What happens when a chess enthusiast plays the world champion Viswanathan Anand?
By: Jaideep Unudurti
You'll bring the board?" asks Mrs Aruna Anand over the phone, "For we don't have one at home." Viswanathan Anand, the world champion, doesn't own a chess set. I am not surprised. Over the past decade, computers have taken over India's greatest export, storing billions of positions in giant databases.
Long before you can set up the pieces, you can click through and search for games going back to 10th century Baghdad. Or you could fire up your browser and play "blitz", chess at steroidal speeds, with an opponent across the globe. I had emailed Anand, saying it would make an interesting story to play against him and write about the experience.
He agreed, and now his wife is on the phone to discuss the conditions of play, just as she has with the likes of Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov. We decide that I should bring the board and pieces, while Anand supplies the chess clock. A chess clock is basically two stopwatches linked to each other. When a player makes a move and presses a switch, he simultaneously stops his clock and starts the opponent's.
Old-fashioned analogues have given way to digital timers but both kinds invariably excite airport security. In movies, you often see the villain and the hero playing each other using elaborately carved pieces. For actual play such sets are impractical. Chess players are a conservative lot and top-level events prefer a type called the "Staunton", which was first used in a London tournament held in 1851.
FIDE, the world chess body, has clear rules and exact ratios for official sets. The pawn is the basic unit of measurement, for example, "the size of a square should be twice the diameter of a pawn's base" or the king's height is twice that of the pawn. Not that Anand or his peers on Olympus need boards. To them, the gross physical artefacts of wood and plastic are merely shadows of a struggle taking place in abstract dimensions, in an etheric plane where forces, energies, entities collide.
To invert a quote, to them, matter is just a disease of the mind. The modalities are worked out, we are to play two games, with Anand under a time handicap. While I get 5 minutes with 2 seconds added for each move Anand will have 3 minutes with the same increment. The venue is to be a 29th floor penthouse overlooking the sea, on the outskirts of Chennai.
In the words of JoePa, "The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital." I have a week to get my game up to speed. How best can I take advantage of the time-odds? Do I play off-beat openings? Or mug up endgame theory? I decide to call in some help. First on my go-to list is FM Dennis Monokroussos, who publishes a highly regarded blog, TheChessMind.net. Dennis says, "My suggestion is to play against him as if you both had the same amount of time and had the same rating. Play your best openings. It will give you your best chance to score."
Match play demands a close study of your opponent. Taking a leaf out of Arjuna getting advice from Bhishma on the eve of Kurukshetra, I call up Grandmaster Peter Heine Nielsen. He has been Anand's second or trainer for over five years apart from being a top-class player himself. The Dane is a key member of the "A-Team", Anand's crack unit of seconds helping the champ to victory over opponents like Boris Gelfand and Topalov. I brief him on my task, what do I need? "First of all, good luck," he laughs.
He goes into trainer mode, swiftly outlining the plan of action: "Stay solid. Avoid early contact of pieces. Make the game as long as possible. Any kind of tactics will be in his favour." What opening should I essay? It is a bit late in the day to improve the middlegame or endgame but openings are the only area where I have some control.