Interview with Viswanathan Anand.
What makes Viswanathan Anand stand out in the crowd of champion performers? Some attribute his towering presence to his amazing streak of consistent results among the elite of his sport. Some point to his discipline and commitment. But all agree that few sportspersons in the country can match his humble and grounded ways.
After firing the imagination of a nation 25 years ago, the country's first grand master has scaled several new peaks. Perceptibly, there is very little left for Anand to achieve in terms of titles. But Anand's continuous and methodical efforts to fine-tune his craft shows that he is as motivated as ever. At 42, he has categorically stated that his love for the game has not diminished one bit and hence there is no question of contemplating retirement.
On returning from Moscow after taming challenger Boris Gelfand for his third successive defence of the World Chess Championship title in a match format, the five-time world champion took time off to speak to Frontline. Anand elaborated on several subjects Gelfand, the preparations for the match, the seventh-round defeat to level the scores, the four-game rapid tie-breaker, Garry Kasparov's criticism, the fear of losing, and much more. Excerpts from the interview:
Is it fair to say that eventually your rapid chess skills helped you retain the World Classical title?
In general, while I kept on saying that my skills at rapid chess are not the determining factor in the rapid [games], that is not to say they are irrelevant. I do play faster overall and in rapid chess, I more or less expect to get some time advantage. I think nerves weigh more heavily in these rapid games for the world title than your rapid skills. Rapid skills are not irrelevant. I did benefit from them.
Gelfand earned the respect of the chess world with his gritty performance. What are your impressions of Gelfand, both as a player and a person?
Gelfand is a very tenacious player. We saw it several times in the match. Even when I got in a good idea, he would find a defensive resource over the board. Generally, he has a tough style of chess. I thought of him as a real professional, someone who has a certain way of working and is going to do it pretty well. That's the impression I have of him.
His approach was more or less perceivable. We expected to be surprised. We did not know how well we would be surprised. And we did not guess the details, of course. Sometimes, let's say, you prepare here and there for certain options of his, but he always managed to stay in an area where we could not get at him. The second thing is, it is important that your black colour holds well because during the match this is when you buy time to put pressure on the other colour. That was working well for both sides. Both of us were holding with black pieces, slowly trying to tweak white a bit better.
Then, when he beat me in the seventh game that was obviously the culmination of his strategy, but for me it was a crisis. Now that meant I had to do the same under pressure. Luckily I managed to equalise the very next day.
After Gelfand found it difficult to break through in your first three games with black pieces, what different happened the fourth time, in game seven?
I think in game seven, he finally managed to find a weak spot. This was slightly accidental, in the sense that I feel that this area could have been held by us. But, somehow, even when you look at the whole complex, you always neglect one or two things. I am speaking in a relative sense, of course. And this one line we had somehow not done carefully enough and it turned out to be very vulnerable. That is when we decided to go with our second opening for games nine and eleven. But here what he had done was just clever.
Tell me, how did you and your team deal with the defeat? What all happened between game seven and game eight that saw you draw level?
Well, you can imagine. It wasn't very different from what you might imagine. It was a big blow. But at that moment the most important thing for everyone was not to state the obvious which is we are in a bad shape! Everyone understands we are in a bad shape, but once you state it, and [are] wallowing in it, it just starts sapping everyone's energies. So everyone knows that this is the moment to keep one's mouth shut, everyone, including myself, because the team also looks at you to see how you are reacting. And so you are allowed a few moments to say, Oh, it's a pity, it happens. Then you just get a grip on yourself and start to work.
Of course, for the first time I told [Peter Heine] Nielsen [one of Anand's support team of four]: Come on, let's just go out. I just can't take it. Let's go for a walk outside. He understood. There I had a one-on-one with him. We had a bit of a chat on how difficult it was. He tried to console me a bit and so on. And then the team said, Look, we've made some progress [in the Grunfeld Defence] and we will continue with it the whole night. You got something to go for the next day. Don't worry too much. Get back your confidence and we'll take it from there.
And the guys really worked hard. Many nights they would work like this, sometimes till 3 a.m. or something. That night, they went up to five in the morning. The idea was to stand up to any kind of scrutiny. Next morning, they had everything ready for me. I actually went to the game with a lot of confidence that at least I'll pose him some problems.
The only question was what would happen if he deviates [from what Anand had prepared for]. He did, but he deviated into something we had not prepared for thoroughly. But we had a new, more unusual set-up in mind.
After I won the next day, I could sleep better. We all could relax a bit. It was again important not to say the obvious. It's great we equalised but we still have a match to play. So, in these moments it's important not to make a big deal about what everyone knows. Just keep on working and keep your focus there.
Did the fear of losing the match cross your mind after the seventh round?
After game seven, I got fairly philosophical about it. I tried to think what it would be like if I lost the match. And it seemed to me that if I did lose, I would probably lose narrowly, say by one point. Even when we got to the tie-break, I actually thought it would be unjust for one guy to come down to one or two moves here and there. It would be a pity for one guy to go back empty-handed and the other guy to have the title. But then, it's sport.
I was philosophically resigned. I decided I was not going to kill myself over it. I wasn't going back, analyse my games and break my head and all that. If I had lost, I thought, I'll come back to my room, pour some cold water on my face. Come home, play with [son] Akhil and just try to get on with life. If I had lost, it was still a good run Mexico, Bonn and Sofia. Okay fine. Cool. I assume Gelfand is going through the same procedure now. But it is tougher when it actually happens than when you are imagining it. So I don't know how it would have been. Your life has to be bigger than chess, get on with it and try to see some perspective. So, being philosophical helped me stay calm. And I thought I managed to control that part pretty well.
Speaking with the advantage of hindsight, is it correct to say that most of the work done during your training, from January to April, did not help you much in the match?
You are completely correct. In fact, we had to do a hell of a lot of new work in the match. Most of the games played were based on the work done in the match. But we could draw on the bank of ideas we had developed in April. Though we could not use all of them, it gave us some options. So lots of unused ideas stayed in the background. Yes. The bank of ideas developed from January and April wasn't wasted, but it wasn't heavily used either.
Did you feel you were more lucky here than in the previous two world title matches?
Well, definitely. But I don't know whether what we are giving to luck is simply due to the unexpected course of the match. I would say you always need some luck, some break somewhere. Whether luck is a natural byproduct of what you are doing is always difficult to nail down. The thing is, you'll never always be in control. Your plans will always have to evolve during the match. And you need to get a break here and there. That is always going to happen.
What is your assessment of the quality of games played in Moscow?
I would say, of what happened in Moscow a lot was simply hidden'. So only the match participants know the full story behind many decisions. Some players immediately could see from the decisions we were making who was influencing what and that sort of background information. But in general, the public got a little less glimpse of what we were doing. You actually have to know the theories of the lines we were playing and this was of a high level to know.
As in the many matches, the bulk of work done [prior to the match] was not seen. In my matches against [Vladmir] Kramnik and [Veselin] Topalov, a far bigger proportion of the work done was seen. I would say a far more fascinating stuff was seen. The problem here was, in many of the tough lines, if both understood that the position was equal they tended not to play it or to do something else. So, let's say, the undersea currents were hidden but you could see some movement.
In a match, does the quality of play depend on the quality of the opposition or the quality of preparation?
A bit of both. The quality of a game also depends on the ability of the players to execute the homework efficiently. But what happened was a high proportion of lines prepared at home being played out on the board. Games two, four and six were all good examples of [my] preparations. For Gelfand, the fifth game, a good part of the first, third and tenth games. You could see that we were executing our home preparations and that we both were very well prepared.
What about those games where the home preparations did not help much?
In game three, he did not execute his plan properly so I got some chances, but not winning opportunities. The same could be said about me in games nine and 11 where I messed up my execution and therefore he started to get some possibilities.
Did Gelfand create more winning opportunities during the match?
That's very difficult for me to say. I'd say the more important thing was the trend. And it was the late trend that we were happy with. In games 11 and 12, we were the ones getting in the ideas, even though in both games he reacted pretty well.
In the first rapid game, the match actually started to open up. With black, I had managed to get some real chances to get an interesting position. But when I got back to my room, my team told me that it was very unclear.
Many commentators during the match were suggesting that Gelfand looked better in three out of four rapid games?
One should take it game by game. In game one, he was not better. In game two, I don't think he was ever better. So that breaks it down to 50 per cent! In game three, of course, he was winning at several moments. In game four, of course, he was better. I did not go for a plan that he should be better, but I had an attack of nerves, played for a draw with white.
Even during the game, I was regretting this decision, but once you take it, you do it. So there is no achievement for him in getting better. I gave it to him on a platter. Afterwards, to state that I was better so many times out of so many games is not fair. Had he won the third game, could he have been better in the fourth game? That's unanswerable.
I concede the point that even in rapid games he had his chances and often came very close to taking them. But, I think, to simply count the number of times the computer says you are better and compare it with the number of times the computer says your opponent is better is not the way to do it.
Did it cross your mind that you were returning to Moscow where you lost your first World Championship title in 2001 after surrendering the final game to Vassily Ivanchuk in the best-of-four format?
I thought of this coincidence that I had lost my previous title in Moscow. But I did not see what I could do with this thought. After a while, I just pushed it out of my head.
The other thing I noticed was that in the 12th game I knew it was very important not to start drifting somewhere. That is, in a position where I am not better, I should offer a draw unless I saw a real chance in playing on. I should not drift and waste my time because that is precisely what I had done with Ivanchuk back in 2001. The only reason he won was because in an equal position, I played on and suddenly made a mistake. So, this time, I decided to specially focus on the 12th game.
How do you react to the criticism from some players, including Garry Kasparov, that you lacked motivation, did not perform like a favourite and so on?
Surprisingly, a lot of people thought I was the favourite. I didn't understand that because looking at our recent play and the resources we had shown, it was clear to me that I was not the favourite. I thought that I was playing an equal opponent. I didn't think more of it, but a lot of criticism came from people who had predicted that I would be better in the match. And then found a need to explain why I was not leading in the match, rather than simply admitting that the initial call was wrong.
People like Kasparov and many others could have said that their initial assessment was wrong. The reason why Anand is not leading is because Gelfand has done a good job.
The chess world obviously expected you to win based on your world ranking, rating and past achievements.
But one phrase was stuck in everyone's head. Many people used this phrase to me. In fact, he has not beaten you since 1993. This sounds like a deep and perceptive remark till you actually think about it. Let me put it in the following way:
Since 1989 he won the first four decisive games we played. Then I won the fifth, he won the sixth. So he was leading +4 initially. Then in 1996-97, I won four games in a row and equalled our lifetime scores. And in 2006, I won again. You may say that the last time he beat you was in 1993. And you could say you beat him five times since. However, you could also say, you've beaten him once in the last 15 years!
So, depending upon how you choose your statistics, you can prove anything with it. The point is, nonetheless, over the last 12 years there has been one decisive result in my favour, but you really don't build a castle on that. So on top of that, recently, I have not shown any obvious superiority in our individual encounters. If we compare our overall results, of course, I am better. But we are comparing head-to-head results. And that's the difference in our match. So, going into the match, I did not feel any obvious superiority. Whereas in rapid it was clear that the score (8-1) was in my favour, in classical chess it was not clear.
Lots of people used the phrase that since he has not tasted victory over you since 1993, he would lack confidence. For me, it was clear that he would draw confidence not from his 1993 win but from his performance in the whole world championship cycle which began in 2009, the World Cup, and knockout play since 2005.
We have both suffered recently in our tournament results. And I had this feeling that lots of fans in Moscow were getting confused with the criticism. You are not leading, therefore you must be playing badly like you played last year. It was not clear to me that I was playing badly this year [laughs]. You have to separate that a bit. I understand the Russian chess audience is a very demanding and sophisticated one. And I respect that a lot. This time, I really expected the match to go evenly. And that's how it went.
But there was some genuine criticism, which I accept. Fair enough. But again, I would say my play last year was bad. Gelfand had some difficult tournaments as well. But both of us showed in the world championship cycles that we actually pull ourselves together and we were trying very hard.Your take on Kasparov's remarks?
Of course, some people, like Kasparov, really wanted me to lose. He was even clearly trying to cause it. He was trying to come there, see if he could get under my skin and somehow negatively impact my play. For me, it was especially important not to give him that satisfaction.
I found Kasparov's timing extremely surprising. He came during the sixth round. He was so clearly trying to stir something up about my play. I felt his sympathies were obvious.How did you learn about his remarks?
At the press conference after the sixth game. I did not go back and read the interview. I was not interested in the details. But it was clear to me that he had said something very derogatory.
Finally, do you think the world of chess will ever see a clash like the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky world title match?
The world has changed a lot since then. I would say my match with Gelfand was actually incredibly well covered. We were getting huge responses from all over. The response from India was quite big.
The news of my win was on the BBC, not just over our home countries. I would say the match got a huge amount of attention. Having said that, if you wanted a clash of the personalities, two guys who hated each other, Gelfand and I disappointed.