Viswanathan Anand, who recently won his fifth world championship title, spoke to The Telegraph during his day-long trip to Calcutta as a guest of the state government. As always, Anand was patient, despite the heavy demand on his time. As always, interacting with him was such a pleasant experience.
The following are excerpts
Q Has life changed after your last world championship win, over Boris Gelfand, in May?
A (Smiles) It would have, had I not won! I remain the champion, so my status hasn’t changed.
Do you get irritated when asked what next? What more?
Essentially, yes... I find them artificial questions, for I don’t have an answer. When I reached Moscow, I didn’t think in terms of possibly being weeks away from my fifth title. I don’t play for numbers, for me it’s one game at a time. If I survive, I move on.
Being a five-time world champion, you’re well qualified to list the dos for those aspiring to make it really big. What would they be?
The first is rather obvious... Practice as much as you can. Even at my level, one can see that it’s much easier to play the stuff I’ve practised hundreds of times when I was young. Those into chess must practice as many moves as possible, for that will come in handy and give them a broader outlook. Also, it’s important to understand yourself first and to know what you’re comfortable with. Once you know that, you can make adjustments here and there. I’ll give you a personal example... I realised very early that getting into a controversy either before or during a tournament would only take some of my energy away. Therefore, I focus on what I’m supposed to do. Even if a controversy disturbed my opponent, I’d be more disturbed. More affected.
So, there was a purpose behind not reacting to Garry Kasparov’s attack while you were still battling it out against Gelfand...
Yes, at that stage, Gelfand was the only one who mattered. I wouldn’t have gained by getting into a slanging match with Kasparov. I responded after I’d retained my title.
Getting back to the dos, anything else?
It doesn’t help if you put yourself under too much pressure. Instead of looking to become a champion, you should first play well and enjoy what you’re doing. You’ll get better as you go along and, then, you could set your sights even higher... Please don’t add weight on your shoulders.
What about the don’ts?
If you’re playing chess, don’t relax till you’ve actually got the point... Remember, it’s not over till it’s over... The other don’ts are pretty obvious.
Technologically, it’s a different world today than when you started off in the 1980s. Is there, then, less of a human touch?
Look, you can be prepared in every which way, but what counts is what you execute on the board. An individual does so. While technology has driven some changes on the board, the essence of how you win hasn’t changed.
Are you restless on the eve of a tournament or a crucial game?
I have terrible nights... To talk of the world championship, as it got closer, I began to have more intense dreams.
Dreams or nightmares?
(Laughs) Veering off into nightmares! Panic attacks set in and one begins to think of committing blunders... The night before is the worst, for there’s no outlet. I’m completely relaxed when I’m at the board and when I’ve made my first move. At that stage, I’m in my chess bubble and I stop worrying about the 100 things which could happen.
Can you actually raise the bar higher?
Even though I beat Gelfand, he exposed technical defects in my play... My opponents will be aiming at those weaknesses... There’s a bull’s eye on my head! So, I’ve got to look at self-improvement. New techniques keep evolving and there’s always something to learn.
You’ve had more than a passing interest in tennis and grew up admiring John McEnroe. What’s so special about Roger Federer?
Federer has this extraordinary ability to control his emotions... Look at how cool he is... Mentally, he’s so strong.
What separates a Federer from the rest?
The ability, at key moments, to do that something which the others just can’t. It’s not only about being able to concentrate better and having a high level of skill... How the Federers do it is not the point, you enjoy what they do.
Were you rooting for Federer last Sunday, in the Big W final?
To be honest, I was very curious whether Andy Murray could do it. Of course, it’s not that I was against Federer. I respect him for being such a big achiever and I respect him for having won a Grand Slam after two-and-a-half years... Seven wins at Wimbledon, 17 Grand Slams... It’s some record.
You’re also a soccer buff... Your favourites?
Zidane... Lionel Messi, who is such an opportunist. He could have a bad match, but still score a couple of goals. He’s from Barca, whereas I’m a Real Madrid fan, but I like him a lot. Messi’s sheer talent... Zidane’s body could bend in ways the others couldn’t.
Don’t icons like you have more responsibility on their shoulders?
One should get away from it all in the lead-up to a contest... Focus on the job, not think of the additional responsibility.
Talking generally, you do have an India of your dreams...
Indeed, yes... I’ve spoken to you about the extremes and the need to bridge the gap. Sure, there are success stories, but there are too many things to work on. When you travel to countries with very little to no poverty, the contrast hits you... You ask why can’t we, in India, come close to such countries? The problems are complex. You could argue what’s the use of technology, the spread of mobile phones all over, when everybody doesn’t have access to clean drinking water.
Lastly... An eminent contemporary from the world of sport, Sachin Tendulkar, has made the Rajya Sabha. Could we see you, too, there at some point in the future?
(Smiles) If I’m offered the Rajya Sabha membership, then I’ll look at its implications... If I say anything now, it may be construed as lobbying for a nomination. As you know, I don’t lobby for anything.