‘The toughest so far’
SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY
Interview with Grand Master Surya Sekhar Ganguly, Viswanathan Anand’s second in the world title match.
Surya Sekhar Ganguly has been a key member of Grand Master Viswanathan Anand’s core team which Anand calls his “band of brothers”. The 29-year-old Grand Master from Kolkata has been Anand’s second in the last three world championships, and is known for his analytical skills in complicated positions.
After returning from the World Chess Championship in Moscow, Ganguly spoke to Frontline about various aspects of the tournament and the strategies employed, Garry Kasparov’s unsavoury comments, and the crucial role played by Anand’s wife Aruna in the preparations of Team Anand. Of the last three title matches – against Vladimir Kramnik, Veselin Topalov and Boris Gelfand – Ganguly feels the last was the toughest. “Although from the outside many may think it was slightly boring in the initial phase, basically the reason was that it was played at the very highest level.” Excerpts from the interview:
You are a crucial part of the core team of Viswanathan Anand. What is your job?
As you know, there are four members in Anand’s core team. Apart from myself, there are Radoslav Wojtasek from Poland, Peter Heine-Nielsen from Denmark and former world champion Rustam Kasimdzhanov from Uzbekistan. Our main job is to analyse openings and to find new ideas. Chess is a research-based game. You have to do a lot of research to find new ideas and it’s a constant and never-ending process. To support the new ideas you have to analyse quite a lot of moves – for each new move one might have to analyse over 5,000 moves just to support this new move. We sit with Anand with computers and different kinds of engines and also apply our own thoughts to get these ‘novelties’, what we call new ideas. So that’s what we essentially do, apart from playing some training games and so on.
Are there different areas of specialisation for each of the seconds?
I would say that everybody is pretty much involved everywhere. But we are also specialists in that each has his own opening repertoire. Let us say Anand is playing a particular opening where Radoslav is a specialist, so he will look after that. Although at the end of the day all of us will get involved and cross-check our work, just so we don’t miss anything.
Before the tournament began, when most people were saying it would be easy for Anand against Gelfand, I remember you saying it would be dangerous to underestimate Gelfand, and you were proved right. What made you so wary of him?
I am glad that you remember this. Anand did not take Gelfand lightly at all. He was very serious about this; and that is why we had this long training session. We worked constantly for six months to find some new ideas. We are talking about a guy [Gelfand] who won 10 consecutive matches at the highest level to challenge Anand. How can one take such a player lightly? He has been at the top rungs of the sport for the past 20 years. When Anand became World Champion for the second time in Mexico [in 2007] Gelfand was runner-up. Also, his opening repertoire, though not very broad, is very deep and he has a positional understanding of chess that is profound. We knew that whatever Gelfand has in his arsenal, he will be extremely well-prepared with it.
Give us some examples of the kind of preparations that Anand and his team did both prior to the match and during the match.
Let me give an example to explain it. Gelfand as black, against e4 opening [King’s pawn opening] would always use the Petroff defence or the Najdorf variation. But this time he used the Vishnyakov, which he had hardly ever used except in four or five games in the 1990s. And again, against d4 [Queen’s pawn opening] Gelfand applied Grunfeld, again something he hardly played before. He played Grunfeld and Vishnyakov throughout this championship. In fact, he actually managed to break our pre-match preparation, because we did not look at these openings with as much depth as we looked at the others, as he hardly played them.
So after we saw Grunfeld and Vishnyakov, we realised our pre-match work from the white side was not going to work and had to build up afresh from there. It was not at all easy to find a flaw in Gelfand’s opening repertoire; although at the end we did manage to find some sort of a flaw in his preparation, and that’s how we won in game 2 in the tie-break.
So we were not being able to get any serious advantage playing white because Gelfand was so well-prepared. And they must have prepared both Grunfeld and Vishnyakov for the past six months, whereas we had to do it then and there.
This was our preparation in our white game. Now, in our black game, we were almost sure that Gelfand would go for the Queen’s pawn opening, and there we had three systems prepared. Our repertoire this time was very broad thanks to Vishy’s extremely flexible playing style. He can adopt many lines.
What according to you has been the outstanding feature of this world title match?
I think it was extremely close. Although from the outside many may think it was slightly boring in the initial phase, basically the reason was that it was played at the very highest level. Both sides were very well-prepared playing black. Just as we were unable to crack Gelfand’s preparation with white, the same went for Gelfand’s team. They also produced some very nice games.
I would say hats off to Gelfand, who, despite getting into some bad positions and playing against a player like Anand, managed to keep his cool; in many games he defended exceptionally well and managed to survive. Till the very end, he fought back like anything.
Ten draws and two results in the classical matches. Did you at any point think Gelfand might win it?
The danger was always there. When we were playing black our main aim was to get an equal position. We were playing the Slav with a6 structure; and when we repeated it for the fourth time, Gelfand came up with an idea that he analysed more deeply than we. But at the end of the day, Anand is an extremely good player and that makes a huge difference. We had full faith in him.
You have been a part of Anand’s team in his world title matches against Kramnik and Topalov too. Can you tell us the main differences between the three matches?
All of them are very great players, but each has his own characteristic playing style. Kramnik is a very positional player, with a profound theoretical knowledge. He is probably the best technical player. Against him we were choosing all the lines that would precipitate a complicated battle, because in a complex position Anand is much superior. So we were trying to avoid any kind of dry or strategical positional play, where Kramnik is strong. With Topalov, it was the exact opposite. There we chose Slav defence and Catalan [opening]. We were trying to play very solid, because Topalov is a guy who really likes complications. Against Gelfand, our strategy was very broad. We had lots of openings and lots of variations ready so they would not be able to catch us.
Of these three, the toughest was Gelfand. Also, one should consider that in each world championship the pressure on Anand increases. But he is extremely cool. I think this championship was the toughest surely so far.
After six consecutive draws when Gelfand won the seventh game, what was it like in the Anand camp?
It was tough of course, but we were cool. Having been with Anand for so many world championship matches, all of us knew that with five games to go, a one-point lead meant nothing. We had three more games with whites out of which if we scored in one the game would be equal. Of course, the loss was not easy to digest, and we knew that the game was wide open.
Vishy had a tough night; it was difficult to sleep, but still he went to bed early. I remember we [the seconds] were working all night, and somewhere around 4-45 a.m., we went for a walk and then sat down for work again till around 6-30. We were kind of happy with our preparation. In the match that day Anand again went for the f3 in the Grunfeld, and Gelfand went for the Kings Indian Defence, and Anand got exactly the position we wanted to get. And also Gelfand miscalculated and fell into Anand’s trap. But going through Anand’s post-match analysis, and the position which he had on the board, even if Gelfand had not made the blunder, Anand would have won the eighth game. He was cool and calm and in very good shape for the match.
Did Kasparov’s comment midway through the championship that Anand had lost his edge affect Anand and his camp?
Anand is not bothered about such things. He does not even look at such reports. He has to play a world championship match. But we have to keep track of what is happening on the side, mainly to know what moves were being suggested, etc. and keep ourselves updated. What Kasparov said did not make any sense. If he has to say something, why does he not come back to chess? Let him qualify and challenge Anand. I mean the man [Anand] is the world champion for the fifth time. It’s very easy to criticise. We just didn’t give it any importance.
What was it like in the Anand camp during the long haul of the championship?
We worked very hard, but we also had time to rest and do our own things. And we must not forget that Team Anand would not function without the presence of Aruna [Anand’s wife]. She is a motivating force among us, and her presence made it feel like we are a family. She would take care of everything for us, so that all we had to focus on was the chess. I loved the way we worked. If you accidentally walked into our working space, you would find the music on, people laughing and joking. We laugh a lot when we are at work.
What are your plans now?
I have been working very hard for the past six months. So right now I want to lay off chess for at least 20 days. But probably I’ll start missing it after the third day and begin practising again.
I intend to play some European tournaments, starting with a couple of tournaments in Greece, one in the Netherlands and one in Germany in July. Right now I will resume my karate. I also have a passion for magic, so I’ll probably work on that too.