Text: Evgeny Atarov
Photos: Fabiano Caruana’s archive
This slightly-built Italian came almost out of nowhere. However, the word “came” doesn’t fit him at all. He flew, he burst onto the scene… It seems it was only yesterday that Caruana was playing in endless Swiss and team tournaments, but today Fabiano is already competing on an equal footing with the world elite! Amazingly for modern chess he’s managed to bypass the stage of “feeder” or average round-robin tournaments – from rags to riches.
His biography will be more interesting than some novels. Having learnt to play chess at 10, by the age of 12 he and his parents took the decision to go professional – and he set off to seek his fortune in Europe. He studied with one coach, then another, then a third, changing cities and countries and stunning everyone with his ability to work hard and his thirst for chess knowledge. He absorbed it all like a sponge. And he played, and played, and played… Most adults wouldn’t have withstood such a crazy tempo of life, but this guy thought nothing of it!
And therefore few were surprised when he shot up by winning dozens of opens and children’s and team championships to appear before us as a “2700-player”, one afraid of no-one and ready to write a new page in chess history…
Caruana is a typical nihilist who wants to change the world. Will be manage? If Fabiano continues in the same spirit it can’t be ruled out that in a year or two we’ll be singing his praises and not those of Carlsen or Aronian. For now, however – let’s get acquainted.
Evgeny Atarov: Fabiano, do you remember the day you were introduced to chess and… do you regret at all today that you devoted yourself to this game?
Е.А.: A professional career at age 12?! Surely you’re exaggerating?
F.C.: No, by age 12 I was already working constantly and I began travelling to tournaments, so I don’t think it’s an exaggeration. It all happened quickly for me.
Е.А.: What else were you keen on in those years?
F.C.: As far as I recall I always did a lot of sport. Above all, that was squash, and also tennis. But that was all many, many years ago…
Е.А.: What was it that so attracted you to chess and made you choose it?
F.C.: It’s a very complex game. You can spend twenty years in a row studying it, but all the time you keep finding weaknesses in your play and constantly improving. I like to grow and learn new things… The more you learn the more you want to learn!
And if you take a close look at the strongest players it’s evident that among them are both players over 40 and very young guys… You can quickly achieve success in chess, but from some point onwards it becomes difficult to grow.
Е.А.: It used to be thought that chess teaches patience and you need to grow gradually!
F.C.: The appearance of computers has dramatically altered the situation. Now you can make progress quite quickly: on account of talent and constant study. But, after rising to a certain level, it becomes very, very hard to become stronger.
Е.А.: Do you feel the need to play and study constantly?
F.C.: Above all – to play! I can say that I get great pleasure from the feeling of rivalry. Training now involves a huge amount of work with computers, where you have to be the creative one. The machine is good at refuting, but you need to create yourself. What I like most is the process of playing, as my opponent and I are on a level playing field: he thinks up something, I think up something…
Е.А.: What goal do you set yourself when you sit down at the board: do you want to get pleasure from playing or to win a game and get a point on the score table?!
F.C.: For me chess is a struggle. Above all, I want to win. Of course I like it when I manage to create something special on the board: a beautiful idea or something it’ll be possible to look back on with pleasure…
Е.А.: In the USSR chess was considered a game that combined art, science and sport. And each of those areas had its adherents. Where do you fit into that?
F.C.: It’s hard for me to give a clear answer. Probably all of them together… Sometimes I have the urge to play creatively, I’m bursting with the desire to sacrifice something and attack. From time to time I think of myself as an investigator, particularly when I encounter something I don’t yet know. Then I sit down at the computer at home and analyse… But, of course, in most cases I’m a sportsman. The public demands results and wants to see you make the best move in any position. After all, it’s the sporting results that determine where you are in this world… I’m not hung up about the sporting side of our profession, but it has a serious influence on decision-making.
Е.А.: I haven’t followed chess life for a few years, but frankly I was amazed when I unexpectedly discovered an Italian chess player in the Top 100 list, and then higher and higher. I know Italians well – footballers, racing drivers, skiers and cyclists. But how has a chess player appeared and broken into the Top 10 in your absolutely non-chess country?
F.C.: I don’t have an answer. That’s probably also because I wasn’t born in Italy and I’m still only learning about my historical homeland. It should be noted, however, that there’s a real cult of sport in Italy, with many strong athletes in various sports.
Of course every boy in the country dreams of becoming a footballer. What about chess? I don’t even know… Perhaps it’s a turning point? Some kind of anomaly.
Е.А.: Before you there was a phenomenon in modern chess – Anand, who also grew into an outstanding player in a country without a serious chess tradition… What was it about you that made you decide to become a professional chess player at the age of 12?
F.C.: As I said before, at first I simply played for fun, but then I started to get better and better at it, and I thought: why not? I quickly became the best in my age group, and then I soon had more and more success.
Е.А.: What did your family think about your passion for chess?
F.C.: My parents would always have supported me whatever I did. For them the main thing was that their children were happy, and it wasn’t so important what exactly they did. They treated it normally when I said I wanted to be a chess player.
Е.А.: Do you have a big family?
F.C.: I’ve got a brother and sister, and they’re much older than me. My sister is 40, while my brother is even older. Each of them has their family, children…
Е.А.: Do any of them play chess?
F.C.: Only my father and brother, and just a little.
Е.А.: Have you ever played them?
F.C.: A couple of times, when I was still little. They weren’t desperately keen, and neither was I.
Е.А.: Nevertheless, many consider your father to be obsessed with his son’s career…
F.C.: I think that’s an exaggeration. My father really has done a lot for me and my development as a chess player, but I wouldn’t call him obsessed.
Е.А.: But isn’t travelling overseas for your career – first to Spain and then to Hungary – obsessive? You won’t find many such parents…
F.C.: My parents really wanted to help me fulfil my potential, and I’m grateful to them.
Е.А.: And what was your first step when you decided to become a chess professional?
F.C.: We realised that in order to succeed it was necessary to study a lot. At that point I didn’t fully understand what I needed. At first I tried to work on my own: using books and journals, and I spent many hours a day at the board.
I think that was a very important stage and I acquired the habit of working. Then I started to study with Bruce Pandolfini and Miron Sher – that was still in the States. Then I had a whole series of coaches, and I picked something up from each of them…
In the last two years I’ve been working closely and constantly with Vladimir Chuchelov. I’m very glad that I managed to persuade him to work with me and I hope we’ll work together for a long time to come. He’s a wonderful coach who knows a lot and is capable of inspiring you.
Е.А.: During your travels around Europe you managed to work with Alexander Chernin, Alexander Beliavsky and Yuri Razuvaev. Before that there was the good methodologist Boris Zlotnik. Would you describe yourself as a product of the Soviet School of Chess?
F.C.: I think that would be going a bit too far, but I took a lot from them and I still always remember their lessons when embarking on something new. You can never know too much…
Е.А.: And how would you describe your chess style? Are you a tactician, a strategist?!
F.C.: I wouldn’t assess it in such categories. It seems to me I’m a good fighter. I enjoy playing different types of position, both tactical and strategic. I can’t say there’s anything I avoid. I can attack on a board full of pieces or manoeuvre in a roughly even position, and I’ve got nothing against the endgame.
Е.А.: Of course that’s understandable nowadays, but how did you play when you were little?
F.C.: Oh, back then I preferred to attack all the time. I really loved sacrificing pieces to get at the enemy king. I played like that for quite a long time, but when I moved up it turned out that you can far from always win with a direct attack… I had to become universal, to learn to manoeuvre and defend and so on.
Е.А.: Do you have a chess idol?
F.C.: It’s hard to say… There are lots of strong players whose games I’ve studied. It’s not so easy to choose. Probably the ones who made the strongest impression on me were Kasparov and Fischer. I think they’re the two greatest players in history. I still know a lot of their games by heart, and I enjoy discovering something new.
Е.А.: Many children are literally in love with chess when they’re just starting out playing, but then gradually, as they keep working, that love disappears and is replaced by necessity. After long years of hard effort have you lost your love of chess?
F.C.: It’s undoubtedly hard to maintain that initial fascination for a whole lifetime. It’s the same story with me, but you can believe me when I say I’ve got no hatred of chess… Over the years I’ve begun to like some things in chess more, and some less, but I always find something special for me. I’m all right! Chess opens up a mass of enticing possibilities for a player. It’s enough to mention being able to see the world.
Е.А.: But nevertheless, what about love?
F.C.: Hmm… Probably yes. I’ve never thought about it, but since you ask, yes -
Е.А.: It’s well-known there are chess player investigators and practical chess players. I doubt it’s even worth asking with of those types Caruana is?
F.C.: You’re going to count me as a purely practical player?
Е.А.: That’s not the case?
F.C. : I like both paths in chess. Of course, from time to time I get lazy like everyone else and I’m far from always perfectly prepared for a game. And, undoubtedly, I’m drawn to chess as a game, as a confrontation. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in working on chess… I admire Kramnik and his ability to find diamonds where others see nothing at all, but I also like Carlsen’s approach. He often knows less than his opponents but he’s capable of generating a fight out of nothing…
Е.А.: What does a professional chess player need to do in order to keep growing?
F.C.: Above all, not to lower the demands you put on yourself. You have to work constantly without giving yourself breaks or concessions. It’s very important, in my view, to constantly maintain your form i.e. constantly to be in the game. You need to be “up to date”, and if you don’t sit down directly at the board you should study and follow what’s going on around you… You should keep improving, always finding and learning something new for yourself. If you’re talented and do all that you’ll keep growing. I don’t think there’s any other recipe for self-improvement.
Е.А.: Looking at you the question sometimes arises of where you get the strength to devote yourself to studying and playing like that? You don’t have any problems with energy?!
F.C.: Yes, chess demands a lot of energy. After you play a 7-hour game you’re often on the point of collapse from fatigue… That’s all true, but it’s not a problem for me. I don’t get as tired while playing as the others. I don’t know what the problem is here, and perhaps it’s a feature of my physiology. I quickly recover my energy.
Е.А.: Do you keep fit in any way? Exercise, weights, perhaps running?
F.C.: You can’t get by without that. I go to the gym and walk a lot…
Е.А.: Do you devote a lot of time to that?
F.C.: I try to do something every day.
Е.А.: Even during tournaments?
F.C.: That’s tougher, but I try…
Е.А.: How do you feel after playing 20 games in a month?
F.C.: It varies… From time to time it’s a problem, but sometimes you don’t even notice it. Constant work has got my body used to it, and I try not to overdo it. I keep to my playing schedule.
Е.А.: In recent years your rating has risen rapidly… Did that come as a surprise to you? After all, it’s impossible to keep rising all the time?!
F.C.: Why not? Yes, you can’t win every game, but when you finish a tournament on a plus after good, high-quality work – it’s normal. I haven’t noticed that I’ve picked up more than I deserved. I simply did my job.
Е.А.: It seemed as though you didn’t notice the barrier when you went straight from a player who appears in opens to the world elite… Why did you continue to play in Swiss tournaments when your rating had already crossed the 2750 mark? And after all, you continued to pick up points in them!
F.C.: It really did look odd, but it wasn’t a problem for me. I wanted to play rather than reject offers. Above all, I did it so as not to lose momentum and to keep myself in constant form. But of course you have to realise you’re taking risks when you play so much! If you get tired and lose a game or two you immediately lose a heap of rating points. But… I got lucky and lost nothing. Perhaps I’m simply a lucky man? I don’t know. But I’ve stopped that now.
Е.А.: We’ve all seen that you’re capable of playing 20 and even more games a month, but do you get pleasure from sitting down at the board so often?
F.C.: Not always. You can’t get the same enjoyment out of playing every game. Sometimes you’re simply tired, but I try to enjoy the actual process of playing each game rather than starting to think that I played yesterday, the day before yesterday and I’ll have to play again tomorrow. After all, it’s my work and I should do it well.
Е.А.: How did the process of moving from average opponents to elite players go for you?
F.C.: That’s a very tough question, and it’s impossible to give a quick answer. I worked a lot…
Е.А.: Did you have to change something in yourself, in your approach to chess?
Е.А.: So you continued preparing the way you prepared before? Nothing new?!
F.C.: The thing is that the methods were correct. I didn’t need to fundamentally overhaul anything in my game. Yes, it became much more difficult in the opening. I had to reassess some aspects of my play, to improve in certain areas, but it didn’t require any overall reassessment of what I’d been doing before.
Е.А.: You want to say there’s some kind of universal method?
F.C.: There’s nothing new here. A lot of hard work…
Е.А.: And on the psychological level? Didn’t you get nervous the first time you sat down opposite Kramnik, Anand, Carlsen… Did you sense their strength?
F.C.: Yes, the psychological aspect is crucial here. It was necessary to grasp that they’re also people, that they also have weak points and can also go wrong.
Е.А.: It became easier with that attitude?
F.C.: It saved me from unnecessary anxiety.
Е.А.: And that was all? No sleepless nights, no overhaul of your opening repertoire…
F.C.: No, I need to work much harder on the opening than before, but in the bigger picture there’s no problem. I can handle it. My coach helps me a lot.
Е.А.: How many top-class tournaments have you played in your life?
F.C.: Wijk aan Zee and the Tal Memorial. There were tournaments that were a little weaker: Reggio-Emilia, Biel and then the current Dortmund, which you probably couldn’t describe as a supertournament.
Е.А.: What do you think about tournaments in which there’s no chance to relax, or to pick up “guaranteed points”, when each day an opponent stronger than you awaits?
F.C.: It’s normal and I like it. Of course in most tournaments there’s always a local player or two who are weaker than the rest, although that doesn’t follow for Russia, for example, where the majority of the world’s top players live. When you don’t have the option of catching your breath it’s tough. You need to look for some kind of inner reserves. For example, you beat Kramnik and then the next day you have to play again and your opponent isn’t much inferior to him in class. That’s unusual for me.
Е.А.: When such tournaments are about to begin what do you think of your chances of victory?
F.C.: Of course before the start you think about the place you might occupy, and about your chances of victory. And if you’re not thinking about first place it’s probably not worth playing at all. I realise that if I give my all I’ll inevitably have chances, even in the very best company. I believe in that…
All things considered, I probably still can’t expect to win such events, but no-one can stop me dreaming and hoping. And trying to take my chances.
Е.А.: To what extent does the result in any particular tournament depend on your form, and do you have any means of getting yourself into shape. In both Moscow and Dortmund you didn’t show what you were capable of in the very first rounds…
F.C.: Yes, that’s true. I had an indifferent start. In Moscow I lost to Morozevich in the first round, while in Dortmund I lost in the second to Ponomariov. In both cases, however, things went better after that.
Е.А.: What did you think after Morozevich “tore you apart”?
F.C.: Nothing at all: you win some, you lose some… I don’t think it’s worth getting hung up about the result of a single game. Nothing out of the ordinary happened. I was satisfied before the game: I’ve both beaten him and lost to him. It’s not worth drawing far-reaching conclusions from the result of one game. Of course after the game I wasn’t so satisfied, but I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it: there was still a long way to go, which was shown by the way the tournament developed after that.
Е.А.: Do you find it easy to supress your emotions after a game, particularly after a loss?
F.C.: I cope with it. There are new games ahead and you need to think about them and not cry over spilt milk. I had White in the next game, so I needed to try and take my chance to win.
Е.А.: You somehow remarkably manage not to think about your tournament position. Do you have a “program” for how you’ll react if you have a successful start to a tournament or, on the contrary, for how you’ll make up ground if things aren’t going well for you?
F.C.: No, I play each game as it comes. The tournament position or how I played against the opponent in the past shouldn’t influence my play!
Е.А.: Yes, in Moscow you started from -1, and in Dortmund you had -1, but in both cases at some point you moved into first place. Could you describe the key moments of those struggles for you?
F.C.: Yes, in Moscow it was probably the second round, when I escaped from a difficult situation against Nakamura, despite having White. And then things got easier: I confidently beat Tomashevsky (he didn’t know the variation well and I immediately got a won position), and then I also beat McShane and Kramnik (unexpectedly easily).
Е.А.: What did you think on the eve of your encounter with Kramnik?
F.C.: I was in an optimistic mood. I realised I had chances to win.
Е.А.: Was their some motivation behind that?
F.C.: Probably it was simply that I felt good. Before that I’d survived a hopeless position against Radjabov (I played the opening very poorly and almost immediately ended up in a hopeless position), while Kramnik lost to McShane in a game that was very tough in all regards. I thought that against such a psychological backdrop it wouldn’t be so easy for him to play against me… After all, before that he’d also played a 7-hour game against Tomashevsky; although Vladimir did actually manage to win that game in the end, it was with great difficulty.
Е.А.: Wait a second, you said you don’t take such things into account?!
F.C.: I said that emotions and memories shouldn’t influence your preparation for a game. But the fact that an opponent’s exhausted and is perhaps in less than ideal form – that’s something you need to know. It might help you to choose an opening, or the way you play…
Е.А.: Did that work out for you in your first game against Kramnik?
F.C.: Yes, I played the Scotch Game, which I’d never played before. That must have come as a surprise for him and at the same time a question: was I ready to go for a real struggle? I was ready to play, and I really tried in that game.
Е.А.: Lots of people were stunned by how purely and concretely you played!
F.C.: Thank you. Kramnik is a great player, a former World Champion and… a player who rarely loses. It was a great honour to beat him. I was really happy.
Е.А.: What did you think at that point about your chances of victory in a Category 20 tournament?
F.C.: They were very high. I got lucky with the tiebreakers as well, as I would have been first whatever happened, just as long as I didn’t lose the last game.
Е.А.: But it was Aronian and you were playing Black…
F.C.: That’s all true, but even against Aronian it’s unpleasant to get a hopeless position right out of the opening. I simply forgot the variation I’d prepared for the game.
Е.А.: Does that happen to you?
F.C.: It seemed to me that if such a thing couldn’t be ruled out it was at least extremely unlikely…
F.C.: Perhaps. I haven’t analysed the situation in detail. Shit happens…
Е.А.: But did the fact that you missed out on victory really upset you?
F.C.: Yes, of course. Whenever there’s a chance of winning a tournament everything depends on you alone, and if you let the chance slip it’s really annoying. That would have been the biggest victory of my chess career. But what can you say, I was completely to blame.
Е.А.: What do you think when you look at Carlsen and his numerous victories?
F.C.: What can you say but well done. Magnus has won more strong tournaments than you could mention. Without doubt at this moment in time he’s the world’s best player.
Е.А.: What makes him stand out from the other strong players?
F.C.: His extreme focus on results and his ability to compose himself at the required moment. He’s got a lot of merits, but you know them all well. He’s simply the best…
Е.А.: Would you like to resemble Magnus in some area?
F.C.: Yes. I need to work and improve, but in order to become as invulnerable as he is desire alone isn’t enough. He’s got a very deep understanding of chess!
Е.А.: Looking at the outcome of Dortmund and the way you broke through to the top you might conclude that his “lessons” came in handy for you.
F.C.: The tournament really wasn’t so easy. I started badly again. In the very first round I could have lost to Naiditsch: I blundered and got a tough position, but he missed something and it ended as a draw. In the second I lost to Ponomariov… If it wasn’t for immediately beating Fridman it would have been tough, but in this case there was time to recover.
Е.А.: But then you almost lost to Leko.
F.C.: A tough game. A new opening for me… I actually experimented a lot in the opening in Dortmund. Well, Leko turned out to be prepared, but I simply didn’t have another choice. All that remained was to hope for something based on the tactical nuances of the position.
Е.А.: What did you feel after the game against Meier: disappointment, anger at yourself?
F.C.: There definitely wasn’t any anger. I realised I’d missed something somewhere; then the computer showed the solution, but… I wasn’t disappointed as I’d conducted the game well and I’d managed to impose my will on my opponent. Such games happen all the time. It’s nothing.
Е.А.: And then you… again sat down to play Kramnik with White!
F.C.: Yes! And again on the eve of that Kramnik had played a long game, this time against Leko. And again he had a bad psychological backdrop: he’d had a big edge but failed to win.
Е.А.: It seemed that from some point on he played as if he was doomed…
F.C.: It’s true it wasn’t his best game.
Е.А.: What do you think about your 2 out of 2 against Kramnik?
F.C.: Yes, it’s a pleasant result, but I’ve already said what I think about the results of games between players – they have only a historical interest, and in no way influence what’s going to happen with those players in their next game against each other.
Е.А.: It was pleasant to finish first in Dortmund?
F.C.: Very. That was my first success of that kind!
Е.А.: What do you think now when you look at your rating?
F.C.: It doesn’t look bad, and I’m glad I’ve managed to advance. I give everything in each game and tournament, and I’m not thinking of backing down.
Е.А.: After your success in the Tal Memorial and your win in Dortmund you’ve presumably entered the group of players who the organisers of every big tournament will want to see?
F.C.: I hope so. Too many invitations are better than too few. It’s nice when you’ve got a choice. I’ll probably play a little less often now, so I’ll need to take my chances. I can still say that I’m ready to play in any tournament!
Е.А.: We’ve been talking just now about tournaments, and about ratings… But do you have an overall goal in chess? Do you want, for example, to become World Champion?
F.C.: Yes, that’s the goal of every top chess player. At this moment in time I don’t have any chance of taking part in the qualifying as I’m not in the cycle, but I’ll put every effort into getting into the next Candidates Tournament and fighting for the title. Clearly I can’t talk about my chances now – they’re purely hypothetical – but in contrast to some players who don’t set themselves that goal, I want as far as possible to grow into a major player, and I definitely want to fight for the crown.
Е.А.: But after all, despite the large number of talented players in the last 10 years the World Champion has changed only twice! Still standing in “line” in front of you are Carlsen and Aronian, Grischuk and Radjabov; even players like Karjakin and Nakamura still haven’t got into a Candidates Tournament. Do you think you’ve got a chance?
F.C.: No one’s saying it’s going to be easy. At the current moment there are lots of talented players in the world, and some have slightly more chance of winning the title, some less.
Е.А.: Have you thought about what qualities a World Champion needs?
F.C.: There are a lot, but it’s probably still too early for me to think about that.
Е.А.: But do you already feel yourself to be an elite player?
F.C.: What can I say? I’ve started to feel more comfortable in the same company as these guys. I realise that in any one game I’ve got a chance of beating any of them, just as I can lose or draw. I don’t feel as though they sit down to a game against me “to pick up a point”. They realise that won’t be so easy to do.
I feel as though I’ve reached a new level in chess… But I’d stress that doesn’t mean I need to stop improving. It’s endless work!
Е.А.: So as not to head off into infinity let’s quickly sketch out a picture of “Fabiano Caruana outside of chess”. Are you ready to reveal the secrets of your private life?
F.C.: I don’t have any particular secrets, but let’s have a go…
Е.А.: To begin with – your favourite food. Probably pizza, spaghetti and risotto?
F.C.: Yes, I like Italian cuisine. I also like salads…
Е.А.: The favourite sport you watch on TV?
F.C.: I like watching basketball. As for playing myself, for a few years I played squash, and from time to time I don’t mind a game or two.
Е.А.: You haven’t said anything about football. Aren’t you interested at all?
F.C.: It’s not that. It’s simply not sport №1 for me.
Е.А.: What do you do on an average day when you’re not playing in a tournament and you don’t need to work on chess. In other words – in your free time?
F.C.: I can’t say I get such days very often. What do I do?! Nothing special. I watch films, listen to music, I like various TV shows. From the outside it might seem I’m very serious, but that’s not the case: I love to laugh.
Е.А.: Have you got a favourite artist or style of music?
F.C.: A favourite – no. I like the rock of the 70s and 80s.
Е.А.: A favourite director, actor?
F.C.: I don’t have a favourite, and I watch films more for relaxation. I don’t recall watching something serious, although we’ve got very good cinematographers.
Е.А.: Do you have a lot of friends?
F.C.: The majority of my friends live in the USA. At home in Switzerland I don’t have so many.
Е.А.: What countries do you like apart from Italy?
F.C.: That’s a loaded question. I’ve lived a long time in America, and in actual fact I don’t know Italy that well, and in that regard I need to do some serious work…
Е.А.: Ok then. And do you have any favourite cities?
F.C.: I’ve travelled a lot and there are many places I like… London, for example. Amsterdam and Moscow made a very good impression on me. I always enjoy travelling to New York, where I spent many years.
Е.А.: What languages do you know apart from Italian and English?
F.C.: English is quite enough for me. I haven’t learned any other languages.
Е.А.: And then my last question is: do you have a dream in life?
F.C.: At this moment in time all my dreams are linked to chess… I’m thinking about how to preserve and reinforce my current position, and dreaming of becoming World Champion. As for everyday life, I’ve got a lot of plans. I want to be happy and bring joy to my friends and family. Nothing in particular comes to mind…
Fabiano CARUANA: “A lot of hard work…”