Outlook caught up with World Champion Vishwanathan Anand the day he landed back in Chennai after successfully defending his title against Boris Gelfand. Excerpts from an interview with Akhila Krishnamurthy:
Are chess champions born or can they be cultivated?
Talent is one thing, but I think a whole host of factors like encouragement, the right attitude and the environment go into making a chess champion.
What about training? What is the kind of effort, investment that must go into training to make it big?
In today’s context, the options available for training are so many that it’s possible for your child to train easily in a way that might suit him or her best. It’s important, according to me, to train in small doses so as to not lose the joy of playing chess. I personally think too many coaching and training classes may take away a child’s interest in the game itself. The essential thing to do is practise often and, in case of a doubt, to consult a trainer.
“Parents, First And Foremost, It Is Important To...
...understand and recognise the activities your child is naturally gravitating towards. It’s important also to ensure that your child likes what he or she is doing. I believe in exposing children to as many hobbies and extracurricular activities as possible. I mean, I wouldn’t have known chess existed if my mother hadn’t taught me how to play. Having said that, it’s imperative that parents don’t end up forcing their children to pursue something they may not necessarily have a leaning towards. That way, my parents were very supportive of my chess. When I got home after a game of chess, having missed school or something, they always made me feel very welcome; I didn’t feel guilty at all about pursuing chess with such fervour. They never, for instance, perceived sports as a rival to academics. They were enthusiastic about my interest and that really took a great deal of weight off my back. The other essential thing for parents to do is to make sure not to exercise any pressure right at the beginning. My parents didn’t aim for me, at the start, to get to where I am now. It’s important to let your children naturally absorb the sport. At the crucial point when a child begins to navigate career choices, I think parents must sit down and discuss options.”
Do Indians have a natural talent for chess?
Well, it seems like it. Perhaps in some sense we are predisposed to playing good chess.
You are aggressive at the board; off it, your demeanour is warm and mild. How do these two traits coexist?
You see, aggression seems to help a whole lot of chess players while at the board. A certain amount of it helps. Off the board, I try not to make my aggression evident. Of course, if I beat someone I really wanted to, the win will be like a personal reward of sorts. Having said that, I feel what is important is to stay confident and happy. That helps.
Do people have a romanticised idea of a chess player?
I think this is true for any sportsperson. As a brainy, intellectual sport, I think chess also produces fairly well-rounded people. A lot of parents are beginning to realise that chess is a really good activity for their kids.
How do you prepare before a big world event?
I generally build up to peak at the event. The idea is basically to put stuff—both physical and mental—in the bank. I try to build physical energy by generally working on my endurance—running, climbing, combined with a lot of long walks. I also use the weeks leading up to the event to put in a great deal of work to generate a whole bunch of ideas that can be put to use. The idea is not to play a lot of chess right before the event and arrive at the competition with enough amounts of physical and mental resources.
What about physical exercise for chess players?
I think it depends on what suits every individual. The best is for each one to figure out what they need to do to build up the ability to deal with the tension at the board. Working at the chess board requires a lot of energy; there are some who like the gruelling stuff; others like to take calm, relaxing, long walks.
Is there anything specific you do to keep your mind sharp? Do yoga, meditation help?
I have a habit of taking nice, long walks. I also believe that deep breathing, five deep breaths before the start of a game helps me calm down and gear up for what’s ahead.
Do you feel as fit mentally and physically as you did, say, 10 years ago?
What I’d say is, over the years of being at the game, your attitude towards chess evolves. Inevitably, in life, there comes a point when chess will dominate your life; sometimes, as you get a little older, it may not occupy that kind of an important position. What is essential is to keep your love for the game alive. In today’s world, chess is getting younger and faster.
What toll does chess take on your body and mind?
Tension is bound to pull you down a bit, physically and mentally, but so far, for me, it has been fun.
Ever felt insecure or intimidated by an opponent?
I think fear comes and goes in cycles and bouts. The best moments are when I block them all out and focus on the game with confidence. Confidence, and lots of it, helps.
How do you motivate yourself when you are down, beaten?
Motivation is not something you can control. There are many external triggers that happen when you are sitting at the board; it’s not something you can control. But in the given circumstances, I try and do my best.
What do you eat? Is there any special diet you follow?
Not really. I’m not particular also because tournaments are held all over the world. I try to ensure that what I’m eating is sensible. I also like to enjoy the training experience by eating interesting food across the world. I ensure, though, that I don’t eat just before a game because that’s going to make me feel drowsy.
How about eating habits during a big tournament?
No, I don’t.
It is said seafood is good for the brain. Do you eat fish?
Yes, I do. That’s also because it’s so popular across the world where I travel for my games.
How do you relax off the board?
I have a love for astronomy; Aruna, my wife, and I love travelling, so whenever we get an opportunity, we set off to explore places that have tickled our interest. We are also wildlife enthusiasts.
Do you listen to music, watch cinema?
Yes, I like rock, especially the ’80s bands like U2, Queen, Pet Shop Boys. But I also like to keep my eyes open to new music that’s playing around. I’ve been listening to Coldplay of late. I think music-wise, I’m very flexible. I like watching films too. Recently, Aruna and I particularly enjoyed The Hangover.
What’s your relationship with God?
I can say I’m reasonably religious.
Does playing chess all the time affect your family life?
I think whatever profession you pursue, medicine, acting or whatever, you have to make a few sacrifices. While playing a tournament, I’m away from home for three weeks or so, but once I’m done, I get to spend quality time, at a stretch.
Would you like your son to become a chess champion?
I’ll certainly show him how to play chess. It’s up to him to pick it up.
Susheela, Vishy’s mother:
“I’d Show Him A Few Games... He’d Show Me Some”
As a child, Anand was very normal. I introduced him to chess. When the family would play, he’d come and join us. He used to play other sports as well—tennis, table tennis, badminton etc—but he developed a flair and interest in chess. He never had a coach or anything; he learnt the game really on his own, practising vigorously and reading books etc. That’s the other thing about him. His focus and concentration level in almost anything he does is great. If he read a book, whatever the book may be, he had the ability to completely absorb and immerse himself in it. Nobody and nothing could distract him. He was good at academics as well. He managed to do both, quite effortlessly. If he can do it, I’m sure so can others. He is also a very calm person. I don’t think you need aggression to play chess. What you need is a good memory, positive attitude and the ability to plan your moves ahead. I used to play chess with him when he was young—I’d show him a few games and he, in turn, would show me some; now I just watch his moves. I don’t think there’s really a set formula for success and yet there are some ingredients like hard work, focus, determination etc that go into the making of a champion. I think the one thing about Anand is, even when he was young, he was very respectful of elders and very humble."