Text: Vlad Tkachiev
I must admit I couldn’t wait for my first interview in my new capacity. I was intrigued both by what was an unfamiliar genre for me, and by the personality of the man being interrogated – Alexander Grischuk. We’ve seemingly been good friends for seven years now, but it would be an obvious exaggeration to say I know him well, as there are topics, and quite a lot of them, which he never talks about, regardless of the company or his own mood. Well, if that’s the case, then my mission was extremely clear – to expose this mysterious personality using all the means at my disposal. And that’s what I was happy to set about doing…
Vladislav Tkachiev: Sasha, like it or not, there’s just no way I’m going to be able to avoid asking you about Kazan – people wouldn’t understand. Did you really consider yourself such a clear favourite in rapid and blitz? You were probably recalling your results in the matches in Monaco against Aronian (1.5–0.5) and Kramnik (2–0), while not forgetting your blitz score against Volodya (5–1)?
Alexander Grischuk: No, I didn’t consider myself a clear favourite. Firstly, my score against Aronian in blitz is negative, and I didn’t even remember that 5–1.
V. T.: But you’ve possibly got the best nerves in the chess world. I don’t know another player who could regularly, like you do, leave himself a single second for a move, while never losing on time!
A.G.: Probably only lazy people have failed to write about that draw in eight moves with White. But you have to understand, in a situation where I was getting almost nothing with the white pieces I could see only three options! The first was to make a draw cynically, which in the end is what I did. The second was again to fix a draw, by and large cynically, but by playing on, let’s say, until the 39th move, by which I mean pretending to play, but still with a 99% probability that it would end in a draw.
V. T.: Plus something might, nevertheless, go wrong.
A.G.: Yes, I might still blunder and lose. Well, and the third option – to go for a fully-fledged fight in a worse position. But why should I do that if the score was even? Everyone now keeps writing about that draw in eight moves. Well OK, but what about the Carlsen – Radjabov game just now, which lasted for around forty moves, although essentially there were zero moves there! Neither side had the slightest chance of winning or losing! So of course I could have pretended, while knowing there wasn’t a single chance, but I decided to do it my way.
And in general, I consider the tie-break system to have been quite idiotic. Four games in classical chess, four in rapid, but only two in blitz… It’s even worse at the World Cups: two classical games, then four rapid and then again, two blitz before Armageddon; what’s that supposed to be – 90-60-90?
V.T.: I’ve played a lot of matches under the knockout system and I understand your reasoning perfectly, and even more so when your strategy and results gave rise to talk about the death of classical chess.
A.G.: No, I talked about its burial, and after those famous short draws I went up to Kramnik and said: “I’ll bury rapid chess as well!” And then we burst out laughing.
V.T.: OK, so let’s now talk about the black pieces. I’ve got a strictly professional question for you: did you decide to play what was a new opening for you, the Grünfeld, because you were striving for concrete play from the very first moves, or because Svidler is the world’s best Grünfeld specialist?
A.G.: Well, first of all, the Grünfeld wasn’t linked to Svidler, but Svidler to the Grünfeld. And when I decided to play precisely that opening I invited Peter to be my second. Secondly, even before the matches I had the suspicion that I wouldn’t get anything with White, that there would be draws, and I liked the fact that the Grünfeld gave me the possibility of striking with the black pieces. It’s another story that in actual fact I only got three Grünfelds and eight English Openings. That, of course, was something I didn’t expect, as I presumed people would test me out in the full range of variations: 5.Qb3, 7.Bc4, 7.Bb5, 4.g3 and so on.
V.T.: But weren’t you afraid of failing to remember it all?
A.G.: I was, but in my case that problem can arise in any opening.
V.T.: You actually didn’t do badly at all with White in the final.
A.G.: In terms of openings – yes, in two games, while in the other I had to equalise immediately after 9…b5.
V.T.: By offering a draw!
A.G.: Yes, I was glad he agreed. Although the position is almost equal there, I’d have had to find the only clear path, as otherwise I’m simply worse.
V.T.: So here’s a question: your team included Svidler, who’d previously worked with Kramnik for many years, you were helped by Khismatullin, though he was almost simultaneously Jakovenko’s second. Finally, I somehow became involved in your team, although a few years before that I’d been connected to Peter Leko. Is Soviet paranoia really absolutely alien to you? Do you think that in our day, in a different country and society, it’s possible to trust people completely?
A.G.: Well, firstly it’s true that we do live in a different society, a much more mean-spirited one. But I only ever select people I trust.
I’d also like to say a little more about classical chess, as I thought a lot about it in Kazan. Imagine that in football the goal was twice as narrow. How would the majority of matches finish?
A.G.: OK. But then imagine another player comes along who represents a mixture of Messi, Bolt and Schwarzenegger, and then he starts to regularly run rings around half the team, and then the goalkeeper, and whack! A goal! His team would, of course, start to win continually. Great! But still, does that mean the goals should be that small? And so now we’ve got Carlsen. Despite often having bad positions with either colour he still manages to post great results. But that doesn’t mean nothing needs to be changed – reduce the time, widen the damn goals!
V.T.: I’m glad you’ve raised that very important topic yourself. Ilyumzhinov just announced the introduction of ratings for rapid and blitz chess from the 1st January, and holding World Championships for those forms to be followed by a match for the title of Absolute Champion. And in a couple of years’ time we’ll all see the outcome of the classical and “absolute” cycles, and we can assess the impact. If that’s how it’s going to be then it strikes me as very important that the blitz championship (I’m not too bothered about the fate of “active” chess) is as spectacular as possible, so that in two years’ time the devotees of classical chess can’t turn round and say: look, it’s just as we told you - blitz sucks and should crawl back under its rock. Which system do you think would be best for running such a championship? Do you agree with me that at any given moment only one game should be played on the stage?
A.G.: On the whole, yes. But that’s more suited to Grand Prix stages, the World Cup, or whatever it’s going to be called. But when you hold the final World Championship tournament four-game matches are too short, and it would be better to have eight or ten. In that case if you only played one match at a time then the early stages of the tournament might drag on too long, and we’d again have to return to the system of holding a two-week championship.
V.T.: OK, but in the PCA we still managed to play a whole stage of the Cup in three days, while here I’m talking about blitz!
A.G.: If you’re talking about blitz then I agree, it’s wrong to have four pairs of top-class players playing simultaneously.
V.T.: By the way, do you remember those PCA blitz tournaments which were held in the best venues in Paris, London, New York and Moscow, where the playing halls were jam-packed – in contrast to the current three wives and four seconds and, as we know, no-one else?
A.G.: I was very small back then, eleven or twelve, but it was very interesting. I remember the Kramnik-Polgar and Kramnik-Vyzhmanavin matches.
V.T.: Did you have the feeling that it was the dawn of a new era?
A.G.: No, back then I wasn’t yet capable of thinking in those terms.
V.T.: Let’s talk about the generic weakness of classical chess – the problem of cheating. You once told me that electronic gadgets were only half the problem, while there was still the good old crib sheet, which no-one was watching out for. Is there someone in particular you suspect of that at your elite level?
A.G.: In general I do have suspicions, but not now in Kazan. But well, if people even say that Botvinnik used them…
V.T.: I hadn’t heard that.
A.G.: Someone said that went on during his World Championship matches.
V.T.: But nevertheless, you’ve had suspicions?
A.G.: Certainly. And I couldn’t understand why no-one did anything about it, as after all a crib sheet in your pocket gives you a huge advantage, not as great as computer help, but still very significant.
V.T.: And can anything be done about it?
A.G.: Of course it can. Perhaps if…
V.T.: You sign a contract with NASA?
A.G.: But then the question arises, does the end justify the means? By which I mean you can shield the hall with metal sheeting, put metal detectors everywhere and check all the players. You can use tweezers to get into their ears, rummage around in less easily accessible places (he actually expressed himself differently – V.T.). But the question is: what are you doing it for?
V.T.: I’d like to touch on another important topic. I’m not really much of a boxing fan and out of all the great boxers of the past and present I’m only interested in Ali and Mike Tyson. We all know the kind of statements Ali made before and after matches, and how he used that to spark off public interest. It strikes me that’s something we’re really lacking in chess, and the only person who allows himself to do anything provocative is Nakamura, for example before his games against you. Is it something personal between you?
A.G.: I’ll start off by saying that in the whole story with Ali I find Frazier much more appealing in that regard.
V.T.: Who kept quiet…
A.G.: Who simply behaved decently.
V.T.: Yes, but in the public consciousness there’s now the Great Ali and the somewhat less famous Frazier!
A.G.: Generally speaking, I was brought up in the Soviet way and consider that to be absolutely ugly and undignified behaviour, so I’m amazed you find anything whatsoever to admire there.
V.T.: So can you tell us, nevertheless, about Nakamura? Was there a conflict of some sort between you on the ICC?
A.G.: There was.
A.G.: Already quite a long time ago now.
V.T.: So what happened? Did he behave badly?
A.G.: I think his behaviour was ugly and cowardly.
V.T.: More than once I’ve heard you say, in the most varied of situations, that you’re a fan of the Soviet Union. That’s quite an unusual thing to hear from someone from our generation, and particularly, no doubt, for western ears. What do you mean, after all: the USSR meant a totalitarian regime, the Gulag, militarism, and the list goes on. Could you clarify?
A.G.: I don’t like the word “fan”, but if you look at what’s happening to Russia now, then it’s clear we’re heading towards dismantling the system and destroying the country. For now the high oil prices are somehow allowing the country to exist, but if things keep developing the way they are just now then a sad ending is inevitable.
V.T.: There’s going to be a revolution?
A.G.: A revolution would be the best case scenario, while the worst would be the complete dismantling and collapse of the country. Recently I’ve been reading quite a lot and watching documentaries about the history of the Second World War and the so-called Cold War, after which I’ve come to the conclusion that, from 1945 onwards, a gigantic anti-Soviet propaganda machine started to operate, which was mainly, of course, American. It operated so effectively that the majority of people now truly believe the black-and-white picture of that period. It seems to me, however, that an awful lot of things were altogether different, and on the whole I’m currently more inclined to evaluate Stalin positively.
V.T.: And what is it you don’t like just now – the all-encompassing corruption?
A.G.: I don’t like that the world’s heading towards collapse. Looking at the USA’s trillion-dollar debts and what’s going on in Greece, you can’t help but recall that the Great Depression lasted for about 10 years and only ended with the Second World War. I’m worried that the situation now could develop along the same lines, although I can’t really imagine quite how the new Great War would look in conditions where a few countries possess nuclear weapons.
V.T.: Perhaps your point of view can, to a certain extent, be explained by your background, as after all, your grandfather is a famous physicist and academic? By the way, did he create the atom bomb?
A.G.: No, he couldn’t have created it as he was born in 1939. But in general, he’s the Vice President of the Russian Academy of Sciences for physics, mathematics and astronomy.
V.T.: And would it be possible to say you’re an adherent of conspiracy theories? When you hear about September 11th do you first think about Bin Laden, or is it again about Bush’s tricks? Or maybe it’s all much more complex than that?
A.G.: Well, it’s the conspiracy theory that’s more complex. After all, the most primitive thing would be to think that this guy Bin Laden was sitting up there in the mountains, stroking his beard and thinking about how to send planes into the Twin Towers, and how those would collapse afterwards. And then they went and killed him and immediately chucked him overboard into the sea, so that no-one would see a thing. After all, that official theory is absolute nonsense from the point of view of common sense, while the so-called “conspiracy theory” fully conforms to logical considerations.
By the way, when talking about democracy it would be good to remember what that is… Well yes, democracy comes from the Greek “power of the people”, but that’s just chewing gum! There are two pillars to the liberal idea: freedom of speech and human rights. But after all, in America there’s not a single television channel on which you can say that September 11th was staged.
V.T.: About a year and a half ago I heard that the Zeitgeist group, which is always going on about that, is the biggest on Facebook.
A.G.: Yes, of course you can write about that on the internet, particularly if nobody knows you and nobody reads you. I’m not claiming that immediately after that the FBI will trace your address and arrest you, but the major television channels will always be closed for those who want to say something like that. Let’s move on to human rights. Is it possible to talk about them if anyone suspected of terrorism can be sent to prison in Guantanamo? Democracy is a kind of utopia, a wonderful utopia, but it’s never been implemented, just as communism never has either. Two beautiful words, a set of letters, but with nothing to back them up.
Before the matches in Kazan I phoned my long-term coach, A. Bykhovsky, in order to wish him a happy birthday, and said: “Anatoly Avraamovich, surely you can see what’s going on in the world just now – it’s really the end of the road!” To which he replied, “Yes, Sasha, it is, I agree with you. But just don’t think about it – you only have to start doing that and you might go crazy. Simply play chess!” And that’s what I tried to do in Kazan.
V.T.: Now I’d like to talk a bit about your generation. I still perceive you as part of that latest wave, now occupying various rungs of the 2700-level. I’ve got the impression that it’s a generation that’s practical and tenacious, which largely explains its success. But how do you see it?
A.G.: Above all, that generation, and besides myself I include Aronian, Ponomariov, Jakovenko and Bacrot in it, has turned out to be very talented. The curious thing is that one of us is always breaking clear, but not for long: first it was Bacrot, then Ponomariov, then myself, and now Aronian. And Jakovenko as well found himself 5th in the world at one point.
V.T.: But that also means there wasn’t a new Kasparov among you.
A.G.: Yes, but you’ve got to understand that if you look at it in terms of gastronomic comparisons, then Kasparov is black caviar, the highest grade. Perhaps in the whole history of chess there’ve only been two others – Fischer and Karpov. And then you’ve got Anand – wonderful, luxurious caviar, but red. It’s the same with Kramnik and Aronian – fine red caviar of the highest quality. It’s not yet clear with Carlsen: he’s got the potential to change colour and enter the “deluxe” class.
V.T.: Seeing as we’re already resorting to metaphors, I really like comparing chess and tennis. Could you compare your 5-man wave to some generation in tennis?
A.G.: I don’t know.
V.T.: OK, then I’ll ask arbitrary questions: is Nakamura similar to Nadal?
A.G.: No, I’ve always thought Nadal was an improved version of Michael Chang.
V.T.: OK. Then who are you?
A.G.: I’m Safin.
V.T.: But then he’s a baseliner, and you started off with the English Attack, and there’s no opening you play better!
A.G.: Just so you know, out of the last 49 games I’ve won 3, lost 6 and drawn 40!!!
V.T.: Seeing as we’ve got on to stars from other sports, and I consider your generation to be very practical, didn’t you ever think about becoming a chess Beckham, as it seems you’ve got everything required for that?
A.G.: Let me start by saying that the rules of show business are completely alien to me. Well, and Beckham, of course, is a great footballer, but I’ve never particularly liked him. Although I don’t, of course, have as low an opinion of him as one great chess player, an ex-World Champion, who once told me: "Beckham, well, he's a greedy idiot. Abramovich just needs to tell him: "Bend over for a billion dollars...", and he'll bend over!"
V.T.: OK then, let’s talk a bit about personal matters. It’s well-known that you’ve got two homes – in Moscow and Odessa. Which do you prefer?
A.G.: What can you say? Odessa, as a city, is of course a better place to live than Moscow. A mild climate, no traffic jams. But the thing is, almost all my friends and relatives live in Moscow. If they moved to Odessa then I’d be happy to spend the whole year there.
V.T.: You and I have often spoken about literature. Could you name your five favourite authors?
A.G.: It’s very hard to say. But for example, there’s Dovlatov – a genius of a storyteller. In my childhood I read all of Conan Doyle, while recently I’ve been taken by a new author – Kolyshevsky. Of course Irvine Welsh, who wrote “Trainspotting”, is a wonderful writer. If I like one writer or another I try to read everything he wrote, which is what I did, for example, with Pelevin. I recently watched the film “Generation P” and realised what an act of genius it was to write that book 10 years ago. Now there are a lot of people who could do it, but back then…
V.T.: You and I have often discussed Limonov and Charles Bukowski.
A.G.: Anatoly Avraamovich and I once got into a conversation about Limonov, and I was stunned, given that my trainer’s 77 now, when he told me: “Whatever you think about Limonov, he’s probably the most brilliant writer of our time”.
V.T.: Let’s turn to music. If I’m not mistaken you started off from rock and then, via punk, you came to rap, right?
A.G.: Something like that. But the thing is that if, let’s say, I’m driving my car and hear classical music, then I also sometimes get enormous pleasure from it. Although I wouldn’t, of course, specifically go to a concert at the Opera House – that’s not my thing.
V.T.: Could you name your top-5 singles?
A.G.: Well, I’ll give it a go: “Everything’s going according to plan” by Yegor Letov, “Hit ‘Em Up” by 2Pac – it’ll be hard to make any sort of list. But OK, I fell in love with the song “Stan” by Eminem. “The Unforgiven” by Metallica is a sure thing. And then the final one can be “Wayward Horses” by Vladimir Vysotsky.
A.G.: Of course I remember Lenin’s remark that “cinema is the most important of the arts for us”, but for me literature and music are more important by a huge margin, while cinema lags behind somewhere in third place. And I’ve probably only been to the theatre a couple of times in my whole life.
V.T.: Are you perhaps, at times, autistic?
A.G.: In general chess players do have a tendency towards autism, and for some it’s bordering on a mental disorder.
V.T.: For who?
A.G.: You know perfectly well who yourself. Why offend people?
V.T.: Very well, then. I’d like to end, obviously, by asking you about your favourite drinks.
A.G.: Compote [a type of Eastern European fruit juice]. They’ve just opened a chain of restaurants with that name in Odessa. If we’re talking about drinks that are a little stronger – beer.
V.T.: Yes, but some like things a little more fiery!
A.G.: It’s hard for me to imagine how you can assess the taste of 40% drinks. It’s more that the effect they achieve is pleasurable. Out of those I prefer vodka, as I generally find clear drinks more agreeable, which means it’s a yes for the triad of vodka-gin-tequila. While for whiskey and brandy – it’s probably a no!
We decided it would be prudent to end our interview on that pleasant topic. It seems as though I did manage to achieve my goal after all – my provocations, antics and other “dirty” tricks paid off, and Alexander gave us a glimpse of himself from an unexpected angle. But even now am I able to say I know him well? That’s something I’m still not sure about.
Widen the damn goals!