Wisdom of the 64 squares

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 16, 2019

Title: Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life Author: Viswanathan Anand/Susan Ninan Publisher: Hachette India Price: ₹599

Viswanathan ‘Vishy’ Anand’s unique memoir is pure anand – and not just for chess buffs

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Mikhail Tal Chess Club at what was then the Soviet Cultural Centre in Chennai, which I attended, used to reverberate with amateur players’ raucous roars and whoops; quite uncharacteristic of the contemplative game that is typically played in deathly silence. At the centre of this high-decibel hoo-ha was a kid who, it was clear even then, was prodigiously talented, especially in the ‘blitz’, games where club members squared off for fast-paced chess ‘skittles’. That youngster, whose every move channelled a boundless joy of the game, answered to the name of Viswanathan Anand, but was better known as the ‘Lightning Kid’.

Over time, ‘Vishy’ Anand went on to win five World Championships — and, more strikingly, attained distinction in all three formats of the game: classical (played in stately fashion, over many hours); rapid (where players get between 10 and 60 minutes); and blitz (a shoot-out that lasts barely a few minutes). Along the way, he became India’s first Grandmaster (the highest chess title), and inspired a chess revolution at home: to the point where there are today 65 Indian Grandmasters — one for each square on the chessboard, and then one more! Even at age 50 (he crossed that temporal milestone on December 11), Anand ranks in the top 15 players in a sport where supercomputers and chess software have rendered some old-world game skills redundant, and where Grandmasters are getting progressively younger. In every way, it’s been an epic journey, and over such a distinguished career, Anand has well and truly written his name in the stars: in fact, a ‘minor planet’ has been named ‘4538 Vishyanand’ in his honour.

Finding the way

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Anand’s achievements, as he notes in Mind Master, is that he pretty much had to chart the winner’s path for himself. “Growing up, I never had a mentor in the sport beyond the chess books I read… As an Indian, I didn’t know what being a globally successful chess player meant because no one had walked down that road,” he writes. Of the early years, he notes that he was at best an oddity on the world chess scene — a non-Soviet (and a non-Westerner) from a land that, for all its claims to having been the cradle of chess, was far-flung from the rumblings of the sport.

The erstwhile Soviet Union was in those years the undisputed superpower of chess — although for a brief while in 1972, during the World Chess Championship between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, the 64 squares of the chessboard became the proxy battlefield for the Cold War that then raged. The ‘Soviet school’ of chess, which had churned out an assembly line of champions over the decades, was premised on methodical training and systematic exposure to the basic principles and heuristics. Chess was also something of a national obsession among the Soviets: public places were dotted with chess players, and “brides added chessboards to their wedding trousseaus”.

But Anand’s wizardry gained him admittance to the big league. Yet, even after he broke through to the top, he had to contend with politics at FIDE, the governing body, and with top-rung players’ idiosyncrasies. It didn’t help that Anand found himself typecast on the circuit as a “nice guy”: in a conversation with me last fortnight, he admitted that such a characterisation was a bit of an albatross around his neck. “Often afterwards, I am hugely resentful of something that was done to me. And I envy people who don’t put up with rubbish — and people who don’t bother trying to be nice,” he said.

Yet, playing his game the way he did, he says he’s learnt some important lessons, many of which apply beyond the chessboard, and even to those who aren’t acquainted with the game. The lesson: “It doesn’t matter if the world isn’t on your side or is disbelieving of your worth”. All that matters is that you “find your path, learn, strive, and don’t fall out of love with it if the payoff keeps you waiting. Just keep the voice of your dream alive in your head and the will on a simmer in your heart.”

Lessons for life

As much as the book is a delight for chess lovers, with illustrative games thrown in to embellish a point that Anand is making, the champion has pointedly rendered it accessible to anyone who wants to take away life lessons. Indicatively, since chess has been remarkably disrupted by the advent of supercomputers and machine learning, Anand’s experience of how he, as a digital migrant, embraced technology when some of his old-world skills were rendered redundant hold learnings for anyone coping with technological disruption at the workplace.

“As in any sport, and in life,” Anand writes, “in chess too, learning must be constant – not just new material but fresh methods of learning too.” If there is one single virtue that, he reckons, has carried him through his years of playing chess, it is curiosity. “There has to be a willingness to learn things you’re not good at or you thought were not good at.” And in fact, he adds, “my typical response now to a long break or a run of bad results is to use them as a cue to learn something new, give myself a fresh impetus and explore uncharted areas.”

The life hacks that Anand offers don’t just work at the abstract level. In a section where he dwells at length on how established, even regimented, routines to free up mindspace for the important things in life, Anand points to the sartorial preference of Steve Jobs and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. The Apple founder’s choice of turtlenecks and Zuckerberg’s grey T-shirts left them with one less thing to think about in the morning and more time to ideate on running a successful and growing business, he reasons.

Mind Master is, in the end, an engrossing read — and not just for chess players. It offers fascinating insights into the working of a keen chess mind that grapples with complex ideas farther afield, and distills the learnings derived therefrom for those of us who are not similarly gifted. Anand’s voice in the narrative sounds authentic, which is a tribute to the exertions of sports writer Susan Ninan, who collaborated on the project to map Anand’s mind and lay it out for lay readers.

Published on December 16, 2019

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