The seaside village of Wijk aan Zee in Holland is a popular destination for vacationers in summer, offering the rustic charms of a Dutch countryside. In winter, however, it is desolate—sheared by fierce gales scudding in from the North Sea, shrouded by smoke from the nearby giant steel mills of Corus.
Killer moves: Anand says he is ready to take on Topalov. Madhu Kapparath / Mint
In this bleak setting, in sub-zero temperatures, Viswanathan Anand is currently sweating it out. This is the unlikely destination for one of the world’s premier chess events, the Corus Chess Tournament, which Anand has won a record five times in the past. Tough as it is, Corus is merely a foothill to the veritable Olympus that Anand has to scale come April when he defends his world crown from Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov. The two are to clash for the sport’s ultimate prize in Sofia, over 12 games.
When they meet over the board, it will be merely the apex of a colossal pyramid, the culmination of an invisible battle. One player has already lost but neither knows it. Victory or defeat at the top is heavily determined by the opening game. The course of the middle game and the contours of the end game are decided by how a player has handled the opening.
In the months of research preparation—“prep”—one player may find a subtle chink in the opponent’s armour. That is why one may have already lost, his armour penetrated even before he sits down at the board. For nearly a year, Anand has put in long hours studying the intricate byways of openings. “I work somewhere between 8-10 hours a day. Then you can add the physical training and maybe a couple of walks,” said Anand. “Work expands to fill the time. You have to get the right discipline. When the match comes, you stop worrying about whether you have done enough and get on with what you have done,” said Anand during our meeting in Delhi, before he headed off to Corus.
Anand’s decision to give Topalov the home-field advantage surprised many. After the world chess body, Federation Internationale des Echecs (FIDE), awarded the game to Sofia, Anand could have insisted on a neutral venue, but he did not. Former chess champion Vladimir Kramnik, who lost to Anand in 2008, called it “simply madness”. The reason for Kramnik’s angst is not far to seek.
In the 2006 world championship match in Russia against Topalov, Kramnik started strongly, winning the first two games. Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov then played his master move. He accused Kramnik of visiting the restroom too often and receiving suggestions from a computer while in the loo. The match descended to chaos as Topalov piled on accusation after accusation—all without evidence. The “Toilet Gambit”, as reporters dubbed it, seemed to work as Kramnik forfeited a game in protest. Kramnik prevailed in the end but Topalov had shown his predilection for off-board tactics.
“I am aware it is his home ground. My team and I will try and control everything we can,” says Anand. “It simply comes down to going there and not losing focus on the chess. Besides, if you psyche yourself before the match then it doesn’t help you at all. You don’t even need an opponent.”
What if Topalov dipped into his bag of psychological tricks? “It just comes with the territory. From now on, they will be trying to get inside my head. You have to be adult about it and just deal with it,” says Anand.
Danailov has already fired the opening salvo—in an interview he claimed that Anand was over the hill and was “clinging” to the world title. “I don’t want to respond to his nonsense,” says Anand.
Anand explains why “psyche ops” feature so prominently in high-pressure encounters: “The two players are so evenly matched that the differentiator is really how well you play under pressure. It comes down to a few small things, maybe your attitude during the match.”
At the top, success is determined by not only how well you master your mind, but by how you command your body as well. A “majority of chess players train themselves to not let on too much of what’s going through their heads,” says Anand. The suddenly in-drawn breath, the nervous blink of an eye, the shifting on the seat are some signs that can portend defeat. Anand says: “You observe someone suddenly not breathing and that’s when you know something has happened. It’s like background noise. If it suddenly goes completely silent, you look around. You can smell a blunder. You try to calm down but maybe your body betrays you.”
How does he assess his challenger? “Historically (Topalov), he is very aggressive. He doesn’t let defeats set him back. He is pushing things quite a lot. This can be a strength or a weakness. Maybe he suffers from too much confidence,” Anand sums up.
Critics have always carped that Anand lacks the killer instinct. “What can I say? If it hasn’t stopped by 40 (his age), it’s not going to stop now. Killer instinct is about sitting there and really wanting to beat your opponent. I have that—especially with opponents who do not approach the game in a completely gentlemanly way.”
As he faces the prospect of an aggressive Topalov riding on the strength of sheer willpower with a charismatic manager, Danailov, who has a propensity for pressure tactics and controversy, Anand remains unconcerned. “Bring it on. I’ll deal with it,” he says.
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