The King and I – playing against a World Champion

1/17/2013 – Have you ever done that yourself? What is it like to face a chess opponent who is unfathomably stronger than you are. Jaideep Unudurti, a freelance journalist, challenged reigning World Champion Viswanathan Anand to a two-game blitz match, and describes the experience in vivid detail for the Economic Times in India. Here's his wonderful two-part article.

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The King and I

What happens when a chess enthusiast plays the world champion?

By Jaideep Unudurti

“You’ll bring the board?” asks Mrs Aruna Anand over the phone, “for we don’t have one at home”. Viswanathan Anand, the world champion doesn’t own a chess set. I am not surprised. Over the last decade, computers have taken over India’s greatest export, storing billions of games in giant databases. Long before you can set up the pieces, you can click through to positions going back to 10th century Baghdad. Or you could fire up your browser and play “blitz”, chess at steroidal speeds, with an opponent across the globe.

I had emailed Anand, saying it would make an interesting story to play against him and write about the experience. He agreed, and now his wife is on the phone to discuss the conditions of play, just as she has with the likes of Kramnik and Topalov.

We decide that I should bring the board and pieces while Anand supplies the chess clock. A chess clock is basically two stopwatches linked to each other. When a player makes a move and presses a switch, he simultaneously stops his clock and starts the opponent’s. Old-fashioned analogues have given way to digital timers but both kinds invariably excite airport security.

In movies you often see the villain and hero playing each other using elaborately carved pieces. For actual play such sets are impractical. Chess players are a conservative lot, and top level events prefer a type called the “Staunton” which was first used in a London tournament held in 1851.

FIDE, the world chess body has clear rules and exact ratios for official sets. The pawn is the basic unit of measurement, for example, “the size of a square should be twice the diameter of a pawn’s base” or the king’s height is twice that of the pawn.

Not that Anand or his peers on Olympus need boards. To them, the gross physical artefacts of wood and plastic are merely shadows of a struggle taking place in abstract dimensions, in an aetheric plane where forces, energies, entities collide. To invert a quote, to them, matter is just a disease of the mind.

The modalities are worked out, we are to play two games, with Anand under a time handicap. While I get five minutes with two seconds added for each move Anand will have three minutes with the same increment. The venue is to be a 29th floor penthouse overlooking the sea, on the outskirts of Chennai.

In the words of JoePa, “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital”. I have a week to get my game up to speed. How best can I take advantage of the time-odds? Do I play off-beat openings? Or mug up endgame theory? I decide to call in some help.

First on my go-to list is FM Dennis Monokroussos (above), who publishes a highly regarded blog called The Chess Mind. Dennis says, “My suggestion is to play against him as if you both had the same amount of time and had the same rating. Play your best openings. It will give you your best chance to score.”

Match play demands a close study of your opponent. Taking a leaf out of Arjuna getting advice from Bhishma on the eve of Kurukshetra I call up grandmaster Peter-Heine Nielsen. Nielsen has been Anand’s second or trainer for over five years, apart from being a top-class player himself. The Dane is a key member of the “A-Team”, Anand’s crack unit of seconds helping the champ to victory over opponents like Boris Gelfand and Veselin Topalov.

I brief him on my task, what do I need? “First of all, good luck” he laughs. He goes into trainer mode, swiftly outlining the plan of action:“Stay solid. Avoid early contact of pieces. Make the game as long as possible. Any kind of tactics will be in his favour”.

What opening should I essay? It is a bit late in the day to improve the middlegame or endgame. Openings are the only area where I have some control. Crudely speaking, queen pawn or “closed“ openings lead to quiet, sustained positional struggles with a strong emphasis on strategy while king pawn or “open” openings lead to bloody brawls with heavy tactics.

To give tailored advice, Nielsen asks me the kind of openings I play. I cheerfully reply with names like the 19th century fan favourite Blackmar-Diemer Gambit. “Well you don’t sound like the most solid guy ever” he says doubtfully.

But do I play something quiet or just try my natural game? “Well, it’s a choice“ he says. “If you want the experience, just play your normal game. I would think keeping it quiet is the way to go but okay, it’s Anand, there is no obvious remedy”. He concludes, “try to make the game long, and make sure he will not win a knockout is the first step”.

I normally don’t play closed openings. Should I still try? Dennis is emphatic, ”Playing that would be a waste of your time – it’s not your style, you don’t know it, you won’t learn anything you’re going to use and it won’t cause him any problems whatsoever.” Dennis concludes, “Don’t play for tricks, unless that’s how you always play chess – be true to yourself.”

All sports are mindgames. Chess naturally is a matryoshka doll of hidden intrigues and nested stratagems. I need some input from a specialist and call in Israeli IM Igor Bitensky (picture above), who is also a cognitive psychologist. Bitensky advises, “I would say you have to get it as complicated as possible. In a technical position you'll have no chance. Attack his king” he says. And as for time management, “Maybe you should just try to play as you have two minutes and not five.”

What should my mind set be? “That ‘I should play an interesting game’ he says. And that 'I have nothing to lose'” he adds encouragingly. Except my pawns I think gloomily. Is there any point in playing fast? “None at all!” says Nielsen. “He will play by hand; you need to think” he concludes.

He will play by hand – ominous words. I understand what Nielsen is saying, that Anand will just use ‘muscle memory’ as it were. Still I take cheer in the words of Karpov, “If you don't believe in victory, you have no business sitting down at a chess board".

A spectacular view of Chennai unfolds beneath out feet. The blue waters of the Bay of Bengal line the horizon. Earlier in the day I had observed with amusement the “pre-game” feeling coming over me, familiar to all those who have played tournaments. A feeling where everything falls away, where everything narrows into a long tunnel of anticipation that you travel to reach the board.

Game One

We begin with the toss to see who gets white, and the advantage of the first move. As per age-old custom, I take a white pawn and a black pawn in my fists and after shuffling them a bit ask Anand to choose. He gets black. An imperceptible nod, and he starts the clock. I take a deep breath. And push the king pawn. The world champion responds instantly with his specialty, the hyper-complex Sicilian Defence.

Instead of sticking to theory I push my queen-pawn on the second move. Very quickly we reach a tabiya or battle array where black and white have castled on opposite sides. This is the preliminary to start launching the respective armies at each other’s kings. Till this point I’m satisfied. I’ve played hundreds of similar games on Internet chess sites and I confidently hurl a pawn towards his king. What comes after is a decided shock.

The c4 square is a crucial battleground in a Sicilian. Black often vectors his knights there, and the square is used as a jumping-off point for both sides. Hence control over it is a key battle in the war. In three moves Anand acquires an iron grip over it, his knight tenanting itself there. He is playing instantaneously while I’m burning up more and more time. His queen, rook, bishop and knight all descend near my king. Checkmate!

I look at the clock – I’ve run out of time while thanks to the increment, Anand has more time than he started out with.

[Event "Chennai, Economic Times game"] [Site "?"] [Date "2012.12.27"] [Round "?"] [White "Unudurti, Jaideep"] [Black "Anand, Viswanathan"] [Result "0-1"] [ECO "B21"] [WhiteElo "2009"] [BlackElo "2772"] [Annotator "Unudurti,Jaideep"] [PlyCount "42"] 1. e4 c5 {The world champion responds instantly with his specialty, the hyper-complex Sicilian Defence.} 2. d4 {Instead of sticking to theory I push my queen-pawn on the second move. Afterwards I asked Anand what he thought of this move. "Well it is obviously a mistake against c5, against e5 you could at least pretend there is a point. But I think against c5 it is just hopeless."} cxd4 3. Qxd4 Nc6 4. Qe3 Nf6 5. Nc3 g6 6. f3 ({Anand: I think in my first book on traps, I read that} 6. e5 {is actually possible:} Ng4 7. Qe2 Ngxe5 8. f4 { and the knight is kind of trapped.}) 6... d6 7. Bd2 Bg7 8. O-O-O O-O 9. Bc4 Na5 {Anand: Obviously this is useful} 10. Bd3 ({If you go} 10. Bb3 {I can play} Nxb3+ 11. axb3 {and then Bd7, b5, a5 and hammer away.}) 10... Be6 11. g4 { Anand: I thought you went slightly off here.} Rc8 12. Nge2 Nd7 13. Nf4 Ne5 14. Kb1 Nac4 {The c4 square is a crucial battleground in a Sicilian. Black often vectors his knights there, and the square is used as a jumping-off point for both sides. Hence control over it is a key battle in the war. Anand has acquired an iron grip over it, his knight tenanting itself there.} 15. Qe2 Qb6 16. Na4 Qc6 17. Nc3 Qb6 18. Na4 {This was the the first moment in the game that Anand started thinking. He thought for a few seconds and played} Qb5 { This was the only move in the game where Anand thought.} 19. Bxc4 Nxc4 20. b3 Na3+ 21. Kc1 Rxc2# {Checkmate! I look at the clock - I've run out of time while thanks to the increment, Anand has more time than he started out with.} 0-1

Post-Mortem: After a game, players often conduct an autopsy, to determine the cause of death, to explore other alternatives and outcomes.

Normally I would try to record the moves in my notepad but I know that nothing would have escaped Anand’s memory. Sure enough he replays the moves faultlessly. I wonder what he has to say at my attempt to catch him off-guard with my irregular queen-pawn move? “Well it is obviously a mistake against c5,” he says, “it is just hopeless”. And as it turned out, he wasn’t caught off guard. He had seen it before, “in my first book on traps” he says, referring to a book he had read at the age of 8.

He then shows me a game played in a recent tournament which had an optically similar idea. “There are some crucial differences between what Magnus did and what you did” he says with a hint of reproach, referring to Magnus Carlsen, the Norwegian wunderkind and current world #1. “I would imagine so” I agree.

I mention that I could have tried to set up the Maroczy Bind (named after Hungarian GM Geza Maroczy). He immediately dishes out scads of analysis. “I could make it a kind of Sveshnikov-Kalashnikov” (Named after Russian GM Evgeny Sveshnikov) he says.

I am struck how he rarely refers to individual moves. Instead he simply sees the correct squares for his pieces, and works backward from there. It is a marriage of imagination and calculation – he does deep calculate but there is an underlying cosmic awareness of which pieces should occupy which squares. Is that an accurate model of his thinking? “Pretty much. I feel White’s structure is wrong,” he says. “The thing is when you started playing g4 Nf4 (referring to my attempted attack on his king) I knew that something would creak. But I wasn’t into details.” Like Michelangelo who saw the sculpture in a block of marble, he seems to see the game beneath the morass of variations in one preordained shape.

Did he play the entire game on touch? “You are right. Basically I just played by finger. You could see it in my time management.” Did you calculate at all? I ask. He mentions a queen move right at the denouement. “That was probably the only move in the game I thought” he says. He could have delivered checkmate one move earlier, but made a slight misstep.

Have you always had this “touch”? “I think everyone has it. It is just that my fingers are faster than yours, in a sense. And I’m able to take in more details with every look. But clearly the more I look the more details I start to take in. And I mean that also the more years you have, the more experience – the more plots you see, the more ideas you see”.

“That is more or less the theme of Hendrick’s book” he says referring to “Move first, think later” by Willy Hendricks, a sort of Malcolm Gladwell of the chess world. “Hendricks says nobody thinks like Kotov, that's a myth”, explains Anand. Alexander Kotov was a grandmaster and founder of the Soviet chess school. Kotov brought dialectic fervour into the royal game. He recommended a search for candidate moves in a given position. Each candidate move could have one or more responses. Each response could in turn branch off into counter-responses and so on. An “analysis tree” would be created, an infinite, endlessly branching tree, a vast phylogenetic forest of the mind.

Anand deconstructs Kotov, “The forest of variations, that sounds lovely as an explanation after the game but nobody thinks like that during the game. It is a procedure that is automatic. Nobody is thinking in logical steps. We just take in huge gulps of information and we work with that.”

– Part two will follow soon –

Previous articles by Jaideep Unudurti

Anand on the World Championship in Moscow (Part two)
18.07.2012 – Immediately after his successful match defence against challenger Boris Gelfand, World Champion Viswanathan Anand spoke to his old friend Jaideep Unudurti. The Indian journalist conducted an interview that was too long and detailed for the newspaper Indian Express, which published only parts of it. Jaideep has given it to us in its entirety. Today we bring you part two.

Anand on the World Championship in Moscow (Part 1)
14.07.2012 – Just six weeks ago Viswanathan Anand successfully defended his World Championship title in Moscow, against Israeli GM Boris Gelfand. Immediately after the final Anand spoke to an old friend, journalist Jaideep Unudurti. The interview was too long (and profound) for his newspaper, which carried only parts of it. Jaideep has given us the rest, which we bring you in three parts. Don't miss this!

The Delhi Interview with Viswanathan Anand – Part two
11.06.2010 – In December 2009 Jaideep Unudurti conducted an indepth interview with Viswanathan Anand. Some of it was published in Mint – a collaboration between the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal – but a lot fell on the cutting room floor. Thankfully Jaideep saved the entire interview, which provides deep insights into the personality of the current World Champion. Here's part two.
The Delhi Interview with Viswanathan Anand – Part one
08.06.2010 – Back in December 2009 Mint – a collaboration between the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal – commissioned their journalist Jaideep Unudurti to do an indepth interview with World Champion Vishy Anand. The discussion lasted for an hour, and only a small section landed in the journal. Jaideep has thankfully transcribed the entire contents, which we will publish in three sections.

Copyright Unudurti/ChessBase

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