Friday 31 January 2014

Understanding Classical Chess through Viswanathan Anand & Co

If you ever wanted to know the meaning of 'concentration' - just Google in the name and you will find thousands of quotes and articles written on it. Concentration to me comes from self-learning  and embracing than merely reading. It is an adventure - shutting out the chaos outside and inside of you and remain focussed on the task at hand. I had a tryst with this virtue yesterday when I sat and watched a classical round of chess for just under six hours with just two small breaks!

I cannot remember when was the last time I sat through this patiently, concentrating on anything without moving around, talking or discussing; not having to click photographs or even murmur in few decibels to the neighbouring chaps.

There is a first for everything in this quotidian life we so carefully plan and strive to lead. Watching six of the top nine World champions of chess in action was one such thing. Chess as a sport is a not a new thing to me. As a kid, countless games were played with my sister just for the heck of it. In school, during the lunch breaks one could not resist but be a part of a chess playing pair giving advices and forming strategies. It was rapid chess or blitz chess at its best!

In 2009, Zürich Chess Club (one of the oldest in the world) hosted a grand tournament at the Zürich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) which had world's top players assembled under one roof to the audience as a part of 200th anniversary of Zürich Chess Club. In company of my friend who also happened to a former national chess champion; we were thrilled to witness Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Viswanathan Anand, Viktor Korchnoi, Vladimir Kramnik, Ruslan Ponomariov, Boris Spassky and Veselin Topalov engaging the upcoming chess talents in a Champions Simultan.

The event in 2009 was what you call a 'sponsor's delight' - to have all these big names of chess opening up to the audience, signing autographs and also pose for photographs. It was a carnival of chess.

The last two days were much more sedate, formal and an atmosphere where chess is being talked about constantly. It is serious, tense and silent not just for few minutes - it goes on for hours. Players on board take few trips to the toilet, have a cup of hot green tea, a glass of water, order a shot of espresso, ingest their own bottled drinks, chew few nuts, stroll around, observe the other two games in progress apart from staring at the chess board strategising your next set of moves or wait for the opponent to make a move. They make eye contacts with the limited viewing public, not for long. It is sometimes best to get distracted, just to get out of the zone they are held within and come out fresh. After all this is a pitched battle on the board and focus is paramount. 
                                       At the beginning of his game with Levon Aronian                                         ©Rajan Thambehalli
I stood for close to 90 minutes watching the action unfold, seconds ticking ever so slowly - with eyes flickering around the three boards projected on screen. It is such an intense involvement that, I ended up concentrating only on the game between Viswanathan Anand and his Armenian opponent  Levon Aronian. On the other boards were the recently crowned World champion Magnus Carlsen with Boris Gelfand and Hikaru Nakamura competing with Fabiano Caruana.

On the front row of seating as a result of a seated guest vacating, I got my opportunity to sit - just in sight to the Indian Grandmaster and I was seated there for the next 200 minutes. In those six hours of watching him play, one could see a lot of moods being exhibited - none so in a manner which compromised his overall composure. It was a lesson personally - having to fathom different scales of concentration and steadiness of mind under stress and constantly come up with various permutations and combinations and be totally present on the action in progress. At times, it felt the only thing that ever moved was the timer clock.

I observed Anand and he would not show any signs of frustration - not even a hint of it. I do not know him personally to decode his silence. Alas, I caught him off-guard, a face of a frustrated mind appeared when he had made a mistake in one of his moves. Out of the chess world, such a behaviour would not have made people sit up and take notice. This chess tournament hall with beautiful chandeliers was different. Such is the peak of concentration these players go to - that any slightest dip is easily noticed. At least, this was the case with Anand. 

Chess is a strategy and an error is weighed in gold's loss. The initial four hours bore no result and went to the extra two hours. The game had 73 moves the last of which proved fatal to Anand's hopes. 
Viswanathan Anand discussing with Levon Aronian at the end of the game                ©Rajan Thambehalli
He has four  games in the classical round and the competition is tough. As far as the rankings go, he is ranked 9th and rest of the five participants are all placed above him - though, none comes close to him in experience.
Magnus Carlsen struggled initially and spent a lot of time staring clueless at the board - a fact he acknowledged at the press conference. With time, he gathered enough momentum to break the strong defence of Boris Gelfand and a got full point under four hours. Fabiano Caruana would have joined Magnus Carlsen at the top only if he had not made a error which put him in a defensive frame right till the end. His mental duel with Nakamura ended in a draw.

At the press conference, Anand was visibly unhappy with the outcome and left with his wife Aruna immediately after the conference. Chess is a mind game and the frame of mind often dictates the end result. He has seen better days and as a fan I hope those days are replicated in the next few matches he plays in. After having been in the chess world for more than 30 years, Anand surely knows  everyday is a new day.  

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