In the pre-Anand days, India wasn’t even considered a backwater, leave alone a chess superpower. It is all one man’s doing over a 30-year period.
By Boria Majumdar
Viswanathan Anand’s Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life (with Susan Ninan) is not a simple autobiography. Rather, it is a compendium of life lessons based on Anand’s own experiences of becoming a chess player and, thereafter, a world beater who will forever be known as one of the greatest to have played the game. While it is autobiographical—in that it gives us insights into Anand’s life—the book also speaks of lessons learnt while playing sport at the highest level and how the mind-body synergy is key to becoming the world’s best chess player.
In the pre-Anand days, India wasn’t even considered a backwater, leave alone a chess superpower. It is all one man’s doing over a 30-year period. Mind Master documents the trials and tribulations in the course of this journey. “It is biographical but in a slightly different format. Instead of documenting my life story chronologically I have tried to document the lessons I found most important, the learnings from them and what impact they had on me. That’s how the book flows,” says Anand, before going on to add, “I have mentioned that my growth in chess has been very natural, very spontaneous without the kind of template a trainer would have for an aspiring player. And when I look back at my own story and my early growth as a chess player till the time I became a grandmaster, I see that it isn’t a conventional story in any sense. I wasn’t coming out of a tradition and that’s why I could experiment the way I did. I also talk about how spontaneity and the whole experience of enjoying chess helped me absorb a lot of useful lessons. Of course there are chapters on disappointments like New York and joy when I beat Kramnik playing the best I ever have.”
Written in a very anecdotal and conversational style, the book will not only appeal to chess aficionados and sports fans, but can also become a template for any youngster trying to chart out a life path which is somewhat different from the norm. Anand’s emphasis on physical stamina, for example, is fascinating. Not many would associate physical stamina and exercise as essential for a chess player. That’s where Anand is different. “The most important thing is stamina. You want to be able to handle 6 hours of focussed attention and need your brain not to get tired. When you get tired you tend to forget things and that’s when blunders happen. It is no use playing 5 good hours and then losing out. So during all my matches, in the morning, my team and I would meet up, I go for a run, climbing or whatever it is that could really raise the heart rate. This is good because chess builds up tension, you are constantly lost in your thoughts. You get a lot of positive and negative emotions sitting inside and they are knocking around in your mind. I have often wondered if the physical training you do is to get rid of tension or build your ability to sustain pain. I feel that the one hour spent by myself, running or lifting weights, is the one hour you are not thinking about chess and that’s the main value.”
The book turns intense when we read about how he prepared for the world championship match against Russian Vladimir Kramnik and how he felt at one point that the match was being thrust upon him by Kramnik and his team. That it was all done to suit Kramnik may have prodded Anand to reserve his best for this contest. The other thing that helped was Kramnik’s comment saying Anand had no strategy, and that’s what cost him the title. “It did play in my mind. There is no debate Kramnik is a very good player and we had played each other long enough to know of each others’ games. That’s why I needed to be different. Try something I have never tried. For a year we planned it and must say the execution went perfectly to plan,” says Anand.
The honesty with which the book is written makes Mind Master what it is. For champions, it is often difficult to accept failure or acknowledge a mistake. Anand is candid in accepting why he lost to Garry Kasparov in 1995 and is forthright in saying he continues to play chess because he enjoys it. It isn’t only about winning tournaments or matches and proving to the world that one is still the player one once was. Rather, there is more to life than winning tournaments and that’s what Mind Master drives home. At the end of it all, Vishy Anand will remain one of the greatest sportsmen to have come out of India and Mind Master is a perfect mapping of his mental frame. It is recommended reading for any thought leader in the country.
Boria Majumdar is a sports historian and commentator
Mind Master: Winning Lessons from a Champion’s Life
Viswanathan Anand with Susan Ninan
Pp 274, Rs 599