During this COVID-19 outbreak, many of us have taken our chess activities to online communities or increased the time already spent on chess servers. There has been the Carlsen Invitational, the Online Nations Cup, the Steinitz Memorial, and Maurice Ashley’s “Clutch Chess” tournaments. Many have had a chance to tick off books from their reading list during this time of quarantine.
One of the books trending now is Viswanathan Anand’s new book, Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life. I learned about this book while watching a video interview of Anand with Sagar Shah of ChessBase India. He was giving the champion endgame puzzles to solve. Anand is perhaps one of the most underappreciated champions in history. Since bursting onto the scene after winning the World Junior in 1987 and as India’s first Grandmaster, he has been a great global ambassador to chess. Before getting into the book, it is important to discuss why Mr. Anand has been so valuable to chess.
Before Anand’s rise, no one in India had trod this path before. Manuel Aaron had been the country’s only International Master. The lack of chess tradition is a familiar story in developing countries. Even as Anand rose and became an elite player, there was a question that he could win the “big one.” He was doubly motivated by critical comments from other Grandmasters. After his first world title in 2000 (in a knockout format), there were still doubts. There were still doubts when he won the unified title in 2007 (in a tournament format). What would it take?
He then won head-to-head matches against Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov, and Boris Gelfand. Before his match with Gelfand, there were some sharp comments by Garry Kasparov about his will. His win silenced doubters, but not completely. After losing his title to Magnus Carlsen, there were still doubts that he would be a contender again and should retire. He proceeded to win the Candidates tournament, quieting his critics yet again. Although he lost the return match, he had proven that he still has some fuel in the tank. Now at 50, he is still playing at a high level and is the reigning World Rapid Champion.
His appearance at the top of the chess world immediately created a wave of interest in India, and to date, the country boasts approximately 65 Grandmasters. Anand takes an active interest in the national development of youth talent, unlike many top players who only show up for an occasional simul and autographs. The latter may inspire but does little to sustain a chess culture. For his efforts, the “Tiger from Madras” has given hope to a nation of 1.3 billion and remains a national hero.
The great thing about Anand’s reign was he avoided becoming embroiled in petty debates, and refused to hold the title ransom for selfish reasons. Before the 2007 unification, the chess world was mired in a title split going back to Kasparov’s split from FIDE in 1993. Anand stayed clear of the political mudslinging. Ultimately, he unified the title in Mexico and maintained stability for nearly a decade.
Photo by ChessBase.com
After beating Kramnik in 2008, he played Topalov in the challenger’s home country! It is doubtful that any other sitting champion would’ve agreed to this. Mind Master does into some detail about his ordeal before the match with Topalov. Despite Bulgaria being less than understanding about his horrid travel situation, he took the high road and proceeded to play (and win) under challenging conditions. With the help of his wife Aruna, he remained flexible in his negotiations.
Anand’s work in India is well-known, but he has been an inspiration to smaller chess nations. He has made several trips to Africa and remains one of the few World Champions to come to Africa as a chess ambassador. Dr. Max Euwe visited South Africa on a fact-finding mission on the effects of apartheid on chess, but Anand came to Africa and generally received a warm welcome. The idea that one can come from a country without a contemporary chess culture is a testament that excellence is possible despite lacking resources.
Anand giving simultaneous exhibition to schoolchildren
in Durban, South Africa (link).
Photo courtesy of Keith Rust
receives Viswanathan Anand (link).
Photos by Booster Galesekegwe
Reception committee at Nairobi International Airport from left – WFM Sanjana Deshpande, Chess Kenya Chairman Benard Wanjala, GM Viswanathan Anand, Satish Deshpande, Sumit Deshpande & Sandhya Deshpande. Photo credit Allan Victor of Arongoey Photography. (Kenya Chess Masala)
Anand is typically one of the most likable players on the professional circuit and is generally a fan favorite for his daring style of play. One can tell that he has the attributes of empathy shown by his work with disabled chess players in India. From time-to-time he serves as a spokesperson for commercial products.
There was a recent poll on chess.com of the top ten chess players in history. One may disagree with the order. All were world champions, and while it was a credible list, Anand’s name did not appear. While the article omitted Anand as one of the top ten players of all-time, his feats may put him in the top ten world champions in history if we consider his length of reign, ambassadorship, and contributions as a champion. His holding the title without rancor may be the most significant contribution.
Emanuel Lasker’s reign of 27 years will never be topped, but to win the world championship in every conceivable format, to spurn controversy and scandal, and to play high-level chess into his 50s, is a feat that few can claim. Anand gives credit to his wife Aruna, who is beloved in India as well as admired in the chess world.
Many times, chess spouses do not realize how their role adds to the success of their chess mate. In Aruna’s case, her smile, gentle demeanor, and attention to detail helped to keep the Anand team balanced in times of crisis. They make a remarkable team.
Queen and King Indian…
Aruna & Viswanathan Anand
on a 2013 visit in Tanzania
Viswanathan Anand with Susan Ninan
Mind Master is an interesting account of Viswanathan Anand’s career: part autobiographical, part instructional, and part historical. The book is organized into 12 chapters, each recounting a crucial part of his development. It tracks his beginnings, his rise, his methods, and his championships matches. Most importantly, we got a glimpse of his inner thoughts.
The prologue started with Anand reflecting on his match with Vladimir Kramnik, who had won an epic match against the then-dominant Garry Kasparov. Anand had already won two world titles at this point, but the match with Kramnik would carry specific importance. Anand confirmed this:
At 37, it was my second World Championship win (Mexico), I had previously won in Tehran in 2000, but this felt new and validatory. The chess world had been dismissive of my Tehran accomplishment (the theme was essentially, ‘Yes, you’re World Champion, but…’) and an annoying feeling had tailed me since.
Viswanathan Anand reading from Mind Master at the book launch 13th of December 2019 in Chennai at Taj Coramandel. Photo by Sportstar (India).
Anand considered himself an outsider in the chess world. He had come from a country without a contemporary chess tradition (apart from chess having stemmed from chaturanga). He reflected,
I was an aberration in an ecosystem where the top players were either Russian-backed, like Kramnik, or bigger and bankrolled by the powers that were, like Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov. It was only prudent then that I looked out for myself.
There are parallels between Anand and Bobby Fischer. The American champion also felt like an outsider and even accused the Soviets of colluding to derail his progress. Anand makes no such accusation but becomes a bit salty when there were doubts about his chess ambitions. Although his co-writer Susan Ninan softens some of the blow of his angst, his emotions came through. He seemed intent on proving his worth as a champion and appeared to be “on edge” at other times.
Being the first Indian Grandmaster came with a responsibility. Anand traveled to Europe to compete and considered establishing a base there. India-Europe is quite a tortuous journey, and to maintain his activity and access to strong competition, he made the jump to Spain where he took on “chess parents” (Mauricio Perea and wife Nieves), and a new language. The book recounts important milestones, including his early encounters with the elite, some of his early training methods, and his first exposure to ChessBase!
Viswanathan Anand working on one of the early release’s of ChessBase at the home of founder Frederic Friedel. As Tommy looks on curiously, Anand devoured the games and became one of the first “digital migrants” in the chess world. Photo by Frederic Friedel.
One of the interesting things about Anand is that one may feel that he is the perfect gentleman. While that may be true, there are instances where his eponymous, “Tiger of Madras” comes to bear in a literal sense.
“When I am playing someone I earnestly don’t want to lose to or personally dislike, my brain is sprightly, I uncover new resources and also tend to defend much harder.”
It would not immediately appear that Anand had such sentiments. However, if one can remember his retort to Garry Kasparov after defeating Boris Gelfand, one will know that his nickname is not only for show. Ironically, he mentioned that it was Kasparov who sparked his interest in becoming champion after their match in 1995.
Anand playing Garry Kasparov in 1995 for the contested
World Chess Championship at the World Trade Center in New York.
Kramnik and Anand choose the chess set for their 2008 match
with a mock game 1.g4!? b5!?
Photo by Frederic Friedel.
There were some intriguing stories in his journey, including periods of doubt. The book is a very interesting self-assessment of the Indian legend, and he talked about various stages in his life where he had to prove himself constantly. One of those times was his match with Vladimir Kramnik, who had beaten Garry Kasparov in 2000.
In his match against Kramnik, he mentioned that it was a critical point in his career. Even his wife Aruna said (at the book release) that the buildup to the match in Bonn 2008 was not normal. Perhaps the notion of legitimizing his title would be gone if he lost. The negotiations of the match with Kramnik were rocky, and the tension was high. As it were, destiny would turn in his favor. He won his first title match and third overall.
When he was World Champion, there was a period when he did not win tournaments as Kasparov and other champions had done in dominant fashion. The cycle required him to defend his title every two years, so there was an issue of staying in championship mode as opposed to tournament mode. Balancing this reality seemed to be a difficult challenge.
The book gave a very candid view of his challenges. I particularly enjoyed his chapter “The Adversity Advantage” on the Bulgarian ordeal. I remember covering it for The Chess Drum and how upset I was that the Bulgarian authorities didn’t allow more time for him to adjust from a 40-hour road trip. All the flights were grounded due to the black ash spewed from an Iceland volcano. It was amazing that his team overcame such an obstacle and came out victorious despite all the odds being in the challenger’s favor. Anand even lost the first game badly! This match showed his fighting spirit.
Finally, Anand described the unfortunate loss of his championship in Chennai, India to Magnus Carlsen. He described his struggles leading up to the match, falling into a rut where he could not win a game against elite competition. Four months prior to his first match with Carlsen, he came in a disastrous 8th-9th in the Tal Memorial (10 players).
My slump wasn’t the only wrecking ball. As a compensatory offer for a missed chance at hosting my match against Gelfand, FIDE offered Chennai the first right to bid for the next World Championship. It’s not that I hated the thought of playing on home ground, but I was already fighting my demons by then. If I was away, on my own, I could focus on doing what I had to do and not feel scrutinized. For this, of all matches, to land in my hometown when I was anything but confident of my game felt like a sucker punch.
Anand even described the famous press conference after game six, where he snapped at a reporter. That indicated that things had unraveled in that match. After losing his title on home soil in a rout, many thought he should retire. He appeared to be motivated by these comments. The Tiger of Madras would rebound, win the 2014 World Candidates and attempt to redeem himself in a rematch.
He lost once again to Carlsen but gave a more creditable result. Ironcially, Carlsen was once a sparring partner for Anand. Like Muhammad Ali-Larry Holmes, the legends may have provided lessons to the sparring partner on how to become a champion.
A final pearl of wisdom about overcoming a crisis,
At times, when chess has got frustrating and I’ve suffered a sustained run of bad results or have been caught in unfair situation or felt like a pariah, like the negotiation that took place in Prague in 2003 to unify a split chess world, I’ve been tempted by the thought of leaving the scene altogether – the sport, the tournaments, and just about anything to do with playing chess. There comes a point when you realize that passion, not perfection, will carry you through. You need to have something moves you, that you’re passionate about and wouldn’t mind engaging with all your life. And the root of the matter remain that I like playing chess. It’s the warm, familiar feeling I circle back to every time.
Anand does not get enough credit for putting chess on solid ground in turbulent years. Also, he has been an excellent ambassador, particularly to the growth of chess in the developing world. Most of the World Champions after the “Fischer Boom” did not have the type of impact in developing nations that Anand has. He has almost single-handedly lead the chess revolution in India, and his visits to Africa have been memorable.
The book is an easy read, and you will most certainly uncover details about Anand’s life that you had not known. As far as his place as one of the best players in history, his record compares with other contemporary players of his generation. Hopefully, chess enthusiasts will learn to appreciate his contribution as a player, a statesman, and one who possesses qualities chess players should emulate.
Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life
Viswanathan Anand with Susan Ninan
Hachette Book Publishing India, Pvt. Ltd. (2019)
Buy at Amazon!