A few decades ago, a young Viswanathan Anand was asked by an elderly gentleman what he did for a living while on a train journey to Kerala. Anand, having just turned pro, replied that he played chess.
"But that's not a secure career choice," the gentleman muttered before pausing and adding, "Unless you're Viswanathan Anand."
Evidently, at the time Anand was already making a name for himself in a country besotted by cricketers, but was still to become a known face.
In the decades since this scene played out, Anand and the sport have both come a long way.
Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion's Life is a retelling of that journey. Of a man who sparked a chess revolution in India by taking it from a hobby to a mainstream sport. Moreover, doing it by himself, at a time when the sport was the domain of Soviet Union-backed chess players like Anatoly Karpov and Vladimir Kramnik or players like Veselin Topalov who were bankrolled by countries like Bulgaria.
“At best, I was an oddity on the world chess scene,” writes Anand. “A non-Soviet (and a non-Westerner) from a land that sounded unfamiliar, exotic and far-flung from the rumblings of the sport. Phonetically too my name was a misfit among the Soviet cluster of chess players’ names that rhymed with each other’s and almost sounded familial.”
Fittingly then, the lyrics of the famous Frank Sinatra song ‘I Did It My Way’ preface the book.
Having been a poster boy and a trailblazer for India at chess, the 50-year-old still remains somewhat of an enigma for many Indians who cannot grasp the complexities of the sport Anand played.
Anand's autobiography, co-authored by journalist Susan Ninan, straddles the fine line between catering to chess aficionados and people who cannot tell a bishop from a king. But more importantly, it shows even the ardent chess fan a side of Anand that they probably wouldn't, despite having followed his career closely.
While there are parts where the book can make for slow reading, there are nuggets which help the reader discover Anand's quirks ― such as his habit of signing only a particular square should a fan ask for his autograph on a chessboard, or his habit of letting his mind wander to scenes from Yes Minister or Monty Python and the Holy Grail when he's caught in a troubling position.
The book also breaks away from the tradition of autobiographies to follow the life and times of the protagonist in a chronological sequence of events.
Instead, Mind Master is a collection of moments that stand out from the career of one of India's greatest athletes.
Through the book, Anand, in essence, introduces you to different sides of Anand. You meet the young Anand who, at the age of seven, had an 'extreme admiration' for John McEnroe (he still does) to the point where he would imagine himself chipping, charging and volleying like the tennis ace. You're introduced to the Anand whose profession sees him remember thousands of intricate patterns and lines on the chessboard, but also one could have such poor memory that he once forgot his own wedding anniversary and admittedly needs to flip through Facebook profiles of his friends before school reunions to remember their faces and names.
The book also wonderfully captures the drama and intrigue that can surround chess, especially when it comes to the World Chess Championship. Kasparov flits from being a rival in 1995 to ally during the 2010 World Championship tie in Sofia against Topalov (where he would help Anand via Skype) to being a rival again by the time Anand faced Boris Gelfand for the World title in 2012. Kramnik also helped Kasparov out against Anand during their PCA World Championship match in 1995, but almost became a second for the Indian during his 2010 World's title bid.
A teenaged Magnus Carlsen too, used to be a sparring partner for Anand before his 2007 Mexico, 2008 Bonn and 2010 Sofia World Championship runs.
Anand's recollections about the 2010 Sofia game are the highlight of the book simply for the surreal nature of the chain of events. There was a volcanic eruption that shut down flights, and a consequent 2,000-km roadtrip traversing Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania to get to Bulgaria.
To pass the time, Anand and his team of seconds watched the popular TV show House and Lord of the Rings. Incredulously, at the end of the 40-hour road-trip and with a World Championship clash looming, Anand and his team took two rounds of their hotel in their car just so they could finish off the LoTR trilogy.
While Carlsen, Kramnik, Kasparov switch roles from friend to foe, the one constant aide Anand had by his side was his wife Aruna.
Anand narrates the running joke in chess circles that he would lose a bunch of Elo points after his marriage to Aruna. As it turned out, she became a second of sorts, helping Anand take care of issues off the board like logistics and dealing with organisers, allowing him to focus single-mindedly on the chessboard.
The book offers a glimpse into the growing presence of Aruna, who when they got married couldn't tell if Anand had won or lost a game, but would later go on to negotiate terms with Kramnik's team ahead of the 2008 World Championship and have the brainwave of using a 'force majeure' clause to force a postponement in the 2010 World Chess Championship game with FIDE.
The book offers glimpses into the mind and ― more importantly ― the heart of Anand. The agony of losing to Kramnik, the self-awareness that his career is on a downward spiral by the time the World Championship clash with Carlsen in Chennai came about, and the mild pangs of regret at not having been more confrontational throughout his career. Anand also uses the book to address his perception as a 'bland nice guy', to the point where rivals thought of him as a pushover. His career is proof that he wasn't.
He's been dismissed as a coffee house player by Soviet Union players. The chess community was dismissive of his World title at Tehran in 2000. Karpov deliberately arrived 40 minutes late for a game against him in 1997 to get under his skin. Kasparov tried to rattle him ahead of the World Chess Championship tie by banging his pieces on the board and slamming the door as he left the room after a move. Topalov tried to unnerve Anand during the 2010 World Chess Championship by employing 'Sofia Rules', where he would not talk to Anand at all, even if he were to offer a draw during a game. All through it, Anand kept his composure and grace (despite his admiration for players like McEnroe who could smash their racquets or Zinedine Zidane, who could headbutt an opponent even in a game with stakes as high as a World Cup final).
Along the way, he changed the perception of the sport back home and collected five World Chess titles.
As the Sinatra song in the preface goes, Anand did it his way.
Hachette India | Pages: 262 | Price: Rs 599
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Updated Date: Jan 15, 2020 17:11:35 IST