Q&A with Viswanathan Anand - Emotional tempest, chess politics and McEnroe

Viswanathan Anand has recently released his autobiography 'Mind Master' in collaboration with ESPN's Susan Ninan. AFP PHOTO/THOMAS SAMSON

Viswanathan Anand is Indian sport's most enduring champion. A five-time world champion in classical chess, with multiple world titles in rapid and blitz chess. Still competitive at 50, when the January 2020 rankings were released, he found himself up two places to No. 13 in the world.

Anand's career has spanned decades of transformations, both in his sport and his country, breaking through barriers from an early age - the first Indian GM, the first Asian world champion, the last of an old guard still holding its own against a generation brought up with chess computers.

Anand's recently released autobiography 'Mind Master', written with my colleague Susan Ninan, talks us through his career, how he lived and competed through some of the most extraordinary times in his sport. The book gives us an insight into the driven man behind the calm, even-tempered champion, and the intrigue, drama and extreme emotions hidden away behind the deathly sepulchral quiet of chess halls.

Anand spoke to ESPN about why and how his book was written, how he handled his toughest matches and chess politics, and the next generation of Indian chess.

Excerpts from an interview:

Q: Your book reveals a side of emotional extremes throughout your career, which on the outside wasn't seen as a part of your personality. How did you keep that under control, under wraps for so long?

Anand: It stands to reason, doesn't it? You learn to keep a face in public... So, you learn to behave, but you go inside and scream. I think it would be much stranger if I was indifferent to everything -- all the turmoil inside at the board, the ups and downs. I think the really astonishing thing would be if I had been completely detached from that. Then I should have written a book on spirituality!

Getting to 50 was a nice motivation for me to speak freely. In the book, I felt I was talking to two audiences - to the chess fan who knows a lot about chess moves, and the chess fan who follows the results at a certain distance let's say, and for them, I wanted them to experience it, as if they were following me with a video camera. To experience what I went through from the inside. I hoped that they would get a flavour of what chess is like.

I can see where the surprise is coming from, but if people think about it for a second, they will realise that, of course, that must be what is going on inside.

"I struggle to contain myself but often I come out of the press conference, run to the hotel and throw things around." Viswanathan Anand

Underneath all the studiousness and silence there is, you say, an emotional tempest.

I mentioned this especially with the (Anatoly) Karpov incident (when Karpov was late for a match against Anand, who allowed him his time back on the request of the arbiter), and that I say I found it funny to examine myself.

He was coming late, as usual doing a prima donna act and I had started anticipating what would happen when he came. That when he comes he would go to the arbiter and he would ask for a special favour. I mean he (Karpov) would stroke him (the arbiter) with something else and he would ask for a special favour. And I started to think, am I going to get any benefit when instead of him fighting with arbiter, who was enforcing the rules, I would end up fighting with the arbiter to enforce the rules? I would have to dissipate a lot of mental energy on that and I would get angry with the arbiter who would essentially convert himself to Karpov's lawyer at the hearing.

And I kind of thought I should anticipate this problem, and so I told myself that when the arbiter comes to me I will tell him, 'yeah, go ahead, he can have his time back'.

That was totally part of your public persona...

Yes, in the book I talk about the envy (I have) about people who are able to break their rackets and kick up a fuss. There are times when it is futile, but if you always kick up a fuss, then people respect you and they don't push their luck against you. Whereas, I've always had a feeling that people test their limits with me. They see what they can get out of you. So there is a conflict inside.

On the one hand, I'm trying to be the boy my mother brought up in a certain way, well behaved and all. And look, I am also doing it for myself. I didn't want to get into a fight because I want to play chess well.

Looking back, I am not sure that it was always the right attitude, but at the end, in the book, I come around to the conclusion that this is who I am and I am not going to change very easily. So I can enjoy [John] McEnroe as much as I want and people who punch each other, but I realise that's not going to be me and I'm kind of resigned to it and I accept it.

That, people recognise and appreciate. It's the raging Anand that was the total surprise.

But I am furious at games that I play badly. I can barely drag myself to the press conference. But thinking practically -- if I throw a fit and I am upset nowadays, everything is recorded, you become a meme and gif. So I struggle to contain myself but often I come out of the press conference, run to the hotel and throw things around. And it takes me a while to calm down.

Actually throw things around?

Not too much, but I'll throw my key on the bed and if it's a key card, you don't even have that pleasure.

What other sports do you now pay attention to, the mental aspect of which interests you?

I watch football and I follow tennis as well. I used to play tennis when I was young in Railway Club. I gradually got out of sport in favour of going to the gym. But I follow sports and invariably when you are watching the game you are trying to understand what is going on. By which I mean you are trying to understand what is really making a difference. And this turns out to be invariably mental. In some cases, it's obvious, in some it's more hidden. But you try to read what the players are doing.

Quite often, I will also see some technical aspect that one player is better than another player at something and the other player is trying to overcome it. So you follow a game and you try to convert it into this language, I don't know how successfully but you try to do it.

With football, it's mainly Real Madrid and La Liga -- basically a habit from being in Spain. I follow World Cups and all. You go on for the ride and but there are bigger football fans than me.

If you were a tennis player, what kind of tennis player would you have liked to have been?

Uff! I don't know! I suppose, in a way, I was always fascinated by McEnroe. But it was a childhood thing because he was so entertaining at a time when we had so few options. He was very good to watch.

How does that compare to a modern player? Actually, I'm not particularly attracted to [Nick] Kyrgios or these guys who kick up a fuss everywhere. But after writing the book, I guess I do have appreciation for the steam they are trying to let off. It's basically that. You are trying to blow off some steam and you are trying to return to some equilibrium. People behave badly all the time, and there are still occasionally players who are normally okay and sometimes they hit a (bad) shot and they want to break the racket. And you can see how much they hate the racket at that point. It is so easy for me to understand, because there are times I want to kill something or someone.


Well, you can't. You know what the player is trying to do to that racket. He is not trying to smash it into two, if he could put more force into that, he would.

Over the course of your career, you've evaluated your play during tournaments. What was evaluating a life and a career like?

First of all, with writing. My mother's advice for one. When I was very young, she made sure I recorded my moves. Along with recording the moves, you get brief impressions. And there's enough there that helps me recall a lot of stuff. By any stretch of imagination, it is not thorough, and the habit weakens over time, but at least fragments of it remain.

Sometimes you play a game and you are so upset with yourself, you need to vent and so I open my computer, open Notepad and hammer out 20 sentences, a lot of them attacking me. Also saying this is what I did in the third, and I am in the seventh game and I haven't learnt anything in the interim.

For this one day of venting, you have done six or seven diary entries for the first half of the tournament. I would say my mother's advice at least really helped me to have that. My recollections would have been phenomenal if I had systematically written a diary and followed her advice 100%. But to the extent I followed it, it helped me with the book a lot, and helped me a lot as well.

When you read from 2011, I realised I felt much worse than I am feeling now. It puts some things in perspective and I think you stop romanticising the past as well. It helped me in... I don't know what self-improvement it does. Maybe some self-awareness, which guides you better.

What did you find out about yourself ? How did it help while writing the book?

It came from several strains... I've had prior shots at an autobiography and for some reasons they didn't come to fruition. But I already had the habit of talking. An important contribution was when I started giving motivational speeches to various companies. Invariably, I would draw from my own experience. So I tried to pick anecdotes and stories. During the matches also, there is a certain amount of venting. You vent to your seconds, you vent to your wife. Aruna remembers many of the stories, the tensions we live with.

"I don't look back and pretend that mine was some overly heroic struggle." Viswanathan Anand

That story where Aruna is trying her best, she doesn't know what to say and she says something, and then I ask, 'Well, is that best you can come up with and if you have something useful can you let me know'. And then she says, 'If I knew the answers to that, why would I have married you?' That is one of the nicer events we've had.

Honestly, the final book is really the work of four people. The book would look different if any one of them was missing. Obviously, the heaviest contributor was me, then there is Aruna really trying to visualise what gets asked and what gets spoken about, and then there's Susan, who is trying to look at the book through the eyes of a non-chess player and a sports journalist and thinking what it is I'm curious about. And Poulomi [Chatterjee, Editor, Hachette India] thinking what would people like to read, and so... each person left their impression.

Coming through when you did, as the first Asian at the top of world chess through the 1990s, when the Russians virtually ran world chess, it looked like a very lonely battle. How did you filter through the insularity and the power dynamics of the time?

Mostly, I saw the best in people. I don't mean from my own personal eyes, I interacted with so many Soviets and Russians... you strike up friendships with them and in the end they are just individuals.

Frederic Friedel, Mauricio and Nieves Perea, Albert Tobi; I've mentioned couple of my friends in the book. These are people who let me stay with them for weeks, who helped me in many ways, so I can't say that it was a lonely struggle. Especially if you take Mauricio and Nieves, who basically almost adopted me, I got a huge amount of help.

Having said that, the lone battle comes from (the fact) that I was not able to politically organise very well and I didn't come from a chess federation who could do that on auto pilot. The thing is that I don't think the Russian players set out to cut me off or advance their own interest. But the point is that when you're organising a match, if your federation is the organisation... the Soviet federation was always the federation that was used to dictating terms. These sort of things happen naturally. (When) Veselin Topalov organised his match, his manager was both the organiser and a serious politician (in Bulgaria), so he was able to bring a certain amount of his influence and things to bear. And he is able to get a short cut here and there.

I wouldn't even say [Vladimir] Kramnik sat around trying to fight this battle. But he knew his interests would be looked after on several cylinders. And I knew that if didn't find a way to get to the table, I might be overlooked.

You just understand that the structure favours them as it were. Maybe that was crucial in realising I better get out of chess politics, or any active desire to get involved in chess politics at all. Because my own attitude was that if I miss this or that qualification nobody is going to negotiate a deal with FIDE (International Chess Federation) that I get to parachute in, and I am out.

Whereas Topalov could negotiate a deal where he got to play only a final, he got to play against me and so on. The others had people do that for them, and for me, the Indian federation wasn't very influential, and therefore, I knew that they wouldn't be able to fight my corner.

On a personal note, I am grateful for a lot of the help I got and definitely, I benefited a lot from complete strangers helping me. I don't look back and pretend that mine was some overly heroic struggle. I got the good along with the bad, that's all.

The book has an undertone of intrigue with people crossing over after working with you as seconds. Is it possible to have friends in competitive chess?

My attitude was that I didn't have the right to expect it (loyalty/friendship) from them. I realise that people can't be loyal forever. They have to look out for themselves and if they get an offer from somewhere else, they are going to look at it actively.

Most companies understand that someone who is working for them today could work for their competitor if you make the offer sweet enough. That's how it works, that's how the world works. I eventually reconciled to this because I felt at some point it is good to have a loyal team working with you - I don't mean loyal that they swear loyalty to you, you are all working with each other and you are used to each other.

Even with Kramnik, he shrugged at me in Paris and said, 'You know, I am sorry I worked against you but obviously you understand that I didn't owe you anything'. Essentially what he is saying is business is business, whether it's the mafia or otherwise (laughs), and that's right.

We have come to the point also where since computers do most of the work, what (secret) is the second supposed to keep? You can say the seconds are supposed to keep all my moves secret, but the computer is suggesting the same move to everyone else. You have to evaluate what you think. I think nowadays the strategy is secret but the moves are nobody's secret.

"If you don't see someone for two years, and then you see him and you have the option of an evening of being friendly and an evening of hostility, that doesn't make any sense." Viswanathan Anand

Was getting used to this kind of switching over tough? Or not, because it happened to everyone...

Pretty much. There are people who worked for me then against me and then in the reverse direction. I think I came to the point where I understood that everyone has a right to their livelihood and you can't take things personally. You let go, and that is the current attitude and it is more sensible.

The other point is that trying to insist what is yours and what is theirs becomes more difficult when the computer is involved. Let's say that we agree that all this is mine and the next version of the programme shows that stuff very easily, so it becomes very hard to go down that road.

You just accept that your friends will help and you will come up with something sensible and you go on. But more so, in the book, I come to this - that the chess world has evolved and you just have to keep up with that.

You do have old friends amongst competitors then?

Very much. There are a few people with whom it never really got going but I would say that most of my friends, we are still able to talk to each other and on occasion, you are friendly to each other. Also, if you don't see someone for two years, and then you see him and you have the option of an evening of being friendly and an evening of hostility, that doesn't make any sense. You are not going to see him for another three years so you might as well be friendly, chat about something neutral and leave it.

I was heavily influenced by Karpov because he had this habit... I remember both with [Garry] Kasparov and [Viktor] Korchnoi, there are very nice stories I've heard where they would be stuck on a plane together and he would just play cards with them. Whatever their personal relations, he would play cards. This is a kind of discipline where you agree to leave something aside where you disagree. And you just do something that's fun and something you share. And when you disembark the plane, you can resume fighting. It's very nice and actually it seems in society we could use this skill.

Was your final in Sofia against Topalov, (which involved a 50-hour road journey due to the Iceland volcano eruption cancelling flights, a super computer he could not get access to and local organisers in the home player's favour) the most unreal, bizarre contest you have ever gone to?

The response from the organising committee was, let's say, not the most helpful. They were being pulled in two directions, and Aruna had to think on her feet and she found this Force Majeure clause (seeking postponement due to an unprecedented external event). Hiring the best computer was just the sports person seeking the best advantage for himself. There is nothing controversial in that, but our response was important.

We understood that very quickly we should have to stop thinking about this super computer, because after a while it exists in your head and you are fighting an imaginary battle with the supercomputer while reality is wherever else it is.

In an era where artificial intelligence is everywhere and we are awed by computers that beat GMs, you express an amazed admiration for the old masters - could you explain the distinctiveness to non-chess folk?

How shall I put it? I grew up at a time without computers in the sense that I had to do the things the way the old masters did. Now I find that I have lost many of the skills that even I possessed but that they possessed in very high quantity.

Say I am from the generation that used to sail across the ocean and navigate by using the stars, sextants and navigational charts, much improvisation and so on. Then let's say I belong to the crossover generation that suddenly gets GPS maps and some electronics. Then you get used to doing this, and a few years later, you realise you've forgotten how to do everything on your own, but you remember from your childhood that you were used to improvising, and there used to be people who used to do it effortlessly.

You look at them and you think, my God, how amazing they were, they used to do this. Like people before a calculator, they used to do all these sums by hand. It is amazing.

If you look at, say, Mikhail Tal's game today, and you look at the computer who refutes his ideas in nanoseconds, it is difficult to understand that this man once had us captivated. That we once were frustrated that we couldn't see everything at once and we took so much time to understand what he was doing. That we would call him the magician from Riga, but now it's hard to even have that stance. You can't blame a player from today who, say, was born after 2000, if he can't appreciate that in the same way because he cannot visualise a time before this.

Is it liberating to play with younger players? Or intimidating and challenging?

I would say that it happens over a period of time, you adapt and you get used to it. I have found that today's players don't have very strong aesthetics because they have grown up without... we had a very strong idea that this Karpov move is good, that move is bad and so on but young players today are much less dogmatic and are much more open to experimenting. I find that very interesting to watch and to learn from. Their rules are not as fixed.

The computer has been contradicting them all their lives and they understand that these hard and fast rules are too rigid. They experiment, they are very flexible and over time I've adapted too it in the same way and I am also very flexible.

It's a question you'll get asked a lot - how long do you think you'll compete?

I try not to think. My own attitude is that I'll play as long as I enjoy it and if it stops being fun, I will stop very quickly because I don't have regrets about leaving too early now. I kind of think, why sit and plan for that day? If it happens, it happens. Ideally, you think you're going to stop in a year, and the year runs out and you stop gracefully and that sounds nice.

But what if you suddenly realise you don't want to go through another tournament and it could happen fast as well? I think I'll see how it shapes up, I'm quite relaxed about it and it could come. Clearly, people do retire for a reason.

India now has many GMs but no one is pushing for the big world titles like you did. With both men and women players. What's the reason for this vacuum, you think?

First of all, it's not quite as bad as all that because we have a lot of players in the top 100. But I understand what you're saying, it's not like we have broken through to the top. I would say this in their defence that it could happen very fast. The chess world is very unstable now in the sense that no one's ranking is very safe. It's very competitive and rankings shift a lot, people go up and down. So it could very easily happen. I am very optimistic about this generation, our youngest GMs.

Because they have so much time on their side and hopefully, I'll be able to help them occasionally as well. I think it's just a question of time because we have so much talent and somebody will break through. Same story with the women, I think it can happen, the chess world is very flat these days.

You have players coming from countries without any chess tradition. They just emerge. Because of technology... like, Iran has very good players now. When I played in Iran, it was even unclear whether chess was banned or not. Now they have got several very strong players, so people pop up put of unexpected places. I think India has very good field, and so we will see.