The Russian weekly magazine “Russian Reporter” decided to see if the stereotypes about chess players were true by interviewing the country’s top five players. The result was surely one of the best mainstream articles ever to appear about chess. Highlights include Kramnik talking about why Carlsen stands out, Karjakin revealing an unlikely history of street fighting, Morozevich explaining why he rejected acrobatics for chess, Grischuk talking about the perils of smoking in the new age of clean-cut chess players and Svidler revealing a Kasparov comment that emphasised their utterly different approaches to chess.
The “Chess Kings” article in “Russian Reporter” opens with a short introduction by the authors, Alexander Kobeliatsky and Vera Mikhailova:
The following is a translation of selected highlights, with the headings all taken from the article itself. The photographs are by Yury Chichkov for “Russian Reporter”.
The world has changed
I don’t have any nostalgia for the time when chess was very popular in the USSR. Despite the obvious benefits – the support for science, art, chess – it seems to me there were more drawbacks. Why was chess so popular? Because the USSR, in contrast to other countries, didn’t have a powerful entertainment industry. You came home, it was cold outside, you weren’t going to take the dog for a walk, the television just had Brezhnev on all the channels, and you had to do something.
Well, and then there was another circumstance: at the time chess was a political instrument, which always fuelled interest. The main chess boom arrived with the Spassky-Fischer match during the Cold War period. If the best two players on the planet right now were a Palestinian and an Israeli then their encounter would also be on the front pages of the newspapers.
Top of the ratings
Magnus Carlsen is an original person with a tremendously strong character. He’s hard to fathom and withdrawn. He really doesn’t like to open up: perhaps his blood is simply that cold, or it’s a deliberate approach – he doesn’t want to give away any unnecessary information about himself. Carlsen has fantastic speed of thought, and I’m not just talking about chess. In conversation he can give an instant reply, but it’s one that hits the mark. He doesn’t outwardly show that – it seems he’s just a simple guy, an adolescent. Perhaps he doesn’t have very wide horizons as he’s been focussed on chess since childhood, but you can expand your horizons over time.
Computers versus creativity
Chess theory has become like a search for gold. Previously you could find nuggets, while now you have to sift through enormous seams in order to find grains of gold. Perhaps only something like 10% of my opening work gets used, but without the remaining 90% you wouldn’t find that. Unfortunately the development of computers has made it much harder to find worthwhile ideas, since the programs very quickly refute what seem to be interesting variations.
Play doesn’t depend on character
It strikes me as quite a primitive interpretation to say that one person plays sharply because he’s fearless, while someone else is cautious because he’s a coward. In actual fact everyone tries to exploit his strongest side. Kasparov by no means played aggressively because he was fearless. By the way, many people choose not to employ defensive variations because they lack the skill to withstand their opponent’s pressure. Necessity forces them to advance and counterattack.
Chess players sitting opposite each other are like connected vessels: if one falls the other rises. You start to sense the condition of your opponent. During a long match with one and the same opponent psychology plays an enormous role. Spassky said a World Championship match takes three years off your life. I’m probably a strange person, because I release the tension however seems best to me at the given moment: I can go for a walk or drink a glass of cognac.
All chess players have that problem, and as far as I know there’s no-one who fully manages to recover. There are some universal measures, for example going to the gym, but if a game is long and very tense you just don’t have the time or energy. Your brain is overloaded and you’re simply incapable of falling asleep. Often the inability to relax leads to your being unable to play a tournament normally. You feel that your head is simply starting to switch off.
Fears of death by draws
The development of the game and the reassessment of some situations is a constant process. Of course, there’s a limit. It seems to me we’re beginning to approach quite a dangerous point, when players’ preparation, particularly for World Championship matches, has become so serious that it’s very hard to get any play at all. Theory dominates aesthetics, sharply reducing the scope for creativity. You can get a draw even contrary to the wishes of the players. Perhaps with the help of some minor alterations to the rules it’ll be possible to eliminate that problem without changing the essence of the game. However, I might recall that Capablanca was already talking about the draw death of chess after his match against Alekhine, but his predictions are yet to come true.
Living off appearance fees
It seems to me around thirty people with the very highest positions on the rating list are capable of earning a more or less professional wage. In that sense chess isn’t the most lucrative or rewarding of sports. Many lack something, for instance talent, and they’ll spend their whole life playing without getting anything in return. It’s possible to break into the Top 100 but still earn less than you spend.
My income is totally dependent on what I get for taking part in tournaments, which means it’s impossible to plan anything as you never know how you’ll play. I’d note that a lot depends on the country. For example, there’s only Carlsen in Norway and he’s almost a national hero, so all the sponsors support him. In Russia there are a lot of talented chess players so it’s very tough to find yourself a sponsor.
No competition for chess
My motivation is to become World Champion. That was my childhood dream. Naturally I’ll strive to achieve it, but the moment I realise my career is coming to an end I’ll give up chess. On the other hand, the recent World Championship match was played by two people who are over forty – Anand and Gelfand – so the sporting life of a chess player is fairly long. To be honest, I haven’t stopped to think what I’ll do next. For now there’s nothing that could tempt me as much as chess.
It seems to me the title of grandmaster has been a little devalued. Previously there were thirty, while now there are perhaps around a thousand. It might make sense to introduce a new title or tighten the requirements for becoming a grandmaster. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to set myself up as a chosen one but it strikes me the World Champion and a fairly mediocre chess player shouldn’t have the same status. For example, there’s some logic in the suggestion of formulating an unofficial title of “supergrandmaster”.
In my early years at school, when it’s usually hard for children to concentrate on anything in lessons, I found it easy to follow what the teacher was saying as by that time I was already studying chess. It’s well known that chess raises your ability to concentrate, which is very relevant at an early age. I was ahead of many at school, but I had no sense of superiority. By age 12, when I became a grandmaster, I was only a part-time pupil: I’d simply regularly submit homework and barely saw my classmates.
In general my childhood in Simferopol was pretty lively, and at times I had to fight. I once came back from an outing that had ended in a fight, began to take off my shirt and found it was covered in blood. I don’t remember whose: mine, or that of my rivals. However, I’ve still got a lot of friends from school who I keep in touch with. Recently I visited one of them, although he now lives in Berlin.
On a par with Kramnik
At a young age all encounters with venerable chess players are memorable. For example, I first played Kramnik when I was 14. I drew against him twice, and should even have won one of the games. After that it seems to me I started to play more confidently, realising that I’d reached a level that would allow me to compete against such grandmasters.
How to become a chess player
I simply didn’t have a choice. At first I went to the acrobatics club – they told me everything was fine, but I was a little old. Back then I was six. Then I decided to enrol in the football club – they also told me everything was fine, but I was too young. Then I went for swimming, but I often fell ill and had to miss lessons. I realised the same fate would await me in any kind of sport: my peers would keep progressing while I’d fall behind. And I thought: is there a sport in which, even getting ill, I could make progress? Moreover, my father played at the level of a good first-category player and we had a big chess library at home.
Why Morozevich has a lot of fans
Perhaps it’s down to my style of play. I play fighting chess and there’s a lot of struggle and emotion in my games – that draws more attention. When two supergrandmasters come along, look at each other and display undying respect, emphasising that with a 20-25 move draw – the spectators are less impressed.
Objectivity of the ratings
It’s quite hard to talk about as we haven’t tried to calculate using any other system. To a certain degree ratings are objective, as the stronger players nevertheless end up at the top. There are isolated flaws, of course, for example using team events to calculate individual ratings, but I don’t think that has a serious influence. It’s another story with the system for deciding the World Champion. That’s trickier and less clear, and the title match isn’t always played by the strongest players. For example, the numbers 4 and 20 on the rating list just played for the World Championship title, which would hardly be possible in any other sport. I’m not saying that to offend the players as it wasn’t their fault and each of them won that right fairly. It’s an organisational flaw. At the same time the strongest player in recent years – Magnus Carlsen – completely refused to play for the title.
Chess in Qatar
The driving force behind Qatar’s progress in chess is the Chinese player Zhu Chen, who I coached. The men in Qatar don’t need so much help, as things are already fine. She, on the other hand, after becoming the wife of the best Qatari chess player, Al-Modiahki, who’s also the best Arab chess player of the 20th century, initiated the process. She wanted to have better coaches, to take part in prestigious tournaments and achieve top results. According to the conditions of my contract I was supposed to live in the country and didn’t have the right to leave it without the written consent of my employer, the Qatari Olympic Committee. It was like living in a golden cage.
Can women compete with men in chess?
I see no reason why women should play chess any worse than men. They even have greater opportunities than we do, as we don’t have the right to play in women’s tournaments while they can play in men’s. I once asked a representative of FIDE why that was the case. He gave a very interesting reply: there’s a Women’s World Championship and a World Championship for everyone. Women’s chess has been making considerable progress recently. It’s the same in other sports – take, for example, Go: there 13-14 year-old girls beat World Champions. I think that in 15-20 years it’ll be a normal phenomenon for women to play on the level of good male grandmasters.
How to make chess into a well-promoted sport
It’s not so easy to make chess commercially attractive while not damaging its essence and making some kind of sacrifices. It’s both possible and necessary, however, to achieve a greater mass appeal and turn chess players into more recognisable figures. We just need to work out what we want.
Competing with tennis is senseless as tennis is an easy to grasp and dynamic game, while chess isn’t dynamic and is hard to grasp. At the same time, however, there are still quite a lot of thoughtful people and for many of them chess remains appealing. A different issue is that the appearance of computer games, iPads and so on has made it possible to satisfy your intellectual appetites in some other manner. Chess has lost its exclusivity as a means of developing your mind, and it hasn’t become any more accessible or comprehensible.
Packed halls are a thing of the past
In 2001 the Rapid Chess World Cup took place in Cannes. I played the semifinal against Kasparov in the palace where they hold cinema festivals. There are 800 seats and all of them were taken, with people even sitting in the aisles. You can’t say Cannes is a chess city. Perhaps people were attracted by the figure of Kasparov – there’s no longer anyone like him in chess today. At many tournaments, if you don’t count wives and trainers, there are around five spectators. Of course chess isn’t going to become football, tennis or basketball, but it also shouldn’t be as poorly-attended as it is at the moment.
Home preparation leads to boredom
The issue of match preparation is a tough one. It’s hard to give an overall assessment, as it’s something relative and particular: the main thing is how much better prepared you are than your opponent. Sometimes you’re badly prepared but you get lucky: your opponent plays precisely the variation you know well. In actual fact, the role of luck in the opening really is huge. In general, chess has become duller and duller recently as the role of home analysis has grown. More and more moves are being made according to a variation prepared in advance and it’s much harder to get a fighting, interesting position.
One chess player told me that before each game he spends six hours monotonously going over his notes. He memorises them the way you would a poem or formulas. It’s enough to drive you crazy!
Smoking is associated with difficulties
At one point smoking was widespread among chess players. Lots of the World Champions smoked: Alekhine, Tal, Spassky, Korchnoi. Nowadays there’s quite a strange situation – among the Top 100 only about five guys smoke. That creates certain difficulties. Before a tournament I usually have to ask the organisers to provide a smoking room within the accessible zone. Last year I played in Wijk aan Zee and in order to smoke there you had to go outside to a pavilion. It wasn’t just that the weather was bad – zero degrees, a strong wind – I also had to go there and back with an arbiter so no-one would give me any tips along the way. That all took around ten minutes. My opponents naturally noticed and the moment I approached the arbiter and left the hall they made a move. So that was how I had to play the whole tournament – madness! By the way, young chess players don’t even drink. That really does look strange.
Failures on the American continent
I’ve played chess there twice, poker three times, and all five trips have been a failure. Five out of five has, you’ll agree, some kind of statistical significance. I also feel as though I’m on a different planet there. At the same time I feel absolutely normal in China, India and Libya. In general, I like playing in Russia: in Elista, which many criticise, and Khanty-Mansiysk.
You can’t get by without bluffing
There’s an enormous element of bluff in chess. Someone sits looking as though he’s got everything under control, while in actual fact he’s just blundered a pawn. Perhaps he’s all worked up inside, but what he displays is: I’ve sacrificed a pawn – are you going to take the risk of capturing it? In turn you think: no, something’s not right here. Eventually you take the pawn, but not in two minutes, but half an hour.
Freestyle in Odessa
I like jeeps because it’s more convenient to go up on the curbs in them. There’s nowhere to park properly in Moscow, so it’s important to have such a vehicle. By the way, everyone criticises our roads and drivers, but I can vouch for the fact that Moscow is a paradise after Odessa, where my wife and I often drive. The traffic there moves freestyle – there are potholes every ten metres, and not in a line but scattered at random. When the driver in front of you starts to swerve from side to side in Moscow you think you've come across a madman, but in Odessa you realise there are potholes ahead and you need to note his trajectory well.
The top 10-20 players in the world are clearly split between those who create elite fashion and those who follow it. Naturally, there are far more of the latter. That became particularly noticeable when Kramnik with Black started to play the Petroff – an opening which was previously considered unpromising. Soon those who’d never once played the Petroff could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
There are people who take on whole systems, among whom you can undoubtedly number Kramnik and Morozevich. That’s very time-consuming work, however, and not everyone’s ready to do it – it’s much simpler to start at a point up to which the masters have already shown you everything.
Unclear for the sake of actual play
Partially due to laziness and partially due to the fact that I really like the actual process of the game, or because of the habit I picked up in my childhood of ending my analysis with an evaluation of “unclear”, I frequently put off thinking about the situation on the board. I even had a short dialogue with Garry Kimovich [Kasparov] on that topic during a tournament we were playing together. I got an extremely interesting position, sank into thought, came to some conclusion, made a move and then left the stage to where Kasparov was pacing. He looked at me with some kind of pity and said: “You realise normal people only begin their analysis in such positions?!”
Cricket and other sports
I’m a passionate fan. I follow, if perhaps not as actively as before, Zenit and Arsenal. Moreover, I supported the English club long before the captain of the Russian team moved there. I’m capable of watching any kind of billiards on television. In my lifetime before last I devoted a lot of time to that sport and was able to do a thing or two, so I really enjoy watching true masters play.
My special passion, however, is for cricket, particularly when played by the England team. Nowadays I probably won’t watch a test match between Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, though around five years ago I’d have watched it from beginning to end – I really was ill. In 1999 I visited Nigel Short for what was supposed to be a training camp. That happened to be when the Cricket World Cup was taking place, and he said to me back then: “Enough chess, it’s time to try something new”. Since then I haven’t been able to stop.
Reinventing the wheel
Recently I’ve very rarely managed to guess my opponent’s intentions. Without any stunning idea in response it’s easier to play by recalling your home analysis, but if you haven’t revised some lines for half a year you need to reinvent it all again. The state when you sit and realise you’ve got it written down, but you don’t remember what, is worse that if you were just playing with a clean slate. Instead of focussing on the game you’re trying to visualise what that page looks like. It really distracts you and often proves counterproductive.
On the same wavelength
I’ve got no proof whatsoever, but I’m deeply convinced that when you spend a long time at the board you can pick up your opponent’s emotional state. When I don’t like my game I try to spend more time off stage so as not to show what I think about what’s going on at the board.
For example, there’s such a concept as the tree of variations. When you see an unfamiliar position you try to determine a range of sensible moves you could make. You then try to come to an initial evaluation of each of them. If that doesn’t appeal you look deeper.
There are some very beautiful examples of that topic. For example, White is conducting a mating attack on the kingside and fairly quickly determines the set of continuations where mate appears to be inevitable. You poke and prod away – but there’s no mate. You have to return to the beginning after which you realise: if you play a zwischenzug that has nothing whatsoever to do with the kingside, but opens up a diagonal for the bishop, then fifteen moves later it’ll be able to give the decisive check. In that case everything comes together.
So you construct a tree, reach a certain point, and if that point doesn’t satisfy you it’s possible that back at the very first stage you can find candidate moves which would never otherwise have entered your head. Even in classical five-minute blitz, which is largely based on intuition, you’ve got the chance to engage in deep calculation once or twice a game.
A rational approach to life is one of the profession's routine perversions, when you imagine it’s possible to calculate life itself. It’s rarely feasible, however, as the number of variables is huge. I once conducted some long and extremely high quality calculation, which essentially worked out, but instead of the outcome being positive it turned out to be far from good.
Interviews with Russia’s five best players