In recent times, artificial intelligence (AI) has played a key role in the advancement of chess. However, with the rise of technology comes fears that computers are taking the soul out of the game. Five-time world chess champion Viswanathan Anand is on the other side of the chessboard in this debate. In Kochi to attend tonight’s Manorama Sports Awards ceremony, Chennaite, 52, talks about the role of computers and AI in improving the quality of chess and his new role as a chess commentator in an exclusive chat.
The 44th Chess Olympiad, which was moved out of Russia after it invaded Ukraine, was recently awarded to Chennai, making it the sport’s second major global event to be held in your hometown after the match of the World Championship in 2013. What are your thoughts?
I am very happy that Chennai is hosting the Olympiad, one of the biggest chess events. Much of the credit goes to the government of Tamil Nadu for acting quickly to meet all the requirements within a short period of time. It is a proud moment for me and I am happy to welcome all my colleagues to Chennai.
Tamil Nadu is the chess hub of India as the state leads the way with grandmasters. What is your opinion on the growth of chess in Kerala?
Tamil Nadu has a long chess tradition. We produced the first International Master (IM) in the country. I’m glad chess in Kerala is picking up speed. The likes of GN Gopal, SL Narayanan and Nihal Sarin are doing very well. In the past, there were good players like IM Varghese Koshy. I believe Kerala is moving in the right direction.
Lately, many young Indian players have started performing well on the international stage. Is this the start of a new chess revolution in the country?
Definitively. I am happy that players like Arjun Erigaisi, Gukesh, Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin are creating so much buzz at the highest level. They still have a long way to go, but they are getting so much attention and are able to compete at the highest level. This bodes well for the country.
What are India’s chances at the Chess Olympiad?
India will be able to field several teams and many players will have the chance to shine. Playing at home will be a big advantage. I think USA will start as favorites as the participation of some of the great teams is in doubt. We have good players, but it’s a tough event.
You openly supported Arkady Dvorkovich in his candidacy for a second term as President of the International Chess Federation (FIDE). Is this an indication that you will be more active in administrative functions?
I’m very excited to take on new roles. I worked with the FIDE team during the world championship as a commentator. FIDE President Dvorkovich has done a very good job in recent years. It remains to be seen how it will evolve for me. I am open to being more active in the region.
Do you think the chess world will be divided over the geopolitical tensions between Russia and Ukraine?
Yes, the chess world will be affected. Russia and Ukraine are two of the leading chess playing countries with a rich history as chess powers. There is uncertainty about the participation of Russian players in major tournaments. I believe the tensions will persist for some time. It’s normal when you’re involved in a war.
In the online chess scene, rapid and blitz formats have overtaken classical chess based on the number of events. Reigning world champion Magnus Carlsen said the world championships should be a mix of classic and fast formats. How do you react ?
We are always looking for the optimal formula with regard to the combination of formats and the mastery of time. Each format has something to offer, but we have to find the right mix. Magnus expressed his wish to change the format of the World Championship. He has some interesting ideas. Adapting to changes is key. I believe multiple formats could be the future.
How has the use of computers and AI changed chess? Do you think they took the soul from chess?
I always say that for every door they close, the computers would open another. People need to move on. Computers help us explore certain areas that are rich and interesting. There are a lot of in-between concepts and ideas that are slowly emerging, especially with artificial intelligence. It definitely revitalizes chess. I think the game is improving and I’m not worried at all.
Do you have any comment on Magnus’ assertion that he is unlikely to defend his title unless he faces French-Iranian prodigy Alireza Firouzja at the next world championship?
I don’t know if Magnus is trying to provoke debate and action on the World Championship format. I think he finds the existing format uninteresting. I don’t know if he will lose his right. He might change his mind.
As players evolve or age, their attitude towards the game changes. Is it the same with you?
Yes, as players age their attitude or even their understanding of the game changes. You can start to see things differently. We will have to keep relearning and reinventing. Obviously, your experiences shape you differently. It happened to me. In fact, computers have transformed chess into an ever younger game.
What are the main chess events you will be playing this year?
I will participate in the Grand Chess Tour 2022 event. I will also attend tournaments in Norway and Lyon. In addition, there is the no-castling tournament in Dortmund.
Besides chess, what games do you watch or follow?
I watch a lot of other sporting events, especially when something interesting is happening. I like to watch football, tennis and badminton. Obviously, I follow the games and events where the Indians do well.
Do you think chess is sometimes a solitary game?
I do not think so. You can be lost in failures or deeply engrossed in them. Certain activities can fascinate you to the point that you no longer notice things happening around them.
You’ve often spoken about your interests in astronomy and got into it after reading Cosmos: A Personal Voyage written by Carl Sagan. What kind of books do you usually read?
Yes, I read a lot about astronomy and astrophysics. I closely follow all developments in the field. I read just about anything that comes to hand. I like to read books that pique my curiosity. Apart from books on math, science and social studies, I read a lot of fiction, for example the books of Amish Tripathi.
Does your son Akhil play chess? What are his interests?
Yes, Akhil is very excited about chess. He also likes to watch the game. He accompanied me to the world chess championship where I was a commentator. He is a good dancer and gymnast. He is fascinated by science and loves to experiment. He also likes to draw and listen to music.
Do you monitor sports culture in Kerala and do you have any Kerala idols in sports?
I keep an eye on sports in India. I have vivid memories of the revolution in athletics led by people like PT Usha and Shiny Wilson. Sreejesh’s performance for India at the Tokyo Olympics was phenomenal. I also closely monitor Kerala chess players like Nihal, Gopal and Narayanan and keep in touch with them.