Bringing chess into the spotlight (1)

by Priyadarshan Banjan
3/18/2015 – It is usual to come across celebrities who set the stage on fire and leave the audience awe-struck at their seemingly stellar performances. Chess players in contrast are often contrived to be socially awkward and are not particularly seen to be engaging with the audiences. But that is exactly what former World Champion Viswanathan Anand did in this must-watch India Today Conclave.

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Bringing chess into the spotlight

At the India Today Conclave held on March13-14 at Hotel Taj Palace in New Delhi, India, Vishwanathan Anand played it like never before. The two-day event, hosted by media group India Today, gathered the cream of Indian politicians, academics, sportspersons and other celebrities, and the Tiger from Madras was at his witty best. India Today is an Indian English-language weekly magazine. It was established in 1975 by Vidya Vilas Purie (owner of Thompson Press), with his daughter Madhu Trehan as its editor and his son Aroon Purie as its publisher. At present, India Today is also published in Hindi, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam.

The glitz and charisma of the event, coupled with Anand's honest and cheeky answers, made this show a memorable affair. It has to be one of the best television interviews ever conducted of Vishy by the Indian media. Deputy Editor of India Today Kunal Pradhan conducted the interview with Anand, talking about his chess career, how he thinks at the board and makes his decisions, computers, thoughts on retirement, Candidates 2016 and Magnus Carlsen, and many other things. He even answered questions raised by the audience.

In the first part, we present you the transcripts of a refreshingly insightful talk show where Anand discusses his early childhood learning chess. The most valuable part to focus on would be the segment where he speaks about his thinking process while at the board during his initial years and how it has matured with age, how he thinks at the board today. You can watch the full 46-minutes talk show on the official page of the India Today Conclave or in the following embed.




You can also click here to start the video in a separate window – and then place the new window
next to our report with the transcript of the interview. We have given the time stamp
in minutes:seconds in square brackets for each section, to make the text easier to follow.

If you succeed the setup should look something like this:

After formally introducing Anand to the audience, India Today’s deputy-editor Kunal Pradhan sets the ball rolling with a 46-minute interview. We climb into the second half.

Kunal: [23:10] Anand, how much has the emergence of computers and all these information being available to you constantly all the time, changed your sport over the last 20-25 years?

Anand: [23:25] It’s night and day. Computers have brought this forward so much. For instance when I was growing up in order to acquire the experience people used to say: well, he needs about seven or eight years of experience and then he’s ready to challenge for this or to try for that. Now, you think six months, because computers collect all the information, they present it to you instantly, and if you have any doubts you don’t need to discuss it with another strong player – you can just ask the computer, because quite often the computer itself will give you the answer. In the event you need to talk to another player, you do it online – on Skype or with a phone, whereas there are years I remember where I had to write down stuff I wanted to ask someone and then wait for the next time we happened to be in the same city together. The way you can consult and ask questions and clarify your thoughts has changed so much that people get much stronger much younger.

[24:34] When I became a grandmaster at the age of eighteen, I was the youngest grandmaster in the world. Now I would have to be eleven to be the youngest grandmaster in the world. So that age is descending fast, and in fact chess is getting much, much younger, and one of the reasons is because of computers. The other thing computers have done is to level the geographic playing field. Once upon a time if you wanted to become a good chess player, it was ideal to be born in Russia. If you couldn’t be born in Russia, if you had to be born in India, then Chennai was a good bet, and so on. Now it doesn’t matter. You can be in some island in the Pacific – it’ll still hurt, the lack of contact, because you won’t make the initial friend and you won’t interact, but a big part of the gap has disappeared, which is why the top ten now is filled with players from countries which never had a top ten player for the last hundred years. You can see how computers are changing the game.

Kunal: [25:38] But are they robbing chess of the human element or match craft still have enough of that? Chess still needs to be about emotion, about feeling, it can’t only be a mathematical algorithm because then a very essential part of what makes sport will disappear. Do you think that is going on? Is it just used as a tool or is it slowly taking over the sport?

Anand: [26:02] Not at all. There were fears expressed along these lines some years back, but the point is as long as chess is a sport between two humans then the human element is there. Of course if you play a computer, that’s absent, because you can’t have emotions on your own. So playing against a computer is depressing. But the point is computers have gotten so strong that nobody plays against a computer anymore. In 1997, you needed a supercomputer to beat the strongest human on the planet. By 2000, your laptop could do it. By 2004, an old laptop could do it. Your mobile phone couldn’t do it for a while but by the second or third iteration of these things, that started to happen. Soon your kitchen table will do it, your fridge will do it!

1991: A laptop computer and a box of 3.5 inch “floppy disks” (google that)

[27:05] It’s not going to be fun because computing power is going so fast that out-calculating us is no longer a challenge for a computer. But what computers have done is to show us how rich the game is. There were many positions we were unable to explore because they were so complicated, so we were doing it in our own slow way, which is to play a game, see what happens, play a second game, see what happens… But computers have opened up so many things. They also close a few doors, but they open far more than they close, and at the moment I would say chess is richer than ever before.

Kunal: [27:35] Anand, the computer is at the heart of your recent rivalry with Magnus Carlsen that’s going on. We witnessed you play two World Championships – you lost to him on both occasions. In some sense people say that you’re the last pure champion, because you came at a time when there were no computers, you didn’t have the kind of aids that they have, while Magnus Carlsen is a creature of today – he has had these aids at his disposal all the time. Is this a battle between the old and the new, in some sense?

1988: Anand working on an Atari with ChessBase, two years before Magnus Carlsen was born

The traditional method: with a chessboard and the Chess Informator

Anand: [28:06] Yes, there is a generational shift. Carlsen was born when the first chess database software was five years old, whereas I saw this for the first time in my life when I was already World Junior Champion. He was born into a world where database software was available, and when he was three years old you could play against strong programs. So, his outlook is completely different. In fact, many people say that he has an anti-computerish style, and it’s true. But in a sense being anti-something is also being influenced by it, since it’s only because he can see what the computer says that he can then try to look for alternatives around it. In addition, youngsters are getting much, much better with calculation, they’re much more creative and imaginative, because they have so many examples of unusual moves that the computer suggests that over time it’s accumulated in their heads. In the same way that I had to look at classics to get interesting ideas, their pool of ideas is much bigger because computers are generating it at an incredible pace. These days’ chess is very, very rich and you find very interesting, new ideas coming up all the time. But you’re right, there’s a big generational shift there.

In 2008 in Mainz, still in the middlegame of their rivalry

Kunal: [29:37] Chess has been a sport known for its great rivalries – Fischer and Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov. Do you see Anand and Carlsen becoming the next great rivalry in chess?

Anand: [29:48] It could be, but I’ve got to win the next Candidates for that to happen. I’ll play that in early 2016 – the date and venue haven’t been fixed yet, but I assume it’ll happen at that time. However, I have to say that’s a bit simplistic, because clearly the field is more crowded than that. Karpov and Kasparov essentially had the world to themselves for a few years – we don’t. The field is much tighter now, but it could be. I could play a match with him again, but I’ll have to win the Candidates first for that. That will be the first challenge.

According to an NDTV report on March 20, 2015, Anand told reporters: "I am not thinking about the Candidates at all, because I don't know who is playing. I will think about that much much later, maybe next year. For the moment I think I should use the tournaments to get into shape of playing better."

Kunal: [30:25] After these two encounters have you reached a point where you feel you’re not going to be fully satisfied until you can master him in a head-to-head match?

Anand: [30:38] Yes, obviously if someone bests you twice it gets on your nerves. I won’t pretend otherwise. Sure, I’m still motivated to try. I also just want to see how far I can go, because there are so many new things happening in chess that essentially I would say that I’m still fascinated by chess. There are things that I don’t understand and I’m curious to get to the bottom of that, and if in the process I become a better player, then well and good.

Oracle: a ChessBase report from 2008 captioned this image:
"The Champ with his potential successor"

Kunal: [31:15] Is that what keeps you going? People have been talking for the last three-four years now about how long Anand is going to play for. He’s in his 40s now. How long can he continue. Is this the reason why you want to keep on, because you’re still learning new things on the board?

Anand: [31:29] Yes, very much. I think the problem is now, because chess is getting so young as a sport, people in their forties are seen as outliers. But I grew up in a time when someone in their forties was expected to peak in chess, so it’s a strange idea that people then automatically ask you this question but yes, I would like to play. In a way it’s challenging – you want to see if you can compete and you want to do that as long as possible.

Kunal: [32:01] But Anand, does your game change as you grow older? When you’re playing a physical sport like cricket or football you’re basically practicing every day, everything that you do is part of an instinct, so you know the ball is here, you know Sachin Tendulkar [arguably, the Vishy Anand of cricket] is going to cut it to the boundary for four runs. It’s just something that comes to him naturally – a function of practice over the years. In chess, which is a mind game, as your life is changing – you’re a young boy and then you grow up, then you get married, then you have a child (Akhil’s a young boy now) – as you’re growing older, as you’re changing, does your approach to the game start changing too?

Article in The Daily, April 1, 1986

Anand: [32:36] Of course. First of all, the pattern is the same with chess and other sports. You constantly evolve and that’s true with chess. Second, there is a physical toll in chess. If you play six or seven tough games you will be exhausted halfway through the tournament. So a lot of my training goes into physical training as well. I go to the gym and I keep a regular schedule, because I know that otherwise I won’t be able to deal with the tension of a tournament. And that is also one reason why chess is getting younger, because of the increased number of tournaments and competition means that careers are getting a bit shorter. But for the rest, it’s all instinct. I explained it in slow motion [while discussing the examples in part one] and I gave a very, very simple example, with the queen going to the corner square just like Petrosian’s games and Euwe’s games. But that process happens instantly when I play, and I’m also doing things by reflex. Normally, when I see the knight the queen and the rook I immediately think of that move and there are millions of patterns like that. I couldn’t list them all for you, but when the position comes I will see something. It might be a false pattern, it might be a real one, but nonetheless you generally play by instinct, or at least you think by instinct and then you double check. So in that sense we’re not that different from other sports.

Anand played simultaneous games against the host Kunal Pradhan and Managing Editor of the TV Today Network Rahul Kanwal. We skip skip over this part and come to some final questions from the audience:

Question: [39:06] You mentioned that you normally play 30 hours of practice every week. If you play with inferior players you will not improve. You need players of your level? Twenty years ago you defeated a computer. Now computers have improved. Would they now beat you most of the time?

Anand: [39:42] Yes, almost any phone, which is made in the last three years, can beat any human on the planet. It’s gotten to that point because of the growth of computers and the growth of very sophisticated chess-playing programs. They also make very unusual moves. They don’t just use brute force and they’re not very materialistic.

Some of the chess engines Anand is referring to, which are available in the ChessBase Shop

To improve all you need is a partner who has ideas. Earlier you had to be very good because you had to defend your ideas yourself, so if I said this move is good and you said no, but I think this move is better, it ended up being my opinion versus yours. What happens now is that both of us can now check with the computer and see, so when we work I can have someone whose practical results aren’t as good as mine but who has very creative ideas. That’s enough, because the fact-checking can be left to the computers. So you get on with finding creative ideas and interesting patterns that you can use later. That’s what you try to do all the time.

Question: [41:07] Should kids play with computers? When they play with humans in tournaments, they are unpredictable. In that sense, should they practice with computers?

The question was asked by a mother of a four-year-old boy who is the youngest rated player in the world.
She'd been Skyping the whole show to him, live! Kudos to her dedication.

Anand: [41:55] I think a certain amount of interaction with the computer is helpful, and there are now obviously nice videos and chess puzzles that you can access through the computer. You can watch online tournaments, so a lot of learning opportunities. However, before you’re able to use the computer fully as an oracle you must first be able to understand the answers. I think it’s very healthy to have a back and forth, that you play with other people, that you interact with people who are stronger than you so that you get certain questions in your mind, and once you have the question in your head then you can ask the computer and try and get an answer. Otherwise, if you’re just exposed to the computer too quickly the question might not be clear in your head and neither will the answer. So I would say it’s one tool among many, but it shouldn’t be the only thing they do.

Question: [43:00] The chessboard is all about power play – kings, queens, enemies and wars, and the skills you mentioned like strategy, guessing the opponent’s intentions and other things – wouldn’t that make chess players great politicians? Have you ever thought about that?

Anand: [43:22] Actually I think chess and politics are very different. If you see that my pieces will do exactly what I tell them to do, and my opponents’ pieces will do exactly what my opponents tell them to do, then the normal analogy is more with armies. In fact, historically that was the case, that chess was considered a way for you to think strategically. The chess pieces are the old army units. Of course, we don’t have tanks and all that but the old army units – the cavalry, the infantry and all that is represented here. We can’t change rules in mid-course, we can’t break away and start a new game, so for politics: not ideal!

Question: [44:15] We were all heartbroken when you lost twice to Magnus Carlsen. Have you and your team been able to find out what was the reason behind it?

Anand: [44:32] Actually in our case the pattern has been fairly clear for a while. The first match I was simply not in the right frame of mind, not only for that match but also for a while before that. That had a lot to do with not being on top of things and not focusing on the right areas to work on for many years. For the second match things improved a lot and I think I managed to cover the gap very well, but still I’ve got to get better with the positions. Essentially Magnus’ style is about making a lot of moves. They’re not always the best moves – in fact far from it – but his moves hardly ever fall out of the top four [of top engine’s selections], so there’s a kind of consistency there. Changing my game to be more consistent is one of the things I would have to do, but that’s easier said than done, because it’s easier to work on specific tasks. Simply to say I’m going to be better for a longer period is a very weird goal and it’s hard to implement. You have to try and just raise your game at a lot of different levels. For instance, the way you play the opening is very different from the way you play a later stage, so it’s not the same approach. Again, if I keep working consistently then I’ll get better at it.

If the above interview has turned you on you might want to try Anand's ChessBase DVDs:

My Career vol. 1+2

by Viswanathan Anand

born in 1969, acclaimed as the fastest brain in the world, is the fifteenth World Champion. Experts rate him as one of the biggest natural talents in the history of the game. In March 2007 he reached the number one spot on the world ranking lists. In September 2007 Anand won the World Championship for the second time in his career when in Mexico he became the undisputed World Chess Champion, ending a schism in the chess world which had lasted for many years. He defended his title against Vladimir Kramnik in 2008 and also against Veselin Topalov in 2010. If his talent as a rapid chess player is legendary, his records in classical chess have been superlative. In January 2006 he became the only player in the tournament's 70-year history to win the Corus Chess event five times (1989, 1998, 2003, 2004 and 2006). He has won the Linares Super Tournament twice (1998 and 2007), the Dortmund GM three times (1996, 2000 and 2004), and countless other important events like, Madrid Masters, Biel, etc.

Order My Career by Anand in the ChessBase Shop

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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