Interviews Mar 15, 2015 | 12:54 PMby Colin McGourty

Anand: “Chess is richer than ever before” (updated!)

"Checkmating your brain!" | screenshots: India Today / YouTube 

Vishy Anand has had to parry questions about his retirement for years, but the 45-year-old former World Champion noted in an appearance at the India Today Conclave, “I grew up in a time when someone in their 40s was expected to peak in chess”. In the 45-minute on-stage interview Anand talks about how painful defeats aid memory, why Carlsen’s anti-computer style would be impossible without computers, how computers have opened far more doors than they’ve closed, and much more. Update: We now have even more quotes from the full show!

Since taking the World Championship match to the penultimate game Vishy Anand has refused to take a back seat. He won the London Chess Classic and came within a whisker of winning the Zurich Chess Challenge. He remains, of course, a huge star in India, and drew a big crowd for his appearance at the India Today Conclave, a two-day conference at the Taj Palace in New Delhi that gathers together top politicians, academics, sports stars and other celebrities. The whole event is suffused with media razzmatazz, and it’s unlikely you’ve ever seen Anand quite like this before:

Anand told a funny story about an encounter in an Indian train back when his career was only starting:

We’ve transcribed the anecdote below:

I’d become a grandmaster and many, many possibilities had opened up for me. I was the first World Junior Champion out of Asia and the best Indian player, so I had the possibility to play in a lot of tournaments and I was enjoying myself. But once I was travelling in a train in India and, well, this was back in the days before everyone would sit with their own phone and just keep scrolling, so we actually had a conversation.

A nice old man, he asked me what I did. I told him I was a chess player – probably not in his top three answers that he expected, so he asked me again, “Yes, but what do you do?”

So I told him, “No, no, I’m a chess player. I’m actually doing that full time.”

Then he said, “But do you plan to go back to college? Do you plan to get a job?”  Various versions of the same thing.

And I told him, “No, I’m planning to make a living with it.” I was very excited at that point by the possibilities I had in chess. I must have seemed very enthusiastic, or naïve, in his eyes.

Then at the end he said, “Well, young man, just keep in mind sports is a very unpredictable career. If you were Viswanathan Anand you could probably make a living playing chess, but otherwise I wouldn’t rush into it!”

Which I thought was nice.

Anand added that he didn't reveal his true identity!

A large chunk of the show was published on YouTube and can be played below, though you can also now watch the full 46-minute event on the India Today Conclave website.

We’ve transcribed almost the whole show (update: with more added today, Monday 16 March!), including the positions from the games Anand mentions. Although he aims his comments at non-chess players there’s a lot to enjoy! 


How did you start playing chess and how did you become so good at such a young age. What was that one spark that egged you on to achieve so much so fast?

I started playing when I was six. My mother taught me how to play. Basically my elder brother and sister were playing, so being the youngest you also want to join in with them. Then I joined a chess club, and the idea was simply to keep playing very often. I was very enthusiastic. I would go every Monday evening, every Thursday evening and every Sunday evening, and those were the only club hours, so I was there whenever they were open. We would play five minute games – that is each player got five minutes for the whole game, so each game would take ten minutes and the winner would stay. The loser would get up and get back in the queue – we’re talking about 10-12 people, so if you lost the game…

Did you keep sitting at the table for hours together?

I eventually got good enough to sit for longer and longer stretches. Obviously I had a very big incentive to win, which meant that you learned to maximise your resources. Even if your game was going badly every trick you could pull or conjure up to tilt the game… so it made you a very strong practical player.

How old were you when you started thinking in terms of maximising your resources and planning your moves? Did it start happening when you were seven or eight years old? A lot of us don’t even know this stuff until we’re about to leave school and start college.

No, that’s the way I’d look back at it now. Then I simply thought, let me try one more trick. The language would have been very different if you’d asked me then, but essentially that was what I was doing.

We have a very interesting story. In 1983 there was a chess tournament happening in Mumbai when suddenly a buzz went around the hall that the clock of one of the players has gotten spoilt. In a game like chess that relies heavily on how much time you have left it was seen as a big problem, so they went and they checked the clocks, and they realised that one player had taken about one minute to make as many moves as the other player had made in one hour. The clock was checked, the clock was fine and when the clock was fine they said, who’s this person? And it was Viswanathan Anand. Do you remember that incident?

Yes, it happened several times when I was young, because then 

if I saw a good move and it was obvious to me it was the best I would just make it.

If my move was reasonably good enough then the odds were quite favourable because the chances were my opponent might not find the best response and then I would get away with something. Later on in my life I learned how to think a bit more – you have to force yourself to think a bit deeper. My first guess still is very good - the first reaction I have in a position is a reasonable guess and it’s correct quite often. When I was young the percentages worked quite well for me.

Do you now fight the first instinct that you get or do you just take a moment to think? Does overthinking complicate things if your first guess is always right? 


Yes, it can. Over the years I’ve accumulated enough examples of both. I can tell you in a recent tournament I played in Zurich whenever I thought it worked out brilliantly. Even after I saw the variation I would just say, well, I’ve got so much time that I’m going to spend a couple of minutes here, and at the end I’d suddenly see something I’d missed before and I could fine tune it. But sometimes it’s led me astray as well, so it’s not always been one way. In a sense it’s an acquired habit. I’ve learned to fight my instinct, which is to do the first thing that comes to my mind. With experience you get better at it, which means that it works more often than it doesn’t.

Here Anand tells the anecdote about the train.

Anand, one thing that stands out about your game, and everybody’s spoken about it, since you started out and until 2010, which many people have defined as the era of Anand, is that you’re extremely aggressive on the chessboard. You come out with the most daring gambits, the most dangerous moves. In real life, however, you don’t seem aggressive at all. You seem gentle, genial, calm. Are you two different personalities when you’re on the board and in real life, or is that aggression bubbling inside but you’ve learned how to harness and use it on the chessboard?

It’s true that my style in chess is fairly aggressive, dynamic. It’s active, I don’t like sitting and playing passive positions. I like to be doing something at the chessboard. 

To explain that I would say that in a position where you don’t have much of a plan I’m not very good at just sitting around but I like to conjure up some kind of plan and follow it. By plan I simply mean, this is where I want my pieces to be in a few moves, that’s all:  this is the position I’m aiming for. So in chess I lean towards being aggressive. In many areas of life I would say I’m quite similar. I’m impulsive and that’s how my chess is. So I want to take a quick decision in many things and I don’t mind running a certain amount of risk. It’s just I’ve learned over the years that I’m not as good as I am at chess in other areas. So I’ve learned to tone it down a bit! But even in chess it’s not personal aggression – it’s just I like the pieces to move.

We now get to the point where the initial transcript we published at chess24 begins: 

...You somehow still remained very distant. You remained on the periphery of our consciousness in some ways, because a) you were living abroad for most of that period and second, while you were associated with a couple of companies you didn’t really try to sell yourself and market yourself like we’re used to our heroes doing these days. They’re in our face all the time, they’re endorsing any brand they can lay their hands on. Why did you choose to do that? Were you concentrating too much on your game, or these things didn’t matter to you?

Not at all. It's very nice when what you do in your sport opens other doors, and I was happy to take up as much of it as possible. So, for instance, I've had what’s getting close to a sixteen year relationship with NIIT and we've done some very interesting things together. One of the things we started 13 years back was the Mind Champions Academy, which we put into many, many schools. Besides that I’ve done endorsements for other companies and things like that, but always with the restriction that before a tournament I like to block a few days on either side just to try and get into a situation where your head is thinking about chess let’s say at least 90% of the time. That’s very difficult when you’re distracted. For instance, with the NIIT Mind Champions Academy I arranged my school visits to promote the game because of the game’s obvious benefits to students. I timed these visits with lean periods in chess and so I tried to work my calendar like that, but I have to remember that it might be fun extending yourself for one year, but if that means your chess suffers how does that help?

The second thing, like you said, is that I’m travelling a lot and a lot of the tournaments don’t happen in India, which also cuts into the time, so it’s not that I was unenthusiastic about it in any way – I took the chances I could – but  there were certain limitations I felt I had to work around.

Anand, a lot of people always wonder what chess is really a function of. Is a person who plays better chess necessarily more intelligent that you? Does it mean he has a better memory than you? Does it mean he has a better instinct than you? Can he process information better? What is it that makes a good chess player? What would you say is the primary thing that is needed to do that in terms of what a mind requires?

All of those things are plausible, so if you have an outstanding memory, you have the ability to concentrate, you have a great ability to visualise or you’re generally very intelligent the chances are you might be good at chess, but still, it has to be said, 

getting good at chess is a question of getting good at chess. 

Someone who’s playing chess occasionally will find that it’s useful mind training for other things, but a professional chess player is another ball game. Then you’re talking about spending 30 or 40 hours a week playing chess, practising chess – maybe even more. Then the level of commitment is much higher. If someone is a very good chess player chances are he’s just practised more than me, or vice versa. You have to be able to distinguish between these two things. If you spend that much time on chess you’ll get very, very good at chess. There will be some improvement in other areas, but if you want to get better at maths, well do maths!

Have you ever sat back and thought about how many chessboards, how many games, how many terabytes of information about chess you have stored inside your brain?

There’s obviously a lot there, and many times it's funny. I will recall stuff during a game that I didn’t recall for a very long time, but suddenly at the board I’ll remember some old instance, some pattern that I saw, and things will become clear to me immediately – but it’s very hard to quantify. I mean I have databases of something like 12 million games, which I have to recall. Obviously I only try to recall what’s necessary for me.

It’s one thing having all that information there, but it’s another thing accessing it just when you require it. How do you train your mind to do that? How do you see a position and say I've seen this before?

Okay, the first thing you learn in chess is when you lose a game, when you have this pain of defeat, it helps you remember something.

There are games I’ve lost when I was seven or eight and I still won’t make that blunder again because just when I’m about to make it I’ll remember that guy’s face.

So, the first thing is the pain of defeat, emotional – some things are either painful or happy, but you’ll remember them all your life, and at least generally you’ll avoid them, unless they come in a new form. The second thing is to remember stories. If you remember a key idea or a pattern because of a story then you associate the story with that. These are normal memory techniques. You often find people remember something if it’s associated with a certain colour or a certain context – a similar pattern. In the end it’s about seeing the stuff over and over at regular intervals. If I see something and I see it the day after, then I see it five days from now I’ll recall it pretty well. It’s reinforcement.

Can we then give you a test?

Sure.

I’m going to show Anand a chessboard and I’m going to ask him if he can identify which game it is.


This one is one of my favourites – the move 30…Rc4 – this was Spassky against Petrosian…

That was correct! (applause)

Normally a rook is weaker than a bishop or a knight, so making that move is in fact a sacrifice – giving up something more valuable for something less valuable, but in this special case it helps Black improve his pawn structure, and that’s why I remember it. It’s an idea I’ve used myself dozens of times, so it clearly made a big impact on me, and that essential pattern – those two pawns and the rook in the middle – is all I need to remember that it’s Spassky – Petrosian.

Anand keeps it simple for his audience, but it's not clear how much they followed!

What about this, then?


This one, I remember, is Petrosian-Botvinnik.

That’s correct! Do you remember which year it was?

1963 – their match. Here the thing is that the white knight is sitting on a central square where it can’t be touched. Black cannot attack it with the knight. That is how I remember this game. It was always taught to us that this knight cannot be attacked by a pawn – therefore it feels so invulnerable it just sits there the whole game, which is in fact what happened in that game and which is how I recall it.

To better demonstrate Anand’s skills we also asked him to send us some data that would help us understand how his mind works when he sees this particular position on the board and then applies the game that he's seen in the past and applies that information to playing his game. So Anand, would like to give us a little bit of a demonstration of that.


This I remember very well indeed. This is Alekhine against Euwe in 1937 in their second match, and I can mention one thing. There is essential detail in this position… and everything else. So if the black bishop happened to be on that square, I would still remember the position. If that pawn happened to be a square back, I would still remember the position. The essential features of this position are [the queens, the black king and the white knight]. So what White has done with 27.Qh8 is to force Black to capture it, and then White takes the pawn in the middle, and this is the point of the combination – it attacks the king and the queen.

So that theme helps me remember the names of the participants, the dates, the venue and its story, because it happened in their 1937 World Championship match, so blowing a big chance like this must have been a disappointment.

But here's the beauty! This story is famous not because Alekhine made the move, but because he didn’t.

He didn’t see the idea.

Now if we go to our next game:


This is Petrosian-Spassky, again from a World Championship match, and I’ll tell you the essential idea. The pieces are on different squares, but you’ll see the essential pattern quickly… So the move which Petrosian made instantly was 30.Qh8+. Essentially it’s the story of a knight attacking a king and queen at the same time. Spassky resigned.

This shows how chess players acquire knowledge and why we study past games, because patterns like this are invaluable. If you don’t know that the idea exists there’s a good chance you’ll miss it, but if you know the idea exists immediately you’ll see the pattern. The moment I see that queen and rook where they were bells should start ringing and that’s the idea of studying past games. So you can see that a pattern repeats itself. And now let’s go to one more game:


This game was actually played in 2009, and it's worth pointing out Vishy "saw" this blindfold - in the first round of the Amber Tournament in Monaco!

This is my game against Peter Leko from 2008. So you can see the time scale – 1937, 1966 and 2008. And what did I do instantly? 36.Qh8+! Here it’s identical. The knight is on the same square, the king is on the same square, the rook is on the same square, the queen is on the same square. If Black captures the queen, which he’s forced to do, then White captures the rook and the same idea again – the knight attacks the queen and king at the same time and wins.

Here what’s essential is only these four pieces. Like I said, you could show me the position with some other feature on the queenside. You could move that pawn one square back and that pawn one square back and I wouldn’t know, but the essential information helps me tell you when, where, who. And it helps me find the idea. Very often when I see a position I can see what I should do instantly because we study past games.

Play through all the games Vishy mentions (click "Select game" to switch games):

Anand, how much has the emergence of computers and all these things being available to you instantly, constantly, all the time, changed your sport over the last 20-25 years?

It’s night and day. Computers have brought this forward so much, that for instance when I was growing up in order to acquire the experience people used to say: he needs about 7 or 8 years of experience and then he’s ready for this or to try for that. Now… you think six months! Because computers collect all the information, they present it to you instantly, and if you have any doubts you don’t need to discuss it with another strong player, you can just ask the computer, because quite often the computer will simply give you the answer. And in the event you need to talk to another player you do it online – you do it on Skype or with a phone, whereas there are years I remember when I had to write down stuff I wanted to ask someone and then wait for the next time we happened to be in the same city together. The way you can consult and ask questions and clarify your thoughts has changed so much that people get much stronger much younger.

When I became a grandmaster at the age of 18 I was the youngest grandmaster in the world. 

Now I would have to be 11 to be the youngest grandmaster in the world. So that age is descending fast and in fact chess is getting much, much younger and one of the reasons is because of computers. The other thing computers have done is to level the geographic playing field. Once upon a time if you wanted to become a good chess player the ideal was to be born in Russia. If you couldn’t be born in Russia and you had to be born in India then Chennai was a good place, and so on. Now, it doesn’t matter. You can be in some island in the Pacific – it’ll still hurt, the lack of contact, because you won’t make the initial friends and you won’t interact, but a big part of the gap has disappeared, which is why the Top 10 now is filled with players from countries which never had a Top 10 player for the last 100 years. You can see how computers are changing the game.

But are they robbing chess of the human element? Chess still needs to be about emotion, about feeling, it can’t only be a mathematical algorithm because then a very essential part of what makes sport will disappear. Do you think that’s going? Is it just used as a tool? Or is it slowly taking over the sport?

In case you were wondering whether he'd changed into the "Tiger of Chennai"...

Not at all. There were fears expressed along these lines some years back, but the point is as long as chess is a sport between two humans then the human element is there. Of course if you play a computer half of that… in fact that’s absent, because you can’t have emotions on your own. So playing a computer is depressing, but the point is computers have gotten so strong that nobody plays against a computer anymore. In 1997 you needed a supercomputer to beat the strongest human on the planet. By 2000 your laptop could do it, by 2004 an old laptop could do it, then your mobile phone couldn’t do it for a while but by the second or third iteration of these things that started to happen and soon your kitchen table will do it, your fridge will do it… it’s not going to be fun.

Computing power is going so fast that outcalculating us is no longer a challenge for a computer, but… what computers have done is to show us how rich the game is. There were many positions we were unable to explore because they were so complicated, so we were doing it in our own slow way, which is to play a game, see what happens, play a second game, see what happens… but computers have opened up so many things. 

They also close a few doors, but they open far more than they close, and at the moment I would say chess is richer than ever before.

Anand, the computer is at the heart of your recent rivalry with Magnus Carlsen. We witnessed you play two World Championships – you lost to him on both occasions. In some sense people say that you’re the last pure champion, because you came at a time when there were no computers. You didn’t have the kind of aid that they have, while Magnus Carlsen is a creature of today – he has these aids at his disposal all the time. Is this a battle between the old and the new, in some sense?

Yes, there is a generational shift. Carlsen was born when the first chess database software was five years old, whereas I saw this for the first time in my life when I was already World Junior Champion. He was born into a world where database software was available and when he was three years old you could play against strong programs. So his outlook is completely different. In fact many people say that he has an uncomputerish, an anti-computerish style and it’s true, but in a sense being anti-something is also being influenced by it, since 

it’s only because he can see what the computer says that he can then try to look for alternatives around it. 

And youngsters are getting much, much better with calculation, they’re much more creative and imaginative because they have so many examples of unusual moves that the computer suggested that over time it’s accumulated in their heads. In the same way that I had to look at classics to get interesting ideas their pool of ideas is much bigger because computers are generating it at an incredible pace. These days chess is very, very rich and you find very many new ideas coming up all the time, but you’re right, there’s a big generational shift there.

Chess has been a sport known for its great rivalries – Fischer and Spassky, Karpov and Kasparov. Do you see Anand and Carlsen becoming the next great rivalry in chess?

It could be, but I’ve got to win the next Candidates for that to happen. I’ll play that in early 2016 – the date and venue haven’t been fixed yet, but I assume it’ll happen at that time. But I have to say that’s a bit simplistic, because clearly the field is more crowded than that. 

Karpov and Kasparov essentially had the world to themselves for a few years – we don’t. 

The field is much tighter now, but it could be. I could play a match with him again, but I’ll have to win the Candidates first for that. That will be the first challenge.

After these two encounters have you reached a point where you feel you’re not going to be fully satisfied until you can master him in a head-to-head tournament?

Yes, obviously if someone bests you twice it gets on your nerves, I won’t pretend otherwise, but sure, I’m still motivated to try. I also just want to see how far I can go, because there are so many new things happening in chess that essentially I would say that I’m still fascinated by chess. There are things that I don’t understand and I’m curious to get to the bottom of that, and if in the process I become a better player then good.

Anand admits that after losing two matches to Carlsen "it gets on your nerves"

Is that what keeps you going? People have been talking for the last 3-4 years now about how long is Anand going to play for? He’s in his 40s now. How long can he continue? Is this the reason why you want to keep on, because you’re still learning new things on the board?

Yes, very much. I think the problem is now because chess is getting so young as a sport people in their 40s are seen as outliers, but 

I grew up in a time when someone in their 40s was expected to peak in chess

so it’s a strange idea that people then automatically ask you this question but yes, I would like to play. In a way it’s challenging – you want to see if you can compete and you want to do that as long as possible.

But Anand, does your game change as you grow older? When you’re playing a physical sport like cricket or football you’re basically practising every day, everything that you do is part of an instinct, so you know the ball is here, you know Sachin Tendulkar is going to cut it to the boundary for four runs. It’s just something that comes to him naturally – a function of practice over the years. In chess, which is a mind game, as your life is changing – you’re a young boy and then you grow up, then you get married, then you have a child (Akhil’s a young boy now) – as you’re growing older, as you’re changing, does your approach to the game start changing too?

Of course. First of all, the pattern is the same with chess and other sports. You constantly evolve and that’s true with chess. Second, there is a physical toll in chess. If you play 6 or 7 tough games you will be exhausted halfway through the tournament, so a lot of my training goes into physical training as well. I go to the gym and I keep a regular schedule, because I know that otherwise I won’t be able to deal with the tension of a tournament, and that is also one reason why chess is getting younger, because of the increased number of tournaments and competition means that schedules are getting a bit shorter.

But the rest… it’s all instinct. I explained it in slow motion and I gave a very, very simple example, with the queen going to the corner square just like Petrosian’s games and Euwe’s games but that process happens instantly when I play, and I’m also doing things by reflex. Normally when I see the knight the queen and the rook I immediately think of that move and there are millions of patterns like that. I couldn’t list them all for you, but when the position comes I will see something. It might be a false pattern, it might be a real one, but nonetheless you generally play by instinct, or at least you play by instinct and then you double check. So in that sense we’re not that different from other sports.

Anand then played simultaneous games against the host and another player, but since they opened 1.f3 and 1.a3 and got mated in a handful of moves it's probably more humane to pass over the chess content in silence!

There were some final questions from the audience:

You normally play 30 hours of practice every week. If you play with inferior players you will not improve. You need players of your level?

To improve all you need is a partner who has ideas. Earlier you had to be very good because you had to defend your ideas yourself, so if I said this move is good and you said no, but I think this move is better, it ended up being my opinion versus yours. What happens now is that both of us can now check with the computer and see, so when we work I can have someone whose practical results aren’t as good as mine but who has very creative ideas. That’s enough, because the fact-checking can be left to the computers. So you get on with finding creative ideas and interesting patterns that you can use. That’s what you try to do all the time.

Would computers now beat you most of the time?

Yes, almost any phone which is made in the last three years can beat any human on the planet. It’s gotten to that point because of the growth of computers and the growth of very sophisticated chess-playing programs. They also make very unusual moves. They don’t just use brute force and they’re not very materialistic.

Should kids play with computers? 

The question came from the mother of a 4-year-old boy who was revealed to be the youngest rated player in the world. She'd been Skyping the whole show to him!

I think a certain amount of interaction with the computer is helpful, and there are now obviously videos and chess puzzles that you can access through the computer. You can watch online tournaments, so a lot of learning opportunities. However, before you’re able to use the computer fully as an oracle you must first be able to understand the answers, so I think it’s very healthy to have a back and forth, that you play with other people, that you interact with people who are stronger than you so that you get certain questions in your mind and once you have the question in your head then you can ask the computer and try and get an answer. Otherwise if you’re just exposed to the computer too quickly the question might not be clear in your head and neither will the answer. So I would say it’s one tool among many, but it shouldn’t be the only thing they do.

The chessboard is all about power play – kings, queens, enemies and wars, and the skills you mentioned like strategy, guessing the opponent’s intentions and other things – wouldn’t that make chess players great politicians? Have you ever thought about that?

Actually I think chess and politics are very different. If you see that my pieces will do exactly what I tell them to do, and my opponents’ pieces will do exactly what my opponents tell them to do then the normal analogy is more with armies. In fact historically that was the case, that chess was considered a way for you to think strategically. The chess pieces are the old army units. Of course we don’t have tanks and all that but the old army units – the cavalry, the infantry and all that is represented here. We can’t change rules in mid-course, we can’t break away and start a new game, so for politics… not ideal!

We were all heartbroken when you lost twice to Magnus Carlsen. Have you and your team been able to find out what was the reason behind it?

Actually in our case the pattern has been fairly clear for a while. The first match I was simply not in the right frame of mind, not only for that match but for a while before that. That had a lot to do with not being on top of things and not focussing on the right areas to work on for many years. For the second match things improved a lot and I think I managed to cover the gap very well, but still I’ve got to get better with the positions. 

Essentially Magnus’ style is about making a lot of moves. They’re not always the best moves – in fact far from it – but his moves hardly ever fall out of the top four, so there’s a kind of consistency there.

Changing my game to be more consistent is one of the things I would have to do, but that’s easier said than done, because it’s easier to work on specific tasks. Simply to say I’m going to be better for a longer period is a very weird goal and it’s hard to implement. You have to try and just raise your game at a lot of different levels. For instance, the way you play the opening is very different from the way you play a later stage, so it’s not the same approach. But again, if I keep working consistently then I’ll get better at it.


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