Text: Evgeny Atarov
Teimour Radjabov can perhaps consider himself the main loser at the Tal Memorial. How can that be, you ask? He shared second place with Caruana and had excellent chances of ending up first. That, however, is the point! His conversion of “goalmouth incidents” wasn’t up to scratch – he could and should have scored far more.
However, the Azerbaijan grandmaster took a philosophical approach to his obvious failures: if it didn’t work out this time it’ll work out in future. You can hardly criticise his play, and Radjabov proved he’s earned his position in the world Top 5 – and not only in terms of rating.
Radjabov will have a chance to fulfil his ambitions in March next year when he’ll compete for the right to throw down the gauntlet to Vishy Anand in the Candidates Tournament in London. It seems, though, that the race between the potential candidates has already begun…
Evgeny Atarov: What was the overall impression you were left with after this Tal Memorial? Annoyance that you had so many chances, failed to convert them and ultimately seriously underscored?
Teimour Radjabov: Yes, it was annoying, particularly in the last three rounds. I think even at this level I was simply obliged to score at least +1 in them and share or take first place. At the very least my play at this tournament merited +2 … Against Caruana in the 7th round I simply had a won position, while against Aronian in the 8th I had a big edge and White could have converted the extra pawn much better. Then today against Nakamura I also had chances.
Yes, if you go through the games at the Memorial the impression is that I failed to pick up a lot of points and didn’t gain many I shouldn’t have. If you take my only loss against Carlsen: I did almost all the technical things necessary to save half a point. All that remained was to switch to any 2 vs. 1 rook ending – calculate it all and simply end the game in a draw. I played the only move which, in my view, doesn’t draw – Kc2. I don’t know, some kind of blackout.
What was your impression after the first two rounds? That you were in good form and “needed to crush” the tournament?
- No, I didn’t think that. It was a normal start, nothing special.
Yes, +2, but after all in those games against Tomashevsky and McShane I didn’t do anything special. I took my chances and nothing more. I was happy with the outcome – hitting two out of two!
It’s nice to start a tournament with two wins, but I understood that it was going to get tougher. I had quite a decent edge against Kramnik, but he managed to wriggle out of it successfully.
You think he managed?
- We looked at that position immediately after the game and then I investigated it at home as well. I didn’t get the impression that I acted incorrectly. Yes, White is up an exchange, but his pieces are somehow scattered across the board and he lacks coordination, while Black has everything in place. Perhaps the decision not to continue play was premature, but at the time it seemed to me that taking a draw was the best practical decision.
Didn’t that draw knock you out of your “rhythm”?
- No, it didn’t… I thought Kramnik was simply obliged to give up the exchange and play that position. Most likely I slightly overestimated Black’s chances and White probably has a pleasant position, but… Again, with the time I had left it could all have gone either way. There were issues everywhere, and the position was pretty complex. Of course if I’d started with 3 out of 3 that would have been great. But saying that game was some kind of turning point for me is incorrect…
That left a very unpleasant aftertaste, because it was just too clear a win!
Do you consider your good result at the Tal Memorial to be evidence that you’re playing well or that your opponents weren’t particularly lucky in their games against you?
- I simply fought the way I do in all the other tournaments.
Here a rule was in place that you couldn’t agree to draws before the 40th move, so all the unclear positions were played out until the end and, correspondingly, there were more decisive games than usual.
I think a lot of people had a chance of a good result at this tournament. First I had +2, then Morozevich had +3, then he was caught by Kramnik and then, a round before the end, Caruana moved into clear first place…
…Well, and then as usual the tournament was won by Carlsen!
- Yes, the fight for first place was interesting. No-one in the tournament had a shortage of interesting positions where they underscored or, on the contrary, overscored. Usually everyone considers they might have had more! Everyone had chances.
The fact that almost 50% of the games at such a level finished decisively…
- …That’s normal for a situation in which people are fighting to the end. Whether they do it by themselves or they’re spurred on by the regulations isn’t important. Of course, the average rating of the players was very high for such a high number of decisive games. From the point of view of chess fans I think the tournament was simply fantastic. For the players – it was above all a case of frayed nerves and enormous stress. At the same time, however, it was satisfying to show everyone that the draw death of chess isn’t a threat in the immediate future. In my view there’s a very long way to go until we get to that! Things really aren’t as people said after some of the tournaments in Linares, when two decisive games a round was considered a real feast… You need to encourage the players to play for a win in every game.
It was a vivid and interesting tournament, and I’m very glad to have played in it…
Didn’t you have the impression that after quite a mediocre World Championship match the potential contenders for the throne had roused themselves and there was already an undercurrent of rivalry between them?
- No. I think when you get any tournament which gathers together so many players from the Top 10 they always take a very principled approach to the games against each other… If there’s a rivalry then it’s one that never stops! It’s not so important how the World Championship match ended. At the end of the day, we weren’t playing for the ticket here.
I recall how Wijk aan Zee once arranged a tournament in which I think nine of the Top 11 were playing – a crazy line-up! People sat at the tables… like portraits. First place back then was taken by three of us – myself, Aronian and Topalov.
At the Tal Memorial the percentage of top faces was slightly lower, and above all that was due to the “rotation” of the Russian players and the absence of Anand.
- I think if Anand, Ivanchuk and Karjakin had played here then the struggle wouldn’t have been any less fierce. Everyone was fighting and wanted to take first place!
Everyone wants a bite…
Are you disappointed Bazna has gone?
- That’s what I had in mind when I said there were fewer tournaments. There’s no Linares, no Monaco. There isn’t even Sofia, which for a few years in a row ran an excellent tournament. And now Bazna. You have to treat your chances more carefully now!
Are you worried that for reasons that don’t depend on you (and the reasons for a lack of interest in one player or another always remain unknown) you might fall out of fashion?
- That’s simply not something I think about. I just try to show my best wherever I play. I’ve never had any doubts about my dedication…
You’ll probably say it’s none of your business to rate yourself, but could you say what place you think you now occupy in the chess hierarchy?
- I don’t ask myself such questions. If you judge purely on ratings then I’m something like fifth or sixth in the world, and moreover, my rating is no accident and wasn’t picked up in any opens – I’ve exclusively been playing tournaments with a strong line-up, against the chess elite.
I just thought now: I’ve already been playing in major tournaments for around ten years, as when I was 14 I played my first Dortmund. It’s the eleventh year now! All those Linares, Wijk aan Zees… There wasn’t any serious period when I fell out of the Top 10. Of course I had unsuccessful stretches, but who doesn’t! My rating’s no invention and reflects the results of my play against the world’s best chess players…
Have you lost your ambition over those ten years?
- Not in the slightest! It’s the same as it was when I was 14. I want someday, and I’m doing everything I can, to become World Champion… I also want to become the no. 1 in the world, but for that there’s still a lot I need to do.
Doesn’t the fact that you’re a little older than Carlsen make the situation more difficult?! Above all, everyone’s expecting him to be the one who becomes World Champion…
- Considering all the players in the elite are older than he is I don’t think it makes the situation any more difficult for me.
You simply need to do everything in your power without thinking about where that will lead. Carlsen has, of course, been playing at a very stable level recently…
If you take this tournament: it seems as though he didn’t do anything special, but nevertheless he took first place. It’s great that he not only manages simply to win, but also to keep his rating. Maintaining that 2835 while playing in all the major tournaments isn’t so easy. I’d say it’s excellent that there’s a player like Carlsen. In order to beat him you need to do a great deal. You need to work, put all your effort into the struggle and so on.
Do you feel you’ve got that potential?
- I’d say I’ve got the desire to do it. If it’ll work out or not, I don’t know, but I’m not planning on giving in. Carlsen’s very strong, but I wouldn’t say he’s invincible.
Do you think that in order to finally overcome him it might be worth, perhaps, modifying your style?
- And what’s wrong with my style?
After all, you mainly play “counterattacking” chess, “on the break”, in footballing terms. And your results also bear that out …
- I’m familiar with that opinion, but I think it’s probably a little out of date. Recently I’ve actually won a lot of games with White. I can’t give you the exact number, but before the European Team Championship in Rogaska Slatina I’d won nine in a row! And again, that was winning against elite players: Ponomariov, Bacrot, Jakovenko…
Recently the trend of my play has noticeably altered – I’ve been scoring a lot with White and not so much with Black. In Wijk aan Zee I won two games with White and one with Black. And in China I was winning with White as well.
What’s behind that?
- To a certain degree it’s down to my opening repertoire. I’ve started to play the Queen’s Gambit, where you don’t particularly get counterattacks. Ok, I won with Black against Svidler, but that opening was more “on the rebound”. I work constantly on my play and improving my opening preparation.
And during those ten years that you’ve already been competing at the top level have you started to love chess less than you did before?! Hasn’t it turned into work for you, something that although pleasant forces you to exert yourself?
- No! (an instant, and almost angry response) Of course chess is a pleasure for me! Yes, it involves great nerves and endurance, particularly when you don’t manage to show what you’re capable of, but nevertheless it remains a huge pleasure for me. Otherwise I don’t think you’d be able to play at such a level. If you have to force yourself and you don’t enjoy playing and working on chess then nothing will help you, no amount of talent. You need to love chess as otherwise it’ll all be in vain.
I probably even love chess more now than I did before! Previously it was often accompanied by enormous stress, and sometimes I had to force myself – when you’re 14-15-16 years old it’s incredibly tough to play against great chess players. All the time you have to show some kind of results, and you always have to prove yourself and try to beat them…
It’s different now?
- Now I realise that I simply want to post good results. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win just as much as before, I want to become World Champion, but I’ve got far more of a basis for that than before. Chess is rewarding me, and I really like that.
Besides, as you grow older your philosophy and approach to life gradually alter. I try to change and constantly seek out something new for myself… I’d say I’m even more interested in chess that I was 5-7 years ago, never mind 10.
Your aspirations in life haven’t changed with age?
- No! I haven’t lost my previous drive to get the best possible results. I can’t even imagine how it could be otherwise!
But how will things go in future – we’ll see…
Teimour Radjabov: “I simply fought the way I always do!”