Friday, November 29, 2013

Anand Agonistes

It has been said that athletes die twice, with their first death coming at the end of their sporting careers. Perhaps the greatest athletes in a given sport die three times: first when their primacy is challenged/overthrown, second when they are no longer capable of playing competitively at all and third when they pass away in the same fashion as all other mortal beings. If this is true, then Viswanathan Anand--barring a highly unlikely rise back to the top of the chess world--has experienced the first of his three deaths.

Anand was the undisputed World Chess Champion from 2007-2013, winning or defending the linear World Chess Championship four consecutive times (2007, 2008, 2010, 2012). The 22 year old Magnus Carlsen dethroned the 43 year old Anand in a 6.5-3.5 rout that will likely be remembered as a changing of the guard moment in chess history. Carlsen seems poised to enjoy a long reign at the top, while if Anand continues to play competitively his rating will inevitably follow the inexorably downward path previously traversed by all other former World Champions who remained on the scene.

It is worth remembering that before becoming an elder statesman Anand was once a wunderkind--and that despite his tactical acumen and dazzlingly fast rate of play there were some doubts if he possessed all of the necessary qualities to become the World Chess Champion. Anand convincingly refuted his skeptics by winning the 2007 World Championship Tournament and then by defending his crown in matches against Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand.

Cathy Forbes' 1993 Inside Chess Interview with Anand provides a fascinating, time capsule view of Anand before he reached the chess summit. Here are some choice excerpts (Forbes' comments and questions are set in regular type, while Anand's answers are set in bold); the first three paragraphs are taken from Forbes' introduction, while the remaining passages are taken from the interview itself:

Vishy talks the way he used to play chess--like a machine gun. His play may have slowed down, but not his speech. Never has my tape-recorder been so strenuously rewound for fear of missing some pearl of this great player's wisdom.

He radiates warmth, self-confidence and self-containment. His facetious, but gentle, sense of humour surfaces frequently, his giggle is infectious; incredibly enough, he seems happy.

Where is the eccentricity, the pain, the paranoia, the surliness, the arrogance, the obsessiveness of the top chess man? Surely he must be too good to be true?

People have said that Anand's play is all tricks.

I don't deny that tactics play a part in my game, but I'm a changing player, I've been changing a lot over the last few years. I think my style now, compared with 1990 or 1991, has changed quite a lot. I'm playing a lot more solid openings...on the other hand, I've lost some of the, let's say, sangfroid (laughter).
Nothing is happening in my chess career that I'm worried about, let's put it that way. There's still lots of scope for improvement, this is clear. I'm not the best player in the world at the moment, nor am I clear number two or three, but I'm one of the top players, my chess is improving and life's going well.
Tell me how you study.

Generally, I read a lot, but always in a very disorganized way. I never think, "What are my repertoire problems, and how am I going to work them out?" I just kept on reading, and a lot of it came in handy. Where I come from, India, this approach is normal. Indian players don't think about this guy's weaknesses, how to avoid all these transpositions--you don't think like this in India. Only in the Candidates Matches did I start to get some picture about how these things work. Then I did some really serious work on the opening.

I got ChessBase at the end of '89. I've been carrying it around since the Interzonal. It's almost indispensable, because without it at a tournament, the reality is that you won't know what your opponents have been doing recently and everyone else will have it.

If Kasparov came to one tournament without his computer, he could probably get away with it. But if he started to do it regularly, then the gaps in his information would start to pile up.

You need the computer to make some preparation, basically. If you want to study something, you still have to do all the studying yourself--the computer won't help you. It will just give you information on hand. The only thing the computer saves you is reinventing the wheel. I mean, if some great idea has already been played before, you're wasting your time.

Is chess a sport in your view?

Absolutely! Clearly! The sporting aspect always comes to the fore...If you asked me, would I like to be the most beautiful world champion in history or the most successful one, I'd choose the latter...most chess players would. There's always going to be a trade-off between success and beauty. Beauty is nice when it comes along, but...

Forbes also presented some longer Anand statements that he made in response to more general questions. For instance, here is part of Anand's take on the chess politics of the late 1980s and early 1990s:

I wasn't really involved in the early struggles of the GMA, but already in 1988 I realized one thing: you need some non-chess players knocking some sanity into all these Grandmasters. Chess players generally live in a world of their own. Even though they dislike each other, hate each other, like Karpov and Kasparov, Karpov and Korchnoi, they have very enjoyable analysis sessions and postmortems. It's very nice that they can talk about chess, but on other matters they can be a bit wacky. Just completely out.

For instance, among many players there is an almost ingrained hatred for rapid chess, which I find very annoying. Look what one-day cricket has done for cricket. You need to change with the times.
Finally, Anand's take on how the underdog Nigel Short should approach his upcoming World Chess Championship match against Garry Kasparov is fascinating in light of the uphill challenge that Anand just faced against the heavily favored Carlsen. The strategy Anand described is the one that he attempted to use against Carlsen--avoid disastrous mistakes, keep the score close, hope that the favorite gets nervous the longer that the outcome of the match remains in doubt--but both Kasparov and Carlsen demonstrated that their brute playing strength and cool nerves were too much for their respective opponents to overcome. It is reasonable to assume that Anand applied the same logic to his own situation prior to the Carlsen match and came to the conclusion that he had very little practical chance to beat Carlsen; before the match, Vladimir Kramnik declared that Anand "is somewhat intimidated" by Carlsen and the result backed up that analysis: Anand's timid, error-filled performance even in equal or superior positions versus Carlsen supports the theory that Anand lacked confidence that he could prevail against a younger, stronger and more consistent opponent.

Here is how Anand regarded Short's chances (Kasparov ultimately won, 12.5-7.5, the most lopsided linear World Chess Championship match by winning percentage [.625] since 1950 until Carlsen posted a .650 winning percentage against Anand) :

Well, Gazza is clear, clear favorite, no doubt about this. First of all, compare his performance in Linares, winning here this year, with Nigel's performance [last place] last year--not interesting. There is absolutely no doubt that if things go normally, Garry will probably win. But put yourself in Nigel's place. For him to give up now, to accept this view, is suicide. He has to, at least, keep the idea that he has a chance. And I believe he does have some chance. Kasparov is almost 200 rating points ahead, Nigel has a score of minus ten against him.

But Nigel doesn't have to go into the lead. What Karpov did against Kasparov in New York was brilliant. He was not leading, and Kasparov was really going for him, but Karpov always recovered, and Kasparov got very wobbly in Lyon before he eventually pulled himself together. If Nigel can learn something from this, I think he can, without too much difficulty, make it a close fight.

I believe, with some effort, Nigel can avoid getting wiped out. If he is well prepared, if he is in the match at the half-way stage, say only one point down; if he has produced some chances, Kasparov can get very edgy. If you play someone who is much weaker than you, and you're fighting for your chances, it can feel very uncomfortable.

For Nigel to win the match would be enormously difficult. Everything before, the Candidates, even the Candidates Final--will seem like a picnic. He has to look at his chances realistically, and be prepared to fight, but he has done this everywhere. In tournaments Nigel gives the impression that he couldn't care less, but in matches, he always manages to pull himself together.

For instance, there's a big difference even between drawing the match at 12-12 and letting Kasparov keep the title, and winning it 12.5-11.5. That's much, much, much more than half a point. The day Kasparov thinks he's about to lose the match, he's going to have everything put into it. He's going to fight with every bone in his body. If you cut his arms and legs off, he'll fight with his teeth.

I think I can speak for Kasparov when I say that he likes being World Champion. He'd be pretty upset about not being World Champion anymore. I don't think he can imagine life without being World Champion.

If Nigel comes to the point of beating Kasparov, he will really be working for all the millions he's making. He won't have gotten anything free. Okay, it's not a likely scenario, but let's imagine Nigel a point up with four games to go. Those games would be nightmares for Nigel--but pleasant nightmares, of course. 

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