Lunch With Anand: "Chess Must be Fun."
By Matt Barrett   
December 23, 2013

LONDON(December 19, 2013) --  I wandered into the restaurant at the Hilton a little after 1 p.m., expecting to find it bustling as it had been at breakfast. The room however, was completely empty. Or at least I thought so at first glance. It was a typically modern Hilton, replete with plenty of cushy chairs, coffee tables of various shapes and sizes and couches for lounging. As I took stock of the room, I realized I was not, in fact, alone. There was one man standing at a table reading a menu. He looked up.

It was Viswanathan Anand.

Overcome by my childlike enthusiasm upon seeing one of my heroes of the game, I did not think about what to say or do. “Mr. Anand,” I blurted out as I extended my hand. “I’m Matt Barrett. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Feeling a bit like a kid, I smiled and, able to think of nothing else to say, I bowed my head in his direction and found a nearby table at which to sit down. I was pleased to have met him but didn’t want to bother the 15th World Champion. Excitedly, I fidgeted with my phone. I wasn’t inclined to ask for a photo or an autograph. After all, I knew that he had come to play in the London Classic. He was certainly looking forward to a few moments of peace and quiet, away from the throngs of chess players and enthusiasts who follow his every move.

In the meantime a bartender appeared, took notice and offered us each the opportunity to order. It has become increasingly common at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center to encounter prominent chess personalities. Especially fresh in my mind was the recent Sinquefield Cup, Magnus Carlsen’s first-ever tournament in the United States and his final event before his match with Anand. This event brought four of the top players in the world to duke it out in person at the highest-rated chess event in American history.

Nevertheless, there are precious few chess players, not even the recently crowned World Champion Carlsen, who are as accomplished and with a pedigree to match that of Vishy (the only such players I can think of who are alive today are Karpov and Kasparov). Naturally, although perhaps somewhat unfairly, I wondered whether the bartender was aware of this as I waited for my food to arrive.

Much to my surprise, after a minute or two Vishy actually broke the silence by calling from across the room: “What other events are there today?” I told him about the educational conference I was attending. It was chaired by Malcolm Pein, who was also the director of the London Chess Classic and head of the widely successful London-based Chess in Schools and Communities (CSC) program. I mentioned that I came from the Chess Club and Scholastic Center (he might have already surmised as much from my jacket) and that as Scholastic Coordinator I was particularly pleased to meet and interact with chess educators and federation leaders. I realized, at this point, that we were essentially calling across the room to one another to communicate. Our conversation continued and the World Champion indicated that I should join him. I did not hesitate. By the time our food came, it seemed very natural that we were sitting having lunch and discussing the merits of chess as an educational resource.

There simply couldn’t be a more engaging, straightforward and accessible World Champion. Anand was just as composed and matter-of-fact in our conversation as he is during all of his interviews. An easy conversationalist with an inquisitive personality, he jumped right in about Saint Louis and my reasons for coming to London. He mentioned his friends in Saint Louis and his interest in coming to our city to play and to visit, perhaps as soon as this year.

“Ben [Finegold] and I came up together," Anand said. "We know each other well.”

He wanted to hear more about the upcoming afternoon panel discussion among Garry Kasparov, Leontxo Garcia, Karl Fredrik Johansson, and Leo Battesti.

“Are you involved in Chess in Schools in India?” I asked.

Viswanathan Anand said it's important to keep chess fun in order to appeal to students.

He indicated that he was quite involved and he confirmed this by rattling off an impressive set of statistics about the regional school programs, number of participant schools and students. According to an article released by Reuters in November, “Anand's key sponsor, software services firm NIIT Technologies Ltd, runs a program to introduce chess in more than 2,000 schools.”

The recent World Championship in Chennai stirred up increased interest, especially in India, where literally thousands upon thousands of students are taking up the game.

At this point in the conversation, the World Champion politely asked me about our goals and experiences introducing chess in schools. While I have explained our mission and scholastic goals to plenty of administrators and parents, I have never delivered such a presentation to a World Champion. With that in mind and taking care to be clear and concise, I tried to condense and reiterate our goals in more readily identifiable chess terms.

I said that we build chess lessons into school curricula wherever possible. I mentioned that our programs emphasize chess exercises as a means to improve the skills necessary for academic success. We have undertaken the task of gathering data from previous scientific studies on the game and are pursuing a study of our own. By collecting and evaluating information about exactly how chess impacts thought and development in young students, we might establish a clearer connection between chess and success in other activities. I mentioned that whereas typically it is an afterschool activity, there is an interest in interdisciplinary connections to chess, and that there may be applications from history to language, math and science as well as in the realm of afterschool activity or team sport.

To this (what I thought of as a well-conceived and comprehensive explanation of our programs), I was quite fascinated by his answer, which cut directly to the chase (especially for a chess enthuasiast):

“But would we need a study to prove the benefits of football?" Anand replied. "Do people not play because it is football and football is fun? Perhaps we get a little ahead of ourselves.”

I may have thought of my spiel as a well-constructed combination, but he had interjected with an all-important zwishenzug: The idea that we need to prove that chess has value defeats the purpose. The point: “Above all, it must be fun.”

As I walked back to the Olympia Conference Center, where in short order the panel discussion was scheduled to begin, I reflected on my great fortune at having shared half an hour with the World Champion. In London for only the few days of the conference, I knew that I had to pack conversations and meetings into a very condensed time frame. I had met various personalities and spoken with several passionate teachers and administrators. Of course, it was beyond my wildest dreams to have had one on one access to one of the greatest minds in the history of chess.

Anand has long had a reputation as an amazingly fast and accurate player. I started playing chess at exactly the time that he began to exert his influence in prominent international tournaments such as Linares 1991 (where he beat both Kamsky and Karpov). It was only anecdotally that I had heard that he was particularly personable as well. This spur-of-the-moment conversation and meal together only further confirmed that Mr. Anand is both a consummate gentleman and a genuinely interested advocate of chess.

Down the street from the Olympia Hilton, the London Chess in Education Conference offered an amazing array of presentations and discussions with chess professionals from six continents. Among them, Leontxo Garcia of Spain, a leading chess researcher and historian who explored in detail, “What Chess Can Do For Society and Why?” Garcia also works in tandem with IM Stefan Loeffler for an organization they founded called Chess in the Public Interest.

Judit Polgar was represented by Ferenc von Maurer of the Judit Polgar Chess Foundation. On the topic of Polgar and what she is accomplishing with chess, I can say no more than “wow.” Check out the below video to see the cross-curricular applications of chess in her classrooms in Hungary.

In addition, I was impressed by the contributions of Jerome Maufras of L’Academie de Creteil in France and Professor Aram Hajian of American University of Armenia. In Armenia, chess is taught to every student in 2nd, 3rd, and 4th grades! These presentations among several others were very inspiring, suggesting numerous in-school and citywide possibilities. Together we brainstormed on how to revise our community chess offerings to expose the game to a wider audience, make learning more efficient in the classroom, and draw connections between academic disciplines.

Appropriately, this educational conference wraps up at the beginning of the holidays, a time of year often referred to as the season of joy. While I was very impressed by the vast knowledge the presenters shared with us, it is this emotional contribution that may have the most resounding impact on our work. Certainly we all learned a great deal about classrooms and pedagogy from numerous countries and continents. It was refreshing and invigorating to hear from the experienced and influential educators in attendance, to meet them and share ideas with them. However even with all the focus on education, academic goals, parental aspirations, district standards, and the merits of chess, it is possible at times that we lose sight of the very thing that got us involved in this game to begin with. Drawn to competition and the chance to challenge ourselves, we are spurred on by the rush of adrenaline and excitement that mixes so surprisingly fluidly with the highly principled thinking game of chess. While to some degree this magnetism is found in both children and adults, the quality of intense interest coupled with high energy is undeniably particularly strong in youth.

On the flight home, the words of the World Champion echoed in my mind: “We play chess because it is fun.” Perhaps I took him seriously because of his status in the chess world and as a hero of the game, a contributor to my own childhood enthusiasm for chess. For whatever reason, his influence in that brief meeting of sharing together was contagious. His words and ideas will stay with me long after this conference. I can take them to our local classrooms and schools confident of the increasing influence and worldwide impact of chess on academics, the development of youth, and most importantly, on our capacity for the joyful reward of reflective thought.

Matt Barrett is the Scholastic Coordinator at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. He has been playing, studying and teaching chess for more than 20 years.
This article was originally printed on the STL Chess Club website.