The Tigress of Madras - Aruna Anand (2/3)
Right from a very early age, everyone knew that Vishy Anand would make it big in the world of chess. His talent and work ethic combined with the love for the game took him to the top. But what is it that kept him at the top for so many years? If you had to ask us, we would say: a very important role was played by his wife Aruna Anand. She gave Anand the emotional support that helped him keep going for years and years. Even at the age of 48 he is going strong. In Part II of our interview with the Tigress of Madras - Aruna Anand, we ask her about her role as a manager, the biggest challenge, how she deals with Vishy's losses and how Akhil's presence has brought new colours into their lives!
If you haven't read it already: The Tigress of Madras - Aruna Anand Part I
In the first part of the interview with the first lady of Indian chess Aruna Anand, we spoke about her childhood, how she got married to Vishy Anand, the initial years of marriage, how she soaked in the entire chess environment and became Anand's manager. Now in the second part, we speak about Aruna's role as Anand's manager, the toughest moment for her as a manager, how does she deal with Vishy's losses and how Akhil coming into their life has changed the dynamics.
Sagar Shah (SS): If you had to pinpoint the most important things that you have to do as a manager, what would those be?
Aruna Anand (AA): I think more than a manager. I am a wife first. And my most important role is to give Anand the emotional support. Once you give that everything else falls into place. Whenever Anand tells me to do something, he just blindly trusts me after that. Never has he asked me whether I did that, or how did I do it. There have been World Championship contracts that he has signed without even looking at any of the clauses. I think this faith that Anand has on me cannot come from a normal client manager relationship. It only comes from a bond that you value. All of the World Championship contracts, he has read none of them! I think firstly he doesn't have the patience to read a big contract, but secondly he knows that I do it thoroughly. He doesn't even ask me why I took a specific decision because he knows that I would have put a lot of thought behind it.
SS: I got an idea of your efficiency when he was playing the World Cup in Tbilisi and he unexpectedly got knocked out in round two. And hours within his knockout he was already traveling back home in a flight from Tbilisi to Chennai!
AA: Nowadays it is much easier as you have these travel websites that give you all the tools. In general, you do not want to stay back when you have had a bad tournament. The first thing you want to do is get out of the place. I couldn't book it till I could reach him, but I had kept it ready. I told Anand that I have got a good deal and you can reach Chennai next day afternoon and he was fine.
SS: Do you ever feel that in your role as a manager, personal bond (of being a wife) gets in between the professional relationship?
AA: I think chess is a natural extension of our lives. When I married Anand he was already a very strong chess player. So it was not like chess came into our lives after marriage. I already knew what I was getting into. What I really like about us is the seamless way in which we have been able to integrate chess into our personal lives. I have travelled enough with Anand to know his feelings and to make an objective decision based on the situation.
Often I want to tell Anand something that could help him in chess when he is going through a bad phase. You have an advice, or you want him to change something or just want him to hold on - even that is a valid advice. But I cannot be brash because that's not the way he works. He also doesn't like these gung-ho, enthusiastic kind of fist pumping and stuff. That's why I found it very cute that he pumped his fists on winning the World Rapid Championship 2017.
Somebody in his place would have been more in-your-face. But Anand is not like that. So if I try to be in his face and would have given him advice, I don't think the marriage would have worked. Also, we both understand each other effortlessly. I don't try to find what out what kind of person he is, neither does he. It just happens very harmoniously.
SS: What has been your biggest challenge as Anand's manager?
AA: The biggest definitely has to be Sofia. There is nothing to beat that in terms of drama, excitement and tension! To put five guys in a mini-van and then tell them that we are going to drive through Europe and let's see if we can reach there in time, is almost on the verge of being crazy! But we didn't have a choice. There were Volcanic eruptions of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland during Anand's match against Topalov in 2010. We were in Frankfurt and the air-space was closed. But the important thing at that point was to get the team together so that they would keep working.
Radek, Surya, Anand, Peter Heine and Kasim were all together and working. I realized that I could use the force majeure clause and send a notice. That's how we got our one-day deferment. That led to all sorts of accusations and allegations. But of course, we were right. And it helped that Barack Obama could not land his plane at that time. If he couldn't do it, how could we!
We took a mini-van and decided to travel from Frankfurt to Sofia. It was an adventure, because often we would be going through roads about which we had no idea where we were! But these guys held up really well. A lot has to be said about the spirit of the team. No one complained as to why I should be going through this. There were no questions asked. I think everyone believed in me and my decision of travelling by road.
[Ed: Read the full story of the 40 hour drive from Frankfurt to Sofia on ChessBase in an article entitled "A volcanic trip with the Lord of the Rings"]
Before we left our apartment in Frankfurt I was negotiating with all sorts of people on the phone and Anand couldn't help but overhear it. He asked me about it and I said, "Do you really want to know all the details?" He said, "Okay, I will never ask you after this. If something goes wrong in the match I will never blame you for it." And so we had an understanding and we never spoke about it. And when he lost the first game of the match, he looked at me and said, "My deal still stands!" Even when the chess goes up or down, we have managed to keep the couple thing going!
SS: How do you do that? I mean it's so difficult to pacify a chess player who loses a game.
AA: It's horrible, It's horrible. Now that I am not traveling together with him, it is even worse. When you are there in person you can somehow drag each other out of it. This virtual communication somehow doesn't work so well. Also because of the time difference sometimes you doze off late in the night and then Anand has lost a game. You feel so helpless. The bile is rising up your throat and it kills you from within. That's how modern chess is these days. You just get a lot more hits than before.
SS: When you were there with Anand as a person, how would you deal with his losses?
AA: There is a very funny incident that I would like to share. In 2003 Anand was playing in Dortmund and he had two losses in row against Radjabov and Bologan. When Anand loses his game he loves to walk. He can walk from one city to another. I was trying to keep up and walking quietly beside him. He asked, "You have nothing to say? Normally you have a lot of advice to give." I said I have no advice! "Tell me something," he said. Tomorrow will be better, was my response. Maybe you deep breathe, I said. At that point we were crossing the road. Anand stopped and said, "This is the best advice you can give? You know I can do levitation on my own. Tell me if you have something against the Berlin." At that point, I got really angry. I told him, "I didn't want to say anything. Then you make me say something and react like this! If I knew something against the Berlin, do you think I would be married to you!" At that point we were both standing in the middle of the road, looking at each other, we started laughing! It was so absurd! Later many times after a loss we looked back at that moment and kind of defused the tension!
Later in that tournament, Anand played a very nice game against Bologan with the white pieces (it was a double round-robin event) and won the best game prize.
SS: The seventh round loss against Boris Gelfand in the 2012 World Championship would have been very tough for you.
AA: It was a very tough day. I still remember the date it was 20th May 2012. The match had been very close and Gelfand is a very strong opponent. He is not one of those people who would let you back in the match. In the Topalov match even after losing there was always a chance of making a comeback. This was because of Topalov's style of play. Against Gelfand, we knew if we screwed up, we would not have got a chance to get back into the match. It was a very bad day for us because Anand after losing the game went for a very long walk and after coming back I remember very vividly telling me that this could be his last day as a World Champion. It has to end somewhere and maybe it ends here.
But the next day he goes to the game and scores a 17-move win and later defends his title!
SS: So many up and downs. You both have seen so much together!
AA: A lot! And hence now we appreciate the triumphs much more and when the hits come, we understand that it is not the last one! So, when he won the World Rapid 2017 in Riyadh, I was very happy for him. I think it did a lot to his confidence.
SS: After Akhil was born, you have been unable to travel to the tournaments. Do you miss the tournament atmosphere or you think this is better?
AA: Yes I think I miss it! Recently when Anand was in Wijk Aan Zee I asked him, "Is that supermarket still open. Do you still get the chocolate milk?" Nowadays at some of the tournaments, there are some players whom I have never met or even heard of. They are so young, like the age of our children! Anish Giri had once visited us and we had gone to a restaurant. People thought that he was our son. He does look a bit like Anand! You feel kind of motherly towards them!
I remember when Radek (Wojtaszek) joined us, he was like the ultimate baby of our team. I used to really look after him. In 2014 when Anand was playing against Carlsen in Sochi, Radek was engaged or about to be engaged with Alina (Kashlinskaya). He was suffering from a cold and I told him, "Radek, I will give you medicines." To which Radek said, "Alina has already given me medicines." And that's when Anand told me, "This is the time you realize that the child has flown the nest. Now he has Alina to take care of him."
We feel very protective towards all of them. Peter Heine Nielsen - we always make fun of him. He is the only Dane who is a vegetarian because he would spend months with us. We would often joke - after he finished the camp, the first animal he sees he would kill it and eat! (laughs!) But he would enjoy the food and eat everything that we would make. You make khichdi, curd rice or anything, Peter always relished his food. It was always a joy to cook for him.
SS: You never really got tired of the chess atmosphere. You soaked it all in.
AA: I never really felt that the chess atmosphere was different from my world. I never really felt that I was an outsider.
SS: Apart from Sofia 2010 were there any other challenges as a manager that come to your mind?
AA: I think it had to be Bonn 2008. Anand was leading the match 6-4 against Kramnik and he needed half a point out of the remaining two games. It was quite a pleasant problem to be in. But both me and Anand were not feeling well, and if the match had dragged out we would have been in great trouble as both of us contracted chicken pox just two days after the match! Looking back now it seemed quite dramatic.
SS: In 2011, Akhil was born. How is your life different with now Akhil being a part of it?
AA: I think it is a very beautiful phase of life. It was nice that we had that, and now we have this. I think it is very nice for Anand that he comes back home from tournaments and there is this ready family setup for him. And when Anand is home it is fun for Akhil because it is playtime 24x7. With me he slightly well behaved, but with Anand he is a lost cause!
SS: You are very strict?
AA: I am not at all strict! But I think there are certain things you can only do with your father. Like if we go swimming, he would come with me and we would swim and come back. But with Anand he tries to be as mischievous as he can be. Once when Anand was in the changing room, he took the towel and locked him up and Anand was banging the door. I could hear it from outside and asked him if everything is fine. "Akhil has locked me up and taken my towel." And Akhil was in the corner giggling away! It's nice to see this big Viswanathan Anand, who is a legend, but for Akhil he is just a fun dad!
When Anand won in Riyadh, Akhil and I were in Kerala for a vacation. Akhil had a school homework about what he did in the holidays. On the last page he writes: 'My holidays are over and Appa is back and Appa is the best World Champion (rapid).' For Anand that was the most beautiful congratulations that he ever got.
Even recently in Wijk Aan Zee when they played in Hilversum they had the Sesame Street characters with them. Akhil was very excited to see Anand with all these cartoons! He asked me, "Did Appa checkmate Elmo and Cookie Monster? I said yes. "With the rook!" he added. "Ask Appa if it was a rook. On the file and on the rank!" I think in his own way he understands what Anand is doing and I think that's also very beautiful.
SS: Do you plan to go on a tournament with all three of you together?
AA: I think tournaments would be very difficult. It's not right for Anand as well as Akhil to be together during a tournament. A child's vacation is a child's vacation. You can't just tell him that Appa is now working so you keep quiet. So what we do usually is that when Anand goes for simuls or exhibitions we join him. In that way, we do not disturb his routine during a tournament and at the same time, Akhil gets a taste of what Anand is doing.
SS: If there is something that you would like to change in this entire journey what would that be?
AA: If 2013 Chennai would have happened in perhaps 2008 the result would have been very different. I don't think it was about Carlsen or Chennai. It was just that Anand was not in his best form.
SS: What would be your advice to people who would like to be or already are managers of chess players.
AA: You cannot put yourself in front, it always has to be the player. Each player functions differently and it is important to understand them. For eg. Anand does not like to be inundated with details. So you don't tell him the details. You have to know how that person is wired. Something might be good for them, but you have to tell it to them in a way that is acceptable to them. You can't just have your way of working and not take into consideration their way of being. Because at the end of the day only when a chess player is happy is when he can play his best chess. It's one of those sport where you cannot have anything else on your mind apart from chess.
SS: And now taking the manager out of the equation, what would your advice be to the spouses whose better halves play chess?
AA: Never give chess advice! That's one thing that they absolutely hate. Sometimes I tell Anand after the game, why didn't you play that. That would have given you an advantage of 2.2. Anand usually replies, "Do you have anything else to say!" But sometimes he finds my suggestions interesting and says let me think and get back to you! or sometimes he would say that is a very computer-like move!
SS: So you have started contributing towards Anand's on the board play as well.
AA: I don't know how much I contribute, but sometimes it just very difficult to stop myself from telling him what the best move was. But in general, no chess advice would be my advice to other spouses. Chess players are incredibly proud about what they do. Some call chess an art, some says its science, some call it mathematics. That's why when a chess player loses, he feels really bad, because he usually takes pride in his play. So, poking at the heart of it can be very difficult for chess players to digest.
The final part of this interview series will be released shortly and will contain a rapid-fire question session with Aruna. Who do you think Aruna likes more Amitabh Bachchan or Aamir Khan, Anatoly Karpov or Garry Kasparov, blitz chess or rapid chess? Stay tuned for part III.