They say that the greatest champions are self-obsessed. The prototype model is one that is focussed on the physical dimension, self-centered and obsessed with the idea of winning. Their unfailing belief in their ability drives them to greater heights and never lets them give up. Some even call it arrogance but others argue that is perhaps a necessary evil – one that the best need to keep the competition at bay.
Chess, of course, isn’t like other sports. It doesn’t require divine motor skills or reflexes. One sits bang opposite the opponent in a silent hall... you can hear them breathe and stare into their eyes looking for a giveaway sign. Some of the greatest chess champions were also ruthless on the board. Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov, Magnus Carlsen are names that come to mind readily but among this esteemed crowd, India’s Viswanathan Anand stood out. He was a nice guy who liked to win.
Now, that isn’t as easy as it sounds. But Anand became a multiple World Champion despite the ‘limitation’ that comes with being a nice guy. Scroll.in spoke to him over to telephone about how his mental game got good.
Excerpts from the interview:
What was your mindset in the early days like? Did you see that changing as you got more experience or was that something that remained a constant for you?
I think I approached it as an interesting journey. Everything was new and there was no template to follow or something. I was going to new countries, new experiences, I didn’t know what was involved in becoming a chess World Champion or even becoming a Grandmaster. But I had this feeling that I liked playing chess and therefore it was going to be enjoyable and approached it like that. I don’t think I’ve changed too much...I have adapted. I mean, you realise that other people behave in certain ways and these are the sort of challenges you face and you react but essentially I think I remain the same person. I don’t think my personality has changed too much.
Did you ever feel that you were starting to become aggressive? What was driving you from a mental point of view?
I liked winning games but very rarely did I go fighting against opponents! So most of the time I played moves and if my moves are better than his, I expected to win. I’m not someone who focused on the opponent much. But that’s one of the things I mentioned earlier, that then you rise you eventually meet people who are quite aggressive to you... you can’t ignore them. And then you have to start thinking, well, how do you get ready to play against them. But most of the time, I’ve enjoyed playing people against whom you could leave that aspect out and just focus on playing good moves.
By the time you faced Garry Kasparov for the Professional Chess Association World Championship in 1995, were you starting to think differently? Were you starting to think about becoming a world champion or were you still a bit naive?
Yeah, I had no idea what was involved and at some level I guess I just treated it like any other tournament, only in a different venue. But then I understood that when you play one person again and again, in psychology and the feelings you have towards one another become quite important, and you have to think about those issues, you can’t just ignore them.
At one point, in your autobiography ‘Mind Master’, you mentioned that you did try a psychologist...
Yes, I tried speaking with a psychologist, but I found it very difficult to divulge my true feelings. Also, I wasn’t sure if they understood. I mean, they understood psychology well, but do they understand chess? So, these considerations were there, and I wasn’t comfortable so, I stopped. I just started talking to my wife, Aruna, instead. She was travelling with me everywhere and became my confidante. So we managed to evolve into that role.
Any point did you feel had to change from a psychological point of view? Become more aggressive or not try and show any weakness... put up a front maybe against a certain opponent?
It’s not like I woke up on days when I was abroad and discovered that you need to start thinking more actively about it. People seem to push the envelope a bit more and then you realise your reaction also has to be a level up... very evolutionary. But over time, I think I got better at these things. So I understood that you can’t ignore these aspects and you can’t just wish them away. So that is my natural leaning.
What is the most difficult atmosphere that you have ever played in? Would it be facing Veselin Topalov or perhaps playing at home in Chennai against Magnus Carlsen?
Probably playing in Chennai was even more difficult because I was wrestling with other issues at that point. I mean, my confidence was very low, and Chennai felt disproportionately painful. But you don’t really rank these things. I mean, things feel hard or they feel pleasant and going back and forth. Probably the impression I got while writing this book, is that there’s no happiest moment and there’s no saddest moment, it’s all just part of your life.
At the end of the day, when two top Grandmasters are playing there’s virtually nothing to separate the two in terms of tactics. So what makes the difference?
The thing is when there’s a big technical gap between two players there is dominance. But the closer they are in strength, then it’s your mental strength, it is your ability to take the pain, how badly you want something, those things become much more important. And I think at the highest level, it’s almost entirely won or lost in the mind.
We’ve seen so many other professional sportsman around the world work on their mental game. How would you say you worked on that particular aspect?
I think I started to think very actively on what are the circumstances in which my level drops off? When do I play well, and when I play badly... what happens to me before I play badly? Because usually playing badly should catch you off guard. I mean, nobody does it on purpose, it catches you off guard. But you have to think about what was going on in my mind before I started playing badly and can I make some sense out of that. And, you know, you also find that you have certain unhealthy habits, things like making your moves fast when you’re in a bad position or when there are dramatic changes in the game, you continue to play fast. So you realise that you can incorporate small habits.
The example I give is, after reaching the time controls, I sometimes take a break and go for a walk, make myself a coffee and sit there for 5-10 minutes. So that I can come back and start the game with a different frame of mind. You identify things that go wrong and find small solutions to deal with them.
So what is your routine to get into the right frame of mind before a big game?
Generally, I like to go a few days early to adapt to the new place, to settle in. Typically, it’s like four stages: you arrive at the hotel... you catch your flight and you know that things are getting slightly more serious, then you arrive at the hotel, and that’s one level up. In the next stage, you’ll see other participants roaming around the hotel and then it’s becoming a bit more real. Then, when the opening ceremony happens then, you know, within a few minutes you are going to get your pairings and that’s one level up. And then the final level is when the game starts and then then you know, it’s full tension and everything.
Were you ever the kind to hold a grudge?
Of course, I hold grudges, but whether you can act upon them is a different story. There’s not much you really do to each other after that. I mean, if you dislike someone actively, then it’s better to acknowledge that than to pretend that you’re being distracted or being distracted. It’s part of the game.
Who was mentally the most difficult sort of opponent to face?
I would really say that every person is challenging at the time... if you lose a game, then that’s as challenging as you want it to be. It’s not that someone is more or someone is less. You know, Karpov in 1991 and Carlsen today is essentially the same thing... they’re all people you find problematic. How you evolve and solve those problems, that’s what it really comes down to.
Winning the Candidates in 2014 just a year after Chennai was big...
I felt fantastic. First of all, it had been a long time since I had got a really good result. You know, you sometimes you need it, and I described it as I needed this result like oxygen. And it was pretty much the same feeling when I won in Saudi Arabia. These killer results when I was really feeling down and then. Obviously, there are many, many smaller versions of this but these are like the high points.
At 50, where are you right now in terms of your game and mental state? How do you look at things now?
I enjoy playing. The game is developing and you constantly feel that you need to learn new things. It’s challenging every time you fall back... you think, let me see if I can figure these problems out and come back and if you have a good game, it still feels fantastic. But I also feel relaxed. I don’t feel much pressure in the sense that I don’t feel that there’s something that I really need to do, and I have done most of the things that I wanted to do and now I can enjoy it and feel more relaxed about it as well.