Viswanathan Anand: ‘Chess is very South-heavy, it doesn't play nationally'

Viswanathan Anand has been playing chess at the highest level for 24 years.

That’s longer than the time Sachin Tendulkar has been around in international cricket, that’s around the same time when the Simpsons made their television debut and that’s before India launched its policy of liberalisation. To cut a long story short, he’s been around for a long time and he hasn’t scraped the bottom. He’s been around at the top, competing with the best the world has to offer.

Maybe, that’s also why he’s taken for granted, in a certain sense. He’s been around for so long that he seems like a fixture. He’s the top ranked player in the World at present, and one of the only six players in history to break the 2,800 mark on the FIDE rating list -- the list of achievements can go on for a long time. But put him next to Tendulkar, and we all know who is going to garner the attention.

Viswanathan Anand

Viswanathan Anand feels the internet is going to help chess become more popular. AFP

"In India, chess is very South-heavy. Maybe, you can add West Bengal and Maharashtra to that. But it's a very southern sport and it doesn't play nationally. What is beginning to change is that more people are starting to take it up from various parts of the country, which is heartening. And the second thing is that because we are using the schools network, a lot of kids are able to learn it along with their studies. In fact, we also think that there is a positive co-relation between the two," said Anand from Chennai.

In the popularity sweepstakes, Anand and chess have carved out a niche for themselves. But that’s it – there’s nothing beyond that. Despite various initiatives to try and make chess more popular, there is a feeling that it’s never quite managed to shake off the tag of being a game for the intellectuals. And perhaps that’s hurting the ‘sport’ of Kings.

"See the thing with chess is that to truly appreciate what's happening you need to know the rules. If you don't know the rules, you can't see what's happening, you can't see the battle unfolding," said Anand. "Unlike any other physical sport where you can see things happening and learn from them without being an expert."

"But with the advent of the internet, you can feel the tension of the players without being at the venue. It has happened to me recently while watching games on the internet and I believe it's so much easier to actually understand and learn from the best players in the world. It's like a whole new world out there, just waiting to be explored."

In a detailed interview, Anand speaks about the journey of chess and his part in it, about his greatest battles across the 64 squares and how the internet and computers might help finally break down the barrier to popularity and make the battles come alive for all those watching.

Chess has seemingly been around for ages. But on the face of it, there is so little that has really changed. How much, in your opinion, has chess really changed?

How much of chess is strategy and how much of it is instinct? Do you think it's possible to play chess by instinct alone in this day and age?

If you were to talk about change in terms of the way you prepare for a game now, what do you think has changed? I remember when you took on Garry Kasparov for the World Championship in 1995, the Russian said in his post-tournament analysis that your seconds had prepared you to play him and not your own brand of chess...

Chess isn't a battleground in the physical sense. But mentally, it takes a lot out of you. How do you get over the trauma of defeat?

Was your match-up against Veselin Topalov the most intense battle that you have ever been involved in?

Did you ever get the feeling that the Sofia match-up was about much more than just chess?

Coming back to the journey of chess, do you think people look at it as a 'sport'?

If you are trying to attract someone to chess, what games would you show him? Jose Raul Capablanca... Bobby Fischer... Boris Spassky... Garry Kasparov... your own perhaps?

Your childhood idol has been Mikhail Tal and in your mind, he's also one of the most exciting players you've seen. But what if you come across someone who has never heard of Tal?

We used to have a lot of man-versus-computer battles in the 90s. But now, we don't really see that happen much. Would you say that it's been firmly established that one of the two is better?

Given how strong computers are these days, how many moves ahead can you think or do you like to think?

You've been around for 24 years. That's a long time, how does the sport remain fun for you?

These days most children tend to take up cricket because it's a good career choice as well. Does chess offer the same kind of possibility? Can someone ever look at chess as a career?

To make any game popular, you need an audience. How do you get that in chess? It's not the most exciting game to watch from a distance...

You've just won your eighth title at Leon. Do you get the feeling that things are just starting to come a little bit easier to you now...

When you consider the ages of some of the young grandmasters around... have they got around to calling you 'Uncle' now?