'Second man' Surya Sekhar Ganguly finds second wind at chess

Surya Sekhar Ganguly during the World Team Chess event Surya Sekhar Ganguly

Tucked away in hotel suites thick with alphanumeric notations and caffeine, they are the invisible army that prop up a chess world champion. Their calendars revolving around the success of a major player and ambitions imperceptible, a second's life is a bit of an anomaly in the ruthlessly competitive world of sport.

It is a life that Grandmaster Surya Sekhar Ganguly has lived and only known too well.

Over a Skype call in 2007 when idol Viswanathan Anand politely queried if Ganguly would be kind enough to assist him for the World Championship match against Vladimir Kramnik, the then 24-year-old felt his jaw drop and voice choke.

"I wondered if I was imagining all of it and agreed almost instantly," Ganguly says. "I didn't care about the time, money, logistics, nothing. Nothing mattered. I was going to work for Anand, what more could I ask for?"

In chess, a second or trainer is usually a professional player who assists a higher rated player with preparation for tournaments. The work involved can quadruple, to put it mildly, when it's for a World Championship. Training typically begins at least six months in advance and a player's team of seconds draws up elaborate plans for the Championship, poring over every line and coming up with novelties and then passing them on to the player in bite-sized forms. Team members are picked based on their opening repertoire, style of play and domain of expertise and are expected to combine computer assistance with human know-how to produce comprehensive strategies and sit down for practice games with the player.

Over three World Championship campaigns between 2008 and 2012, Ganguly turned into a mainstay in Anand's core four-member team and together with Peter Heine Nielsen, Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Radek Wojtazsek, worked endlessly through sleepless nights to put together lines and variations for Anand's successive world title bids.

"All I could think of was Anand winning the world title and how every idea or plan we came up with could either take him closer or farther away from it. Sometimes even after working 27 hours straight I felt I couldn't afford to sleep not knowing if we had a foolproof plan in place to offer Anand when we walked into the workroom for a briefing next morning."

As it turned out, each of the three occasions Ganguly was part of the team, Anand returned home with a world title.

Last week, though, Ganguly had a different kind of win, one that he had partially forgotten the feeling of. A medal of his own - an individual gold on board three at the World Team in Astana, Kazakhstan. Anand was among the first ones to congratulate him.

Ganguly struggles to recall a win of similar magnitude in recent times. Yes, he has won odd tournaments in between but nothing of this stature in at least nine years since an individual gold at the same event in 2010.

A lot has changed between these two gold medals, Ganguly vouches.

"My working experience with Anand has transformed me as a player. When I came into his team I knew nothing. I was this foolishly overconfident player with zero knowledge."

Ganguly's ELO rating hovered in the 2500s then.

His beginnings in the sport were promising - Ganguly beat a Grandmaster at the age of 11, finished with a bronze medal behind Levon Aronian at the Under-12 Championship in Szeged in 1994, turned International Master at the age of 16, Grandmaster at the age of 19, and held the national title for a record six consecutive times between 2003 and 2008.

Starting out in Bonn 2008 as an inexperienced team member unfamiliar with big-match scenarios, Ganguly went on to be retained for the 2010 match against Veselin Topalov and Anand's last world title in 2012. He also featured in the training camp for the Magnus Carlsen encounter in Chennai the following year, though he wasn't part of the match.

In the days following Anand's 2008 title win, his chess-mad hometown was prepping for a grand felicitation. Ganguly also flew down to Chennai from Kolkata to be a part of it and crashed at former player and coach RB Ramesh's home. On the morning of the reception, he dropped Anand a text informing him that he was in the city and would meet him at the function in the evening. Anand's response typically meant business: "Surya, are you carrying your laptop by any chance?"

Ganguly knew what Anand had in mind. He had in fact half-expected it and had packed his laptop along with a change of clothes. Anand then called him over to his house where they analysed games together for a few hours.

"Here was this guy who had played the greatest match of his life and won a world title of massive significance in the unified chess world set-up, and all he could think of was going over games as a way to unwind while his phone hadn't stopped ringing with congratulatory calls and everyone else was going berserk over how to make him feel special. But that's Anand. With him, you never stop learning."

The team remained unchanged and it was in their third outing for the match against Israel's Boris Gelfand that the combination began to feel a bit jaded. It didn't help that Gelfand was, contrary to expectation, proving to be a difficult opponent.

"Within the first couple of days we knew that we had to throw everything we'd prepared up until then right out of the window and start over. That match was the most challenging out of the three and pushed all of us to the edge," Ganguly remembers.

After the dead-heat of six consecutive draws, Gelfand and Anand won a game each before lapsing into four further draws and allowing the match to spill into tie-breaks. Ganguly, though, went on to leave a lasting imprint on the second tie-break game, which he calls his "most satisfying work" till date and it was the only rapid game out of four that Anand managed to win.

Anand was able to use Ganguly's deep work on the Rossolimo Sicilian variation (named after former GM Nicholas Rossolimo), a counter to black's most common Sicilian Defense opening, which allowed him a one-point lead and a successful defense of his world title for the fourth consecutive time.

"Seconding takes a lot out of you, especially for a World Championship. The work is intense and schedules unforgiving. So for a professional player working as a second, you'd have to put away your career even if temporarily and focus on someone else's. Only briefly before the Gelfand match I paused to ask myself if I was ready for the long haul all over again. I wasn't surprised by my answer."

A year after he joined Anand's team, Ganguly became the Asian champion in 2009 and touched his peak career rating of 2672 in 2010. Ganguly's results, however, weren't consistent and along the line, he hit a bit of a plateau.

"There are former seconds, like Radek for instance, who now are doing pretty well for themselves. In my case, I would say I simply couldn't handle it in the best possible manner. It had nothing to do with Anand because without the experience of working with him I would have lived in a bubble not knowing what chess really is or what it can be about. For a fan doubling up as second, it's a special feeling to have been a part of Anand's biggest wins. Thankfully, I've never seen him lose a world title."

However, it's only today at 36 that Ganguly is enjoying the sport. There was a time in his career where he mindlessly played one tournament after another in a mad chase for ratings, and he was putting himself under huge pressure to deliver results. Now, he is obsessed with neither ratings nor results. With seven points from five wins and four draws, he remained unbeaten in the World Team event last week which fetched him a gold medal.

India were without three of their top players - Anand, P Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi - for the tournament and yet stayed unbeaten until the final round for a fourth-placed finish.

"I felt zero pressure. I had nothing on my mind - country, medal nor a win. I was just playing the positions. I managed to strike a beautiful balance between playing freely, taking risks and yet staying in control and was perhaps the only Grandmaster in medal contention and definitely the only 2600 player to have gone sightseeing on rest days between games. It just tells you how relaxed I was."

Now, Ganguly is in the game for himself. There are no seconding duties, no goals to reach or targets to crack. He waits around for invitations to major tournaments. Sometimes, he gets lucky with a few while request letters to the others go unanswered.

It doesn't ruffle him though.

In 2018, he played close to 12 tournaments and, when we speak, is on transit to Dubai on a red-eye flight for his sixth tournament just three months into this year. He is running on sleep deficit but can barely feel it. It's not without reason.

"Chess is all I've known," he says. "But it's only now with nothing to chase that I'm learning to love it."