Interviews Nov 24, 2017 | 9:48 PMby Colin McGourty

Vishy Anand on the psychology of chess

Vishy Anand recently spent 90 minutes talking to Deepak Jayaraman for the Play to Potential podcast. The 47-year-old multiple World Champion went into real depth as he talked about how top chess players have had to adapt to the advance of computers and find new ways to differentiate themselves against players with the same knowledge. He comments “your brain is a wild horse” as he explains there’s no way you can fully control either yourself or the game of chess, but there are strategies that increase your chances.

Vishy Anand by the lake in Hamburg during filming of his chess24 video series

You can find the full podcast, including neatly organised extracts with comments from the interviewer, here

It’s highly recommended, but if you’re short on time we’ve selected and transcribed some extracts below. Enjoy!

On the pain of losing

That’s very hard. I don’t think there’s a loss you enjoy or learn from. I believe a loss will almost always, because of the shock effect, force you to question everything you’d kind of assumed for a while, and it makes you uncomfortable in a very good way. So losses are good, but they by no means get easier with experience. In fact, if anything, I’m much worse with losing now than before. Nowadays people say, “you seem like a very well-behaved loser”, but inside I’m dying! I’m just waiting to get into the room and hit my head against the wall or something.

On calculation

You can’t learn to calculate better. What you can do is show your brain enough examples that when the moment comes it conjures up the right effect. I think in chess there are many things that you cannot solve simply by saying, “I’m going to sit here and calculate”, because that’s not how the human brain works.

On improvement

Essentially it’s this “standing on the shoulders of giants” thing. Once you’ve reached a certain level you can stand at that level, and then suddenly you’ll see new things which you would not have been able to see before, and like that you get better. So if you see other people’s games it will show new concepts, and once you’ve seen a new concept it’s easier to learn how to apply it creatively, but I don’t think we can find things from scratch. It’s the same in any career. A scientist is hardly dreaming up new stuff.

Vishy Anand filming his 3 chess24 video series

On his greatest skills

I would say my biggest skill is flexibility. I’m generally open to changing my approach if something hits the wall. I’m a hard-worker. I think I work hard because chess interests me, so I’m not sure I’d work hard in something which bores me, but I’m a hard-worker at least for chess, and that includes learning to maintain my fitness and things like that.

More recently I’ve had to reorient my style towards spontaneity and creativity again – essentially almost back to where I came from, because we’ve sort of come full circle.

On the advance of computers

First they got better in the things you thought computers were good at and then they got better at the things we thought we were good at – long-term calculation, judgment, intuition. So we generally think of intuition as some slightly long-term process. If I make a move and the reason for that move is 10 moves down the line you would tend to associate it with intuition. Well, computers got good at that as well. They started making long-term sacrifices, long-term plans which turned out to be very good, because their search depth is increasing and they were hitting further and further. There’s nothing intelligent about these things, but it turns out chess is a game that is perfect for them – very strict rules and an environment where they thrive.

On why advanced chess (human + comp vs. human + comp) is out of fashion

Advanced chess actually turned out to be a dead-end. It’s not going anywhere because machines have become like incredibly fast cars and the best chess players are like athletes, which means that the athlete in his best ever moment is not going to have the slightest chance against a very fast car.

On how computers forced top players to find new competitive edges

Computers are now so strong they find in seconds or maybe minutes what it used to take us a couple of weeks to find. That’s the speed of calculation. So what do you do? It no longer makes sense to specialise in anything, because a guy who has never seen that opening will be able to catch up with you in one week. Nowadays most modern chess players are incredibly flexible - they’re able to switch all the time. They play everything. What they specialise in, what they don’t specialise in, they move around a lot and it’s becoming about not what you bring to the table but can you organise this new flood of information in a different way and what keeps you stronger? Then you switch your skills further and further into the endgame and middlegame because it’s harder for the computer to prepare it all that way.

On the “laws” of chess

Chess players today are much more flexible, they’re much less ideological and dogmatic – a strange word in the chess context, but I’ll explain. In chess we used to grow up with these concepts like, “bring your pieces out to control the centre”, “don’t move the same piece twice until you’ve developed all your pieces”. Once upon a time these were very good rules and we used to call them the laws of chess, almost, because they were very good strategies for winning games. But as it turns out, these are not rules as much as statistical phenomena, so bringing your pieces to the centre turns out to be a good strategy because it often is correct, but chess players are no longer so rigid. Now anything works. Modern chess I think constantly is about moves that would offend purists from 50 or 100 years ago. I’m sure that if someone from 100 years ago came and looked at this today he’d just say this is ridiculous, how can you make such a move, but you have to just wipe the slate clean and learn a new way of thinking.

On what it takes to be the best

Generally the best players in the world make fewer mistakes, they tend not to make the last mistakes and that often is psychological. They think they’re not going to make the last mistake so they don’t make it. At that last moment after six and a half hours of struggle they’re suddenly able to summon up energy and concentrate 100%. The opponent is not able to. Chess was always down to these little factors and in fact it has never changed, because in any game between two humans these will be the decisive factors, so as long as both sides have been willing to adapt their way of learning to the most successful methods these tend to be the differentiating factors still, so the best player in the world is someone who outlasts his opponents.

On what a chess player wants

Chess players would prefer to win an easy game than a hard game, would prefer to win without effort than effort, or to put it differently, would prefer that the effort was at home in the training camp rather than at the board with the uncertainty of that.

On how you should train to meet inevitable surprises

You play a lot of 5-minute games, blitz games, you do problem solving. Problem solving is trying to find very unusual patterns, and the more unusual patterns you find you’re training your brain to think in unusual ways. When you look at the position, how many candidate moves do you look at? If you normally think of three but after some problem solving training you’re able to think of five, that’s very healthy, because you’ll pick up more unusual moves…

And last but not least, the psychological aspect. There’s no use having all the creative skills in the world if when the moment comes that you have to go into the unknown, you enter it with trepidation, because then you’ve lost half the battle before it’s begun. It’s not utterly hopeless, because still if the position turns in your favour you’ll be able to recover and whatever, but you must be psychologically ready for battle. That means the moment you have a chance to break free from the known areas and you go out there and fight you have to be ready and enthusiastic, if you like, about facing this unknown challenge.

First you need to pick the right sport...

On risks and cowardice

Sometimes people will go to the board completely ready to take a risk, then at the last minute they’ll suddenly start to see everything that’s wrong with what they were planning to do and then they’ll do the safe thing and come back. And then they realise that all the things they thought were wrong were themselves wrong, so in fact they could have gone ahead with what they’d planned. What is going on here? The thing is psychologically you don’t want to enter an area that’s risky so at the moment you want to your brain almost tricks you – it gives you arguments for going back to the safe and predictable course, which at that moment seems logical to you. So you justify it on the terms that you’re saying, “I’m going to be playing logically – I’m doing the logical thing here”, and then you come back home and you realise you were a coward!

On the brain as a wild horse

One of the things I feel that chess has taught me is that far from controlling your brain your brain is a wild horse and you need to work with it. Sometimes it’ll betray you and it’s operating according to its own clock, its own schedule, you can’t impose control on that, and so creativity is partly learning how to understand that you will lose control.

On recognising and finding intelligent solutions to common problems

For a lot of people the time between moves 32 and 40 is so tense and they’re so caught up in it they’re not able to stop - they’ll make the 41st move anyway. Especially once upon a time I was very prone to this error and I was also prone to an error that when I had half an hour and my opponent had three seconds I would try to play fast so he wouldn’t have any time to think. It doesn’t take a lot of intelligence to stop yourself and see that if you play fast to not give him any time to think you’re not giving yourself any time to think either, so these were two areas where I had a problem.

One of the things I did was I would simply make a mental note, I would think of some painful loss I had suffered as a result of these habits, so that when it got to seconds, he’s shaking, and the temptation is overwhelming - I have half an hour and I’m in no pressure - I would just tell myself to get up, go to the refreshment area, have a little bit of water or some coffee and then I’d come back, and I found that this broke the tension. I’d become too emotionally bound in the game and this broke that and I was able to bring some sanity to the process. And especially doing this after move 40, when neither of us is in any tension any more, just getting up, going away and leaving it for 10 minutes and then you come back and you find that it resets your brain almost. That’s one technique, but there are more techniques like this that you learn – part of your bag of tools, your toolkit.

On handling the emotional baggage of a game with many swings

The only position you’ll ever have on the board is the one in front of you now. That’s the only thing you can do anything about, so you have to have this habit of breaking (the tension). Overnight sleep is nice, but in this case you have to find some way to break it and I believe that it’s important to keep the brain excited, passionate about chess. If you keep on looking at new positions, things that interest you, or you look at difficult things that didn’t come to you, if chess keeps fascinating you, then chances are when the time comes to process it will process, when the time comes to remember it will remember.

On why the best move isn’t always the best

The first thing you learn in chess is you make the best move because that is the best, then as you get up the ranks you realise that the best move might not always be what you require. What you require is the most uncomfortable move for your opponent, or you may find that a slightly better position in which you are very comfortable and you feel everything inside out is better for you than a much better position that you don’t feel completely comfortable in. So you learn to tune it a bit to your needs.

On training your memory through embarrassment

When I was training I would often ask my trainers to quiz me on things I tend to forget so they would know roughly what I tend to forget and they would do that. Then when I couldn’t recall what I’m supposed to do sitting in a room with all of them looking at me as I’m struggling to recall was so embarrassing that when I went to the board I remembered it. It’s like that. You create the conditions for your brain to work well.

On the secret of working with seconds

Over time I’ve learned that the first rule is actually well-known, that you don’t get in your own opinion first. Don’t offer one, because once you offer an opinion you often spend a lot of energy defending your opinion - even when you think it’s wrong you don’t want to lose face… When my team would show me stuff my first skill was to keep my mouth shut.

On Karpov’s ability to forget the previous moves in a game

I remember they would always say about Karpov that for him the game always began in the current position, and what this means is that Karpov could be lost in the whole game. With some people if you’re lost the whole game then they’re already dreaming of a draw and if the position turns violently and they suddenly have a chance to win they’re not able to adapt, and they still try to make the draw rather than take the extra point they’ve been given, because the phase when they were threatened with a defeat was so strong they’re not able to completely forget it. Karpov would switch on a dime! He’d be lost this move, he’d be winning the next move and he’d just start playing for the win. So he was able to forget his emotions…

I’m not very good at this, but I’m aware I’m not very good at it, and I think being aware of what you should be looking out for in a game is one healthy method.

Vishy at an event with cricketer Adam Gilchrist, sprinter Michael Johnson and footballer Lothar Matthäus

To end, here are a few more quick quotes from Vishy:

“In chess everything that’s new gets old very fast.”

“If the machine is guilty of closing doors it’s responsible for opening far more doors than it’s closed.”

“It’s very useful to have trainers who disagree with you.”

“Maintaining your calm during a tournament is one of the great skills in chess and it’s very much a work in progress for me.”

“I have come to the conclusion that you can’t manage your brain in a certain way, but what you can do is create the conditions that are ideal, where you have found in the past it tends to flourish, and you create those conditions and you follow the kind of habits that work well.”

“I believe that it’s important to learn almost like a child - if you’re fascinated by a subject it will go in effortlessly.”

We’ll next see Vishy in chess action at the London Chess Classic where he starts with Black against Hikaru Nakamura on 1 December in the Google Headquarters in London!

See also:

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