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Learning from Chess: The black and white of success and failure
Viswanathan Anand
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June 14, 2007
Viswanathan Anand [Images], the World No 1 and NIIT [Get Quote] Mind Champion, delivered this speech in Chennai recently. Though Anand spoke extempore, his wife Aruna kindly put together his thoughts for the benefit of readers. Thank you Aruna and Vishy!

I started playing chess at the age of six. I used to observe my elder siblings play chess and asked my mom if I could learn the game too. I never really thought I would make it big. I just enjoyed playing chess.

My sister decided I should join a chess club. Three days after joining the club I realised I could play my first tournament. I don't know if it was such a bright idea but when you are six optimism is never a problem.

I promptly lost my first three games in the tournament; the fourth I won by default. My opponent failed to turn up. I counted the seconds, anxiously praying that my rival wouldn't turn up at the last minute and spoil the fun. This was my first victory in chess. From then on, I played in many weekend events and state-level tournaments.

There was no specific goal or big picture. It was just a natural progression from one level to the other.

Below, Aruna and Viswanathan Anand. Photograph: Sreeram Selvaraj

Aruna and Viswanathan AnandThe Holy Grail of Indian chess till 1987 was when and who would become India's first Grandmaster. I chased the GM title for two full years. Every time I would come close enough, but would miss it by the narrowest margin.

At the end of 1986 I took a small break from chess and decided to do something unusual. I prepared for my exams. I was so happy to study for my Class 12 exams. My fellow students found it difficult to grasp that preparing for exams could be pleasurable. Right after my 12th standard exam I won the world junior and subsequently the Grandmaster title.

Sometimes when you have a goal in front of you it is easy to focus. Cyclists have peletons who give them that focus as to what they should achieve in short bursts. After becoming a Grandmaster I realised I no longer had a goal. It didn't matter whether I scored 5 or 6 points in a tournament. Soon, my results started to decline.

As long as you know what your destination is, you know how fast you want to get there. But once you have reached your destination you start looking back rather looking at new peaks.

When I played the Linares tournament in 1991, I beat Anatoly Karpov. I was offered a bonus if I defeated Karpov. I thought if I do beat him I would pay the organiser my bonus. When I first defeated Karpov I realised I could play the Soviet Grandmasters and even defeat them.

Slowly guys started trash-talking me. People used to describe me as a talent, so this was a new experience. Later I realised that when they flatter you it means they show pity. And when they actually say something negative, it means they respect you.

I slowly started understanding that the occasional win over Karpov or Garry Kasparov [Images] wasn't enough. One had to play the whole event well and be consistent.

In the beginning beating anyone among the top five Grandmasters in an event would more or less make me content. After going through four or five events with just an upset over a top seed, I thought of actually trying to be a top player. I had to make a podium finish and even aim for first place.

This happened in Regio Emilia when I beat both Karpov and Kasparov and won the event. I think I used all these lessons came together in 2000 when I became the World Champion.

Soon after winning the most exalted title a sportsperson can aspire to, came the vacuum.

What was the next big thing?

I did have some good results, but crisis struck in the Dortmund tournament in 2001. I started with two losses and tried hard not to lose. Then I lost a further game. Thinking I had hit rock bottom I decided to play very passively. I was duly punished with a fourth defeat. This was my worst performance ever.

So what went wrong in Dortmund?

I had done some good preparation. I was very disciplined and kept up my routine. But the spark was missing. I was so scared of avoiding failure and taking risks that I was staring the abyss in the face.

It is extremely difficult to change a wining formula, but one has to experiment even when you succeed.

Defeat gives you the courage to experiment. Success can never motivate you the same way.

After Dortmund I decided I had to do something different. I decided to work on new areas. I went through several months of indifferent results.

After a few months I played a rapid Grand Prix in Dubai. I was eliminated in the second round. This was quite a rude shock as rapid chess was always my forte.

The tournament had a strange rule that meant that even if you were eliminated you played on for the final standings. So I thought I could have seven days of suffering and silent torture or have one week of fun and play chess. I decided to take the second route. I played different openings, stopped worrying about results.

All of a sudden, I was Anand the six-year-old boy. The same boy who played chess at lightning speed. Who could calculate fast and who thoroughly enjoyed the game.

After Dubai I played in Prague. This was the strongest rapid chess event in the world and all the players participated. For the first time I was not even counted among the favourites. That too in a rapid chess event.

This was something of a wake up call. I reached the event waiting to play chess. I was not worried about being eliminated or losing. I wanted to try new things, enjoy myself and learn from the event. I won the event without the slightest problem.

Everything came together in Prague.

So what went right?

There were various points that I had started to work on.

Enjoy the challenge

I decided to enjoy the challenge. Not being the favourite meant I had to make my critics notice me again.

I had to play like Viswanathan Anand, and not try to play like someone else.

You don't have to search for big challenges or goals. Doing what you do a little better is a challenge in itself.

Spark off creativity

I stopped working permanently with my coach. I started travelling to events alone to spark off creativity. I needed to get that spark and it had to come from within me. I decided to stop doing things by routine, but do things that added value to my chess.

Change something!

I gave up a couple of big events in 2002 (Wijk and Monaco). I wanted to just change something.

Work with new people

I began to work with young players with new styles and knowledge of cutting edge developments. These guys grow up with the latest techniques.

In the 1980s chess information used to arrive three months late. In the 1990s the information used to be posted in the form of diskettes. Nowadays, we download games and data in real time. So these were all inflection points.

Your chess and thought process has to change accordingly. Working with new people gives you a fresh perspective.

The most important lesson I learnt was that one had to experiment even when the going is good.

When you are in good form you have to keep constantly analysing yourself. When you are very resistant to change or are content with the way things are it is a sure sign that something is going wrong.

The temptation is always there to get into cruise control mode. You have to be willing to take the occasional hits so that you succeed over a longer period.

I also realised that passion is something that you need to keep, however small the event. Process and perfection are all good qualities, but passion has to be the guiding force.

Each challenge and game should be a challenge and a learning experience.

Self criticism is also essential.

It is difficult to be objective about success or failure, but they are the two pillars on which you hinge your performance.

It is a lesson I try to learn every day. No amount of tutoring can teach you how to deal with success or failure.

It is your passion within that will make the difference.

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