Support teams in chess – All The King’s Men

10/21/2009 – Behind the kings of the chess world, there’s a crack team of knights – or ‘seconds’, as they are called. They work day and night, and spend months together locked up, and once in a while they want to break the tension. In the team of World Champion Viswanathan Anand Coldplay is staple music, but "the guys now also listen to Tamil music." Jaideep Unudurti reports on Outlook Business.

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All The King’s Men

As if Viswanathan Anand didn’t have his hands full preparing for his World Championship defence against Bulgarian Grandmaster (GM) Veselin Topalov next year, an off-the-board move has probably given him more to think about. Last month, it was revealed that Garry Kasparov had agreed to work with Magnus Carlsen, the 18-year-old Norwegian wunderkind. For the fanatical chess fraternity, it’s an intriguing collaboration. It’s as if in the 1990s, Don Bradman decided to coach Tendulkar. Even that’s putting it mildly, for the value of partnerships is more in chess than perhaps in any other sport.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of partnerships in chess. There’s the coach-ward relationship. And then, there is the support team—called ‘seconds’—that does most of the preparatory work for a top player. The Carlsen-Kasparov relationship falls somewhere in between the two.

At the pinnacle of the sport, seconds are the key partnership. Seconds are a throwback from the age of duelling, when two ‘gentlemen’ settled their differences with pistols or swords. Each had a second to help him load the guns, inspect the ‘field of honour’ – where the duel would be fought – and ensure the duel was conducted fairly.


Anand's team of seconds in Bonn: Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Peter Heine Nielsen,
Surya Ganguly, Anand, wife Aruna and Radoslaw Wojtaszek

In chess, seconds have a similar role, helping top players in key matches. They pore over games, act as sparring partners and assess the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Seconds are often strong GMs. Besides a fee, they typically get paid a percentage of the prize money. For them, there is the experience gained by working with top players. For the players themselves, a good team can be, pardon the pun, the difference between finishing first or second.

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