Vishy Anand is a legend today. He has not only achieved the highest honours in the game of chess but has also led the entire country to becoming one of the biggest chess superpowers in the world. But how was he when he was young? Frederic Friedel, the co-founder of ChessBase, has known Vishy for the last several decades and has also been a very close friend of his. He has seen him grow from a prodigiously talented teenager into a mature and highly accomplished man. In a recent interview with IM Sagar Shah, he related many of his interesting experiences with a young Vishy when he was still climbing the upper echelons of the chess world. Therefore friends, in Vishy’s December #07 we wind back the clock and take you on a journey which is as nostalgic as it is insightful of the maestro’s life and character.
Frederic Friedel Reminisces his best moments with Vishy Anand
The co-founder of ChessBase – Frederic Friedel
Frederic Friedel, the co-founder of ChessBase, met Vishy Anand in London for the first time when he was just 18 years old. Over the years Frederic has looked after or been close friends with the World Campions Kasparov, Anand, Kramnik, Carlsen, Judit and Yifan and the Challengers Short, Leko and Caruana. The chance acquaintance with Vishy in the late 80s soon grew into a close and lasting friendship. Vishy visited Frederic at his place near Hamburg for no less than thirty-six times and became like his family. In a big video interview with IM Sagar Shah, Frederic speaks about how he met Vishy, how his friendship with him grew, Vishy’s memory and speed, marriage, ever humble role model and the revolution he created in Indian chess!
Vishy Anand as I knew him
By Frederic Friedel
Many years ago we developed ChessBase and had this fledgling program which has just been released. I think it was 1986 or 1987, I was in London at a tournament showing this program to the chess players there and at some stage somebody came to me and said, “I would like to introduce you to a young player who wants to meet you”. I met him and he was an Indian, a young boy. I spoke to him and then continued working and told him that I would catch-up with him in a moment… and then, half an hour later, he came to me and said, “I have to leave now!”. I was embarrassed to have kept him waiting like that, I apologized and we had a short but intense conversation thereafter. I asked him how strong he was and he replied something like 2480 or 2500. I was really taken aback! So this was Vishy, always very gentle and unassuming. He had to play his next event only a week after that. He confided that he couldn’t afford to head back to India. I asked him, “So what do you do? Stay in a third class hotel?” He replied, “No fourth class!” [smiles] So I offered him to come and stay at my place instead near Hamburg. He politely took notice of my offer before leaving.
That’s 18-year-old Vishy in 1988!
A few months later I got a phone call from him, he asked me whether I was serious about inviting him to my place. I assured him that he could surely come and so he agreed. My family was surprised, my wife said,”You have invited a chess prodigy home for a week? Okay, let’s see how it goes!”. Then finally Vishy arrived and after only two or three hours with him the whole family was enchanted. They said, “He is such a nice boy! We want to keep him, he can visit us anytime!”.
Vishy playing some games with Frederic’s son Tommy!
So we were all enjoying ourselves with him and then came the first problem, in the evening, during dinner. Vishy was a complete vegetarian and didn’t eat anything – no egg, no cheese, no meat of course! We went into panic but somehow rustled up something vegetarian that evening and from the next day we started boiling vegetables. It was tasteless and we were terrible at it. Next we bought a book on South-Indian vegetarian cooking and began to cook South-Indian Vegetarian food for him. And even we found it delicious. It was a problem solved!
An eidetic memory
We had just launched ChessBase 1 at the time and Vishy sat with it in my study for hours. This was the first time I saw a Grandmaster going through hundreds of games a day and enjoying himself immensely. He was actually having a lot of fun looking at the games, he would come to the living room all excited and ask me to see some move that I would obviously not understand and then he would burst into laughter. He was a vivacious kid. There’s an anecdote that has remained with me over the years. One day at the breakfast, he sat at the table and said to me, “You know there are some errors in the database, some results are wrong or some games have been repeated twice”. I told him that it would be very helpful if he could give me a list of such errors he comes across, the people in the office would then be able edit them. To my surprise, he immediately took a pen and paper and started jotting down the mistakes he had seen. He not only remembered the games but also the record numbers in the database. It was astounding how he could remember the game numbers and move numbers of all the games that he had seen!
Vishy working with ChessBase 1 as Tommy looks on | Photo: Frederic Friedel archives
Vishy discussing some of the improvements in the ChessBase software with Matthias Wüllenweber, co-founder of ChessBase
And lightning speed!
Vishy was not only able to study and learn databases but he used to do it at an enormous speed and retain everything. Just show him a position and within a few seconds he will understand it and tell you the correct line. One day I was with him at a tournament, I used to accompany him to a number of tournaments, and we were walking by the analysis room where the players sit after the games and analyse with their opponents. He glanced at one of the positions there while walking by and quipped, “Aha very nice, rook to e8”. Later, the player with the white pieces came up to us and asked whether we were watching his game. This was Joel Benjamin, he couldn’t believe that Vishy was able to find that move while just walking by! In fact, I often used to tell Vishy to slow down and think about his moves. At times he used to play entire games in just six to seven minutes of time.
Vishy studying chess in Frederic’s backyard with his elder son Martin
The World Champion to be
I was absolutely sure that he would become the World Champion. He was so strong, he was right there at the top even without the systematic Soviet training. When Kasparov was eleven or twelve years old or even younger they discovered that he was a super talent in chess and immediately got two or three Grandmasters to train him. He got everything he needed to become the greatest player in history. But when Vishy was discovered to be a very strong chess player his parents said. “Okay, you can go to the chess club but first you must finish your homework”.
Anand with his parents Susheela and Viswanathan
That was the difference but still he made it almost to Kasparov’s level. He was extremely talented and I was convinced that he would one day become the World Champion. In fact, I goaded him into it. For a year, I kept calling him average because he wasn’t improving as quickly as I wanted him to. I used to tease him, once I put up a diagram of a horrible loss he had suffered in the house when he came to visit us. He hasn’t forgotten that! But I was goading him to realize his full potential and that he did. He became World Champion and he won five titles and he has become the most charismatic person in Indian chess. From being just a friend, Vishy became a part of my family. He came thirty-six times to stay at my place, from anywhere between three or four days to a couple of weeks. I have proof of this in my guest book. My wife always says, “Don’t exaggerate, he was there may be twenty times!”. But no, over thirty times! And this was all very nice. We loved it and had a lot of fun but then one day he got married and his rate of visiting us declined tremendously.
The Freidel family – Frederic, Ingrid, Tommy and Martin with Susheela and Anand
Well, what happened was he invited me to come to Chennai for his wedding. And he invited a very good common friend of ours who is a top editor at the Spiegel Magazine. I said, “I can’t go to Chennai for heaven’s sake, it is halfway around the World”. But my friend was very insistent. So he and his wife and I got into a plane and went to Chennai. It was a marriage which takes two or three days and we attended the whole ceremony. Unfortunately I didn’t own a video camera back then, so we could not make any videos but we took a lot of photographs. It was extraordinary and there were hundreds of people. At the reception there were a thousand people at least.
Anand and Aruna at the reception ceremony with relatives
We saw the entire ceremony and he had married a young girl named Aruna. Funnily, whenever they are together and Europeans ask them, “Was this an arranged marriage?”, if they are with me I would say, “No, it was a catalogue marriage!”. To tease them, I claim that Vishy and I actually looked through a catalogue of prospective brides! That is a joke of course. What really happened was, I was driving home from the office in Hamburg one day and Vishy said to me,”Frederic, I am thinking of getting married”. “Oh wow”, I exclaimed, “This is the right time. Go ahead, who is she?”, and then he said,”I don’t know!” which almost made me crash the car! “You are not going to do one of those arranged marriage things are you?”, I asked. He said, “Yes, why not?”. I tried to talk him out of it, it was after all the end of twentieth century, he had to move into the modern world but he insisted that it was okay, it was the best way.
Then one day I went to visit him and his family in Chennai, and on the way I stopped off in Bangalore where I was invited by an industrialist, a very influential person, for breakfast. I sat there for a South-Indian breakfast meal and he put his daughter opposite me. She was about 19-years-old. After the meal I went to the father and said, “Congratulations, you have an excellent daughter. She is beautiful, she is intelligent. I had a marvellous time talking to her”. The father was very pleased and handed me three cards. I couldn’t understand why but put them anyway in my pocket. Later in Chennai when I met Vishy I showed them to him, “Why do I get three cards?”, I asked. He said that it was a marriage thing and I was supposed to give those cards to young eligible bachelors I met!
Well, that evening we had dinner with Vishy and his family, he has a very traditional Brahmin family, and we were sitting there talking about marriage and things like that, and then, much to Vishy’s embarrassment, I pulled out one of these cards and gave it to his father! He looked at me in horror because obviously I didn’t belong to the class who could do this. I am not a Brahmin, I am not even a Hindu. But anyway, he took it and examined it carefully before filing it away into a little index of his. I slowly came to realize that this was a really good system. Instead of trying to meet the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with in a bar or at a party, they find an ideal match. Then what happens is, they have an invitation where the girl comes with her entire family and visits the boy, the girl and the boy then go into a room and drink a cup of tea together and ten minutes later they come out. And now both sides are able to say “no” without insulting the other side or if they are mutually satisfied they let the negotiations continue. It is a very nuanced process and every single arranged marriage I have encountered so far has been tremendously successful!
Vishy and Aruna during their marriage ceremony | Photo: Frederic Friedel archives
I am going to visit Aruna later this week. She also became a part of my family, she is the loveliest person I have ever met in my life. She came to my place quite a few times and taught us the fine points of South-Indian cooking and now we do it for ourselves because Vishy doesn’t visit us that frequently. He is engaged with other things, has a son now and lives in Chennai. Coming back to his wedding, we had a wonderful time and enjoyed all the elaborate ceremonies which even included carrying the bride and the groom in piggyback where they had little rugs to fight each other! After all these came the grand dinner, it was incredible. We came into this huge hall where there were long tables and benches around them. We climbed over the bench and sat there and my friend said, “Why are there leaves on the table?”. I said, “That’s your plate”. He wasn’t sure he was going to be able to do this! And after a while came a half-naked man with a big bucket and a huge spoon, dished out a large lump and went ‘plop’ on each of our plates.
Meals being prepared for the wedding!
Food being served on a banana leaf!
My friend and his wife were totally startled, they were reluctant to start eating with their hands but slowly they joined in and got into the flow. By the end of the meal my friend said to me, “Look Fred, if we hire three of them and fly them to Hamburg, we can get leaves from Africa and start a South-Indian restaurant of our own”. That’s how easily you could initiate a North-German to South-Indian Vegetarian food. I had a special time at Vishy’s wedding and I wouldn’t exchange that for anything.
Vishy with his father at a traditional pre-wedding ceremony as his mother looks on
The ever humble role-model
Vishy is different from a number of other World Champions I have known, in that he is accessible and always very polite and civil. The others can often be very brash and impolite or hostile. I must say that there’s a reason for that. I have accompanied Garry [Kasparov] to dozens of events and PR shows. He is not the most friendly person to journalists and the reason I know is that he is accosted by twenty to thirty people wherever he goes. Therefore he has a manager, which now is his wife. I did this for him for a while. If there was anyone trying to approach him, I would intervene and then only if it was really important I would take that person to Garry and Garry in that case would be charming because he would know that it has a purpose. Vishy however is such a nice person that he can’t resist. If someone talks to him, he talks back. He is kind, he doesn’t need a manager to shield him from the public or filter the public. It is just his nature.
Fred the journalist with Vishy the chess player at one of the London Chess Classics!
One man and a revolution!
Chess was invented in India. I believe that one person sat there and invented the game in one week, and it has become one of the greatest games in the history of mankind. It was indeed discovered somewhere in the north-west of India and then the country sort of slumbered away. It was in the late 70s I guess. I had contacted the German Grandmaster Helmut Pfleger to come to Bangalore and play a clock simul. He was actually very interested. I told him that there would be eight players and asked if he wanted to keep a particular rating barrier. Normally when playing a clock simul you do that, you say that the strongest player must not be stronger than 2200 or something. But Helmut wasn’t interested in any such thing. He was ready to take on anyone. Well, if it was today, I would invite Helmut to play one on one with a 12-year-old and he would be struggling. It would be tough. This is how Indian chess has progressed. No question of him playing a clock simul today!
Grandmaster Helmut Pfleger | Photo: Wikipedia
I have realized after meeting all these young talents that India is on its way to becoming the super power of chess. In five or ten years India will dominate chess completely. I can guarantee, that 20-25% of World’s top 100 players will be Indians. And 20% of the top ten players will be Indians. I can even tell you the names. One is Nihal, the other is Praggnanandhaa, and then there’s Gukesh…Many of them are actually from Chennai and this is all a result of Vishy Anand becoming a chess God in the country. He has converted the entire nation into a chess nation.
From right to left: Aruna Anand, Frederic Friedel, Akhil Anand, and Gukesh D at the Crocodile park in Chennai
Isn’t it shocking that Vishy is turning 50 years old? For me he is still that young boy whom I met in London and who came at our house to stay, playing with my son Tommy, throwing him over his back and I shouting – Don’t kill the child! Vishy was a youngster playing in my home, and now he is 50 years old! But I am proud that he is still playing world class chess. No one in the chess world has been able to do this apart from the exception of Korchnoi. Kasparov stopped playing at the height of his powers when he was in his 40s. Congratulations Vishy, this is amazing! Keep going as long as you can, and I will keep watching you as long as I can!