Boris Gelfand: With shining eyes (Part 2)


Boris Gelfand:

With shining eyes

(Part 2)


Text: Vlad Tkachiev
Photo: Irina Stepaniuk


How have you managed to maintain such a high level of motivation over so many years? And this is despite the good and bad fluctuations in your career, that we have talked about.

- Mmmm... I don't know, it is something inside me.

Maybe because my father, no matter what he did, always did it with shining eyes.

So I too, for example, if I support a football team, I do so fanatically, likewise, if I read, I read avidly. Or the other way round.

What do you think about the phenomenal results achieved by some representatives of the "neo-practical" group, such as Carlsen and Caruana, plus Aronian. Some years ago, we were comparing Carlsen's play in simple positions to that of Karpov in his best years.

- As far as Carlsen is concerned, he has certain exceptional qualities, which I think are just natural. For example, a feeling for the pieces, plus absolute determination and motivation.

It seems to me that we now have a generation to whom ratings are important, and not just in chess. They watch highly-rated films, and read highly-rated books.

This desire to pass Kasparov's rating record gives Carlsen motivation to play every game to the end, with maximum effort.

And does he have other qualities, in a purely chess sense?

- In a great number, and most of all, his strength in defence is incredible. All this, together with tremendous belief in himself, makes him similar to Karpov, but raised to a computer level.

And this is despite the fact that his openings are not as good as Karpov's in his best years.

- Well, in his best years, Karpov had an entire team working for him.

Nobody is stopping Carlsen creating his own team!

- But he hasn't, judging by his games. Plus, as well as his ongoing team, Karpov's openings were given to him by such people as Furman, Razuvaev, etc., people with a fantastic understanding of exactly where to dig, what will suit his style. When Karpov became world champion, the suitability of his opening repertoire to his style was simply ideal. Carlsen, by comparison, hardly has any openings at all.

And what about Caruana?

- I played with him last at Wijk aan Zee, and it was after this that he made his big leap forward, so it is not easy for me to summarise him today. It seems to me that he also has incredible concentration. He is calculating variations the whole time, like a kind of computer, with a sort of enhanced processor. No, I really have no idea.

He has great confidence, you can feel it.

But this alone cannot explain his results.

- I think now we have to wait, because I have often seen phenomena in the first year, but it is only in the second year that one finds out if it can last. Carlsen too has said that he beat Caruana without great problems at Biel last year, yet at Wijk aan Zee, he shared first place with him and he was already a totally different player. Of course, he also works enormously hard and has great motivation. But the question is still whether he will become a great player, or just an extremely strong one.

What about Levon?

- Well, he is the most striking player around, with the highest creative level, in terms both of openings and original ideas in the middlegame. Number one at the moment. So, frankly, it surprises me that the entire press is part of the Carlsen fan club, and not Aronian's.

But it is typical that fan-clubs grow up around Western players. People are tired of the years of Soviet domination and the huge number of players coming from that school.

- Yes, indeed, in the main it is the Western press, I agree. Hence the enormous reaction, when an English-speaking star emerges, everyone is hoping for this.

I recently read in Kasparov's "Revolution in the 70s" the opinion that Korchnoi's longevity is explained by the constant injections of fresh blood, as a result of his working with young players. Is this how you also are prolonging your form?

- Well, yes. All the time, I am trying to update myself. The biggest secret of longevity is not to think you know everything. I learnt this from Korchnoi. There are two sides to this question – one of self-improvement, perfectionism,
understanding that one does not know everything, knowning one's weaknesses and the mistakes that one repeats.

The second thing is that working with young players opens up new corners to view. They just laugh at some of my long-held dogmas.

Chess is changing under the influence of the computer, and if you do not adapt to these changes, you will end up on the scrap heap of history.


During the match, you created rather a storm, when you said "We are not here to entertain the spectators!". Isn't that rather like the notorious claim that "Parliament is not the place for discussion"?

- No, it is not like that at all.

But doesn't the phrase show a certain intellectual arrogance, or was it just something you said on the spur of the moment?

- Of course, there is a certain arrogance in it, but this was already the 12th game and the 12th such provocation on the part of the journalists. Maybe I just couldn't stand any more of it.

Really, the 12th?

- Well, the 6th or 7th, anyway. The match website was getting half a million viewers, and every day 50,000 more. But there are 5-6 activists in the blogosphere who, either because they are in a bad mood, or because something is missing in their lives, who every day were writing that the match was not interesting or was boring. So 50,000 people per day found it more interesting, but they did not.

- So, in some ways it is a polemical issue, but overall, it seems to me that it is a 21st century conception. One cultural figure, now sadly deceased, once said to me that there are only two things valued in the world now – to entertain and to be entertained. So my statement aimed to show that there are some other worthwhile things too.

Such as?

- Work. Intellectual strength. Achievement. Friends, I don't know.

Don't you think that the problem is that earlier, the antics of, say, Korchnoi and Tal, were discussed everywhere, and not only in the Soviet press. But now, chess has to compete for space with the weather forecast and the crossword, and many newspapers don't feature chess at all.

- Yes and no. This is a special case, but in the Israeli papers, the match with Anand was bigger news that the visit of Madonna. The match was on page 1, Madonna on page 10. It was a subject for national pride, a sign that our small country had achieved something on the world stage. But we should understand what we want, and should choose between several different conceptions. However, one cannot say which of them are correct and which not.

I can say exactly what I want. I want to see chess once again occupy the kind of distinguished place in general life, that it did when I started to play.

- I understand, but I think that is unrealistic, because then everything was driven by ideological opposition. Chess developed in Europe and America because of the rise of Fischer in the 1970s. In the 50s and 60s, it was nothing, as it became again in the 80s. After Fischer, there was the rivalry between Karpov and Korchnoi, which again was purely ideological.

We need to find our niche. We are losers when it comes to pop culture, because chess is too complicated, and we should not lower it to this level. Or we are analogous to classical music, that is, a respected occupation for a narrow circle of people.

This seems to me to be a more promising path, especially considering the fact that it is claimed some half a billion schoolchildren are playing chess. And then there is TV. Which station do you want to get chess on? Is it Channel One, the Culture channel or the Sport channel? These are three different things, and one has to proceed differently, depending which one you are targetting. Like when the Paris Grand Prix was covered on Eurosport [the reference is to the PCA Grand Prix in 1995 – Whychess]. And then there is the internet, which is ideal; after all, TV is only watched by a limited number of people, in a limited number of countries. If we appear on the Russian TV channel, we will not be seen in America, etc. We have enough chess content, the important thing is that the commentators are able to bring it to an audience of club level players, and beginners or even those unable to play. It is ridiculous to complain that out of, say, 30 games, five are boring – OK, but 25 are interesting!

What role should the World Champion play in this?

- None!

You mean, as in tennis, he should just play well, full stop?

- He should play well. Because we remember, again, I do not want to be misunderstood, Kasparov was world champion. He was an incredible star. But in a year, there were three tournaments – Wijk aan Zee, Linares, and then half a year later, Dortmund, and that was all, there were no other tournaments. Now we can watch several tournemnts a week.

There are more now because of the internet?

- For that reason and because we have fewer conflicts.

Chess has positive connnotations in the minds of those people who put up the money.

After the match, you became a national hero in Israel. I heard that some sort of budget was announced, devoted to the development of chess in the country. Can you tell us more about that?

- An excellent question. As far as I know, these resources will be entirely devoted to supporting chess clubs in less-developed cities.

Such as?

- In Israel, there is a big imbalance between Tel Aviv, Haifa…and several others. Dimona, Nitpe-Ramon, Maalod, that is small cities, where there is little work and other things. Last year, in 9 similar cities, a project called "Chess in Schools" started, with education on a faculty basis, but in amongst a great many programs, people can choose. In the school attended by my daughter, who is in the second class, chess is compulsory, and in our home town, it is taught in 25% of kindergartens. Soon, the Minister of Education will decide whether to continue this experiment.

Arshak Petrosian once told me in an interview that in Armenia, chess is compulsory from the second to the fourth class. It seems to me that this should be a model for all countries.

- This is true, but among them chess is the national game. This is shown by the fact that the president of the federation and a patron of the game is also the President of the country.

Chess is also the national game in Russia, Ukraine, Israel...

Not to the same extent! In Armenia, even when you walk along the street, people ask you, a foreigner, about chess. "How did you get on?", "What do you think of Morozevich's position?", etc – this you are asked in every café.

It is hard to tell the chicken from the egg in this respect.

- That is right. But now we saw that in Eilat, it was impossible to walk the streets without being asked, on every corner or even at bus stops. Now there is such a peak of interest that they are considering opening a chess department at one of the university campuses. In particular, for scientific studies on the effect of chess on children and the elderly, those suffering from Alzheimer's.


What is a typical day like for Boris Gelfand?

- I get up at about 10.00 in the morning.

And earlier during a tournament?

- Well, during a tournament, my main aim is to get to breakfast. If it is till 11.00, I get up for breakfast. Of course, one needs time to sleep, prepare, revise sharp variations. So at Wijk aan Zee, for example, I find it hard, because the round starts there at two o'clock.

OK. And when you are not playing?

- I get up at 10.00, do some exercises, have breakfast, go for a walk. After this, I go on the internet and read the news.

Chess news?

- That too, but there is not much of that. Unfortunately, 20 minutes a day is enough time to read it all. Somewhere around midday, I start studying chess, solve a few positions.

So you have not yet got to openings?

- I start studying them around 3.00pm, when Huzman and others arrive. But before that, I look at games, and see what other people are playing. Then I solve some studies and other positions.

You do this every day?

- Yes, virtually. It seems to me that this is a guarantee of longevity. Then I have lunch and at about 3.00, I sit down to study and do this until dinner at 8.00. Then I either go to sports training (recently, I have been playing table tennis) or go for a walk, read, watch football, play with the kids. But this is at intervals, one can't set norms with children between 2 and 4 years old! But in general, I play with the kids, and read. Then I go to bed.

At what time?

- Usually about 1.00am. After a tournament, of course, one sleeps longer.

So your main hobbies are reading, music, and football, is that right?

- Yes.

In music, you prefer rock?

- In recent times, I have been listening to classical, and going to concerts.

Which classical music in particular?

- In classical music, I cannot say who exactly, but I love going to concerts. I like their atmosphere, but at home I don't listen to classical music. Leva Aronian gave me some jazz CDs, which I like listening to.

Can you name your five favourite books?

- That is hard, but I can say I don't like works such as War and Peace. I prefer short stories – Somerset Maugham, Akutagawa, Chekhov. I recently became familiar with another colossal author – Kawabata.

I have read his The Master of Go.

- That is about us, isn't it? "The stone mountains", a wonderfu thing. My problem is that I know very little about Japanese culture. I am sure his works are rather deeper than I understand. When he writes "Cherry Blossom" or "Gingko Blossom", I am sure these mean a great deal to the Japanese. Then I went on to Latin American writers, starting with Nobel laureate Vargas Lhosa's "Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter". Right now, I have the impression that amongst Nobel prizewinners, he is the only one whom one can read.

Who do you like amongst contemporary prose writers?

- Amongst Russian-language writers, Pelevin, his later works.

He is very much a chess writer – the great majority of grandmasters like him.

- Well, Makanin is a first-category player, he includes some chess element in every book. Amongst contemporary European writers, I have read about one book by each, but it is hard to remember the titles.

Probably Wellbeck?

- I am about to come to him, I have his book lying on the table.

Do you like films?

- No! I can say why: chess demands such concentration, that I cannot focus on something else for an hour and a half.

You can't follow the intricacies?

- That is right. It is an unpleasant feeling, when you sit like a fool and react only to the words, even though it is clear that some master director is trying to describe something important in this film.

What are you gastronomic preferences?

- О! An excellent question! I prefer fish to meat.

Despite the fact that you are from Belarus?

- From there, I get my love for potatoes. Strangely, I also like Italian food and other Mediterranean cooking. And also Japanese.

What about drinks? Do you drink alcohol?

- In small quantities, when there is a special occasion. I like good wine.

Have you ever been drunk?

- A couple of times, but I still managed to control myself. I couple of times I was close to not doing so, but Zhenya Bareev saved me. As far as non-alcoholic drinks go, I like pomengranate juice, I became addicted to it in Eilat.