Anand on chess as a profession and on computers

2/23/2009 – World Champion Viswanathan Anand was one of the pioneers in the use of computers for chess. He started using chess database just months after Kasparov, and stuck with information technology ever since. In part two of his indepth interview Anand also speaks about books, professional chess and sporting heros. We have dug up some unique historical pictures.

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Anand on Chess –
from square one to the World Championship in Bonn

Interview Transcript
Location: Chennai
Date: 26th December, 2008.
Interviewers: Sriram Srinivasan and Jaideep Unudurti (Outlook Business)

Before moving on to the role of Information Technology (IT) in your career I would like to ask you what was your first chess book?

A couple of chess books. My sister bought me a collection of chess openings. A very basic, (but) in those days a very highly regarded book by Horowitz. Clearly it has been updated a lot.

Then I think I got Capablanca’s Chess Fundamentals. And most importantly, several books on opening traps and swindles. It is like, you know, how to make a quick buck. How to win games quickly by tricking your opponent here and there. There was 1001 Opening Miniatures, Opening traps and swindles, how to avoid them. They just give you a lot of examples like that. Those were the kind of books I read. Then in the Philippines I started winning some prizes, so again I picked out game collections of players or these kinds of books with lots of traps and titbits. I didn’t buy too much heavy material, I didn’t get into Nimzowitsch (smiles).

Can you name any personal favourites?

I liked this book by Capablanca, Chess Fundamentals. I still do. I read it still. Some of the examples he gives I can still recognize. I built my career on them. Clearly matters are not as simple as he made it out to be. For many years I would head for (certain) positions knowing that Capablanca said it was good for you, or certain structures. It influences your style in profound ways. I liked another book by Hans Kmoch, “Pawn power in chess”. And a book on Paul Keres.

Getting back to the 80s in India. One feature we see in developing economies is that Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) are not well respected, which is good, because it confers a big advantage. For example you had the whole Xeroxing revolution where expensive books would be photocopied and available at low costs. Does the weak IPR help such countries?

Yes, very much. You can see it in many many fields. At a certain level, IPR is simply not feasible. For someone who just wants to get in contact with the game, to expect him to buy heavy tomes is just out of the world. For sure there was a lot of photocopying. Chess Informants were amongst the most photocopied books.

Nowadays I think nobody even tries to copyright games. Games are common property, and you can’t really copyright annotations. The chess world is evolving to a stage where they do a lot of video or the magazines have very interesting stories. It is not so attractive to go around photocopying page after page. Also I don’t see people photocopy 800 things in these photocopy stores. Now they just have it in their house or they have moved on, I don’t know which. Of course 20 years ago people used to go to shops and there would be this one copy of a book, which would become a stack.

In April 2008 the Chess Informant (Šahovski Informator) produced its 100th issue – now on paper and CD. In the 100 volumes in 42 years of its existence a total of 101, 031 games were published, 63,666 main games, 37,365 additional games, 3,128 combinations, 2,503 endings and 108 studies. About 11,000 chess players have had their games published in Chess Informant. Former world champion Garry Kasparov said "We are all Children of the Informant," and other world champions, including Anatoly Karpov, Vladimir Kramnik, and Vishwanathan Anand, attest that Informant is central to their tournament preparation.

Clearly these copyright violations helped chess develop in new areas, new countries. Subsequently many of these people buy a normal Informant or New in Chess. I suspect that is the case in most forms of IP as well. In the beginning it probably makes sense to have a trial version, which is completely free. You can see in software they have moved to that, they give you a trial version with the basic stuff and try to sell you the advanced features, which are not so easy to replicate. Nowadays you have to put something out that is really special. If you make video annotations there is still the danger they can copy the CD but you can put some sort of a lock or simply put it out on the web and figure out some other ways of making money. Charge for lessons perhaps.

In chess generally the moves are free. There were brief efforts to see if moves could be copyrighted. It’s basically impossible. It’s so easy to transmit information, I can just tell you “he played e4”, no way is it workable. In chess, information has always been free. I guess Informant has suffered. Maybe in the long run it will help them.

India is doing fairly well in shooting and tennis. Generally the infrastructure costs for both are very high. What about chess? Are there any hidden costs?

It is basically quite low. I think in the beginning you need chessboard and pieces. You also need someone nearby physically who can play with you. As you said if I just put a chessboard and coins in a city where there not that many chessplayers chances are the interest in the start will wither.

Once you get a PC, that is it. The good news is you don’t need to buy something exclusively for chess; any family PC is more or less fine. I would say that is all the infrastructure you need to start. At some point you would like to join a like-minded community so its helpful to join an academy or find something in your city, interact with other kids and find someway of measuring yourself. Otherwise you have no idea where you stand relative to anything else. Once you join the right circle, learning becomes very easy. If you are good you can progress very easily. Nowadays a PC and an Internet connection and you are almost all set. So you don’t need to be a person (of wealth) or invest a lot. It’s very easy you don’t even have to leave your house. In that sense right now it is the easiest sport to get in.

In a sport like shooting Abhinav Bindra got the gold. Is that enough to get others into the fray? For example when you became a GM and everyone started getting inspired. What are the factors which made chess a favoured sport?

I think someone like Bindra gives an initial burst of interest. And people are excited. And then it is upto the sport itself to have some sort of follow-up. A well-organised sport will able to follow up easily and these people who will make enquiries in the first week. It’s almost like going to a web-page, if it’s nice and the information is available easily and you don’t have to navigate, most people will stay and find what they are looking for and you can deal with them. But if its complex and you are giving too many things the interest can vanish very quickly also.

Bindra, after he won the Olympic gold, okay, I don’t know the scene in shooting very well, but extrapolating from chess, I would say the main thing in chess is that we already had a good structure at least in Tamil Nadu. But all over India you had someone in the local city. Clubs were already there. So if someone picked up the phone directory or called someone he found out very quickly and went to the club where there were people playing. In those days if you deliver well then they will stick around.

An abbreviated (three-page) version of this issue appeared in the February 07 issue of the Indian magazine Outlook Business.

You can read the story online here (pages 88-90).

At every stage you have to make it easy for people and the atmosphere has to be congenial. I think its good that now there are not too many smoky places in chess. One of the things that put me off enormously in several clubs was that smoking was permitted. I couldn’t deal with it. If I was young now and wanted to get into chess I would probably go to clubs which were non-smoking.

The Tal Club was a very clean club, the lighting was good, the equipment was good, the setting was nice, it was a very peaceful area. I think all that helps. So the sport also has to work. Its not that you can just sit back and people will flood in. They will try it, but if you are not able to deliver they will lose interest and you will have lose this surge. I don’t think any sport can just sit back and say they will come and play. You have to make it attractive for new people to join and welcome them to the fold. In chess that is the case. I would say broadly speaking if someone hasn’t found anything in their city I can still say to them do you have a PC at home, do you have an Internet connection, go to this chess site and you are all set. Just a few steps you have to do and you can start playing this evening. That’s very important, if you give them some plan which takes a month, the child might lose interest. The next big thing will be on the news and it will pass very quickly.

Do you think sports association in India need to take a cue from the BCCI [Board of Control for Cricket in India]? Learn from them how to build a sport from the grassroots. Or was it the inherent nature of cricket that it became popular?

I don’t even know if it is a thing with the federations. Clearly the federations can learn from the BCCI. Here what I am talking about is simply that a child wanting to play cricket doesn’t go to the BCCI, he goes to his local school or some playground nearby. That’s the kind of replication I am talking about. You would not need to deal with the Indian chess federation or even the city chess federation for a couple of years, till you really want to get out and start playing events. And word of mouth, if you have a friend who is playing he can take you through. That sort of thing has to be good. I would say infrastructure-wise it is the easiest sport to play right now. Most people who live in the city have Internet connections or some access to it. You are really all set from there. It’s very easy to get in and play a bit and the next thing is, you are playing people all over the world, and it’s easy to find someone of your level so you don’t get too intimidated in the beginning. Those things are excellent in chess now.

You would need a certain critical mass. For example in Russia you have chess sets in public places, in parks, and people just come and play. The base is enormous. Do you think we can achieve that in India, that kind of infrastructure, where anyone who wants to play can get to play?

Yes, even when I was in Chennai it was pretty easy to find a chess community. I mean it is not like my parents spent weeks looking. My sister drove by one day, there was a big sign saying “Chess Club”. That is how I got into it and I stayed. I think in parts of India we have had that infrastructure for quite some time, of getting people into the game and helping them.

Hopefully with the Mind Champions Academy we will actually have gotten children, in all parts of India you will have that same experience, that somebody in your town will. Probably there will be an association, at least you can call the Mind Champions Academy and find out how to get started. That prospect is there. If you see the explosion in chess in India the last ten years, clearly all these kids have found their way to chess. I would say that is pretty excellent.

It is quite interesting that NIIT [Indian Global Talent Development Corporation], a private company is doing all this. In earlier years you had the state model, the government doing it. Is this a sign in the changes in the times?

It fits in with their model as well, they are an education company. The thing that triggered all this off was a conversation where we realized that with chess-playing kids there were studies showing that they exhibited better academic performance in schools, and truancy levels had dropped. So clearly they were finding ways to use their idle time better by playing chess. It gave them something to focus their energy on. That is what kick-started the whole idea. So I thought it was a natural fit that an education company got into it.

Advertisement by Anand's Indian sponsor NIIT, a global IT Learning Solutions Corporation, known for its pioneering work in the field of IT education and training. NIIT’s vast education delivery network spread over 30 countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Australia/Oceania, blends classroom and on-line learning. The company provides a comprehensive education environment to individuals and enterprises, offerings training that is customized to the varied needs of audiences with diverse backgrounds.

Again we are not trying to coach them in chess, we are simply trying to introduce it. So at that level, at an educational level it makes sense. Nowadays you can’t really go asking the government to do everything for you. Private companies will have to be a big part of it. I know a lot of companies where if a few employees are playing chess, they will allow them to form a chess club. A lot of IT companies in India will do that. So it comes back to critical mass. We are slowly attaining that critical mass. Definitely we are not anywhere near cricket but the situation has improved.

Our results are very good…

Yes and slowly all those kids who played ten years ago, the ones who didn’t continue in chess are now sitting across the private sector and they are still turning up on weekends playing tournaments here or there. Slowly we are getting that first wave going through the system. I am optimistic. A lot of work has to be done because every sport is competing nowadays vigorously for attention. But at least we are in with a chance.

Is there some strength associated with being a niche sport? Something which not everyone can play, something only for the intellectual elite. Is that being diluted?

I think it is still seen as an intellectual sport. I don’t know how cool works. It is pretty random. In India it is seen as sort of cool to play chess now. “My son is studying chess, we are getting a trainer”, that sort of thing, I hear it so often. It has found its way into the mainstream. That clearly is the case. So it is very important to hold on to that. Because so many kids learn chess nowadays, we need to keep that going.

You interact a lot with young players. Apart from chess skills do they also ask you for career advice?

Sure. Very often they ask me how to concentrate, tips to play chess and so on. Once in a while you get a question on career prospects and so on. My honest answer is “In school you shouldn’t be asking me this question”. I would never suggest to anyone that they drop school for chess. First of all even if you can make it in chess, your social skills need to be developed there. At least you should have done your twelfth standard! (Laughs). And then take a call, that’s fine, it is up to you. You will probably be an International Master at least at this stage before you might decide to take the plunge and skip college. Generally I think students shouldn’t think of those things in school. At least I cannot advice anyone who is thinking along those lines. Times have changed, but in my time I was not thinking about it in school so (school) was very important.

When was it that chess was financially supporting you?

Pretty much after becoming a GM I was comfortable. Nowadays it is not automatic after getting your grandmaster title, but as I said, at 2650 you have a good chance of supporting yourself. In my case when I became a Grandmaster, life stabilized. Also, because organizers invited me, I no longer had to deal with Mr FERA [Foreign Exchange Regulation Act] (laughs). That also was a big help. Suddenly I could just go for a tournament on my own, and there were no hassles. I was given a hotel, a fee to play and things like that. That was a big, big relief, and allowed me to focus on the next stage of becoming a candidate and going for the world championship cycle.

Can we say that the moment you get appearance fees that is a very big step up?

Yes, you can clearly say that. You just feel differently when you can just turn up at a tournament, well rested. You didn’t spend the last three days getting approvals and so on. Maybe even psychologically it makes you feel very special. For the first time you feel really good, you have just arrived, ready to play, you might have spent the last few days actually looking at chess. I got used to it, sure. From 1988 till 1991 were very good years to play chess for me. Even though I hadn’t broken in completely, it was not like I was running a race against time or something. I was having a good life.

When was the first time you started using a computer in your chess preparation?

1988. It was a computer I had here at home. At the end of 1988 I bought a laptop. To call it a notebook would be an insult (laughs). It was one of these ridiculous things where the screen was this big (gestures) but the stand holding the screen was this fat. And 20 megabytes of hard-disk space. Megabytes? Or maybe even kilobytes. I’m not sure. Absolutely absurd. Looking back now, that is how I started. But it was very useful because suddenly you could say I have all my information here so you don’t need to carry lots of books and your luggage became a bit lighter. And you could search for your opponent’s games very fast. Before I played someone, I could spend the morning looking at all his games and get a quick feel.


Anand in 1988, working with an Atari, and watched by a young fan, Thomas Friedel

I would say I was there right in the very beginning. The first database appeared in 1986 but even then it wasn’t really useful. Maybe Kasparov beat me by a few months. He was world champion already so he might have beaten me by a few months to it. But I was there at the very beginning. So I have used computers from the time they appeared in chess.

What gave you the idea of using a computer?

You heard about it. You know there was this new company selling databases. At some point I went and met the person who had developed the database. I met him in London. And he said, “Why don’t you come over to my home and visit me in Hamburg, and we can take it from there.” So I went and visited him in Hamburg.

This was Mr Friedel?

Yeah, Frederic Friedel. I visited him in Hamburg. A couple of months earlier he had sent a bag through a friend who was coming to India. I opened the bag, there were several diskettes. So I stuck the floppy diskette in, it installed the chess program. The other one had some games. So it the first time I could start using the computer I had bought a few months earlier.


Anand in 1991 with a "laptop computer" and two boxes of 3½ inch "floppy disks"

When I visited Fred’s house he explained how to use the program. He still makes fun of me. At the beginning I was totally proficient in using the mouse upside down. I had no idea. I had just started using the mouse in reverse and I found it moved. He was absolutely impressed that I could do it perfectly, I had no issues whatsoever. I was just doing it upside down.


Doing it the traditional way: Anand in 1992, still using the Chess Informator


On a personal note: Anand played around 30 blitz games with Thomas Friedel. The total score was 29:1 – when they started using clocks Tommy won a game on time, during breakfast, when Anand was distracted.

Four years later the first analysis module came. That again was very weak, but in 2-3 years it started to become significant. I think it was important that I learnt to use it and was comfortable with computers right from the beginning. If something went wrong – and it often did – I didn’t have any background in programming but I could fiddle around in DOS, repair my machine and things like that. It became a very useful tool.

If we can draw this analogy: a country’s economy has several stages in its development. India was a largely agricultural country. Because of the emphasis on IT, India has skipped the manufacturing stage. Today we have a massive service, back-office and IT industry, but we don’t have the manufacturing base of China. In the same way in the 80s the Soviets had a massive lead in chess knowledge and expertise. Were you able to bypass that using IT?

Yes, definitely. I think the parallel is exactly right. In the same way India just bypassed several technologies, missed the boat on so many technologies and suddenly found the software industry. It almost seemed the only thing we could do with all the restrictions imposed on us, by ourselves – okay, fair enough. It was the same thing with chess. The Soviet Union had a big lead. If you lived in Moscow you had access to unbelievable expertise. But the lead in information was slowly cut, so it became instead of getting a book every three months you could get a diskette mailed to you every month. Then if you were travelling you could pick up that diskette from a friend. Or if you were simply happened to be in the same place he could make a copy for you. So that became instantaneous. A few years later the Internet arrived and even that vanished. You could live in India and have access. Then the first (online) chess clubs started coming along. You could often practice with a Russian player who was also on the chess club. So there was this big levelling happening. In the same way I would guess you would leapfrog landlines – you don’t bother installing landlines because suddenly mobile phones have come in. That sort of thing, just bypassing a technology.

I think that happened with chess. I think that is exactly right. Not only in India but there has been a sort of levelling in the world. The rest of the world has been able to catch up with Russia much faster than it would have had these things not come into play. And now I would say even the expertise is being levelled because you have computers that are so strong. I mean most programs on a PC would beat almost any grandmaster. Even when I play, or any top GM, we have to really concentrate to have a chance. If you are casual, the machine is too strong. So you have such a strong computer with which you can work, all your doubts can be cleared much easier. That is why the sport has become much younger. The time needed to accumulate a certain amount of experience and understanding has dropped. So yes, first the lag in information, then the lag in expertise or knowledge and geographical boundaries through the Internet. Each of these things we have bypassed. We are still as far away as we used to be, but we have bypassed them.

When was the first time you started using engines? They must have been very weak in the beginning.

I think it was right away. It is a very gradual process. As it gets stronger you use it a bit more, you take it a move further. Initially it was like a primitive calculator, so you use it for one-move tactics just to make sure that you didn’t make any mistakes in your work. Then you can do slightly sophisticated work where your tactics go a few moves further. It is a very gradual process. Then you buy new hardware, it jumps in strength, they issue new version of the program, it jumps in strength. You go along with it. Everyone is catching up as well, so it is very gradual. I think I started using them from the very beginning and it came from there. We are talking 1991-92 when Fritz came.

After 20 years of dedicating your life to the sport, a piece of code on a PC is your equal. After all your years of effort, a “mindless” program can match you. Do you feel that way sometimes?

We felt (that way). We are completely over it now. This issue, when Kasparov lost to Deep Blue there was this agonising. Suddenly computers had overtaken us. I think then we felt it much more strongly. But life goes on. You realize the world hasn’t come to an end and you get used to it. A generation comes that doesn’t understand the question at all. Someone like Carlsen, who was six at the time, he doesn't agonise over it. He has grown up with computers that are incredibly strong.

There must have been a point when the information in the libraries was more than that was contained in your head. There are lots of things that humans used to do, which we no longer do better than machines. It would be interesting to compare it with those moments.

In 1997-98 we felt this very strongly. Now there is hardly any interest. Because it is over, you know it is like running against a car. There are somethings we do much better than computers but since most of chess is tactically based they do many things better than humans. And this imbalance remains. I no longer have any issues. It is bit like asking an astronomer does he mind that a telescope does all the work. He takes an image, does image processing. He uses a computer which counts the pixels. Does he feel bad? He is used to it. It is just an incredible tool that you can use. Once you are past the initial tussle with your ego, then it just feels natural. Right now it is not an issue. I know my PC is stronger than me at any given time, and to have a chance against it I would spend a couple of weeks thinking about computer chess. How to play against machines. You stop doing anything imaginative, and you become very disciplined tactically. I can probably still compete against it, but what's the point? Now my main aim is to use it to find new ideas against Kramnik or someone else. We have gotten over that stage very fast.


Sriram Srinivasan, Viswanathan Anand and Jaideep Unudurti at the time of the interview

Part one was published last week – part three will follow soon

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