Text: Vlad Tkachiev
This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about. As far back as the end of the 90s it seemed to me that Vladimir and I held positions that seldom coincided, and now finally I had the chance to clarify all the contradictions. Right from the outset the plan “sprung a leak” – firstly, because in the run-up to our conversation Kramnik had given a series of exhaustive interviews, and secondly… It’s not so easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant to talk to. Even during the process of agreeing a time and place for our conversation Vladimir turned out to be impeccably polite and at times even aristocratic in his manners. My fighting spirit slipped away, and I simply had the urge to talk about topics that interested me with a great chess player. Here’s what became of that …
Vlad Tkachiev: Vladimir, what happened just now at the Superfinal? After all, you came into it after your triumph in Dortmund.
Vladimir Kramnik: I think above all I was a bit drained physically, which was also visible in Dortmund – by the second half I was already beginning to weaken: for example, I could have lost to the Vietnamese player, and not only him. At the end of the day, why should I win all my games? I played quite openly and riskily in Dortmund and here – at times it worked out and at times it didn’t. Overall, the conclusion’s still that it’s necessary to play with breaks in order to be able to recover at my advanced old age. I feel as though I didn’t manage to do that. Plus, I was again unlucky with the draw – that’s now the 8th tournament in a row where I’ve had one more game with the black pieces. My hands are already beginning to shake when I pick out a number. In any case, I didn’t play well enough to have any claims on 1st place. Perhaps I could have picked up half a point more, but overall Peter’s win was deserved, as he played better than the rest of us.
V.T.: Have you ever tried to determine your biorhythms when establishing your tournament schedule? For example, I always play badly in January.
V.K.: For me winter is a difficult period. For example, I always play in Wijk-aan-Zee and it always goes badly, while correspondingly I play well in Dortmund. In winter I simply don’t get enough daylight. I go to sleep and get up very late, and at Wijk-aan-Zee I have the impression I don’t see daylight at all. So there are perfectly rational reasons to explain it.
V.T.: For an outside observer there’s been the impression in recent years that you’ve tried to sharpen your style. Is that true?
V.K.: No, I haven’t tried. My play always depends on how I’m feeling, and that simply changed when I lost the title. Perhaps I became more indifferent or liberated. Before a tournament I never decide what style I’m going to adopt, and although some changes do take place, they’re out of my control.
V.T.: Do you agree with the widespread view that while preparing for the match against Kasparov you changed your style so much that it later began to hold you back? Perhaps the seeds of your loss in the match against Anand were sown in your victory over Kasparov?
V.K.: Perhaps, but you always need to choose, as after all I don’t consider myself capable of playing brilliantly in any style. Yes, in order to beat Kasparov I had to make real changes, though that had already started to happen to my style before then. And afterwards I again tried to somehow transform myself by starting to play 1.e4, but for various reasons that didn’t work out. Above all, I was lacking a certain inner harmony. There was a lot of squabbling and political problems that I’d never enjoyed dealing with, but I considered myself obliged to do something as the situation was so difficult. Perhaps I was wrong and should have… Either way, those attempts to play sharply no longer corresponded to my inner state. My style is in any case more positional, and sharp play isn’t my thing. Of course, you’re partly right, but I don’t regret it. After all, I achieved a lot, becoming World Champion 3 times. I lost to Anand, but I could also have lost to him in my very best form.
V.T.: It seems to me that you’d already won the match against Kasparov before it started, as he wasn’t expecting to see such a Kramnik. And then Anand managed to do the same thing against you, undertaking a colossal amount of work to drag you into a concrete struggle from the first moves.
V.K.: In the match against Anand everything went wrong from the very beginning, just as it did for Kasparov in his match against me. I’m actually a fatalist to a degree, and feel that if that’s how something goes then that’s how it was fated to happen. Of course, Kasparov’s preparation couldn’t be compared to Anand’s – there’s no question Anand managed to do things much better, more intelligently and cunningly. Yes, he completely outthought me.
V.T.: Everything he did came as a surprise for you?
V.K.: Yes, my preparation period didn’t go well and I had practically nothing for White, although I’d worked a great deal, more than before the match against Kasparov. The things I’d put my emphasis on in preparation simply didn’t pay off. I had absolutely nothing against the Meran, although I’d spent months working on it, and I realised that I simply needed to make draws up until around the 10th game, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to such cynicism – after all, it was a World Championship match. So I was in two minds to a degree, although I realised that was my only chance.
V.T.: But you didn’t have an easy life with Black either.
V.K.: No, with Black everything was actually fine. I started to create some problems for myself when I had to win, for example in game 6. It’s simply that Anand played better and would have won the match in any case, though I committed hari-kari.
V.T.: But don’t you think that in order to get into optimum form you need to use some potent remedies?
V.K.: I don’t use them anymore. That was back in the 90s…
V.T.: I’m not talking about that just now, but about the way you placed great restrictions on yourself: the Petroff, the Berlin, which, by the way, have started to unravel. After all, we can still remember the old Kramnik – the Sicilian Defence against anyone, trading blow for blow. Perhaps you made a mistake?
V.K.: Yes, but as the years pass, unfortunately, you don’t have any particular choice. Firstly, everyone limits themselves. Even Kasparov would always play the same thing. Moreover, your memory is no longer what it was at 20 years old, and you can’t do the same amount of work as before: family, a child. Of course, if you’re a fanatic and work 24 hours a day you can play all the openings, but that’s very hard to do if you want to spend time with your family and not forget about the pleasures of life.
V.T.: Especially if you live in Paris?
V.K. Perhaps. Over the years a new circle of acquaintances has emerged, certain social obligations, and so on. I’m no longer ready to sacrifice everything in order to get half a point more in each tournament. Therefore I make a choice and work with what I’ve got, and it turns out the way it turns out. Of course I understand such an approach has its drawbacks, but what can you do? Name me another option and I’ll think about it. I don’t see one.
V.T.: For the one and only time in this interview I’ll allow myself to pay you an open compliment.
V.K.: But of course you’ll then compensate for that with tricky questions (laughs)!
V.T.: I consider you to be one of the most productive chess players in terms of openings in the whole of history. Moreover, I think your positional understanding is also among the purest I’ve come across. Do you agree with that?
V.K.: I always worked a great deal and really did dig up a lot, more than others. I’m not sure it was more than Kasparov, but it was at a comparable level. But in any event, a very large part of that nevertheless goes to waste. Little gets used; in percentage terms perhaps it’s 5-10%. That’s a problem for chess players in general, which is why you also get people who are lazy. In football things are much simpler: you go to training and know that if you run around and work on shooting it’ll benefit you later. But in chess it might very well work out the opposite: it often happened that I did a great deal of work on some line or other, and then someone refuted it a move earlier, meaning it all gets thrown in the rubbish bin. That’s the real reason, in my view, why chess players work relatively little in comparison to other sportsmen.
As for the positional style, I don’t know how pure it is. That’s something for others to assess, although I do agree it’s my speciality. Positional play is a very complex matter. I’ve often noticed that it’s strung together from short-range calculation. When Karpov began to weaken it wasn’t that he’d stopped understanding, but simply that he’d begun to miscalculate short variations. When he’d make one move in one direction and then go off course on the next you might get the wrong impression. When I’m in bad form I also understand chess badly, while in good form everything seems to be fine. But overall, positional play is my strong point, as are playable endgames.
V.T.: I had the impression that you’ve deteriorated a little in that regard in recent years. I can recall a few won positions that you couldn’t…
V.K.: No, I’ve always played won endgames poorly and couldn’t even tell you why myself. Perhaps I relax too soon. It’s when the evaluation isn’t yet clear, += or =+, that I play well and turn those endings into won ones, which I then sometimes make a mess of, just as I did in my younger years.
To be honest, I’ve never particularly stopped to think about the features of my own style, while I could give you a full breakdown on Anand.
V.T.: Let’s try that.
V.K.: I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess. Each champion has had some sort of speciality, and his is creating counterplay in any position out of absolutely nowhere. He’s got an amazing ability to constantly stretch himself so that even in some kind of Exchange Slav he nevertheless manages to attack something and create something. He also plays absolutely brilliantly with knights, even better than Morozevich – if his knights start to jump around, particularly towards the king, then that’s that, it’s impossible to play against and they’ll just sweep away everything in their path. I noticed it’s better to get rid of them when you’re playing against him.
In general, he’s improved a great deal in recent years, at some point after 2002. He’s a chess player of genius, but previously he didn’t work enough, by and large.
V.T.: But how has he managed to improve? Did marriage help?
V.K.: Perhaps. He’s matured, while previously he lacked the character to become World Champion. I remember in 1995 against Kasparov it was enough just to poke him a little and he simply fell apart. In the match against me things were completely different. Plus, he’s started to work a great deal and now his opening preparation is among the best, if not the best. At the given moment I don’t see who can compete with him when he’s on form. Perhaps only Carlsen in his very best condition, though probably not. I think he’ll only leave the stage when he weakens himself and ceases to maintain that extremely high level.
V.T.: His weaknesses?
V.K.: The trouble is there almost aren’t any…
V.T.: So nowadays it’s impossible to play the psychological card against him?
V.K.: Yes, though in any case I never wanted to do something on the level of slamming doors (it seems this is hinting at the well-known case of game 10 of the Anand-Kasparov match in 1995, when Kasparov, or so many people claimed, slammed the door noisily on purpose in order to affect his opponent – V.T.) and so on. That’s something that in any case probably wouldn’t work now. His main weakness is that he’s no longer so young, and now he’s also got a child. I can’t imagine he’s still going to work his socks off as before. But at the given moment I think he’s the best in the world in terms of play, namely in terms of play.
V.T.: And the defence of passive positions?
V.K.: He’s doesn’t get passive positions, as they immediately become active.
V.T.: It seems to me he’s got a very big weakness, only it’s difficult to get at it – his play in blockaded positions. I could list half a dozen examples.
V.K.: He does have weaknesses. For example, he doesn’t sense some nuances or move orders very well. But the thing is that in modern chess you can arrange the whole play to suit your style – that’s the problem. So with a computer you can create your own little chess world and live in it. Ok, blockaded positions, but then he probably knows about that too. If you can tell me how to block everything in the Meran and still get an edge I’d be very grateful.
I think that namely in terms of play Anand is in no way weaker than Kasparov, but he’s simply a little lazy, relaxed and only focuses on matches. In the last 5-6 years he’s made a qualitative leap that’s made it possible to consider him one of the great chess players. Perhaps it doesn’t look like that to observers, but when you play against him you sense what a great range he has.
The Russian team
V.T.: First of all, isn’t it awkward for you to talk about this topic, given you’ve got friendly relations with Levitov and Bareev?
V.K.: Not only with them, but with the whole team; so yes, it’s a little awkward.
V.T.: Those are the men in charge…
V.K.: But there are also the players; and that’s more important. It’s a difficult topic to talk about, as however you go about it you end up saying something; and that can spoil the atmosphere in the team – you need to be very careful. I don’t have a clear recipe for improving the situation, only some guesswork; but voicing it might be harmful.
V.T.: At the same time, I think some things that are absolutely obvious. For instance, Levitov and Bareev decided to write blogs in “Soviet Sport” and “Sport-Express”, but at a certain point that became PR for PR’s sake and actually spoilt the balance you talked about. For example, five days into the tournament Karjakin was apparently “unprepared, as ever”, not to mention what was written and said about Vitiugov. Making such statements during a tournament is fraught with danger, isn’t it?
V.K.: I absolutely agree. I’ve actually talked about that in private with those very characters. Levitov – well ok, but a trainer, of course, shouldn’t be writing a column. The idea’s correct – to draw attention to the team and generate interest; but the way it works out is that the trainer has 2 options. The first is to be very measured and try not to offend anyone – and then it simply ends up being uninteresting. Or you can be open, but then you might harm the team; there’s no middle path.
It was of course a crude mistake with Vitiugov. I even feel a little bit sorry for him, as I really liked the way he played in the tournament. He was a solid team player who pressed in every game, even with Black against Ukraine. Well, perhaps he lacked some experience at some points; he got nervous and didn’t squeeze where he should have done, but in the decisive matches he never stood worse. Ok, he didn’t beat an Egyptian, but anything can happen. In Moscow in 1994 I drew with White against Annageldyev, and then went on to win 5 in a row, as it happens. Perhaps he just needed to be a tiny bit more relaxed.
V.T.: It seems it had the opposite effect.
V.K.: Yes, it didn’t help. That was a mistake, and I said so. But ok, people make mistakes. You see, you need to know Ilya – he’s a man who really gets involved in something, he’s passionate and still too young to be able to restrain himself when required. He always says what he thinks; but sometimes, particularly in such situations, it’s better to keep quiet. Sometimes “it’s better to chew than to talk”.
Evgeny sometimes let some things slip…
V.T.: It somehow didn’t sound entirely politically correct for Levitov to talk about the “Egyptian Bedouin”, especially as there aren’t any in Egypt.
V.K.: No, I wouldn’t say that was an insult. The idea was to explain that he wasn’t an elite player rather than to say something that wasn’t politically correct. You can hear from the intonation that he had no intention of offending anyone. But yes, everyone makes mistakes and you learn from them, but then again you can’t explain away everything with those statements.
V.T.: Don’t you think in general that it’s difficult for a former top-player to become a team trainer? After all, it didn’t work out for Dolmatov either.
V.K.: Firstly, it all depends on your character. And secondly, being a trainer is a separate profession, and whether you’re an elite player or a candidate master the probability of succeeding is 50:50. You need different qualities. Evgeny had a go; it seems it didn’t work out for him, although in Khanty-Mansiysk things weren’t so bad. But in general – yes, more often than not very good players don’t become good trainers, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider them as candidates.
V.T.: Should the team members have an important vote when it comes to deciding the trainer, or should that be left at the mercy of the federation?
V.K.: I think you should ask everyone in secret to put a few candidates in order of preference, while at the same time asking them not to talk about it with each other, so as to avoid the formation of any voting blocks. And perhaps that can influence the final decision by about 50%. Ultimately, of course, the decision should be taken by the leadership.
V.T.: In team tournaments there’s a concept known as the “Armenian phenomenon”. What’s the main reason for it: the role of the trainer, Arshak Petrosian, exceptional patriotism or the well-known absence of secrets between the members of the Armenian team?
V.K.: But I’ll let you in on a secret – we also share novelties and ideas. That happened with Karjakin, for example, or Sasha Grischuk, which incidentally became something of a problem during our match as we’d spent so much time together in Khanty-Mansiysk. In general, though, there are a few different explanations and I don’t know which one of them is right. One is that the Olympiad for them is almost the only chance they have of making a name for themselves and earning good money. Except for Levon. Still, apart from him, and no offence, all the other team members play in some tournaments, the Aeroflot Open and so on, but the Olympiad is a mega-event – they’re representing their country and playing against the world’s leading players, and they’re honoured right up to the level of the country’s president. That has to be an important factor.
V.T.: So it turns out that the Russian team is a selection of stars of the kind Real Madrid had a few years ago, where everyone was a star but it was hard for them to play together?
V.K.: That’s actually not a problem for us, but the thing is that everyone has a very tough schedule and a heap of obligations; at the end of the day I don’t want to get into it, but that tournament in no way stands out financially!
V.T.: In Khanty-Mansiysk they offered you prize money, at least!
V.K.: Yes, it wasn’t bad, and I’m not complaining, but it was commensurate with any other tournament.
V.T.: For you!
V.K.: Medvedev or Putin won’t come to meet us at the airport, let’s put it like that. That’s one of the explanations. For me it’s a very painful issue – it’s a little ridiculous that it never works out for us. The Armenian team is, with all due respect, incomparable to ours in terms of strength, simply incomparable, however you look at it. It’s strange as we also get on well together, share advice and we’ve got the desire. I’ve seen that for myself, but it seems as though it’s always Monday for us. That needs some very serious thought as the situation’s really beginning to annoy me. We need to win at least once. How long can it go on?!
V.T.: But it's still a pity that Medvedev and Putin aren’t going to come and meet you in any case.
V.K.: No, but that’s normal. After all, ours is a different country, a larger one, and we’re far from the main sportsmen. When we won in Bursa Putin said something at a government meeting. In Armenia or Azerbaijan they’re essentially national sporting heroes; it’s completely different to play when you sense that millions of people are rooting for you with their eyes aflame. But that’s no excuse; we should do something as we need to break through once; and after that it’ll be easier. The main thing now is to decide on a trainer. Perhaps it’ll be my last Olympiad; and before ending my career I’d like to win it.
What needs to be done?
V.T.: Are you for or against introducing rapid and blitz ratings from 1 January?
V.K.: I’m not against it. Definitely for rapid, while I’m not sure about blitz, though that’s also an option. Another possibility would be to include rapid ratings in the calculations for the classical rating, but with a lower ratio, although separate ratings would still be better. Let’s have different forms, like beach, mini and normal football, and a separate championship can be run for each of them. The important thing is simply to standardise the 3 different time controls, after which the market can decide. I don’t agree with Sasha (Grischuk), as it seems to me that’s wishful thinking. Let the market decide, which is actually what’s happening at the moment as no-one’s forcing anyone to organise Wijk-aan-Zee or Linares using the classical time control.
V.T.: It wasn’t easy for the market to decide anything given that blitz and rapid essentially weren’t considered legitimate – there were no separate ratings, qualifiers or World Championships. After all, the events that were given that name weren’t anything of the kind.
V.K.: Well, lately they’ve been closer to World Championships than before, though in principle you’re right. I’d like to make one important point. We’re always saying: “There should be a qualifier”, but at the moment there aren’t enough sponsors who want to hold blitz tournaments, unfortunately.
V.T.: Partly because there haven’t been ratings.
V.K.: Maybe that’s the reason. I’m against government regulation of our market. Let’s introduce ratings and official titles at the same time and then everyone can decide for themselves what tournaments to run. It’s not clear at all why that wasn’t done sooner. It’s strange, after all, that when you play classical chess everything’s normal, but when you play rapid you can even score -5 and it doesn’t matter.
V.T.: In your time you played brilliantly in the PCA tournaments, which in terms of putting on a show were almost perfectly organised. Do you think the knockout system’s a perfect fit for World Championships in blitz and rapid chess?
V.K.: Undoubtedly it’s simply great for rapid and blitz. I said that to Bakh (the former President of the Russian Chess Federation) 3 years ago. You can watch the pairings that interest you and simply avoid the others. But again, that was the PCA, and a major company invested money and held 4 absolutely brilliant tournaments. The practical reality now is that there aren’t any sponsors ready to run something similar. If they appear then I’ll be very glad.
V.T.: What should be done about cheating, particular if we’re not talking about elite tournaments but opens and children’s tournaments? I recently played in the European Championship in Aix-les-Bains and the atmosphere was one of total paranoia.
V.K.: Yes, that’s all true, but let’s approach it constructively. The first necessity is for FIDE to pay specialists to tell us what the options are.
V.T.: Ilyumzhinov told me in an interview that around 20 such specialists had come to him with a full range of anti-cheating measures, each for a higher budget.
V.K.: We don’t need a full range. After all, chess players are normal people and the money’s not so great for someone to use some super-advanced methods. Firstly, you need to take some sort of minimal measures. And secondly, FIDE have to introduce a new rule that if you sign up to play in a tournament the arbiter can search you at any moment. Currently only a policeman’s allowed to do such a thing.
V.T.: Well ok, so we’ll also sign up children.
V.K.: No, children won’t be signed up. So that’s it then, we should abandon chess and start doing something else? I can see there’s a problem, but you need to do something about it! It’s not a problem you’ll be able to 100% resolve, just as you can’t do that with doping in sport. If you take that approach then you’d conclude that we can only play one-minute blitz games, as even rapid won’t fully solve the problem. In mass events it’s not possible to prevent cheating, but realistically there’s no money there, and only a sick person will spend his time doing that; then he’ll get caught and be disqualified for life. At the highest level you can implement quite serious preventative measures. And, above all, you need to get rid of the paranoia.
V.T.: But how?
V.K.: By searches at any moment and very sensitive metal detectors.
V.T.: But still, what can you do about opens?
V.K.: There’s nothing you can do. Well, there’ll be some freak who uses primitive methods, most likely an iPhone as he won’t have the money for anything more, and then it’ll be possible to catch him. A reasonable solution will reduce the number of such people to a minimum.
V.T.: So the situation in chess doesn’t strike you as hopeless? The Spanish league has collapsed, the French and Russian leagues are half-way there, there are more and more strong chess players but the number of prizes remains the same. Chess managed to survive 15 centuries because everything kept changing, which means reforms are essential.
V.K.: I’m not disputing that, and I’m no conservative. There are problems with tournaments just now, but they’re mainly connected to the crisis. Spain, in general, is on its last legs and everything’s being cut. They explained to me in Bilbao, by the way, that money does actually exist, but given the crisis they can’t be seen to be throwing it at chess for political reasons. As for those leagues, you realise, after all, that they’re something of a whim and they can’t pay for themselves. However, in countries where the crisis hasn’t had such a strong effect the number of tournaments is increasing: in China, Russia and Azerbaijan. It’s just that we’re smoothly switching from Europe to somewhere else, to the East.
V.T.: What’s going on with Topalov just now?
V.K.: I don’t know. It’s not even a matter of his having a bad period. I don’t understand why he’s not playing just now. After all, you usually get out of that by playing, and if you play only one tournament every 6 months it’s very hard to get back into the rhythm. Of course he’s a phenomenal player, but it’s clear that he’s out of form and has suffered a real decline of late. His main problem, I think, is that for some reason he doesn’t want to play. If you do want to play then you can always find an option.
V.T.: And do you understand why that’s happening?
V.K.: Perhaps he’s simply bored of it, or it’s because he got married. I don’t know, but I can’t understand it.
V.T.: The toilet scandal. Why were you so offended? After all, isn’t it legitimate to suspect each other of cheating during a World Championship match?
V.K.: It’s legitimate to suspect someone but, to put it mildly, it’s illegitimate to publicly state your suspicion as fact. Personally I’ve never suspected anyone, not least because it’s extremely ugly in human terms and crosses all the boundaries of minimum decency.
V.T.: You don’t accept such methods of conducting the fight?
V.K.: No, I don’t accept them.
V.T.: What happened to you there? Was it an emotional breakdown? To an observer it seemed as though the whole scandal was simply a means of putting you under psychological pressure.
V.K.: In part, yes. But in actual fact all these “appeals” started earlier, right after the 2nd game; it was totally clear that the appeals committee was absolutely hand-picked by them, and they began to contravene all the match regulations. When I learned the composition of the committee, and it included Makropoulos and Azmaiparashvili, I was immediately very unhappy about it, if only because Azmaiparashvili has direct financial relations to Danailov; that was already known about back then. It was clear nothing good could come of that. However, I wanted to keep them in check with legal contracts. Almost all the points were clearly defined there, including one which stated that any complaints should be made before the match began. But not during it! I was later extremely upset by the fact they gave Danailov the video of my going to the rest room. That was complete madness! Well ok, the arbiter has the right to look at it at any moment, but no-one else. I’ve got nothing to hide, but it’s a matter of principle. Today Danailov, tomorrow they’ll post it on the internet. What were they thinking? It was absolutely disgraceful.
V.T.: Did you get so upset because you felt as though you were in a hostile environment?
V.K.: Yes, of course. And then they started to satisfy all these “requests”, although I showed them the contract and the regulations. It turned out there was an incredible legal conflict there, which I hadn’t spotted before the match. I think it had all had been prepared in advance by Danailov. The thing was that despite the contract the decisions of the appeals committee were final, and no-one could do anything about them. It was an absolutely crazy situation: they could even take the decision that a game that had ended in a win for me was a draw; there was nothing you could do about it. The only option would be to take them to court after the match, and the court would decide that they could no longer work on an appeals committee. And then I realised that things would get worse, they’d already unlawfully taken away my rest room; tomorrow they’d do something else. All of 4 games had been played and they’d already poured a bucket of crap on me; and they were breaking all the rules.
V.T.: But, remembering the matches between Karpov and Kasparov, you must have realised that it would turn into a war at some point?
V.K.: But you know, times are a little different nowadays. I had the illusion that in Russia things wouldn’t become so outrageous. But they did, unfortunately. I’ve got no complaints about Ilyumzhinov; it’s clear it was nothing to do with him, but the situation got completely out of his control. They simply deceived him, while everyone else there was playing for the one team. So I had the sense that I was completely helpless. I simply didn’t know what to do.
There were a million violations; for example, in the 5th game they completely unlawfully adjudged me to have lost, as there was a point stating that a decision to change the time of a game even by a minute could only be taken with the written permission of the FIDE President, who wasn’t there. The game was moved half an hour, which was unlawful.
V.T.: But you only realised that in hindsight?
V.K.: Well yes, of course, in hindsight, as I’m not a jurist. My lawyer later explained everything to me; and I told FIDE that I’d simply sue them for the point they’d taken away. And then an absolutely incredible thing happened – they falsified Ilyumzhinov’s signature; and that’s absolutely provable. At 3:30, I think it was, they showed me a piece of paper with the FIDE President’s signature, saying something like, “I consider the appeal committee’s decision lawful. Vladimir should continue the match” and so on, with Ilyumzhinov’s signature. But at that moment he was together with Zhukov at a government meeting. Zhukov later told me that he was prepared to confirm that Ilyumzhinov hadn’t left the building and hadn’t signed any paper. They simply put his signature as a stamp, without him knowing a thing about it.
V.T.: But why didn’t he react to that in any way later?
V.K.: But how can you react – by admitting you’ve let the situation get completely out of control?
V.T.: Why didn’t he fire anyone afterwards?
V.K.: Because he’s indecisive and never gets rid of people when necessary. In actual fact he was incredibly angry at that point, because he understood that they’d simply deceived him. He’d been deceived by Azmaiparashvili, who was following his own private interests. He needed to make Topalov champion in order to then hold a match in Baku with Radjabov. He was going to get something for that. People don’t understand that the whole crux of the situation was that match in Baku, for which a contract had already been signed. The match was supposed to happen in April, and Topalov would get a million dollars for it, but in order to play he had to be World Champion. Therefore when that whole mess with the interruption began he was ready for any option, even to later continue the match in Elista with the same score.
V.T.: But why was that match in Baku so important for him, as after all your prize fund wasn’t any less?
V.K.: Ours was less, plus that was money that he’d in any case already received. Azmaiparashvili was a direct broker in that business with Azerbaijan, and therefore an interested party. Before the match they held a press conference in Sofia to promote the match in Baku, and said that everything had already been agreed. Afterwards a journalist asked what would happen if Topalov lost the match in Elista. Azmaiparashvili answered with a smile: “he won’t lose it”. How can a member of the appeals committee say something like that? All those statements made me wary; I realised what was going on and started to prepare for such things.
V.T.: But you didn’t know how exactly it would happen?
V.K.: I didn’t expect everything to be so sudden, brutal and absolutely shameless. Perhaps that’s because I’m already a man of a somewhat western mentality, and they’d signed the contract, which had to mean something. But it meant absolutely nothing! It was clear who “Azmai” was working for. As for Makropoulos, I don’t think, by the way, that he was the same; he simply didn’t know what to do. The situation got completely out of control; and, of course, I was mad. At the moment they took away the point I wasn’t planning on continuing the match, but then I saw that mug (laughs) and thought: “No, you can’t beat me that easily”.
V.T.: Which mug?
V.K.: Danailov’s, of course. He simply shone at the press conference, calculating that things would start to fall apart and they’d get that match in Baku along with the money. The decision, of course, was illogical, but at the last moment, sometime before the 6th game, I decided that I wouldn’t give him any freebies and I’d continue the match.
V.T.: Which, it seems, you’re very glad about now?
V.K.: Yes, of course. It was a tough decision, as I might also have lost.
V.T.: And what were those around you telling you before the game?
V.K.: Nothing. It’s absolute nonsense that I received an order from the Kremlin. All I had was a conversation with Zhukov and he made it clear to me: “We, the federation, will support you whatever decision you take”. Among my coaching staff that was also the message: “It’s your decision”.
V.T.: And if the match wasn’t in Russia would you have continued it?
V.K.: Yes, of course, what difference does it make? In actual fact, that decision was very much a spontaneous one on my part. On their part? I’m not convinced.
V.T.: A lot of years have passed since then. Is it still very personal between you and Danailov and Topalov?
V.K.: Well, what does personal mean? I simply don’t have any respect for those people.
V.T.: So you won’t shake their hands?
V.T.: But what did you do when you played against him?
V.K.: There’s a trick there – you don’t have the right not to shake someone’s hand, but you don’t have to offer your hand. For me that person won’t exist until he repents and publicly apologises for his behaviour. If that happens then it’s a different matter. We’ll talk and I’m perfectly ready for that. I don’t have any particular resentment. In the meantime, he’s of no interest to me, and I find his moral and ethical norms unacceptable. I don’t want to talk to him or shake his hand. It’s the same with Danailov. Despite all that, I have to admit that he’s not such a bad chess manager, in the sense of finding money, and he’s come up with some sensible ideas.
V.T.: You said that perhaps the next Olympiad will be your last and you might soon bring your chess career to an end. What will you do?
V.K.: First and foremost, while my career’s still in progress I don’t want to think about that too seriously.
V.T.: But still, some thoughts must have occurred to you?
V.K.: I’ve got a few different variations, a few spheres that interest me. I’m quite a sociable and open person and I’ve got friends in the most varied of fields. I’d like to be involved in implementing some sort of project I believe in, whether it’s social, chess, political or something else instead. I’d like to put in effort and see a result.
V.T.: And you feel you’ve got that potential?
V.K.: It seems I’ve got energy, brains and the desire as well. I’m not yet old. I’ve played a lot and achieved a great deal, but most likely my career will start to go downhill at some point.
V.T.: Yes, I think it’s unlikely you’ll be able to settle for number ten on the rating list.
V.K.: That’s not even the issue. I’d be able to do it, but I simply don’t see the point. If I can see I’m playing worse and worse, and things aren’t going to get any better, then why go on with it? As long as I can still play pretty well and win some tournaments from time to time, the Olympiad, for example, or Dortmund for the 10th time, then it’s all still relatively interesting. That drive will drop a little, however, if I don’t get into the next cycle. Turning up just to play a bit part is of absolutely no interest to me.
V.T.: And when are you going to quit?
V.K.: I suspect it’ll be by around 40. I can honestly tell you, though, that if a very interesting proposal came along I could end my career tomorrow.
V.T.: But so far there hasn’t been one?
V.K.: I’m not talking about financial proposals.
V.T.: Could you go into any more detail, as “social or political project” all sounds very vague?
V.K.: I don’t know for certain myself. Some kind of project, let’s say, to do with promoting the image of Russia in France. In other words, I’d be interested in some sort of wide-ranging, conceptual project, and in promoting it. I’d like it to be something comparable in scale to becoming World Chess Champion.
V.T.: What are your political convictions?
V.K.: Ah, now that’s a very complex question.
V.T.: Well, for example, Grischuk’s got a wild aversion to what’s going on in Russia. What about you?
V.K.: No, I don’t have any aversion. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to explain any of my political leanings, because I look at all of this from a completely different angle. I don’t really understand the point of view of other people, and perhaps they don’t understand mine. I look at all of this from a rational point of view, in terms of common sense and real possibilities, of what actually exists or could exist. People mostly dream. When it comes to Russia they say that everything’s bad, but you need to understand that at the given moment we don’t have the potential to become a Germany or Switzerland. If I started playing tennis now I wouldn’t expect to take part in next year’s Wimbledon. It strikes me that we’ve still got some inflated expectations left over from Soviet times.
V.T.: And in terms of corruption Russia has the right to be 135th in the world?
V.K.: No, of course not. I’m in favour of common sense and the theory of small deeds. You simply need to gradually improve everything, each in his own back yard. I really don’t like people who rant. We’ve got some acquaintances like that (laughs).
The situation in Russia is far from ideal, but the problem is that we had that terrible 20th century. As a nation we suffered more than anyone else during it. Therefore it seems to me that we don’t have the potential now to become a leading country that can have a real influence on world politics. Of course we pretend, but at the given moment we’re not ready to make a qualitative leap forward.
V.T.: What you’ve said already amounts to quite a sharply defined position. If the 20th century was so terrible then you’ve got a clear aversion to the communist project in Russia?
V.K.: Yes, of course, an absolute aversion. Of course, there were some positives, but it’s all a question of the cost. Stalin was a multifaceted man, even a talented one, but how clever do you need to be to imprison millions of people and then get them to do hard labour for nothing to rebuild a country. That absolute villain laid waste to a whole generation of people. After he’d gone the communist regime became a little milder, there were achievements, they got into space, but, forgive me, I was still in time to catch some of that period, and after all it was horrific, all that misery, that appallingly grey life. I don’t want to offend anyone as many people are nostalgic for those times, but for me it’s better to be poor but free.
One of our main problems in Russia right now is imperialistic thinking. We need to get rid of that as soon as possible and start to move forwards.
I was really inspired by the example of China. They were all busy somewhere and had gone completely quiet on the international stage. That lasted for around 20 years and then, all of a sudden, they’re a world superpower. Now they’re beginning to seize control of the financial markets and increase their influence, and rightly so. What we need to do now is pull ourselves together and improve human welfare.
V.T.: It seems despite the fact you live in Paris and you’re married to a French woman you still consider yourself Russian?
V.K.: Yes, of course, and my passport’s also Russian. I love Europe. I like the way people relate to each other, which is something we don’t do quite so well. But I grew up here and even if I ever receive a French passport I’ll still remain Russian.
V.T.: Your wife works for “Figaro”. Is that a right-wing or left-wing newspaper?
V.K.: More right-wing. Just now she’s not working there. She was on maternity leave and hasn’t yet returned.
V.T.: It’s well-known that the whole of France is divided, one way or another, into left and right. Which camp would you align yourself with?
V.K.: That’s precisely what I was talking about earlier: left or right makes absolutely no difference to me as common sense is what matters. “It’s not important what colour the cat is, but that it catches mice”. The more ideological a politician the more he drives me away. The ideal politician is an unprincipled politician (laughs). Good politics is common sense and a very subtle feel for situations, without becoming fixated on any one idea. I’ve got the same distaste for both communists and the far-right or, to take an American example – for the Republicans, precisely because they’ve got too much ideology, while the Democrats are more sensible. So it simply seems absurd to me when I hear all these discussions in France, particularly when you look at what a failure for the western world the decisions taken in the last 10-15 years have been.
V.T.: Do you have in mind financial policy, or immigration policy?
V.K.: Everything. The whole power of the western world has drained away as a result of those decisions, if there’s anyone left who hasn’t realised it yet. They were the ones who made crude mistakes, blundering pieces left, right and centre, and now the game can no longer be saved. At first it was done by the left, then the right. What they did to the European Union is beyond your worst nightmares. After all, it’s clear it was essentially the collapse of Europe.
V.T.: You mean the acceptance of new members en masse?
V.K.: Yes. It should have been done little by little, accepting one new country at a time, but only if it met the standards. Instead of that there’s now a mass of states at completely different levels. Some are donors while others are simply sucking up money, though those have no fewer rights than the people giving the money. It’s clear such a system doesn’t work and never will. Germany and France would, I think, jump at the chance to turn back the clock, but that’s impossible. The same can be said about immigration policy. I’m not against immigration, as it makes up a very important part of society, but it should have been done as it is in America, where you can’t end up quite so easily. At some point everyone who wanted to come to Europe did; and as a result you can see for yourself what’s going on.
In my view, harsh as it might sound, it turned out that they had an intellectually weak elite. In Russia, though I realise this sounds a little odd, politics is conducted more intelligently. In order to be a good politician you need to have a good knowledge of history, because everything goes in circles and this has all happened before. The decline of empires followed more or less the same pattern. European values, the way people relate to each other and human rights, are very important to me, and it’s with great regret that I’m watching what’s happening to the civilised world just now. It’s suicide.
V.T.: In the 90s you had a reputation as a laid-back guy. All kinds of people would constantly hang out around you, partying. When and how did all that come to an end?
V.K.: It’s just that my circle of acquaintances changed a little. There’s a time for everything. When you’re 17 years old that’s all fascinating, cool: parties, company, girls, alcohol, but then you grow tired of it, and want something else.
V.T.: And how do things look nowadays?
V.K.: Well, everything’s more moderate, as after all I’ve got a family, a child. But my house is still open for many people who often turn up without calling first or stay the night.
V.T.: Have you got more friends who are French or Russian?
V.K.: It’s probably something like 50:50. I’m still quite free and open with people, but my circle of acquaintances has changed, which is natural. I’ve got some nostalgia for those times and I’m very glad that was part of my life, but the chapter’s closed and I’ve got no desire to repeat it. After all, my career’s gone well and I was also able to party a bit, while not doing any harm to my health. Many people who start their professional career at an early age never had that period, and then they try to catch up when they get to around 50. A big change in my relations with people was brought about by my World Champion status. For some I became unapproachable, it seemed. It wasn’t even a matter of envy or jealousy but, perhaps, some unachieved ambitions got in the way. In any case, the relations changed and perhaps became more cautious. I didn’t change greatly myself and I’m still quite down-to-earth with people. That’s a chapter I’ve closed.
V.T.: Given you’ve talked about a chapter, perhaps we should talk about books? What are your top-5 books or writers?
V.K.: I haven’t read much recently as I’ve had no time at all, so I haven’t got a very clear idea of modern literature. “Generation P” is undoubtedly an outstanding book. Again, I think that’s because it was written at the right time and hit the mark. There’s now an enormous number of clones, but he (Pelevin) was the pioneer. Then, undoubtedly, there’s Dostoevsky. I don’t particularly like “The Brothers Karamazov”, but the “Grand Inquisitor” chapter is pure genius. Genius, because it was written precisely then and explains how the world is essentially constructed. “The Possessed”, of course. The man looked 50 years ahead and described everything. I really like Orwell: “Animal Farm” and “1984”, although he’s a little heavy-handed there. “War and Peace”. Here I can quote Botvinnik: “I can’t say I really like Tolstoy, but “War and Peace” is an absolutely brilliant thing”.
V.T.: So your preferences are quite classical and you’re not drawn towards counter-culture?
V.K.: No. You know I tried to read Sorokin, but somehow I couldn’t get into it. Perhaps I came across the wrong book. I’ll have to try again. And then of course there’s “The Master and Margarita”, even if it sounds very banal to list it. That’s probably my favourite work, overall.
V.T.: What about music?
V.K.: I’ve also got very little time for anything new at the moment. I’ve started to like classical music. I can’t say I’m a fanatic, but I’ve started to enjoy it. But as it is… Well, some intellectual things: Makarevich, Grebenshchikov. I really regret not having enough time as I’d like to find enough for all my pastimes.
V.T.: What are you preferences in terms of drinks and food?
V.K.: I’ve now become a bourgeois Frenchman. I drink a little wine but, in general, I don’t remember the last time I got drunk. When I was younger the goal was – to sit down and drink in order to get drunk, because why else would you? Now it’s no longer like that. I also like good cognac, and it’s always standing there at home. In the evening I like to have a glass or two.
V.T.: French affairs.
V.K.: Yes. I’m quite omnivorous when it comes to food. I love lots of things but I have to restrict myself because of my tendency to put on weight. For example, I like Indian cuisine, but that’s immediately a kilogram of extra weight the next day. I do in fact consider French cuisine to be the world’s unrivalled no.1.
That was where we decided to end the official part of our interview, while for another hour or so we enjoyed simply chatting – mainly on chess. “I’ve long been working as Chubais” was uttered at one point – I’d never thought he sees himself quite like that. (Kramnik recently said he sees himself as a scapegoat in Russian and world chess, as Anatoly Chubais is in Russian politics) Although, of course, it’s somehow become customary to suspect him of something all the time: once it was the precariousness of his claims to the World Championship title, now it’s the absence of patriotism. Well, if that’s the case then he’s a very unusual suspect.
As you only need to get him talking and all your doubts vanish.
Only to later return again.
Kramnik on chess, Anand, Topalov and his future (full version)