. Also, always when I win there’s a tiger somewhere in the photo ... I just have a good laugh.
• But stereotypes are always there. Not long ago, if you were a grandmaster, you had to be Russian. Or from one of the Soviet republics. That monopoly is now gone.
Yes. Though Russia is still far and away the best country in chess. So in that sense they still keep this lead.
But, yes, we are hearing of more players from the rest of the world. That’s made it seem much more international as a sport. Which it was, because there have always been fans in every country. But the Soviets seemed to run away with everything.
• Anand, we talked about the passport not being so important. Tell me about the game of chess. Do you wear the flag on your sleeve when you play a game of chess?
When Saurav Ganguly plays cricket, he wears the flag on his chest. When Rahul Dravid scores a hundred, he takes off his cap and kisses the national crest ... The kind of nationalistic feeling that team sports — even tennis, to some extent, with the Davis Cup — inspire. Does chess do any of that?
It does. When I played the world championship match with (Garry) Kasparov, for instance, there was clearly a Russia versus India aspect to it. In Teheran as well, people came from the Indian School and when I won the title they had this big Indian flag and draped it around me.
But on the whole I think for the players themselves it doesn’t bother them that much. You feel you represent your country, but you also feel you are a global citizen. You’re just like another person ...
I think, in general, this nationalism comes with marketing. When you want to market something and make it exciting for the fans, you bring nationalism into it. It’s an easy way to raise the pitch. But I don’t know if the players themselves necessarily feel that way.
• Or say in football these days, you can do it both ways. You can bring in nationalism and you can bring in club loyalty.
Exactly. Sometimes when Zidane is playing for France and Raul is playing for Spain, I’m not sure whom to root for, because they’re both in Real Madrid. (Laughs) You have cross-loyalty as well.
• Roberto Carlos and Ronaldo ...
• You talk about your happiest hour and your saddest hour.
It struck me Zidane’s happiest hour must have been winning the World Cup with France. And there was Ronaldo, in absolutely the lowest point in his life. And now they are happily in the same team.
Ronaldo was talking about a dream he had and thought he had died and God knows what ... And now they are in the same team. But I guess, time healed that.
• That’s the interesting part. You know, in football, the club game is now diminishing national boundary lines. In cricket it’s not quite happening. It’s more important in India and not really an international sport ... But is chess, to that extent, a de-nationalised game?
I don’t feel it’s de-nationalised. People tend to identify with their own kind. Also language is a big factor. Often, in a tournament, people tend to gravitate towards other people of their own language group.
So the Russians might tend to congregate. Not because of any nationalism, but simply because it’s easier to speak Russian with each other ... The English-speaking group is a big one. And then you have the Spanish-speaking group.
• Leander Paes, whom you know well, always says that he’s different when he plays for India. Leander Paes in the Davis Cup is very different from Leander Paes in Wimbledon. Do you have that feeling at all? Are you playing for India? Are you there as an Indian? Are you there as just Anand? Or are you just mind-wrestling with another grandmaster?
To be honest, I start off playing for India. And that’s it. Beyond that, the game just takes over. Maybe in an Olympiad you have this feeling, that India is playing Russia. But sooner or later the game just takes over. And at that point you stop thinking.
• But if you brought in this nationalism bit, maybe as a marketing ploy, maybe the game will find more sponsors, supporters.
It’s always possible. But first of all, you have to sell the game. You also have to get the game on TV. Right now, we are able to do it quite well on the Internet. But chess just hasn’t found its niche on TV.
• If you can get golf on TV, why not chess?
But at least with golf, you can see the ball moving even if you don’t understand anything. In chess, that’s the problem. It often looks as if nothing is happening.
You really need someone to get across how exciting it is. And how dynamic it is. What’s happening and how players are calculating and so on. You need to do something in that area.
But yeah, nationalism always works. Say, when I am playing the world championships or something, nationalism comes in. When I was playing Kasparov in New York, okay, it was India versus Russia or our guy versus them. That plays a part. But it never gets out of control in chess.
• Anand, tell me which are some of your happiest moments while playing chess?
Recently when I won the world rapid championship. That was a high point. But sometimes there might be moments during a game. When I was in Belgrade once, playing Kramnik — the Yugoslav crowd really understands chess, they are connoisseurs — the crowd started applauding halfway through the game. And the others had to ask them to hold it. Again in the end they clapped.
It was a spectacular game. And they could really appreciate that as opposed to people who are just waiting for the result or rooting for one player or the other ...
In 2001 I was playing in Russia and I made a move — which was quite spectacular actually ... the spectators just started clapping. That was quite cute.
But you also have nationalism. If you remember Bobby Fischer versus the Russians, what was that? That was nationalism running amok.
• I was in college then and that’s when many of us learnt to play chess, because suddenly we became sensitised to this interesting game called chess. And it was a Cold War thing. But chess has moved on since then.
It has. I mean, even Kasparov versus Karpov, they managed to get this angle of reformer versus reactionary. The state against one boy.
And Kasparov almost became the default candidate for the rest of the world. Or the Americans, if you like, because he was supposedly identified with the reform clique. But subsequently this angle hasn’t played a part.
• I have an interesting story to tell you about Kasparov, my little brush with the grandmaster. I think it was in January 1990 and I had gone to cover the initial stages of the break-up of the Soviet Union. And I was taken by some students to the Azerbaijani embassy in Moscow and who do I find there as the spokesman for the Azerbaijanis, but Garry Kasparov.
People said ‘Meet Garry, meet Garry.’ And I said, ‘Who Garry?’ and they said, ‘Garry Kasparov.’ I sat there and because I had to make some conversation, I said, ‘Well, we have this new grandmaster called Vishwanathan Anand.’ And he said, ‘Yes, yes, we know about him and we are studying him.’
That was in January 1990. And you’ve had an interesting relationship since then with him.
Yes, we’ve had interesting moments. Obviously his match (in New York, for the world championship) was a big point in 1995. Subsequently we were very close to having another match in 1999 and obviously we have met a lot in tournaments.
Just to show you how far things have come along, recently when I won the world rapid championship he called a mutual friend and said, ‘Congratulate Vishy. Not because Vishy won, but because by far the oldest participant won.’ (Laughs)
• But chess players have their eccentricities, isn’t it?
Actually they are very funny people ... always full of jokes. You have to really catch them in the evening after work.
• But tell me, who’s the most eccentric that you’ve dealt with?
Ivanchuk. By far. He’s someone who is very intelligent ... but you never know which mood he is going to be in. Some days he will treat you like his long-lost brother. The next day he ignores you completely.
The players have a word for him. They say he lives on ‘Planet Ivanchuk’. (Laughs) ... I have seen him totally drunk and singing Ukrainian poetry and then the next day I have seen him give an impressive talk.
For a while he was trying to learn Turkish. Don’t ask me why ... Everyday is a surprise with him.
• Anand, chess, I would have thought, was an ageless game. In the sense that unlike contact sports or physical sports where people tend to retire in their 30s, you can carry on in chess. But not quite so. I find most grandmasters are in their 30s and no more. Why is that?
Chess has become much younger over the years. Since computers came into the equation and the number of tournaments — the pace of life in chess, so to speak, picked up, the average age has been dropping. Nowadays I am already the oldest participant in many tournaments.
• At 34?
At 34. And on top of that, the next guy is often seven years younger than me.
• And I believe there are 12-year-old grandmasters now?
There’s a 12-year-old grandmaster who, thank God, now is 13. So it’s not so bad. Imagine, I was 21 when he was born.
• I always thought that with more experience and more memory as you grow older, you should be able to play better chess. Do you get tired or burnt-out? What happens?
Tired is one thing. The other aspect is earlier this balance between calculation and experience is what was played off. The younger could calculate better, the older people tried to bring their experience.
What happens now is that there’s so much information available that you are able to compensate for the experience to some degree. And the second thing is that calculation is assuming a bigger and bigger role in chess these days. That favours the young by definition.
• And if you’re really experienced, you can go at par with the computer.
Yes. So what the older players are doing now is to try and work on their tactics. And the computer is a big help. Because computers always play perfect tactically.
• What is it a computer cannot do that a human being can do?
Long-range thinking. Strategising. It cannot visualise a position 20 or 30 moves ahead, it cannot eliminate moves and it cannot understand null moves. Null moves meaning waiting moves. It cannot understand the concept.
• It also can’t look you in the eye..
I’ve never tested that particular one. Maybe it’s looking at me all the time but I don’t realise it.
• Playing with computers is de-humanising the game. Talk about making it a larger spectator game and then you bring in computers. It’s ...
Funnily enough, man versus machine contests have had a certain amount of interest in them. Maybe because people find this man versus machine concept interesting. Maybe it’s because of the Terminator movies. Maybe it’s because of science fiction.
I imagine it would wear off at some point. And people will look back and think it was silly.
• As time passes, chess players will be more like efficient computers and machines, because I believe now the amount of preparation that goes into a game is much more than maybe in the Spassky-Fischer period.
Sure. Among other things computers can do a lot of your checking for you. So what you earlier needed entire teams to check and clean up, you can now do with a computer.
• Do you prepare more? Look at more data now than people did in the Spassky-Fischer days?
Much more. These days we live with databases of more than three million games. That number is increasing by 200,000-250,000 every year.
• And what was it like in the 1970s, when Spassky and Fischer played?
First of all, there were no databases. You pulled out a book. You saw one game. For the reference you went to page 59. And there it said look at page 172 and you turned to page 172 and it might say look at another book ...
You might look at four games or five games on a board. Now in that same time you used to take to look at five games, you can look at 40 with your cursor key. It’s so much faster.
• That’s where the better Indian mind at mathematics should be handy.
Perhaps that’s one explanation. That somehow we grow up with this school system that prepares us for ...
• Look at the 11 grandmasters who have come up in your wake. You created the chess revolution in India. How do you look at them? What are their prospects?
India is doing very well in the younger age groups. Say between eight and 14. And what is happening is that some of these younger players ... subsequently start to move to the higher levels of chess ...
Sasikiran is the first one. He has broken through to the 2,600 mark, which puts him in the top 100 approximately.
• What is the target for yourself? You’re the Grand Old Man of chess at 34. In India we don’t have a lot of world champions. You’re one of our very, very few. So what is it that you want to end up with as your crowning glory?
I would like to win the unified world title. I am quite happy with my win in Teheran, but at the end of the day, as long as you have this split and this confusion, it looks funny. Hopefully soon there’ll be a unified world title and I’ll have a go at that. Hopefully I can also beat Kasparov along the way.
• That’s your favourite of all time?
Right. But if he’s not along the way then I’ll have to do it separately.