Interviews Aug 8, 2015 | 10:35 AMby Colin McGourty

An hour-long lecture by Vishy Anand

Earlier this year Vishy Anand gave a lecture at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras in his native city now known as Chennai. The video has just been published on YouTube, allowing us to watch as the multiple World Champion is greeted by rapturous applause and goes on to describe his career, all the way from his sudden rise from nowhere to Indian no. 4 as a 13-year-old to his most recent successes. Highlights include assessments of Anatoly Karpov and Magnus Carlsen.

A packed audience hangs on Vishy's every word | photo: Extra Mural Lectures, IIT Madras Facebook

Vishy Anand used to be unfairly criticised for doing little work to promote chess as a World Champion, but it’s perhaps enough to note that while Anand was India’s first ever grandmaster the South Asian country now has 38. Anyone following Vishy on Twitter will have seen he’s been more publicly active than anyone else in the chess world of late, travelling around India for his different sponsors or to help promote India’s bid to achieve more Olympic Gold Medals. For instance:

Most of his speaking engagements seem to have been to small groups, though, and haven’t been published on the internet. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time, since only a couple of days ago a lecture Vishy gave at IIT Madras in March 2015 was posted on YouTube. Although it covers a lot of familiar ground it provides an excellent overview of how Anand made it to the top of world chess through sheer talent and a lot of practice.

Watch the 60-minute video:

Below we’ve provided a transcript of some of the highlights:

On a sudden breakthrough at the age of 13

Vishy describes how his chess club team were entered in the Junior Indian Team Championship. He won the first board prize and gained qualification for the Junior Individual Championship. Vishy doesn’t point it out, but he won that with 9/9 and qualified for the adult championship, where he finished fourth.

In the space of about a year I went from being just a club player to being no. 4 in the country. This came out of the blue, but it taught me something that has often recurred in my career. Sometimes when you’re working you don’t really feel yourself getting better or things really changing, but then one fine day you suddenly have this spurt. I’ve not only seen it myself, I’ve seen it in many other people as well. It’s a trait that comes often. The idea is that you keep working and then one day enough pieces fall into place that you can have a big jump.

On how to get better at chess

Anand spent some of his childhood in Manila, the Philippines, and describes how his mother phoned the 1st Asian Grandmaster, Eugenio Torre – or at least so she thought. It turned out Vishy talked to Eugenio's brother! But he was alerted to a chess TV show with puzzles and chess books as prizes, and at some point Vishy won so many of them that they asked him simply to come in and pick the books he wanted.  

For many, many years my only source of knowledge were these chess books that I picked up in this TV studio. That was all the knowledge I had, plus practice - simply playing over and over again, blitz games (5-minute games) plus tournaments. I think this is still the best way to get better at chess. The thing is: if you learn something through coaching or you try to read it from books but you don’t get this feeling of playing it over the board – it’s very abstract in your head – whereas if you play it a few times you get this kind of real world practical experience and you understand the concepts much better.

On not being recognised as India’s first grandmaster

A bit later I had a very nice experience: I was travelling in a train and the man next to me asked me what I did – this was after I finished school and all. I told him I’m a chess player. Then he asked me again, “Yeah, but what do you do?” So I told him, “No, no, I’m a chess player, I’m not studying. I finished studying and all and I’m now a chess player”. Then he said, “But do you have any job plans? Your father has a company or something?” I said, “No, I’m a professional chess player, I’m going to make a living playing chess.”

Then he told me, “Well, young man, if you can take some advice. Sports is a very tricky career in India. If you were Viswanathan Anand you could make a living playing chess, but…” (loud applause). Honestly, it’s one of the most touching experiences I’ve ever had. I didn’t tell him, of course.

On the difficult period after gaining the title

So the next big thing was not very clear. I became a grandmaster and then right afterwards I had to start finding something new to do. I went for a six-month period where my results just dropped. In fact, I didn’t make that required percentage for a grandmaster norm once in six months after I got the title. The point is that as long as you have a target, some fixed number that you can aim for, then you’re very, very focussed on that number. But once you don’t have any target you find that a half point more, a half point less, nothing really matters – so you start drifting. But at the end of six months of bad results I more or less pulled myself together. I’d also spoken to a couple of other grandmasters. They said it happens to all of them. Getting your title is such a big deal that normally right afterwards you have no idea what to do with your life.

Vishy admitted during the lecture to having doubts about how long his chess career would continue back in the early 2000s - since then he's confirmed his status as one of the great World Champions | photo: Extra Mural Lectures, IIT Madras Facebook

On playing a Candidates Match against Karpov

On paper it looked pretty hopeless, but I started to work with a trainer for the first time. It was only for the matches I started to work with a trainer, and this time I hired a Soviet trainer called Gurevich. For the first time he taught me to approach chess on many, many levels. His thing was, when you play Karpov you really have to understand what he is trying to do. One of the particular features of Karpov’s play was that he never really had a plan of his own. He was never trying to do anything at the chessboard, but he had an uncanny sense of what you wanted to do next and he would do something to block that. Gurevich explained to me that because of this a lot of people got frustrated, unable to execute any plan of theirs. They didn’t know how to play this waiting game. We spent time on that, we spent time on what happens when both sides have only five minutes. Then you feel more of a gambler, because when your opponent has five minutes you want to bluff and maybe see if he can solve the problems very quickly. But this has to be done very correctly, because it can backfire, like all gambles.

It was a very, very interesting experience for me. Even though I lost the match I would estimate that out of eight games I should have won five, he should have won two and one should have been a draw. As the fact that I lost the match shows, I didn’t take 100% of my chances. I won one of the five chances I had, Karpov won both the chances he had and that was kind of the difference.

Playing this match had a very good impact on my chess, because suddenly being forced to work very hard with a trainer I grew up a lot as a chess player. For the next three years I got invited to all the best tournaments in the world.

On his 1995 World Championship match against Kasparov

The first time I played the match I’d heard versions of it, but I’d never experienced the kind of intensity of what happens and the problem is, in that kind of intensity, that kind of pressure, you do things that you don’t normally do – and most of them bad. So you crack, you make blunders, you make nervous decisions. Strange things begin to happen, and it’s something that you can only explain after you’ve been through it once.

In the 95 match I took the lead in the 9th game and then lost four of the next five, and I still cannot explain why this happened except that I know that in these situations these things can happen and you just have to be ready for it.

On his difficult years before the first Carlsen match

Vishy explained that his tough schedule – six World Championship events in eight years – took its toll on his chess:

I was beginning to rust a bit in terms of my chess. I was not keeping track of every detail, I was not keeping track of every other player. I went through a four year period where I didn’t win a single tournament. Good results, but if you don’t win a single tournament that always says something. Then finally when I started to win tournaments again it turned out to be a little bit late. So clearly this time even being aware of it I let this problem kind of fester. Then I had a match against someone who actually was winning a lot of chess tournaments – Carlsen. This match happened here in Chennai, so it was a pity to lose it here, but that’s the way it goes.

Surprisingly, after losing the match I started to win a lot of tournaments again. I won four tournaments since 2014 began and I won the Candidates and got to play a second match, which I lost as well, but at least I have the feeling right now that things are looking up. I’m playing good tournaments, winning them, and these things kind of add up. You win a tournament, you go to the airport in a good mood, you sleep in a good mood – life feels good. If you keep on having bad results it can weigh you down.

Vishy is a household name across India, a country of 1.271 billion people | photo: Extra Mural Lectures, IIT Madras Facebook

On luck in chess and life

Success and luck in chess are correlated. In general, you’ll be successful if you’re lucky and you’ll be lucky if you’ve done something to deserve that luck. It’s very similar to life. You’ll have chances, but if you haven’t done the work – and it doesn’t have to be yesterday, it can be at some point in your life – but if you haven’t done the work to recognise your luck and be able to utilise your luck when it appears, then luck won’t apply. So they’re correlated, but you can’t just lie down and say, “Hopefully I’ll get lucky”. You still have to go through the motions and maybe one day you will be lucky.

On passion

Passion is I think simply finding chess fascinating and there are things in life… chess is not a job you do to keep your parents happy. It’s a job you do because you really love playing.

On Magnus Carlsen

I think what stands out in him is consistency. He’s good enough in a lot of positions. If you’re good in a lot of positions your odds go up. The chances are you’ll find yourself in a position that you’re not too bad at. If you’re not too bad at it you’ll make good moves and he’s very consistent, which means that if you study his games he very rarely does things that make you sit up and take notice, but he very rarely makes bad moves. If you look at all his games he might not have a very high percentage of the best move, but his percentage of the top three is like 95%. I think he’s consistent and he has a broad knowledge of chess.

See also:

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