The games in our heads: 'Mind Master' Viswanathan Anand says, put your fears on paper
We have watched him play live, from up in the spectator galleries. We’ve studied his games on video. And, we have pored over books of detailed analyses on his moves, on too many occasions to recount. But we’re not anywhere close to getting into the mind of Indian chess grandmaster, Viswanathan ‘Vishy’ Anand.
When his newest book, Mind Master was released, we were quick to sit down and glean the pages for every opening, gambit, capture, castle, check and mate that we could find. Truth be told, it did leave us a bit wiser, to swell our chests and prepare a few questions for the man himself. We admit coming off a bit timid in the beginning — albeit for a laugh, but in the end, it was all worth it. Quite like a good, enjoyable game.
For a note (not really a spoiler): the book opens with an extract of the Paul Anka lyrics for My Way, the iconic song rendered ever-popular by Frank Sinatra. Anand also writes a simple dedication in the book’s preface, to his mother: ‘For my mother, who told me to always write down my thoughts, good or bad. She said, ‘One day you will read them and realise how beautiful they are.’ That’s the note that we began by asking him about.
Describe your earliest handwritten notes for us. What did those earliest notes tend to be about, in general? Tell us about the notes that make you laugh the hardest, when you re-read them today.
My earliest handwritten notes would be something on a score sheet, or on the games that I played, which did not even have a score sheet — where I would come back, remember the game, jot down the game by memory in my diary or notebook, with one or two impressions on what I thought was the key moment of the game, what I could’ve done better, and things like that.
This was superficial, because my own impressions or anything I discussed with my opponents afterwards, was as far as it went, and I didn’t really sit and analyse it thoroughly in a way that I would today. But still, that process itself was enough self-improvement, and more importantly, I think, when you look back, you don’t gloss over or romanticise a period, but you see that every moment, how there’s a struggle going on — I think, that’s probably the moment these notes are most useful.
The notes I laughed the most at were the ones where I was really angry or frustrated. I remember once, I lost a game in which I was slightly better, but then I blundered a piece, and I came back home, and I remember my mother was waiting in my aunt’s house, so I went there. And then my mother told me, you know, ‘Again you lost this game, why don’t you write down what you learn, and get better at it?’
And this sort of advice I really didn’t want at this point. I was fed up and by that time, I had figured out what had gone wrong, but it was hard to apply to the board, so I went there and wrote the most sarcastic notes I can imagine, and when I look at that today, I laugh a lot.
We’d like to get straight to the idea of keeping a positive attitude, and not dwelling on failure — like you speak of in the book, in the days before the World Championships of May 2012. How far against the wall did you need to be, to bounce back as a world champion, and to stay at the top?
I feel that in the end, a positive attitude which is actually present is the best. Everything else involves some degree of trickery, some way of deceiving yourself or telling yourself that things are better than they are or telling yourself not to think negative things.
Unless you actually address the core issue, it well tends to be half-hearted. The days before the World Championship of May 2012, is a good example. That year, more or less, constant failure had seeped into me and at some level, I could not see what was the best way to break out.
And then, we were working on a sort of deadline, so I pushed myself extra hard. I worked for long hours, but I still think I couldn’t see the big picture. And, I must say, we had all become tired, and I was unable to think out of the box, so the general malaise affected us.
It would have been a good moment to take some big dramatic risk, because then, at least you have the feeling of growing out of it. But it is a risk for a reason, if it works out badly and then you fail.
Ultimately, this match, I kind of focused on it, trying to hold on to my title. I was successful in that specific goal, even though I came much closer to defeat than I would have liked.
Tell us a little about the idea of keeping an eye on your opponent, however formidable he might seem. In a David and Goliath situation, how would you keep your focus, and never feel that fear of intimidation?
As for the idea of keeping an eye on my opponent, it’s a question of reorienting your thoughts and goals, no matter how strong they are, or how weak they are — you should feel some danger for them,
from them. But also, you should assume that they feel some danger from you.
In other words, no matter how strong someone is, you’re going to have some chances, if you do things right, and how do you channel your focus in that direction, and the opposite in the other sense.
One of the things we loved about the book, is that it gives us a sort of insight into your innermost thoughts, concerns and worries — and, essentially, the process that one might call of internal conversations. How important is it for someone playing solo, as opposed to a sportsman in a team affair, to understand the need for personal or internal communication, as opposed to the need for projection, external communication, and even the need for general conversation? How does the idea of personal expression work for a driven sportsman or individual — to remain constantly motivated?
I believe that any person with a public profile will have have the need for external communication, and this can be enjoyable. I have found it nice to have conversations with people who have nothing to do with chess, because I learn something, you get to hear something different, and so on.
As for the need for internal communication, I believe it is very important to voice your concerns — first of all to yourselves, because stating something has a certain confirmatory effect that simply thinking about something doesn’t. And the second thing is, if you state something, often you realise how absurd it sounds.
So, with many of my own fears, when I state my fears, or I write them down, then I immediately realise that I’m worrying too much. Whereas, when you keep it inside, it can rot a little bit.
We’re hard-pressed to ask, how do you deal with negative, and at times, sour competition? Tell us how one should ignore, deal with, or perhaps even laugh off commonplace sentiments such as of jealousy, envy and grudging admiration?
With negative emotions, both expressed silently and publicly and brazenly... it has been a struggle, it’s not easy. You may suspect someone’s hostility, and already, I’m someone who doesn’t like that situation very much.
But, when they come out and openly say something — in other words, when they feel there's no longer any need to pretend with you, it hurts and if it hurts, and you then start to divert your thinking about that, it’s definitely going to have practical consequences as well.
But you also react, and you evolve. I have found that — and I do mention this in the book — that the most effective campaign of hostility or aggression only works if you can deliver on the chessboard. So then, there were a number of people trying to intimidate me by public statements, and so on.
I would just remind myself, well they’ve got chess weaknesses that I can exploit. And if I can exploit that, then it hardly matters that they talked bravely before the game, because the only thing that matters is the result.
Equally, it’s my way of restraining myself, because I think well, it would be nice to reply to someone, but then if I lose the game, I’m the one who looks like a fool. So it’s more important to win, and that’s the answer I would like to give. That’s how my thinking evolved in that area.
As far as books on success secrets go, there is one aspect that appears to be glaringly missing here — and that’s your personal need, or the lack thereof, for a touch of glamour in your public profile. How do you deal with the very new-age and millennial need to always look good, and convey to the world, how good you look and feel?
I have always believed that your public profile should be one that you are comfortable with, one that feels natural to you. And, I think, therefore, it’s not because of a lack of need for glamour, but I don’t share things constantly because I don’t do it in private either. I think in the end, if you’re too different from the person you actually are, it’s going to be harder to maintain it. But you know, I do understand my public role and private role, and I feel that this is the way I’m comfortable with.
Would you like to take a moment to speak of poker here, as you have been actively supporting the game of poker as well? How does a mind inclined to constantly developing strategies, approach a game of poker, as opposed to chess?
I believe that the difference between poker and chess can be slightly exaggerated. In poker, you can have a lucky streak, which causes you to become more aggressive in your behaviour, or perhaps lose your objectivity a little bit.
This can happen in chess as well, if you have a couple of good results, you feel invulnerable, and suddenly you have this feeling that you can’t lose... it seems to me, very similar to poker, even if the practical and financial consequences are different. The biggest enemy for a chess player is complacency, and a lack of a sense of danger. And, I think, it’s quite similar in poker.
Mind Master, like most books and literature in your name, is geared towards super-achievers, or at least, people who think of themselves as masterminds in the making. Given that context, how would you win over an argument on finding satisfaction in life, getting settled and being happy — basically (somewhat Indian ideas, if we might say so ourselves!) of not pushing one’s self, and being socially appropriate rather than too outgoing? How do you look at people who are not interested in achieving too much?
I don’t think there’s a category called ‘super achievers’. I believe that everybody has goals they wish to attain, and things they are satisfied with, and the aim is to find some kind of balance or happy middle. My book is about my struggle to excel at the chessboard, the struggles I face, but at the same time how to balance my life, and be happy with that. I think most people, whatever area they’re ambitious in, and whatever area they wish to have an equilibrium in, should be able to hopefully relate to.
As for having stuck ideas and mindsets, and you know, attitudes... I explain my own struggles updating myself. Certainly, I don’t see that I’m someone who only lives for the new — there are a lot of things I’d like to keep, just the way they are. But we all like to find some kind of balance in our life, where we have the change that we can handle, what we must force ourselves to do to cope with.
A last question we’d like to ask, in context of social media, to do with the need to rise above sentimentalities, and emotional duress. With the internet allowing for a world of hyper-alert, uber-smart, yet none-too-consequential ideas, seemingly incessantly — how would you speak of the need to stay focused? Does a world champion ever get distracted?
I mentioned earlier that I don’t overdo things in public forums — that includes social media. Clearly there are people who like to be a lot more active out there. Maybe, it’s necessary for their jobs or profession, I don’t judge that, but I’m quite uninterested in following them as well. So, I look at what I find interesting and then I try to take that from the vast pool out there.
The most important thing, I would say, is that more important than having access to all the ideas is being able to block a lot of the ones that you’re not interested in, from your life — you know, both in chess, and outside of chess, we are dealing with a torrent of information, and it is important to keep a very, very good mental filter in your head.
Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life by Viswanathan Anand (as told to Susan Ninan), Hachette India, INR 599. Available in bookstores and online.
— Jaideep Sen