“Chess players are no more eccentric than other people”
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Talking about an analogy between what happens on the chess board and other sports, Viswanathan Anand, 42, spoke about Roger Federer's dismantling of his opponents on way to his seventh Wimbledon title.
He drew parallels between Federer's mastery over Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray at Wimbledon 2012 and said it was akin to him dismantling opponents while playing with white pieces. He also spoke about how he interprets the body language of opponents across the board and on why most chess players are 'normal people'.
On chess/ players vis-à-vis cricket/cricketers in India:
When I started playing chess, the big thing was will we ever have a GM (Grand Master). But when I started winning titles, people showed a little more interest in chess. Over time it got better because the coverage improved and I started hearing slightly more sophisticated questions, like the openings that I might have selected or some other details. Something like the sophisticated questions posed on cricket in India.
On increased awareness about chess:
In Frankfurt there was once a big rapid tournament. There was a Punjabi who owned an Indian restaurant. He used to come and watch the tournament every year. He once told me, "I follow all the activities of the Indian hockey team but for you I make an exception and come to watch you play." I was quite touched by that.
On interpreting body language:
It has happened very often that if I am hesitating over taking some sort of gamble, but I see that my opponent's body language is not very comfortable — he is shifting uncomfortably in his chair — then that encourages me to take a bigger gamble. I also remember a lot of instances where I saw the right moves but my opponent's body language was so positive that I made the second best move, doubting myself. Nowadays you have to consciously force yourself to take brave decisions but at the same time keep a calm demeanor while playing.
On chess players being 'crazy':
I don't think it's very true. When you have colourful characters like Bobby Fischer, it is very difficult to convince people that all chess players are not like him. 'Crazy' chess players are reported on much more than the sane ones. I would say, on an average, chess players are no more eccentric than most other people. Most chess players I know are very normal people.
On the analogy people make (chess terminology) with other sports:
The first thing is as long as you see what you see,
it doesn't matter if it is accurate or not. It just represents an idea in your head. The second thing is when I see other sports I also often recognise facets or emotions which I can identify with. I was recently watching Wimbledon and I noticed a pattern in Federer's play. At crucial moments in the match when he was serving for the set or playing a break-point, something used to go wrong. Federer used to be disappointed, he used to calm himself effortlessly and his next shot would be absolutely amazing. However, Djokovic completely disintegrated in the semi-final and the same thing happened to Murray. I identified with Federer's pattern because it happens a lot in chess; when I am just exchanging whites or am stuck in a certain opening and the ability to bounce back is quite similar. For commentators it is different, if they want to say that something is planned, they immediately resort to chess because they think all of chess is planned.
On man versus computers in chess:
Till 1991 we just laughed at the computers because they just could not beat us. But once the computers started processing 2 million moves per second, it stopped being funny. When Deep Blue beat Kasparov we thought it was a freak occurrence but since then they have just gotten better. I grew up with the idea that we were smarter than computers but once they started beating us, it was a blow. I realised two things — the first was that chess was essentially a game of tactics masquerading as strategy, and profound thought. It was short- term tactics which merely happened to look as if it was long-term judgment.
On parental pressure in chess:
Every child is different, some children learn fast then taper off, for some children chess is a gradual process and they peak later. Children just need to keep playing to be successful. The most important thing is to practise a lot. I find playing chess more enjoyable than actually learning chess through a coach. It is a very good thing to get your doubts cleared but doubts will only come if you play constantly. My mother taught me how to play chess. She put me in a chess club when I was six so I could play regularly. Then we went to the Philippines for a year and there they even had chess shows. My mother used to watch the show during my school time, write down important points and then share it with me when I came home. I sent in a lot of entries and won some prizes in their quiz. At one point the TV station called me to the studio and said, "help yourself to all the books but please don't send us any more solutions and entries."
On India's chances at the London Games:
We tend to hype our contingent a lot. This time I am cautiously optimistic about our medal chances. We have a lot of chips on the table this time around and there is a lot of hope in disciplines like archery, shooting, athletics, wrestling and boxing. But we are not the odds on favourites in any of these.
You made a profound point saying that chess is a game of tactics masquerading as a game of strategy, can you elaborate on that?
ANAND: I would say that from the human perspective it is still a game of intuitions and emotions. I still cannot explain why on certain days when I am feeling good, I play great chess but on days when I am not in such a good mood I play completely unremarkable chess. Your intuition is very hard to quantify. It is a mathematical and logical game. Nowadays computers come up with very surprising moves, even moves which have no logic but which are beautiful to the human eye. But they do that through brute force and calculations. For humans, chess is still a game of emotions.
When you look at a chessboard while playing simultaneous chess with 25 people how do you recognise its pattern? How do you analyse each board? How do you remember every move made?
ANAND: In a routine simultaneous game I don't need to keep track of all the games in my head. I just need to concentrate on the board I am playing on. Difference is, as you get stronger, you can take in more details of the opposition at a single glance. I view the chessboard as a picture. I then calculate the moves I need to make and then I just need to follow the pattern of combinations.Once I was playing a round of simultaneous chess, I was playing around 25 players and
I used to make a move and go to the next board. One of the kids removed one of my pieces thinking I wouldn't notice. However, I immediately noticed because I view the entire chessboard as a picture and I can immediately notice if something is missing.
As you grew up in India and succeeded in chess, despite the fact that more Indians might follow cricket, you have made Indians feel better about being Indian. How do you feel about being an Indian and what concerns you?
ANAND: I guess the image of India and Indian chess players went in tandem. When I first started travelling in the 1980s to play chess tournaments, India had a similar kind of reputation. We had not done something in an area which the world took seriously. It was annoying to see how many people asked about snake charmers. As far as stereotypes go, I don't mind some good ones mixed with the bad ones. But if the only thing you hear is how poor you are and how dirty your cities are, then it gets frustrating. When I went with my wife to Spain, a person in the village asked me whether I was engaged since the age of two and if my wife was an economic refugee. Since then our reputations in chess and as Indians have changed a lot. India at least gets a fair hearing. We are taken very seriously in technology, fashion and IT. It does get annoying when people harp on and on about our poverty. However, I still believe that the social challenges are as enormous as they ever have been. It is natural that in such a big country as ours, even if the poverty line drops by a million, no one would notice. But there are lots of positives in our country.
Is it time for you to start training young talent and create more Viswanathan Anands? Could you also teach politicians the art of checkmating opponents effortlessly?
ANAND: With all due
respect I think they (politicians) are doing fine. Ten years back, when the idea of coaching and training young talent came up, I had very long discussions on the topic. The question essentially was whether to train a select few talented chess players or introduce chess in schools, which would allow it to be exposed to a much larger audience. A decade ago, it was very much a southern sport, it wasn't really very popular in the north. When we made the connection that chess helped students better their academic performance, it was a logical thing to go with the choice of introducing chess in school. Chess encourages rational thinking and logic. It also imbibes the fact that your moves have consequences and today I feel that is my vision.
I am not ruling out coaching young talent but I don't think I have the time to coach right now
because of my own tight playing schedule. I also feel that a very good chess player might not necessarily turn out to be a very good coach.
(Transcribed by Chinmay Brahme)
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