Steering clear of bravado and publicity tactics through the championship, both Anand and Carlsen let their self-belief and mutual respect shine through.
Let me begin with a confession. I don’t play the game of chess. Nor do I understand the game well enough. But if Magnus Carlsen’s biographer, Hallgier Opedal, is a chess novice, I too can use the recently concluded World Championship as a backdrop to draw lessons on the essence of player communication – whether as an incumbent or a challenger.
There are innumerable examples around us today – of political ascendan-cies and defeats, market share gains and losses, victories and failure in sports. Everyone loves a winner. The loser may elicit sympathy, but he or she is equally vulnerable to disdain and dismissal. Beyond the actual victory or loss, self-styled commentators and observers will always have an opinion or two and rarely let go of opportunities to ﬂoat them.
The world has changed and we are now closer to every event that takes place today. In the battle for supremacy – whether in business, sports or any other walk of life – winners are lauded as heroes, but the behaviour of those who lose is equally under scrutiny. Refreshingly, the recently concluded world chess championship steered clear of controversy and denigration of the protagonists. Is it the nature of the game that lends itself to such coverage, or did the players tell us something about character that is worth emulating?
As a public relations practitioner who has witnessed extreme fanaticism or complete subterfuge, the balanced behaviour of the players left me wanting more. I was suddenly following the game – not so much to understand the moves, but to absorb the analysis and post game press conferences that exempliﬁed the best in balanced media reporting and conduct by spokespeople. The fact that even an indiﬀerent observer could have been drawn in shows a powerful and positive correlation between the conduct of spokespeople and their messages, and related reporting. Indeed, spokespeople can lead the dance in today’s opinion-ated media environment.
Here were two champions. Viswanathan Anand – ﬁve time world champion, serious, middle aged, the defender. Magnus Carlsen – a showman, young, the challenger. It was time to do or die, as they say.
Fans and chess aﬁcionados across the world were disappointed with the ﬁrst two games. The champions stood their ground. The stakes were high but they would decide the course of the tournament. This was not entertainment. It was a Championship – a marathon, not a sprint. This is somewhat alien, yet utterly refreshing at a time when we see businesses succumbing to the demands of shareholders and analysts to meet quarterly results even in the midst of an intense business restructuring. Our cricketers feel compelled to be proliﬁc entertainers, distracted with so much more going on in the ﬁeld and beyond. Politicians and intelligentsia make loud motions of delivering on election promises, 24 hours after being elected into parliament.
In an age where bravado is deiﬁed, Carlsen’s response to whether he was scared during the game, might have startled many. “All the time,” said the winner. Coming from someone in his position, it was a rare acknowledgement of a very human emotion.
In the ﬁrst game conceded by Vishwanathan Anand, Ian Rogers, the Australian Grandmaster, wrote in The Hindu, “Sometimes, as you look far far ahead, you forget to look around”. It happens to the best of leaders. In times of pressure and crisis, it is critical for leaders to maintain their vision despite the hurdles that loom immediately ahead.
Another telling aspect of the encounter was the mutual respect the players had for each other. “There is a high degree of awareness of each other’s capabilities. Wins are due to unerring choices that have been met with sub-optimal responses from rivals”, said a commentary. This is in contrast to the vitriol that is common in television debates or on social media. The duo stayed away from belittling each other, instead focusing on comments about their game. At one point when Anand asked a journalist why he didn’t understand English, it was a rare display of irritation, a tiny blemish in an otherwise perfect set of press conferences held after long, tedious days.
These press conferences were handled with utmost dignity and sportsmanship. Carlsen and Anand stuck to message and refused to be drawn into comparisons and arguments. Clearly, they wouldn’t let anyone forget that this was a test of mental endurance that could go on for some time. Let’s look at some of their measured responses: “It is too early to react to every twist and turn in a long match”. “What matters is what is happening here”. “Today was a heavy blow. I will not pretend otherwise”.
As the defending champion playing to a home audience against a much younger player, the odds were stacked against Anand but the desire to win raged ﬁercely in him. This was tempered by the the realisation that there was a chance of losing the title, that his reign was transient. Ever gracious in defeat, he said, “My mistakes clearly did not happen by themselves. [Carlsen] managed to provoke them”. For his part, Carlsen played, not to prove anything but in deference to the rules of the great game which required him to press on while he held the advantage in the last game. We often tend to blame extraneous factors for our losses. In this case, Anand took full respon-sibility for his defeat when he admitted to “blundering”.
Boring, slow, insipid – this is how many would describe the game of chess. But no one can take away that there is no need for drama everywhere and in everything. We have to be extremely discerning in how we play the game and how we lead the dance. There is a choice – always. Very few of us exercise that choice.