A Teenager and a Gentleman: An Interview with Anish Giri by Janis Nisii

A Teenager and a Gentleman

For Anish Giri, Being a Champion is Only a Hobby

By Janis Nisii
(translated from Italian by Wendell Ricketts)

One of the players at last year’s Corus Chess Tournament was a fourteen-year-old boy who stole the heart of everyone who saw him. Anish Giri seemed so small, with his round, mischievous face and his boyish voice. The press room broke into affectionate laughter when a television reporter asked Anish, “What are your goals?” Given the context, the reporter was clearly referring to Giri’s advancement in the chess world, but Giri had his answer ready: “To become a better person!”

When I see Giri again after a year, it seems as though a decade has passed, the way it so often does with teenagers. He’s at least eight inches taller and his Elo Rating has grown by 119 points. And those aren’t the only big changes. Last year, competing for Russia as a FIDE master in Group C, Giri finished with a second-place tie. This year, bearing the title of Grandmaster and playing for Holland in Group B (in the meantime, he’d become the country’s national champion), he won the tournament and qualified to play next year in Corus A with the cream of the crop of world chess.

Anish Giri can also claim to be the holder of any number of “youngest” firsts: When he became Grandmaster in 2009, he was the youngest chess player to hold that title. He is also the youngest Russian Grandmaster, the youngest Dutch national champion, and the youngest player in the prestigious Chess Bundesliga, the premier German team-chess league.

Giri makes you smile. It’s his way of alternating teenage wisecracks with moments of enormous maturity and self-possession (just to cite one example—the polite professionalism with which he handled the interview that follows). It’s his brashness, his uncertainty in unexpected situations, and even his occasional white lie, such as when I asked him what had prompted his theatrical mini-outburst in his win over Wesley So. (So had made a major blunder, essentially handing Giri a mate in two in a lost position.) “I wanted to warn him about the move I was about to make,” Giri explains, “so he wouldn’t be too shocked”.

Very likely, though, the real cause was the inability of someone as young as Giri to disguise the immense, uncontainable joy he felt at that moment of triumph. When I ask him why he continued to play in draw position for dozens of moves in his twelfth-round game against Var Akobian, Giri replies guilelessly: “I saw that my friend (the other Dutch talent, Robin Van Kampen) was still playing, so I kept going.” As if to say, “Instead of just sitting there doing nothing, I went on playing!”

I try arguing that White’s failure to offer a draw in a pawn up position could be the sort of thing another GM might find a trifle offensive—chess etiquette dictated that Akobian couldn’t ask for the draw himself, though he could also hardly have been expected to lose in that position. Giri dismisses me with a “No, no, it was fine” and a scowl that allows no further discussion. What comes to my mind is the comment of another player who is Giri’s age-mate: “Etiquette is for old-timers!”

This is the same Giri who, at last year’s Corus, noticed 2007 World Chess Solving Champion, John Nunn, and others wracking their brains to solve a problem based on a Levon Aronian transcription. Glancing at the board from a few yards away, Anish made one of his typically laconic comments. “The problem’s set up wrong,” he said. “There are too many solutions.” In fact, Aronian had made a small error in his transcription: a pawn was missing.
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I know you’ve led a somewhat unusual life and that you’ve lived in a lot of different places. Tell us a little about yourself.

My father is from Nepal and my mother is Russian. I was born in St. Petersburg, in Russia, and I lived there until I was eight. In 2002 we moved to Japan and after that we went back to Russia. For a while, we went back and forth. A few years ago, we moved here. [“Here” is Rijswijk, a small town near The Hague, in the south of Holland.]

Let’s make a list of all the languages you speak: Russian, English, Dutch….

Plus a little Nepali and some Japanese.

How did you start playing chess? Did your mom or dad teach you?

No, I learned from a book, and then I started playing with my mom.

Where did the book come from?

Some friends of my father’s gave it to me as a birthday present when I turned six.

Do you remember the book?

No, but it wasn’t a book about chess. It was a manual about how to become a gentleman or something like that.

And you wanted to become a gentleman?

They gave me the book, so I had to!

You had to?

Obviously I wanted to become a gentleman!

Right, but it’s not the sort of thing everyone aspires to. Some people want to become thrash metal stars—just the opposite of being a gentleman.

Let’s just say that I read the whole book.

After the book, what happened?

I played with my mom until I was seven, and then I signed up for a chess club because I’d started winning all the time. The club had chess teachers who worked with you.

When did people begin to realize that you had a special gift for chess?

After about a year, I’d gotten pretty good for my age.

Right after that, though, you and your family started going back and forth to Japan….

Yes, and I didn’t play much when we were in Japan.

Were you doing something else?

Yeah, when I enrolled in the chess club when I was seven, I also signed up for table tennis and I played that for a few months. I quit, though, because I was really getting involved in chess and I didn’t have time for anything else.

So there was something about chess that held a special attraction for you.

Sure, but I really liked table tennis, too.

What was it that you liked about chess at the time and what do you like about it now?

At the time what I liked was just playing and winning, and that’s still a lot of fun.

You like competition?

Not always. Only when I’m really good at something.

Sure, but you could say that about any sport. What made you choose chess? Did it have something to do with competing with mental strength rather than physical?

No, because I played soccer and I was good at that, too.

So it just happened by chance? You don’t think you’re pulled toward chess in any special way?

No, I don’t really think so.

Okay, but now you’re a professional player.

Not really. I’m still going to school.

So you still haven’t decided whether you want to be a professional chess player.

No, not yet.

What made your family decide to move to Holland?

It was for my father’s job. He’s a hydrologist and he works for a research and consulting firm.

What was the first title you ever won?

I won the first important one in 2005, I think, when I became Russian Champion in the “under 12” category. Obviously, I’d won other, less important tournaments before that.

How would you describe your playing style?

I have a pretty universal playing style. It depends, though. Sometimes I’m very sharp when I play, and less at other times. My game depends on my position.

And on your opponent as well?

Sometimes, yes.

Do you get ready for a game by studying your opponent or do you….

[Interrupting] No, not really.

What do you work on, then?

Most players have a universal style, so….

How much time do you spend studying?

School or chess?

Chess.

I don’t know.

You don’t have any sort of regular routine for yourself?

No. If I have free time after I’ve finished my homework, then I work on chess.

Do you try to spend some time on chess every day or only when you feel like it?

I would always feel like it, but if I’ve got a lot of homework and don’t have time, then I can’t.

Do you read books about chess?

Sometimes.

Which ones?

Lately I’ve been reading mostly books about openings, but I’ve also read the classics. I just started Kasparov’s book. I mean, I’d already read a couple of his books, but now I’m reading the one about his match against Karpov.

Are there any players, past or present, that you especially admire?

Yeah, I think Kasparov was the greatest player of all time.

Has any of them inspired you personally?

No, there’s nobody who has really inspired me.

Among the players on the current circuit, is there anyone you like more than the others?

Kramnik is strong, and so is Anand. Topalov, too. They’re really strong. Oh, yeah, and Carlsen has gotten extremely strong. [He laughs because he’d forgotten Carlsen.]

Before the Corus tournament, did you think you were going to win?

Of course I always want to win when I play at tournaments, but I didn’t think I had much of a chance. [He began third from the bottom.]

How did you feel about the tournament in general?

Things started out really well, but then I ended up in weird positions where I might easily have lost. I was pretty lucky, actually.

What does a player need to win in Corus Group B?

You have to play well, you have to be very prepared, and your form has to be good. I don’t know, I think you always have to try to play your best in every single game.

Did you spend a lot of time preparing for this tournament?

I did a little bit before the tournament began, concentrating on my openings, but not all that much before each game. I was pretty well prepared for the positions I wound up playing.

Will you be the youngest player ever in Group A?

No, I don’t think so … there’s Caruana.

This is Caruana’s first year in Group A.

Maybe Carlsen, then. [Giri is right; when Carlsen entered Group A in 2007, he was a few months younger than Giri will be when he joins the group in 2011.]

Though it’s fair to say, at this point, that you’ve arrived. You’ve enjoyed excellent success in chess and everyone is singing your praises. Despite all that, do you still consider yourself just a young guy who’s still trying to decide what direction to take in life?

I’d like to go to college.

You’re aware, I imagine, that a lot of players who’ve decided to go to college have had to put some distance between themselves and chess because of their studies.

Yeah, that’s happened to some of them. But we’ll see how it goes. I still have three years of high school left.

What do you think you’d like to study if you go to college? Any subject in particular that appeals to you?

Math, physics, chemistry … the sciences in general.

Sort of like your dad, then. What field is your mother in?

She was a hydrologist, too. To tell the truth, though, I still don’t know precisely what I’ll end up deciding.

Do you have friends among the other chess players?

Sure I do! I have lots of friends all over the world.

Of course, because you already spend a lot of time traveling. How does that affect things at school?

My teachers understand. As long as I keep up with my school work and my grades are good, they don’t have much to say. Anyway, I haven’t really traveled all that much for chess up to this point.

Is there anything you’d like to see change in the chess world?

I’m not really interested in all that for now.

Why not?

If I were competing to become world champion, then I’d be interested in those kinds of issues. But right now there are so many things I need to improve in my game that I have to make sure I keep progressing in that area and not worry about the chess world in general.

You’d like to become a better person, study, go to college, do other things in life so that you have a wider variety of choices, but at the same time you also have ambitions as far as chess is concerned, don’t you?

Sure I do, but right now I’m just trying to play better.

What do your parents say about all the time you spend playing in tournaments and studying chess?

It’s not a problem for them as long as I do well at school.

Do they encourage you to win?

No, they don’t put any kind of pressure on me at all. It’s just the opposite, actually. They want to make sure I don’t get eaten up with chess.

There certainly are people who become completely obsessed with chess.

Right, exactly.

Does that aspect of the game scare you? That chess might turn into an obsession?

No, I don’t think so. [Giri pauses and gives me a worried look, already expecting that my next question will be, “Well, why don’t you think so?” At least I hope it won’t! he finishes.]

In slightly less than two years, the Dutch Chess Federation and the Netherlands chess community have welcomed Anish Giri, lent him their support, and hailed him as their national champion. They’re proud of him and they’ve offered him friendship and warmth—though Giri doesn’t have so much as a single drop of Dutch blood and has only lived in their country since 2008.

Congratulations to the Dutch chess world for its fine example of far-sighted hospitality.

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Published on Anish Giri’s personal site, http://anishgiri.nl.

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