Behind the kings of the chess world, there’s a crack team of knights—or ‘seconds’, as they are called—doing the dirty work.
As if Viswanathan Anand didn’t have his hands full preparing for his World Championship defence against Bulgarian Grandmaster (GM) Veselin Topalov next year, an off-the-board move has probably given him more to think about. Last month, it was revealed that Garry Kasparov had agreed to work with Magnus Carlsen, the 18-year-old Norwegian wunderkind. For the fanaticalchess fraternity, it’s an intriguing collaboration. It’s as if in the 1990s, Don Bradman decided to coach Tendulkar. Even that’s putting it mildly, for the value of partnerships is more in chess than perhaps in any other sport.
Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of partnerships in chess. There’s the coach-ward relationship. And then, there is the support team—called ‘seconds’—that does most of the preparatory work for a top player. The Carlsen-Kasparov relationship falls somewhere in between the two.
At the pinnacle of the sport, seconds are the key partnership. Seconds are a throwback from the age of duelling, when two ‘gentlemen’ settled their differences with pistols or swords. Each had a second to help him load the guns, inspect the ‘field of honour’—where the duel would be fought—and ensure the duel was conducted fairly.
In chess, seconds have a similar role, helping top players in key matches. They pore over games, act as sparring partners and assess the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. Seconds are often strong GMs. Besides a fee, they typically get paid a percentage of the prize money. For them, there is the experience gained by working with top players. For the players themselves, a good team can be, pardon the pun, the difference between finishing first or second.
Chess is divided into three phases: the opening, the middle-game and the endgame. The last two are based on age-old principles, which have remained essentially unchanged. At the highest level, the main battleground is the opening. While the basic opening gambits can go back centuries, millions of variations are possible. ‘Novelties’, or subtle changes in these variations, often decide a game.
Anand’s first big test as World Champion was defending his crown against Russia’s Vladimir Kramnik last year in Bonn, Germany. Many observers had rated the preparation of Kramnik, who had dethroned Kasparov in 2000, as the best ever. Surprisingly, Anand won comfortably, largely on the strength of some opening novelties.
Some of those moves would have been the handiwork of Anand’s four seconds, who were rated lower on paper than Kramnik’s assistants. The A-team, as they call themselves, was an eclectic mix of nationalities: a Dane (Peter Heine Nielsen), a Pole (Radoslav Wojtaszek), an Uzbek (Rustam Kasimdzhanov) and an Indian (Surya Shekhar Ganguly). Anand picked them on more than just their chess abilities. “It’s important they are nice guys who get along well and have fun while working,” says Anand. “We work long hours. So, personal equations are important. Then comes the chess.”
From the 1990s, as computers became more and more powerful, it became important for seconds to be IT-savvy. Today, powerful ‘engines’—softwares that calculate millions of moves per second and databases containing almost all master games played over the last 300 years—are a must-have for any serious player.
Frederic Friedel, the founder of ChessBase, the world’s largest chess software company, recalls a visit to Anand’s analysis room at Bonn. “There was the hum of all kinds of computers, not a book in sight. It looked like Mission Control in Houston,” he says. “I asked Vishy, ‘don’t you miss the good old days, where we’d sit around with a few books and a board?’ He said, ‘no, no. I have reverse nostalgia. I keep thinking why didn’t I have all this when I started!”
With the advent of the computer, the number of seconds required dropped, but the need for humans to supply the creative spark remained. Says Anand: “In a way, preparation was simpler, and one novelty could win you the tournament. Now, it may not even win you the game.”
It’s the job of a second to distil minute advantages from the oceans of existing ‘theory’. Also, before a big match, the player and his seconds will probably go through all the games played by the opponent, right from his childhood, in search of buried flaws or potential weaknesses. Before the Bonn encounter, Anand told Der Spiegel that he was “studying Kramnik, up to 10 hours a day”. Talking about the Byzantine mind-games that precede a match, Anand said: “I must remember that he is thinking about what I am thinking about him.”
While the Russians always understood the importance of methodical preparation, Anand took time to adopt that mindset. Anand recalls a 1992 match with the Ukrainian genius Vassily Ivanchuk. “We worked for a few days in Spain. Ivanchuk had a team, while we were just two guys (Anand and GM Patrick Wolff) who heard music on walkmans and prepared.”
|The ‘seconds’ distil minute advantages from the oceans of games, act as a sparring partner and assess the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.|
Anand’s rise began with winning the World Junior Championship—traditionally, a stepping-stone to bigger things—in 1987. His breakthrough came in 1991, when he qualified to play in the World Championship cycle that would culminate in a match against the champion.
His first opponent was Russian GM Alexey Dreev, in Chennai. “It was the first time I trained for a match,” says Anand. “I worked with Ferdinand Hellers. We were playing in junior events together and we got along well.” GM Hellers says: “Anand is a very pleasant person to work with. It’s very tough, but also very rewarding, as he is such a strong player.” Although Dreev had three seconds, Anand won. The match saw many opening novelties from both sides. Says Anand: “Ferdinand was a big help…the key was that we enjoyed the work.” Confesses Hellers: “As a Swede, I found the heat trying. I was very tired at the end.”
Anand’s next opponent was Anatoly Karpov. For the first time, Anand had a formal trainer, Mikhail Gurevich. Says Anand: “It was an education for me, in chess preparation and in being a chess professional.” Gurevich was an experienced, a product of the Soviet school and thoroughly schooled in the art of preparation. Although Anand lost narrowly, going toe-to-toe with Karpov was a learning experience. “In a way, after that match, I became serious about my ambitions as a top player,” says Anand.
Anand soon built a reputation as an innovator, often winning the game in the initial stages itself. He began working with a range of seconds and the core of the A-team was born. Anand says: “In a team, star power is not important. Team power is.”
A chess match is the ultimate duel of the mind. Chess is probably unique in the lead-time before events, with preparation starting 6-12 months before a big match. The pressure, therefore, builds early—it is like cramming the night before an exam, but doing it over a year. “For a world championship, no amount of time is enough. Conclusions change constantly. So, what will be relevant before a match is difficult to predict,” says Anand.
Anand’s opponents are a study in contrasting styles. Kramnik was a positional player par excellence. Topalov is a master attacker, smashing through defences with blitzkrieg offensives. The A-team have to work out their game plan: do they take Topalov head on, or do they construct quieter positions and outmanoeuvre him?
Apart from the chess, the seconds also have to play the ‘inner game’—what is good for their player. In Game Three against Kramnik, for example, Anand missed an elementary checkmate, though he did go on to win. Rather than disturb his confidence, the team chose not to tell him about the missed chance until after the match.
Such nuances can prove critical in a tight contest. When asked about the psychological aspects of the match with Dreev, GM Hellers is tight-lipped even after nearly two decades. “It would be disloyal of me to comment as my views might in some way help Topalov,” he says.
Seconds have to create a ‘bubble’ around their player so that he is focused only on the chess. Everything has to be considered. Friedel mentions that during the Bonn match when one of the seconds caught a cold, he was isolated. He continued to work over the Internet, though.
Anand also considers the work-life balance. He says: “You work day and night, and spend months together locked up. So, once in a while, you want to break the tension.” In the A-team, Coldplay is staple music. “The guys now also listen to some Tamil music,” he adds. Anand’s liking for Hitchcock movies and old TV shows like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Minister also seem to have rubbed off on the team.
Today, a silence hangs over the Anand camp. It is, in a sense, revelatory. Both Anand and Topalov are preparing for their duel, likely in April 2010. Like private investigators tailing a quarry, the two gladiators are subjecting each other’s game to a searching examination, looking for some hidden flaw, some tell-tale pattern that will pave the road to supremacy. It is an invisible battle where victory goes to the most diligent searcher. Anand’s giving away little about his team: “There will be some new faces to get fresher perspectives. This will be a different challenge than Bonn. So, my team composition will also reflect that.”
At some point after the Topalov match, the Carlsen-Kasparov combine, and the other pieces they put together, will grab Anand’s attention. Kasparov is, arguably, the greatest player of all time. In his playing days, he dominated Anand. Carlsen, the ‘Mozart of chess’, became a GM at the age of 13, is world number four at 18 and is said to be a world champion in waiting. Carlsen also knows Anand’s game well, courtesy an earlier stint in his team. The A-team will have its hands full.