LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Viswanathan Anand – Five-time Reigning World Chess Champion


So when youíre playing chess, how many moves
ahead are you thinking? Depends on the position. We usually compare
it to a tree. So, if thereís a straight tree, very few branches or no branches, then you
can go very, very far. So, essentially, if I have one move, you have one response, I
have one response there, you have one response there, I can calculate fifty or seventy moves.
It doesnít really matter. But where it gets tricky is when I have four possibilities,
you have six responses, then I have another five, and you know, thatís when the tree
becomes very dense, like a thicket. And there, itís difficult to see very far. When you think of a champion, who comes to
mind? What if it were a world champion, an Olympian? How about an Olympian of the mind,
like world chess champion Viswanathan Anand? Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaiiís
first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition. Aloha mai kakou. Iím Leslie Wilcox. Have
you ever wanted to play the piano? I mean, really master it, to do something more with
those black and white keys than stumble through Chopsticks. Playing chess is kind of like
playing the piano. Most of us know what the individual pieces can do, but the strategy,
the visualization of every move before it even happens, and what that will do, that
takes a special skill. Viswanathan Anand, born and raised in India, is the chess grand
master, and as I speak in 2012, heís the reigning world chess champion for the fifth
time. Thanks to Halekulani Corporation, which brought Viswanathan to Honolulu for a series
of special events, we had an opportunity to sit and talk with him in Halekulaniís Royal
Suite to find out what it takes to play a complex game at his level, and sustain that
level of performance. Chess seems to attract prodigies. I think
I would compare it to a language. Itís something that you just pick up. Itís much easier to
pick up languages when youíre young, in the same way I think itís easier to pick up chess
when youíre young. And you can get very good at it, very fast. Well, letís talk about when you were a little
boy. Letís go back to your childhood, if you would. Tell me about your growing up days,
your early life with your family. Okay; so I was the youngest of three children.
My brother was thirteen years older, my sister is eleven years old. So, Iím by far the youngest.
Were you spoiled? Pretty much. I mean, I had two sets of parents,
like. [CHUCKLE] So, my older brother and sister practically also used to pamper me a lot.
Then, my father used to work in the railways. So one of the advantages is that we got to
travel a lot. So then, my father would go on inspections, tours along Ö well, basically
the geographical region he covered. And my mother was the one who taught me how to play
chess; so her family used to play chess. Some of my uncles played chess in university, were
university champions and things like that. And I learned it from Mom when I was six.
Then I started to go to a chess club, played a little bit. And then, when I was eight,
my father got posted to Manila on a project for the Asian [INDISTINCT], so we went to
live there for a year. And at that point, the Philippines was, I would say, a sort of
hotspot for chess. They even had a chess program on TV, one hour every day, but it was from
one to two. So, I was at school, of course, at that point. So my mother would write down
everything, the game they showed, and the puzzle they gave at the end. So, my mother
would write down the puzzle, then when I came back from school after Iíd done my homework,
we would go over the material. And then, weíd solve the puzzle together and send the answer
to the TV station. And your mom really enjoyed chess too, right?
ëCause she was actively playing with you. Well, thatís too strong. The thing is, she
was very, very busy raising a family, so she didnít get a lot of chances to practice her
chess. And in chess, itís important to keep practicing and playing often. And my mother
never had time to go and play in a chess club, so itís something she did at home. So, I
would say, in fact, she was not able to take her chess as far as it could have gone. But
she was very involved in my career; she was traveling with me for many, many years.
She identified that you really enjoyed it and had skill in it, and helped you move along.
Exactly; basically. And so, in the Philippines, when we finished these puzzles, weíd send
them in. And then, one day the TV stationóand you could go to the TV station, theyíd announce
the winner, and then you could pick up a free book. So one day, they took me in the library
and said, Help yourself, but donít send any more entries.
Because you were winning every time. [CHUCKLE] I was winning quite often. And they said,
Well, it looks like youíre the only guy taking part. [CHUCKLE] Now, were you interested in chess
to the exclusion of other things in childhood? No, not at all. When I was young, I used to
play tennis, table tennis, badminton, I used to go swimming. So, I was doing a lot of other
sports as well. But, chess was the one that kept taking more and more of my time, and
that I really focused on. So itís the only thing I really did competitively.
Tell me more about your fatherís influence on you.
Well, he didnít play chess, so I think his role was more supportive. But my mother could
actually sort of teach me how to play and could help me play. I think he was very open-minded,
because in those days in India, parents were very conservative. They were worried about
their kids playing sports, because they thought, Well, but you need to study well and get a
good job. That was the obsession. So, I donít know, tiger dad or whatever. But my parents
were very open to the idea of me playing chess, and even letting me play chess tournaments
the nights before an exam. So they were really very flexible. And thatís important, because
I think if youíre going to do well, then you need this feeling that people arenít
against you at home. And besides that, whenever my mother couldnít accompany me, my father
would come as well. But I think his influence was more general.
And he would just encourage you generally; he couldnít give you feedback on what you
were doing. Not too much. One thing I remember him telling
me was to notóbecause I used to play very fast when I was young, and many people would
keep trying to tell me to slow down, and my father, I remember, was telling me very often,
No, donít bother, just be yourself. So, thatís one thing I remember he told me.
Well, thatís important advice. Sure. Vishy, as his friends, family, and fans call
him, won the title of world chess champion in the years 2000, 2007, 2008, 2010, and 2012.
But it was back in 1988 that Vishy Anand became Indiaís first grand master of chess, a title
one holds for life, at the age of eighteen, an age that he now considers to be too old. And Iíve heard you say that if youíre not
a grand master by the time youíre fourteen, then curtains, baby. I mean, you have to start
young and achieve young to really make it in the sport.
I think so. Probably itís too strong, to say itís curtains, but the world record,
I think maybe eight or nine years ago, was at twelve years to become a Grand Master.
And then, it started dropping. But obviously, by months. So it was first twelve-year and
nine months, and then it became seven months, and then I donít know where it currently
stands. But thereís already five or six people who have become Grand Masters at the age of
twelve. So, you know, thatís the bar you have to beat these days. There are those who donít chess to be an
athletic endeavor. But to hear Viswanathan Anand tell it, the game of chess is physically
as well as mentally consuming. Just because chess players sit in chairs doesnít mean
theyíre not active competitors. How do you preserve your stamina? Is it brain
food? Is it exercise? How do you do it? Basically, itís exercise. You try and get
a lot of exercise in when youíre training. During tournaments, you donít exercise very
much, because youíll be very fit, but youíll be sleeping. So, during tournaments, you try
to take long walks, things that calm you down and make you feel better. But when Iím not
playing tournaments, then I try to pay some attention to my physical training.
When youíre in a tournament, youíre consumed days on end. What do you do between games?
Well, it depends when the game is. So, your day will revolve around that. So the game
starts in the early afternoon, late afternoon, then you plan your schedule accordingly. But
typically, in the evening, youíll prepare a little bit for the next dayís game, do
some preliminary work, then you might watch a TV show or something.
When you say preliminary work, are you mapping out your first moves, are you studying your
opponentís recent games? Very much. You look at your opponentís recent
games, you think these are the things heís done so I can target maybe these two areas.
And then, you try to narrow it down to the final decision. But you may not want to work
through the night. Some people do. I prefer to work ëtil about eleven, and then I might
relax watching some TV, or you know, thinking of something else, whatever.
What kind of TV? Really mindless TV? Mindless TV, or some other sporting event
is nice to get your mind off chess. Or you may watch something on your computers, or
play a game. Whatever. So, not a game of chess, obviously some other game, just to get your
mind off the game, then go to sleep. And the next morning, you prepare in your bed.
Is it better when you have family near you when youíre playing at your world champion
best, or you know, what do you prefer? Do you prefer to have people close to you, or
do you like to go it alone? Generally, I like to go it alone. My wife
is very close to me. I mean, she used to travel basically since we got married. She was traveling
to most tournaments with me, and sheís been very, very heavily involved in my career.
So, she knows her way around me and during tournaments, and so on, so thatís different.
But otherwise, generally during a tournament, you try to be left alone and focus on the
game a little better. Itís difficult to explain. Youíre not very social, youíre not able
to make small talk, youíre just in a situation where youíre not Ö well, youíre simply
not that social and you canít handle those kinds of things. So, itís difficult to have
people Ö Iíll give an example. When youíre very tense, even someone saying, good luck,
will kind of flip you out. And I canít really explain why, but when youíre tense, youíre
just tense. What do you mean luck? Luck has nothing do
with it. Is that the kind of thing you might think?
That or, I wish you hadnít told me, because now I donít know what to think. Itís that
sort of thing. The worst sort of thing is, youíre going to play a guy, and then somebody
comes and says, Oh, youíre going to crush him. And then, this freaks you out, because
if you lose, then you feel even more stupid. What about styles that arenít chess styles?
Theyíre personal intimidation or psychology of the game type. Moves or comments, our sounds
that are meant to take you off course. Thatís the other problem, because youíre
playing someone, and even the best behaved opponent is going to affect you in some way.
I mean, if he or she is fidgeting, or thereís a certain nervousness which they cannot hide,
or you hear their breathing, you know, theyíre breathing a bit more loudly, anything like
that gives you some information, some clues as to what theyíre going through. So youíre
affected at a very basic level, no matter what. But of course, there are opponents who
try to drive you nuts. Some on purpose, and some succeed even without trying. And in those
cases, you have to make an effort to think about it. So, itís important for me to know
that if Iím playing this player, that there are going to be some unpleasant things to
deal with, and to know at a certain moment Iíll have to keep control of myself.
And Iíve heard that other chess champions really like playing you, because itís all
about the game, itís not about tactics of intimidation or playing with somebody.
Yeah. In general, Iíve felt that if I tried to do something to wind up my opponent, it
will probably backfire. Because I like to play when, you know, itís just all the action
is happening on the chessboard, and kind of focus there. So, at the very least, it seemed
to me just to be a good strategy to play like that, because I thought any other approach
would backfire. I wouldnít be comfortable with it.
Have you tried it before? Have you tried intimidation or being obnoxious or irritating?
No, but you can sometimes, if your opponent, for instance, is short of time, then you can
get very excited by looking at his clock, and you can affect them even without meaning
to do so. So, Iíve never consciously tried to upset anyone, but of course, when Iím
nervous or irritated, then you canít control yourself. In April of 2010, a volcanic eruption in Iceland
shut down airline traffic in Europe and nearly prevented Viswanathan Anand from competing
for the world chess championship that year. But Vishy showed that in life, as in chess,
there is more than one way to win. Youíve gone through some real pressure to
even arrive at a chess tournament. Could you tell us about that time that the Icelandic
volcano was going off, and it resulted in your flight being canceled? And so, what did
you do? Yeah. This was funny, because we had arranged
it so that I was leaving on the 14th of April. On the 15th, I arrived in Frankfurt. On the
15th, I arrived in Frankfurt, and then I thought on the 16th, Iíll catch the Frankfurt-Sofia
flight. Because the championship was in Bulgaria.
Yeah; the championship was in Bulgaria, and it was due to start on the 23rd of April.
So typically, you get there a week in advance to acclimatize and get settled in, and so
on. So, we all planned to leave on the 16th. On the 15th night, we started to get a bit
worried, because one of my Danish trainers called me and said, Actually, all flights
from Denmark have been cancelled. And he said, But Iím going to take a night train to Hamburg,
and then Iíll catch a flight to Frankfurt and join you. Then a bit later, he called
me and said, The cloud has moved over Northern Germany, so Hamburg Airport is closed. And
then, we knew we were in a crisis. So we waited, the 16th, then the 17th, and waiting for this
cloud to pass so that we could start flying again. And this was really annoying, because
you go out, and you look up at the sky, and itís the most beautiful sky you can imagine.
Apparently, these particles are very, very high up, but they had the effect of clearing
clouds, so it was just a glorious day, but we couldnít move. But on the 18th, we decided
we couldnít wait any longer, so 18th around noon, we just hired a van and went. And there
were horror stories, as you can imagine. The whole of Europe was shut down, trains were
booked from weeks and months. I mean, even taxis were overbooked.
And did anyone consider postponing the chess tournament because of this?
Well, we asked for a postponement. We said, give us three days, thatís reasonable, since
weíve arrived four days late, you can Ö but the Bulgarians refused.
Is that because they wanted just the Eastern Europeans to be there?
Well, my opponent was Bulgarian, and his attitude was, Well, so you walk, I mean, whatís the
big deal. Not very sympathetic. But then we finally mentioned the rules. There is a clause
called force majeure, something beyond your control, and we told them, Well, weíre really
going to insist. And we settled for a one-day postponement.
How much time did that give you time to acclimate? Well, that it would give me about four days
to get ready. So we actually got into our hotel on the 20th at 4:00 a.m. We left on
the 18th at noon. And this was a fun ride becauseó
And were you practicing on a computer during the bus ride, the van ride?
We started out, I mean, we pretended we were serious, we put a chessboard and, and we tried
to analyze. And then, we realized this was ridiculous. While youíre going in a bus to
do some serious work, nobodyís able to concentrate. You arenít able to get any real work done,
so weíre just working so you donít feel guilty. Did you feel like this was gonna hurt you,
because you really couldnít prepare in the way you normally do?
Well, it is what it is. I mean, by that point, itís better to just accept that weíre going
to get there on the 20th, and probably not by 20th evening, weíre not going to be able
to do any real work. But thatís life, and at some point, you have to accept it. So anyway,
we started out by watching Dr. House. And after we had enough of diseases, we put on
Lord of the Rings. And then, we watched the full extended version. And finally, when we
got to Sofia, I mean, people had started to report on it a lot, there was a lot on the
news. But in the bus, we actually had a good time. It just felt like one of these school
picnics. And the thing is, youíre not really in control. I mean, I can worry about the
match, but itís not going to improve my chances any. So we decided to stop worrying, and just
make a trip out of it. And did the Bulgarian opponent smell victory
because youíd been knocked off your normal routine?
Well, I think he genuinely was not very sympathetic to my plight. He just thought, Well, you could
have taken a line on the 16th. So, I donít know how much advantage he thought he was
getting. I think his point was simply, Iím going to stand for the rules, and I donít
want any bending. One day helped me a little bit. Though, when I lost the very first game,
and by forgetting what I was supposed to play, then you start to think. But very quickly,
the very next day I equalized, and then, well, the match took over. So I donít think it
had any consequences by that strategy. And who won?
I won. For Viswanathan Anand, is life truly like
a game of chess? Does he anticipate the twists and turns that life takes, and predict the
consequences of each move? And if he can plan two, or fifteen, or fifty moves ahead, what
does he foresee for the life of his young son? And in your non-chess life, how many moves
ahead are you? Are you always calculating variables, and if this, then that, if that,
then this, if that, then this? I think it does influence your thinking at
some point. For instance, I have the strong feeling, and I think many chess players do,
that doing something has consequences down the line. This is something you learn in chess.
So we tend to think, Well, if I do this today, then you know, somebody elseónot my opponent,
I was about to say my opponent, but okay. Some other person might then react to that
in this way, and then how would I react to that, and you tend to think along those lines.
But, I would say that we are good at doing this in chess, because itís a very controlled
game. There are rules, all the action is happening on the chessboard, and so on. In life, this
sort of planning is more hit and miss. Iím thinking, you have a young son, and if
you start to think about variables and factors, and what happens here, and what happens there,
I mean, you would drive yourself crazy. Well, heís obviously keeping me very, very
busy, so both of us have to watch him all the time. Heís sixteen months now, so thatís
the particular age when they seem to have a sort of death wish. I mean, he goes around
trying to eat everything, put anything into his mouth, and he has no sense of danger.
But heís figured out now that if he jumps from a chair, itís going to be painful, so
he tries to measure the height or the depth, and so on, before getting off. But in some
other things, itís just insane the kind of risks he takes. So, you have to kind of watch
him, and so on. And do you find yourself extrapolating into
his future as you plan for your son? Not yet. I mean, I also feel that some things
will just happen. I mean, Iím waiting to see what heís interested in. I mean, one
of my plans is, maybe like in a year or two, to leave a chessboard and pieces near him
and see how he reacts to that. So, you know, if he has some interest in chess, then I could
take that further. But in general, I think Iíll just try to expose him to lots of different
stuff. I mean, chess is also pretty serendipitous. You start a game, it looks very logical and,
you know, I do this, he does that, but very often, these sort of chains of logic are broken,
and unexpected things happen. Actually, I think itís pretty similar in life. During his visit to Hawaii, Viswanathan Anand
paid a visit to Washington Middle School in Makiki, where elementary, middle, and high
school students were competing in the 2012 Summer Scholastic Chess Tournament. Where
Vishy could walk the streets of Waikiki in relative anonymity, at Washington Middle School,
he was a super celebrity. You were at Washington Middle School yesterday
in Honolulu, and those kids treated you like a rock star. And youíve been treated like
that many times before. What is that like? Well, itís very enjoyable. First of all,
I like going to these events, because I remember playing in these school competitions myself.
And I mean, the atmosphere is the same. You have these kids who are all worried about
their game, and the results, and then you have their parents who are worrying there,
but they canít play even. And it brought back memories of my own tournaments, at that
stage. But it was nice. It was nice that they were very excited about it, and itís nice
that thereís a good chess scene happening here in Hawaii.
Clearly, chess is not Olympic sport, possibly because itís not as visual as the others.
But in your field, you are an Olympian. You must run into people who just go crazy about
you, and then other people have no idea who you are. Yeah. I mean, you have people who know a lot
about chess, you have people who might know that youíre a chess player, but they donít
know what that entails, and you know, people more removed from the game. Yeah. But thatís
life. One of the things Iím trying to do is to get it into more and more schools, because
weíve found that chess playing improves your academic skills as well. In moderation, obviously.
But at school level, you know, students who play chess tend to do better in studies as
well. So, I try to get it in a lot of schools. Inevitably, I think that way, youíre growing
the sport, because if you have a whole generation of people who learned chess in school, well,
theyíre going to be able to follow the game at a much higher level and enjoy it. So hopefully,
that way, we can keep the game going along. On this program, we often talk to people about
turning points, when theyíve had to make big decisions. Maybe they didnít seem like
a big decision at the time, but in retrospect, you say, Wow, if Iíd chosen this way, I would
never have done this. Did you have one of those turning points in your life?
The biggest turning point for a chess player is the decision to actually play chess for
a living. Thereíll always come a point where you think, Am I going to be able to make it
as a chess player, and is it the lifestyle I want, or should I go for some other kind
of job? I was lucky at those turning points because when I was in school, I had just become
a Grand Master right after I left school. And thatís a good sign, because when youíre
about to take decision like that, it helps to have some nice proof that you might actually
do it. So not just make the decision, I think I could make it in chess, but you know, based
on hope, whereas I could actually say, Well, I became a Grand Master, so I canít be that
bad. So that was helpful. And then, by the time I finished my university, I had a degree
in commerce. But when I finished, I had just played the candidates for the World Championship
cycle, and I was in the top ten. So again, a nice confirmation when I knew that Iím
going to stop studying now and just focus on chess. So those two milestones made it
very easy for me at those turning points. And I mean, it seems like youíve just had
this long arc. Does it feel like a smooth ride to you?
I would say basically, yes. I mean, there have been bad years, and things to overcome,
and so on. But again, I didnít have moments when I actually had to question my chess.
Not a moment when I suddenly thought, Oh, my god, have I taken the wrong decision? Nothing
like that. And I always had the confidenceówell, I mean, it looks bad, but I think with some
work, I can solve it. So, in terms of a career, I would say itís fairly smooth. Yes.
You obviously have such a passion for this game, beyond it being your livelihood. What
if you hadnít found it? What if there were no chess; then what? What do you think your
life would be like? I donít know. Well, my father and older brother
were engineers, so I might have done something along those lines. But really, thereís no
telling. I mean, one of the things Iíve discovered that I enjoy is, I enjoy traveling a lot,
but I wouldnít have known that if it hadnít been for the chess. So itís kind of circular.
I like astronomy, I like scientific fields; I could have easily gone into something like
that. Theyíre similar, in a way, to chess. Do you think youíd feel the same passion
for it? Thatís unanswerable, in a way. But at some
point, I also think, Well, when I stop playing as much chess as Iím doing now, then Iíll
have time for all my interests, and itíll be interesting to try lots of different things.
But, I donít see some other field which will occupy the same space in my life that chess
did. This conversation in 2012 took place in the
Royal Suite at Halekulani in Waikiki, where world chess champion Viswanathan Anand was
vacationing. He makes a very good living playing the game of chess. The way he plays is physical,
as well as mental, and heís a repeat champion, which many athletes will tell you is the most
difficult thing to accomplish. It turns out that the trash talk in chess is just as brutal
as it is in any sport. Yet, Vishy Anand, competing on a global scale, remains highly focused
and motivated to meet all comers. And heís still entranced with the game. Mahalo for
joining us on this episode of Long Story Short on PBS Hawaii. Iím Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou
kakou. For audio and written transcripts of this
program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org. Well, superstition, itís a thing that can
grow on you, and if you donít get a grip on it, it can sort of swallow your whole day.
Iíve noticed that there were tournaments where I felt that if I didnít get out of
bed at eight fifty-three, get breakfast by nine, and have exactly these things at breakfast.
I mean, if you get that superstitious, then your whole day, youíre just trying to follow
some plan. It starts to eat your whole day, and it can eat you alive.

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