January 1, 2001

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Vishwanathan Anand - The King

'I did not realise I was getting married to a bigshot'

Aruna Anand opened the door of the hotel suite in Teheran to her husband, Anand Vishwanathan.

Who, for his part, headed straight to where his computer was parked -- to carry out his usual post-game analysis. 'Not today,' Aruna told him -- probably the only time in their married life when she has stopped him from doing what he wants to.

But then, it is not every day that a man wins a world title, and his wife gets to celebrate.

Aruna Anand Aruna Anand is as vital -- perhaps even more so -- to Anand's wellbeing both as player and as person, as his computer is. Her role in life has been to run interference, and allow her genius husband to concentrate on what he does best, which is beating the pants off his rivals.

Aruna, thus, handles his appointments, schedules his interviews, looks after his travel arrangements and playing itinerary and, most importantly, is just 'there for him'. Thus, there are times when he is tense and needs to take his mind off the game; and other times when he needs to focus on the board. Aruna defines her role as guaging, without being told, what mood her champion husband is in, and reacting accordingly.

The pressures on Aruna, thus, are almost as intense as that on her husband -- and yet, she is never seen without that smile. 'I have plenty to smile about,' she told in an exclusive interview. 'My husband is playing very good chess, and we have a good married life.' Excerpts, from a conversation with Onkar Singh:

How did you feel, as Anand went up against Shirov for the world title?

It was okay. There was no panic, because Anand knew the kind of game Shirov plays. We were confident that Anand would pull it off this time. We were waiting for the moment when the ultimate would happen and he would become the world champion.

What was the first thing he told you after winning the title?

This might sound funny, but it is in fact what happened: It took quite a long time, almost a day, for the reality to sink in. And then suddenly, he said, 'I did it!' And I told him, 'Yes, you did!' That was it -- and it was quite a while before it happened, it was not like he won the title and next minute, turned to me and said those words.

Personally, speaking as his wife, I am of course hugely delighted that he has finally won the title that has eluded him all these years. I am on cloud nine -- the day he won was surely one of the best days in my life.

It was a bit of a foregone conclusion, wasn't it? Even before the title round began, Shirov had said that Anand was the favourite...

Yes, I was happy that Shirov had predicted Anand's win in advance. We too knew that this was it, this was Anand's best shot at the title. But we didn't take Shirov lightly, he is a very good player and you couldn't afford to take any chances.

Does he discuss the game with you, as part of his preparation?

Yeah, talking chess is as natural for him as breathing. But when it is a big match, he prefers to discuss his strategy with his seconds. Sometimes, I too chip in. But on the whole, he knows what he is doing, and needs minimum help.

How difficult has it been for you, playing the role of his manager, and coping with a husband who thinks of chess all the time?

It is wrong to say that he thinks chess all the time, he is definitely not obsessed with the game. We have a happy married life, we have our private moments, we have over the years learnt how to manage time, how to prioritise so that there is a balance in what we do. It is not at all difficult to manage his time and attention, he is a very nice person, and rarely makes unreasonably demands.

How would you describe Anand the person?

He is very nice, very normal, very simple. He doesn't have strong likes or dislikes, his tastes are very simple, uncomplicated. Going out for a movie, having a simple dinner -- these are the kind of things that make him happy. Also, he is a very well-behaved human being.

He is a very domesticated person -- he actually helps when I have guests for dinner, he even helps with the laundry.

He has a nice sense of humour, and it helps keep him calm and relaxed. It also makes him fun to be with.

Does he get tense, wound up, before big games?

Yes of course -- it is normal for players to get tense before a game, and Anand is no exception to the rule. Having said that, I have to add that he is also a very cool, calm individual and handles the pressure better than most of his rivals. The levels of tension differ from game to game. Actually, I must admit that when he was playing the tie-break against Alexander Khalifman, I was the one who was tense, even more than Anand.

Actually, one of his strengths is that he can laugh off a bad round or a bad tournament, he has the ability to put defeat behind him without brooding about it. And that is one of his biggest strengths. This, plus his calm demeanour saves him in situations where other players have lost out because of their aggression.

Aruna Anand with Vishwanathan Anand Winning the title was the easy bit -- now he has to defend it, and everyone he plays against will want to beat him just for the cachet of having beaten the world champion. Do you foresee a hard period ahead for him?

Well, I am sure Anand knows that as well, and doesn't need to be told. For now, he is the world champion, let him, and us, enjoy it. As to the future, I would say that Anand will want to retain his title for as long as possible, he will be aware that his opponents are gunning for him, and having been a top professional for so many years, he will know how to handle the pressure, and what to do to stay on top.

Behind a successful Anand, there is an unobtrusive but vital Aruna -- would that be a fair assessment?

I do not know how to put it -- I think we look at each other as equal partners, both in marriage and in chess. He has his role, I have mine, and we are both happy doing what we do. We enjoy being together, we are happy, and I believe it shows. I am content with my role in his shadow, and I will continue to perform that role. It is not as if I am his wife because he is world champion, or that I will drop him like a hot potato if he loses -- our marriage is for a lifetime, and so is our partnership.

What does the world champion of chess do when he is not playing chess?

He plays a bit of tennis. He likes cycling and swimming, and he reads a lot, he reads books on any subject you care to name. He likes watching television, listening to music. He takes a keen interest in the career and progress of our tennis champions, Mahesh Bhupathi and Leander Paes, he keeps track of what they are up to. He loves to watch football. He spends a lot of time in Spain -- we do try to spend more time in India, with our families, but it is not possible because of his commitments to chess. He plays in tournaments eight months in the year, a lot of the time is also spent on travel.

Does he follow cricket?

He likes to watch. When we are in England it is easy to watch games, but in countries like Spain where cricket is not played, we do not get much information. He keenly followed the last cricket World Cup.

One final question -- when you think back to the day you were married to Anand, did it occur to you at the time that you were marrying a champion chess player?

Not really. Anand, you see, is a simple, down to earth human being. It was his simplicity that first struck me, and that is his biggest and most noticeable quality. I didn't realise at the time that I was getting married to a big shot.

The Vishwanathan Anand series

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