In June 1996, I got married to Aruna. Our parents had picked us out for each other in what was a conventional arranged marriage match, or, as Frederic [Friedel] puts it, a ‘catalogue wedding’. We barely knew each other, but since we found no reason to say ‘no’ we said ‘yes’.
Aruna often compares my decision to marry her with the way I used to play then – fast, and not with a whole lot of thought put in before I made the decisive move. We spoke over pre-booked international calls while I was travelling for tournaments. She was usually surrounded by her entire family as she spoke to me, being goaded into making polite queries about food and the weather wherever I was. Neither of us knew what to tell the other, so a typical conversation would progress somewhat like: ‘How are you?’ ‘I’m fine, how’s the weather?’ ‘It’s cold here, what about there?’ ‘Oh, here it’s hot.’ ‘Okay, bye.’
Nieves and Maurice flew to Madras to attend our wedding. [Anand considered Mauricio Perea and his late wife Nieves as his European parents] One evening, in typical dad avatar, my father dropped a provocative taunt that alluded to my sheltered existence courtesy my mother through the early years of my life, and later Nieves and Maurice. ‘I’m willing to lay a bet. Vishy will never be a World Champion,’ he declared.
On his part, the statement appeared to have been made more in the way of creating shock value than with any real intent, but Nieves roundly took offence. It didn’t really affect me since I knew my father and his pet peeves, his love for a good rant and his need to do some tough talking with his kids once in a while. I accepted it as something I could laugh over later rather than take literally; Nieves, however, agreed to lay a punt.
I wasn’t privy to the details that were agreed upon, but Nieves had taken my father’s remark as an affront to her unwavering belief in my prospects of becoming a World Champion and would have willingly thrown in anything.
Contrary to the jokes in the circuit about me losing a whole bunch of Elo points after my marriage, I had a phenomenal result in Dortmund in July that year. I tied for first place with [Vladimir] Kramnik, having scored a full point over the rest of the eight-player field.
The following year, 1997, was even better for me with a symphony of uninterrupted sparkling results. I won the Amber Tournament and the Credit Suisse Classic in Biel, was joint first at the Category XXIX annual Dos Hermanas tournament in Spain and the Invesbanka tournament in Belgrade and finished in second place at the Dortmund Sparkassen.
The baton of handling everything in my life, apart from chess, soon passed on from Nieves to Aruna. It evolved slowly, starting with Aruna offering to answer match-related emails or asking me to request organisers to write to her so she could manage the logistics of an upcoming tournament. Slight problems arose when she started to pack my suitcases for tournaments. From living alone to suddenly having to explain to others how you like things done feels like an imposition, especially when you don’t fully appreciate that other people may have different but better ways of doing things.
From tossing soiled clothes into my suitcase, I suddenly had fresh laundry neatly arranged in it before I travelled, alongside colour-coordinated socks and woollens to weather the Arctic cold or welcome the Mediterranean spring. Medicines for every ailment with a name, though thankfully just short of an oxygen cylinder, were packed in too.
I also eventually had to give up on the strange fetish I had for multiple phone plans, sorting them according to which worked better at what time of the day, depending on which part of the world I was making a call to. My marriage was very nearly on the rocks in the initial months since every time Aruna wanted to call her parents in Madras from Madrid or wherever we were travelling to for tournaments, I’d inundate her with complex details of the most effective plan to use. It irritated her no end and she soon made sure I threw that habit out of the window.
The next phase was that of letting go of the need to control every detail to do with my tournaments and travel. In a year or two, this turned into a massive relief for me. Packing suitcases was a harmless chore, with no emotional baggage attached to it, but I found negotiating contracts, booking hotels and flight tickets, checking with seconds on their availability and waiting for them to reply to be a whole lot of unnecessary stress. The improvement in my results between the match against [Garry] Kasparov in 1995 and the Candidates tournament I played in Groningen, the Netherlands, in December 1997, I believe, came simply from me not having to handle everyday matters and being able to concentrate solely on my preparation.
Of course, I had other demons to battle, namely the brazen bias and politicking in the chess world. FIDE’s system of knockout matches had replaced the Candidates tournament as the qualifier for the World Championship in 1995, but in the 1997–98 cycle, [Anatoly] Karpov had been directly seeded into the final. So it came about that whoever won the knockout tournament in Groningen would qualify to play Karpov within a space of three days in the final to be held in Lausanne in January 1998.
It was a grossly unfair deal, but I told myself that since I’d decided to play, I’d put these thoughts aside and concentrate on the game. I managed this well for as long as I was in Groningen. It helped to have the tournament divided into two parts and the games played at different venues. Since Karpov wasn’t at Groningen we didn’t have to brood over how prejudiced the conditions of the championship were every day that we were there.
Kasparov was dismissive of the knockout format to determine a challenger and refused to be a part of it and Kramnik too pulled out over the unfair privileges being extended to Karpov. Once the tournament commenced, in the first match, I beat Predrag Nikolic effortlessly, came agonizingly close to losing to Alexander Khalifman in the second round, but survived.
That’s the funny thing about knockouts. It’s almost like being able to see the car crash you’re going to be a victim of in the next instant and not knowing how to stop it. All I could think of during that lost position at the board against Khalifman was, “My goodness, if I lose this we’ll have to pack our bags and leave this evening.”
Then, almost as though there had been some sort of divine intervention, I found Khalifman aimlessly swatting about not knowing what to do, before he froze and agreed to a draw from what to me looked like a winning position. It’s the kind of inexplicable miracle you can only be thankful for. I beat him in the tie-break thereafter and came out of the match feeling like I’d survived death itself.
That deliverance lifted my spirits immensely and I played the rest of the tournament with a completely different zest. I won the rounds that followed – against Zoltan Almasi, Alexei Shirov and [Boris] Gelfand – without a spill into a tie-break. It was impressive, given that the prize money at stake was doubling with every round and if you survived till the third or fourth rounds you made as much money as you would in a whole year. Naturally, the players were all transfixed by both the money on offer and the prospect of playing for the title of World Champion.
In the final round, I faced [Michael] Adams, whom I was better against in most of the four games we had played. Both of us were fatigued to the bone by then, since we’d spent pretty much the whole of December playing the tournament. For the final match, oddly enough, we hitched a ride together to the venue, since it was Christmas season and cabs were few. During the match, Adams was tenacious and the momentum oscillated until I finally won the ninth tie-break game to qualify for the match against Karpov.
Suddenly, the unfairness of that match, something I’d been trying to push out of my mind, was looking me straight in the eye. We hadn’t planned our travel to Lausanne in advance since the outcome of the Candidates tournament couldn’t have been foreseen, and we now realised, late in the day, that FIDE too had made no arrangements for the Groningen winner to reach Lausanne from Amsterdam and play Karpov in three days’ time.
The flagrant unreasonableness of the whole scenario stung. But it’s not a card you can play at a match you’ve agreed to be part of already. All you’ll get for your carping is a few minutes of token sympathy. If you continue, by the second day people will look away, by the third everyone else will move on and by the fourth you’re likely to be called a crank.
It was New Year’s Eve and flights were overbooked. “Once you get to Lausanne, we will take care of pretty much everything,” a FIDE official tried to placate us when confronted. Aruna smiled and replied that if we could get to Lausanne in the first place, we could take care of the rest ourselves.
We somehow managed to get ourselves on a plane and landed in Lausanne, only to learn that FIDE had booked all its officials into hotel rooms but had made no provision whatsoever to accommodate the winner of the 21-day-long knockout tournament that was a qualifier for the final. Once again, we were left to wage a logistics battle on our own, with an impending match on our heads.
I had reached out to [Artur] Yusupov and [Peter] Leko, who were then in Hungary and Germany respectively, through a pay phone at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, and they both joined us at short notice. [Elizbar] Ubilava had been with me through the tournament in Groningen and now, with the title match against Karpov ahead, the team needed to be expanded to prepare for one-on-one combat.
As the match proceeded, at the end of five games, Karpov opened up a one-point lead. I unleashed the Trompowsky, an aggressive queen’s pawn opening, in the sixth and final game and managed to equalise scores to 3–3 and force a tie-break of two rapid games. I ended up losing both. It was almost as if I had been asked to run a 100-metre sprint after completing a cross-country marathon – and Karpov became the new World Champion.
The defeat rankled like few had before because I’d played the match against a loaded dice, come close to a win and then squandered it. It was in Wijk aan Zee, soon after my loss, that Karpov spoke of my inability to win a World Championship title while still justifying his own credentials despite the brazenly undue advantage he had received. He had been fresh, well rested and pottering around while I was almost ‘brought in a coffin’ to play him.
When I heard his words that morning, the first thought that struck me was, ‘Yes, I obviously don’t have the strength of character to lie on a pool chair while my buddies at FIDE get me seeded into the final.’ I was already working myself up to display my potential, and this swipe only reinforced the conviction I already had deep within – that nothing else mattered any more, I just had to win a title now.
I had done all the admirable things short of winning, but I was acutely aware that my efforts wouldn’t speak for me if I couldn’t finish the job. Suggestions of visiting a psychologist who could plug gaps, if any, in going from ‘great player’ to ‘champion’ popped up. Soon after Lausanne, on Aruna’s insistence, we visited a sports psychologist for a single session. I didn’t take to the idea too well as I simply didn’t see myself confiding in a stranger for therapeutic purposes, so we dropped it soon after.
Sometimes, a rival’s or a peer’s success can offer an unlikely, unconscious spur. I had found Kramnik’s win over Kasparov in the 2000 World Championship in London impressive and inspirational, mainly for the way he had managed to make Kasparov seem helpless. It’s not an easy thing to do – hardly anyone had managed it before.
Unlike me, Kramnik didn’t make the mistake of being predictable against Kasparov. His Berlin Defence looked invincible but in game 9 he switched openings and switched back again in game 11. I thought that was pure genius. The deft approach he showed in stepping slightly aside was brilliant. He couldn’t entirely be faulted for coming off as slightly supercilious after his win, suggesting that while working for Kasparov against me, he didn’t find a shred of evidence in my game that suggested I had a strategy worked out. He observed that I had presumed I could just turn up, do what I always did and expect to win.
He may not have meant any malice, but somehow his words stayed with me. When I reflected on them, I felt it was perhaps true that I had lacked the intent and the mental fortitude to win a World Championship title. For a long time in my career, I wasn’t quite fired up by the ambition to become a World Champion. Ubilava had occasionally tried to spark a longing in me to reach beyond the distinctions of being the ‘first Indian’ or ‘first Asian’ in various categories, but I was content travelling to tournaments around the world, playing good games, putting up a decent fight and being known as a strong player.
It was my match against Kasparov in New York in 1995 that changed my attitude. To be the first to break the deadlock of eight draws between us with a win, and then go on to implode was a lesson for me on how everything could go awry if I remained too predictable a player. I had thrown myself under the bus by making the obvious rookie mistake of not switching openings and turning into a sitting duck. The way the match went distilled every aspect of what I had been lacking and flashed it on to a projection screen before me. It drove me to base my preparations for future matches on all that I hadn’t explored during the 1995 match – primarily the ability to switch, surprise and stay unaffected by psychological duress. It also became evident to me that the transition from being a strong player to becoming a champion wasn’t going to happen on its own. I had to want it ardently enough.
Five years since that time in New York, after I’d weathered enough near-misses, including the one against Karpov in Lausanne, it was time to collect my dues. When the first leg of the FIDE World Championship tournament in 2000 took place in New Delhi, with the Indian infotech company NIIT hopping on board as a sponsor, I already knew deep within that this was my chance.
The knockout tournament consisted of two-game matches, followed by tie-breaks at faster time controls in the instance of a draw. The only blip I suffered in what was otherwise smooth sailing was in the quarter-finals, yet again against Khalifman. I ended up playing four tie-break games in a row on my birthday (11 December), and I slithered out of tricky positions in both, with a particularly close shave in the second. Topalov, who was in the audience, was to remark after the win, ‘Gosh, Vishy should be called the snake [not the tiger] of Madras!’ That salvage gave me a fresh boost of confidence and I was certain that Khalifman would be raging at himself for having missed on a chance to eliminate me.
When Aruna, Ubilava and I met backstage, relief was writ large on our faces and we knew the worst was over. I went on to beat Khalifman in the fifth game following four successive draws to move into the semi-finals against Adams, and wrapped up the match. We landed in Tehran, where the final was to be held, feeling woozy with upset stomachs, but with every instinct telling us that the title was mine for the taking. Both Ubilava and I were dead on our feet from the long, unending stretch of games, and I wished Pablo San Segundo Carrillo, a dear friend who’d help me with training ahead of the New Delhi match but wasn’t travelling with us, could join the team in Iran’s capital city.
To my surprise – and immense relief – Aruna had already made the arrangements and Pablo arrived in Tehran an hour after us. He was the kind of happy spirit who could lighten up long training sessions and we teased him by giving him the title of ‘Señor Corte Inglés’ (alluding to Spain’s largest department and fashion store chain) for his sharp suits and fine sweaters.
Before the match, a Spanish ambassador who’d arrived to offer support to his compatriot [Alexei] Shirov, who was to play me in the six-game final, leant towards him, pumped his fists and in a fairly audible tone grunted, ‘Da le bien. Give him good.’ He had no idea, of course, that I, seated right next to Shirov, spoke Spanish and caught the pep talk. Shirov, who had Latvian roots, was flush with embarrassment, and explained to the ambassador that I lived in Spain and was more familiar with Spanish culture and the language than he was, though he had a Spanish passport. The ambassador turned scarlet and awkward, but we later made up over some good-hearted banter.
Shirov wasn’t supposed to be an easy opponent. He was in blazing form; he had beaten me at both the Linares and the Amber tournaments in March that year and had only two years ago, in 1998, got the better of Kramnik in a 10-game match held to pick Kasparov’s challenger. Eventually, the funding for the match had fallen through and he never got to play against Kasparov.
In Tehran, though, Shirov’s game turned out to be a pale shadow of his rousing past performances. My Delhi belly was to be the fullest extent of trouble I had to face in the final and I didn’t run into any real problems at the board. After a drawn first game, I won the next three to take the title. At last, I was a World Champion.
When I called Nieves to break the news of my win, she gurgled with laughter, congratulated me in a hurry and then whipped out the wager she’d been holding on to for four years. ‘Tell your dad I want my money,’ she said.
Excerpted with permission from Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life by Viswanathan Anand (as told to Susan Ninan). Published by Hachette India.