We caught up with the chess champion Viswanathan Anand, who is part of the Global Chess League, the world’s first and largest official franchise league of its kind, with chess players from all over the world competing in a unique joint team format. Vishy became the first grandmaster from India in 1988, and is one of the few players to have surpassed an Elo rating of 2800, a feat he first achieved in 2006. In 2007, he was awarded India’s second-highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, making him the first sportsperson to receive the award. In 2022, he was elected the deputy president of FIDE. This year, GCL aims to redefine the world of chess by bringing together the brightest stars in the game including Vishy, who has won the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award in 1991–92, India’s highest sporting honour. Here’s more from the horse’s mouth.
1. How did you start playing chess?
My journey and induction to chess started at the age of six. I was intrigued by my sibling’s interest in the game, and I asked my mom to teach me. At seven, I joined the Tal Chess Club, where I began to hone my skills. However, the more intricate understanding of the game came in while I stayed in Manila, where I lived with my family from 1978 -1980, where my father was contracted as a consultant by the Philippine National Railways. My mother was the one who insisted that I stayed with the sport when I shifted there, and due to the 1978 World Championships, the Philippines were witnessing an unprecedented chess boom.
In Manila, there was a Chess TV show that would have a puzzle competition every day. As I was away at school, my mom would write it down, and we would solve it and send the entry. The prize was always a book. I won so many times; I was asked to come and just choose all the chess books as long as I never participated again. When I returned from Manila, I started playing chess on weekends, especially a lot of blitz, earning me the moniker, “Lightning Kid.”
2. What made you turn your passion into a profession?
Precisely, it was during my graduation that I decided to become a professional chess player. When I was completing my graduation, I was training to challenge Anatoly Karpov. When I played that match, I was already World No.5. By this time, I had decided that I was going to make chess my profession. In those days, sports as a profession was still nascent. Hence, I wanted to complete school and have a degree but by the time University was over, everyone knew me as Viswanathan Anand, the lightning kid, India’s first Grand Master and World Junior Champion.
3. What kept you motivated over the years?
I believe that motivation is something that needs to be dynamic in nature. If we have something new that helps us keep going, nothing like it. Hence, I don’t make goals for a timeline. I make goals that can be actioned immediately, like learning a new opening in chess or trying to play more aggressively with black. Every day you look at chess, you see there is so much to learn and imbibe that it both fascinates and overwhelms.
4. How challenging was it initially and how did you overcome the challenges?
When I started playing chess, sports as a career hardly existed, especially in a sport that had not yet made headlines. My parents made many sacrifices to enable my career and get the opportunities I needed. We are talking of a time when we had no credit cards, mobiles or internet. We had to apply for a daily allowance of foreign exchange to travel. Those days were difficult, but we still had fun as a family. My parents would come to the big events, and then I also made some very close friends with Maurice and Nieves, who helped me make Spain my training base; later on, friends like Hans Walter did the same. In 1996, Aruna, my wife, slowly took over my career management. The World Championships, especially the one in Sofia where we had to travel for 40 hours to reach the venue, was all thanks to her efficient and quiet work. Our son, Akhil, was born in 2011, and I learned many things from being a father and appreciating my parents, especially my mother, for all the work she did for my happiness.
5. What have been some of the biggest highpoints of your journey so far?
Becoming a World Champion is something that every kid starting in chess dreams of. I have fond memories of every World Championship that I have won. If I have to pick specific ones, winning my first World Championship in 2000 and becoming Asia’s first World Champion tops the list. Another World Championship that tops the list is my win in Riyadh in 2017.
6. How many hours did you play in your earlier days and how many hours do you continue to play now?
Times have indeed changed from when I started playing chess to now when there is a plethora of information that is available owing to the evolving technology. During my early days, the way we worked was very different. We needed much more information that had to be manually sorted and classified according to openings, players, colours etc. Games that were played were updated manually on a piece of paper with a pen. So, a lot of preparation went into accessing information. Today at a touch of a button, I can sort and access 2 million games. Preparation is more efficient as we use engines to analyse our ideas.
The time that I dedicate towards playing chess varies depending on the competition. On average, I work four-six hours a day, which can go up to around 10-12 if there is a World Championship.
7. What are your preparations before every match?
What works best for me is maintaining a routine so that I stay calm and composed before every game. So, I would essentially get good sleep, and the next morning starts with breakfast followed by a walk. I then prepare for what I am going to play in the game. I usually like to sleep for an hour before the game and have a light lunch. After the game, I like going to the gym. I would then analyse my games, make notes for about 2-3 hours, and then watch some Netflix before sleeping.
8. How do you like to unwind?
It may be any profession; unwinding is an essential part of the process. Walks are an important part of my everyday routine, and I am really fond of long walks. I enjoy music from the 80s/90s; some of my favourites are U2, Pet Shop Boys, among others. I also like to spend my time reading, especially in subjects like Maths, Science, Economics and Politics.
Whenever I am home, we love taking vacations, especially going on wildlife safaris. As an ambassador of WWF, I enjoy the wildlife parks in India and the need to appreciate the delicate environment we need to protect. My son is a big wildlife buff, so thanks to him, we enjoy appreciating the ecological marvel that we live in. He also draws exceptionally well; his favourite is the pattern on animals. Thanks to him, I have also developed a special interest in the subject.
9. How has chess evolved with the advancement of technology to the extent that you played in world championships earlier?
The Pandemic and Queen’s Gambit have fuelled a chess revolution. To be honest, I am also really fascinated by the way the series keeps you gripped throughout. Further, FIDE and Nielsen surveyed the online chess community, and more than 90% of the fans between the ages of 16 and 29 play chess online, which is a huge quotient.
We saw the impact of streaming and a strong batch of commentators at the current world championship matchups. I was commentating for FIDE, and just the stream catching the expressions, the downtime of the players, and the tension during the matches made the whole event so much more interesting. Chess software and graphics have improved tremendously, making viewing and analysing the games and their emotions in real-time truly spectacular.
We will also see the impact of the advancement of technology during the current Global Chess League, where Tech Mahindra and FIDE will explore innovative ways to promote the game through interactive technology-enabled platforms by leveraging next-generation technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality, among others. The league will be novel in bringing ideas like gaming modes, chess fantasy etc.
10. What are your future plans for developing chess in our country?
India is seeing a great chess boom. I was India’s first Grandmaster, that was seen as a spectacular feat in those days. Nowadays, we add Grandmasters almost every other week. We have about 80 and more Grandmasters. The depth of the talent pool is very encouraging. Personally, along with Westbridge, we run the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy, where we mentor India’s finest talents like Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa, Nihal Sarin, Vaishali, Savita Sri, Leon Mendonca and Raunak Sadhwani.
11. As a participant in the inaugural GCL, what are your views on the league’s potential to revolutionise the chess landscape? What unique features or aspects of the league do you believe will have the most significant impact?
The Global Chess League will be a marquee event in our chess calendar. Firstly, the unique mixed-team format consisting of men, two women players per team, and U21 players competing against each other in Rapid format chess is something we have seen only in leagues in other sports and not in chess. Apart from that, we will also be witnessing broadcasts on an international scale for the event.
Further, the Global Chess League is also setting high standards from a technology standpoint to engage with the chess community and fans at large with the launch of the Game Garage (GG+) – a fan engagement application which will enable all the fans to stay glued to the league throughout. Last but not least, if we talk about the sheer stature of players, it includes the likes of current World Chess Champion Ding Liren, current world Rapid and Blitz champion and top-ranked chess player – Magnus Carlsen, World Championship finalist Ian Nepomniachtchi, Chinese Women’s Grandmaster Hou Yifan amongst others who will light up the stage in Dubai. I believe that the league will be a permanent fixture in every sports fan’s calendar.
12. How is GCL different from other chess tournaments you have participated in, and how do you think it will enhance your own playing experience? What are your expectations?
The GCL would become a very exciting event as it grows every year. It will be a first in terms of a unique team composition, broadcast and fan experience. The scoring format also will be new, giving the decisive games with black an added advantage on the scoreboard.
Jagdish Mitra, Chairperson of the Global Chess League Board adds, “The world’s first and largest official franchise league of its kind, GCL, represents a good mix of traditional chess and the new era, which the league intends to usher in with a transformation in fan experience through digitization, innovation, and technological prowess. GCL’s unique joint-team format with men, women, and U21 players on the same team is a true testament to our belief in providing equal opportunities to all, regardless of gender. Further, the tournament’s state-of-the-art broadcast reaching nearly 600 million viewers in over 160 countries, will introduce the sport to many new fans worldwide.”