Multiple formats might be the future of chess: Viswanathan Anand

Viswanathan Anand
Viswanathan Anand enjoys the scenic beauty of Kochi. Photo: Manorama/Tony Dominic

In recent times, artificial intelligence (AI) has been playing a key role in the progression of chess. However, the rise of technologies is accompanied by concerns that computers will take the soul out of the game. Five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand is on the other side of the board in this debate. In Kochi to attend tonight's Manorama Sports Awards ceremony, the 52-year-old Chennaite talks about the role of computers and AI in improving the quality of chess and his new role as chess commentator in an exclusive chat.




The 44th Chess Olympiad, which was moved out of Russia after it invaded Ukraine, was awarded to Chennai recently, making it the second major global event of the sport to be held in your home city after the World Championship match in 2013. What are your thoughts?


I'm very happy that Chennai is hosting the Olympiad, one of the biggest chess events. A lot of credit must go to the Tamil Nadu government for acting swiftly to fulfill all the requirements at short notice. It is a proud moment for me and I'm happy to welcome all my colleagues to Chennai. 


Tamil Nadu is the chess hub of India as the state leads the way with Grandmasters. What is your take on the growth of chess in Kerala?


Tamil Nadu has a long chess tradition. We produced the first International Master (IM) in the country. I'm glad that chess in Kerala is picking up pace. The likes of G N Gopal, S L Narayanan, and Nihal Sarin are doing really well. In the past, there were good players like IM Varghese Koshy. I believe Kerala is moving on the right track.  


Of late, many young players from India have started doing well in the international arena. Is this the beginning of a new chess revolution in the country? 


Definitely. I'm happy that players like Arjun Erigaisi, Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa, and Nihal Sarin are creating so much buzz at the highest level. They still have a long way to go, but they are getting so much attention and are able to compete at the top level. It augurs well for the country. 


What are India's chances at the Chess Olympiad?


India will be able to field multiple teams and lots of players will get a chance to shine. Playing at home will be a big advantage. I think the US will start as favourites as participation of some of the formidable teams is in doubt. We have good players, but it is a tough event. 

Anand with his family
Anand clicks a selfie with his wife Aruna and son Akhil.


You have openly supported Arkady Dvorkovich in his bid for a second term as president of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). Is this an indication that you will be more active in administrative functions?


I'm quite excited to don new roles. I've been working with the FIDE team during the World Championship as a commentator. FIDE president Dvorkovich has done a very good job in the last few years. It remains to be seen how it will evolve for me. I'm open to being more active in the area. 


Do you think the chess world will be divided over the geo-political tensions between Russia and Ukraine?


Yes, the chess world will be affected. Russia and Ukraine are two of the major chess playing countries with a rich history as chess powerhouses. There is uncertainty over the participation of Russian players in major tournaments. I believe tensions will linger for some time. It is normal when you are involved in a war.  


In the online chess scene, rapid and blitz formats have overtaken classical chess if you go by the number of events. The reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen has commented that the World Championships should be a mix of classical and rapid formats. How do you react?


We are still in search of finding the optimum formula as far as the combination of formats and the time control are concerned.  Each format has something to offer, but we have to find the right mix. Magnus has expressed his wish to change the format of the World Championship. He has some interesting ideas. Adapting to changes is the key. I believe multiple formats might be the future. 


How has the use of computers and AI changed chess? Do you think they have taken the soul out of chess? 


I always say that for every door they close, computers would open another door. People have to move on. Computers help us explore certain areas that are rich and interesting. There are a lot of middle game concepts and ideas emerging slowly, especially with artificial intelligence. It is definitely revitalising chess. I think the game is getting better and I'm not at all worried.


Do you have any comment on Magnus's assertion that he's unlikely to defend his title unless he faces French-Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja in the next World Championship?


I don’t know whether Magnus is trying to provoke some debate and action on the format of the World Championship. I think he finds the existing format uninspiring. I'm not sure whether he will forfeit his right. He might change his mind.


As players evolve or grow older, their attitude towards the game changes. Is that the same with you?


Yes, as players grow older, their attitude or even their understanding of the game would change. You may start looking at things differently. One will have to keep relearning and reinventing. Clearly, your experiences mould you differently. It has happened to me. In fact, computers have turned chess into more of a young person's game. 


Which are the major chess events you will be playing this year?


I will play in the 2022 Grand Chess Tour event. I will also attend tournaments in Norway and in Lyon. Also, there is the no-castling tournament in Dortmund. 


Other than chess, which games do you watch or follow?


I watch lots of other sports events, especially when something interesting happens. I love watching football, tennis and badminton. Obviously, I follow the games and events where Indians do well.  


Do you think chess, sometimes, is a lonely game?


I don't think so. You can be lost in chess or get deeply absorbed in it. Some activities can fascinate you to the extent that you stop noticing things happening around. 


You have said often about your interests in astronomy and you got into it after reading Cosmos: A Personal Voyage written by Carl Sagan. What kind of books do you normally read? 


Yes, I read a lot about astronomy and astrophysics. I keenly follow all the developments in the field. I pretty much read anything I can lay my hands on. I like to read books that pique my curiosity. Apart from books on mathematics, science, and social studies, I do read a lot of fiction, for instance the books by Amish Tripathi.


Does your son Akhil play chess? What are his interests? 


Yes, Akhil is quite excited about chess. He enjoys watching the game as well. He accompanied me to the World Chess Championship where I was a commentator. He is a good dancer and a gymnast. He is fascinated by science and loves doing experiments. He also loves to draw and listen to music.  


Do you keep a watch on the sports culture in Kerala and do you have any Kerala idols in sports?


I keep an eye out for sports in India. I have vivid memories of the revolution in athletics spearheaded by the likes of P T Usha and Shiny Wilson. Sreejesh's performance for India at the Tokyo Olympics was phenomenal. I also closely watch chess players from Kerala like Nihal, Gopal and Narayanan and keep in touch with them. 

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