Vishy Anand: in pursuit of excellence (1)

by Priyadarshan Banjan
11/16/2015 – Louis Philippe is a premier Indian men’s apparel brand, and has a show hosted by an Indian tennis legend, Vijay Amritraj. In it famous personalities across a varied number of fields discuss their journey to reach the top of their profession. Of special interest to us: a very profound interview with former World Chess Champion Viswanathan Anand. Definitely worth watching.

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Vishy Anand: in pursuit of excellence (1)

Have you heard of the saying that an enemy’s enemy is your friend?

For Kramnik, the 2010 World Chess Championship turned out to be an occasion to be savored – Anand managed to take down Topalov, in what Vishy freely admits to be his toughest match victory yet. Kramnik, arguably, played an active role in helping Anand achieve this win. Vishy commented, “For some reason, I decided that Kramnik’s match-strategy against Topalov was perfect, so I almost copied it. However, I was not doing it very well! I think he just thought: ‘I am not going to take this anymore, I am going to call him and tell him how to do this properly!’”

Louis Philippe presents an annual talk show ‘In Pursuit of Excellence’ that is into its second year. Louis Philippe is a premier Indian men’s apparel brand, and in this show it interviews Indian icons across a varied number of fields, discussing their journey to reach the top of their profession. Into its second season, the show hosted by Indian tennis legend Vijay Amritraj featured former World Champion Vishy Anand in the latest episode.

The host of the show, Vijay Amritraj, is a former World No. 16 in tennis. Amritraj has been an Indian legend in his own right – he has beaten names such as Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, among others. After retiring from tennis in 1993, Amritraj had a brief acting career as well. He played the role of an MI6 agent in the famous James Bond movie Octopussy, appeared in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home as the starship captain, etc.

Agent Vijay played by Amritraj with James Bond played by Roger Moore in Octopussy

Vishy has many things in common with Vijay Amritraj, besides sharing the same hometown – Madras, now Chennai. Both studied in the same school (Don Bosco, Egmore in Chennai) and same college (Loyola College) in Chennai. Both Vishy’s and Vijay’s fathers worked in the Railways. Both the sportsmen were born in December.

Vishy at Don Bosco School (spot him!)

Unlike most talk-show hosts, Vijay Amritraj understands an elite sportsman, since he himself has been one. In this interview, he beautifully brings out Anand’s best from a rich and legendary career, making it a thoroughly enjoyable as well as an informative affair.

The video is 39 minutes long. We bring you excerpts from the first half of the refreshing talk show.


A six-year-old Anand – Mamma’s boy at heart, literally!

As a rule, almost all the interviews revolving around Anand start with the discussion of his extraordinary childhood. Anand pointed out that he and his siblings had a large gap in terms of age, almost of a decade, which meant that Anand needed something to occupy his time. His doting mother, the late Susheela Vishwanathan, taught him the rules, and for the lack of knowing how to proceed, left it at that. Luckily, the Tal Chess Club, a chess players’ haunt in Madras born out of Russian benevolence, proved to be an ideal breeding ground. Vishy goes on to describe how, as fate would have it, his family moved to Philippines, and the young lad was caught in the chess storm at its peak in that country.

Vishy with his parents Susheela Vishwanathan and K. Vishwanathan

Interestingly, Anand reveals that he was a regular tennis player in his younger days, his favourite player being John McEnroe. When asked if he thinks tennis has contributed to his growth as a chess player, Anand said, “In order to sustain mental performance of few hours, you need to be physically fit and I’m sure that tennis helped. But when you do something you enjoy, that itself is very nice. I enjoyed the contrast – playing chess, and then later on doing some tennis instead – so the fact that I was playing chess, then tennis, and then studies worked very well.”

You may read the complete story of Anand’s childhood in this ChessBase article.

Early years

Born in a country, which in retrospect was a relative backwater in terms of chess culture, Anand did not find it easy to rise up the ranks. On being asked by Vijay at which stage he decided to turn professional, Anand said, “I had my breakthrough year when I was thirteen, when all of a sudden I started to just win everything. I can’t explain why, because I was the same person playing the same people I had played a couple of months earlier. But suddenly I was just winning every game. I remember it started in my summer holidays. I won a tournament in the club in Chennai, qualified for the National Men’s Championship by doing well in two tournaments: the team championship and the qualifier (now known as National Challengers Championship), and after that, there were many things I could aspire to do. I don’t know if I thought all the way to be a professional, but I thought okay, now the titles are within reach, I can try to become an International Master, maybe a grandmaster after that. I can try to compete in the World Sub-Junior and World Junior Championships… So it was very exciting for me, because new doors opened.”

World Junior Champion, 1987

When Vijay asked about the confidence that he built up after becoming an International Master at a young age, Anand insightfully replied that it is a stage-by-stage process. At every stage, you find someone new who is stronger than you are, and then you try to compete and get better, and the moment you cross a certain level, you stop looking back and try to find new challenges.

Anand also discussed the Indian chess scene as he grew up. An interesting thing he talked about is how his school studies actually ended up helping his chess career. “At many moments of my career I found it useful to study. By this, I mean that sometimes you hit a wall, and you are not getting any better, and you can’t see why. Then you spend three months, suddenly switching to your exams, and when you come back, the wall will have disappeared, and then you start to play a bit more freely. You can explain this in a way that you are learning some concepts, but you are not able to put them into a piece. You do something else for a while, and when you come back, suddenly, the chessboard looks a bit clearer; something to that effect. It is just that you are playing too much, you are saturated, and you need a break. This enforced break of school worked. Anyway, it was always understood that it will be helpful to have the ‘Sports Quota’ apply as well.”

When asked about his role models, Anand admitted to have drawn inspiration from Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer and John McEnroe.

Work Ethics

As the conversation went ahead, Vijay began to dig deeper, asking some pertinent questions. Chess is a tough sport, and the work ethic of a five time world champion is something every chess player would want to know about. At the outset, Anand explained how his work kept increasing gradually to the point where it needed to be done round the clock. “The work load started to increase, almost imperceptibly, because it was gradual. However, the amount of time I spent thinking and reading about chess increased. Most of the time I was self-taught – I taught myself by playing chess. The infrastructure of coaches and trainers, and even just the availability of material were so limited in those days in comparison to today. Nowadays, there are just so much resources to be found online.”

He further said, “A lot of things stay messed up in your head till you play a few times and you suddenly get this clarity because that pressure and tension at the board is very hard to recreate otherwise.”

Attitude during the game

Dutch GM Hans Donner once said, "In the split second you touch the piece, you’ll see more than you saw in the past 30 minutes you spent studying the position." Vishy had something similar to say when asked about mistakes in chess. “I often had this feeling that I make a move, and the realization that I have done something wrong comes a second later, and then I can tell you, literally, it feels like a shiver in my spine. You suddenly have this feeling of ‘What have I done!’ and you suddenly realize that the position has become critical. The usual technique is to stay as calm as possible, because the first thing is that, maybe, your opponent has not noticed it yet. You shouldn’t -- by your body language or even your breathing -- convey the information to him.

He further adds, “You always see the position very objectively. You can start off with the attitude, ‘Okay, now I am lost’ and mentally I’ll chalk up a zero on the score board, and then see – I will try to fight, and then maybe I’ll get lucky, and that can be a bonus. Therefore, in a sequence, it may go: I was winning earlier, and after the blunder, I am losing. Now, even a half point is a bonus because you adjust to the new situation very quickly. This is a very important skill to have – one of the most critical in chess. For almost two hours, you sit there thinking you are winning, and then suddenly the tables turn completely. The recommended approach is to stay cold and almost surgical and say, ‘Well, those two hours did not happen. Now I am lost, and this is the point I am starting.”

Anand further added that there are players who are outstanding at just that. He candidly confessed that he is just ‘good’ at it. He had words of praise for Anatoly Karpov, who Anand opined, was excellent in adjusting to new situations.

On playing the legends

Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky played their legendary match in 1972 that ended up putting chess on the map. Anand said when he eventually started playing against chess legends, it surprised him that he was able to guess their moves all the time, because he grew up with their games! They were familiar to him, whereas they had a problem adjusting to him. It is an effect of growing up with these games over the years.

Approach to chess

“Chess is a process of constantly learning from the old games,” Anand says. “It is a question of having a database of solutions. There will always be new problems, and players are constantly solving them at the board. If you learn that, the (data)base of readymade solutions will expand. Each time, it will be a slight deviation from the original solution, but based on the original solution, you can find the idea much faster. So, that is how you learn.”

If you know the meaning of ‘Vishwanathan’ in Sanskrit and play chess,
you will conclude that it literally translates into: ‘Lord of the Chess World’.

Further, commenting on his approach to preparing for tournaments, Anand had some enlightening comments: “First, there is the general work you have to do constantly. These are broadly defined as skills. You have to solve certain chess problems that appear all the time. Before a tournament, assuming you have been constantly tuning your skills, you target the preparation for the potential opponents you will be facing. If you have ten opponents, what you will do is draw a grid detailing what could happen if you have the white pieces against them and what could happen if you have the black pieces. Since many of the players might be sharing the same openings, some things you just expect to happen; it will not necessarily be twenty areas (you need to work on). There will be fewer problems, but you will try to prepare specific surprises for each opponent – pose them unusual problems that they might not be able to solve at the board. That is what you are looking for; chances are that the problems you pose won’t stand up to scrutiny forever. However, during the game, you want to give yourself that little advantage, unsettle them, bring them to something they are unfamiliar, that they are not comfortable facing. This increases your chances of winning.”

Anand continued to speak about how he prepares for specific opponents: “In order to prepare for specific opponents, you truly need to understand what is going on. To give you an example: if I am playing a certain line, specializing in it, then a potential opponent should understand enough about that line to be able to guess what is that I am aiming for, what I am looking for in that line. Then, he will try to ambush me there. For me, it works in reverse. I would assume that that is where he would be, and I will keep on looking at all my material and see where would he try to change. Chess is essentially a guessing game; it is too vast to cover in depth. If you guess what your opponent is going to do that day and you double check on it, that is fifty percent of it! You give yourself an advantage because you have brushed up that area, so you remember all the details very well. Typically, you will make many of these guesses and most of them will be wrong. I think getting the guesses right is most of it.”

– To be continued –

Topics Anand, India

Priyadarshan Banjan is a 23-year-old club player from India. He works as an editor for ChessBase News and ChessBase India. He is a chess fanatic and an avid fan of Vishy Anand. He also maintains a blog on a variety of topics.
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Defenseman Defenseman 11/18/2015 12:23
A fascinating interview. One of the very best I have seen.
Peter B Peter B 11/17/2015 02:04
It even says "1987" in the photo!
algorithmy algorithmy 11/16/2015 10:58
we, chess players, are lucky to have some one like you vishy!
Mindhunterr Mindhunterr 11/16/2015 09:06
Great interview!!! Thank you very much.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 11/16/2015 05:18
anand won the world jr. championship at manila in 1987/88 not in 1986. the 1986 winner was arencibia from cuba.
treetown treetown 11/16/2015 05:18
Very interesting comments, especially about Kramnik and Topalov. I wish he had cited some concrete examples but clearly Anand was at ease and willing to talk openly - a great rare insight.
I could see why so many of the GMs like him - he seems very sincere and amiable.
Ronald Tagra Ronald Tagra 11/16/2015 02:18
People are wearing traditional filipino dress so must be the World Junior in 1987 (not 1986) in Baguio City.

Nice report!!