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Home / Mint-lounge / Why we don’t understand Vishy’s genius

Shabana Azmi, the actor, interprets tales elegantly and tells intriguing ones too. In Rohtak, she recently recounted, she was set to perform an English version of Girish Karnad’s Broken Images, when an organizer noted that a majority of the audience did not comprehend the language. Whereupon she, the only actor on stage, translated the entire play in her head and performed her dialogues in Hindi. The sheer ingenuity of it, the calm, the confidence, is staggering, and when she dissected her craft after a performance in Singapore, it was like she was briefly stripping away the epidermis of her art and taking us deeper inside what makes her an actor.

Mind game: We don’t celebrate the genius of our most consistent individual champ because we can’t hear the music in his moves. (Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP)

He is genius hidden behind a buttoned-down demeanour; he is brilliance locked away. Think of it like this: Eventually it took a supercomputer, in a second attempt, to defeat Garry Kasparov, which suggests only the astonishing computing power men like Anand own. Yet, while we see him win, and we celebrate his win, many of us, who thought Kolkata’s Alekhine Chess Club was a hideaway only for gaggles of geeks, don’t know how, or why, he wins. He is a champion we don’t understand and thus cannot entirely appreciate.

The issue isn’t Anand, it’s just chess. As a sport, it’s a wonderful but opaque and internal activity. While concentration of this type requires physical reserves, it is the essential sitting-still combat. Two men huddled over a board like wartime generals over a miniature battlefield of 64 squares which offer unlimited permutations, yet cling-filmed in mystery. No one moves, only pieces. Even then, only after a while, and there is, presumably, a pleasure in the waiting, in the anticipation, in the expected or unexpected launch of an idea. But we miss this beauty because we’re unsure of the activity in his head, the calculation, the clarity, the jumble of theories, the reaching into memory, the creation of bluff, the studied face, the tiny fidgets (do they read body language? Surely, yes).

What he does know—and we don’t, really—is how incredibly hard it is. With the swinging cricket ball or the hockey dribble we feel a sense of familiarity, for at least we’ve been there, we’ve bowled a ball and wielded a stick. More tellingly, these sports—unlike chess—own a visual appeal, a muscle, an athleticism, an aesthetic, an evident geometry, which allows us to be fulfilled even without complete understanding. You don’t need to be a Jonathan Wilson-like tactical guru to appreciate football, or figure out the complex plays in the US’ National Football League to be charmed by the quarterback’s balanced vision and accuracy. Even rowing, a slightly obscure sport, has an obvious effort, a clear symmetry, a sense of boat knifing water. Yet it would take David Halberstam to write The Amateurs for me to journey deeper into its mechanics, to be offered insight into the rower’s psyche and their almost masochistic wearing of pain.

Anand needs to take us on this journey. His sport has its own specific beauty but we’re blind and deaf to it. In his moves there must be a music we can’t hear and a dance of pieces we can’t see; there must be a creativeness we fail to applaud and a brutality we don’t feel (Nigel Short apparently once said, “Chess is ruthless, you’ve got to be prepared to kill people"). It is, one presumes, alive with vanity, filled with subterfuge, thick with intimidation but all veiled from us. We understand the concept of pressure, but cannot relate it specifically to chess, cannot know precisely what Boris Spassky meant when he told Kasparov about the gradual application of pressure, even if his words were well chosen. Kasparov wrote in his book How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves—From the Board to the Boardroom: “‘Squeeze his balls’, Spassky told me unforgettably, ‘but just squeeze one, not both’."

If I know a little of this, it is from scattered reading; from occasional long-ago interviews with Anand where he pried open the game and showed me part of its entrails; from a small excerpt taken from Stefan Zweig’s novella, The Royal Game: “Children can learn its simple rules, duffers succumb to its temptations, yet within this immutable tight square it creates a particular species of master not to be compared with any other—persons destined for chess alone, specific geniuses in whom patience, vision and technique are operative through a distribution no less precisely ordained than in mathematics, poets, composers, but merely united on a different level."

This species of master Anand, a mathematician and composer in his own right, is what befuddles us, is beyond the normal curve of writers like me. He has memory, but in chess we’re uncertain how it works; is it a general photographic recall, is it something more nuanced? He’ll tell us about homework and I can only imagine him, and his seconds, poring over a computer, a board, but beyond that it’s hard to tell. Novak Djokovic at practice can be broken down easily, but not Vishy. A repertoire of forehands can be examined, but what of chess openings?

Anand speaks, as he must to us, in generalities, of Boris Gelfand frustrating him and coping with it, or critics sniping at his age and motivation and swallowing it. He seems to wear it with a calm, but even Vishy must rage, must fret, must conquer his own self, imprison his emotions, and it would be something to comprehend. What words and formulas quiver in his brain, what gets him out of bed—does he dream of ideas and leap out of the sheets with one?

We need to know because we are over-celebrators of cricketers to the point of a childish obsequiousness. Yet the most consistent individual champion among us is, alas, the man we least know. He won the world title in 2000 and now for the fifth time and no Indian, barring Mary Kom (do we know her art either?), has married talent to time so tellingly. But he must have aged as a player, not slipped but changed, and been forced to reinvent parts of himself, which we can see with Roger Federer, or even Sachin Tendulkar, this ability to stay relevant and alter strokes and tactics. Yet with Anand this eludes us.

I know Vishy is special, but I, chess ignorant mostly, am also frustrated by my inability to recognize how special he is. It’s why he needs a writer who knows sufficient chess but writes with him a book that dives deeper than moving knights and attacking bishops. A book which peels him back, reveals his genius, charts his development, unravels his complexity, explains his strengths. A book that tells us what makes him great. But let’s not leave it just to him. Let’s do our bit, too. Let’s open a chess book and learn the game and try a little to appreciate at least 3% of what makes him Vishy. It could be the best compliment we could give him.

Rohit Brijnath is a senior correspondent with The Straits Times, Singapore.

Write to Rohit at gametheory@livemint.com

Also Read | Rohit’s previous Lounge columns

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