The Tigress of Madras: Aruna Anand (1/3)
When 26-year-old Vishy Anand got married to Aruna, his career was at a very delicate juncture. He was one of the top chess players in the world, but had not yet become a world champion. If the marriage didn't suit him well, he would have bled a lot of rating points. However, the marriage worked like a charm. Within a few years Vishy not only reached the number one ranking in the world, but also became multiple time World Champion. If there was one person who would get the major credit for all of Vishy's successes, it has to be his wife and manager Aruna Anand. Today being the Women's day, there could be no better time to acquaint you with the Iron lady of Indian chess, the Tigress of Madras - Aruna Anand.
Indian chess would have been much different if on the 27th of June 1996, Vishy Anand had not tied the knot with Aruna Anand. The iron lady is one of the key reasons for Anand's success in the world of chess. When Anand got married to Aruna many people told him - get ready to lose a truckload of Elo points! But Vishy not only gained rating, but also became world number one, and five-time World Champion! Aruna is not just Vishy's wife, she is also his manager. She insulates him from all the distractions that do not help him become better at chess. In that way, Anand can focus on chess 100% while Aruna takes care of everything else.
It's been 21 years since Aruna has been working alongside Anand. What consistency, what phenomenal dedication. Today at the age of 48 the Madras Tiger still roars! And it would not have been possible without the Tigress from Madras! Yes, that's the sobriquet we would like to dedicate to Aruna for her relentless contribution to Indian chess!
Interview with Aruna Anand
As Amruta and I reached the house of Anands in Kottarpuram, Chennai, we were excited. How does a house of a World Champion look like? Also, this would be the first time we would be meeting Aruna at ease. Our previous meetings in public had always been abrupt and short. Today we were going to interview her and ask her everything about her life and her role in Anand's chess career. We pressed the doorbell and a smiling Aruna welcomed us in. "Before we start the interview let me show you something interesting," she said.
The living room is where we decided to do the interview. Aruna sat on a chair, and I took a small stool. "That one's quite sturdy", she said. I had my doubts, but believed in her. In the background, we had the collection of some of the most amazing chess sets. The pillow covers had a chess design! There were things that gave you a feeling that it was the house of a chess family, yet it was so subtly and tastefully done. Chess was there everywhere, but not in your face! Just like Aruna's role in Anand's chess career.
Sagar Shah (SS): So Aruna, the Tigress of Madras! How do you like this title?
Aruna Anand (AA): It's quite a funny one! [Laughs] Anand is called the Tiger of Madras, so by that extension, I can understand. I think I will slowly get used to it.
(SS): Aruna, tell us, how was your childhood?
AA: I was born in Mumbai but for all practical purposes I am from Chennai. I did my schooling in Chennai, went to college in Chennai, finished my education in Delhi and then I worked for a bit and finally got married. I was always interested in dance, music and pottery, these were three of my passions. I was very fond of ceramics. Always dabbled in these artistic things like painting and dance. I was very keen to get into advertising, so worked in an advertising firm before getting married to Anand.
SS: What sort of dance form did you like?
AA: It was Bharatnatyam, classical dance form from Tamil Nadu. But it was way back. I performed once or twice after marriage when we were living in Spain. I did it in the Spanish Embassy. But, it was difficult to continue my passion for dance because Anand travelled a lot and we were not living in one country.
I was only born in Mumbai. My mother's family is from Mumbai but we were already living in Chennai. I think I was a typical girl of that generation. I had to study well and had to have one fine art. I was a little bit of a rebel. So my parents had some trouble with me! [smiles] My brother was the quieter one. I was very happy that my parents allowed me to dabble in a lot of things. Quizzing and debating was something that I liked very much. You can say it was a very typical upbringing that I had.
SS: Your father liked tennis a lot, isn't it?
AA: My father and brother are very interested in tennis. My brother played it a bit. He played at the national level. They were interested but never pursued it professionally. When I got married to Anand they were very happy because finally, a true sportsperson was coming to the family [Laughs].
SS: In 1996, did you have any plans to get married?
AA: Not at all. I was working and I wanted to work and wanted to be independent. But you know parents have their own agenda and they have to fulfil it. And so they told me, "Look at this one boy and if it doesn't work out we won't push you." But I knew it would work out because they were very keen and also because Anand is just a very simple and unassuming person. When he came home, I remember that my mother pulled me into the kitchen and said, "You have to marry him. He is such a nice boy. If I had another daughter I would have married her to him. Since I have only you, you have to marry him!" At that point, I understood I had to marry Vishy.
He had just played his match against Kasparov at that time. He was the flavour of the month. Everybody was talking about the match. It was such a big step in Indian chess and Indian sport. So to come from all this fame and glory, it was unbelievable that Anand was so simple and unassuming. It was like talking to your neighbour. I think he was also a bit apprehensive about marriage. He was already in top five players in the world, and making that next leap towards being the absolute best. It was a big step for him.
To have someone travelling with you to all the tournaments and telling you what to do would be quite difficult. I always tease Anand that just like how he plays chess without thinking, he just said yes, played it and went on. And he said, "Yes, that's more or less what happened! They asked me twice and just so that they would stop asking me, I said yes! And that's how we got married!"
SS: How did he (Anand) get to know about your family?
AA: It was an arranged marriage. I am sure Frederic (Friedel - the co-founder of ChessBase) would be very happy to throw light on this! He calls it the catalogue wedding. He always tells me that Anand chose me from a catalogue! But anyway, there was a common friend who brought both the families together, families met and liked each other. The boy and the girl met and they were given ten minutes face time! I couldn't find any reason to say no and so I had to say yes! [laughs]
SS: Nowadays if you want to get any information about someone you Facebook or Google it. But how did you get to know more about Anand back then?
AA: I think we hardly knew each other at all. I knew about Anand because he had played this match with Kasparov. Anand the person I had absolutely no idea and I think he had absolutely no idea about me. But more or less we both thought that if the parents have done all of this research and homework it can't be so bad. And before we got married we got to meet each other and spend some time for two or three times. They were very pre-meditated dinners!
Anand was travelling a lot. He was playing in a few tournaments - Wijk Aan Zee, Monaco etc. And in those days there were no mobile phones. It was just a different era. I remember what my father used to do. He used to book this ISD call for me to talk to Anand and the whole family would sit around telling me: keep talking, keep talking! [laughs] And I would say there is nothing more to talk. They would say 'ask him some question, make him feel good'. And then at some point, I caught on that every time I was calling Anand was losing. So he was just looking to put the phone down. He was so scared that he would lose again. And our conversation was something like: "How are you? I am fine. How are you? I am fine. How is the weather there? Ah, it's cold. How is it here? It's very hot. Ok bye. Ok bye!" That's more or less how it usually went!
There was once when he called me from Wijk Aan Zee. He called me at 9.30 p.m. We had all gone to sleep by 9 p.m. My mother woke me up saying "Wake up wake up, Anand is calling." I picked up the phone and said hello how are you? And he said bye and kept the phone. Later, I asked him why did you call then? He said it was too cold to hold on to the phone! Those days you had to go to the pay phone to make the call. He told me that I had been holding this payphone for 2 minutes and my hands were completely frozen!
I was working at the ad agency that time when Anand said something like can I send a fax to your office. And I said please don't do anything like that. Nobody knows here that I am getting married to you. Those days there was no WhatsApp and all. But it was very nice that we could keep a lot of the surprise element in the marriage intact. We got married and the third day we left for Dortmund. I think both of us had mentally decided that when we get to Dortmund we will figure out how marriage works. Also because in India you have marriages where both families are involved and the couple don't have much time for each other.
Dortmund went really well and Anand realized that marriage wasn't so bad after all. I remember when we got to Dortmund all these chess players had signed a card which said, "To Viswanathan Anand, it was nice to know you as a strong chess player. Wish you a happy marriage." And then someone had written be ready to lose 70 rating points. I felt really strange. These chess players, what kind of people are they.
SS: Who were they?
AA: All the participants of VSB tournament. Most of them were Dutch players. And I was thinking to myself if something happens, they are all going to blame me now. But I think Anand didn't care much. After the match with Kasparov he had peaked in his career and he had some of the best results in 97-98!
SS: Can you tell us more about Dortmund. How was it for you at your first chess event?
AA: Actually Dortmund was not just my first chess tournament, but also my first visit abroad. So everything was very new. I didn't know anyone from the chess world. I hadn't even played chess in my life. When I got engaged my brother gifted me a chess set and said at least you must count the squares and know how many are there! He used to play some chess, like most children from Madras!
Anand was playing in Dortmund and the event was in a dark theatre. It was cold and I would sit in a corner. I knew absolutely no one. I had no idea of what was going on on the stage. Those days you didn't have apps to see what the position was and the computer evaluation. I would sit and watch and happily go to sleep. Suddenly I would wake up and hear people clap and I would see Anand get up from the stage and walk off. And in those days they wouldn't put the result on the screen. I used to be so scared. If somebody asked me what happened in the game, I would have no clue. I would wait in the ladies toilet and I had told Anand to come there and call my name and I would come out. After three days he said, "It looks really ridiculous. I am standing outside the ladies toilet and calling out your name. Just stand outside, it doesn't matter!"
There used to be a press room and people would invite me to sit there, but I would say I am not from press and not go there! Later I realized that it is not how it works at chess tournaments, but back then I was just new to everything! I had never really moved in that world and I was a bit intimidated by everything. I would say looking back, those were some of the best times we had. Because everything was new and you learn so many things.
SS: How did you start absorbing things?
AA: It happened when Anand played in Groningen and Lausanne. They had this system that whoever qualified from Groningen went to Lausanne and you had around three days. I think I started absorbing a lot of things at that point because you had to arrange a lot of logistics in a very short time. And clearly Anand was physically not capable because he had played 28 days of chess to get where he was. In those days, mobile phones had not yet come and you had call people and coordinate everything like hotel and flights. We had to make all the arrangements ourselves. We reached Schipol airport and from there I called Peter Leko and Yusupov to join us in Lausanne. I remember it was the 31st of December. It was pretty amazing that we could put together a team in such a short span of time. Peter and Artur got ready without any questions and for that we are highly indebted to them. Peter has always been a very good friend and a well-wisher of Vishy. I think that's where it all started. It wasn't pre-determined but it all fell in place.
SS: Who were your first friends in the chess world?
AA: Boris Gelfand's wife Zoe Gelfand, she was the person I used to hang out with. Frederic Friedel was there all the time. He was like the backdrop of all chess tournaments. He was always there. I also like reading books a lot. Most of the chess tournaments, I just read a lot of books.
SS: You becoming Anand's manager was not at all planned, right?
AA: It was not planned, but it seemed the most natural thing to do. Clearly, chess players are very good at chess, but there are a lot of other skills that they are bad at. So it's nice that somebody else takes care of those areas that they really suck. Like organizing, remembering. With Anand we found important contracts in the laundry and many more such incidents. Even now when normally he is leaving for the airport I am standing and asking, "Do you have this, do you have this", and he says, "Yeah, yeah!" I go to the room and I see something on the table and I say you have not taken this and he would reply, "That's the only thing!" Even this time when he was going to a tournament I said, "You have left your computer cables." He said, "I didn't look for it." And I replied, "But it's on the table!" Well, the table was where he had missed looking at! So that's how it goes! :)
SS: Chess players seem to have a problem prioritizing their stuff?
AA: I don't think anything is very important for chess players. There have been times we have been sitting at the airport and our flight has been cancelled. Hundred people are running to the counter to see when the next flight is. And Vishy is there with his chess book open and says, "We will take the next flight, doesn't matter really!" I am standing there screaming and shouting at these airline people to put us on the next flight and Anand will push all his luggage, stretch his legs and he is happily reading. I ask him doesn't this bother you. And he would reply, "I know that you will find a way. After a while, they will get tired of dealing with you and give us a flight!" Completely not bothered by what's happening. I think that's what he is! [smiles]
SS: These organizational skills that you are good at, where does it come from? Is it because you studied public relations or is it ingrained in you?
AA: I studied advertising and public relations and this really helps in certain parts of Vishy's career like endorsements or motivational speeches that he has to give etc. But more than that I come from a family where my father, brother and mother suffer from OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). I think this has helped me! The biggest joke in my family is that nobody wants to go on a vacation, we just enjoy planning the vacation. We would be like: arrive at 6.01, pick up the bags at 6.03. And Anand says, "This is the most beautiful part of the holiday. That's what I really like about your family. Nobody is interested to get to the spot of the vacation! Everyone just loves to plan!" [laughs!] But I think staying with Anand I have become very relaxed. Initially, I was more caught up and now I am more relaxed about most of the stuff.
SS: Some of the things have rubbed on to you but not the other way?
AA: Anand has also become more responsible, I must say! [smiles] But I think technology has helped him a lot. Now tickets are paperless and a lot of things can be organized on the phone. But still he would call me once in a while and ask, "Can you tell me my ATM pin." or "I have put my pin wrong three times and the machine has swallowed my card. Can you do something about it!" Another normal occurrence is "I have arrived in the hotel, can you tell me the code to open the suitcase? The one that you mentioned doesn't work!" Normally you just have to turn it and it opens and he says. "It didn't work for me!" Even recently when he was in London, I remember the suitcase didn't open and one entire day went by.
SS: This 2706, is it a true story?
AA: Anand was in Lausanne and those days you still had these three and a half inch floppies. So every night whatever preparation they had done would be backed up and I would keep it in the safe. I told Anand that it's a very easy code to remember - 2706. He didn't even look up at me and said, "That's a very silly code!" Those days we still didn't have things like live rating. Even the monthly rating wasn't there. And also the rating used to be updated with a difference of five. So it could be 2705 or 2710. 2706 was a very unusual code for Anand. "Who has such a rating", he asked. "Nobody has that rating, it's our wedding anniversary!", I said. He still kept looking at me with a face that asked why do you think I would remember that so easily! But, okay he was in the middle of a World Championship Match and for that I pardon him. [laughs]
Part II of this interview will soon follow and will contain Aruna's biggest challenges as a manager of Anand, how she deals with Anand's losses and much more! So stay tuned for that. The part I of this interview was released on the 8th of March as it's the International Women's Day. We truly believe that Aruna has powered chess in India by being such a huge support to Vishy Anand's career. If you too believe the same, leave a comment below for her!
Also, check out the new ChessBase India accessories released by ChessBase India as a part of the Women's Day celebration.