Viswanathan Anand Opens Up on Chequered History With His Rivals

India’s chess legend Viswanathan Anand celebrates his 51st birthday on 11 December, 2020.

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India's chess legend and winner of five world titles Viswanathan Anand turned 51 on Friday, 11 December.

Anand, India's torchbearer in chess and the country's first-ever Grand Master, has inspired a legion of players, including city-based R Praggnanandhaa. Anand won the World Chess Championship for the first time in 2000. He won the World Rapid Chess Championship in 2003 and in 2017 .

Anand said competition among the world's elite has become really tough and only a few players have been able to hold onto their positions.

He agreed that the gap between world number one Magnus Carlsen of Norway and the rest of the players is a "big" one, but said players like Fabiano Caruana (second in FIDE rating) and China's Ding Liren (third) have been doing well recently.

Speaking about his book Mind Master, penned along with sports writer Susan Ninan, which is slated to be launched on 13 December, Anand said, “It is a project that has been floating for a long time but a couple of years ago, we suddenly thought the 50th birthday was a convenient deadline and we aim for that. That also forced us to concentrate and finish the book,” he said.

“I feel it was time to tell my story. And the way we selected it was not so much like an autobiography as to pick out the most significant moments in my life.”
Viswanathan Anand

“The ones that I remember the most, that had the most impact on my way of thinking. Extract life lessons from them and present them. It is a journey through my career and world of chess, the things that I learnt, the struggles that I faced," said Anand.

On his rivalry with the legendary Russians Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, Anand said the book has a fair mention of it and both had helped him learn a lot.

Here is an excerpt with permission from Hachette India from Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion's Life by Viswanathan Anand and Susan Ninan.

There was no definitive moment that yanked at my thoughts and filled me with cold dread over the approach of another birthday. It helped that I had borne the cross of performance-related anxiety right from my teens. It was a state of mind that never left me, even when I was at the top of the rankings heap or plucking successive World Championship titles. The constant feeling that everyone and everything around me was in a state of churn, changing and evolving, made me wary of falling behind. Not the ague-inducing, obsessive kind of fear, but the sort that had me leaping out of bed in the dead of night, wide-eyed about an imagined breakthrough in a position that I couldn’t get out of my head. I’d immediately turn on the computer and work feverishly on it. It’s not as crazy as it sounds if chess is the overarching theme of your life.

When you’re young, it’s easy to ascribe a spate of poor results to nothing more than performance clefts. But as I progressed into my mid-forties, such explanations became implausible. The ‘phase’ of poor showings had dragged on for too long, with no climbs or crests in sight. The damning bit was that I struggled to remember details – it was almost like they’d fallen off my head like Jenga pieces. I’d never felt this kind of a lull before. It occurred to me for the first time that this could be something else, after all.

I hate to admit it, but when people around me talk endlessly about age and its effects, I subconsciously end up joining the dots when I think about myself. Typically, when I mess up against a younger player, my neural pathways literally light up, signalling, ‘Look! We told you this has to do with your age.’ I felt this like a stab during the World Championship match against Carlsen in Chennai in 2013.

After that match, I avoided the sports pages of newspapers like the plague. I had no wish to read the explanations that commentators had to offer for my loss, nor did I want to know about the earnest obituaries that declared that I was past my sell-by date. I stayed away from chess websites and cut off all links that would feed me information on the happenings in the chess world. I didn’t know what Carlsen was up to after he defeated me. In fact, between late November 2013 and the end of January the following year, I didn’t know what any chess player was doing. I didn’t switch on a chess engine till sometime in February 2014. I knew Aronian had won at Wijk aan Zee in January that year, but I hadn’t followed the games. Eventually, the results got so fascinating that I started casually rifling through them. I got the raw games and began watching them, but then I had a funny feeling that my name may just pop up somewhere in some context, so I aborted my plans and stayed the hell away.

I soon realized that the best way to find distance from the torturous feeling was by getting a change of air and diving into a tournament. At the crash-and-burn London Chess Classic less than a month after the match in Chennai, Kramnik made me see why skipping the Candidates tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk the following year was a lousy idea. My relationship with Kramnik had evolved vastly since we’d played each other in Bonn. Four months after that match, when we met again in the gym during the Amber Tournament, we just couldn’t stop talking. He’d recently become a father then and clearly, we’d both moved on from the Bonn match. His voluntary assistance during my 2010 World Championship game against Topalov cranked our friendship up a notch. There was no longer a pressing need to view each other as sworn rivals either, since young players with robust ratings were now dotting the chess ecosystem.

The logic he used to prise open my mind to the idea of competing at the tournament was simple: I’d already hit rock bottom and nothing I did now could make it worse. It was my chance to be in a tournament where I’d be left completely alone, free from any kind of pressure. It would just be me and my chess. I suppose I saw reason in what he was saying. I’d also come to understand that, in two years’ time, I would probably not qualify for the Candidates again even if I wanted to play it. In life, we can’t always pick our moments. Sometimes, it happens the other way around.

I didn’t really bother with preparation for the Candidates and remained preoccupied with the consternation of having to face people if I played poorly again. But three rounds into the tournament, I was at peace. I’d beaten Aronian with White in the first round, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov with Black in the third, and I had a feeling it was going to be a beautiful tournament. My game in round 9 was the prettiest. I beat Topalov, while both Kramnik and Aronian lost their respective games to Karjakin and Mamedyarov.

My game against Karjakin in the thirteenth and penultimate round gave me a scare. Though I kept the game very close to equality, we walked into an ending where he had a bishop and a knight against my rook. We agreed to a draw after 91 moves, which won me the tournament with a round to spare and fetched me a rematch against Carlsen at the World Championship to be held in Sochi.

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