Up close with Anand

Binit Priyaranjan | Updated on December 29, 2020

The long game: Viswanathan Anand is mentoring young players virtually for the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy (WACA)   -  THE HINDU/ S SUBRAMANIUM

The former five-time world champion on mentoring the young, women in chess and watching The Queen’s Gambit

* You don’t get to 68 million people watching the series without striking a chord with them as well. So, probably, one of the best shows on chess ever

* For me writing the book Mind Master last year was a new experience... Now I’ll have to watch it on the screen

* My aim is to take these top juniors and then guide them. I’m not going to be changing their existing working methods very much


Say Vishy, and you think of chess. For over three decades — ever since he became India’s first grandmaster in 1988 — Viswanathan Anand has been inextricably tied with the sport. A former five-time world-champion, he still remains India’s top chess player, even though he has fallen out of the top 10 in the twilight of his long career. Anand is now set to start a brand new chapter in Indian chess history: Mentoring young players virtually for the WestBridge Anand Chess Academy (WACA),which is geared towards nurturing “the next Anand”. The fellowship programme, started in collaboration with the investment firm, seeks to take India’s most talented junior chess prodigies to the top ranks.

BLink caught up with Anand in a telephonic interview about his academy, an upcoming biopic about him, and the chess boom of 2020. Excerpts from the interview:

Did you watch The Queen’s Gambit? If you did, what did you think of it?

Yes, I watched The Queen’s Gambit. I liked it very much. Beth Harmon, the janitor, some of her rivals — all of them felt very recognisable to me. I could easily associate them with people from the chess world. In many of the emotions they portray, I could recognise my own feelings after or before a game. Again, all that is captured very well.

The chess pieces have been rendered beautifully. They are accurate; you can even look them up in a database. To a chess player all this is very nice. Even the mystery of the game has been portrayed very well. You don’t get to 68 million people watching the series without striking a chord with them as well. So, probably, one of the best shows on chess ever.

There is one thing, by the way, that I did not recognise, which was the addiction to painkillers and even the orphanage. I mean, there are terrible childhoods, but I didn’t immediately feel like I could tell who it was ultimately pointing to.

What did you think of the controversy over the protagonist being female? Some articles have said the male players were much nicer to Harmon than they would actually have been in the ’70s, while others have said that a chess player of this quality being female in that era would be outlandish.

Well, first of all, this is based on the book, right?

I have no problem with her being a woman. I think what is conveyed very well is the fact that everybody has their resistance to everybody else. But if you’re a good player, eventually that overwhelms [the resistance]. So you can see all the chess players: They’re all a bit uncomfortable with Beth Harmon, but they get uncomfortable with each other as well. It’s not a gendered thing.

As for the males being too nice in the series, I find it absurd. If you’re around enough people, you’ll get the occasional sexist remark, but I don’t feel the chess world is hostile to women. I think what it is is that there are so many men sitting around that sometimes they forget that there’s a woman there. And they can’t quite process that. Generally men are accused of being sexist; I don’t think chess-playing men are a particularly dominant area.

You have been quoted as saying the lockdown has contributed to a boom in chess. What makes you say that? Does The Queen’s Gambit have something to do with it?

It’s been a good year for chess in terms of the popularisation and growth of the sport. All the sites are recording exceptional growth, and that has happened globally, not just in India. We could look at what [Hikaru] Nakamura has been doing for streaming chess. Magnus has tried very hard to organise the tournament circuit so that feed is also doing very well. In fact, this has been the year of problems of plenty for chess.

Lockdown game: It’s been a good year for chess in terms of the popularisation and growth of the sport   -  REUTERS/BABU


As for The Queen’s Gambit’s impact, let’s put it this way: This is amongst the most successful series ever on Netflix. Could it have had the same impact without Netflix? Probably not. Could Netflix have had such a big impact without the pandemic? Probably not — and so on. So I will say all the dots connected and supercharged it. Chess was doing quite well and people were very happy with sites that were growing even before the show. And then The Queen’s Gambit created a perfect storm whose full impact we don’t know yet but will feel for many years.

What do you make of the cross-streaming between comedians and grandmasters that’s happening on YouTube streams? Even the world champion has appeared on these streams, while other grandmasters have called the content on these channels “brainless”.

I think everything that’s happened this year in chess is not about chess audiences. It’s about audiences that were new to chess. So it turns out that a lot of people who liked comedy were also curious about chess, and as long as chess is presented in this way a lot of people tuned in. The same thing happened with The Queen’s Gambit, too. I guess 90 per cent of its viewers were not chess players; they were people who have now become curious about the game as a result of having watched the series.

Moving on to your fellowship in partnership with WestBridge Capital, could you tell us a little bit about the genesis of this idea?

My focus was literally to take youngsters who are already very successful, and my idea is to start two influences. One is the Olympic gold quest [an organisation that supports Indian sportspeople]. So I’ve been on the board there. And they (WestBridge) support athletes who are trying to win an Olympic gold medal. The other thing is, I remember from my childhood reading about the Botvinnik Chess Academy in erstwhile USSR and how Botvinnik used to pass on his wisdom to other youngsters, including Karpov and Kasparov. So, combining thoughts from both, I thought this would be a good way to do it. Then, about two years ago I was in Bengaluru, at a WestBridge Capital event, and [its co-founder] Sandeep Singhal asked me if there was something we could do to support chess. I suggested this, and we went from there.

My aim is to take these top juniors and then guide them. I’m not going to be changing their existing working methods very much, but try to guide them, maybe mentor them. Of course, WestBridge’s participation allows me to get a lot of resources so we can give them support in other ways as well and see if we can work together to crack, let’s say, the top 10. WestBridge has a philosophy of patiently working together over a long time; they have a long term vision. So that allows me to then plan for three, maybe five years, hopefully, and then see if we can help.

You’ve picked four boys and one girl. Could you elaborate on how you went about making the selection?

Okay, so the boys are basically 16 and under, and they’re all grandmasters. Nihal Sarin and Prag [Rameshbabu Praggnanandhaa] are a bit ahead; Dommaraju Gukesh and Raunak Sadhwani are each a year younger and a bit lower by rating, but they have time to catch up. I felt that we could take all four of them. And as for Vaishali, she’s ninth in the world in the junior rankings, and she’s even higher in blitz [fast chess]. I would like to help both the girls and the boys. This is just the initial list as and when somebody very interesting turns up, the numbers will vary. So there’s no magic about four and one.

How would you compare Nihal and Prag to the wunderkind from their age-group, Alireza Firoujza of Iran, who has taken a clear lead in rating? What do the Indian prodigies need to do to catch up with Firoujza?

I think invariably they’ll have to study Alireza’s games. He’s clearly the junior par excellence of the current generation. All the juniors of the world look up to him, and he’s a huge, huge talent.

Coming back to you, could you share your thoughts about your upcoming biopic? Has Dhanush been confirmed as the actor playing you?

I’m excited because it’s a new experience. For me already writing the book Mind Master last year was a new experience. I tried to be very open about it. In fact, I enjoyed being open about it, because it seemed like a chance to say things very clearly. And now I’ll have to watch it on the screen. I’m looking forward to it. As for the actor to be cast, nothing has been decided yet.

Finally, does this mean we will be seeing less of you at tournaments?

Yes, that question has come up. I think in a way I’ve tried to keep myself busy this year, because there was not much going on for me anyway. But I didn’t see it in those terms — that I’m going to play less because of this or that project. These are exciting projects, and I’m happy to work on them. At some point, there comes the question: What to do about playing and training and all those things. I have to figure it out.

Binit Priyaranjan is a Delhi-based writer

Published on December 29, 2020

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