What Vishy Anand Can Teach You
Image: Dinesh Krishnan
ne night in July 2001, world chess champion Viswanathan Anand woke up with a start at his hotel room in Dortmund, Germany. He had been unable to sleep off the pain of going through the worst losing streak of his career. He was hovering at the bottom in the tournament in progress there but more importantly, his worst fears were just coming true.
He was staring at a long phase of poor form.
Unable to bear his suffering, Anand’s wife Aruna suggested that he hit the gym as a way to take his mind off chess. So at 4 a.m. before a big game day, Anand ran on the treadmill. It didn’t help. Forty five minutes later, he was back in the room still feeling dejected. She suggested they take a walk in the darkness, perhaps a fitting metaphor for their state of mind. Then they tried watching movies. Nothing worked. The child prodigy, India’s first grandmaster who had stormed into the dog-eat-dog world of international chess 16 years earlier and had every great legend of the game run for cover, had hit rock-bottom. Of course, he finished last in the tournament with four losses, six draws and no wins. “Till date, if anybody mentions Dortmund, it hurts us a lot because Anand was struggling as if he was making an extraordinary effort just not to lose,” recalls Aruna.
Almost a decade later, in April 2010, a group of chess strategists in Bulgaria was trying to make Anand feel like a loser again. By now, he had gone on to become the world champion in every format of the game and was playing at top form even at the age of 40. And that was bad news for the handlers of Veselin Topalov, who was challenging Anand for the world crown.
They opened a barrage of taunts to get him to become nervous before his title match against Topalov in the hope that he might make mistakes and lose. They commented about his age, technique, temperament and the moral support he had received from former rivals such as Garry Kasparov and Vladimir Kramnik. The 12-game match was to be played in Topalov’s home territory, Sofia, and the Icelandic ash cloud had forced Anand to take a 40-hour road journey across Europe to reach the match venue. The authorities rejected his request for a longer postponement and gave him just one extra day. Forced to play in tiring circumstances, Anand did falter in the first game and lose it. Team Topalov believed their tactics had worked and that a panicky Anand would soon yield the championship to their hero.
True champions, as boxing legend Muhammad Ali once said, are those whose will is stronger than their skill. Sledging is a dangerous ploy to play against them because it only steels them further. Surviving in the snake pit is a key trick they have picked up on the way.
As it turned out, the Bulgarians had underestimated Anand. He came back into the match and took an early lead. He had saved all his aggression for the board while his rivals had dissipated theirs in thinking up new taunts. In the end, it was Topalov who failed to hold nerves and lost to Anand. The world champion shrugged off the win, took his team for a celebratory dinner and just moved on.
Viswanathan Anand started out as a shy child prodigy who liked to play hard and fast. But over time, he matured into a methodical player who could hold his nerves against any opponent. As he ages, his game has only sharpened. In the last three years, he has been virtually unbeatable. And despite all this, Anand remains fundamentally a simple guy, opening the door to visitors and helping his wife in laundry.
But then, just how did this nice guy finish first?
In 1988, Soviet grandmaster Efim Geller went to the southern Indian city of Coimbatore to play in a tournament. Geller was a legend and in the twilight of his career of four decades during which he had beaten other greats such as Bobby Fischer. But in Coimbatore, he lost to a little-known 18-year-old boy. When he went back to Moscow Chess Club, his peers teased him asking, “So we hear that you lost to a boy in India?” Geller replied, “Boy? I think I lost to a world champion.”
That boy was Viswanathan Anand.
Image on left: An 11-year old Anand getting his first state award
Anand never left anyone in doubt about where he was headed in the game of chess. Manuel Aaron, India’s first international master and a nine-time national champion, recalls that even when he saw him for the first time in the 1970s, Anand exuded a kind of energy and focus that could be described only as world-class. At the Mikhail Tal Chess Club in Chennai where Aaron guided young players, Anand was a unique talent. At Aaron’s lectures on the great games of Soviet chess masters, it was only Anand who asked questions and even suggested alternative moves.
Anand, himself, recalls Tal Club as the crucible in which he was cast. “I would go there even on Sundays. I would finish all my homework early so that I could be there by 11 in the morning. And I would play till 7 in the evening when the club closed. I don’t know how many Sundays I had done that,” he says.
Make sure you listen to our Podcast: Viswanathan Anand, the Master Strategist