Vishy Anand on what makes champions tick

Viswanathan Anand offers a view from the commentary box at the World Chess Championship 2021

Founding Fuel

Founding Fuel and BITSoM hosted Viswanathan Anand, the five-time World Chess Champion, on Twitter Spaces in mid-December. He was in conversation with HT’s editor-in-chief R Sukumar

Vishy, as he is popularly known, was our first guest in a series of Twitter Spaces conversations as part of the run up to Beacon, the Festival of Ideas by BITSoM, the new global business school based in Mumbai, in partnership with Founding Fuel. (At the festival, Vishy will be in conversation with BITSoM’s dean Ranjan Banerjee.)   

Vishy joined us from Dubai where he was doing commentary duty at the recently concluded World Chess Championship between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi (Nepo). Carlsen retained the world chess title.

Highlights from the Twitter Spaces live chat

Edited excerpts

From being a champion player to being a good commentator

I tried to adopt a kind of persona. That I am going to be Viswanathan Anand and I'm going to talk about the game as I would if I wasn't doing commentary. And I will not use the engine—it’s the easiest way to transport myself into the players’ shoes, and bring in my perspective as well.

In chess, it’s soul crushing if you have the engine’s verdict all the time—you experience a bunch of moves and nothing more.

The drama in chess is literally not knowing what comes next. Sitting there and trying to figure out what is he thinking about? I don't see it. Why is he hesitating? It's obvious to me that this is good, or this is bad. What is it he sees that I don't see? That conveys the drama very well. The engine says why it is winning, if he makes this move. And after that you've killed everything.

Carlsen Vs Nepo

Carlsen is the highest rated player in history. He broke that record, ironically, nine years back, and he himself has not reached those heights again.

Nepo is a very talented player. His talent was noticed 10-12 years back, but he only broke into the top 10 like a year or two ago.

Like all opponents who are underrated, what you don't want to happen in a match is that you fall behind quickly at the beginning, and then the whole match is suffering. So, he neutralized Carlsen's preparation. They kept pace for a very long time. But Nepo has one big problem—he has this impulsiveness, it’s borderline indiscipline. There are moments when he just mentally loses it. And then it takes him many moves, if not a whole game to compose himself.

Nepo did a great job of showing that he could take the match to the wire. Even if he is not threatening Magnus in every game, the very fact that the score is equal is putting pressure on what is after all, a much higher rated player. Game Six was a titanic struggle….

And then the match just shattered to a halt. Nobody envies someone who has to beat Magnus Carlsen on demand. But you can still take the match the wire, you can still force Magnus to work. But Nepo just collapsed, made one ridiculous decision after another. Game eight was embarrassing to watch. Game nine was just a blunder but you understood that this is a man who was no longer in control of himself. And game 10 was pathetic. 

Building mental strength and stamina 

Physical fitness is a very important component, but it's only one component. Sometimes, self-belief also can be. You can get it from work. If you get better at something, you make better decisions. If you make better decisions, eventually you start believing yourself.

Every player when faced with the positions that he dislikes playing, his level immediately drops. 

Even let's say when I beat (Vladimir) Kramnik in 2008, I simply managed to get him into a match that he didn't want to play. He felt that he had to react last minute. He had done the same thing to Garry Kasparov eight years before and he done it beautifully. Kasparov outranked him by 90 points, but Kramnik made Kasparov feel helpless just by giving him positions he hated to play.

How to bounce back

You can change your goals and say I'm not going to win this title, but I'm at least going to play a decent game and get back some confidence. Nepo lost two more games in the last without needing to. That will hurt him because one day, in five months, he will wake up and he'll remember this match, and a shiver will go down his body. Because of the lack of resistance. 

You have to find a fresh attitude to continue. What is it you're looking for in chess? When you're young, it's pretty obvious why you're playing. But later on, you'll go through stages in your life where you'll have to think, what is it I keep coming back for? Quite often it means you either set new goals, or you want to learn something new, or you want to rediscover the old joy of playing.

Does a sports psychologist have a role to play?

For me, the role of the chess psychologist seemed like a burden. I did not have the feeling there was a psychologist who had the background knowledge of chess to make it happen. At a certain moment, I started to have very honest conversations with (his wife) Aruna about these things. I would talk about my fears very openly. I felt even though she's not a trained psychologist, she understands me well enough. And she's been through many of these things with me. 

How long can chess players keep playing—do they plateau out?

The human brain seems not to have this kind of upper limit. If you're exposed to better and newer conclusions, your brain adapts, and it learns to guess better.

Chess players are also not able to handle all the information that computers are throwing at us. But we are able to pinpoint what is useful and make pretty good guesses about the rest. Even though we're drowning in this information, we're getting better at swimming in it.

Taking risks

What Carlsen and his team seem to have looked at is, there’s no point me doing the three best lines, because my opponent will have done them. I'm going to look at the really dangerous stuff, and try to always come up with something unusual at considerable risk to myself. And if my team then minimizes the risk for me, I'll do it. So even Magnus is doing it in a structured way. He just took positions that were very little played, very unusual, and his team used the engine to do the work necessary to make it at least not a disaster.

In game six, he took something where nothing exists, he kept going round and round with Nepo. You could even say that he produced the errors that Nepo made.

I've never seen a challenger so far, who has actually thought, what will it look like if I lose the first two games? Can I deal with that? What are the strategies I'll follow? It helps to go through it.

It's horribly unpleasant, you don't even want to think about it before it happens. It's like having a nightmare before the real thing. But you'd rather have experienced it in a nightmare than over the board. 

Keeping calm in a storm

Practice. If there's something you find difficult, keep at it till you get better at it.

The second thing is visualization. There are things you cannot possibly study and rehearse in advance. You have to try and visualize. You can base it on your own experience. Six years back, I remember, I had totally one position and then I blundered and I still feel sick to the stomach. What went wrong? And then you try to think what did I think at that moment? Was my mind drifting to what I would have for dinner, or what I would say to the press? Did I lose concentration? Was I double checking? Was I nervous? You have to get inside your head because it's quite likely that under that pressure cooker condition, you will do the same thing again.

Are top chess players more gifted? Or do they get where they are through sheer hard work?

There are people who work twice as hard and achieve the same results as others. So there must be some sort of baseline talent or aptitude for the game. Having said that, the rest is just work. Even the most talented players, they get good at what they work at. They get worse at what they haven't rehearsed in a while. 

Are you having fun? Or is it stressful and painful?

It is stressful and painful, but all the decisions in your life have led to this point and you find it illogical to want to run away. And when the result goes well, it all seems worth it.

There was a day on which it was possible for the world champion to beat the best chess computer. That is no longer a possibility even for Carlsen.

It’s not even the best computer. He couldn't beat the top 100 computers. He would lose to any one of 3 billion phones out there. Any model that is five years old. It's gotten that far. It's literally a runner and a car. Which was the last car a human could race against?

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