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

2/19/2009 – Viswanathan Anand has won it all: the knockout, tournament and match world championships, blitz and rapid – you name it. He is the strongest Indian chess player in history, and one of the strongest in the world, ever. In a multi-hour interview Anand sat down with Indian journalists and described his career, candidly and in rare detail. Today you can read the first section: part one – the early years.

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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)

You started off playing tournaments at the age of eight or so?

Yes. I would guess its probably even sooner. I learnt roughly when I was six. Probably for the first six months I was at home, then joined a club, so very likely my first tournament was round about that age.

At that time how was the chess scene? Where there any tournaments around to take part in at regular intervals?

Sure, we had a reasonably good chess scene. We had some very enthusiastic organisers if you like. Some guys who got together as a club. I remember they used to come there practically every day. I remember seeing many of them for years on end. So it was a small circle but a very passionate and committed circle. We still had not even gotten our first grandmaster at that stage. I think we only had one International Master when I started.

Mr Aaron…

Manuel Aaron. By 1980 we started to get to four. So it was a very small world. But I had enough chances to play. I remember at the Tal chess club, at one point those guys decided they were going to just organize a tournament every week. For practice it was fantastic. I could go to the club every week. Every weekend they had the tournament. I would go and play the whole tournament. It was good, because this is the best way to grow.


Manuel Aaron (born 1935) was the first Indian chess master in the modern tradition. He dominated chess in India in the 1960s to the 1980s, was the national champion of India nine times between 1959 and 1981.

You were 8-9 years old? Were there other kids your age? Or were you the only kid in the club?

There was a little break. I think I was eight, eight and a half when we left for the Philippines. I spent a year and a few months there and came back sometime in 1980, when I was ten. When I got here I started playing chess again. I think 1980-81 was when I started playing tournaments every weekend practically. I would maybe play 30 tournaments a year. The whole of 1981 went like this. Nothing (much) really, in the sense that I had the habit of going to the club for playing blitz games – five-minute games. Every Monday evening, Thursday evening, second Saturdays and Sundays, the club functioned so that was my schedule to go to the club.

To go back to the Philippines, is it fair to say that was a critical year because at that time Philippines had better chess infrastructure?

I think that is correct. The Philippines had just organized a world championship match between Karpov and Korchnoi. So at that stage they were further down that road. They had a very active federation. I remember even they had a TV program on chess in those days. Every day between 1 and 2 in the afternoon. So when I was at school my mother would write down the games and the puzzle at the end. When I came back from school she would show me what had happened. I also remember joining a club there and going to play very often. My interest in chess deepened in the Philippines and by the time I got back I was pretty much hooked.

In the beginning was it just “Ok, chess is a fun activity”. You also played tennis. When did you think, “I’m really good at this and should stick with it”? Was it a conscious decision or did you get into it gradually?

Well tennis I really didn’t get past the coaching camps and that sort of thing. I never got into tournaments. So very soon my chess was much further ahead then my tennis. I still remember going to these tennis camps in the morning, with all these other kids. It drove me nuts that at 5:30 in the morning I couldn’t even play tennis. They would make you run around the courts a few times (laughs) and then you got four forehands, four backhands and then you were off, the next group came in.

I liked the chess scene simply much more because I got to play as much as I wanted and it was more my style. But I was playing lots of other things, I was playing badminton. My father was in the railways so in the Railway Club we had badminton, table tennis. I would play with all the other railway kids. I had a mixture of other sports. But none of them came close. Already by the second or third year I had gone further in chess than in any of the other games because I was playing tournaments.

Did you watch the Karpov-Korchnoi match in the Philippines?

No, we arrived in the Philippines about a month after it had finished. We went to Baguio. It is a lovely hillside resort. While we were there, my parents took me to this place, see this is where the Karpov-Korchnoi match took place. We went to see the hall. I didn’t know that then of course, but nine years later I would win the world junior title in the same hall.

An inspiration to the young Anand: the great battles between Anatoly Karpov and Viktor Korchnoi. The first was a Candidates Final in 1974, when the winner, Karpov, went on to become World Champion by forfeit, when title-holder Fischer did not appear for the match. After that Karpov was challenged twice by Korchnoi, 1978 in Baguio City, Philippines and 1981 in Merano, Italy. Karpov won both these matches.

Did you subconsciously believe, even then, that you could take chess as a career?

Probably yes. I never saw anything else as my career. The moments when you would hesitate, is first in the tenth standard, because you need to get a group of your choice, and then in the twelfth standard, when you are going to university. Until then, you could put off the decision and pretend that both streams were going okay. But what I wanted to do clearly was chess. The reason I might not have taken chess would be if I hadn’t got the breakthroughs. Then you begin to weigh your career options. “Can I make a living playing chess?” and all that stuff.

But for me at those critical moments I had incredible results. Around the ninth standard I had very good breaks, then again in the tenth standard I had a good year. Got my International Master title a bit earlier. So that was good. And in the twelfth standard, just after I had finished, I got my world junior title and the grandmaster title within the space of a few months. So at the moments when I might have hesitated I did not need to hesitate at all, The choice became clear. But I decided to go to college anyway and do my B.Com, just to keep my options open. I had a feeling that as a grandmaster it was possible to play chess for a living. I felt somehow I wanted to go to college simply because I didn’t want to miss that part of life, I didn’t want to have never gone to college.
After I finished college things became clear. I was already number five in the world. I had very very good results. I would basically say that from the age of six, unless I saw very good reasons not to play chess, it was what I wanted to do. There were no logical arguments against it.

In the 70s, Philippines had Torre. Eventually India overtook Philippines as a chess power. Can we speculate that it was because Philippines didn’t have an Anand, a star player who could capture the people’s imagination? Can we say that that is why you were able to start a chess revolution in India?

I think that is possible. It must be said that Torre’s effect on the Philippines was very similar. There was a boom. It petered out after a while. But Torre had the same effect and he is, I am guessing, 15-16 years senior to me. So that effect also started much earlier in the Philippines, around 1974. The Philippines was a very strong Asian chess country. Now it’s less so but they still field a decent team. Clearly no one has come along to replace the stature of Eugene. In India it has come further along. India has several players in the top 100, one other in the top 50. We have a women’s game going. It is more broad-based in India. The situation is comparable, they started much earlier.


A legend in Philippino chess: GM Eugenio Torre

Do you need stars to crop up at constant intervals to prop up the scene or can the infrastructure keep it going?

I think it is both. It is not really one or the other. They feed off each other. If now, a very strong Filipino player emerged, there is already a base on which he can build. I think you need both. You need to have the infrastructure, but children watch lots of sports and when you have somebody they can follow they go for that. In Spain, tennis and F1 have got so big recently. You can see the effect literally from the day Alonso started competing in F1. If he were to disappear I don’t think that F1 will last there. You can see this in Germany, after Schumi, F1 is decreasing fast. You need a constant feed of good players to keep that alive. To fire people’s imagination.

One very important factor is age-group tournaments. You need that conveyor belt of U-10, U-12, U-14 so you can keep going up. What was your experience? Did you go past the age groups very quickly?

Well in those days we only had U-16 and U-20. Subsequently they found the need to break it up so much because what was happening was that GMs were becoming so strong at the age of 18 they were skipping the best years of the world junior. Or maybe they became grandmasters at 14, and then people became afraid they would never play a world junior. At this point I would say Under-20 is not that important, there are 17-year-olds like Carlsen who are not going to participate.

It’s still a very impressive result but it is not quite what it used to be. Once upon a time people like Spassky, Kasparov, Karpov, myself we all won world junior championships at some stage. Till about 1990 that was a real gold-plated achievement. It still is good, but Kramnik was already so strong at 17 he didn’t play in the world junior, he didn’t win one. So there you already have to look at their sub-junior results, which is U-16. Now you need to see people’s U-14, U-12, and that’s where you make out what they are doing. Surya Ganguly, for instance, played many other people like Aronian, Grischuk at the U-14, U-16 stages. Now they are all at the top of world chess.


Generations: seated: Mikhail Tal, Joel Lautier, Anand; standing: Bent Larsen,
Viktor Korchnoi, Garry Kasparov, Bessel Kok, Jan Timman, Boris Spassky

I think the earlier you start the better your chances are. The system maybe producing very young players, eventually they become senior stars, it is almost unheard of that someone starts at 16 and has any realistic chance of getting to the top.

In cricket you can see a very clear path. You play well, you get into the zonals, the Ranji and so on. The entire emphasis is on getting into the Indian team. Once you get in, the system takes over. When you were starting off in the 1980s, how much of that infrastructure was there?

Basically the goal was to become a grandmaster. I think there were some support systems in place in India. There were a few, let us say, patrons or well-wishers who would sort of look after chess players, who would give them employment when they became International Masters. When you became a grandmaster that is when they paid you to take part in tournaments. As International Master some events would give you some compensation but essentially you knew you had to become a grandmaster to have this chance.

I had a double bonus because I became world junior champion and grandmaster. I got invited to some very prestigious events, like the Corus tournament, Wijk aan Zee. That was a very big break for me. And when I won that, everything opened up. I started getting lots of good invitations. That was basically what you needed to do. Grandmaster was the place to be. Now there are far more grandmasters than they used to be in 1987, so now you need to be probably 2650 before you can have the system take over. At my time that was 2500 or 2550.

Have you thought of another way of making the chess economy run? Till now people here have been very cautious of taking sport as a career. Chess players are supposed to be of above average intelligence so they presumably have more career options. How would an ideal chess economy look like?

I think in general it’s a fairly good system. We have tournaments at every level. I think once you make your mark, some way or the other, either you become the best player of your country or you become one of the best in the world. In the case of Russia you could be number eight in Russia and could still have some work to do before you’d be the first choice. I think the system as it is now, as long as it stable, we are back to the system of having only one world championship; that is very good for the game. And now lots of new countries are turning up. There is a Norwegian, Magnus Carlsen, who is fourth in the world, there is an Italian, there is an Armenian, there is a Ukrainian. So already the top ten is looking very diverse and nice. Which is a very interesting face to present to the world. So I think the system is healthy. Now if we keep the stability of the world championship and grow it from here it will be very healthy.

I think the argument still holds, when you get to the age when you are in college you may be very good for chess but you may not be cut out for it. It is not just that if you can play chess you should. You also have to want that kind of lifestyle, which has travelling, playing tournaments. It is a different kind of lifestyle, some like it, some don’t. I mean there are chess players who did it for 4-5 years, they really loved chess and then they said they couldn’t take the travelling any more and wanted to get into different things. That is such a personal decision you can’t really influence that further. But you make the set-up interesting and go from there.

Going back to the 80s, there was a competition - who would become the first Indian GM? There was you and there were other promising players like GM Barua. Can you describe those years?

It was really a mental barrier. Round about 1982 we had this idea that, okay, at some point some Indian has to become a grandmaster. It just seemed so elusive. It was a big block. Somehow when I was playing, if the GM norm was 7, I got to 6 several times or 6.5 even. It seemed that ultimate half a point was very tricky. I had a conversation with an arbiter in the UK once. He was telling me actually when you finally become a GM it will be very smooth. You’ll keep on missing for many months and at one point you will become strong enough you will get it easily, you might even overshoot. So don’t fret about it. I had gone through three attempts, the first in Calcutta, the second in London. I’d missed it by half a point each time. I needed to win the last game in every case. I won the world junior, which gave me one norm. Then in Delhi I made it with a round to spare. Not exactly a round to spare, but I just needed a draw in the last round and that’s much easier. In Coimbatore, I even overshot. I needed a draw in the penultimate round. When it finally happened I seemed to just sweep past. So it’s clear that I had become much stronger while trying for the GM title.


Teenage Anand on his way to a GM title

It is funny that the first two or three tournaments after becoming a GM I couldn’t make the GM norm. When you become a Grandmaster you lose this target in front of you and suddenly you have no idea what you are doing or what you are playing for. By the end of that year there was a deep feeling inside that I had to aim for something much higher otherwise it is easy to drift. But it was a big deal. I remember when I got the world junior title and grandmaster I was everywhere in the press because it was really seen as a big, big deal. Finally we get one grandmaster in this intellectual game, that sort of a thing.

Forget about becoming a GM, there were very few Indians who had actually beaten a GM in a tournament game. There was Mr Aaron who had beaten one…

Max Euwe…

Your first win was against GM Mestel in 1985. Can you tell us about that?

For me it was big because for the first time I had beaten a grandmaster. Of course subsequently I was beating grandmasters quite easily, so it is funny to think of that as a block. Your point is essentially correct, the very fact that you remember that you beat a GM means we hadn’t beaten many uptil that point. Barua’s win over Korchnoi, we spoke about it for some years. My win against Mestel.

In the early 80s first of all it was a big barrier to become a grandmaster so as a result you tended to look up to people who had become grandmasters with a certain amount of awe, and it was difficult to break through. In 1986 I was beating grandmasters very regularly. That stopped being the achievement; it had to be getting a GM norm, because you knew one of them could be having a bad tournament. Your achievement had to be winning the tournament or making a GM norm.

Again looking at the scene in India in the 1980s, in the pre-liberalization era. I think you had trouble travelling abroad for tournaments. Can you tell us about those times?

We had this system – because you needed to get foreign exchange, you first needed the federation to approve your trip or pass on your application to the sports ministry, which would sanction it. I don’t remember exactly what the procedure was. From the sports ministry we went to civil aviation, with the sports ministry’s approval, and they would issue an Air India ticket. Once you got that ticket you went to the Reserve Bank and got your foreign exchange approval. Then there was this one branch in the city, of SBI or Thomas Cook, somewhere in Delhi, where you could buy your foreign exchange. I remember always at some really late hour, because the ticket would be issued only at five in the evening. At nine o’clock we would go to this one Thomas Cook, which would be open late, get our foreign exchange, and the flight would be at 11:30 p.m. This was funny because, even I think to fly to Colombo there where people who went to Delhi to get their foreign exchange sanctioned, did the loop and then came back. Sometimes it happened that we would arrive late for tournaments because the sanction didn’t come quickly enough.

Basically we would spend two days floating around in these various ministries in Delhi. It is a story I cannot tell to anyone anymore, because India has liberalized so much that you can’t explain this. Essentially now, given the possibility, if you don’t go it’s because you don’t have the money, not because (of the regulations). At that time the regulations were quite absurd.

Given all this, if you had the choice would you prefer starting your career now?

I wasn’t unhappy. To be fair, the sports ministry did give us a lot of support. They always gave us some support to going to important tournaments, one important tour a year and the Olympiads. If we qualified for any world championship again they approved that very easily. FERA [Foreign Exchange Regulation Act] was a nuisance, but it wasn’t directed against chess. The sports ministry supported chess a lot for the results it had achieved till then. They had to bankroll other sports as well. In that sense, the support structure was good.

I don’t really have that feeling that I should have started somewhere else. Clearly if I had been born in the Soviet Union I would have been trained in a different way. Because I was the best Indian, that had a certain cachet as well. Many organisers invited me first because I was the number one ranked Indian player, so they had a nice Asian player to bring to the tournament. I would have to be the third or fourth best Russian Russian before I got an invitation. So their eight best guy might have had better training than me, but I think in the end the breaks even out. It is really a question of what you do with the chances you have. I managed to do that very well, and getting my GM title during college was also very nice, because it took the pressure off me in college. I went through my B.Com, but mentally I knew I was not going to be an accountant.

Were you a star in college? Did people point out and say, “Oh there is Anand”?

Yes and they would always want me to turn up for the culturals. They would parade me around so they could pick up girls (laughs). The principal and all of them were very affectionate. The vice-principal would ask me, “Why are you coming to college? We have given you all the leave you want”. I would say, no, no, I just want to meet the guys. It had gotten to the point where there was very little resistance in missing classes as long as I turned up for the exams.

You have mentioned the Soviet Union. In retrospect your success seems incredible because the Soviets had a very comprehensive system in place for spotting and then training that talent, not only in chess but other sports as well. They also had world-beating players, so you could get practice partners. Apart from the Soviets there is you and there is Fischer. Fischer at least had the advantage of coming from the US, which is a rich country. You didn’t have that advantage either. Do you think you would be an even stronger player if you had gone through the rigorous training of the “Soviet school of chess”?

No, I believe that my days in the Tal Club [in Madras] was more important than getting training. Nowadays you see lots of kids like Magnus Carlsen who didn’t come through some training program. They came through playing chess on the Internet. Instead of going to a physical club they played 40 games a day on a server. You can see the results. You can see the tactical reflexes they have. Training does help; it has its role, not to demean it. I don’t think it’s necessary at that stage.


Anand in 1988

I would almost say that it is the inspiration for what we are doing at the NIIT Mind Champions Academy. We are trying to introduce kids to the game and get them playing with each other. We think that’s 90% of the work. If you reach a certain level, it’s so easy nowadays, and technology has bridged the gap we had in the 80s with information and so on. In the 80s, for instance, with the Chess Informant, we would wait four months, six months after it was published. If some friend happened to travel to the Philippines for a tournament he could buy it even sooner there, and you had this advantage for three weeks before your opponents. And you had lots of the latest development you could use on them. These days of watching games live and instant downloading of entire bases – it’s hard to imagine that world.

Technology has levelled the field quite a lot. There is for instance no big disadvantage to being an Australian in chess. If you get good, the breaks are there. It’s very easy to play anyone you want. For someone in a remote part of the world as long as you have an Internet connection, you can practice, interact with people and get to the initial stages. Now it’s just a question of whether you get good enough. Not to dismiss training and tournaments but this is a big help. That’s why in the academy it is important for me that they simply begin to learn to play. They play a few games with their friends in school and they get into this habit of playing often.

I don’t feel training was a problem (for me). When I was preparing for the candidates matches, then yes, training was very important. If you go into this, with and “oh I’ve played a few blitz games” attitude then you are walking into it a bit innocently. There you need somebody to guide you through some real-world strategies, what your opponents might do. (Training) is not necessary at an early stage. I don’t think it was a disadvantage at all.

The Soviets had the House of Pioneers. Is the Mind Champions Academy something on those lines? You want to widen the talent pool to see who has that ability?

It is very similar. These pioneer houses had one man. Kids who had the opportunity to come there would have chess sets, the atmosphere, the infrastructure was created that if they wanted to play they could play. Russia didn’t need to push its kids very much, they did so naturally. This man’s job was to sort of be an enabler, to help things happen, and if someone was interesting, sort of point him out. Very basic level and then they would take it to further stages.

Our idea is very similar to this whole concept. We hope to have someone in each academy who is maybe very passionate about the game and starts the ball rolling. The idea is not to get into coaching. That’s for someone else. Our idea simply is that millions of kids learn to play the game. We are approaching it from that side so if in the next few years I can grow this from a student base of 2.5 million to lets say ten million, then the number of kids who are taking part is 170,000, and we can build that to say half a million. Those are the numbers I am looking forward to. The idea is not get into one-on-ones. The idea is to get a lot of kids into the game. Automatically that is wonderful for the sport as well. The idea is that playing chess will help them to spend their time more productively and also maybe improve their academic skills a little bit.

You are getting a spin-off because you are increasing the potential audience for chess as well.

Exactly. The biggest hurdle for chess as a spectator sport is that people don’t know the rules. In fact the thing isn’t that it can’t be a spectator game, but that there is this initial hurdle. If you don’t know the rules you have no clue what is going on. You can’t even see an object moving. That is the biggest hurdle. That is why this project is exciting me. If ten million people have somehow come into contact with the game at some stage, just learnt the rules, then you know one day, even if they have not taken chess seriously, they may want to watch it, and obviously that is a huge opportunity for the sport. So the biggest hurdle will simply be to get them in contact with the game. Clearly we are still very regional. Chess was always big in Tamil Nadu and the South. It had a foothold in Bengal and Maharasthra as well. These were the strongholds of chess. The North-East, the North generally had almost no real chess going. Here there is a levelling effect, we are actually teaching chess in several areas where chess never had any foothold. And that is also very exciting to me.


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

Part two (of three) to follow soon

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