Chess Players Have Always Been Called Wood Pushers'

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Vishwanathan Anand began playing chess at six, was Indian champion by 16 and picked up the Grandmaster title one year later. On Dec. 24, the 31-year-old from Madras went on to even greater glory, winning the FIDE world chess championship in Tehran. He took time out from celebrations to talk to TIME correspondent Meenakshi Ganguly. Edited excerpts: TIME: The chess world is in such a mess, isn't it? Can it get worse?Anand: I think the chess world has split into the rest of the world, and Garry Kasparov [former world chess champion]. There is no solution to the problem. 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But you miss the adrenalin and panic that comes with competition. Alertness in a big game produces a different kind of chess. Sometimes I think I play too fast and that's when mistakes are made and that's when you make unusual moves. TIME: Do chess crowds ever get unruly when watching you?Anand: They'd be more noisy if they were allowed to be. They do sometimes get agitated but on the whole it's not a problem. Organizers often set up a big tent where the crowd watches, and the players can't hear any of the noise they're making. I think the audience should be separated from the players.TIME: Is the chess world very glamorous? Do you have women following you and proposing undying love?Anand: I think in the days of Bobby Fischer [an American former world chess champion], I don't know if it's right to say glamour came with it, but the public were in awe of chess players. A lot of the European players seem to get by as far as women are concerned. It probably helps that they speak about three languages too. I used to get a reasonable amount of female fan mail but it wasn't like I was drowning in it. I think a lot of people got into chess years ago because of its bohemian nature -- you could be as unfit as you liked and it didn't matter. Now it's different. Many players go to the gym as part of our chess training. But then without Bobby Fischer we simply wouldn't be here. TIME: There's a lot of money in chess. Are you a millionaire several times over?Anand: You may make money from chess but you don't go into it to make money. I drifted into it when I was six and was taught by my mother. I think I was lucky, too. Both my parents were very tolerant of the hobby. TIME: Do chess players have a use-by date?Anand: Many years ago all the top ten players were old -- and it was thought your brain worked best when it was 35. At 31, I'm the eighth oldest player on the circuit. Everyone's getting younger and there are more players these days. TIME: Do players in chess take performance-enhancing drugs?Anand: Not that I know of, but then, these days you never know. I think most of the drugs other people take would be utterly useless in chess. Substance abuse in our sport is very conservative. I tend just to drink tea during matches, but some players prefer coffee. Smoking was banned in tournament halls some time ago. Chess players have been relaxed about drugs. In the old days it was fashionable to drink. Players would go out until the small hours of the morning and get drunk, then turn up and play a tournament match the next day. TIME: Were you very scared when you first played Garry Kasparov in 1995?Anand: No. At that point in my career I was flippant, but he progressively became more difficult to play. I used to think, well, he's good, but I can deal with him. TIME: Is he still a good player, or has he peaked?Anand: I think he's the same. I thought in the game against Kramnik [Russian player Vladimir Kramnik] he was ambushed psychologically. That can happen in chess. I'm not certain it makes Kramnik a better player. TIME: Don't you get fed up being called second-rate?Anand: Honestly, no. Chess players have always been called wood pushers for a start. It's something I've got used to. I think it's fair that Kasparov has been No. 1 for as long as he has. TIME: Is there any joy for you in beating a computer rather than a person?Anand: The worldwide impact of beating 'Big Blue' [IBM's chess-playing supercomputer] is enormous, but that doesn't necessarily make it more satisfying personally. I also think the money would be very satisfying if I ever got to play Big Blue or a machine like it. TIME: Don't you think the audience is always on the computer's side?Anand: No. I think so many people are so used to computers these days and the frustration that comes with them, that they tend always to empathize with the player. The best thing about these matches is that they generate huge public interest. But at the same time, computers have made my job much harder. I have to work twice as hard to keep up with the number of software chess packages available and the number of games they have programmed into them. I have a database of about 2 million games. The energy and the technology are good for the game, but ultimately it's making my job much harder.