The Journey of a Champion

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Olympic Gold Quest (OGQ) is a not-for-profit organisation co-founded by sports legends Mr Geet Sethi and Mr Prakash Padukone. The mission of OGQ is to help Indian athletes win the Olympic and Paralympic games. Mr Viswanathan Anand, Indian Chess Grandmaster & Former World Chess Champion; Mr Geet Sethi, World Champion, Billiards & Snooker; and Mr Viren Rasquinha, Former Captain, Indian Hockey Team & CEO, Olympic Gold Quest, discuss the challenges of players and their conditioning.

Viren: This is a question for both of you- Anand and Geet. What is the role of parents in your journey? 

Anand: I learned how to play chess from my mother and I was quite fortunate. Typically, most chess players of that time learned from a family member or close friends. If you were lucky to have someone in your family who knew how to play chess, then it increases the odds that you might play chess. It was very serendipitous. My mother and her younger brothers played chess. So there was some background. I was six years old. One day, I saw my elder brother and sister playing. I wanted to join and of course, as the youngest, my mother said, “Okay, I’ll show you how to play.”

Then a few days later, they saw that I kept on coming back to the chess board. This might have been a bit of a surprise to them. I can see it myself. I teach my son something and you never know if he is going to forget it in a day or continue. My mom bought the first chess book for me. I would look at it but it was total mystery. Then they found the first chess club. My sister’s college happened to be right opposite the chess club. My mother took me to the chess club and I joined it. As I was very young, my mother was concerned because the general profile of a chess player was someone who’s much older and she wanted me to be safe.

A couple of people at the club said, “Okay, Don’t worry. We will look after him and make sure somebody plays against him.” That’s how it began. Maybe my parents thought at that stage, it was just one more hobby. I was playing other sports in other places but Chess was the thing that I was most attracted to. Every Monday evening, every Thursday evening and the whole of Sunday, I would go there and just play blitz all the time. Then the first few competitions started coming when I was seven or eight. 

I went to the Philippines for a year but I was still only in fifth standard. Once again, in the Philippines, when we landed, my mother immediately found out where I could play chess. She would take me to every tournament, accompany me to the venue and make sure I got through. There was a Chess TV show during the day and they would give a puzzle at the end. But I would be at school during the show. My mother would write down everything and after I came back home from school and finished my homework, I would look at that puzzle. So my parents were very, very committed. My father was very supportive as well, though he didn’t know anything about chess.  

By the time, I came back to India and was in ninth standard, it was becoming tricky, because I started to travel everywhere to compete. My parents could see that I was really keen on the game and pretty good at it. I was one of the top juniors in the country. I’d had a breakthrough year and was even one of the top players in the men’s game. They might have been nervous at that stage. But I’m grateful that it never occurred to them to try and warn me off from playing Chess. It’s not a nice feeling for children, if they don’t feel that their family is totally behind them. The most important thing is to hold your tongue. Even if you’re uncomfortable, just let it go.

I was very lucky with the timing of many things that happened to me. When I did my 10th standard exams, I became a national champion. A few months after my 12th standard, I became the World Junior Champion and then later grandmaster. When I finished my B.Com, I was already in the top 10 in the world. Of course, later on, my parents said “We always knew about you.” Honestly, I don’t think, it would have happened without the support from the family. My mother was the reason I got into the game. When a lot of people would tell me not to play Chess so fast, my father had the sense to tell me, “Play fast and you can’t be otherwise.” I kept doing that and it turned out to be one of my strengths.  

Viren: Fantastic Anand. I remember you were called the Lightning Kid. By the way. I have a nine year old daughter. So one thing that stays with me is to bite my tongue and not to say anything.

Geet: Let me pick up from what Anand said. When I was in 10th standard in 1976, I won the first ever Junior National Billiards championship that was held and I had played exactly for two years. In 78, I won the juniors again, but I didn’t win the seniors. So finally I won in 81 in Chennai, defeating Michael Ferreira.  The role of parents is absolutely there. My dad was a very wise man and he came from a lower middle class kind of a family. When a person like Anand at the age of six sees a chessboard and keeps coming back to it, I think parents get a sense that this something abnormal and can see when you are so deeply committed to a particular sport. I used to play every sport in school- volleyball, cricket, basketball, table tennis and badminton. I was a state level swimmer.

But when, at the age of 13, I started playing billiards, I just stopped playing every other sport. I was playing seven or eight hours a day and was living in the billiards room. I was not just passionate but kind of obsessed in the game. My parents recognised it and were a little lenient. My brother was supposed to be in the top 10 in the class, but for me, my dad said, “It’s okay if you try and get anything over 60%” So I used to stop playing it two months before my board exam and put my cue aside and just study. I would get just above 60. Really, it was a deal and I kept it up. So that was the support part of it. He just allowed me to flourish, though he would never come and watch me play.  

Polishing dad’s shoes

But I think parent’s play a very, very important role, once a child wins a junior or a senior national championship at a very impressionable age. Looking back, I think my dad’s greatest contribution is what he did to me or how he behaved and interacted with me after I won a big national championship.  The year was 1976. I was doing my 10th standard. I went to Jamshedpur to play the first ever junior nationals held and I came back as the winner with a massive silver trophy. Earlier, I had won cups in TT and they used to be so tiny.

Now carrying this huge trophy through a 48 hour train journey from Jamshedpur, I reached Ahmedabad and my dad was at the station with his Lambretta scooter. He hugged me and picked my bag. I took my cue and sat behind him on the scooter with the trophy in the middle, between him and me. He drove the scooter proudly and we reached home. My mom took aarthi for me and had made some lovely suji ka halwa and a great meal. It was about 11 in the morning. My dad was sitting quietly by the side. My mum finished with all her indulgence and I thought I should win more titles, so I would really be pampered. I ate my meal and my dad did the most amazing thing, as I see in retrospect.

He casually told me, “Beta. Can you polish my shoes?” In fact, we used to polish our shoes together- My brother and I used to sit down with dad and would polish our school shoes and dad would polish his shoes to go to his office the next day. It was the most natural thing and I said, “Sure dad. Which one – that brown or black?” He said, “The brown one,” and I started polishing his shoes. If I look back, every time when I came back with a big trophy, he would either ask me to polish his shoes or wash his scooter or clean the carburettor. He just kept me grounded with these very subtle acts. When you’re growing up, it is so easy to think, “Oh, I’m kind of God’s gift to billiards!” and get carried away.   

Viren: Nine world titles. So, there must have been a lot of very clean shoes in your house (laughs!) What has been the most memorable moments for both of you in your long career?

Anand: For me, my world titles are definitely memorable, because each one literally is the payoff for years and years of effort. And the sad thing is, it gets over and five minutes later, you think, ‘Yes. That’s it.” If I had to select one, I would select my match with Boris Gelfand in 2012, simply because in that whole match, it felt like I was just surviving from day to day and then only in the tiebreaker, I was able to win. But there are moments I remember more fondly. There will be junior tournaments from school, of which, I remember some games, only because I beat somebody I really disliked. It’s a beautiful feeling and it lasts longer than the world title wins! (laughs)

The most pleasant experience is when something unexpected happens. So many times in my career, I’ve hit a wall where I might go a long time with mediocre results. You think you can’t get any worse and spend months trying to get out of the hole. Once you hit the bottom, then the only way is up and you will come out. So over time, I became more relaxed in these situations.  

For example, I was going to play the World Chess Championship in 2017 in Riyadh. When I was going there, I had just come off with the last place in a tournament in London. It was totally irritating as there was no need to be in the last place. Every time I thought about it, I got angrier. Anyway, I went to Riyadh when I was not even supposed to go there. My original plan was to go on a holiday. But then somehow, somebody called me and reluctantly I went there thinking tenth place would be nice.  After the three day tournament, I suddenly found myself as the winner. It is much better to have a good one after a bad patch. Finding the light at the end of the tunnel is beautiful and memorable.

Geet: I won my first world title in 1985. When you win the first world title, it always has a special place. The World Championship used to be held every two years at the time. In 87, I defended my title in Belfast. Then I went through a very bad patch between 88-89 and 92. For three years, I was playing at a very high level of performance and then my game dropped off a cliff. It took me three years to rediscover my game. I unlearnt my old technique, built a new technique and finally came back in 92, and won the World Professional championship. I defeated Mike Russell in the finals and in that, I made a world record break of 1276. That stands out to me.  

Viren: As a sports person, very often, you will lose more than you win, especially in the initial days of the journey to become a champion. What’s your mindset when you go through a bad phase? How do you come out of it? Is there some go-to process that you follow?

Anand: Generally, it’s a process. It’s very difficult to force because you’re fighting with your brain and it’s got a mind of its own, so to speak. It’s similar to the stages of grief. First is to come to terms with what has happened- the sense of loss or whatever. That takes much time and then you take responsibility. This is very important. Because very often when things go wrong, it will seem to you that you could have done better. But then the question is, “Why does it go wrong anyway?” I have to work backwards and accept that. Then you come out of it and come to terms with the whole thing and then things work out.  The last stage is very crucial. I have found that it almost always correlates for me with a huge drop in expectations, where I cease to care about the result.

Typically, after a very bad result, I disconnect from the game and want to go on a holiday. I do not even read about anything that is happening in the world. I’ve done this consistently. Before the world candidates’ tournament in 2014, I did not even look at Chess for one and a half months. The farther you get from the thing, it often allows you to reset and get back in. We train a lot to be on autopilot. But once in a while, we consciously have to push here and there and see what comes out. Then at some point, it will work and you’ll feel lighter and you start playing again. So you can’t expect to do the same things and get different results. You just have to keep experimenting.  

Viren: In matches, when you’re down by a big margin, what’s your mindset? 

Geet: Billiards and snooker are in that sense very brutal, because it’s a four hour game. Sometimes the finals used to be over eight hours. When you’re playing a final against a really good player, he could be making a break of 500 or 600, or 700. He’s occupying the table for almost 30 minutes. He’s playing beautifully and the crowd is appreciating it. The scoreboard is right in front of you. A flood of thoughts can come to your mind. So what I did very early on was to question me as to why I chose to play the game. I play the game because of some kick that I get while playing it. We will go to places just to watch excellent sport being played, whatever it may be. When I’m playing against one of the best players in the world, why can’t I just enjoy the game? And so that’s what I did. I just started getting involved in the act of my opponent’s play. You forget all the negative thoughts and you are just appreciating. I’m a great believer in positivity and positive thoughts.

The minute I start thinking negative, I am going to go low. I enjoy the opponent’s game and keep saying, “My chance will come and he’s damn good. I’m equally good.” So the bank balance of practice and the confidence that you have attained over the last 5 or 6 or 7 years of performing to that level, gives you a high subconscious confidence.  

On the expectations of the audience, I’ll share a small story. In my first Junior State championship, I was playing the finals with a young kid, who was one year younger than me and I was trailing by 300 odd points. It was a club. My mom walked in and I could I see her. She was damn excited. She talked to a few people about the score and I could see her sad face. I don’t know what happened to me. I just got up, walked around the table, went to mom and I said, “Mom. Please get out of the billiard room.” That was the first and last time she ever entered a billiard room. The point is, as a kid of 15 or 16, I didn’t want the additional burden of expectations. You don’t play to get a smile on the face of the audience or your supporters or your family members. You play for the joy of playing and I think that’s a very important point.

Viren: I remember when I was in ninth or tenth standard, the hardest thing to do was to get a smile on my mom’s face when she saw my marks in my chemistry paper. My mom was a doctor and dad an engineer. My elder brothers were engineers. But I couldn’t understand any equation in chemistry. They thought afterwards that I better become a good hockey player (laughs!). Tell us about your iconic battles.  

Anand: For me, probably it would be battles with Kramnik. I remember seeing him for the first time in 1989. He was 14 years old and much taller than me. He was a huge guy. He came in a T shirt and shorts. From time to time, he would even go out for a smoke during the match. In 89, it was still allowed. He made an impact visually itself and he seemed nice and friendly. We drew our game and spoke a little bit.

Then three years later, there was suddenly word about a Russian kid whom I’d forgotten. Once again, we played in the same tournament. I was playing in the main tournament and he was playing in the Open Tournament, which he won. He’s one of the first players who never became an international master. He went straight from the previous title all the way to Grandmaster. Gary Kasparov in an interview said, “This boy is absolutely the future of chess. I have never seen anyone as strong as him.” When I wondered who he was and looked at the name, ‘Kramnik,’ I couldn’t connect the dots. But once I saw him, I could recognise him. 

Our rivalry started in 92. Very soon we were second and third. Our rating was always just a little bit apart, till our World Championship match in 2008. Even after that, I only thought of him as a rival. He retired in 2019. It didn’t last long and he’s back playing online. With him is my longest rivalry. I have then had rivalries in stretches with Karpov, my first big rival.  For three, four years I was battling him everywhere. Then, it was Kasparov. That was more of a triangle with Karpov, Kasparov and Kramnik for a couple of years. Then Topalov suddenly became one of the best. There were these on-off rivalries. At the end of that, there was Magnus Carlsen and it was much shorter. The birthdate of my rivals span from 1951 to 1990. Karpov was born in 1951 and Magnus is 40 years younger than him.

Viren: That’s a testament to your longevity in the game. 

Anand: I also feel that Kramnik is one of my best friends. Even during the rivalry, I always had a soft corner for him. He also reached out and helped me in a couple of very difficult situations. He gave a lots of good career advice. 

Geet: I played players from different generations. For my first world title, I beat a guy called Bob Marshall, an Australian who was 74 years old. He was exactly three times my age of 24. He came out of retirement to stop Michael Ferreira from beating his world record of 4 titles.  He had a steel hip and steel in both his knees.  We both played the finals together in the world championship that I won. And then of course, Michael Ferreira who was double my age in that same tournament. I had a fair bit of rivalry with Michael through the 80s. Then in the 90s, it started with Mike Russell and what a great player he was- a British player, fabulous player, absolute master with a great delicate touch and stupendous concentration. He had a street fighter mindset. In the 90s, I kept beating him but then in 2000s, I just could not beat him in any final except once, I think in 2003 in New Zealand. That was a great rivalry

Viren: What is the role of luck in sports?

Geet: My personal take on luck in sports is that in the game that you’re playing, luck will even out. In cricket, you give a lollipop catch to somebody and the guy misses it and you’ll go on to score 100. That’s great luck. But that will even out because somewhere down the line, you will give a very difficult catch and a guy will run 25 yards and then dive and catch it. But for me, more important is the luck that comes in life, in how you have progressed and in the people that have come across at just the right time, at the right place. I think the universe arranges itself in such intricate patterns to see that something good happens to you. It happens to all of us. We should remember that. I’ll give you a story about how a very significant luck happened to me and because of which, I got so much competence and my career really took off.

The year was 1984. I wanted to go to England to play in the professional circuit in England. I was working for a company called Tomco and was going through a little bad patch in my game. My President walked in and seeing me with a long face asked me what the problem was. I said I’m not playing well and want to go to England to play and get international exposure. He just picked up the phone and called the travel desk and arranged return tickets to London, for me and two more of my sporting colleagues.

1800 rupees was my salary and 8000 rupees was the ticket cost. We had the tickets but still needed money to stay in England. We were three of us – youngsters wanting to go to England. We collected about 700 pounds and said that once we ran out of that, we would return to India.

We went to England and lost in the first tournament. We took a coach and went to the next tournament next week. Every weekend, there was a tournament and by the fourth weekend, we were down to our last 100 pounds. We thought it was time to go. So with our bag and cue, we were walking across the car park, going towards the town center, to take a coach to Heathrow airport. 

As we were walking across the car park, just about 20 yards ahead of us, there was an Indian looking guy who was just closing the boot of his car and about to drive away. He turned around and called us. We walked towards him. He said, “I saw you guys. You are playing very well.” I said I’m a national champion and introduced my friends as the national snooker champion and the national snooker runner. He introduced himself as Praveen Patel and asked us where we were going. We explained we were going to Heathrow to take a flight back to India as we had run out of money. In a split second, he said, “That’s okay,” and opened the boot of his car, put all our bags in, shut it down and asked us to get into the car. 

As he started driving, he started chatting. “I’ve come from Kenya. I was a refugee here,” he said. We were telling our story. We thought he was taking us to Heathrow but he went past Heathrow into Luton and parked outside his house. His wife opened the door. He told her in Gujarati, “These are my friends. They will stay with us.” She said, “Oh, Brothers. Come, come.”  She got us meals.

It was a two and a half bedroom house. Praveen Patel had his mother and brother staying with him. He was recently married and he had just one bedroom to stay in. His living room was 10 by 10 with a small little dining room, which was eight by seven. It was a very small and modest house. Patel told us, “You have come from India. You got to practice. You have to play and win. I will help you.”  We slept in that 10 by 10 drawing Room.  

Next morning, he took us to the local club and paid the charges for our table. He shelled out 12 pounds that day. Over the following days also, we practiced. Then there was another weekend tournament, a big one. Till then, we were eating burgers and sandwiches and fish and chips. Suddenly we were getting lovely keema gravy and roti at home. Our laundry was being done. We were in so much comfort and could practice our game. In one of the tournaments, I won and got 3000 pounds as prize money. That was loads of money.  

Now just look at this guy. If we were walking out three seconds later, he would have shut his car door and would have been off to Luton. That three seconds gave us chance to be with him. It gave us confidence to play on to win tournaments. In 1985, I won the World Billiards championship and Om B Agarwal won the World Snooker championship in Dublin. That I think is luck.

I do believe that all of us get this break. We need to remember it and articulate it. We need to keep repeating it. We keep saying, “Oh, in that tournament, my knee broke. I was so unlucky. I missed my flight,” and so on. We look at all the bad luck that happens and we never remember the great luck that happened. Just to end the story, Praveen Patel at that point was an unemployed car mechanic and this is what he did for us.  

Viren: What a wonderful story! I just want to say a few words about OGQ. It is a not-for-profit organization. We look after the training and preparation of some of India’s best athletes from the best young talent and prepare them for the Olympics and Paralympics. We currently look after the training of almost 365 athletes. We focus on individual Olympic sports and also coach for badminton, boxing, shooting, archery and wrestling. We support athletes by trying to ensure that they have the best coaches-Indian or foreign, the best training facilities, be it in India or abroad and we ensure they have the best equipment in sports. We’ve also put together a team of world class doctors, physios, nutritionists, mental trainers and everyone in the background to help these athletes. I’m really proud to say that in the last three Olympics: London 2012, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, India won a total of 15 medals and the training of nine of the 15 medal winners was supported by OGQ.

Three and a half years back, we started supporting Paralympic athletes -athletes with physical disabilities. We currently support 84 para athletes, several of them on wheelchairs, some with amputated upper limb and some with amputated lower limbs. We do not support them because of their disability. We support them because of their abilities. These are exceptionally talented young athletes. It’s been such a beautiful and humbling experience to support the Para athletes at the Tokyo Paralympics. India won 19 medals. The training of 10 of those 19 medal winners was supported by OGQ. In 2022, there was the Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Athletes supported by OGQ participated and won 17 medals including 12 gold medals. It takes just six grams of gold to lift the worth of a nation. That’s the weight of pure gold in an Olympic gold medal. And that’s what we strive for at OGQ. This organization is founded by Geet Sethi and another legend Prakash Padukone.

Geet: At OGQ, we provide dignity to the athlete. Imagine runners going to a championship without shoes. Or if they have the shoes, they don’t have the necessary clothing. Imagine shooters going to a very big tournament without preparing because of the lack of pellets. We have brought into focus the fact that the athlete is the final stakeholder in the Indian sporting scene- not the sponsors, not the parents and not the political system.  I believe that the political will has changed in such a lovely and positive manner and we’re living in great times for Indian sport. As we move ahead, I’m genuinely confident that in the next 10 to 15 years, we will be in the top five sporting nations in the world.

Viren: You have always mentioned about the pride and the power of sports as a tool towards nation building.  

Geet: Yes. When an athlete stands at the Olympic podium as a gold medal winner, the flag of that nation goes up and the national anthem of the country is played out and it instils a very powerful emotion. That emotion is reserved not only for that athlete who has won it, but it also rubs off on all of us. We must strive to increase the frequency of that emotion. The sporting identities of nations are formed at the Olympic platform. 

Anand: Like Geet said, I have learned to look back on my journey with gratitude. I had a very similar experience when I met an elderly Spanish couple. They practically became my second parents and I moved to Spain because of them. I had a German friend I met in India and a Dutch friend.  I’ve stayed in their houses for months. Having said that, in my career, I have made a lot of mistakes. There were a lot of people helping me, but a lot of things I had to do on my own.

One thing that I realized was I’m not very good at all in certain things. A certain number of mistakes around that happen. To some degree, they shape your character. I’m not necessarily a good organizer. I do my best when I’m allowed to be thinking of chess all the time and not being distracted. From that perspective, imagine that there was an organization like OGQ that can support you in all sorts of practical ways. It feels like calling a friend and there’s no embarrassment anymore asking for help.   

Viren: What advice would you give to young athletes or individuals aspiring to become champions in their chosen fields?

Geet: Whatever field you are in, you must enjoy that.  Go and love that and keep improving in that field.  

Viren: How do you maintain a balance between personal life and demands of being a champion in your life?  

Geet: When I was in the thick of competition, there was no balance. You are so passionate and obsessed with the sports and the people who love you will understand that. Your parents, later on your partner and then finally your children will understand you. If there is balance, there is no excellence. In sports, excellence is necessarily a function of being unbalanced. 

Viren: How do you stay motivated and continue to strive for excellence, even after achieving remarkable success in your career?

Anand: You need new goals. All goals, after a while, will bore you. It is very nice that we have the urge to find new ways of doing things and keep challenging ourselves. It’s nice to experiment. The changes are coming constantly and at the same time, it’s nice because we have new material all the time. There’s something new to learn. That’s the motivation. And besides, over a lifetime of playing chess, you have your ego and you want to go there and play a good game.