Viswanathan Anand interview: 'When I look at people who can break a racquet or headbutt someone, I respect that!'

Amit Kamath

Ever since he broke onto the world stage, Viswanathan Anand has stood for many things. He became India's first Grandmaster at a time when chess was not considered a serious sport in the country. Between then and now, 64 other Grandmasters have followed in his footsteps, making him a trailblazer and a role model.

For the world community, he was a bit of an outsider, who went on to break the hegemony that Soviet Union-backed players had on FIDE rankings and World Championship titles.

But he was also perceived as a nice, polite guy from India, who made the world of chess take notice with his aggressive chess.

On the sidelines of an event to launch his autobiography 'Mind Master', organised by Fincare Small Finance Bank, Anand spoke to Firstpost about being an outsider when he first emerged on the international chess scene, fighting a phantom called Soviet Union in his head, eschewing conflict but respecting people who can break a racquet or heatbutt an opponent, having an over-heightened sense of wanting to be a nice guy when he was younger, learning how to say 'no', getting into astronomy by accident, star-gazing during a vacation at Atacama in Chile and more. Excerpts:

When you first became a Grandmaster, it was the domain of Soviet Union-backed chess players. Did you ever feel like an outsider?

Half the time we were fighting this phantom in our head called the Soviet Union, but there is a gap between our perception and reality also. Most of the Russian players I interacted with, I found them enjoyable to work with as individuals. There are some cultural gaps, but broadly speaking most of them were very friendly to me. If you mean dirty tricks and so on, I would say the worst had passed (by the time I started to play). By the time I got to the stage the Soviet Union itself disappeared as perestroika had started.

But the other sensation was there. You always got the feeling that the Soviet chess school was different€¦ that somehow they had been trained to look at chess more systematically.

You were India's first Grandmaster. After that, there have been 64 more Grandmasters. Do you feel like a trailblazer or a role model?

Inevitably, yes! Clearly (because of) newspaper coverage for chess and the very fact that most of India learnt that there was a something called chess and started taking an interest in it. It would be easier to pretend I had nothing to do with it. But you feel like you are driving interest and you feel like you are inspiring, motivating and encouraging people to explore. I do feel very proud about that.

You have had this image of being the nice guy. You mention this in your book as well. Have you ever tried to consciously shed that image?

In the book I have talked about how at some point I basically gave up trying to do that. There is this one instance with Anatoly Karpov where he came 45 minutes late for a game against me. Looking back I almost feel apologetic for rationalising my response away. Which is what I did back then: I tried to come up with an excuse to avoid confronting him. Partly it's futile. But what I feel now is that if somebody takes on a futile battle just to make a point, I shouldn't dismiss that viewpoint. I still think it is futile to protest. But now I think at least he got it out of his system, but what did I do? I tried to be very pragmatic and practical but I pushed a lot of stuff inwards and that probably had consequences as well.

So I look back at... let's phrase this very carefully... I look back at having maintained the public image of being a nice guy and I am reasonably reconciled to it, but I don't feel that I would recommend it to anyone unless they chose it. That's roughly where I am right now. Now it's a bit silly to pretend that I disliked it or something but there were moments I hated. I look at people who can break a racket or headbutt somebody on the chest and I respect them. I still eschew conflict. The one thing I'm much better at is saying no and walking away from commitments that I can't handle. Most people get to that stage when they are older.

When I was younger, I had an over-heightened sense of wanting to be a nice guy. I would agree to an obligation and I would do it. But now, for instance, one of the wonderful skills have learnt is you don't have to answer messages on your phone and if you don't want to deal with someone you just ignore them for few days until they get the hint. You don't have to call somebody and tell them that 'you are an idiot' and slam the phone down. You just ignore somebody for a while, he'll send you 10 reminder emails and you ignore that and feel good afterwards... I realise that sometimes you got to put yourself first. The way in which I am able to do this is still very limited.

The Prague Agreement (in 2002 to unify the World Chess Championship) was probably the high point. Normally I would have felt obliged to go to a meeting which I had been specifically invited for and they were trying to solve the problem. You have a sense of duty that you have to turn up and make your suggestions. But in that time I realised that they had made no effort to keep me in the first cycle. So I said to my wife Aruna, 'Shall we just go to Prague and sight-see instead and to hell with them!' She agreed. She is much more combative than me, which will also be clear in the book. We decided we will just sight-see in Prague and for me that was a big statement. It was a limited statement because the other thing I'm still not able to do is to go to that meeting and tell to the guys 'What you've done to me is unacceptable!' I still find it hard to do, but I've learnt not to put the weight (of obligations) on myself.

In the book you also mention about the emptiness you felt after becoming a Grandmaster. How did you get over that?

Most of the times, time passes and you snap back. The brain suddenly doesn't know what to do but after a while you get used to the new situation and without doing anything consciously you just snap back. You can also force yourself a little bit, like you can try to set yourself a little goal or push yourself in a way to speed up the process. But success has this problem: when you achieve something that was once a goal and was a motivator for you, how do you deal with the absence of it.

You mention in your book that astronomy was a hobby. Did that help you as a chess player?

That's too strong a case. But a hobby is something that allows you to engage your brain for few hours, and more importantly allows you to push away chess for a few hours. It is healthy. That goes for any hobby that people have. I got into a little bit by accident. My parents had a copy of Cosmos: A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan. And a lot of times I asked them why they bought the book. And they would keep saying that they had no idea why they had the book.

Many years later a book came in the post called The History of Universe or something like that. It wasn't even addressed to my name so it was just a book sent to us by mistake. There was no return address or anything to send it back to anyone. I finally realised that since I had an old interest in astronomy, why not get back into it? A couple of new things by then were very convenient. One was that all the star maps had gone online so you could generate a sky chart in one second for the next thousand years. So it had become easy. I'm talking about 1998 or 1999, but still there was a lot of material on the Internet that you could read. And then on the Internet I discovered a software called iTelescope, which allows you to operate a remote telescope somewhere and take nice images. So I was doing that for a while. I am very casual fan, my expertise is very low, but I enjoy the subject. It's a good distraction.

There were a couple of holidays when I went to remote places where there were there is no light pollution, like Kruger Park in South Africa and the Atacama Desert in Chile which has the clearest sky on earth. You go there and you look up in the sky and you think 'My God! This is word used to inspire people.' But if you go to our modern cities and look up, nobody will be inspired to do anything.

Over the years how have you changed as a chess player and as a human?

You evolve by constant feedback. The wins tell you that you are doing some things right and you try and repeat them. Losses tell you are doing some things wrong and you try to change them. Essentially it is a constant feedback. You lose a game and if you think the problems are behavioural or psychological you try to address that. Some, you realise can't be easily addressed and they frustrate you. So you evolve in that sense.

Right now I also have this feeling of wanting to look back and think that it was all nice, even the unpleasant moments! I wouldn't remove them. They were a part of my experience, a part of what made me what I am now! I look back with less anger. I can look back at a very painful defeat and say 'yeah sure, it happened. That's part of the package.'

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