There's proof that chess improves students' academics: Viswanathan Anand

India has as many as 65 Grandmasters today, but this wasn't the case 33 years ago , when Viswanathan Anand became country's first in December 1987 and won the World Chess Championship in 2000. For a game that originated in India hundreds of years ago, Vishy, as he is fondly called, is in a sense carrying forward legacy. He says when he won the world title there was some feeling of chess coming back home "because we invented the game and then lost track of it”. Last year Anand turned 50 and December 2019 saw the launch of his biography. Namrata Kohli caught up with him for an exclusive tete-a-tete on the book, the game and more. Excerpts:

Your book, Mind Master, talks about your transition from a strong player to a world champion. What is it that actually helped you pole vault from better to best?

I think what I allude to in my book, is the fact that for a big part of my career, I approached goals sequentially - once I finished one thing, I aimed for the next and it just went on. One kept working and getting better and that was fine, and one eventually got to the next stage. But then I found the highest title of the World Champion is something that won’t happen on auto pilot; simply just trying to do something and continuing to get better wasn't enough. It’s something that you have to really want and try to excel in some way to get it. One has to do something special to become world champion. And that is the qualitative difference in approach. It took me almost nine years and three attempts before I finally did it - it was only a method attempt because I had gone through the first two so I understood what is required to be done, how you need to keep your goal till the very end. So that is partially what the book is about.

You also mention that during a game of chess, when aptitude is equal, it’s the attitude that takes you notches higher. Please explain this a little more.

Attitude is everything. First of all, I talk about the Bonn match and how I had this incredible desire to compete against my opponent then, and manage to enjoy the match. I concluded that one of the reasons that match was so good for me, was my attitude as that is what drove everything- from my enthusiasm and how I carried away, to my work, my play. Today I can say that if two rivals are technically balanced, the outcome will be decided by other factors - they can be psychological, they can be motivational, but they won’t be decided purely on technical matters.

Chess is not a team sport and one has to turn inward to draw in resources and energy. Does chess make one introvert? How has it been with you?

It seems sometimes when you are thinking of a certain position or about some aspect of chess, that rest of the world is interrupting. If someone is talking continuously, you feel the noise. But it isn’t that one can’t connect with the world outside. I do enjoy life outside of chess.

Is there a stipulated time that a game of chess takes? What have your longest and your shortest games been so far?

The longest was 15 hours, the shortest was 20 minutes.

It is believed that playing chess improves memory and cognitive abilities and makes one smarter. What's your take?

I think what it trains you to do is improve your pattern recognition. Chess is about seeing a lot of patterns and connecting the dots and seeing the bigger picture, so to speak. And then it’s been proven in many studies, that the academics of students who play a few hours of chess a week get better. They retain information much better. Second is the ability to concentrate on a problem, push aside the distractions because when you play chess game, there is a huge responsibility-- you can’t take your move back. Therefore your decisions become quite critical and you learn to block all other thoughts and during the game, the game is all you can think about. Chess is all about increasing the focus. One byproduct of dealing with so many games and trying to recall what you need at the right time is that it surely improves your memory.

Which is your favourite mind game, the one that you enjoy playing with your son at leisure?

My son and I just have a good time. Well, we do try a game of chess once in a while but anyone with a young son will tell you that getting them to do something itself is a mind game. He does some very interesting puzzle games and after a while, even I get caught in.

Chess originated in India and was called Chaturanga in the sixth century. Yet, when you became Grandmaster there wasn’t anyone else. And now you say there are 65 Grandmasters in the country. What do you say about this?

When I won the world title there was some feeling of chess coming back home, because we invented the game and then lost track of it even though it continued in certain circles. During the time of our kings several 100 years ago, it was still popular in courts. Though modern chess is not the exact version of the game that we exported and there have been modifications, and it’s nice that we are rediscovering the game and competing. 

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