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‘Anand is like an elder brother’
Surya Sekhar Ganguly practises a few chess moves at his Salt Lake home. (Aranya Sen)

When did you start working with Anand?

We started working together in 2002, but that was mainly through the Internet. Our serious work together started in 2007. He asked me to assist him for a match against (Vladimir) Kramnik and that was a golden opportunity for me. Since then, Anand and I have been working together regularly.

How has being with Anand helped you?

You get to learn a lot of things just being with him. I used to think I worked very hard till the time I met Anand. He takes the meaning of the term ‘hard work’ to an altogether different level. His level of dedication, determination and discipline is very difficult to match. My personal attitude towards chess has improved after I met him. I have gained a lot of confidence and my general performance has improved a lot. I have won a couple of international tournaments and I am better recognised now.

How does the concept of a team work in chess?

In chess, one needs to work a lot on the openings. The function of a team in chess is largely doing research. You need to go through previous and current games, find new ideas, generate fresh strategies, analyse. The volume of preparation is growing every day with the help of new hardware and the Internet. If you are playing at the top, you need a solid seconds to work for you, to strategise for you. I work for Anand and I have my own seconds working under me.

What is Team Anand all about?

Besides myself, there is Peter Heine Nielsen from Denmark who is Anand’s permanent second, Rustam Kazhimdzhanov from Uzbekistan who was World Champion in 2004 and Wojtacek from Poland who is very sharp and talented.

Anand’s team has excellent team spirit. The team has become like a family now. If someone is in trouble, everyone in the team lends a helping hand. We all work together without any ego hassles. Thanks to Anand and (his wife) Aruna, even if I stay with them for two months, I am never made to feel that I am away from home.

Has Anand ever told you why he chose you to be part of his team?

He’s never told me and I have never asked him. Maybe he likes my face! (Laughs).

For this match, when did the preparation begin and how did it go?

We started our preparation about eight-and-a-half months prior to the match at Anand’s home in Germany. We had several training sessions, sometimes for 15 days, sometimes for 30. When we prepared for Kramnik, it was a different kind of preparation because Kramnik is a positional player. Topalov is very aggressive and versatile. For him, we had to cover many areas in the opening. This preparation was much more intense. And of course, (Garry) Kasparov, Kramnik and (Magnus) Carlsen also helped Anand through Skype. That was a well-guarded secret (laughs).

Viswanathan Anand at the World Championship award ceremony

How was that 40-hour bus ride that you had to take to Bulgaria for this match?

I was lucky to take the last flight out from Calcutta to Frankfurt before the ash cloud set in. Once we assembled at Anand’s place in Frankfurt, we realised that we were stuck because no flights were taking off. After waiting for a day, Aruna decided that we should take a bus to Sofia. That was a great experience. We travelled through Germany, Hungary and Romania and reached Bulgaria. It was very tiring, but the trip was a lot of fun. We watched all three parts of The Lord of the Rings and we also practised chess in the bus.

But Anand went and lost the first game…

That was very unfortunate. Naturally Anand was a little upset, we were all quite upset. It was quite a setback. But we recovered very quickly and decided to get our act together for the next white game. Anand was very composed and he gave it all he had thereafter. He was undoubtedly a little tired after the bus ride, but he didn’t let that get in the way. After we lost the first game, we came to know about the hardware that Topalov was using. He was using a superior level of hardware that most people can’t even think of. [Topalov used the Cluster computer that ran the latest Rybka (a chess software) program.] It’s a very expensive computer that most countries don’t even know about. Apparently the Bulgarian government had bought it for Topalov for this match. So we had to change our match strategy accordingly.

Which were the most difficult games of the match?

All the games were very tough because we knew when the match started that Topalov would never opt for a draw and neither would he accept a draw. All the games were fought till the end and were all very intense. This was one of the toughest matches in Anand’s career. It was an extraordinary match.

Where was the team during the match?

We were always in the hotel room. Only when I went out on the last day with Rustam did we realise that Sofia actually existed outside the Hilton hotel (laughs). We used to go for a walk to a park nearby and sometimes visit a restaurant close by. Otherwise, we were in the room all day and all night strategising, practising and planning our next move. But it was a lot of fun because working with Anand always promises something different.

Take us through the last game...

We had a rest day before the final match. So we had about a day and a half in total to prepare. We were going to play black. Since now we knew that Topalov was using such a superior computer, we didn’t want to repeat the same lines. We had already played five games with black in which three were played in Grunfeld and two in Slav Defense (two kinds of openings in chess). So we knew we had to do something new. It was certain that before the match, Topalov would have checked each and every opening.

Anand decided to go for QGD (Queen’s Gambit Declined). QGD is a very solid and old opening, but it is something that Anand has used very rarely in his career and he hadn’t used this opening at all in this match, prior to the last game. We wanted to take Topalov by complete surprise.

When the match started, things were going quite equal. When the position became equal, the team decided to take a nap. We would be up the whole night strategising and when Anand went to play, we would sleep! We were not keen on staying on and watching the match because we knew our guy would do well! (Laughs out loud). And me staying awake during the match doesn’t really help Anand in any way.

After a while, Wojtacek came and woke me up to say that Anand was winning! We got ready and then for the first time we went to the tournament hall. After the win, you could see all the tension gone from Anand’s face. He was very calm. He wasn’t jumping about in joy because that’s not his style. He’s got fantastic nerves.

What did you learn from Anand in this match?

It takes a lot of strength of character to take on someone on his home ground. There was the tiring bus journey and then he lost the first game and yet fought back so well. I saw the way he in which he handled the huge pressure. There was a lot to learn from him in this match, as there is otherwise too.

Off the chess board, do you spend time with Anand?

We go out a lot. We talk about different things because his general knowledge is very wide. Even during work, we keep joking. We listen to a lot of music. Anand is very emotional and large-hearted. He’s very modest, but also very intelligent. He’s very witty and humorous. You talk to him for five minutes and there’s no escaping his sense of humour. You will never feel that you are talking to a world champion. For me, it’s like being with an elder brother.

What next for Surya Sekhar Ganguly?

I will play in the Asian Games in China and the Olympiad in Siberia in November. Before that I may play in the US in June-end. Then it’ll be Denmark and Greece followed by the Spanish League in Spain.

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