The Delhi Interview with Viswanathan Anand – Part two

6/11/2010 – In December 2009 Jaideep Unudurti conducted an indepth interview with Viswanathan Anand. Some of it was published in Mint – a collaboration between the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal – but a lot fell on the cutting room floor. Thankfully Jaideep saved the entire interview, which provides deep insights into the personality of the current World Champion. Here's part two.

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The Delhi Interview with Viswanathan Anand

Conducted by Jaideep Unudurti

This interview was conducted in December 2009, on the top floor of the Sheraton in the Mezzanine Boardroom. I was on assignment for Mint, a collaboration between the Hindustan Times and the Wall Street Journal. They wanted a curtain-raiser of sorts for the world championship match. I had interviewed him almost exactly a year earlier. That interview, at his residence in Chennai saw a relaxed and introspective Anand going over his triumph in Bonn. This time it was different, there was a spring in his step and he answered all questions carefully, measuring his words.


Anand and Jaideep – partners in this discussion

In the first part of this long interview Anand spoke about his expectations for the World Championship match against Veselin Topalov in Sofia, about match and tournament play in general, and about youth and maturity in chess. In this part he talks about his match preparation, his assessment of Topalov, whether he uses psychological tricks, and of course the old question about that "killer instinct".

Jaideep Unudurti: You have played in Sofia before, in the MTel tournament, what were your impressions?

Viswanathan Anand: I thought generally it was a well-organised event. That's basically it. I've played there twice. In 2004 I played an exhibition event with him. And '05 and '06, two years in a row. It was a reasonable tournament.

How would you assess Topalov as a player?

Historically, he is someone on the very aggressive side. He is someone who, how shall I put it? Defeats are something he simply seems to expect in the normal course of things. He comes back quite strongly. He doesn't let defeats set him back. I've noticed some other players, they need a round or two to recover but he seems to just go with the flow - except Linares 2007 maybe. He is someone who is very aggressive. He is pushing things quite a lot. And this can be a strength or a weakness – that is a tendency we could see for instance in the match in Elista. I would say he is also quite flexible. He is able to play a lot of different openings. His repertoire is actually fairly broad. Maybe Ivanchuk and Carlsen are the only ones who are much broader than him. In that sense he has got a very broad repertoire, maybe one of the highest.

You have been playing him since the early 90s. Do you remember your life-time score against him?

My life-time score is minus one. I started with a win, then lost three, then won four, then lost two, then in 2003 and 2004 I won one and lost one. In 2005 won one and lost one. Okay, since 2001 we have traded wins all the way till I'm minus one now. Most of the time I was 50% but after Bilbao I am minus one.

My database says you are in the lead 23-14. Or maybe it is including rapid games.

Yeah, that's classical games. In rapid, I would guess I'm far ahead. Blitz as well. It was the same with Kramnik. Before the match he was plus two in classical, I think minus 5 or 7 in rapid. It was minus two with Kramink and it's minus one with Topalov.

If I were to show a position from the 86+ games you have played with him since 1992, would you recall the game?

I'd bet on it. I'm not sure I'll make 100%. I think most of the games I should remember.

As part of the preparation you will be looking at all the games he has ever played...

I think you really have to put yourself in his skin. And put yourself in your skin. You may have to go over a lot of material. Lot of the assumptions you made might be inaccurate. The problem with memory is sometimes it's unreliable. You might have some very strong impressions of some game. Maybe you thought you were unlucky. You have to go over this stuff in a very disciplined way. I'll be doing that. And I guess he will as well.

For every game you have to remember all the openings, all the variations. Is your memory infallible or do you have black-outs occasionally?

[A foreshadowing of what was to happen in Game 1!]

You have lapses for sure. It's funny, you may remember every single thing. But if you don't remember that you remember that is also a problem. There are quite a lot of players who remember every single detail of their preparation but they are not sure that they remember. And the effect is the same as not remembering. Or not having analyzed. With the volume of information that is growing, that is clearly a challenge. It is something you have to keep a grip on. It is really the amount of information that is out there. A computer allows you to generate a hell of a lot of work and lots and lots of analysis. Then to remember all your conclusions very efficiently is a good part of what I would call peaking before the match.

You don't have to memorize it, you just have to look at it, like a photographic effect?

Well, you try to remember what is important. It should make sense to you. It should fall into a picture. If it's like an exam (gestures) and you remember this answer, this answer and this answer and the teacher has changed one or two details... It has got to fall into some sort of picture. What you can't remember you should be able to work out very easily. It is a mix between understanding, familiarity and memory. The junction of all three. You can't hope to remember everything either but clearly forcing yourself to do all the work at the board is suicidal in these circumstances.

Looking at the historical context, there was Kasparov, and then yourself, Kramnik and Topalov as the three major contenders. You have already played Kramnik and now you are playing Topalov. What sort of a context would you place the match?

I don't know. I haven't given it a lot of thought. Before I played Kramnik, I thought it was interesting that Kramnik and me had been very important rivals since 1992. I would say it was just the two of us for most of these years.

You won't place Topalov in the same bracket?

Well, Topalov started playing well in 1993. By ranking he had a gap of 4-5 years where he wasn't, then he started to come back strongly. He had some good years, 2001 was a very good year for him, and 2005 was spectacular. But if you want to expand to a triumvirate then yes, he is the missing - because they have played a match, I've played a match with Kramnik and now this is the missing one in that sense. But give me any other triangle and I'll string together an explanation. It's not something that I think about a lot. Clearly Topalov's performance in 2005, he was pretty strong in 2008 as well, in 2001 he was very impressive and he became world champion in 2005, so that's good enough.

Another way of looking at this is that whoever wins in Sofia, in all probability he will face the next generation – Carlsen perhaps. This is the last meeting of the gladiators.

It's not obvious to me, but its definitely a strong possibility. If it's a young gladiator, I hope it will be me (laughs). At the moment, I can't really attach any importance to context. Even if he came out of the blue I'll still have to do well in this match. Thats what I'm focused on. Historical contexts is already a luxury you permit yourself afterwards. I haven't even begun to try to make any sense of it.

Do you think about the match all the time?

It's there somewhere in the background. But you have to deal with the tasks on hand. When I play in Wijk aan Zee I cannot be somewhere else. So first things first. In January I will be playing Wijk aan Zee so it's a good way to see whats going on in your chess. Then you start getting ready for the match. From February, basically I'll be thinking of nothing else.

Is it irritating to play all these events – last year you had Bilbao before Bonn – because you can't show your prep?

It could be but times are changing fast also. Nowadays you can't just sit months on end because theory is moving so fast. You can't get off the treadmill for that long and get back on. I think Wijk aan Zee is a good distance. If I play Wijk aan Zee it's still enough time to get ready for Sofia. Whereas Bilbao was much closer. Between the end of Bilbao and the match there was still just under a month. It's a small cushion, also given the fact that you want to take a break. This time there is a comfortable cushion. I would say its quite different.

You haven't met Topalov in a classical encounter since Bilbao. Was it by design or accident?

It's just by chance. He couldn't play in Linares this year, and somehow we didn't end up in the same tournaments. We met at the rapid in Nice and the exhibition in Zurich.

Are you rusty?

Right now I wouldn't say I'm rusty. I just came off Tal. Last year I was. I'd played Linares and not played a classical game till Bilbao. There was Mainz – three days – and a rapid in Leon. Even if the rapid is two weeks long, then its fine. But you do an event for three or four days you don't get that same experience as a match. This time I don't think its an issue. Thanks to Tal I've played a good, strong tournament. If I play Wijk as well, that's enough games.

What has been your assessment of your play this year?

Obviously very far from 2007 and 2008. Tal I played well.

Until the last round...

Until the last round. It's a bit hard to explain this. I think round about the third or fourth try you should stop losing. It's minus four now. Four losses with white. Perhaps one should stop trying to explain it as such. I'll just have to deal with it and show people. That is the only way to do it. For the rest, I was plus two before this and was actually feeling very confident about the tournament.

Until the last round you were in contention, Kramnik could have lost to Ivanchuk.

Exactly, which I spoilt in one day. It is a combination of a lot of things. Essentially, I don't think it should take away from the fact I played good chess in Tal. So, from that sense it doesn't worry me but confidence comes from good results at the end of the tournament. I would say 2009 was a mixed year. The same thing happened in Linares – it could have been a much better tournament except for this first game. Even with that first game it is by no means clear I would have won the tournament. Still 2/2 is something else. So 2009 I would say, I was playing well but there were some shaky moments. I was not playing spectacularly well either. But I played better in Tal I think, than Linares. Linares, after the 4th game, after the win with Wang Yue I don't think there was a single game where I was better, which suggests I had dried out there. Whereas in Tal I had chances here and there.

How do you react to losses in tournaments?

[After the debacle in game one the Internet forums were abuzz on exactly this point. Which made Anand's win in game two all that much more epic. As we know now, actually even that was a mix-up in the move order but it worked out well in the end.]

This year I clearly did badly. In Linares, the loss to Aronian basically knocked me out. It was so silly to take a position that good and spoil it in one move and by a train of events....it took me a lot of effort, well, I never really managed to get over it. It looks like with the win against Wang Yue, you are sort of recovering but it didn't really happen. In Moscow it was the last round so I don't know (laughs). I would say this year is mixed but generally my record in recovery is quite strong.

That was a criticism levelled against you, that you took a lot of time to recover.

Yeah but in 2007 and 2008 I thought I played quite well. Also in many years, in 2003, 04 and 05 I simply won a lot of games in tournaments. I don't feel thats an important area of concern for me.

Improvement comes from analyzing your losses. How do you draw the line between self-analysis and beating yourself over it? Do you have a 'system' to deal with it?

At some point you have to let go. That takes some time. A system as such is just a question of going to sleep and waking up often enough. In one or two days it should be gone. It helps if you are well prepared, you have lots of ideas, you are looking forward to every game, it flows with that. If you are having difficulties in the tournament anyway, a defeat can accentuate your problem if you are not in good shape. That's when really things go wrong. If you are playing well, a defeat here or there shouldn't stop you in your tracks. I don't feel that it has, that often.

Moving on to the match, have you ever used psychological tricks?

No. This match I have to get ready and get ready for lot of these things. It is clear that the kind of match, where things are quiet, it's not going to be that sort of a thing. I have to get ready for it. Myself, I don't feel like I'm doing it, but always the question is to ask your opponent (smiles). It is my experience that in these areas you can start to see psychological tricks even when there are none. Because the tension in a match is so high that inevitably you feel that everything is being directed against you and vice versa. Matches are very special in that sense, they become very personal. I have no doubt that at the end of the match if you ask, both of us will say 'Yes, the other side did something'.

Have people used psychological tricks against you?

Sure. Kasparov and the slamming door. In fact that is the only thing I really think I should have stopped at some point. For a while Karpov was trying to come late every game and try to get his time back on the clock. Couple of things like that. I've experienced it a few times. I would say the peak of these was the Fischer era, the Cold War era and the Kasparov-Karpov matches. I think subsequent generations generally let go of it. With Kramnik, we had a go at each other in the press. Before the match you get ready for it. Basically I didn't expect every day some door slamming or things like that (in Bonn).

Do you play better against someone you dislike?

I think I now do. I think nowadays it helps me concentrate a lot better. Certainly it boosts your motivation. I'm fine with that. Probably I also improved in this area with experience. It is not like a specific year that I improved. Over time I've gotten better at it. But again, bring it on. I'll deal with it.

You have been criticized for not having a "killer instinct"

What can I say? If it hasn't stopped by 40 it's not going to stop now (laughs). I think the first time this idea was mentioned, maybe not the first time, Rentero once made a joke "ahimsa being very nice but please not in my tournament". Maybe people just liked to connect the idea of India and spirituality. It might have started there. I don't know where it started. Eventually it becomes a stick to hit you with. I've never seen myself as someone who lacks killer instinct (laughs). It is very strange to explain this. And I can't.

What is your perception of killer instinct?

As I understand it, killer instinct is sitting there and really wanting to beat your opponent. That I have – especially with opponents who are not approaching the game in a completely gentlemanly way. I'm slightly more motivated to play with them. You may have setbacks but I have never lacked the motivation to beat people. Do I show aggression at the board? I have always thought, keep a poker face. Thats what I always do. Maybe I don't show aggression physically or with actions. I certainly don't feel I lack it. It comes down to wanting to win games. Even with lots of other people who don't try to press the point physically or with body language I can feel very strongly that they want to beat me and vice versa.

Does that come naturally to you, to keep a poker face?

I would say so. Maybe its something I have cultivated very early. Since then it has felt very natural. Certainly there are people who like to express themselves but I would say the majority of chess players train themselves to not let on too much of whats going through their heads.

You were not very demonstrative from an early age...

I think there are some moves you make with a smug confidence. When things are obvious you might relax a bit. This may even be obvious to an opponent. Basically, most moves if you start acting, then you expend a lot of energy in that.

You mentioned in an interview that you "observe" an opponent's breathing. How does that work?

Observe is too strong. It's not that you observe someone breathing but you observe someone – suddenly NOT breathing and that's when you know something has happened. Suddenly they go still and you know something has happened. It really is like that. It's like background noise. Suddenly if it goes completely silent, you look around. Definitely, you can smell when people have made a blunder. I'm sure they know when you do. You try to calm down but still. Maybe your body betrays you.

In these kind of matches, can you say that the chess level is more or less even, and it is the psychology that is the deciding factor?

Yes. Unless there is a huge technical difference between the participants and that is unlikely. If both people are coming to the world championships then they clearly have earned something. The differentiator is really how well you play under pressure. And it comes down to a few small things maybe things you prepare, your attitude during the match. It comes down to what you do in that month.

Is there some kind of a "psychic" link with the opponent – playing him in an intense contest for a month?

Yes, you try to look for some information, but honestly with that intensity you are also very concentrated on the moves and the position. Maybe at critical moments you are grasping for every straw of information, and then you notice these things. I think simply your mind is highly attuned.

One part of your brain is on the chess, while another part is looking for these cues?

Quite a lot of players often write afterwards, "I felt this move was played with a lack of confidence". Initially, my reaction was to smile at this. But now I see they had a point. This is something you perceive in some way you can't explain afterwards. At some depth you do this.

During the struggle are you able to sense this shift?

Sometimes the position is obvious, and sometimes you see something clearly and your opponent doesn't. In a position you can't figure out, you have no idea whats going on, to say that from my opponent's breathing I can perceive - it's too much. Maybe its even an explanation you find afterwards. I don't think so. During the 5th game for instance, when he blundered, then I saw the moment when he realized it - and I saw it in a certain way. It didn't help me find the move, I had already seen the move sometime back. Having seen the move, I looked at him, and he understood me... So that's the sort of moment I was trying to highlight. During the game you can't be sure of what you are hearing or what you think you are seeing.

Critics say that if you don't get an advantage from the opening you are okay with a draw. You don't push.

I don't think that's complete. There are some positions maybe I don't know enough what to do next. But to say that I just abandon it is also too strong. There are many positions where you keep playing the middle-game and something happens. I think everyone has positions where they are able to play a bit more and positions where they don't, so this is something not unique to me. There are positions where I don't know see what plan I have next, so you just mark time.

Topalov has a very street-fighting style, even in equal positions he induces blunders.

I think I have done a bit of that. Maybe our approach is slightly different. I might be doing it from a more objective viewpoint. Maybe he is optimistic, I don't know.

That optimism brings him victories.

It could be. I wouldn't be surprised if I was more objective than him. Who knows? These things are very difficult to tap into. Perhaps he suffers from more confidence, let's put it that way.

["Perhaps he suffers from confidence..." Prophetic words!]

Earlier this year you played a very complex, fascinating game against grandmaster Stellwagen. Is that the early Anand, the Anand we don't see any more?

No I think it's there – it is very strongly what position you get at the board, not what style you have. If Stellwagen had played a different line we would have played a different kind of Najdorf. I think there are certainly enough lines where I look out for these positions but you may not get them. I think people's ways of approaching chess openings has developed a lot over the years. You get these sharp battles once in a while – Grischuk for instance went with a Poisoned Pawn against me, basically what he had in mind was a very, very specific line. If I remember everything it's a draw. If I don't I'm losing, which is what sort of happened. Every once in a while somebody tries to go very far down a well-analyzed main line and wonder if you've checked everything. I would say that's a function of what you get at the board rather than what you aim for. Certainly I'd be delighted if I get the Poisoned Pawn in every game. But you won't.

So you are saying your appetite for complications hasn't reduced?

No. I very much love to get complicated positions on the board. Everyone wants to get complicated positions they know better (smiles). That's what it comes down to.

Your colleague GM Kramnik seems to have re-invented his play after Bonn. How do you change, do you transform your game after setbacks?

I would say it is evolving. Maybe Kramnik felt liberated in some sense, I don't mean he was happy. Having lost the title you play tournaments – he certainly played very well this year. I think thats something you do constantly. Trying to find new things to do. I don't even think Kramnik completely re-invented himself this year. It seems like the same old Kramnik – just stronger. He has worked hard at it, cleaned up a lot of the edges, he was very motivated in his work.

Fischer said "I'd like to see them squirm". To others it's the aesthetic pleasure. What is your motivation?

For me, its fundamentally to see the appropriate result on the scoresheet. Against some people you are especially happy that you won. But it's not like I'm really waiting to see their face. But maybe that's as far as it gets. There are some people you enjoy beating them a bit more. Otherwise it's simply the result. It's very nice to play a beautiful game for sure. But choosing that over an easy point, I'll take an easy point (smiles)

Because of your tremendous natural talent, are you able to sense how difficult chess actually is?

Everyone finds certain things difficult. After several years of working at it, you realize that there are some things that come easily and some that don't. Even within chess, there are things that I can do easily, other areas you never get a grasp on. In that sense, I can easily relate to someone's experience. No matter how hard you work, there are some lines you never score a point and other lines where points just pour in. Clearly your style has a huge impact on that.

As you keep working on it, you discover things you didn't know?

Very much so. Even over the years, your understanding keeps evolving. Or when you work with someone else. Its amazing - even in positions that you have looked at for a good part of your life, you work with someone and they will still be able to disagree with you on something. Sometimes he may be right, or sometimes both may be right in a certain way. If you are open to learning, the depth of the game does surprise you.

You get a different insight working with different people?

Very much so. Even more than just a second opinion. You get a second viewpoint. It is striking to me that there are some things they see obviously and I can't and vice versa. Tournament chess is only a fraction of that. It is a fraction of that plus the ability to do things with the clock ticking and something at stake. In terms of understanding the game it's amazing how many areas you can be wrong.

The interview wound down and coffee was served. Mrs Anand also joined in, and while everyone was waiting for the photographer to set up the shoot, a general discussion began. In the concluding part of the interview, Anand discusses movies, "preparation music"and whether he still reads opening books.

Copyright Jaideep/ChessBase


Anand – My Career in Chess

Anand: My Career Vol. 1

The first DVD with videos from Anand's chess career reflects the very beginning of that career and goes as far as 1999. It starts with his memories of how he first learned chess and shows his first great games (including those from the 1984 World Championship for juniors). The high point of his early developmental phase was the winning of the 1987 WCh for juniors. After that, things continue in quick succession: the first victories over Kasparov, World Championship candidate in both the FIDE and PCA cycles, and the high point of the World Championship match against Kasparov in 1995. 3:48 hours playing time.

Anand: My Career Vol. 2

The second DVD begins in 2000, when Anand became FIDE World Champion, and it ends with his victory in the 2007 World Championship in Mexico. Anand not only analyses his best games, but casts a look back at the World Championship in Delhi/Teheran in 2000 and the years before, he discusses the situation in the Bundesliga and Kasparov's retirement from tournament chess. 4:28 hours playing time.

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