Text: Evgeny Atarov
Photos: Alexander Ipatov's archive
The latest World Junior Champion always provokes interest. Who is he, where did he come from and what new trends will he bring to chess? Should we expect a further breakthrough or is he a king for a day, set to vanish back into obscurity a few months later and never be heard from again?!
The general impression and opinion is that the Ukrainian Alexander Ipatov, who played the tournament under the Turkish flag, is a player “with a future”, one we’ll hear much more about. True, you can’t call Alexander a chess prodigy like Carlsen or Karjakin, but when you get to know him a little better it immediately becomes obvious: he’s really got his head screwed on. He’s perfectly capable of “calculating variations” and making the correct choice, both on and off the chessboard. Ipatov is hard-working and determined, and even if it turns out he’s not fated to become World Champion Alexander is unlikely to make a tragedy out of that – he’ll unquestionably find himself in something else, where you can count on his reaching the top.
For now chess comes first for him, and he’s making every effort to achieve as much as he can. It would be foolish to abandon an ambitious dream when you’re 19 and have only just become the “chess prince”. Alexander Ipatov – remember that name!
First of all, how valuable and prestigious is the title of World Junior Champion nowadays? Do you feel as though you’ve achieved something special by winning in Athens?
I think the title of World Champion is cool in itself, but so far it hasn’t entirely sunk in that I’ve won it. For now it only feels as though I’ve won a strong open… I’m also very glad that I’ve qualified for the 2013 World Cup.
So you haven’t yet got the sensation that you’ve joined the ranks of Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Anand and Ivanchuk, who also became “chess princes”?
For the moment I don’t feel very comfortable alongside such famous chess players… With the exception of Ivanchuk they all went on to become adult World Champions as well. For now I’d like to get into the world’s Top 100, and then it’ll be possible to look higher…
Have you thought about how this victory might change your life?
I hope I’ll start to get more invitations to round-robin tournaments, and the terms I’m offered to play in leagues might improve…
Do you consider yourself a complete chess player or do you still need to “learn and learn”?
I think it’s simply obligatory for people to keep learning over the whole course of their lives… A person who doesn’t strive to improve deteriorates. Well, and in terms of chess it first and foremost wouldn’t do any harm to tighten up my openings: in the last three white games at the World Championship I came out of the opening worse.
You play a lot in various leagues and in Swiss events… How much harder is it to play against your contemporaries after you’ve got used to playing against adults?
A good question! I think that whoever you compete against the main thing is to play chess rather than to try and grind out a win “on class”. In this tournament I played the way I usually do and wasn’t afraid to go for dynamic positions against younger players.
How did you rate your chances before the start of the tournament?
Of course I realised I wasn’t the favourite! That meant I was under no psychological pressure, which I was very grateful for. Nevertheless, I set myself a goal: to score +7 without losses, which ultimately was what I managed. Just as I expected, that was enough to take first place. I guessed right!
Why didn’t you consider yourself the favourite?! And who did you consider that to be?
Above all Ding Liren, Yu Yangyi, Zherebukh and Shimanov. They were the main contenders for victory, while I didn’t consider the Hungarian Rapport to be a contender.
So you’d already singled them out for victory, but what about your thoughts on +7 and first place?
But it’s an objective thing… I thought and continue to think that Ding Liren plays better. I always have critical games against Yaroslav (it’s something like the Barca – Real clash in football), where things are usually decided not by the level of play but a struggle of nerves. Well, and I simply consider Aleksandr a very strong chess player. If he also had a more serious attitude to chess he’d probably long since have been a 2700 player…
Do you consider yourself self-confident or are you prone to underestimating yourself?
I think I’m reasonably self-confident, although in the last games it was precisely self-confidence I was lacking… Finding myself in first place I was already afraid of going for complications, although in the last round I simply wasn’t given a choice: my opponent really wanted to beat me and straight out of the opening he went for a direct attack.
Did your impression of the strength of your rivals coincide with what happened in the tournament? Or does one tournament show nothing…
In the case of the Chinese players it did coincide: Ding Liren didn’t lose a single game and demonstrated a very high quality of chess, although overly solid play prevented him from scoring more points. Yu Yangyi, in turn, also played in his own style: he went on the rampage with both White and Black. He started off well, but towards the end of the tournament he “dropped off”. Things simply didn’t work out for Shimanov and Zherebukh, so I think it’s true that one tournament doesn’t indicate anything. For some people everything came together, for others it didn’t…
Was there anyone who particularly surprised you, who outdid himself?
The Chinese player Wei Yi! He’s only 13 years old but his live rating is already 2450. He was the one who inflicted the only defeat on Rapport and cleared my path to victory.
Nothing else surprised you over the course of the tournament?
Nothing in particular. As I said, it was an open…
You said you had a plan for the tournament. Does such “planning” help and how do you react when it proves impossible to implement a plan?
To be honest, it was the first time in my life I’d set myself a concrete goal for a tournament. Before that I simply tried to play well… I think if a plan doesn’t work out you need to take a deliberate decision to think up another plan. Being overly stubborn isn’t the best quality in chess, as you always need to be able to manoeuvre.
How did you score your +7, and when did you experience the turning point in the tournament when you realised you could become champion?
In the first four rounds it was all very simple as the difference in class was just too great. I think in this tournament I only beat one really dangerous opponent – Nils Grandelius, in the 6th round with Black. Philidor would have been happy: I managed to crush my opponent with pawns alone. The turning point, meanwhile, came after the game with Ter-Sahakyan in the 9th round: I ended up worse with White in the opening and then spent the whole game trying to escape. Samvel conducted the whole game at the very highest level, but at the end he failed to make a move after which I’d simply have had to resign. I don’t think I deserved a draw, but after managing to survive that hopeless position I realised fortune was on my side – and I was obliged to fight for nothing other than first place!
So there’s no need to ask which game you consider your best?
No, the one against the Swede. I really respect Nils both as a personality and a chess player. I was very glad I managed to beat him. I think I’m quite good at getting to the bottom of dynamic positions, and against Nils that quality really helped me. Incidentally, that turned out to be his only loss. Ultimately he shared 3rd-4th place.
To what degree did that game reveal your strong points? And in general, who do you consider yourself to be in chess – a romantic or more of a practical player?
I think I’m more practical than romantic. Or rather I don’t think that, I’m sure about it. That quality was particularly evident in the 12th round, when I had Black against the 13-year-old Chinese player. Although his rating is only 2418 I decided to play to squeeze the life out of the game, so as not to take any unnecessary risks. I’m only romantic in life, and rarely at that.
What did you feel when you realised you were the champion? Or have you already become used to victories?!
(After a pause) What I want to say is that… it was the first victory of my career! Before this I’ve never taken first place in a tournament at the classical time control, although I’ve led many of them before the final round, for example Cappelle la Grande.
Before the last game (against Shimanov) I was very nervous, as I was afraid my nerves might let me down at the most inappropriate of moments … I was really helped by the support of those close to me – my mother, girlfriend, coach, friends and of course the Turkish Chess Federation, whose representatives have right from the beginning provided all the conditions for my success. At some point I simply realised I didn’t have the right to let people down. I drank some coffee and went off to shuffle the pieces around! I realised I was champion when my trainer hugged me.
It was the first victory of your career?!
Yes! I’m not used to victories at all, although it’s probably high time…
Studying your “childhood” biography all the second places really do jump out at you … In the Ukrainian Championship alone you took “silver” four times! It’s amazing you hadn’t won once until now. You must have been overwhelmed with emotions?
That’s not the word for it! I wanted to embrace the whole world. I’d like to dedicate my victory to my dad, who unfortunately didn’t live to see it. He passed away in May this year… A huge thank you also goes to my mum – from the moment I was born she supported and protected me, and also to my girlfriend, who inspired me with her presence… After all, the closer it got to the end the tougher it became, and when a real fight began she really supported me, for which I’m incredibly grateful. I want to thank a lot of people…
Keep going – now’s your chance!
I’d also like once more to express my gratitude to the Turkish Chess Federation, and also personally to Ali Nihat Yazici for his great support and faith in me. I’m convinced the transfer to the Turkish Federation was one of the most important and correct decisions of my career. I’d like to thank all my coaches: Efstratios Grivas (he was in Athens and was a great help with the openings and psychological preparation), Miodrag Perunović (he supported me by e-mail and gave valuable advice), Mikhail Kozakov, Viktor Zhelyandinov and Viktor Shcherbakov. Before the championship I also had a training session with Sergei Tiviakov in Turkey. His tips helped… Besides that, during the tournament itself Pavel Eljanov also supported me, for which I’m very grateful to him.
A genuine World Championship match team!
And that’s still not everyone. Special thanks to Anton Mikhailov, the Chessdom website and also Yasin Emrah Yagiz, who really helped out in my career. Thanks also to the clubs I play for: İstanbul Teknik Üniversitesi (Turkey), C.E.Barberà (Spain), SK Turm Emsdetten (Germany) and “Law Academy” (Ukraine). Also a huge thank you to all the organisers of the championship: the Greek Chess Federation and Georgios Makropoulos personally, Nigel Freeman and George Mastrokoukos. Everything was at the very highest level!
I’d like to ask: and what about the Ukrainian guys you knew and played with as a child? Did they congratulate you on your victory and encourage you during the tournament?
Of course they congratulated me, but I’m not sure how heartfelt it was… I don’t have any illusions about that… Not all the people who congratulated me really wanted me to win. Life is tough, and thankfully that’s something I understood quite early on.
Ah, I forgot to add that I was really inspired by a video selection of goals by my favourite football club – Barca. I never get tired of watching them.
Do you try to play in their style?
In chess there are very few capable of that. It’s more for inspiration! In order to play in that style you need to have a very high footballing culture.
And what about chess culture? Do you consider yourself a pupil of the “Soviet School of Chess”? Or in the computer age is it the same everywhere?
No, why? I wanted to mention it myself but forgot! I grew up exclusively on Soviet chess literature… Now I use a computer, but in my view books gave me much more when it comes to understanding chess.
On your own website you write that your dad worked with you when you were 4 years old. What was that – a conscious desire to turn you into a chess player, or was it simply that you got hooked on a childhood game?
My father once studied under the famous trainer Viktor Kart. He was the one who taught Beliavsky, Mikhalchishin, Romanishin and Litinskaya. So I assume my dad did nevertheless hope that I’d become a stronger chess player than he was himself. He taught me the rules and worked a little with me, but it was my mum who took me to the club.
Did they somehow push you into playing chess?
As a child I preferred more entertaining games like football or cards – so sometimes my parents simply forced me to sit down at the chessboard. When I grew up a little, however, I began to do it voluntarily…
“Voluntarily” is quite a stern word for a teenager! Did you never regret choosing the path of a professional chess player?
The path of a chess professional is very thorny and thankless, but I regret nothing. I’m ready to elbow my way upwards, given the world is so cruel and there’s no other way…
By the way, did you ever get to see Kart himself? Or to meet his pupils informally, if your father studied with them?
I saw Viktor Emmanuilovich in June 2009: there was a blitz tournament in Lviv in honour of his 80th birthday. He’s a very polite and pleasant man to talk to. As for his students, I recall Adrian Bogdanovich Mikhalchishin giving me a couple of lessons. Back then he selected some very interesting topics like “knight against bishop”. The things he showed me really were a great help, and I can still recall some of the patterns and conclusions. And this year at a tournament in Sarajevo I shared 4th-5th place with Beliavsky, although unfortunately I didn’t talk to Alexander Genrikhovich personally…
Perhaps I’d have seen more of them if my dad had been a chess player, but after all he left Kart’s group when he was 9 or 10 years old. As far as I know, however, he later talked to his students quite a lot, but no longer about chess topics.
When you realised you had a talent for chess did you test yourself out in other sports or intellectual games?
No, I always believed in my ability. As did my parents … If something didn’t work out I realised it was all temporary. And as for other things, I’ve always enjoyed playing football and table tennis, but at an amateur level, of course.
Lately I’ve taken a real interest in motivational and business literature. I read in my free time and widen my horizons. That really helps…
Do you have a goal in chess, something you want to achieve? Becoming World Champion, perhaps? Or is chess more of a trampoline for your future life?!
I think that’s a rhetorical question. Everyone wants to become World Champion… It’s something I want deep down and I’ll strive towards it. If I’ve become World Junior Champion then why not try for the adult title?! At the moment I’m planning on playing chess professionally, but you always need to have an alternative option. Now, for example, I’m studying at the Yaroslav the Wise National Law Academy in Kharkov.
The Law Academy has always been renowned for its loyal attitude to chess. Pavel Eljanov, Alexander Moiseenko, Valeriy Aveskulov, Alexander Kovchan and many other famous grandmasters graduated from there. I was offered a free education, so I agreed. It’s not bad to have a law degree to fall back on!
Do you think you’ll ever work in that field?
It’s unlikely, but anything’s possible in life. After all, the competition in any sport is colossal, but I’ll say it again: I’m not bad at elbowing people out of the way and I’m ready to climb.
So in the 15 years you’ve been playing chess you haven’t managed to get bored of it?
I’ve also got other interests. I wouldn’t say I wake up thinking about chess and fall asleep with the same thoughts. As long as I enjoy playing chess that’s what I’ll do. I’m not going to pretend: chess doesn’t take up my whole life (the way it does, for example, for Ivanchuk), I’ve got a lot of different interests and I’m glad to be alive. Life is wonderful!
I clearly understand, however, that chess is the main thing for me just now. For example, I feel enormous fatigue after the World Championship, but I nevertheless can’t wait for the Olympiad. I want to help the team to a home triumph.
You write that you know four languages and play in leagues and tournaments in different countries – do you love travelling so much or is that simply how it worked out?
Now I’m intensively learning a fifth – Turkish. Yes, I really like to travel and meet people. I dream about visiting Australia and New Zealand. Well, and my favourite place on earth is the Nou Camp. Football is a religion in Catalonia…
Barca are really something! I’ve been lucky enough to go to six matches, and on one occasion that was El Clasico against Real, when Barca won 3:2 in the 2011 Super Cup. The Nou Camp is a holy place and everyone who loves football is simply obliged to visit.
Could you tell us how you ended up in Spain? It seems you were confidently rising to the top in the Ukrainian Championships, when suddenly – bam! – you changed federation…
It wasn’t sudden. While I was still representing Ukraine the chess federation was run according to strange principles. In general, they didn’t think about chess players as individuals, but only about how to live off them. Things have improved now: a new president is in place and the national team has a good trainer. It seems to me that the chess federation is now in good hands and I’m very glad about that.
And how did I end up in Spain? I was invited to play for a club and then they made me an offer to change federations. I didn’t need long to think about it. I started playing under the Spanish flag…
But you didn’t move anywhere?
No! I always lived in Ukraine, but I simply started to visit Spain more often – roughly 2-3 months a year. I played for a club and in local tournaments, although not so often.
Life’s in full swing there? The club system, constant Swiss tournaments…
Yes, Spain fulfils all the requirements for chess amateurs, but just not for professionals. In summer the lion’s share of the world’s chess tournaments are held in Spain, and particularly in Catalonia. Unfortunately, however, that’s all Swiss tournaments with a prize fund of no more than €10,000. There are exceptions, of course, but not many.
On the other hand, many strong players compete for the clubs: Anand, Topalov, Shirov…
That’s true. From 2007 to the present day I play for the Catalonian C.E.Barberà. I’m grateful to the club president Victor Pont, who’s done a lot for me. And among top players I’m acquainted with Alexei Shirov, who’s in fact my idol! He’s a wonderful person and a brilliant chess player. Actually, I can’t say that what I like most about Alexei is his style of play. For me he’s an idol more on a human level: he doesn’t boast and he treats everyone as an equal. That’s a very important quality in a sportsman.
I’ve also seen Anand and Topalov many times and I know where they live, but unfortunately I’m not personally acquainted with them. Perhaps at some point I’ll get to know them.
So Spain is clear, but how did you end up among the ranks of the Turkish Federation?
I received a personal invitation from the president and didn’t hesitate at all. You only get a chance like that once in a lifetime. It’s always pleasant to work with professionals like Yazici and his team. He’s actively helped and supported me.
In what ways?
In everything! There are a lot of aspects… He has ambitious plans and I'm very glad about that. In recent years it’s been one of the world’s most dynamic federations. They’ve made a real leap forward and continue to develop.
I was able to see that perfectly from their attitude to me, and the concern and willingness to do everything they can so the players are as comfortable as possible.
What’s included in your contract? Playing for the national team?
That’s part of it, and I can’t wait to play. It’s a great honour!
Seeing as we’re talking about Yazici it’s hard to avoid mentioning the scandal concerning his relationship with and prosecution of Atalik… What do you think about that?
I’m not very familiar with the situation, but as far as I know Atalik has bad relations with all the players on the Turkish Olympiad team. I’d also like to note that that’s on his initiative. Draw your own conclusions, as they say…
But you’re satisfied with how your chess career and personal life are going?
Apart from the death of my father things are simply going wonderfully for me!
If you were granted three wishes what would they be?
A long and healthy life for all my friends and loved ones, and that would do no harm for me as well. My second wish is to play football in the same team as the Barca players. And the third? To be a happy person and simply enjoy life!
Alexander Ipatov: “I’m ready to elbow my way upwards!”