Five work/life lessons from chess champion Viswanathan Anand

Venky Vembu | Updated on December 04, 2019 Published on December 04, 2019

Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand   -  Bijoy Ghosh

Chess champion Viswanathan Anand shares insights on coping with disruptive technology and overpowering the demons of our minds

Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand’s distinguished chess career, which saw him win five World Championship titles, holds lessons well beyond the 64 squares on which he wages simulated battle. For instance, career professionals who face the challenge of workplace automation may draw inspiration from the world of chess, a mind game that has seen the most dramatic impact of technological disruption. In this freewheeling conversation, Anand distills the learnings from his chess career, which he details in an upcoming book, Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life (Published by Hachette India). Excerpts:


Chessboard of life

Life lessons that chess teaches us: Historically, chess used to be a way of simulating life situations: for instance, a war between two kingdoms. Even today, there are similarities between the two universes. For instance, the challenges you face in making the right move in chess; the feelings you experience when things go wrong; the mental roadblocks you have to overcome; and the strategy you adopt to strive for success… You face all of these in life as well. I believe that the way you play chess is a reflection of your personality. If you’re an impulsive person, you will be impulsive at the chessboard. If you’re a calm person, you will be calm at the chessboard.

Man vs machine

On coping with technological disruption: In few other fields have computers wiped out human skills as fast as they have in chess. When I was growing up, I always thought chess was a struggle of character and emotion, but computers have no character or emotion — and they play awesome chess.

What the tech revolution has done is this: in areas where you thought you were good, you suddenly find you’re not as good as you thought you were; second, thanks to this new technology, people who were not good as you, are catching up fast; third, you may be very good at something, but it may not matter any more.

But even if humans are being pushed out of a lot of areas, there’s a new higher-order skill you can acquire, which blends in perfectly with the new technology. You may not even have to change your job: you may just have to identify some new way of taking advantage of the technology. The same technology that takes away also gives you some new openings.

Generic skills vs expertise

Which is more useful: horizontal (generic) skill sets or vertical (specialised)? It varies. Technological twists will influence your decision. Broadly speaking, it’s good to be diverse rather than overspecialised — because the chances are that lots of areas won’t be shut down at the same time and you won’t have put all your eggs in one basket. But there are times in recent years when I’ve felt it better to be horizontal, and at other times that it’s better to be vertical.

Talent vs hard work

Which matters more: talent or hard work? As I say in the book, they are not conflicting forces orbiting in separate galaxies. But I’d put it this way: talent is like being born into wealth. It can probably get you into university, but you’ll still need to study. You can get a head start by being rich or privileged, but you can blow that head start very easily. So you need hard work. Talent is a lucky break: so, if you don’t know whether you have talent, work hard. And if you happen to have talent, you’ll do immensely well. In other words, hard work is what we have to do anyway: we cannot get away from that. Talent is beyond our control, but when we have it, we’re stronger. So, yes, talent has a value, but it’s simply not enough.

Conquering fears

Using data to overcome deep-rooted biases: As part of an experiment on ‘classical conditioning’, American psychologist Martin Seligman would ring a bell and give a dog a light shock. As long as the dog remembers the electric shock in the room and as long as the room looks similar, it’s going to hate going into that room. Humans are just as bad as that dog: if there’s a demon they fear, they don’t want to confront it. In chess, there are some positions — where I’ve lost badly — that evoke the same visceral feelings in me as in that dog. But if I do training sessions with a computer, I can overcome that fear; it’s also a nice way of using data to fight deep-seated biases. What technology, being unemotional, lets you do is help you break that Pavlovian reaction: it’s like having a guide handhold you through a maze. If dogs could use technology, they would eventually stop being scared of electric shocks: they would have a ‘computer dog’, they would poke that wall, and if nothing happens, poke it again — until they realise it’s safe. If you use data intelligently, you can do almost anything.

Published on December 04, 2019
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