Problems we face in chess mirror problems in life: Viswanathan Anand | Interview

Isha Arora
Viswanathan Anand, World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand autobiography, Mind Master, India first grand master, sports news

India’s first grand master and former World Chess Champion, Viswanathan Anand has penned an inspirational book, Mind Master, on his metamorphosis from a chess enthusiast to one of the finest players the world has ever seen. In an interview with Isha Arora, he talks about his strategy, AI and chess and the role his family plays in his career. Edited excerpts:

As the literary space continues to get flooded with autobiographies, you have penned a book beyond just the story of your life. What was the primary purpose of writing a book focusing on the lessons learned and experienced gathered?
The reason to write this was obviously primarily as an autobiography… it tells my story. But the format we selected of picking out the moments that had the most impact on me, my world view, the life lessons learned is just to highlight the most important lessons in a chess player’s life, how I overcame struggles, what struggles we face on the chess board… So I think the book will connect with people as the problems we face in chess are very similar to the problems we face in many aspects of life. I hope both chess players, and non-chess players will be able to understand the book and hopefully relate with the lessons learned.

Having tackled some of the best players with all kinds of styles and experience, what would you call your biggest strengths… qualities or techniques that set you apart?

I would say the best chess players in the world operate with the same set of skills and qualities, maybe in different ratios or proportions, but essentially with the same basic mix of ingredients. Having said that, I would say my best quality was the ability to work hard, even though I’m a very intuitive player. And the ability to be flexible, not insist on my comfort zone, or roles, but to adapt to whatever set of circumstances happen to be there, and try to do my best under those circumstances.

Skimming through the book, it’s not hard to figure that you’ve almost laid your heart bare about every tournament lost and what it took from you. Which one would you say helped shape you to be the champion you are?

In the end, I would say that the person I am is a product of all the tournament experiences I’ve had… good and bad. Because I can observe that quality today as well that if I am in a situation similar to a prior defeat, then I react in one way. And if I am in a situation similar to prior success, then I react in another way. In the second case, with more optimism… in the first case, with a bit of paranoia. So it's very difficult to identify one or two losses, or one or two wins. I believe that my greatest success was the match in 2008 (when he became World Champion) and partly because my whole approach to that match was conditioned by my experience in a prior match in 1995. And as for my defeats… there have been several, but maybe the slumps I’ve had in 2001, and subsequently in 2011-13 (He lost his No. 1 position in 2011) probably impacted me for many years.

While the world has only seen the world champion, the battles within have remained far away from the public eye. In the book, however, you've been fairly candid about having bouts of anxiety, sleeplessness and an instance where you considered therapy briefly.

How do you work towards maintaining peace of mind and stable mental health in the midst of competition, and furore about your age, etc?

The basic approach is simply based on my experience. I know by experience what the circumstances are where I’m peaceful, calm… I sleep well, am well-rested, and feel ready for a game, and what the things are that tend to affect those rhythms. Some of the things that affect them are clearly related to success and failure. So either the euphoria after a game, or depression after a game… both can affect you in subsequent games. In those cases, you need to have some ability to impose some discipline and try your best. I don’t think you can completely avoid those things, but at least escape the worst effects. So, I would say it’s a constant struggle to get back to the ideal zone. But if you have a healthy awareness of what it is that tends to go wrong, then when it does, it’s almost like you are standing to your side, and you can observe yourself, and you begin to see that something is going wrong. And if you can identify the moment when you think you’re deviating from the ideal path, it may help you deal with a situation at least a little bit. But these are simply very difficult emotions to completely manage and I think I only cope as best as I can.

You've talked about facing the biggest disappointments, and finding a reason to smile through it all at home. How important a role has your family played in keeping you grounded and sane?

Well, I think when you are with your family, you can completely let go, and put everything in perspective. So I remember from my childhood to the time I got married, and then when my son was born… at various stages, family members are the ones with whom you can either get over your disappointments or deal with your success. And this is really fundamental, because part of dealing with disappointment or stress is having someone who you feel is completely on your side, and it allows you to change the subject… and you can also bare your feelings, and it’s cathartic in a way… you get it all out. And then, it helps you put matters in perspective, and then start thinking about the next event, and maybe your recovery. So that’s very helpful. There’s this experience all the way from my parents when I was young and how they would help me cope. And recently, being able to talk a lot of matters through with Aruna (my wife), and especially since she has been travelling with me everywhere, and that was a big factor. And then it’s a totally different way of doing it with my son, because clearly then you understand that your son simply expects you to spend time with him, and it forces you to put your disappointment aside or park it, even if you can’t completely push it aside. That’s all part of the recovery.

You have stressed how chess is 99% tactics, and at the same time you’ve talked about keeping the element of surprise alive. How does one balance these two while playing?

I stressed that chess is 99% tactics because it comes back to the old quandary between strategy and execution. In chess you can come up with a very good plan, but if you haven’t calculated all the tactics to the end, and haven’t made the right call tactically, the strategy will not succeed. Conversely, if you play a game without strategy but simply make sure that the calculations work and you’re not missing anything, the game will still go on. In fact, I would say that in a strategy which has a tactical flaw, you must learn to respect the tactical verdict, and accept that the strategy despite being beautiful and compelling, was simply inadequate. So I don’t really see a contradiction here. When I talk about an element of surprise, it can be done tactfully as well. Surprise is playing something an opponent didn’t expect you to play. But regardless of what you do, the tactical details have to be perfect.

You have talked about contextual memory being key, and how you developed it by devouring books on chess and making notes after every game. However, now with AI disrupting the world of chess, among other things, do you see any potential challenges it poses to conventional methods? If yes, how can players overcome those?

I think contextual memory is fundamental because it's really the way we remember things. We remember things that are significant and have some meaning. You may remember something from your childhood because you reacted to it strongly or emotionally, whereas a thousand other details we tend to forget if it doesn't have that emotional backup. So if you take a book of classic games of some players, what makes those memorable are not just the moves, but the stories a player might include, or the narratives he has. Or if the move was unexpected, and you were surprised by it… each one of these things aids in memory. AI doesn't really affect this aspect because it fundamentally is a way of finding new moves in chess. Its way of working is so different that unexpected new conclusions come up. And if these moves constantly surprise you, you will make a note of it. With AI you very often get something that attracts your attention right away, and its easy to remember them.