Vishy Anand: 'Chess is like acting'

10/1/2008 – In a rare interview before the World Championship, which begins in less than two weeks in Bonn, Germany, the reigning champion Viswanathan Anand speaks about the title match against Russian Vladimir Kramnik, about his training in the cellar, the role of emotions and his meeting with Bobby Fischer. The story is in the SPIEGEL, one of Europe's largest new portals. Must-read interview.

"Chess is like acting"

Interview with Viswanathan Anand in Der Spiegel

SPIEGEL: Mr Anand, in two weeks you will be defending your title as World Champion against the Russian Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik in Bonn [Germany]. Two weeks ago you finished last in the Masters Tournament in Bilbao. Is that a psychological handicap?

Anand: Thank you very much for bringing that up. It reminds me of John Cleese from Monty Python. In Fawlty Towers a group of Germans visits his hotel, and he admonishes his staff not to mention the war to them – while he himself can talk about nothing else. So please: don't mention Bilbao.

SPIEGEL: Okay, then on to Bonn. The World Championship goes over eight games, with a possible tiebreak. You have known Kramnik for nineteen years. Can he still surprise you?

Anand: We have been playing in the same events since 1993. But there is a difference if you know someone and if you understand him. In the past twenty years Kramnik has played a few thousand games, and if you show me a position from one of them, in 90 percent of the time I will be able to tell you which game it is from. But one cannot conclude from that that I can see through him. In fact I expect him to surprise me. And vice versa, logically.

SPIEGEL: How did you prepare for the World Championship?

Anand: I have been studying Kramnik since the end of April, up to ten hours a day, here at home in my cellar, where I have my office. I have a database and construct game plans. I try to neutralise positions in which Kramnik is strong. He is doing the same thing with my game, which I must of course take into consideration. Let me put it this way: I must remember that he is thinking about what I am thinking about him. In any case one is working for months with the computer, trying to find new paths.

SPIEGEL: Computers are becoming more and more important. Has chess become a preparation game – whoever is better prepared wins?

Anand: That was always the case. Today we analyse our games with the computer, in the 16th century people did it with a board. That is only a gradual difference. Preparation for a world championship was always an arms race, in previous times with books, then with seconds, today with computers. The computer is an excellent training partner. It helps me to improve my game.

SPIEGEL: But if chess becomes a computer game and every move is calculated by the machine, then isn't the human being simply moving the pieces, and won't every game end in a draw?

Anand: No. Actually I was always pessimistic. Ten years ago I said that 2010 would be the end, chess would be exhausted. But it is not true, chess will not die so quickly. There are still many rooms in the building which we have not yet entered. Will it happen in 2015? I don't think so. For every door the computers have closed they have opened a new one.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?

Anand: Twenty years ago we were doing things that don't work today because of computers. We used to bluff our way through games, but today our opponents analyse them with a computer and recognize in a split second what we were up to. Computers do not fall for tricks. On the other hand we can undertake more complex preparation. In the past years there have been spectacular games that would not have been possible without computers. The possibility of playing certain moves would never have occurred to us. It is similar to astrophysics: their work may not be as romantic as in previous times, but they would never have progressed so far with paper and pencil.

SPIEGEL: One keeps hearing rumours of players secretly using computers during their games. That is cheating. Are the genies out of the bottle?

Anand: It is a threat that we have to live with. I have got used to being checked with metal detectors before playing a game. In the beginning it was a shock for me, since I grew up during an innocent age in sports. But technology develops very quickly. Somebody can be sitting at a remote place, following a game with a computer and sending information to the player. Receivers are becoming smaller, and the number of cheaters is growing. We need to take measures. We have a rule that says that if a mobile phone rings during a game you lose. It is tough, but it has to be enforced. The alternative would be to permit the use of computers during the game.

SPIEGEL: That would be like legalising doping.

Anand: I think it is not doping, it is a different form of the game. But chess should remain a contest of strength between two human beings.

SPIEGEL: What is the role of emotions?

Anand: They are decisive. The moment in which you realise that you have made a mistake is the most unsettling you can imagine. You have to try to keep control of your emotions. Chess is a form of acting. If your opponent senses your insecurity or your annoyance or your dejection, then you are bolstering his courage. He will take advantage of your weakness. Confidence is very important – even pretending to be confident. If you make a mistake but do not let your opponent see what you are thinking then he may overlook the mistake.

SPIEGEL: Are you good at reading the faces of your opponents?

Anand: Usually their faces are completely calm and dispassionate. The exception was Garry Kasparov, against whom I played a World Championship in New York in 1995. He was an open book. What I tend to do is to listen to their breathing.

SPIEGEL: You listen to your opponent breathing?

Anand: If the breathing is deep or shallow, fast or slow – that reveals a lot about the degree of his agitation. In a match that lasts a month even a clearing of the throat can be quite important. Incidental facts are also important: did your opponent have a fight with his wife? If he is occupied with private matters he may not be as focussed as usual.

SPIEGEL: Do you work with psychological tricks?

Anand: No.

SPIEGEL: What do you find most disturbing?

Anand: When my opponent turns the game around. Sometimes it is almost liberating when you finally lose. I think to myself, okay, the point is gone, tomorrow you are going to play better. During a world championship you have to be careful not to panic. It occupies your mind when you see your opponent at breakfast. Is he relaxed? Tense? One is in a strange way obsessed. Kramnik and I will be staying in the same hotel in Bonn, but in opposite wings. Actually we like each other, but it will take quite some time before we exchange any words.

SPIEGEL: Can you switch off in the evening during such tournaments?

Anand: It is difficult to relax without having feelings of guilt. I keep asking myself: shouldn't you be working? But you have to relax, otherwise you cannot play well. Experience helps you to find the right balance. I like to watch old Hitchcock films in order to give my brain a rest.

SPIEGEL: Your nickname is the "Tiger of Madras". But you are not considered to be a predator on the chessboard. Some experts say you are missing the killer instinct. Are they right?

Anand: The thing with the tiger was an invention by some journalist who probably could not think of any other Indian animal. Normally I avoid conflict, and I am indeed not a killer like Kasparov. That is not my style. I am used to moving around in peaceful surroundings. I grew up in a family where values were very important.

SPIEGEL: You are a Brahmin and belong to the highest Hindu caste. You learnt to play chess from your mother, when you were six years old. Unlike the Russian prodigies you were not systematically trained. Would you have liked to go to a special chess school?

Anand: No, that would not have helped me a lot. I would have missed the fun. I had to earn permission to play chess by producing good results in school. Sometime I could not play for a month, and after that I was dying to get back to it and very happy when I could play in a tournament again. That had a great influence on me. After high school I studied business economics, because I was afraid of becoming a chess nut.

SPIEGEL: The American Bobby Fischer, who died at the beginning of the year, was chess crazy, paranoid, misanthropic. You met this chess genius two and a half years ago in Iceland, where he was living in exile. How did that happen?

Anand: I played in a tournament in Reykjavik and the Icelandic grandmaster Helgi Olafsson asked me if I would be interested in meeting Bobby Fischer. Olafsson picked him up from his flat, while I waited in the car. Fischer probably wanted to avoid my knowing which apartment was his.

Bobby Fischer during his final years in Iceland

SPIEGEL: What did you talk to him about?

Anand: Fischer told me how he sometimes rode around Reykjavik with the bus, in order to see the city. He complained that he could not get Indian balm [Amrutanjan] in Iceland. Suddenly he wanted to go to McDonalds. So there he was, this legend of the chess world, asking me if I took ketchup.

SPIEGEL: Did you talk about chess?

Anand: Of course. We were standing in a park and Bobby pulled out an old pocket chess set and we analysed a couple of games between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi in 1974. He wanted to prove that all world championship games after his victory were prearranged. He did not convince me.

SPIEGEL: Why did Fischer specifically want to meet you?

Anand: Perhaps he felt an affinity. We are both from countries in which chess was not popular until we came along. I am not Russian and Fischer felt persecuted by the Soviets in the past. And there is evidence to suggest that Soviet grandmasters actually ganged up against him.

SPIEGEL: Fischer proposed a new variation of the game, which is called Fischer Random Chess. He wanted the pieces in the starting position to me shuffled before every game. Would that not be a more creative form of chess?

Anand: I do not think much of a random placement of the pieces. That is perhaps something for people who were previously active and now have very little time. They don't want to study openings theory. But the opening systems are part of chess.

Anand with his wife Aruna

SPIEGEL: Some top players have gone mad during their careers, like the Austrian Wilhelm Steinitz, the first generally recognised world champion. Is that a professional risk?

Anand: You need to have a life apart from chess, then there is no danger. You have to have other interests. But there weren't that many who became seriously deranged. Only they became known to a wide public. I am sure there are just as many crazy doctors or bus drivers.

SPIEGEL: You are now 38 years old, which means that as a chess professional you are close to retirement. How long are you going to keep playing?

Wife Aruna, Anand, father Viswanathan, mother Susheela in an CNN-IBN portrait

Anand: As long as I can play at the top. At the moment I feel great, my best years were the last three. But it is clear that chess players are becoming younger and younger.

SPIEGEL: In recent times the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen has been in the headlines. He is seventeen and at the beginning of the month he was, for five days, the number one in the unofficial world rankings. How good is he?

Anand: He will sooner or later become World Champion. I like him, he is a Monty Python fan, just like me.

SPIEGEL: There are rumours that he is your second for the World Championship against Kramnik.

Anand: That's a rumour I have heard as well. Perhaps there is some truth in it. Perhaps not. Let Kramnik figure it out, let him occupy his mind with this question. That is part of the psychological game before this kind of match. When you know who is part of your opponent's team you can imagine what he is planning. So I will not reveal anything.

SPIEGEL: Mr Anand, we thank you for this interview.

The interview was conducted by SPIEGEL editors Ansbert Kneip und Maik Großekathöfer. The original German version is to be found in the latest issue of SPIEGEL Magazine and on Spiegel Online, Europe's largest news portal. Translation into English by Frederic Friedel. © SPIEGEL.

Three-page spread in Der Spiegel, Europe's largest news magazine


The Fawlty Towers "Germans" sketch mentioned by Anand

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