With Carlsen, I can run out of superlatives: Anand

It is his hunger for chess that sets the Norwegian apart, says the five-time world champion
File image of Viswanathan Anand.(File) PREMIUM
File image of Viswanathan Anand.(File)
Updated on Nov 20, 2021 12:06 AM IST
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Viswanathan Anand listened intently to the question and smiled. “I wish I knew. I would have tried it myself,” he said. By now he was laughing, as was nearly everyone in the lounge not following the live commentary of the rapid round at the Tata Steel Chess India.

The question could have been framed in a million different ways but the way it came out was: how do you explain Magnus Carlsen’s consistency? By then, we were somewhat deep in our conversation one floor below the auditorium in the National Library. The green tea was nearly over and Anand could have left his answer at that. But he didn’t.

“I think it’s heavily based on his love of the game. He is hungry to play chess. That’s why he is willing to play long games, play blitz and rapid, travel at a minute’s notice, play on the park bench, play bullet on the internet. Everything else everybody has to some degree but his hunger is unbelievable,” said Anand.

Anand and Carlsen had met twice in successive years for the world title. Twice Anand had lost, one as a defending world champion at home in Chennai. Has Carlsen got even sharper since? “He has kept up his dominance. He was very dominant in 2012 and 2013. Inevitably, people slowly catch up with you. But he adapted himself to stay comfortably 40-45 points above the No. 2. Every once in a while he is having a bad time, someone else is having a good time, the gap narrows to 25-30 points and then it diverges again… Look I am going to run out of superlatives with this guy.”

Anand is loath to make cross-generational comparisons. Too many things change, he said. Garry Kasparov, who like Carlsen and Bobby Fischer would be consistently way ahead of the No. 2, had his way of thinking, and Carlsen lives in the computer era, Anand said. Also, in Kasparov’s time, chess was mainly played in the classical format with rapid taking baby steps and blitz yet to come into existence.

So, for Anand, Carslen is “the absolute dominant player of the decade.”

“He has not only managed to be dominant in classical which is impressive enough, he has managed to be three times the world rapid champion, four times the world blitz champion. In one decade. He has won the Grand Chess Tour the rapid and blitz events; he has very close to a 100 per cent record (there). He has not dropped below 2840 (Elo rating) for 10 years… It’s hard to fully explain how impressive that is,” said Anand. “And it’s easy to criticise him without realising that you are criticising him comparing to himself. He was asked who is your hero and he said my hero is myself from three years back or something. It’s his usual flippant answer but there is a germ of truth in that.”

It followed that Anand would rate Carslen as the “clear favourite” for a fifth world title, which is as many as he has, against Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi—"Nepo"—when they joust in Dubai beginning on November 26. The X-factor for Anand, who will be debuting as a commentator at the championship, is whether Carlsen’s motivation stays high. “Nepo had the whole year. He has hopefully trained quite hard. If he brings a different person to the game…He has to be very motivated to stand a chance.”

Stranger things have happened and, as a case in point, Anand spoke of Kasparov losing to Vladimir Kramnik in 2000. “Kasparov looked completely helpless in that match. The thing about their relationship was like Kasparov’s score against everybody else was much better than Kramnik’s but when it came to Kramnik, Kasparov used to hit the wall,” he said.

Commentating is one of the things Anand is looking forward to. Mentoring young Indians is another as is being an ambassador to an event such as this.

On commentating, Anand said, he would have to be careful to avoid talking about variations which “no one follows.” What he would try and do is compare how he would feel in certain matches, “while also recognising the scenario has changed. Between my matches and now, the way people train and prepare has changed so much thanks to AI…”

Grooming talent — “I am one piece of the puzzle,” he said — happens through the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy. All five trainees are here and Raunak Sadhwani, who will be 16 next month, left Anand’s side because it was time for this interview. Anand said the depth of talent in India is such that “we can field five or six teams in certain rating groups for every one team that some other country can field.

"The ingredients are now in the kitchen, it is for us to make something out of it," he said.

Great depth in India

India has 72 Grandmasters now meaning unlike when he was the first, the title does not seem like the end of the journey. “Once upon a time, being one (GM) meant I would automatically be invited to eight-nine best tournaments in the world but now the title doesn’t assure that. I was still special in the sense that I was not only the first Grandmaster from India, I was also the first world junior champion from Asia and so for many of the world’s prestigious tournaments it meant something for them to have me. Now the title is an achievement but you still have to build on it. And it’s good that all of these young Indians are very ambitious.”

Anand said he didn’t know why India still has only three GMs in the above-2700 category — he, P Harikrishna and Vidit Gujrathi— but gave the example of Russia which for a long time only had former juniors from Soviet Union to show for despite investing heavily in the sport. “And now Russia is bursting with talent, (Vladislav) Artemiev, (Daniil) Dubov, (Dmitry) Andreikin, (Andrey) Esipenko, just one after the other. They look like an image of the old Soviet Union almost. Why did it happen now and not before, who’s to say?”

One or more from among Nihal Sarin (2650), D Gukesh (2621), Sadhwani (2609), Arjun Erigaisi and Murali Karthikeyan (2630) should break the 2700 barrier, Anand said. “The idea is to first set their sights higher and work towards it. And I feel at some point the results will come if you do your job well.”

Reaction to Covid-19

Anand is doing all this because he is playing less. Covid-19 changed a lot of things. ”My son...he expects me to land once in a while at home, he is not used to this idea of me being there all the time. And I am not used to the idea of he being at home all the time. He used to go to school and come back. So there’s been lots of changes like that,” Anand said.

Had Covid-19 not disrupted the planet in 2020, Anand would have played the Bundesliga, one or both of Shamkir and Grenke events, made a stop on the Grand Chess Tour and maybe the Olympiad. Now he hasn’t played over the past 18 months “but it’s not like I have a big decision this way or that.”

His staying off the grid is a reaction to the pandemic, said Anand. “But I am slightly drifting now because I don’t know where this is going.”

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    Dhiman Sarkar is based in Kolkata with over two decades as a sports journalist. He writes mainly on football.

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