No castling chess: Viswanathan Anand out to conquer brave, new worlds

Viswanathan Anand is set to play his first over-the-board event since February last year against Vladimir Kramnik at the No-Castling World Masters in Germany. Soumitra Ghosh\Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The past year, and the enforced break, have led Viswanathan Anand to new experiences -- extended family time, coaching and mentorship roles, a biopic in the works, designing the blueprint for a global chess league. And perhaps, at 51, even a glimpse of life after competitive chess.

"I'm happy I could manage a dry run so when the time comes it doesn't feel too unfamiliar," says the five-time world chess champion, alluding to life after competitive sport. "Last year felt like a dress rehearsal for the future when I would be staying largely at home and not traveling much."

But he's not done yet, and is preparing for another new frontier. In July, Anand will be playing his first over-the-board event since February last year - a series of four games against retired former world champion Vladimir Kramnik at the No-Castling World Masters in Dortmund, Germany.

Castling -- the king moving two squares either side, and the rook moving alongside and securing him -- is the only move in chess that allows for two pieces to be moved at one time and also the only time the king can move by more than one square. With the safety net clipped in the 'no-castling' variant, the king remains exposed into the middle-game and multiple options of dynamic play are prised open.

Kramnik has been employing AI-propelled computer programs Alpha Zero and DeepMind to explore the possibilities for a 'no-castling' chess format and found it resulted in a greater number of decisive games (fewer percentage of draws) and more creative play.

Interestingly, both Anand and Kramnik belong to the crossover generation of chess players -- bred on the chessboard, later migrated to computers and now find themselves partakers and associates of an AI stir in the game.

Anand, however, doesn't believe that the variant necessarily junks every opening theory. "I have a feeling that opening theory and preparation are always going to be part of what we do but I think it's a chance to try the game with one difference. So far, this four-game series is a one-off event. I would have to try the variant and see what's happening. I've blocked some time later to have a look at it so that I can play some decent games. Though it seems like a minor detail, the fact that both kings will be stuck in the centre will mean it's going to be quite a different game from what we're used to."

Last year, a four-member team comprising Kramnik and three persons from DeepMind -- Nenad Tomasev, Ulrich Paquet and Demis Hassabis -- put together a 97-page paper titled 'Assessing Game Balance with Alpha Zero: Exploring Alternative Rule Sets In Chess', examining nine possible chess variants which could throw up novel patterns and interesting games. They used AlphaZero, a reinforcement learning system, to simulate years of human play and see what games between strong human players would possibly look like in these offshoots.

"Both Kramnik and I grew up with one kind of chess but now the sport is churning in so many different ways," says Anand. "I'm curious to give it a shot."

After months away from physical tournaments, the decision to travel was almost a no-brainer for him. "That was probably the easiest call," Anand laughs. "I'm really looking forward to playing somewhere. I also might play a Grand Chess Tour event. I'm just enthusiastic to get out and meet folks."

"The pandemic forced a lot of things on us," he says. "At the moment I'm too confused as to what all this means because it's not like I chose this. I would like to be in and around the chess scene for sure, probably playing, but it will take me a while to feel like a full chess player again. I've lost the routine a bit - preparing, going on a tour, getting ready to play a game, the tension before a game. All those emotions suddenly feel like something from the past."