Making New Moves

This is Rohit Brijnath on Vishwanathan Anand.  From India Today. In 1997.

You look at V. Anand and you cringe; you think, forgive him Father for he knows not what modern sportsmen are supposed to do. He refuses to jell his hair, pierce his ear, give opponents the finger, burn suits that don’t have an Armani label, thank spectators with an uppercut. Instead, he wears a buttoned down, maroon shirt (with dark grey trousers) that requires dark glasses to view it closely; he wincingly admits, that he, the man who spends two hours of spare time learning about geography on his computer encyclopaedia, tucks himself into bed with soap operas; and he pursues a lifestyle so healthy that even his seconds have pleaded during matches, “Be unhealthy, hit the disco, come back at 6 a.m.”

The man is a conventional mess. Still, he is excused, forgiven everything. Most of it because he brings to Indian sport a freshness. First, unlike many of his Indian contemporaries, he doesn’t have to do frequent mri scans to check if he’s got a brain; the man is Mr IQ Just Short of Einstein, who can play 10 games at a time blindfolded never seeing any of the boards, just knowing where each move should be. Secondly, he’s honest, telling you straight off that he was a weak player (he was No. 2 in the world when he said this, so I guess the rest of you chess players can start weeping), admitting that Garry Kasparov turned him into a ragtag wreck by the end of their 1995 World Championship face-off. Thirdly, he didn’t sit on his behind and moan: working six hours a day, sometimes in 45-day stretches — just studying one of Kasparov’s openings means scrolling through 80,000 games — he’s taken his game to a different level. The world championship begins in December; the Indian who challenges for the crown this time bears no resemblance to the man who sat with Kasparov. Well, may be only the maroon shirt.

To understand Anand is to first decipher what makes a great chess player. Unlike Sachin Tendulkar, whose skills lie evident on a field, chess is not exhibitionist, and so Anand’s virtues lie invisible, locked into his head. Patience, concentration, logic, reasoning, chess knowledge … and memory slightly more complicated than remembering your car number. Chess legend Bobby Fischer once called a friend in Iceland; he was out, his daughter spoke to Fischer in Icelandic explaining in detail where her father had gone. Fischer did not understand Icelandic. Still, he called a friend who did and repeated verbatim what the girl had said and asked what it meant. That sort of memory. So over lunch in Chennai, I pull a test on Anand to check his memory.

A chess-playing friend has helped me out by randomly selecting positions — chess pieces set in a particular pattern — from three games out of a few million or so played. I have a photo of these chess boards. There is nothing else, no names of the players, no year, no type of competition it was played in, no frame of reference. I show him the first picture of the chess board.

Two seconds. “That’s Lasker’s study.” It’s from 1892.

Then the second picture.

He looks. Two seconds later, he says: “Fischer-Najdorf 1962, the knight’s the key, because then …”

Third picture.

A second. Perhaps less. Grins. “That’s me against Kamsky 1994.” My jaw is unhinged.

The information Anand has to deal with is staggering. When he played Anatoly Karpov in 1991, his study was worth 20,000 bytes; prior to playing Kasparov, it was 350,000 bytes; and then just in the two months of preparing for Kasparov, it rose to 2.5 million bytes. He’s not impressed; Kasparov’s is nearly 9 million bytes. He must take this information — perhaps culled from the 500-600 books he has and a million or so games on his database — remember it, dissect it, juggle patterns in his head, think five moves ahead down four different avenues. He must also reason fast. They say chess players can solve a Rubik’s cube in their head. “No,” says Anand, “but some are known to solve it through equations.” Faced with a board where he must decide which of 10 roads his pieces must travel, knowing only one will lead to a draw the rest nine to a loss, his memory, his logical skills, his judgement are all tested.

“You measure memory,” he says, “through the mistakes you make.” He hasn’t made too many of late. This summer he was joint winner with Vladimir Kramnik (who has overtaken him as world No. 2) in Seville, won the blindfold, rapid and overall title in Monaco (defeating Kramnik), beat Karpov in a rapid tournament in Frankfurt, came second behind Kramnik in Dortmund, won the Credit Suisse tournament in Biel and put $170,000 or so into his bank. Somewhere in between he played six of the top computer programmes — Rebel, Genius, Hiartcs, Fritz, Kallisto, King all running on 200Mhz Pentiums or the like — winning three, drawing two, losing one. Kasparov on hearing this would say: “Is Vishy mad?” He was the wrong man to ask that, having almost driven Anand to insanity himself. And to truly appreciate Anand today is to first realise what Kasparov did to him.

In late 1995, when Anand sat down with his four seconds to prepare for the world championship, his world disintegrated. Chess games can be sectioned into two parts: opening game (the line between that and the middle game has become blurred) and the end game. Opening theory — or the complex variations that comprise, say, the first 17 or so moves — is vital. In a sense more important than Pete Sampras’ serve means to him at Wimbledon. It sets the tone. Yet not only did Anand find he had a “limited repertoire of openings”, in a month’s time his seconds had found innumerable flaws in them. This was fatal. Learning new opening theory is akin to grasping a new language, it takes time. You cannot just sit down at a chess board and be inventive. Says Anand: “If I had played myself then I would have wiped myself out.”

Then began a tactical war Anand could not win. Unlike Anand’s seconds who had access to his secrets, Kasparov did not exactly know Anand’s frailty in openings: so he guessed. And when he eventually spotted a flaw he began to systematically map out and exploit Anand’s weaknesses. “By the 10th game,” says Anand, “he broke me.”

There were other complications. To start a chess game, you can use one of four main moves — say A, B, C, D — which eventually lead to complex opening theories. Anand could play only one such move. Kasparov could play all four. He would then note Anand’s response to each of his four plays; and if he found, for instance, that Anand was least comfortable with C, Kasparov would begin to work specifically on that opening. The problem was Anand did not know that Kasparov was readying that one play, so he would prepare his reponses to all four. “I was losing time,” he said. And the world championship.

At home in the hotel, the Anand team was edgy, psychologically worn out from bluffing on the board each day. The match was out of reach, but not the future. Chess players who lose world championships are known to suffer crises of confidence. Instead, Anand decided, “I have to work really hard.”

And so in February 1996, closeted in a room in his house just outside Madrid with his second Georgian GM Elizabar Ubilava, he began. First, a 45-day session, then 15 days in May, then another 45 days in October-November and finally another 45 days in February-March this year. An hour or so in the morning, a long walk, then four hours and more in the afternoon-evening. The education of Anand had begun. The subject: opening theory (most of the time anyway).

Tick, tick, tick, Anand’s finger keeps punching the delete button on his computer. He is demonstrating to me how he studies. He is interested, he explains, in understanding a position in a particular game, at the point where black has just made the 16th move. He is trying to learn what 17th move white can make and what 18th move black can reply with. So he programmes his computer to call up every game played at this position; about 200 are found. Then the computer begins to display each game on his screen. Anand takes 3-4-5 seconds to scan the board, then presses delete; either white’s move 17 is uninteresting, or flawed, or black’s 18th move doesn’t work. He sees all this, reads the game, finds an error, when I haven’t even focused on the board completely.

Eventually he is left with, say, 15 games, which he will peruse carefully, look for some unseen gem, inventing one himself, all over two-three days. That done, he will start his computer’s engine again. The computer, he says “is useless in telling you your structure is wrong, but brilliant in calling bluffs”. Say that Anand has decided to sacrifice a few pawns assured that his attack will end in checkmate; if there is a defence to that strategy, the computer will find it. As his summer results show, his education has paid off. “There was mental relief too,” he explains, “because I wasn’t bluffing.” Now, like Kasparov, he can start with all four opening moves.

He is a better player. And in a way the new format of the world championship in December-January could suit him. Aware that 20 games of seven-hour classical chess make spectators and sponsors wince, fide (chess’ world governing body) has changed the championship format. Instead of challengers playing each other across two years, culminating in a five-week match with the defending champion, this year the entire tournament will be held in December-January. Now 103 players will play two-game knock-out matches to qualify as the eventual challenger to Karpov (a sulking Kasparov is not playing). It is a format that has upset purists, for instead of careful, cunning chess, it allows for a certain superficiality. “The two-game format doesn’t reflect classical chess,” says Anand. “It has made it exciting but also a lottery.” But Anand is known to be a quick thinker. Better still, if there is no winner after two games, the tie-breaker is a 15-minute rapid game. Just his style.

He has left now, back to Madrid, to collect himself before a final onslaught. His life is good. He is married, loves Spain, is not intruded upon by the press. He is finally recognised too. When he arrived in India a month ago, he stood outside Delhi’s international airport looking for a bus to take him to the domestic terminal. A man came up to him. “Are you Anand?” he asked. “Yes,” came the reply. When the inquisitor realised what Anand was waiting for, he momentarily forgot the guests he was waiting for, bundled Anand into his car and drove him where he wanted. “It’s the least I could do,” he said. What’s the least Anand can do? Winning the world championship would be nice. But getting rid of the maroon shirt would be a particularly good opening.

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2 thoughts on “Making New Moves

  1. Great article. We vaguely know that elite grandmasters have a mountain of Opening moves to study and memorize. Yet it is striking to read such detailed and intelligent accounts of what those study efforts are really like on a day-to-day or hour-to-hour basis.

    ( Discard the “Random” from Fischer Random Chess! )

    Thanks, GeneM

  2. Very Interesting article, appreciate that you have taken interest in bringing this gem of a sportsperson to us. Most people can talk endlessly about sachin’s straight drive, but none can talk about what you have written.

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