Listen to this article
Sitting in his modest home in the southern Indian city of Chennai, Viswanathan Anand – five times world chess champion – is describing the psychological pressure that bears down on top-level chess players. “What happens to you at the board begins to feel like it’s happening to you in person,” he says quietly, before pausing and frowning, as if reliving an especially gruelling game. “When you lose, you really feel a sense of self …You actually feel that you are being taken apart, rather than just your pieces.”
Such intense feelings creep in during major tournaments, where many elite performers do battle. But at the very pinnacle of the game, in a world championship match, just two combatants grapple for the slenderest advantage in a brutal duel for supremacy. “A [world title] match has that feeling much more strongly because it’s the same guy doing it over and over and over …When you play a single person, it becomes narrower because you are so focused on each other. It is a lot more personal.”
Next week, Anand, or “Vishy” as he is known, will walk out on to a stage at Chennai’s Hyatt hotel to defend his world title. It should be a triumphant homecoming. Anand is widely acknowledged as one of the true greats of the modern game, competing to retain his crown in the city where he learnt to play as a child. The match will be front-page news, reflecting his position as one of India’s few world-beating sportsmen. Yet, rather than starting as favourite, their champion will begin as the overwhelming underdog, reflecting the formidable reputation of his youthful opponent – Norway’s 22-year-old prodigy Magnus Carlsen.
The forthcoming contest will be Carlsen’s first stab at the title, making the 12-game match arguably the most anticipated chess event in more than a decade. The Norwegian’s inexperience ought to provide Anand with an edge. Yet despite successfully defending his title last year, the Indian player’s form has been patchy of late, and he is ranked well below his opponent.
At 43, age counts against him too, facing a man who is younger and, his admirers say, fitter and hungrier. Ultimately, it will be a test of mental toughness, says Harvard economist Kenneth Rogoff, a chess grandmaster himself. “In one sense Vishy has everything to gain and nothing to lose. If he beats Magnus, people are going to say, ‘my God, he really is one of the all-time greats!’ and, if he loses, they will say, ‘well, if only the ages had been reversed.’” Former British chess champion Jonathan Rowson puts the struggle in more overtly psychological terms. “If Vishy can sort his head out, he has a very reasonable chance,” he says. “But it’s not about his own will so much as his fear of Magnus.” No wonder the Indian champion is feeling the pressure.
I meet Anand in early October, at his apartment on a quiet, tree-lined street. He had returned to India a few days earlier, after three months of intensive preparation in a chess centre just outside Frankfurt, huddled up with half a dozen or so other expert chess players, known as his “seconds”. He arrived back without ceremony, avoiding the attentions of India’s enthusiastic press, to spend time with his wife, Aruna, and their two-year-old son, Akhil.
The couple’s apartment is simply furnished: a few Hindu religious symbols decorate the living room, while some boxes of children’s toys sit in one corner. The only chessboards are ornamental, and locked away in cupboards.
Anand is youthful, charming and more than a little nerdy. His thick, dark hair is swept across his forehead, while his silver wire-rimmed glasses are slightly bent out of shape. He talks quickly and engagingly, with flashes of self-deprecating humour. In short, he seems entirely free of the brooding arrogance or social awkwardness that has marked out some of the all-time great players such as American Bobby Fischer or Russia’s Garry Kasparov – men who often spoke of chess as a game that required the domination and demoralisation of their opponents.
“I can relate to many of the emotions they describe,” Anand says, after a reflective pause. “But personally I just like to get on with the job of playing chess. I understand that if I win, I’m probably crushing my opponent’s ego but it’s not like I do that with great satisfaction. So I don’t really look for conflict around the game …It’s true that someone like Kasparov has this sense of history, and I’m talking world history rather than chess history. He has a sense of himself being in it, which, for me, is very hard to understand or even relate to in any way.”
Anand’s grounded approach stems from his upbringing in a country that has produced few top-ranked players. “I started at the age of six. My elder brother and sister were dabbling a bit, and then I went to my mother and pestered her to teach me as well,” he says. His interest grew when his father, a civil servant, moved the family to the Philippines, where his mother continued to teach him, helped along by a local television programme that ran chess puzzles and offered chess manuals as prizes. “I would enter every single day,” Anand says. He won so often that the channel banned him from participating: “One day they said, look, why don’t you just help yourself to all the books you want. So I did. I still have most of them here, actually.”
The books helped Anand teach himself the game and, having returned to Chennai, he began playing more seriously at a local chess centre. His breakthrough came suddenly, at the age of 12. “From a situation where I had been struggling to qualify for various state level events, I just cut a swath through everything and ended up in the men’s [national] team. That happened within the space of two months. I can’t explain it but it was very, very sudden …It caught me completely off-guard.”
Anand then rose quickly, developing a reputation for rapid calculation and superfast play that earned him the nickname “The Lightning Kid”. He became Indian champion at 16, a grandmaster three years later and, over the next decade, matured into one of the world’s finest players. He lost his first title bid against Kasparov in 1995 but eventually won the crown five years later.
Chess is an all-consuming focus. “Sometimes when people are talking to me I will suddenly remember some chess position, and then it’s very hard for me to concentrate on what they are saying. They can see in my eyes that I am drifting away.” Yet contrary to his good-natured image, he admits to a steelier side. “What you can concede outside the chessboard will eventually haunt you in the chessboard as well. A match is really a contest of space between two people, and you can’t give the other one any quarter.”
Anand admits that his style has matured since his younger days: he is less hasty now, more ready to question his own impulses and tackle his weaknesses. “If, at a certain moment, you’re hesitant or you begin to have doubts when people are attacking you, then some of these things can have psychological implications,” he says. “So you try to confront it like that. And also, you want to catch your opponent when he’s uncomfortable.
“Age is part of it. For instance, I recognise that [Carlsen] is going to do certain things because he’s 22 and there are certain things I can do because I’m 43.” This is also why he followed a strict programme of running, swimming and gym work during his stay in Germany, in addition to the demands of daily chess practice. “For my match with Kasparov [in 1995], we thought we worked quite hard and now I have to smile at the kind of work we did then. I’m sure I prepare more in one morning these days than I did in my entire camp then.”
He describes the preparation process as akin to plotting an ambush in a giant forest. The terrain is too vast to comprehend in its entirety, he says. “But there are areas that you will know better than your opponent”, and that is where you prepare to attack, aided in your preparation by the most important change to sweep through the game of chess in decades: computers. “The way people play chess nowadays, which is to keep on switching their openings, being much more opportunistic – I think that is a direct result of computers. Even the way people play tournaments – everything has changed.”
Top competitors who once relied on particular styles of play are now forced to mix up their strategies, for fear that powerful analysis engines will be used to reveal fatal weaknesses in favoured openings. The result has in some ways made chess more defensive, increasing the risks of daring, adventurous gambits. But in championship matches, where draws are common and the final result is likely to be decided by just a handful of victories, unexpected approaches become even more prized. “Anything unusual that you can produce has quadruple, quintuple the value, precisely because your opponent is likely to do the predictable stuff, which is on a computer,” Anand says.
Anand’s chances of victory depend on an unusual meshing of man and machine, one that began during his months of preparation but will continue throughout the coming event, as his team analyse and probe his rival’s moves – all in the attempt to catch Carlsen off guard. “It’s going to be important for him to start ducking and weaving and playing different positions,” says British grandmaster Nigel Short. Lawrence Trent, another experienced international chess player, puts it more bluntly. “He must make sure Magnus is out of his comfort zone, he needs to direct the positions. It needs to be a mess. He needs to get Magnus into a brawl.”
Anand’s supporters may take some comfort from Carlsen’s uncomfortable reaction to the decision to play this month’s contest in India, even demanding an “illness clause” allowing each player a day off if he is unwell. Despite his indestructible reputation, the Norwegian has recently shown rare moments of weakness too. In the qualifying tournament for next week’s match, Carlsen stumbled in the final round. “He choked,” Short says. “He was very fortunate to get over the line.”
Anand will not be drawn on his own chances, beyond admitting that his opponent exhibits few obvious weaknesses, and describing him as “chameleon-like” in his versatility. “I’m either going to win or I’m not. We’ll see. But I have to acknowledge that Carlsen’s results and his performance ratings are just incredibly impressive,” he says. “Maybe there’s a resistance on my part to take that thought any further until after the match. I will deal with that battle alone.”
If he wins, he plans to defend his title again, and says he has given no thought to retirement, or what might follow, beyond a desire to spend more time with his young family. Instead, it is the sheer mental struggle of the contest ahead that excites him. “A lot of spectators no longer have any clue of what a player is going through at the board, because they’re all sitting with, essentially, supercomputers,” he says. “You would have to sit at the board and sweat and feel the fear of defeat or the nearness of victory to understand what goes through a player’s head …If you think it’s that easy, switch off the computer and try and figure out a few moves on your own.”
James Crabtree is the FT’s bureau chief in Mumbai
To comment, please email email@example.com
Get alerts on Viswanathan Anand when a new story is published