'India is a superpower in chess now': Viswanathan Anand talks exclusively to THE WEEK

He talks about new crop of talent, how Covid-19 helped chess grow globally, and more

52-Anand-with-wife-Aruna Viswanathan Anand | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

For decades in India, chess was Anand, and Anand chess. Not any more. Thanks, in part, to Anand himself. The five-time world champion has played a role in nurturing what he calls the ‘golden generation’ of chess in India, and is now working on spreading the game further. Semi-retired, the 53-year-old has taken up new roles, be it as part-time commentator, FIDE deputy president or mentor to the rising teens.

It is a different vibe now because I [have been] used to being the only Indian in a tournament for very long. Whereas all of them (youngsters) not only see each other, but are rivals in the same tournament.
I have to be careful [while offering advice to the youngsters]. I can share what I think and leave it in the air, but I cannot be too prescriptive. Honestly. [they] can judge it much better.

In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, Anand talks about this new crop of talent, his relationship with the greats of the game, how the pandemic helped grow chess globally and how India has become a superpower in world chess. Excerpts from the interview held in Chennai on August 21, the day R. Praggnanandhaa stormed into the FIDE World Cup final:

Q/ Your protege, Gukesh D., has overtaken you in the FIDE live ratings. Is it a bittersweet feeling?

A/ I am surprised that it remains slightly bittersweet. It is moderated by the fact that, yes, I have worked with him. He is with us in WestBridge Anand Chess Academy. So clearly I have contributed to that. Also, a couple of years ago, I semi-retired. So, for all these reasons it doesn’t really rankle or anything, but at the same time, for like 30 years you have something, you don’t think of it as a temporary feature, and then suddenly to have someone solidly above—he is at least three points above me. I felt a couple of years ago it was just a matter of time, so intellectually I understood it is going to happen, but still, there is a little bit.

Q/ But you must also be proud of him.

A/ Very much. If you look at Gukesh or Nihal Sarin or R. Praggnanandhaa—Prag did sensationally in the World Cup; he was the first one to qualify for the Candidates [tournament]. So, Gukesh is the first Indian to cross me in the ranking list, and Praggnanandhaa is the only one who has ever been in a final of a World Cup, or who has ever been in the Candidates (after Anand). So, there are some overlapping things happening here. I felt it was inevitable, but you tend to think of something as gradual, and then it is all happening in the same month. That is unusual.

52-Anand-with-wife-Aruna Support system: Anand with wife, Aruna, at their Chennai home | Bhanu Prakash Chandra

Q/ Is it how Sachin Tendulkar would look at Virat Kohli? Like passing the baton?

A/ Yes, in some sense.

Q/ In chess, there was Manuel Aaron and then Viswanathan Anand. And from Anand, the whole narrative of chess in India changes. And now we are seeing a massive surge of Indian talent. And a majority of them from Tamil Nadu.

A/ Yes, a majority from Tamil Nadu, but we still have players from other parts of the country and I think the game is gradually spreading in India. Maybe phones contribute to this. Earlier, if you were curious but there wasn’t some way to play chess, you gave up. Now you find it on your phone and you continue.

It is a very different vibe now because I [have been] used to being the only Indian in a tournament for very long. Whereas all of them not only see each other, but are rivals in the same tournament. So, it is incomparable with my experience. Even when I go and watch them, I realise it is a very different vibe for them.

Q/ In an earlier interview with THE WEEK, you said you now pick and choose the tournaments you want to play. When did you decide that?

A/ It happened at gunpoint of the pandemic. And then I thought, this is not so bad. One of the things in chess that you know will happen, but you never really want to start thinking about, is retirement. So, around 2019, I had this hard moment—[I thought about whether] I should keep competing at this level for this long. Because the payoff is going to keep getting lower and lower. I am going to be working much harder just to stand still. [I thought about if] there were other things that I wanted to try. Because it would be a great time to divert. Then the pandemic happened and I got a test run, so to speak. And I realised, this is not that bad.


I could not originally imagine a life that doesn’t revolve around [a] routine you have [been following] for 40 years. And suddenly, for 375 days exactly, I did not go near an airport. So, I came back on June 6, 2020 from Bangalore and I left on June 16, 2021 to Zagreb.

He (Magnus Carlsen) is quite busy. I mean, when we see each other, we are friendly, but we are not very close... he is also in his own world and doing a lot of things.

I still like playing some nice tournaments, so why turn that down? But I am not going to play the World Championship, the World Cup, the Grand Series; I am not going to go into the pathways to qualify. But a few tournaments that I choose to play, I will play and try to enjoy that.

Q/ So you’re not looking at your points; it is just more of a passion, right?

A/ You have to care about the points, but I am also able to let go of it faster.

Q/ But when you see so many youngsters from India and with so much more activity, does it make you want to throw your hat in the ring again?

A/ Mostly, it is not a realistic thought, but every once in a while when you see someone else make a move that you saw as well, you think, well I could be doing that. But I don’t seriously question my decision. Even three years ago, I could play a great game of chess, but that was not the question. The question was, can I do this consistently enough and deliver often enough for it to be worth it? And I thought, I should acknowledge that I am 10 years older than the nearest guy I am competing with. And sometimes 15 or 20 years older than most of the people I am competing with. And it just takes a toll, so let me move to a reduced schedule. Besides, I get my chess fix. I get to go as a FIDE deputy president and be part of the action. I do commentary for some events; that way you get to think about chess a lot and share it. And I do get to compete from time to time. In the meantime, I have learned that you can spend more time with your family, at home, and that has also been a learning process.

Q/ Does age really make such a difference?

A/ Yes. In chess, many players are starting to peak in their 40s, and some are even peaking or appear to be peaking in their 30s. They are not much stronger than the ones who are 20. And then you think, well, five years down the line, what’s that going to look like? And you’re not sure.

Q/ You once said that Magnus Carlsen was peaking when he challenged you for the World Championship and that you were coming down from the peak. So, can you talk about that? Also, someone slightly older than you, Nigel Short, is now playing senior chess. And there is also someone younger than you who is playing senior chess, but you are not. So, when you are coming down from your peak, how do you compete with the youngsters coming up?

A/ So, what happened to me roughly when I lost my match to Carlsen was that the problem solved itself. I qualified for one more World Championship match. I went through that. And then after that, I would need to win the Candidates to qualify. So, when I played the Candidates, I was still able to make a very, very good show of it. In 2016, I could have still qualified.... I finished second in the end. But after that, even the pathway to the Candidates wasn’t clear.... A couple of years later, I played the Grand Swiss and I realised it (game) is receding. And the thing that used to take the most energy out of me, gave me the most stress, the World Championship event, suddenly wasn’t there. And then you realise, wait, now I can cope with what is remaining. So, in a sense, my schedule became a bit softer.... Now at 50, I think it is nice to have enough time for other things, whether it is OGQ (Olympic Gold Quest) or especially WACA (WestBridge Anand Chess Academy), which I took on during the pandemic or the FIDE deputy president [role].... I still get the social aspect of chess. I still get to see old friends. I’m not cut off completely, but [as for] competing, I will take it slow.

Q/ Talking about friendship, what is your equation with people like Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov or Carlsen? Are they friends or just opponents?

A/ Not at all. Kasparov has become incredibly warm. I mean, we have a very good time whenever we meet because he comes to all the Grand Chess tour events for the opening ceremony because his company co-organises it. So I get to see him there. We have very good chats about the good old times and so on.

Q/ Is he a fun guy, Kasparov?

A/ He is a lot of fun.... He has always got something witty to say.

Q/ He has a completely different pursuit in politics now.

A/ Yes. To be honest, I thought he was more of a speaker and an activist.... But inevitably last year (Ukraine war), his situation changed where his activism itself became a kind of politics. So now he is firmly entrenched in that area.

1244714603 Rising stars: Anand with Gukesh | Getty Images

Q/ What about Karpov?

A/ I [have] not seen him since the pandemic started. And he has not been travelling much. He is now 72 maybe, and he had a health crisis earlier this year.... I have friends who keep me informed. Someone like Boris Gelfand, I am very close to. He is also helping me at WACA as well. And then Vladimir Kramnik, someone I keep in touch with. So we used to play some non-castling events in Germany. Now I will see him in a few days again. But I hang out with a lot of the younger generation.

Q/ Carlsen?

A/ He is quite busy. I mean, when we see each other, we are friendly, but we are not very close... he is also in his own world and doing a lot of things.

Q/ When you look from the outside, there is a lot of intrigue about chess players. I think it has largely to do with the kind of image that Bobby Fischer created in that great contest with Boris Spassky. Reclusive, a little idiosyncratic, a little temperamental and stuff like that. What are chess players like?

A/ Certainly chess players are self-absorbed and very focused on their work. But I think not more than anybody in any walk of life. Probably both of you are very focused on your work. And, you know, if I intrude in that moment when you are busy, then only so much mental bandwidth you have for that. And the same with chess players. Bobby Fischer, it is true. He changed the image a little bit. It is not that most chess players are idiosyncratic; the problem is people remember the ones who are. And really that is what happened with Bobby Fischer.... Chess players generally are kind of university types. They like to sit and think. Now, thanks to computers, there is more of an IT gaming crowd coming in. So an interesting mix is happening.

Q/ So there are characters.

A/ There are characters. And if you have been in chess for a long time, you see them as individuals. And it stuns me every time there is a famous movie and everyone treats us as some collective noun again. So, you know, after The Queen’s Gambit, which by the way, was very successful, [I thought] well, I look up and I do think like that, like Beth Harmon (protagonist), but I don’t know that every chess player looks up and thinks like that. You know, we are not all manufactured in the same fab (laughs).

Q/ You were talking about computers and the pandemic. Do you think more people took to chess during Covid-19, in India and abroad?

A/ Short answer, yes. It turned out that for chess, that moment had been right.... If the same pandemic had happened in 2010, we would not have noticed it. By 2020, everyone had a phone, everyone had 4G. Second, chess had much, much better apps that you could just download and start playing.... Third, they couldn’t have made it with the pandemic in mind, but The Queen’s Gambit was produced and released during the pandemic. And it turned out there was probably some latent desire. A lot of people had connected with chess somewhere in the past, and they had forgotten about it. And it has been sitting on their to-do lists for years and years. And suddenly they had the time, the phone, and all they needed was somebody to tell them, ‘You know, that chess thing, maybe I have time for it now.’ And The Queen’s Gambit comes along and reminds them.

And to answer your other question, it was global. YouTube usage went up... and YouTube channels [about chess were] available worldwide.... It has gone up in every country.

PTI08_21_2023_000254A Praggnanandhaa | PTI

Q/ Let’s talk about this present lot. What’s your take on Praggnanandhaa at the World Cup?

A/ He has improved so much in the last few months. He is playing with so much confidence in everything.... What message do you need to send the guy who’s going to be at the Candidates? Congrats. The point of the World Cup is not to win the World Cup, it is to qualify for the Candidates. He has done that.

Q/ And what about the other young Indians? How are they coming on?

A/ I think almost all of them can take heart from the performance in the World Cup... So that is quite rare. Normally you think, I have five horses, one of them will do well.

Q/ But this is new, right? Because India never had that in chess. It was all about Anand. It is a revolution, in a way, what has happened.

A/ So I always [say] the current generation is a golden generation.

Q/ Golden generation?

A/ Yes. I am throwing in the title early, but they are a golden generation. They are all in the 2,700-plus group (rating). And they are all under 20. That just does not happen; it is really something special. And what this means, and the reason I call them the golden generation, is they are going to spend the next 10 years at the top. With varying career trajectories, of course, but they are going to spend the next 10 years being rivals and colleagues and friends and everything. So, for Indian chess, that augurs very well.

Q/ Was there a lot of pressure when you were in your prime? You know, we are a very passionate country.

A/ I felt I was playing for myself. I certainly was proud to have the flag. But mostly, I felt whatever I am doing, an Indian is doing for the first time and let’s just have a good time and see how far I can get. And so, I was cushioned from that. And second, chess players those days didn’t find out what everyone thought right away, which I think is the real problem today. I am not even sure that I would want to be in this atmosphere... the intensity with which people follow these days and it is social media-driven; I think that makes a big difference in how it is seen. But, of course, it is good for them as well because [it helps] amplify their careers.

Q/ What about money-wise? Do you think more money coming into chess will attract more people from other parts of the country?

A/ I believe that the number of people who can make a living from chess alone has quintupled in the last five years. So, you can be a coach, you can be an author, you can be a journalist, you can stream. There are just so many extra ways to earn a living that getting into chess is a much safer option now than it has ever been. And it is fantastic; a lot more people will be able to take this decision with much less hesitation. But there are very few chess players playing in Saudi clubs (laughs). So, there is still some room to grow.

Q/ Are big corporates coming and saying, you know, there is this golden age of chess, let’s be part of this?

A/ We get a lot of companies that are sponsoring chess players from a much earlier age. We say corporate money, but I believe it is also this Indian startup mentality. A lot of people are much more spontaneous and it takes a smaller group of people to sit around the room and just say, well, let’s do this or let’s do that. These kinds of projects start much faster.... So, [it is] almost crowd-funding meets corporate meets startup.

Q/ You know the strengths and weaknesses of the younger lot. You would know exactly the intricacies that go into this. So, how would you tell each of them to channel their energy?

A/ I would share my experiences, especially psychologically and emotionally speaking. But chess itself has changed so much. When I was growing up, what we tried to pass on to people was, how do you find better moves? But now when the computer is giving you the best moves right away or the quickest answer, the thinking almost has to change. How do you remember what it tells you? How do you pick out what is essential? So, the skill set has changed. Also, the nature of chess. Blitz and rapid and online chess are all legitimate formats; there are events happening. I never used to play them when I was young because, first of all, they didn’t exist. So, how does my experience compare with them? I have to be careful. I can share what I think and leave it in the air, but I cannot be too prescriptive. Honestly. [they] can judge it much better.

Mostly what you can share is the struggle that you face and the moment that it goes wrong and the moment that you do the right thing. That will never change.

Q/ Now that you are part of FIDE, how would you help chess overall?

A/ Well, for the ticket I joined, the FIDE president is Arkady Dvorkovich. His ticket was to grow chess, especially for women. And what I am trying to add to that, is trying to make it happen in India. So, for me, the Global Chess League with Tech Mahindra was a big thing because I was working on that even before I joined FIDE.... I worked with the Tata Steel event in Kolkata. So, like that, you know, I stay involved in a lot of initiatives here. But basically, [we have to] get more and more people to compete, and improve the conditions for women because there is a huge participation gap in chess for women.... One of the things FIDE is working on is to raise the prize funds at all women’s tournaments. Because in the end, you have to make something more attractive for it to be a sensible decision.

Q/ And do you see a lot more participation?

A/ By when do you see, you know, even a 60-40 per cent split in men’s and women’s participation? You cannot have such firm deadlines. A lot of this is also cultural. So, you have got to go slowly. But for the first time, chess is reaching people even without us knowing because of the internet. So, in a sense, we also have to manage the growth. But we have done very well. Our budget has been higher every single year. Prize funds are higher every single year.

Q/ Do you see India as an emerging superpower in chess or is it already one? Do you see a decline in Russia, which used to be a powerhouse? Do you see that power matrix changing?

A/ Definitely. I believe that a country the size of India, if it decides to take something seriously, we are going to become important. I mean, every sixth person on the planet is Indian.... But this is genuine quality. We are not just flooding the place. We have produced an amazing golden generation, like I said. We have, I believe, some very talented female juniors. So hopefully in a couple of years, we will be able to replicate that.... If we have three or four Indians representing us at the top, inevitably Indians will keep following the game. So, yes, India is a superpower in chess and will continue to be a very important country for the game globally.