Boris Gelfand: With shining eyes (Part 1)


Boris Gelfand:

With shining eyes.

(Part 1)

Text: Vlad Tkachiev
Photo: Irina Stepaniuk


I cannot help starting with the question of when you last lost to a player rated below 2500 (I was referring to Gelfand's defeat against Williams in Eilat)?

I have a roughly even score against such players. I cannot motivate myself against them. I have worked on this, but because I play against them rarely, these lapses occur. I thought I had got over the problem, but…

Maybe it is because you have been playing in elite events since around 1990, and it is not so easy, when you do not have a clear impression of an opponent from another world?

Yes, although I had a fairly good idea about Williams. Last year in the French League, I believe he won three games in a row against Wojtasek, Eljanov and Avrukh, and drew with Nisipeanu. So I knew he was dangerous. But at some moment, I played carelessly two or three times, and alas…But it is not a disaster, as it would be if I played such players more often.

In a couple of interviews, we have spoken about your chess roots: the work with Kapengut  and of how he followed the creative method of Boleslavsky. How would you characterise it, and what generally characterises the Byelorussia chess school?

Yes, that is a good question. 

Everyone talks about the Soviet school, but I think that is complete nonsense! 

Because, say, in Minsk we played in one way, in Lvov they played in another, in Riga in a third way, and in the Caucasus, in a fourth…

... and in Central Asia, in a fifth!

Of course, of course! There are players from there with certain regional peculiarities, is that right?

This is my favourite theme. I think that, with a few exceptions, one can talk about national styles in chess. There is a Polish style, a Rumanian style, a German style, etc.

Yes. There is also the Chinese school. I think this is set by the founder. In Riga, it was Tal, and it is understandable that then people like Vitolins, Shabalov and Shirov played like they do. And, let us say, In Minsk, at the start of the 1950s, there were Boleslavsky and Sokolsky. Naturally, they taught a serious approach to opening set-ups, with a clear preference for dynamics. So, the King's Indian, various Sicilian set-ups, and this starting all the way from children's tournaments. Openings such as the Queen's Gambit and Queen's Indian we did not know at all, I played the King's Indian and Najdorf from the age of six. Boleslasvky did not only teach Kapengut, he also read lectures to other trainers.

But you yourself took up the Queen's Gambit quite early.

I will tell you why. The fact is that Kapengut trained Tal in 1979-1980.. It was he who helped him prepare his openings for the Candidates match with Polugayevsky. After this, he was always saying to me: "So as not to become a narrow player, study the Queen's Gambit, study different types of positions!". I did this somewhere in the early 1980s. Actually, I won the Byelorussian Championship in 1983-1984 thanks to the Queen's Gambit. I won game after game as Black: I just played b7-b6 after any move, and then managed to outplay opponents after a long battle.

Even so, sum up in a few word, what characterises the Byelorussian school.

Dynamism and a serious approach to the study of the opening.

In other words, the forerunners such as the Boleslavsky Variation of the Sicilian and his handling of the King's Indian?

Yes, yes, yes. These are the most obvious examples.

And Kapengut's Benoni!

Indeed. We learnt to play on the basis of such openings.

Korchnoi back in 1990 was very impressed with your endgame technique.

Really? I didn't know!

I assumed then it was because of your work with Shereshevsky. All his pupils were distinguished by this ability.

I did not study much with Shereshevsky, because it was more of a rival organisation. We spoke during my play at a session, and I read a lot of his books.

I was very struck by his book "Contours of the Endgame".

"That is a wonderful book, but for some unknown reason, only the first volume was ever published. The second never saw the light of day, although I once read a manuscript of it. Of course, such books provide the base, after which you can play certain types of position with your eyes closed. But he had a totally different approach to the opening, and all of his pupils, from first category players onwards, played the same openings.

A more schematic approach.

Correct. One of his books is called in English "The Russian chess conveyor" or "Soviet chess conveyor", and there, all these openings are described. I'd like to tell you one remarkable story, of how Alexandrov came to play the Berlin. In 1990, seeing that nobody used this opening, I decided to take it up. I told Shereshevsky about this, during a train ride between Moscow and Minsk, and he said: "I have a lot of students! Let's show it to them and get them to play it!". Two months later, he brought me some notes and it transpired that they had studied the Berlin for one whole training session. I only played it a couple of times myself, obtained reasonable positions, but after I lost the decisive game to Short in the candidates match, my morale somehow collapsed and I gave it up. But Leshka has played it all his life.

By the way, I once saw a game Ochoa-Karpov, 1987, where Karpov won very convincingly with the Berlin, and I was amazed he never tried it against Kasparov.

Well, Kramnik was obviously surprised as well! (laughs). He later said that when he helped Garry against Anand, he sensed even then that the Berlin would be the most unpleasant opening for him. It must be said that it is a rather strange opening. It is hard to understand.

You mean the way the white position can suddenly become worse?

Yes. As if from nothing. The opening is positional, but the whole assessment depends on whether a certain move is available at the end of a semi-forced variation.

What do you think you gained from your discussions with Tigran Petrosian?

First of all, seeing such a great players at close hand was unbelievably important. He showed us his games, told us about his life. All this made an exceptional impression, of course.

But what did you learn in terms of methodology?

Well, certain things remain in my mind even today. I showed him my games, in one of which it seemed I had a large advantage, but I lost and could not understand why.

But Petrosian said "You need to exchange one rook and put the knight there, and then you would have won!". After this, I understood that it was possible not only to calculate variations, but to think in terms of logical schemes, as well. 

Abstract inferences!

Yes. When we played blitz, he used to ask before the game "Which square would you like me to mate you on?". Of course, we should have said d5, and then we would have been guaranteed to win. But the children would say, for example, a1, and of course, he would take all their pawns and then drive the king to the necessary corner. I also remember missing one thing with him, which I regret to this day. It was the famous game Kasparov-Petrosian, you probably remember it, where in the QGA, the black king went from b7 to c6…

Yes, of course.

Nikitin, who also took part in the Petrosian school, told him that, according to his analysis, Kasparov could have won. Petrosian just laughed and said " Ok, show me your analyses tomorrow, and I will beat off all your attacks!" But the next day, I went off to a tournament and never saw what happened. It would have been good!

Incidentally, he said that he understand how great you're your talent, when he saw you play blitz, whilst barely looking at the board.

Yes, Vasiliev wrote about that. I have remembered all my life how he taught me, even in blitz, to make every move with a point, and so when they introduced this 2-second time increment, I played better.

Svidler told of how, throughout a whole blitz tournament you won in Biel, you followed the same approach: out of 5 minutes for the game, you spent 4.5 on the opening moves, and then in the remaining 30 seconds, converted your advantage.

Yes! I won first prize – a watch, which I still wear. When he lost to me, he almost cried.

What make?

Movado – it's here (shows it). A super watch!

I read that the two books which made the greatest impression on you in your time were "Journey into the chess kingdom", by Averbakh and Beilin, and "Akiba Rubinstein", by Razuvaev and Murakveri. Which later books have made a similar impression?

Nothing like it! Well, maybe Kasparov's books on the post-war generations: Smyslov, Keres…

Do you study Kasparov's books?

Yes, of course I read Kasparov attentively. I even read more than I play through the games, because computer variations are not so interesting, even if they are beautiful. But the assessments, thoughts, etc. these are very interesting. Also Dorfman's book is quite original.

His "The Method in Chess"?

Yes, that one – a new approach, an attempt to bring in some sort of rule of thumb. Of course, it is not universal, but sometimes, one thinks: the king is weak, that is the main factor. Or ways to strengthen the position.

This book made a grandiose impression on Grischuk.

Yes, yes. He told me this. I cannot say it made a grandiose impression on me, but I liked the idea.


When did you first play Anand?

It was in Moscow in 1989 and the GMS tournament, a Swiss with 200 players.

In the first 5 rounds, he played Shirov, Kramnik and me. That is, with the people he would spend his whole life playing – quite an irony of fate!


How did it seem to you when it was Anand who turned into a real chess superman?

When wasn't he? He was great in 1994-1996, and had another peak when he improved his openings, it was around 2005-2007, I think. Because it seems to me that the opening was always his Achilles Heel, he played every opening going. 

So, you mean when he established a well-worked out repertoire?

Yes. And he was always ahead of everyone in working with the computer – he has an exceptional feel for the moment when one should wait for the computer to produce something, and when it is a waste of time.

And, for example, he knows which path to send it down in which position?

Probably that too. On the other hand, Bareev said that the second important game in a new opening is always Anand's.

Meaning that he quickly adapts to new ideas from others?

His ability to adapt like that is amazing. In Wijk aan Zee 2001, he was playing poorly, but then he repeated Kramnik's opening and beat Wang Hao, then he repeated Aronian's opening and beat Shirov – with improvement.

I once asked Kramnik to name what he thought were Anand's weaknesses and he answered that he practically could not see any. I, in my turn, pointed out Vishy's very uncertain play in fixed pawn structures, after which Vladimir mentioned his reluctance to get into opening subtleties and nuances. What portrait of Anand did you build up before the match

Obviously, I have read everything on the subject and thought a great deal about this... It was difficult to pin it down to specifics, because he has changed a lot during his career, and it was clear that things were not quite right with him in the half-year prior to the match.

So it was hard to know which Anand we would see, and so I decided to concentrate on myself and try to obtain the sort of positions that suit me. 

This is why I changed my openings.

That was going to be my next question.

I decided to do this for my own comfort, rather than his discomfort, because even if it is true that he does not play closed positions comfortably, one does not reach closed positions by switching to the Grunfeld or Semi-Slav Botvinnik System. So I decided to try to obtain dynamic positions in accordance with my upbringing, as we have just discussed. This explains the choice of the Sveshnikov and Grunfeld.

How did this fit Anand's own repertoire? He has played the Grunfeld himself in the past, though admittedly not the Sveshnikov.

I saw that in the Sveshnikov, he either wins with a huge novelty, such as against Kazimdzhanov in 2002 and Kramnik at Cap d'Agde 2003, or else usually gets nothing much at all. He did win a good game against van Wely, I think. And overall, it the sort of opening, where if White does not get a serious advantage, then Black has good play. The Grunfeld, as you say, he has played himself, but it is also an opening where…For example, if Black meets 5. Фb3 with the 6. ... а6 line, then in order to play this as White, he also has to study 6. ... Ka6, 6. ... Kc6, 6. ... Cg4., in other words, Black has a wide choice. The same is true of the 7. Сс4 variation.

Plus, of course, the Grunfeld is rather an Israeli opening. Lots of people play it over there.

Yes, yes, yes.

But not the Sveshnikov?

Hardly at all. In general, it was once very popular, but then people stopped playing it, though not for any obvious reason.

I noticed long ago that opening fashions amongst the elite, which everyone follows, often change for quite mystical reasons.

I also thought about why people stopped playing the Sveshnikov, and could not understand it. There were no objective reasons for this.

As a result, was this choice hard for you?

No, it was quite easy. I somehow felt at once that it was an excellent decision.

Did you think these choices of Sveshnikov and Grunfeld would surprise him?

Yes, of course. Meeting the Sveshnikov for the first time, Anand switched play into a sideline, with с4, and against the Grunfeld prepared the line with 8. Сb5, 9. d5 with the same result. I did not know whether he prepared the sharp system with 3. f3 in advance or settled on it during the match – only he and his team know.

One can surmise that he chose it because, unlike other variations, in this line Black has a narrow choice of lines..

Agreed, it is the narrowest line. Ands the great advantage of the Grunfeld is that Black has a wide choice of lines. 3. f3 reduces this.

Did you identify any other weaknesses in Anand, other than those we have spoken of above?

Generally not, although...

But earlier he did have some psychological problems.

Earlier, yes. He could not withstand the tension, and could at any moment lose the thread of the game. But the hard part is driving him to such a nervous state. 

Well, yes. Sometimes this is accomplished by non-chess methods.

Yes, but that is not my way.

Of course, you are quite a striking example of longevity in a career at the very top. The great majority of players lose the ability to produce anything so interesting at a significantly earlier age. Do you think this is what is now happening to Anand? Is it a question of motivation or something else?

That's a very difficult question! But, it seems to me that it is still too early to draw conclusions. Yes, something is bothering him at the moment, but one has the impression that he could return at any moment and play wonderfully.

I have an author's viewpoint on this. It seems to me that Kasparov found it uncomfortable to continue playing, once he lost the advantage that he had in the opening in the 80s and 90s, over the other top players. Because the younger players became more concrete and calculating, and maybe that is what is bothering Anand now?

Maybe, maybe. But we don't know. He has a child now, priorities change, it becomes harder to devote the same energy to the game, it is very difficult to say. Firstly, you can't get inside someone else's head, and he is quite a closed person, so anything we say is speculation. Once the situation changes or is resolved one way or another, maybe he will tell us himself.

When I interviewed Vishy, it seemed to me that he was searching for an answer to this question himself.

He is still searching. I am sure he is not satisfied with his recent results and is taking serious steps to rectify the situation. 

Do you have any regrets over how the match went?

In terms of strategy, none at all, but in other ways…probably, it was not obligatory to blunder in game 8, or to force things in Game 9 with 19. с5. This was wrong on principle, because Anand is a past master at building fortresses. But it seemed to me that, in the absence of Black's bishop, the weakness of the pawn at a7 would count at some point. So I misjudged the position. Of course, it was possible to play a waiting move, but I understood that he had also started to wait, and it would in any event be necessary to open the game at some point. I was not sure I would find the right moment, although probably I would have.

Several commentators felt that, prior to 19.c5, White's position was strategically won.

Quite possibly. But I am not sure it would have been won without some difficult decisions. But, of course, this was a mistake.

Aren't you haunted by the tragic events of the tie-break? After all, you practically dominated the play.

No, not haunted. Yes, I had full domination, but in Kazan, Kamsky dominated the tie-break against me in similar fashion, and I ended up winning in much the same way. In other words, I didn't play well, but won.

In his time, Ivanchuk has said that losing his match against Anand in 1992 has a serious impact on his career. Do you think that meeting with the all-conquering Kasparov at an early age caused some sort of definite shock to your will?

Maybe. That was one moment, but there were also others. The main one is the chaos in the chess world. All my life, to this day, I have been plagued by instability, but in the world championship cycle, I played well and did not lack anything.

Are you definitely sure you did the right thing in refusing help from Kasparov in your match against Anand?


And you definitely think his invitation was not quite correct?

Well, it is a question of your life priorities. I am used to being friendly with people, not enemies with them. Opposing someone is a political thing. It is clear that Kasparov had an absolutely bad attitude to me all his life, he just had some problems with Anand and wanted to help fight against him. I have not spoken to him since he left chess, and I saw him again for the first time only for about a minute and a half in the press centre at the Tal Memorial. He continued to be against me, and even after I won in Kazan, he had only negative things to say. In other words, it was a suggestion directed against Anand, and I even know why it was made.


As far as I know, Anand refused to help support him and Karpov in the battle for the FIDE Presidency. That is, he thought that after he had helped Anand against Topalov, Anand would now support him. Now this is in the public domain, although I was aware of it even when he made his suggestion. 

I invited people who wanted to help me and be with me to the end, not people who just wanted to hurt Anand.

continuation follows...



great man !

Incrorrect translation from russian

The phrase

There are players from there with certain religious peculiarities...

was not translated correctly. Gelfand is talking about "regional peculiarities", not "religious peculiarities ".

Please correct the translation.

thank you :)

thank you :)

chess medicine

The doctor has spoken with a cure. Hats off to Mr. Gelfand for his honesty, the man has insight beyond chess chaos, and clearly sees the light at the end of the tunnel. Carlsen in his youth will be brash and at wits end in trying to solve the future problems that are ahead of him in his bid for the chess crown against Anand. Chess players listen up, it takes wisdom to win not youthful tactics. This is what Mr. Gelfand has expounded to us. Much to my regret, I believe he has captured me as a fan.


I think Guelfand speaks of Wijk 2011 because Wang Hao didn't play way back in 2001.