Former world champion and legend of the game GM Vishy Anand speaks to David Cox about competing with the elite at the age of 50, the impact of technology on the chess world, and the irritations of having an entirely new generation of players discover his most embarrassing moment.
Having become India’s first grandmaster back in 1988, Anand has been mixing it with the game’s very best for more than three decades. It is remarkable longevity in a sport that has increasingly become a young man’s game at the elite level.
Dubbed “Lightning Kid” for his rapid playing speed as a teenager in the 1980s, Anand has continuously evolved as a player. This has been most evident in his willingness to embrace new technology as the game began to change through the advancing computer power available in the 2000s and beyond.
It helped him crush his great rival Vladimir Kramnik in their 2008 world championship match, and enabled him to compete in world championship encounters nearly two decades apart—against Garry Kasparov in 1995 and Magnus Carlsen in 2014.
Even at the age of 50, Anand is still ranked in the world’s top 20, with his victory in the 2017 World Rapid Championships showing that he is still capable of mixing it with the very best.
The interview was conducted via phone. Text may have been edited for clarity or length.
Chess.com: Many people have said how remarkable it is that you’re still competing at the top level at 50. So many of your rivals from the 1990s and 2000s have either retired or slipped down the rankings. What keeps you going?
Vishy Anand: Like everyone, I think it comes as a shock to realize that people suddenly see you as the veteran. One day you’re 20, and the next day you’re 50. I remember being surrounded by [Jan] Timman, Kasparov, [Anatoly] Karpov and they were all older. Then you don’t notice, and one day you realize everyone’s younger than you. And then, you realize everyone’s much younger than you.
Even now, when I met [Alireza] Firouzja, I was shocked to find he was born three years after I’d been world champion for the first time in 2000, and now we are competing. I understand that cuts me some slack, and I also try to be a little more forgiving of myself if I don’t have a good event. But you can’t take that too far. Either you play as if it matters or you don’t.
EITHER YOU PLAY AS IF IT MATTERS OR YOU DON’T.
Last year I interviewed Anish Giri, who put your longevity in the game as down to being “truly young at heart,” and said: “Vishy is the kind of guy who I am sure updates all the apps on his phone.” Is this true?
I actually read that, and I laughed my head off. I couldn’t think what exactly updating your apps had to do with youth, but he hit the nail on the head. I do obsessively update my apps and software. I have no idea why, sometimes it’s just boredom! But it was a very cute way of expressing it. After I read the interview, I showed him my phone and said: “See, all the apps are updated!”
I remember looking at your progression as a teenager. You became an IM at the age of 15, a national champion at 16. Was a professional chess career always the only option for you?
I drifted into chess as a career. It was an emotional decision based on what I love, and I realize I’m very lucky it was that smooth for me. In India, there’s a couple of inflection points in 10th grade and then in 12th grade where people who compete at sports hesitate and think: Am I really getting anywhere? Should I look at options?
I DRIFTED INTO CHESS AS A CAREER.
But I won the national championships when I was in 10th grade, I became a GM in 12th, and when I finished university I was ranked five in the world. That was very nice because it meant that I never had this difficult conversation with myself. I wanted to do chess, and nobody ever showed me a reason why I shouldn’t
What did your parents make of it all? Did they or you ever worry about the security of life as a chess player?
My parents may have had doubts because my father worked on the railways. They had no idea what this chess was. But they went with the flow, they knew I loved it, so they held back from saying anything.
As for job security, I feel that in the end, chess is no more or no less risky than any other career. Nowadays I tell people, in which career do you have any sort of job security? These days we have to be on our feet a lot. And I can invariably pose this question back to the journalist asking me. What does job security look like in your profession?
Touché Vishy, touché. Going back to your early career, there’s a now-famous game from Biel 1988 where you lost to Alonso Zapata in six moves.
It’s gone down in legend that you’d seen a previous game Christiansen-Miles in which Black made the same losing mistake on move six, but you didn’t know it was a prearranged draw? Tell us the back story behind that game?
I was quite impulsive and fast at that point, and I remember that I bashed out 5…Bf5 after all of a few seconds. And then I went cold because I suddenly realized I couldn’t see a response to 6.Qe2.
I was sweating, and my opponent was so stunned he kept staring at the board. He probably sat there for one or two minutes in disbelief rather than anything else, which felt to me like an eternity. Finally, he played 6.Qe2, I resigned and disappeared quickly before people realized what had happened because I was feeling really embarrassed.
My explanation was I’d either seen a variation where white plays c4 and Nc3, and then I play …Bf5, and I’d confused this. Or I may have seen that Christiansen-Miles game. I honestly have no idea which it was. Who can tell, it all happened in seconds.
But I kind of rescued the tournament. It didn’t go too badly, I think I finished in the middle somewhere, and I thought that was the end of that. But this game bugged me for many years afterward, and I couldn’t see why. I’d be like: It was one bad day, can you leave me alone? And then it was very irritating when a whole new generation of players discovered this game, and I had to remember it all over again!
I guess at least back in 1988, there was no internet broadcast of the game.
Exactly, in those days, open tournaments had only a few demonstration boards operated by volunteers. So most of the participants looked at me disappearing after a few minutes and thought I must have agreed on a quick draw. Back then no one could follow the results in real-time, so most people didn’t realize that I had in fact lost in this embarrassing way until a month or two later which was a relief for me.
When you’re young, you come the next day. Life’s optimistic, and you just go on. But if it happened nowadays, can you imagine the number of silly tweets that I’d have to answer.
Anish would be all over it!
Speaking of how the world has changed, you competed in those two world championship matches nearly twenty years apart in 1995 and 2014. In what ways were those two experiences most different?
For me, it’s quite striking that some of the work that took us one or two weeks back in 1995 with a team of four people working full time, the computer finds in exactly two seconds. Some of the moves I’m most proud of from the 1995 match preparation are just suggested instantly. I could spend a lot of time trying to explain to the juniors of today that once upon a time it was very difficult to find these moves, but you feel like one of these old fogies so you just give up!
SOME OF THE WORK THAT TOOK US ONE OR TWO WEEKS BACK IN 1995 WITH A TEAM OF FOUR PEOPLE WORKING FULL TIME, THE COMPUTER FINDS IN EXACTLY TWO SECONDS.
Nowadays the challenge is really managing the flow of information. Keeping a bird’s eye view of what’s happening because you can generate a lot of material with the computer, but unless it makes sense to you at the board it doesn’t help. You need to be able to still figure out your way if you’re dropped into a position that you may not remember.
It’s a bit like how we can generate maps of the whole world today. But if I drop you in a place without a map, can you still find your way? That’s the key to top-level chess these days.
The new means of preparation particularly benefited you when you faced Kramnik in your world championship match in 2008, arguably your most convincing victory. Tell us about that?
You’re right, we were able to do some very advanced preparation because we had access to some very good hardware. But crucially my attitude and the technology were in sync. I was in the mood to take risks, and I was really eager to learn and do something new. And then suddenly the technology to do it with was available. So both coincided beautifully, and I think that’s a big part of the explanation for why I did well in that match.
BUT CRUCIALLY MY ATTITUDE AND THE TECHNOLOGY WERE IN SYNC. I WAS IN THE MOOD TO TAKE RISKS, AND I WAS REALLY EAGER TO LEARN AND DO SOMETHING NEW.
I actually feel my attitude was very similar to Kramnik’s when he challenged Kasparov in 2000. Back then he was ready to do anything in that match, try new things, old things, and you could see the effect it had on him.
That 2008 victory must have been particularly satisfying for you because while you had won the FIDE title in 2000 and became the undisputed champion in Mexico City in 2007, that match in 2008 was in many ways the end to all the politics which had dominated chess for many years.
I was extremely proud of my performance in New Delhi in 2000, even if the FIDE title was somewhat bittersweet because there was always someone saying that if you have two champions, you actually have none. Which is quite correct because it doesn’t make sense. It was a ridiculous situation for the sport, but it wasn’t my fault, or Kramnik’s fault, or anyone’s fault in particular.
It was huge that I was able to win the title in 2007, and for the first time, I didn’t have this monkey on my back. I didn’t have to answer silly questions about which title it was. However, there were still lingering issues with the format, because some people would say: “Yes, but it wasn’t really in a match.” And that was annoying.
So Bonn was where all the silly noise died down. I remember coming back to my hotel room after the event and just feeling, now I don’t have to say anything to anyone. I just have to say: “I am world champion.” That was liberating. As soon as I got to my room I told [my wife] Aruna: “I just don’t have to deal with idiots anymore.” And she laughed because she understood what I meant.
I REMEMBER COMING BACK TO MY HOTEL ROOM AFTER THE EVENT AND JUST FEELING, NOW I DON’T HAVE TO SAY ANYTHING TO ANYONE. I JUST HAVE TO SAY: “I AM WORLD CHAMPION.”
When you lost the title five years later to Magnus in 2013, did it ease the blow somewhat as you knew you were passing on the mantle to a player who would go on to become a great of the sport?
Partially yes. I felt annoyed that I was unable to put up a better fight though. I particularly hated the fact that it happened in Chennai. Of all the matches I played, it had to be this one that I lose in my home town. But I understood that certainly, he would carry the mantle of being world champion very well. I felt that, OK, now it’s not my problem anymore, what has happened has happened, and I should deal with it.
I PARTICULARLY HATED THE FACT THAT IT HAPPENED IN CHENNAI. OF ALL THE MATCHES I PLAYED, IT HAD TO BE THIS ONE THAT I LOSE IN MY HOME TOWN.
You were in the Candidates in 2016, and you finished in joint second place at the age of 46. Do you feel you could one day contest another world championship match or maybe become champion again?
I don’t rule it out, but the journey is getting longer! I first have to qualify for the Candidates, then I have to win the Candidates, and then I have to go there and win the match. The more steps you have, the harder it is. You can hope for one miracle somewhere, and I’m still capable of benefiting from a miracle so I’m not that far off. But it looks like I’ll need two or three.
So I don’t fret about it a lot. If I find myself in the Candidates, then great I’ll take that chance. And then if I find myself in the world championship match, we’ll deal with it. But I would be as surprised as anyone. I’ll continue to play and try to compete, and we’ll leave it at that.
Finally, you mentioned Firouzja earlier, and we’re now seeing the rise of the next generation of talents in their teenage years or early 20s. Do you feel that chess has become progressively more of a younger man’s sport over the course of your career?
Very much so. I once had a look at the world ranking list in the early 1980s, and the average age of the top 10 was in the mid-30s. There were a couple of 60-year-olds in there. And then for comparison, I did the same thing in 2015-2016, and the average age had dropped to mid-20s, with two forty-year-old outliers.
So yes, the overwhelming evidence is that chess is getting aggressively younger, and there’s a simple explanation. Technology has reduced the value of experience. It has put the experience in a sort of silo, where it’s valuable only in certain conditions.
All experience gives now is some kind of wisdom of having faced a certain situation before, understanding the complexities of making certain decisions, but it doesn’t benefit you as much. I think that’s simply why youngsters get much better because they calculate better.