A five-time World Chess Champion, Vishy became India’s first grandmaster at age 18, spurring a chess revolution in the country. Now 53, he is still a world top ten player and has been India’s number one ranked player for 37 years. As newer talents emerge and old ones retire, Anand’s continued excellence showcases an endurance seldom seen.
Tyler and Vishy sat down in Chennai to discuss his breakthrough 1991 tournament win in Reggio Emilia, his technique for defeating Kasparov in rapid play, how he approached playing the volatile but brilliant Vassily Ivanchuk at his peak, a detailed breakdown of his brilliant 2013 game against Levon Aronian, dealing with distraction during a match, how he got out of a multi-year slump, Monty Python vs. Fawlty Towers, the most underrated Queen song, how far to take chess opening preparation, which style of chess will dominate in the next ten years, how AlphaZero changes what we know about the game, the key to staying a top ten player at age 53, why he thinks he’s a worse loser than Kasparov, qualities he looks for in talented young Indian chess players, picks for the best places to eat in Chennai, and more.
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TYLER COWEN: Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Conversations with Tyler. Today I’m honored to be in Chennai with Vishy Anand, five-time world chess champion and one of the greatest chess players of all time. Vishy, welcome.
VISHY ANAND: Thank you, Tyler.
COWEN: Let’s go back in time — 1991 — you’re playing in Reggio Emilia, arguably the strongest tournament of all time when it happened. Karpov is there, Kasparov, even Polugaevsky shows up, and you win. What was the change in you that enabled you to be in a position to win that tournament?
ANAND: I think it’s just the work I’d been doing had accumulated, and I’d hit a certain level. To give you some background, I qualified for the Candidates [Tournament] for the first time in the Interzonal in Manila in 1990, about July 1990. Reggio Emilia was a year and a half later. For the first time, I started to work seriously on my openings. I got together some trainers. This training will look very funny to modern eyes, but back then it was considered, let’s say —
COWEN: What is it they would do to you?
ANAND: Well, we would actually sit on the board and move the pieces ourselves. For the first time, they systematically went down a list and said, “If you’re going to play this opening, all these things have to be checked.” I had not thought like that before. My thing was, I’ll check the top two things, and I’ll figure out the rest, which was not as silly as it sounds today because back in the day, that’s how you played chess. Computers couldn’t play chess at all at that stage.
For the first time, I thought in an organized way. I started to work. There are people opposite you who contradict you, who are strong enough to contradict you and tell you, “No, actually, I think you’re wrong here. You should think of this move,” or “This is better, that is better,” or “I once did this,” and what have you. You start to work like that on a systematic basis.
I played my first Candidates match in January in Chennai against Dreev, and suddenly, I was paired against Karpov for the quarterfinals. That was going to be in Brussels in July, roughly a year since I qualified.
Again, I worked with Gurevich, who had been on Kasparov’s team, and so on. I started working with him a lot. I had played Linares. I had played Munich. So, I’d suddenly started to play very strong tournaments and face this opposition regularly. Gurevich taught me lots of things.
First of all, a lot of personal insights about Karpov. He always used to say when Karpov is fidgeting with his lips like this, it means he’s calculating, but he’s not quite sure what’s happening, and he’s nervous. Then you look for it, and you actually see the man fidgeting with his lips, and then you realize that his moves are shaky. It opens your eyes to the practical element.
We worked very hard. Again, I think the level with him was one notch higher than what I had worked to with Van der Wiel and Hellers. One funny story. The first day, I asked Gurevich if I could watch — there was a Star Trek going on in the background. Would he mind if I watched that while we work? He said no. He said, “If you want to watch Star Trek, I’ll go to my house. You call me when it’s over. I’ll come back, but we’re not doing two things at the same time.”
COWEN: This was classic Star Trek.
ANAND: Yes. I’m talking ’91, so yes. I said, “Okay, okay, then forget it. I’ll switch it off.” I was annoyed. I didn’t see why I couldn’t have that running in the background, which just shows the gulf in professionalism, if you like. It was like that. His thing was very, very systematic. During the match with Karpov, we would adjourn games. That, again, was still happening then. We’d adjourn games, which means that you seal your 40th or your 60th move, you continue another day.
Gurevich would sit and analyze for me. We would discuss the position briefly, then he’d tell me, “No, you go to sleep. I’m going to spend the whole night working.” He would work till 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, checking everything alone. The next morning when I woke up, he would brief me on everything. Then you suddenly realize, “Oh my God, how many things he found while he was working on this position.”
Mine was very scatterbrained. Because I was an intuitive player, I often couldn’t explain what it is I was going to do. I would find the correct move very often, but if you pin me as to why, I didn’t really know. It was just the way I played chess. This kind of thing. I played a couple of tournaments between Brussels and Reggio Emilia. Specifically, I played in Tilburg. I beat Kasparov. I beat Karpov. I beat Kamsky. I beat Korchnoi. I beat Short, but I also lost to Kasparov. I lost to Kamsky. I lost to Karpov. Some of these losses were just ridiculous —
COWEN: Because you were playing too intuitively?
ANAND: Because I was volatile. Some positions I would get excited and think that things are going very well, and I’d start playing fast, miss a few things, then come back. I stepped over the mark. This, that, all the things. What I think made the difference was, I was suddenly facing people who didn’t resign the game very quickly, who didn’t collapse, especially Karpov. Even in the worst positions, he would continue resisting. That’s an art you learn, and then you realize this point is not going to come easily. I’ve got to push again and push harder.
It’s one thing training for this, but it’s not real. The second thing is actually facing it over the board, and then it becomes real in a way. All these things combined. Then in Reggio Emilia, I won my first game with Salov. I suddenly thought, “I actually played that game quite well. I don’t know what happened, but I played that game quite well.” Then I beat Kasparov in the second round. Again, it seemed pretty easy, and I’d already beaten him twice within two months. Then I lost to Gurevich.
COWEN: Your trainer, yes.
ANAND: My trainer.
COWEN: Always a danger.
ANAND: He seemed to know — he lured me into a totally harmless position and then waited for me to get impatient. Literally, someone who has good psychological insight into you. That was annoying. Then I got incredibly lucky against Polugaevsky. Then a couple of draws against Gelfand and Ivanchuk, amongst others. In the last round, I beat Beliavsky, still in a natural way. It’s not like I’d gone that far from my roots, but it happened. Kasparov drew with Khalifman, Karpov drew with Gelfand, and I realized I’m in first place.
That was a very nice surprise. I remember faxing a friend, just, “I won, I won, I won.” I wrote it three times and faxed it to him. I don’t know if everyone in the audience will know what a fax machine is, but anyway —
COWEN: Some of us remember.
ANAND: I did that, and I was very excited and so on. I felt stronger. I realized that the same people who caused me a lot of problems earlier in the year — I was at least able to deal with them. It’s a work in progress because they also constantly work at self-improvement and so on, but at least I felt I could confront them on equal terms.
COWEN: If you were playing Ivanchuk back then, when he was at his peak, younger, how would you approach that psychologically? Because he’s a very dangerous opponent, right? If he’s in the right mood, he can whip Magnus at five-minute chess.
ANAND: He is very dangerous, but there are some patterns. Actually, we met in the World Cadet, the Under-16 Championships in 1984. Then we kept bumping into each other. Actually, my initial score with him was quite positive. I think I’ve never had a negative score against him, but quite often, in painful moments, moments when I wasn’t expecting any danger from him, that’s when he would beat me.
There’s a clear pattern. I wouldn’t call it underestimation, but you feel you’re wallowing in your strength, and you think it’ll probably work out fine; there’s no need to worry about all these things. And then, that’s when he would beat you. When you’re fully concentrated, his score is not so good. The solution suggested itself, but he was a tricky opponent all my life.
The thing is, because I started out with an early plus score against him, he saw it as a stiff rivalry. Initially, I just thought, “Well, he’s Soviet, so he must be better than me.” I didn’t feel any rivalry. Then even when I got better than him, I didn’t switch into this, that he’s my rival. I kept thinking, “Well, we’re all rivals, but we’re all facing how to get to the World Championship,” but he felt it was a rivalry much more.
Then the next year, Luis Rentero, the organizer of Linares — he organized a friendly match between Ivanchuk and me, and I beat him there. Slightly undeserved, in the sense of I didn’t get good positions, but I won them anyway. But that’s chess. I think it bugged him a lot.
For many years, he would ignore the rest of the tournament. He almost couldn’t concentrate against the others. Then when he came against me, you knew he’d been waiting the whole week for this one game. It was annoying to have such a mark on your back. There’s this one guy who is just thinking of you all the time, while you’re thinking of all your opponents in a very organized fashion.
Anyway, many years later, in Tata Steel in 2003, in Wijk aan Zee, I realized that he wasn’t even concerned about me anymore. Now, the new mark for him was Ponomariov, who had just beaten him. I felt relieved: “Okay, he can have Chucky.” Ivanchuk’s level can vary enormously. I think that was the tricky part in playing him, that you had to focus a bit harder than others. You couldn’t get by on just natural moves because he could be playing genius moves, or his level could drop a lot.
He’s even more vulnerable, I think, psychologically than many others. If he’s not in the right frame of mind, his level can plummet. Equally, he can suddenly motivate himself to do great things. The hardest problem, even, is that he looks totally distracted during the game. That also lulls you into a false sense of security. With him, it’s always psychology, watching his face — things like that — which mattered more than the actual moves.
COWEN: 1995, to fast-forward, you beat Kasparov at the Intel Grand Prix. Legend has it, you spent only 10 minutes on your moves, and this was a slow classical game. How did you manage that? Why only 10 minutes?
ANAND: It was actually a rapid game.
COWEN: It was a rapid game?
ANAND: It was a rapid game. We played it in Moscow. I found myself playing against him. It was a morning session. We had an evening session. Both matches were on the same day. I just wanted to play something relatively harmless, so I played some solid setup. I thought, “Today is not the day for the theoretical battle. I’ll just play something simple.”
COWEN: Yes, queen d4 against the Sicilian.
ANAND: Queen takes d4 came back, and I will just do something sensible, and we’ll worry about this another day. Theoretical battle another day. One of the things about Garry. It doesn’t come up very often — obviously, the results are very favorable to him, but over a long enough career, you notice it often enough. You give him a position where he’s not very active, and he thinks he has to lash out. This has nothing to do with his understanding of chess. It’s simply he has this urge to lash out and be tactical.
For instance, Kramnik is lethal with him because he knew how to get the kind of positions where Garry would lash out, and then he would punish it. My style didn’t allow me to punish him quite so well, so I’ve exploited it on fewer occasions. But that one went like a dream in Moscow. It made up for losing to him a little bit earlier in the month in Riga, so I was happy to win that against him.
Then I went and lost to Ivanchuk in the final, who did his typical thing of suddenly realizing his whole life depended on this one game. I lost to him and then played the match against Garry a few months later.
COWEN: Speaking of Kramnik — in your match against Kramnik, you played 1.d4 a number of times, which was surprising. Why didn’t he respond with a more hyper-theoretical line, like try the Grünfeld, say, and try to catch you unprepared? Because usually, you’ve played e4 in your career, at least up till then.
ANAND: That’s right. What had changed in the meantime — one is computers, which meant that even a player who didn’t have a lot of experience in an opening might simply have good computer moves. If you have good computer moves — you understand them well, and you play them where they’re supposed to be played — then understanding cannot make up for it. The computer evaluation gap is just too strong. Imagine that the computer says, “This move and you are plus one.” I’ll take that against anyone. I’ll take that even against a specialist, because those are pretty good odds.
In fact, it is one of the things which has leveled preparation, that a club player who knows one opening well can play against a top grandmaster in that opening. The top grandmaster’s insight has to be, take a look at the club player, gauge what work he might have done, have a sense of what areas he specializes in, then avoid them at all costs because that’s the best strategy for success. You avoid the club player’s preparation. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing it well or bad; the difference in level will show.
If you play into anything where the computer could have had a guiding hand, you have pretty bad luck. Anyway, the thing with Kramnik was that I had a team. All of them were d4 specialists. We had eight months during which I could have trained a lot. We trained a lot on d4. We found interesting ideas. I played training games, again, to make up for the lack of understanding. Play training games, check it again with the computer, go deeper and deeper, try to understand hidden nuances, and so on.
I was pretty confident that we had lines prepared against the Grünfeld and King’s Indian. In fact, I had a complete d4 repertoire, start to finish. Even the most obscure lines, the job to my second was, “Give me a line that doesn’t lose and I don’t look embarrassing. I can make a few moves, come back, and then we can go drill deeper if he does something unexpected.”
It wouldn’t have been that easy, but if he had the confidence, it wasn’t a bad strategy to try. He could have done it. Not because he thinks he’s going to outplay me, but because he thinks, “Well, I know this just as well as you. Let’s see what you’ve got.” It’s that kind of thing. It’s not quite as easy. In fact, I faced this often myself in reverse, that Kramnik used to play e4 suddenly a lot against me. It’s very nice to say I have more experience than him, but where should I strike? Which is the area he is likely to be weakened? That’s not easy to pick out.
COWEN: Two of your wins with black in that match are from the Semi-Slav. He let you get very tactical positions. Why would he make that kind of mistake?
ANAND: That is very strange. I would have to say he took it personally. He took this opening personally. He just said, “This opening — my understanding of chess, everything I believe in chess on the chess board tells me I’m better here,” so he kept going back to it. First time, it can happen. He plays a main line, he thinks he’s well prepared. Then I have this slightly unusual line that I prepared at depth. It goes bad. But game five, I think he took it personally.
By game eight, I had moved on because, allowing for everything, we knew that his sense that white was better was correct. We had run as far with this as we should. We went to our second opening, which is the Vienna, and we went with that. It’s really only game five. He took it personally, he came in, but once again, we had outstanding prep. And by a miracle, my Polish trainer, Wojtaszek — we have this hurried conference from 2:00 to 2:25 or something, where they just brush me up on everything and last-minute stuff and everything.
At about 2:20, Radek said, “Look, there’s one thing I want to show you. Sit down.” I sat down. He showed me this one line, exactly which happened in game five. He said, “This is a terrible line. I’ve spent all night on it. I finally found an emergency solution, emergency parachute. You play a rook c5 at this point. The rook is active on this rank. I’ve checked it, it doesn’t lose on the spot. Go.” His job was, “There’s no way we can cover everything in chess. I’m giving you this position for dummies. This is all you need to know, and you’ll have to figure out the rest on your own.” I said, “Okay.”
When I sat at the board and I had this chance to play rook c5, I thought, “Thank God he briefed me on this at this point.” So, there’s some luck as well. I knew every move I made. I said, “Rook c5 — I don’t trust this position well, but Radek told me it works. That’s good enough,” and so on. We went with that, and then he blundered. But I was already in a very good situation. I knew what I had to do. I knew I was where I was supposed to be, and I knew that I wasn’t worse, which is enough to take to the board.
COWEN: Your match against Topalov — you had help from Kramnik, Kasparov, Carlsen. How did they each help you differently? And how does that reflect something about them as chess players?
ANAND: Carlsen — he had already been my sparring partner before the match with Kramnik, and we repeated that, literally. He came over; we played three days of blitz, five-minute chess. The idea was I would select all the positions that I was going to use and play it against him. We would not tell Carlsen what we were going to play. We were using Carlsen’s strength as a practical player and saying, “If I surprise you with this, let me see how you react. Maybe you’ve faced this before. Let me see how you react, and try to play against that.”
Because I thought Carlsen is of the level of Kramnik and Topalov, so playing against him gives me a good sense of how they’ll play, how the games will materialize, and so on. He did that both times. He didn’t help much during the match, I think once in a while. Nielsen was obviously in touch with him. They would chat on Skype or whatever, and he might give an impression, but it wasn’t more than that.
Kasparov would call in a couple of times. He gave me some of his notes in specific openings. He said, “Look, they’re outdated, but for what it’s worth, here they are. You can check them with modern analysis and so on. That’s fine.”
Kramnik was the heaviest. We had come to the conclusion that Kramnik’s approach against Topalov hadn’t been a bad approach. We were copying the Catalan, what we call the Elista variation of the Slav Defense, and we were copying many aspects of how he played that match.
COWEN: Because he doesn’t like to be passive, right? Is that how you think about it?
ANAND: Topalov doesn’t like to be passive, but he’s also much more of a . . . He actually can play positional chess incredibly well, but over the board, he tends to lapse in this area. The gap between his positional play and his sharp openings that he’s really comfortable with is huge. So, stylistically he’s more limited.
The idea was, you are a better natural player than me, so you should try to steer the game through to Slav’s more harmless — which is how we came under the Kramnik approach — more harmless waters. Play sensible chess, and don’t get into forced lines that much, and you’ll probably have the easier time of it. More of a philosophical thing.
Kramnik called Kasimdzhanov after the fourth game, and he said, “I’m flattered that you are trying to copy my openings, but you’re doing it very badly. Can I help?” Literally, that’s what he said, which is the funniest story. We said, “Of course you can help.” I was amazed how dedicated he was, since he was just doing this on his own thing. He could have easily said, “I’ll help you for an hour.” I would accept it. “I’ll look at your notes for 10 minutes.” I would accept it.
There were days he sat with the team till 5:00 in the morning, working all night. He had just gone to Baku to play an event. He played there. Then at night, he would work with us. For the team, it was great because we were getting his insights on his opening. We realized there was so much we had missed. Every game, he basically became my fifth second from game five till the final game. I couldn’t possibly thank him enough.
I’d just beaten him two years ago in the match. Again, it was his ability to put that aside that impressed me. We had spoken a little bit the previous year about his newborn daughter, and it broke the ice, but I was still feeling awkward. I thought it might take a bit of time for both of us to move on, but in fact, he seemed to be able to take this very well.
So, they all helped me in different ways. It was nice. When you get that kind of feedback, it of course gives you a hell of a lot of confidence.
COWEN: In your 2013 game against Aronian at Tata, when you played 15 for black bishop to c5, all the ensuing combinations and tactics — how much of that were you seeing in advance?
ANAND: That’s literally this position, right [looking at chessboard]?
COWEN: Yes, and you played bishop c5.
ANAND: I played bishop c5. I’ll tell you, I spent 25 minutes in this position because I couldn’t remember a thing. I vaguely remembered that — sorry, I’ll move the pieces a bit — that if he goes h3, then this is the draw.
COWEN: That’s what he should do, right?
ANAND: That’s a draw.
COWEN: Bishop e4, then? [both are moving pieces]
ANAND: There is some draw. I think you take, and then bishop b8 and then this knight is loose. The details are a thing. When he played f4, I thought, “This move, I don’t remember at all.” I was searching, racking my brain to find out why, and I could not figure it out. Then suddenly, I had this — almost something flashed in my head. This knight was on this square on d3.
COWEN: In your head?
ANAND: In my head. Suddenly some variation flashed where I had a knight on d3. I couldn’t for the life of me connect it, but I started to look. Is there something? There are obvious moves anyway. I can do this, trying to get to d3. I can play e5, all based on the same ideas in the game, but none of them seemed to work. This one is too slow, he takes. This one, he’ll allow me to take and recapture it, so what’s the deal?
Eventually, by elimination, I realized it must be bishop c5. There’s nothing else. Once I started to look at bishop c5, it started to look good to me. Then it closes very fast. It’s like finding out 80 percent of the map, and then the rest fills in very fast. It gets accelerated.
COWEN: You knew knight to de5 was coming at that point.
ANAND: That was the thing. I’ll tell you, I played bishop c5 because if he takes, I take, he captures here, then my dream, my vision, whatever, is check and knight captures d3. Then that knight, which pops into d3, works. That’s all I had to reconstruct. It is beautiful that with very little, I was able to reconstruct it. Now, I went here [bc5].
Aronian was a bit shocked because he had not given it a lot of attention. It was very courageous on his part to even get here because I had prepared this for a match against Gelfand, and the guy lets me and basically says, “Show me what you’ve got. Show me what you and your team spent a month on.” It’s brave, but it’s also irresponsible unless you have checked it yourself very thoroughly. He seems to be slightly flippant about it.
Anyway, after bishop e2, the rest played itself. For me, bishop c5 took 25 minutes. I don’t remember — knight d5 might’ve taken me five minutes, but more because I was double-checking rather than anything. But this came effortlessly because already, we are talking of this knight has to support this one. The queen and bishop are going to flood into d4, knight f2 check is going to win — all these little dots. While this [16…Nde5] is maybe the most spectacular move, it’s the less difficult move to find, especially once you have done this.
ANAND: Now, if you ask me, before I saw bishop c5, did I see knight d to e5? I did not even see bishop e2. I was more focused on the main thing. I didn’t see bishop e2. Once he played bishop e2, everything else filled itself, and I flooded in. Of course, the big advantage was, by now, Rotlewi vs. Rubinstein was coming into my head. I knew what happens — we’ll get that structure a bit later — I knew what happens when you get this bishop, this bishop, all pointing in this direction.
COWEN: Smothered mate, h3 becomes impossible.
ANAND: Roughly speaking, this was Rotlewi vs Rubinstein with the knight here. It’s a classic game in chess history. I knew the patterns and all the details check out. Once I played knight d5, the rest came pretty fast. There was only one more thing I had to find, king h1, knight takes g4. Again, every move loses except what he did.
COWEN: Then f5 is a brilliant move.
ANAND: f5 is fantastic because for a dangerously long time — and later on, you shudder when you realize what you could have done — for quite some time I considered this move [shows move on board: 19…Qh4].
COWEN: Then queen h7 — it’s a draw, right?
COWEN: Or maybe you’re even worse.
ANAND: Maybe even I’m worse.
ANAND: The beauty is, this move was slightly easier to find because seven years ago, Kramnik had allowed queen h7 against Fritz — mate. Kramnik and pretty much everyone said, “There is no way I would’ve allowed queen h7 if the knight had been on f6,” because to a human, immediately it signals danger all over the place. But a knight on f8 — you almost forget it’s there. Whereas for a computer, it sees that both moves allow queen h7. At some point, I realized, “Oh my God, queen h7, well, that would spoil a very nice position.” Then by elimination again, I could play f5. Once again, all the dots connect.
COWEN: The queen will come to h4, and one way or another it’ll be over. Then you just knew you were completely winning.
ANAND: There’s one more detail, if you like, which is that here [if 21.Ne5], I have to play this [21…Nxh2], it wins. It’s the only move which doesn’t lose, but it also wins.
COWEN: When Magnus did the Lex Fridman Podcast, he drew a distinction between chess players who see only short lines but are great at evaluation — he called himself one of those — or Caruana, who calculates very long lines but is not as good at evaluation. Does that dichotomy make sense to you?
ANAND: Very much. It’s just the way your brain processes thoughts. Some people fill in the gaps intuitively. When the pieces feel right, when the broad picture looks right, the answers will come to you. You’re guided more by this sense of what is good and not. Of course, Caruana does it as well, but to a lower degree. He calculates a lot more to fill in the gaps. Therefore, Caruana is a lot better at finding exceptions.
The natural players miss exceptions because what looks good to them, or they happen to stumble on one position where what looks good isn’t good. It hurts them. Caruana tends to miss that less often because he is not . . . In fact, Caruana’s approach — you could almost exaggerate and say it’s closer to a computer than many other humans. Of course, he is 1 percent of the way closer, but it doesn’t matter.
There are players who approach chess in a more systematic way. They’re the ones who tend to find exceptional ideas and things like that because of the way they don’t rule out stuff just on dogmatic grounds or something like that. But we are talking very small differences. I think Caruana’s understanding is much closer to, let’s say, Carlsen’s than they think. His approach is to calculate everything and look for very specific solutions. Carlsen’s, as he says, “The hand will make the move.” You just know where the pieces go, and then you don’t need the details.
COWEN: How do you prepare differently against each type of player?
ANAND: I don’t get down to that level of detail. If I was playing a match, I could try to incorporate that in my approach. But so much of chess is just getting the opening right, the moves right, the concepts right, that you don’t have time to micro-target like that. It just doesn’t work, at least not for me. Perhaps others are able to do it.
I would think the maximum level you could do it at is to choose the kind of opening which favors you the most intuitively and say, “From what I know of my opponent, this is the position where he’s fidgeting uncomfortably in his chair.” Once you’ve chosen the opening, you hope that insight actually plays out.
At least for me, I’ve never been able to target much more. Like I just said, when I was playing Topalov, I used my insight into saying, “Well, these openings will work for me, and he’ll get impatient. He’ll try to do something active. Maybe I can punish him.” But once I’ve done that, the rest are just long lines, and I can’t use that insight anymore within the games. You’ll have flashes of this at most, but chess is actually mostly long variations.
COWEN: What goes on inside your head during a match that no normal human could guess at?
ANAND: Surprisingly, how distracted we are. During a match, even in very critical moments, I’ll be thinking what I can have for dinner, what I should have done yesterday, oh, I met that jerk yesterday, and this kind of stuff. Your brain wanders off. It’s almost like taking your foot off the gas. Your brain wants to wander off for a while. You let it, and then you come back. Or you keep one part focused on what’s happening, but while your opponent is thinking you can wander off.
During a match, even in very critical moments, I’ll be thinking what I can have for dinner, what I should have done yesterday, oh, I met that jerk yesterday, and this kind of stuff. Your brain wanders off. It’s almost like taking your foot off the gas. Your brain wants to wander off for a while. You let it, and then you come back. Or you keep one part focused on what’s happening, but while your opponent is thinking you can wander off.
Whenever somebody tells me, “I don’t know how you concentrate for seven hours,” I understand that they don’t know how we play chess, or that they haven’t played chess themselves because we do not concentrate for seven hours. Very few people do it. I would think even the brain simply goes on strike periodically and then comes back. I think that’s how it works.
COWEN: You’ve argued in your career you had a down period, something like 2011 to 2013. Until recently, Caruana seemed to have a down period for a while. Why does that happen to very top players?
ANAND: It’s very hard to explain. If you could even see it coming, you could start to think about it. My feeling is it catches most people off guard. They repeat a recipe probably too long. It’s not like anybody else spotted it coming. Suddenly you notice, “Hey, he’s not winning.” After one or two tournaments, you think, “He’s not winning quite as much as he used to, isn’t he?” Then you take a look, and you realize that slowly some resistance has built up in his game — resistance to the free flow, the most natural flow. But it’s very hard to see it coming.
Then, when you’re stuck in it, it’s very hard to see how to get out of it. In most cases, at least in my experience, the way to get out of it is to stop thinking about how to solve it and almost lighten yourself and get back to playing a normal game for normal reasons. You’d think that method could be refined, and you could apply it systematically, but if it did, nobody would have slumps anymore in form. There is something clearly that we can’t quite pick up on.
It’s a staleness that gets into your game. It’s probably an accumulation. If you’re doing too well for too long, others have been working nonstop trying to understand you. At some point, without you or them realizing it, the gap is closed. Then you’re encountering more resistance. You’re doing what worked perfectly before, but you’re encountering more resistance, and you can’t see why. Your opponents don’t understand why they’re not losing, but they suddenly think, “Hey, this worked out better for me.” Somehow the gap closes, and the time has come for you to move on, try something else, bring some fresh perspective.
COWEN: What’s your favorite Monty Python skit?
ANAND: [laughs] I like the one with the Pope.
COWEN: There are several with the Pope. [laughs]
ANAND: Well, that’s true, that’s true. Basically, Michelangelo.
COWEN: That’s a good one. I like Argument Clinic very much.
ANAND: There’s a lot of nice stuff with the Ministry of Silly Walks. Parrot is very good.
COWEN: Yes. Cheese Shop is very good.
ANAND: Yes. The Dead Parrot is very good.
COWEN: Summarize Proust — do you know that one? They didn’t show that one that much.
ANAND: That I missed, but those were nice. Also, The Yorkshiremen — these guys all talking about how poor they were in their childhood. That’s fantastic. I love the idea of a cardboard box in the highway.
COWEN: Was Fawlty Towers ever as good as Monty Python?
ANAND: I’ll tell you the first time — I visited the Indian consul general in the Hague, and he invited me to stay for lunch because he’s also from Chennai. He invited me to stay for lunch. I said, “Well, that’s very nice, thank you. I’ll stay.” Either before we were about to have lunch or after we had had lunch, he said, “Okay, I’ll put some . . .” He put a cassette in, and it was Fawlty Towers, and I started watching. At first, I didn’t understand the humor at all. I wasn’t even that familiar with Monty Python then, so it gives you an idea, but the humor seemed strange.
There’s always this one situation which is so absurd that you just can’t stop laughing. At some point, I was laughing like a person who could not stop. I was choking almost. That’s when I knew, so I would have to say Fawlty Towers is as good. There are lines which are fantastic.
COWEN: “Don’t mention the war.” Right?
ANAND: “Don’t mention the war,” yes. Maybe I’ve just watched it way too much, but this hotel inspector is great. The health inspector is good. What I love is this deaf old lady who comes by and complains about everything. He says, “What were you expecting from a hotel window in Torquay?” Also, the lovely thing, “Yes, madam, that’s the sea. It’s between the land and the sky.” It’s perfect stuff.
COWEN: What’s the most underrated Queen song?
ANAND: I don’t know. I rate all of them very highly.
COWEN: Brighton Rock, I might pick. I’ve heard Bohemian Rhapsody too many times at this point.
ANAND: Yes, I’ve heard Bohemian Rhapsody as well. My problem is my son recently discovered Queen —
ANAND: — so we listen to it again almost in overdrive. I don’t think I have an underrated Queen song. I’m aware that out there, there might be songs that are underrated.
COWEN: They’re all underrated in your view, right?
ANAND: Yes. For me, I rate them perfectly highly. I have this habit of listening to my four or five favorite songs in an album and ignoring the ones I don’t like. My son is more disciplined in that way. He’ll actually listen to the whole album. He asks me questions about songs. Some, I’ll give him two-hour descriptions; other ones, I’ll say, “You know, I’ve never heard that one.”
COWEN: In chess opening preparation — where does that end? What’s the bottleneck? Does it just keep on going until the first 33 moves are prepackaged?
ANAND: Some lines will go that far, but equally, you can use the computer to solve the problem that the computer has created, which is, if you take a single line and you go, I think you can go very, very far. You can also deviate at an earlier and earlier stage. You can have it running on 20 lines, and you go for line number 17, and you’ll find that you’re not able to work it out just as thoroughly. You need time to do it. Before you do that, you move to the next one. No one is quite able to nail every possibility. You can always surprise someone. We saw this with Ding recently and Nepomniachtchi — he actually went h3 in one position.
COWEN: Yes, but it was a mistake.
ANAND: Surprise backfired because Ian seemed to know exactly which line to play. He went for the one line where h3 turns out to be a disadvantage. That’s very hard to nail down. You have to get quite deep into it. Mostly that works, but yes, even with that qualification, the opening preparation everywhere is just building up and up. There are lines I neglect for six months, and then I come back to them, and I realize, “Oh my God, I have to update everything. I’m not sure of anything in this preparation anymore.”
The problem in preparation is not whether it’s detailed. The problem is whether you can believe in it. If you have not checked it 100 percent, it’s worthless. It’s like a 99 percent guarantee before you go into the operation. You want to have a 100 percent guarantee, right? 99 percent is simply not good enough. That’s the problem with opening preparation as well, that the computer allows you to question everything, every new version, every new program, every new piece of hardware. Each one of those things can drive it. Every six months or a year, you have to start all over again, cleaning your stuff.
On the other hand, one of the great joys in chess research is to come to an opening that you’ve not seen in five years. That first day, you’re discovering everything new. Every single line you refute and clean up, and you feel like you’ve cleaned your entire house of clutter, and you feel wonderful. It’s a double-edged sword, I will concede that, but it’s a pain in the neck when you want to rely on something.
COWEN: The people are playing the Giuoco Piano again. Is it that we’ve discovered it’s better than Ruy Lopez? Or just we’re sick of all the old lines, and we’re going to try something different for three years and then move on? The Two Knights game is even coming a bit into fashion. Is it cycling or continuous improvement?
ANAND: A lot of it’s cycling. At some point — I don’t remember, maybe five or six years ago — there was an individualistic collective sense that maybe the Ruy Lopez is neglected territory, virgin territory. “Let’s go back there and try that, because of Italian and the Giuoco Piano, my God, there’s nothing left to find.” Then we do. Everybody goes after the Ruy Lopez for a year, and suddenly a couple of guys say, “Let’s look at the Italian again,” and you think, “Ah, there are a few things we haven’t picked up on,” so you swing back there. And it goes like this, but it’s an arms race, and we are not winning.
COWEN: Was it a kind of market inefficiency that the King’s Indian Defense could survive for so long? Radjabov did pretty well with it until recently. You’ve played it a fair amount, but it just seems like a bad move, right?
ANAND: There’s a time when it looked just lost. There was a time, maybe five, six years ago when the King’s Indian just looked lost because the computer always said it was lost. Recently, maybe even a year ago, the computer said, “No, I confirm it’s dead lost.” People have always sensed that there’s something fundamentally unsound about the King’s Indian, but we couldn’t quite prove it. That was why people were going on.
You know the famous quote of Koechner, right? He told Aaron Pickett, “The King’s Indian is not an opening. It’s a disease.”
COWEN: [laughs] Yes.
ANAND: He had it right all along. Recently, Fabiano started playing h6 in the King’s Indian, the classical King’s Indian. The beauty of that is it’s not quite refutable. It’s got just enough life to drag on for a while.
People come to parts of the King’s Indian that they like. The King’s Indian that are lines that you find difficult to play, but if you come in from a Grünfeld move order, and white does something against anti-Grünfeld, and you swing from there back to the King’s Indian; or you come from a Benoni move order, and you get into the King’s Indian; or even, you put the bishop on e7 and rotate it this way, that way — King’s Indian concepts turn out to be very, very dynamic and healthy, even if you’re not getting to it in the same structure opening.
So, King’s Indian players have found a way to get their King’s Indian fix for the week without having to go down the old main line. That’s how it goes. Computers will contradict themselves every couple of years, so maybe the pendulum has swung too far this side.
COWEN: Does Fischer Random have a future, or it’s just a side thing forever?
ANAND: Fischer Random actually has a brilliant future because it’s a form of chess which has not been understood at all. Fischer Random was conceived as a way of avoiding opening theory. Later on, people rediscovered it as a way of avoiding computers. Now, we realize we are not avoiding computers at all. They’re just as good at Fischer Random or No Castling as they are at chess.
New versions, we are never going to catch up with computers. But for playing amongst ourselves, this is completely new territory, and there’s a lot of scope for creativity and everything we used to look for. It’s a variant with a lot of promise, maybe the one chess players are most comfortable with.
However, in the meantime, I have played No Castling a few times. That turns out to be fascinating. The first time I sat with my computer, and I had to play knight f3, rook g1, and repeated four corners, all four rooks and knights so that white couldn’t castle anymore, and then switch on the engine and analyze openings like this. I realized that almost every opening can be reevaluated if your king can’t castle. Everywhere the right plan turns out to be h4, h5, rook h4 thing, except the ones where it’s not. There are no general rules yet, or we have not come that far, so we find every little detail.
Now, there are lots of other versions that are coming up, and you can have as many as you dream of. You can have pawns moving sideways, pawns capturing straight and moving diagonally. You can have every variant you want. You program it into the computer and let it play a million games and see what pops out.
This may be a solution for the distant future, but for the moment, chess looks healthy enough, especially if you vary. People who have played too much classical chess have a round of faster controls, and then when you’ve done too many faster controls, you go back to classical. If you keep varying like this, that’s one thing that keeps the game moving along.
The second thing that works very well is, for instance, what they do in Tata Steel, which is to have a mixed field. Not all super-prepared top GMs, but a mixture of very courageous young juniors with top GMs. You have that mix that also leads to a lot of unpredictability. If you keep moving around, you change the format, change the variant, change the time control, change this, change that, you just keep shuffling, we can go on for quite some time.
COWEN: Is there a chance that 10 years from now, say, rapid play is the World Chess Championship?
ANAND: I wouldn’t rule it out. I wouldn’t rule it out, but I feel that classical would still exist. It’s just public taste would’ve moved along. The same could be said for blitz chess, if you want. We are also dealing now, thanks to the revolution of the last five or six years — which in general, I mean what happened with the Queen’s Gambit, what happened the last couple of years — which is that maybe the number of people who are casual fans of chess are far greater than serious fans of chess.
COWEN: Sure, of course.
ANAND: They’re actually following the game now, whereas before, they would follow it once in a while. Now they actually have an impact, and you sense it in the numbers. Thanks to them, I think they may not have this old attachment to classical chess. They may also not know who Capablanca was. When that is felt in the sport, then the sport will inevitably cater to their tastes more and more.
But I don’t think that classical chess will disappear. It’s just that it used to be 100 percent of chess. Then for the last couple of decades, it’s been about 80 percent of chess. Now I would say it’s closer to 30, 40 percent of chess, which leaves the other variants fighting with 60 percent, the other time controls fighting with 60 percent. It’s a question of the mix. There will always be some role for having a lot of time to think and find interesting stuff, but all the time is very hard, especially given modern preparation.
COWEN: How is it you think that playing so much as a streamer seems to have made Nakamura better? Psychologically better too, right?
ANAND: I don’t think the streaming helps him become a better player, but what it has done is, it’s taken a lot of pressure off him. He really felt he had only one way to show who he was, and that was on the chess board. Now, he suddenly realizes, “I’ve got this other method where people appreciate me and cheer me.”
In fact, many years ago, in 2011 in Tata Steel, he made a winner speech, and I was surprised the way he said. He said, “It’s so wonderful to be in Holland where we’re appreciated for our chess. In the US, nobody would care,” or something like that. He did this as the winner in the closing speech. I thought, “Well, quite a strange thing to say.” If you had kept that thought in the background, now he’s got the adulation he wants. In fact, he seems to crave it. He goes back and does a recap every day, and things like that. He really seems to want it.
What I think is helping him is playing blitz tournaments nonstop online. That allows him to keep there, and it might be the best way to train for a modern computerized opening preparation era, where there’s so little to do with preparation because the computer solves everything, but you get to test every concept a million times over the board. That’s why he’s so good at it. That’s why all the best players now are playing these online blitz events.
You can put me on the spot and say, “Well, if you think that’s the case, why aren’t you doing it?” I haven’t got round. I do some training online, but I don’t feel like sitting from midnight till 3:00 in the morning playing online blitz, these Tuesday events, and so on.
COWEN: If you were much younger, could you imagine yourself as a streamer?
ANAND: I can imagine being a streamer now very easily, but what I don’t see myself doing is spending all night playing. Also, I don’t feel like playing that much blitz. I always tell myself I should do a bit more, but in the end, the body just doesn’t get up, and then that’s it. You just don’t go there. I easily see myself trying streaming or something, but it’s a question of how long you want to invest in it. Again, success is not going to come very fast. There’re a lot of crocodiles already in that watering hole. You’ll have to spend quite some time and do stuff daily, and things like that.
It’s a big time commitment, is what I’m trying to say. I could very easily see myself doing it, and I’ve done versions of it over the last couple years. I did a lot of online coaching. Lots of my talks that I used to give for companies, I do online as well nowadays. I’ve done versions of it. I could see myself doing that, especially commentary. How difficult is it, instead of going to a tournament and doing commentary from there, just to sit in your room and do it? It’s very easy. That I could see. The other bit — probably I’m just a bit old.
COWEN: I think it was MVL who made the remark that in a post AlphaZero world, what we’ve learned is how much chess is truly the concrete and how few generalizations there are. Does that make sense to you? Or what do you think we’ve learned from AlphaZero?
ANAND: That’s a broader trend. I don’t even know if it starts with AlphaZero. Maybe that’s where it became most visible, but he’s right. There are no general principles anymore. In fact, new general principles emerge. Nowadays, we push the h and a pawns whenever we want, and it’s not a bad move. Twenty years ago, these moves would have been considered betraying a complete lack in chess education. Now, it’s not there. Everything we used to think was bad, we’re forced to evaluate move by move. Some of them will turn out to be bad; many of them won’t.
You just have to know specific reasons, and you’ll just have to get into the details. He’s right about that. That’s probably a cry from a person who’s having to prepare this stuff all the time. Anyway, he’s right. Chess nowadays — it’s about finding out exceptions to everything. That’s where a lot of the growth is as a chess player because all of us — we are hardwired to think these things are good, these things are bad. But imagine that you now have to wander in the field of everything you thought was bad and realize that half of it might be good. That’s where we see ourselves now.
COWEN: Rook g1 against the Najdorf — is that a novelty move or actually a very good move? Because no one played it in the time of Fischer, right?
ANAND: No, none at all, but even when Fischer played h3, people thought, “What the hell is this?” Then they said, “Oh, but Fischer did it. It’s okay.” You need a stamp of approval. The computer is now the new stamp of approval.
Rook g1, by the way, predates AlphaZero, and it predates modern engines. We’re talking at least 15, 20 years. Bishop d2 on move six — that is such nonsense. Even when the computer is running, I think this is nonsense. The fact that — especially with a computer — it doesn’t lose on the spot tells me nothing. This is nonsense. There are people who play it, and then next thing you know, there’s theory building up.
COWEN: At age 53, you’re still in the world top ten. There’s no one else in the top ten close to your age, and you have been India’s number one for what, 37 years, 38 years?
ANAND: 37 years.
COWEN: What keeps you going? What motivates you?
ANAND: I like playing chess. A couple of years ago, I decided that maybe playing full time, playing the whole year round and trying to compete at the highest level wasn’t worth it in terms of the amount of time and effort I would have to put in for the results I expected. I decided to semi-retire, a decision made easy in the pandemic because everyone was semi-retired in the pandemic. The key thing was not to come back after the pandemic was over. I played a little bit here and there whenever I could because I still like playing, and for me, chess tournaments are primarily social events where you meet everyone, and you hang out with everyone again.
When I did all that, I enjoyed myself. Then I would say, “Okay, now for four months, I’m not going to play anything.” Much longer break than before. Also, I’m living in India more or less the whole time when I’m not playing. That’s changed a lot. Some of it is family. My son is growing up, so you also want to prioritize what you’re doing with your time, and so on.
I really enjoy the few tournaments that I play. When I play these rapid and blitzes and I have these one or two events in the year, four or five months before leading up to them, I start training again. Just to get back in this frame of mind where chess is not just some philosophical thing where you can do this and you can do that. It’s concrete moves, like MVL said.
The most important skill in chess is, if I was sitting at a board now with the clock ticking, what would I make in this position? Then suddenly, the infinite variety of choices you have becomes irrelevant. You have to make only one move. How do you switch to that frame of mind? I try to stick there, but I really love analyzing and working on chess. And maybe even, just like for Hikaru, having something else fill part of your life allows you to come back to chess with much more enthusiasm, these long breaks. Then, when I get back to chess, I’m much more enthusiastic about playing, and I look forward to it. That might be a huge fact as well.
When I lose, I can’t imagine anyone in the world who loses as badly as I do inside.
COWEN: Do you hate losing as much as Kasparov does?
ANAND: To me, it seems he isn’t even close to me, but I admit I can’t see him from the inside, and he probably can’t see me from the inside. When I lose, I can’t imagine anyone in the world who loses as badly as I do inside.
COWEN: You think you’re the worst at losing?
ANAND: At least that I know of. A couple of years ago, whenever people would say, “But how are you such a good loser?” I’d say, “I’m not a good loser. I’m a good actor.” I know how to stay composed in public. I can even pretend for five minutes, but I can only do it for five minutes because I know that once the press conference is over, once I can finish talking to you, I can go back to my room and hit my head against the wall because that’s what I’m longing to do now.
In fact, it’s gotten even worse because as you get on, you think, “I should have known that. I should have known that. I should have known not to do that. What is the point of doing this a thousand times and not learning anything?” You get angry with yourself much more. I hate losing much more, even than before.
COWEN: There’s an interview with Magnus on YouTube, and they ask him to rate your sanity on a scale of 1 to 10 — I don’t know if you’ve seen this — and he gives you a 10. Is he wrong?
ANAND: No, he’s completely right. He’s completely right. Sanity is being able to show the world that you are sane even when you’re insane. Therefore I’m 11.
COWEN: [laughs] Overall, how happy a lot do you think top chess players are? Say, top 20 players?
ANAND: I think they’re very happy. They understand that they’re able to be chess players and that they can have a pretty good life doing so. Just like anybody who finds that they’re doing what they wanted to do, what they would be doing anyway, even in worse circumstances, but they’re able to do it in a pretty nice way and challenging way. Then we understand we’re privileged. In fact, the funny thing is how many chess players are happy even not being top players, because chess is, again, one of these callings. You find yourself in it, and you really enjoy it.
It’s quite hard for a chess player to quit and switch to something else. They always have this time lag. I was quite surprised to see when Kenneth Rogoff —
COWEN: Became an economist, as I did.
ANAND: Yes, well, he became an economist, but recently, maybe seven, eight years ago, somebody asked him, “So what’s it like thinking about chess again?” Because he had come to a chess tournament. He said, “I never stopped thinking about it.” For me that was strange, because I would assume that after five years, it drops way below, but apparently, he kept at it all that time. He would think about chess every day. Maybe you think the same thing.
COWEN: When I see him, he and I talk chess, not economics. He doesn’t want to talk economics with me.
COWEN: If you had to boil down your cognitive ability or abilities into as small a number of dimensions as possible, what’s the cognitive ability you have that makes you special?
ANAND: The ability, well, is it cognitive? The ability to pull out details from a mass of information that I’ve seen. In chess, we may see a thousand games from this, and then at the board, I may be able to distill the right idea from all that. Being able to extract useful ideas from a lot of information. Also, good visual intelligence.
Just in chess, the only skill which a top chess player has to have, really, is the sense that something is going wrong. That’s a visual thing, because with very few details, you suddenly think, “Now I feel uncomfortable, there’s something wrong here.” That’s one of the most important skills you can have in chess. Besides probably just the usual mix, bit of memory, good memory, at least for things that I’m interested in; ability to focus on one thing and then keep at it.
COWEN: Is there some other area where you have also a remarkable ability?
COWEN: Magnus seems to be great at fantasy football. Some chess players are great at bridge.
ANAND: I’m good in games. Lots of these games you play just for fun. Immediately, I find that I start at an acceptable level, so maybe there is some skill there, but I’ve not thought about it that much.
COWEN: Last two questions. There are so many talented young chess players from Tamil Nadu. Obviously, you know them, you play with them. And if you’re looking for who will really climb to the top, like Pragga and Gukesh, other than just how well they play at the moment, what else do you look for?
ANAND: If they’re very young, I want to see a certain amount of fanaticism. I think fanaticism is good when you’re in your teens, but quite a few of them have that. I think maturity is maybe the most important thing because Pragga and Gukesh have taken some horrible blows.
What I’ve realized is that they’re quite strong in a way that I’m amazed, maybe because for me, losing hurts so much more. I can no longer understand people who are relaxed about losing. Maybe I was once more relaxed, I don’t know. Pragga and Gukesh both have taken some of the tough times recently quite well and come out of it. Now they’re both going gangbusters, and that’s great, but they’ve had difficult times as well.
There are things I look for on the chessboard, a sense that they understand a lot of stuff without having to . . . Just like I mentioned earlier, they know where the pieces go. If I look at their games, I can quickly get a sense of which area they’re focused in. Some of them have no understanding of chess at all, but they have amazing sporting qualities, which is that they’re tenacious, they’re able to keep resisting. You can see that they don’t have this dip of being annoyed with themselves about the position and therefore their performance goes down.
If anything, they are still finding only moves. They’re still hanging in there. Some things like this will alert me to some sporting qualities, but the chess qualities, I think, I look for first. If not, I wonder, “They don’t have this. What could they possibly bring to the table that compensates for it?” Then I realize, ah, they have these other sporting qualities, maybe even their fitness, their ability to hang in there, things like that.
COWEN: Last question, where’s the best place to eat in Chennai?
ANAND: [laughs] You should go to some of these Udupi homes, and we have some places where they serve traditional South Indian breakfast. I think that, and not in the bigger places.
COWEN: Murugan Idli I went to, that was very good. Do you know it?
ANAND: Yes, Murugan Idli is very good. There are some nice Udupi joints. There’s Matsya — you can try that. The old Dasa chain as well. There used to be something called Dasaprakash. That’s nice. For me, it’s almost a childhood thing, literally. That’s how we used to snack, really. Besides that, someplace with a good thali gives you, I think, a good sampling of everything in both South Indian and Indian cuisine.
COWEN: Vishy Anand, thank you very much.
ANAND: Thank you. A pleasure.
Special thanks to Nabeel Qureshi for his help with the video and transcript.