CHENNAI: Sunil Gavaskar once said what separates great players from the rest is ability to bounce back, reinvent themselves, and keep adapting to the changing times.
His words are true to any sport, as Viswanathan Anand proved yet again with his splendid showing at the Champions Showdown tournament in St Louis (United States). That he beat two of the strongest players in the world — Hikaru Nakamura and Fabiano Caruana — must have given the Chennai legend a lot of satisfaction.
Despite jet lag after a long flight back home, the player turning 47 on December 11 took time off to speak to Express in the cool confines of the study at his RA Puram duplex apartment.
With medals and trophies won over a period of time forming a perfect backdrop, Anand said he was very satisfied with this performance, and wished to carry the momentum to next month’s London Classic.
Although he has not been able to closely follow the World Chess Championship match, Anand believes World No 1 Magnus Carlsen — despite letting Sergey Karjakin salvage a couple of draws — is a tough nut to crack.
How satisfying was winning the Showdown ahead of Caruana and Nakamura?
Very. It was a tough event from which I didn’t particularly have any expectations. I’m familiar with the multiple-format setup, Zurich was one instance. But here, the number of games was more. Zurich had 15 games, while St Louis had 24. I expected as the tournament progressed, there would be a couple of days that will be uneven. But it was smooth and stable throughout. After four days, I was surprised that I was still undefeated. I technically didn’t lose a game because the one I did was due to time.
How comfortable were you with time control in St Louis?
This time delay is something that I had to get used to. I’m more used to playing on increments. You get two seconds or five seconds after every move. This was unusual for me. Of course, I have played games without increments. Time delay is not worse than that.
What do you attribute this performance to, your best this year so far?
I had a good result in Leon too. I attribute that to my stability. I played the best chess overall and didn’t make many mistakes. The ones I did make were in not converting winning positions. In fact, I almost had the luxury of not converting many but still winning the tournament.
Nakamura has been a tough player. Did winning two mini-matches against him make you happy?
Definitely. In fact, I had let him escape in at least two of the games. I was very happy with my play. I expected both Caruana and Nakamura to cause more problems than they eventually did.
It looked like having three different formats produced some riveting games...
It was fine because it happened gradually. We played classical on three days, along with a day each of rapid and blitz. In a sense, when you went to sleep, you knew that tomorrow would be different. There was no problem getting used to it.
How do you assess your year?
After Zurich in February, it has been stable. I hope to continue that through London, which will start soon. I am happy with my play both in Corsica and St Louis.
How much does one have to reinvent to remain competitive against the young guns?
You have to keep working on it constantly. The style of play and the way people approach problems keep evolving. You just have to be ready to change. You can’t be too rigid and say I’m going to prepare just a few things for the whole year. These days, one has to be more flexible.
Many believe you now have the spark to take on Carlsen.
I don’t focus on him that much. If I play him, I would obviously like to do well. If I keep my level up all the time, it will help me play well against anyone.
Pentala Harikrishna has made tremendous progress. What do you think he has done differently?
I notice that he wins a lot of games, and his preparations have stabilised. Occasionally, people catch him out in the opening. It’s a problem everyone faces, not just him. He has found a lot of openings that suit his style. He outplays a lot of people in long games. If you see his score in team and open tournaments, he usually gets a lot of points. On top of that, he has played well in a strong tournament in Norway. He has improved all facets of his game, and is peaking at the moment.
What are your impressions on R Praggnanandhaa?
He’s showing a lot of promise, and he had a very good result at the World Youth event. I hope he keeps making progress, because people are excited about him. People ask me how to pronounce his name, and that’s a good sign. He is definitely someone who I will keep watching.
In the World Championship, Carlsen had let Karjakin escape with a draw after putting him in difficult positions…
I don’t think Carlsen is playing badly. He is doing quite well. Mistakes that happen at the highest level are normal. I think Carlsen is playing well, but Karjakin is defending well too. So far, the match has been building up, but the first blow hasn’t happened. If you remember, when I played Carlsen in Chennai, we had four draws, and suddenly the match turned against me. It can happen any moment. The tension is building.
Can Karjakin spring a surprise and break the deadlock?
Carlsen may be troubled sometimes, but he has solutions. He avoids opening problems. I do not recollect Carlsen having many difficulties. Karjakin is defending well, but that is not the same as posing a problem. He has not been able to trouble Carlsen so far.
How much do you enjoy the late Mark Dvorestky’s books?
I read many of his books. I even had a training session with him, before my 1995 World Championship match against Garry Kasparov. I did know he’d been having health problems for a while. I felt sad to hear the news of his passing away, as I knew him quite well. We used to greet each other when we met in Moscow.
Do you think more rapid tournaments are required to make chess more popular?
I agree. I feel it’s a part of the mix of chess. In combined formats, it comes in handy, and also in events like World Chess. It is part of the Grand Chess Tour too. Some of the interesting events on the calendar are rapid events.
Will a city-based chess league on the lines of the IPL and ISL work?
Well, definitely. We already have the Maharashtra chess league. Hopefully, we will build on that.
Your father-in-law Ananth has a collection of vintage cars. What is your hobby?
I am not a car person. My game keeps me busy. Whenever we travel, we try to bring back something typical of that place as a souvenir. I also buy T-shirts just for the memory of visiting that place.
How do you spend free time?
When I am not travelling, I spend time with my son Akhil. I play with him in the evenings and watch movies that he enjoys.