Viswanathan Anand talks to Shivani Naik about the dividing line between Cold War and post-Cold War chess, the perception of Indian players during that period and the genius of Bobby Fischer and his iconic 1972 World Championship match with Boris Spassky.
The setting of the movie Pawn Sacrifice is during the Cold War. What do you recall of chess in Cold War times? Well I caught the fag end of it, I mean, I was three years old when this match was played. So I grew up reading about the match but I did not experience it. One thing that struck me was simply that for many, many years if I would mention that I played chess then everyone would say, ‘aah I used to play chess during the Fischer-Spassky match.’ So I knew amongst a certain generation it had an unbelievable impact but only heard of it second hand. So a lot of the stuff in the movie was stuff that I heard, read literally about chess history. I started playing in 1984 in world sub junior, world junior and I started to meet some of these players from the East Bloc and I heard stories and things like that, so I don’t think I copped the worst of it. By that time we were one year away from Gorbachev and things were already changing very fast. But I had some sense of what it meant, you know the kind of paranoia, you hear all these stories about spies and everybody flatters themselves into thinking that the KGB was watching them. You caught a little bit about that but I think it was mostly in our Was there an absolute dividing line between Cold War and post-Cold War chess? There was a very big dividing line. First was that players from these East Bloc countries had difficulties travelling, varying in degrees but you know they had trouble travelling. So for them getting a chance to travel abroad to play chess were all very big opportunities. And I think people who didn’t have to think much about travelling, maybe we couldn’t even relate to this. Second thing is that this was the pre-computer era so that’s not strictly connected to the Cold War but you can say that there’s a change. Within a few years, the Russian or Eastern players had started to change a lot. So the ones who were teenagers in 1987 and 1988, they had none of the baggage of the past. But for us, it was always hanging over our heads somehow. We had this background even if nothing else. I didn’t really experience a lot of it.
As an Indian chess player, where were you slotted in this whole bigger scheme of the chess divide?
I think they saw me as someone from a country where there was not much chess happening so there was that initial surprise. And then they realised he’s this really fast player from India and something like that. I don’t think I fit into a category very easily. I mean, the Russians would call me Western but by that, they simply meant not East Bloc. Though I was further East than most Russians! And there was no easy category for me. But I don’t think amongst teenagers these categories mattered a lot. You were simply an individual and that was it.
In the movie, there is mention of the game being seen as a battle between “intellectual Russia vs the decadent West.” Was there any truth or just a perception?
No, I think that was how the Soviet state saw it. They saw chess as a sort of demonstration of their prestige, and that is real enough. They really did emphasise chess as one of the things that the Communist State allowed its citizens to flourish in this way, it gave them the time to engage in intellectual activities to make a living. That element was there. That a communist society could free its citizens to do this kind of intellectual activity worked. It was there in the background but you could just as well say the same about the space race and whatever. I don’t know how they saw it, whether the Soviets believed it or took it literally or it was just an angle.
Fischer storms out in the film alleging that Russians are ganging up against him, there’s 5-against-1. Did you ever face that?
No, I didn’t. One of the funny things was in December January 1991-92, I played in a tournament in Italy. I was the only non-Soviet participant there and rest of the nine were all from the Soviet Union. And I won that tournament. Except by the time that tournament finished, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. It had dissolved, and Russia had become Russia and the Republics had gone their own way. I like the joke that I was the last Soviet-era champion!
But the very fact that they didn’t gang up in any way to try stop me means that by this time, this was the new generation, which had a different way of operating. And it’s not like the earlier Soviets wanted to cheat. It was clear that they were ordered to cheat, ordered to gang up and that was it. The carrot was always you do what we tell you, we’ll let you travel. That was the kind of arrangement.
Was it strategy, like the Chinese in badminton?
That I’m not aware of enough. But basic idea was in chess because you can take a draw they would fix the draws between themselves and give themselves an extra rest day. And against Fischer, they would all work twice as hard. In effect, though it’s not a team sport, it had the feeling of resembling one. At least on the Soviet side, not on Fischer’s side.
Why did Fischer’s outspokenness stand out?
No, the thing about Fischer is he had this ‘emperor has no clothes’ kind of way of just saying the truth as he saw it. And this is why he was different from other chess players. He didn’t mince words. The others had learnt, you know, if we can’t prove it, we shouldn’t allege it. They had a sort of upper class correctness, and politically correct ways. It was like we cannot accuse the Russians unless we have definitive proof. Fischer was much more innocent in that way, in the sense that if he saw something he would say it. He accused the Russians and there was a lot of fuss kicked up by all that. But Fischer just said it like he saw it and that was it. And it turned out to be true!
The thing about the movie is that though Fischer did slip into paranoia, a lot of his fears were justified. So he was not insane. He looked around him and he lived in a world where people didn’t say the obvious because they felt they had to be very polite. It’s like you may know everybody is corrupt but you may not say it without proof and these questions arise in other parts of society as well. Bobby was just very straightforward. He just said what he thought.
I think all chess players, even the Russians liked him a lot. This is what Spassky also said many times that Bobby never realised how many fans he had in Russia. They simply liked him and they were flattered that an American was playing their sport and they knew some of the things he said might be true.
Like is shown of Fischer in the movie, did you too cry after losing as a child?
I don’t recall crying. I certainly recall being furious and all that. I even recall my mother once telling me if you’re not going to learn anything from the defeats, what’s the point?
There’s a way in which Fischer describes the game in the film – personifying it. Would you rather that chess writing gets more descriptive?
That’s how we speak to each other – it’s only when a chess player communicates with the outside world that he changes the description, talks technical. When chess players talk to each other they often say… Oh! my king is running, your bishop did this, your bishop was staring at me! I mean, when we talk, we very often talk like this. It’s interesting and shows that the director had done his research. And it’s very much the way I imagine that Bobby would’ve described it or his contemporaries would’ve described chess as well. You will talk about your pieces as if they are people, as if they have become personalities almost.
Fischer in one scene, roars: “Money is respect.” How is money seen in chess?
He was completely right, of course. I mean money is respect. You can just open your eyes and look around and that is what you’ll observe. I mean we’re not allowed to say these things. But if you remember the Olympic movement, for many years they would pretend they were noble amateurs and professionals were somehow “grubby”. Except, in the end we know how that went.
And the thing is that the kind of dedication you need to pursue a sport at its highest level means you have to be a professional. And if you are a professional, you would like to retire well, you’d like to earn enough money to have a comfortable life. Bobby simply stated something that was obvious to him. And this may have been even more the case in America because it is a highly capitalist society. Having said that, Bobby made chess a professional sport. Before 1972, I think World Championship matches almost had no prize funds because it was played between two Russians, so seen as internal matches. There was no need to give them a prize fund because the state was anyway giving them a flat and giving them travel and things like that.
But Fischer needed the money. Maybe it’s an interesting point the director has picked up on, that it is not so much the money which attracts attention it is the fact that you ask for it. In the US and in most countries, a sportsman who kicks up fuss attracts attention. Like what Phineas Barnum said, there is no such thing as bad publicity. You draw attention to yourself and you become more marketable and Fischer either intuitively or some other way, grasped this. But he was just a dream personality, and you were guaranteed a controversy which means reporters who didn’t understand anything about chess could still write about the game. And he attracted attention which is why he became a star.
There’s a moment in the movie that Lombardi (Fischer’s second) says, ‘Chess takes you very close to the edge.’ Is that something you have ever seen in a chess player?
Yes. Well, quite simply yes. I mean given the intensity of the effort involved and fact that it’s all in your head.
How was your experience meeting Fischer?
I don’t know. I tried to go there without any expectations and I enjoyed it. I enjoyed meeting him and knowing that one day I could tell people I have met him. It’s not the sort of opportunity you turn down. But as with these things, it turned out to be in a way anticlimax. Because you go, and there’s no way you can help wondering what the meeting is going to be be like. And in the end you talk for a couple of hours and it’s over, and that’s it. I was happy to have met him. I could see some glimpses of the old Fischer but essentially he was an old man who was quite ill, and had been through a lot of trouble in life. And he was already well into the tragic phase of his life.
There’s interesting scene in the movie about Fischer seeking out Russian literature on chess. In pre-internet days, how did you access Russian chess literature?
I would go to Soviet chess centre in Chennai and they would give us sets and some books. But books in chess back then were if somebody managed to travel abroad and had a relative who maybe was able to buy a book somewhere. It’s hard to imagine this in a day when you just go to Amazon can click on anything. Once upon a time, it wasn’t ‘where’ you got the book but ‘if’ you got the book! I can say I’ve been on both sides of it.
What do you make of Fischer’s support cast in the film?
Fischer was the kind of genius that needed somebody to care for him in the same way that, let’s say, Newton needed someone and lot of geniuses have also needed that strong person in their life that guides them. Now, for Fischer it was Lombardy. But it was also Ed Edmondson, whose character is played by the lawyer. I’m not sure why his name’s changed in the film, but I couldn’t see anyone else who could’ve been depicted that way. Edmondson’s job consisted basically of getting Fischer to the table and they portray him quite sympathetically. Just how frustrating it is to deal with him. But he knew a lot about chess. They’ve tweaked the character slightly and I don’t know why because Edmondson knew something about chess, he was something with the chess federation, so he wouldn’t have been as bad as this lawyer was. Having said that, the character they came up with was enjoyable.
They’ve shown a couple of unconventional openings in the movie. Are those common now?
I think some of the chess was exaggerated. Like the sixth game is not generally considered the greatest game in history. It’s not that it didn’t have an impact, I’m just saying it was not as big as this movie tries to make it out to be. In a way when you watch the movie you get into this bubble, and you have to come out of it.
If there was a movie made on your career, which World Championship, would you choose?
I guess I could go for the Veselin Topalov one because of the volcano (Eyjafjallajökull) and the thing that you could get a little extra drama there!