Viswanathan Anand had just finished eighth among 10 players in the Leuven leg of the Grand Chess Tour, sometime in the first week of July. Even before he could scramble into the comfort of his hotel bed, many time zones away, in India, reports of a possible 'hint' at retirement surfaced. It wasn't the first such instance and certainly not the last.
"I wonder why everyone wants me to retire," he tells ESPN.
"What I said then was just an expression of frustration and had no significance." Anand had lost the first game from a winning position and he was still unhappy with his performance after winning the third game.
"I just said 'there's no point playing like this', forgetting the angle that could be used. It's almost like some journalists have me on Google Alert for some keywords like 'stop' or 'retire'"
At 47, the Grandmaster has weathered many a low and knows that such talk can't be wished away. An antidote that often works: a good laugh.
"It's funny actually. It doesn't bother me really but it can be frustrating when your friends read it somewhere and you have to clarify. I think I just have to be careful so as to not use 'key' words which could trigger it. I just said what came to my mind then and in hindsight, it was a mistake."
"Till he really sits down opposite me, it's all very abstract. Once he does, a lot of old memories could be triggered"Anand on playing Kasparov again
His old-time foe and one of the most towering names in the sport, Garry Kasparov recently announced his decision to come out of retirement, after having quit the sport 12 years ago. Kasparov will play Anand in two blitz and one rapid game at the St Louis tournament in August. Anand is piqued at how the contest would unfold. "It's quite interesting. I think it's very good for the event because it will attract all that attention. I know he won't volunteer for something on the spur of it. He's not the impulsive, 'oh I feel lucky today' types, so I'm assuming he'll be well prepared."
Taking a mild swipe at the rather poor record he holds against Kasparov -- 5 wins, 27 losses and 43 draws - in characteristic style, he says: "My record with him was not very good when he stopped. It didn't improve after he stopped either. If you look at it, our combined age would be equal to that of 6-7 participants in the tournament. Till he really sits down opposite me, it's all very abstract. Once he does, a lot of old memories could be triggered. I hope my form improves by then."
Losing a chance to win his tenth title in Leon, Spain, last week, Anand is far from pleased with his run of form. "Obviously it wasn't great. I found my play was very sluggish especially in Belgium. I was really missing a lot of opportunities so I think some correction is in order. The faster time controls, I don't play too often, so it takes me longer to warm up into them."
Central to his current plans are preparations for the Chess World Cup in Georgia in September. The top two finishers will qualify for next year's eight-player Candidates tournament which will decide Magnus Carlsen's challenger for the 2018 World Championship. "My first aim," he adds over a pause, "is to qualify playing in a tournament (World Cup) which is very unpredictable in nature. Once I get through it, I'll think about Candidates."
The reigning champion, Carlsen's form too in the recent past has been far from dominating.
Slipping into inconsistent performances and running the risk of even losing his top spot in the rankings which he's held since July 2011, the Nordic, Anand says, is certainly not in his best right now. "He's clearly affected in some way. It's very hard to maintain that kind of domination. It could have nothing to do with him, more to do with his rivals actually. That's how these rivalries work, one drives over another and everybody kind of reacts so over the next couple of tournaments we'll know for sure whether it's the others or just him."
Away from chess, the Indian is rooting for Roger Federer's quest for his 19th Slam. In some way, he relates to the Swiss' predicament and feels he could draw a mini-victory from it too.
Both have the same foes - age and younger opponents. Both hold the promise of one more big win.
"You have these people you're worried about, your main rivals whom you think heavily of and then they suddenly drop out. Now that Nadal, Djokovic and Murray are gone it could either help him or he could relax," he says, "You can roughly compare a 35-year-old tennis player and a 47-year-old chess player. I try to learn from him. People like Federer tell you that you can still hang in there."