Thursday, May 30, 2024

Chess should be encouraged in our schools- Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand in an Exclusive Interview

Interviewed by – Robin Bhuyan, Gundeep Kaur 

Written and edited by – Robin Bhuyan (Editor in Chief)

In the realm of chess, there are very few names that command as much respect as Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand, whether in India or internationally. He became the first Indian to win the Grandmaster title at just the age of 18 in 1988. Considered the greatest rapid chess player of his generation, Viswanathan Anand has achieved remarkable feats throughout his life, such as winning the World Chess Championship five times and being the first sportsperson in India to receive the Khel Ratna Award. He was honored with the Padma Vibhushan in the year 2007, India’s second-highest civilian honor, making him the first person from the field of sports to receive this title.

In this exclusive interview with Viswanathan Anand, Enigmatic Horizon discusses his career, as well as several important issues such as the importance of sports education in India, the impact of A.I., and the role of spirituality in his life.

First of all, for those among our readers who still don’t know, we would like to know about your childhood in short. How did chess become part of your life? Did you receive support and encouragement from your parents and mentors?

I was six years old when I learned how to play. My elder brother and sister were playing chess, and I wanted to join them. Therefore, I began pestering my mother to teach me. Luckily, she came from a chess-playing family and was able to teach me. Very soon, they realized that my interest was not fleeting, so they found a good chess club called the Tal Chess Club. My mother always made sure that I was comfortable playing. That’s how it all began. I always felt that my family was fully behind me, and so I had the sense that they were proud of what I was doing. I got a lot of support from them. Even my school was very supportive and understanding. They could make exceptions for me so that I could participate in chess tournaments.

Who has been the most challenging opponent that you have ever faced? Please tell us about your experience with them.

Difficult or unpleasant opponents are a constant feature of life. In school tournaments, I faced some opponents who were difficult. Some, because their behavior was irritating, and some, because they were a mismatch for me. If I have to name the most difficult opponents I have faced for the longest period of my career, it would be Vladimir Kramnik, Garry Kasparov, and Magnus Carlsen.

You are the first person from India to win the Grandmaster title. How did winning the Grandmaster title for the first-time impact you and your family?

There was actually a race to becoming the first grandmaster from India. There was even a challenge – Could an Indian become a grandmaster? There was a group of 3-4 of us who were trying. I had a year and a half of steady improvement, though you don’t really notice. And suddenly, I won the World Junior Championships in the Philippines. Maybe that was a more important title because there are far fewer World Junior Champions compared to Grandmasters. A few months later, I became India’s first grandmaster, which was one of the most important events of my life. Being the first Indian grandmaster opened many doors for me, and I was invited to important tournaments such as the Tata Steel Tournament. Becoming a grandmaster gave me confidence as well as clarity that I should play chess for a living. My family was also slightly relieved that I took that decision. After this event, I was also appearing on lots of magazine covers, and more people began to know me.

You have won numerous awards and honors throughout your career. What is your opinion about awards in general? Do you think they are important for a sportsperson to grow, or do you feel they might distract new and young players?

Titles and awards are very important. For winning titles such as the Grandmaster title, you need to accomplish specific things. However, things such as public recognition and acknowledgment from people and the government also make you feel quite good and validated. You start feeling confident, better about yourself, and that you are representing the people. Sometimes, at the same time, at moments, there might also be unhealthy kinds of pressure. So, we can say that there are all kinds of impacts. I think the healthiest way is to do what you do, enjoy the awards when you receive them, and then forget about them and continue doing what you are doing.

Chess is a game that has its roots in India. On top of that, it is a game that can help us in brain development. Why do you think it is still not that popular in our country?

Chess had its beginnings in India, and therefore, it had a very good core following in India. Therefore, culturally, Indian families see it as something positive, i.e., a healthy habit. This is something that helped sustain the game. But like all sports, we must distinguish the sport and the cultural place it occupies. A sport needs to continuously evolve, be relevant, present engaging stories, and interesting results. And finally, we also needed generations of Indians to do well in the sport. You could see that once I became a grandmaster, people began following the sport. Even now, we have so many promising players to root for. This is what we need to build on. I think chess has never been as popular as it has been in the last couple of decades.

What are some of the things that we can do to boost the popularity of the game? Do you think chess should be encouraged or included by educational institutions, considering how it can help young students improve their intellect?

I believe chess should be introduced in schools as an educational tool. It has been proven that students who are regularly exposed to chess at least a few hours a week can effectively train their decision-making skills, their concentration, their memory, etc. These skills are then transferable to academics. So, if people are exposed to the game at school, this fandom would carry on, and they would continue playing or following chess for the rest of their lives. We also need to focus on organizing interesting tournaments and fascinating formats and similar things that engage your attention. The most important thing is to develop strong talent in our country as nothing can excite a sports fan, as having someone to root for. We saw that when I was at the top of world chess, or when we see the current generation playing all over the world.

How has vegetarianism benefited your life and your career? Are there specific dietary habits or foods that you believe contribute to mental acuity, especially in the context of chess?

I would like to clarify that I am not a strict vegetarian. As for my diet, it is reasonably healthy as I control what I eat and how much I eat. During tournaments, we can only indulge in food after the game is over. So breakfast is very important for me, as I tend to wake up earlier. I eat enough to make sure that I am not hungry during a game, but at the same time, I need to make sure that I don’t eat so much that I start feeling drowsy. Almost all chess players today understand the importance of fitness in the game, and they are either running, swimming, playing football, or going to the gym. It is now understood that if you cannot take the pressure for 6-7 hours, you cannot become a top player.

You are also into spirituality. In your journey as a chess player, have you found any spiritual aspects in the game that have impacted your life outside of chess?

I remember reading about the attitude of detachment in the Bhagavad Gita. I think that is a really healthy attitude, though for some games you may need to be fired up. But for some games, you need to be detached and focus on playing a good game, and just let the chips fall where they will. I also find Yoga to be a really important part of my health routine, and it is an excellent way that helps me relax my nerves.

We all feel upset when India doesn’t receive medals at the Olympics. But then again, most parents are hesitant to allow their children to pursue a career outside of academics. Do you think this mindset is slowly changing? What are the steps that need to be taken to encourage more youths to take up sports as a career?

Yes, I feel that our performances in the Olympics can definitely be improved. But attitudes have changed in the last couple of decades or so. Nowadays, if you are an Olympic athlete from India, you will definitely get support. If you do well, you will definitely gain recognition and awards. We can see it becoming a viable career option, as we have been competing quite well in the Olympics. We have participated in the fight for medals in many competitions, even if we may not win. The bar is also being set high now, as athletes no longer just want to go and participate but they want to win a medal. So, I can say that Indian society has changed and flexible careers like sports are being supported by Indian parents. India’s medal tally is slowly growing, and I am confident that it will continue to do so.

A lot of youths are taking interest in chess since the last few years. One reason for this is online gaming. What are your thoughts regarding online chess games or applications?

I am all for it. If a lot of youth are coming and discovering chess because of the convenience and accessibility that apps and websites provide, that is a very good thing for chess. Computers and the internet have helped chess grow a lot and become an international sport.

What is your opinion regarding Artificial intelligence? Many people are worried about its implications. Do you think it poses any kind of threat? How do you think it is going to impact the future of chess?

Artificial intelligence is pointing us in various directions that hadn’t occurred to us. We might learn a lot from it, and it might turn out to be quite useful. When we talk about chess, A.I. has given us a lot of new ideas and helped us expand our knowledge of chess. We might, however, need a lot more time to absorb this kind of knowledge and fill out all the details. I am hopeful about A.I., and it would be mostly for our benefit.

Talking in general, A.I. will affect a lot in how we do a lot of our works and our jobs. If done well, I see no reason why we can’t use A.I. for our benefit. To give one example, A.I. can become quite convenient for certain kinds of classes or lessons and make education more accessible. I am not saying that there are no dangers, but I am just being realistic as different countries are in the A.I. race, and so we can’t stop it completely.

What are your future plans?

My future plans involve playing more and going to tournaments. There are some major events this year, such as the Olympiad, which I will attend, as well as The Candidates Tournament. My family is also taking a summer holiday this year, which I am looking forward to.

What is your advice to those pursuing a career in chess?

My advice to someone who is just starting out would be to just play for fun and see how it feels. But if you are already at the stage where you are trying to determine if it should be your career- that is hard to say. It is not just a question of whether you can do it, but whether you want to do it. You need to consider if you like the lifestyle and if you see yourself doing this in the long run. If you really enjoy, just play a lot and see where it takes you! As long as they don’t close your doors early, I think most people will figure it out!

We sincerely thank Viswanathan Anand for sharing his journey and his insights with us. You can stay connected with him on social media to stay updated on his latest tournaments, insights, and more.

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Thank you for joining us in this interview. Make sure to stay tuned to us to keep exploring the enigmatic horizons of life and sports!

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