A sketch in bright colours



Alexander Motylev on the Russian team, Karjakin, his career, and even love


Text: Vlad Tkachiev
Photos: Irina Stepaniuk



He’s loved by all. No, seriously, it turns out such a thing’s possible. After all, it’s truly unique that after spending 4 tournaments as Russian team captain he hasn’t quarrelled with anyone or created any enemies for himself. But on the other hand, I thought, how can he be such a good guy if he’s managed to get his rating up to the heights where you can’t get by without sporting aggression! Perhaps it’s not quite so simple? All things told, before the interview my head was simply filled with questions, questions, questions…


A player’s path

Vlad Tkachiev: Alexander, you come from a very important chess city in the most chess-obsessed of countries. Nobody can have any doubts about your talent. Why is it, then, that you were a relatively late developer?

Alexander Motylev: Yes, nowadays people become grandmasters at 11-12, while as far as I recall I became a candidate master at 11, which was already considered a great success. It was probably the same story for you. Times have changed somewhat now, but child prodigies also have their problems. I’m more in favour of calm and gradual development.

V.T.: Yes, but nevertheless becoming famous early on makes it much easier to find sponsors. And then, it seems to me, chess becomes the second or even the first language of thought for prodigies, and as a result – there’s an almost complete absence of unforced errors, of blunders.

A.M.: But then from childhood on everyone’s putting pressure on them, forcing them to study nothing but chess and forget about everything else. A good coach should, above all, help his student to emerge as a person, and not to grow up to be some sort of Czentovic from Zweig’s “The Royal Game”, concerned only about earning money and moving the pieces on the chessboard. The priority should first be personal development, and only then results.

V.T.: And are there a lot of Czentovices in chess?

A.M.: Not at all. There aren’t so many of them in modern chess, although of course sport at the very highest level of achievement doesn’t exactly develop the sort of qualities valued by ordinary people. I’d like to return to your first question. As it happens, I didn’t develop that slowly at all: I won the U16 and U18 Russian Championships, and I shared 2nd-4th place at the U20 World Championship in 1995. Overall, I was perfectly satisfied with my play and results, until in 1997 something characteristic happened to me. I was playing White against Vladimir Malaniuk and lost without a fight in an approximately equal endgame. In our analysis after the game Vladimir asked me why I’d exchanged the second pair of rooks? After all, if I hadn’t exchanged them White was in no way worse. But I simply had no idea that the rook could leave the open file. I whisked off the rooks automatically! That story turned my world upside down. I realised that I didn’t know how to play chess at all!

V.T.: And when was it that you started to understand such things?

A.M.: It’s hard to say. I remember that in 2000, at the Yugoslav Team Championship in Nikšić, Sergei Rublevsky was asking everyone who I was and how I had such a rating. By that stage I was already playing decent chess. In 2001 I won the Russian Championship in Elista.

V.T.: Yes, I also had a similar story with Rublevsky. At one point in my youth he said to me, “Vlad, what happened to you, you just didn’t have a clue before”. OK, and how far do your ambitions stretch now?

A.M.: (after a pause) I get ambitious when I sense that I could have done more, but for some reason I didn’t manage to. Besides chess, I’ve got a lot of other interests. Just now, for instance, I’ve really got into photography. It seems to me that as a player I’ve never fully shown what I’m capable of.

The Russian team

V.T.: I don’t think that either in Russia or the rest of the world there’s another specialist like you who’s worked with such a high number of elite players. Can you list them?

A.M.: I’m now working with Karjakin, while before that there were Kramnik, Svidler and Judit Polgar, as well as my work as Russian team coach.

V.T.: Maybe it’s precisely those shortcomings that prevent you from showing what you’re truly capable of that help you when you’re working with others? Don’t you think there might be a link?

A.M.: Above all, those people trusted me. That’s the main thing. And a second must also be able to restrain his ego and put his “protégé” first.

V.T.: Here’s a question, then: we both know that high-level chess and spy games have a lot in common. How do you wriggle out of a situation where two of your clients meet?

A.M.: It’s very rare to get any really critical situations. Firstly, analysis becomes out-dated very quickly nowadays. A year, sometimes a little more, and you already have to recheck everything with new programs. Secondly, my work for the team on openings was mainly done with youngsters: Jakovenko and Vitiugov, for example. If you really do end up in a critical situation then you have to say: look, I can’t analyse this variation as I’ve already looked at it with someone else.

V.T.: I’ll pose a question no-one knows the answer to: what’s going on with the Russian team? Why is it that up until 2002 it was a well-oiled killing machine, while now it makes heavy weather of everything, and the rare wins almost come as a surprise?

A.M.: It seems to me that the results haven’t been that bad. It’s just the Olympiad that we really have failed to win.

V.T.: Up until 2002 the team was almost always led by Kasparov. However difficult it was to get on with him at a personal level, he still led everyone else. After the Olympiad in Bled the Russian team found a new leader – Vladimir Kramnik, and regardless of his results, and more often than not they’ve been very good, he hasn’t managed to become the nerve centre and spark off a desire for victory. What do you think?

A.M.: But after all Kramnik played in the team alongside Kasparov. At his first Olympiad, by the way, he scored 8.5 out of 9.

V.T.: He was missing from Elista (1998), Istanbul (2000) and Bled (2002).

A.M.: Kramnik doesn’t lead others, but he holds his own board. You could probably find statistics on that. I was the captain 4 times and, it seems to me, we performed respectably, winning the European Championship in Greece in 2007 and the World Championship in Turkey in 2009. We only fell slightly short of victory in the European Championship in 2009 in Novi Sad, when we came second. The Dresden 2008 Olympiad was a failure.

V.T.: Did Kramnik play in those tournaments?

A.M.: Vladimir only played at the Olympiad.

V.T.: And how much were you paid as captain?

A.M.: It’s hard to say, as it varied. The most, I think, was when the players and I received just under 20,000 dollars for winning the European Championship. But that was, of course, exceptional.

V.T.: I heard that the players were on much improved terms in Khanty-Manisysk?

A.M.: I no longer had any connection to the team there. I think the prizes were set at 50,000 USD each for first place, 30,000 for second, and 20,000 for third.

V.T.: And do you ever get a situation where internal competition among the team members gets in the way? After all, each one’s a top chess player and a strong personality? Or what about, for example, the struggle for grants?

A.M.: I don’t think that’s been the problem. The atmosphere in the team has always been pretty friendly. If you’re talking about grants, then it seems to me they should be given to young chess players who really need them.

V.T.: And how big are the grants, by the way?

A.M.: They were 1 million roubles, 400,000 and 200,000 [roughly 35/15/7,000 USD]. Now, however, they’re planning to change the amounts.

V.T.: And who got a million?

A.M.: I don’t have a great deal to do with that at the moment. Karjakin and Kramnik got them, I think, and probably the Kosintsevas.

V.T.: What are your memories of working with the team?

A.M.: Good ones. The thing I liked most was working with the youngsters – they’re spoiling for a fight and very ambitious. I think we managed to achieve a good mutual understanding at my last tournament as captain in 2009 in Bursa, taking innovative decisions despite our having an extremely tough start to the event. Tomashevsky and Morozevich were in bad form. We allowed Evgeny to have a rest at that point, to lick his wounds. You have to give credit to Morozevich as he was having a difficult time, but he took the heat. As for failures, I soon forget about unpleasant memories – in that regard I’m a lucky man.

On Karjakin

V.T.: Do you think that after the tournament in Bazna it’s possible to start talking about a rivalry between the two young Ks – Carlsen [Karlsen in Russian] and Karjakin? Something like those we’ve always had in tennis: Borg – McEnroe, Sampras – Agassi or Federer – Nadal.

A.M.: In general it’s too early to talk about that, although it does of course have some basis in fact. Still, Carlsen is number one, while Karjakin is only starting his climb, and Anand and Aronian are playing very well. Not so long ago at all, just after Sergey had moved to Russia, his rating was 2715. At one moment the difference in rating between the two of us was only one point. While now its grown to 100 points!

V.T.: Well, that’s good. However, not for you!

A.M.: Ha-ha, well yes!

V.T.: And do games against Magnus have some sort of special significance for Karjakin? Take, for example, Botvinnik, who’d spit on portraits of his rivals.

A.M.: Not at all, their relationship is fine. In Bazna we even played doubles in tennis.

V.T.: But will that relationship survive when only the two of them are left at the top?

A.M.: I wouldn’t want it all to turn into some sort of rivalry, though that might happen.

V.T.: What’s Carlsen’s main weakness?

A.M.: Carlsen’s a very universal chess player but perhaps, for the moment, he doesn’t have crisp openings. For him the main thing is to go for a struggle in which he can display his strongest qualities – brilliant endgame play, for example.

V.T.: Karjakin’s strong points?

A.M.: He’s in the process of developing at the moment. Like the other elite chess players when the play becomes concrete he starts to play strictly according to the first line. Moreover, he does it very quickly. He’s improved in the opening of late, although he’s still far from perfect. He’s got a wonderful inborn sense of where to put the pieces. In terms of style it seems to me that he’s closer to Karpov than Kasparov.

V.T.: So he’s also pragmatic?

A.M.: All of the young generation now are very pragmatic – due to the accelerated time control and working with computers. Gelfand, on the other hand, has begun to really stand out – he looks at chess globally. He and Ivanchuk are less distracted by playing move by move. They think in terms of more general schemes.

V.T.: But doesn’t it seem to you that Karjakin is let down by a certain predictability. After all, he doesn’t play against a particular person, but against the pieces. Everyone knows in advance that he’ll play 1.e4 with White and the main lines in any opening.

A.M.: That’s all true, but he didn’t have a solid base when he moved to Russia, and in order to change something you first have to consolidate. Work’s going on in that direction, of course. If you don’t mind I won’t reveal all of the secrets, as otherwise it would be enough to read this interview to prepare!

On love and other woes

V.T.: You were born and live in Yekaterinburg. Is it true that’s the gangster capital of Russia?

A.M.: What can I say? It is, of course, quite a criminal city.

V.T.: That doesn’t bother you?

A.M.: You can easily feel the difference when you go to the West – there everything’s measured and calm, while in Russia you always need to pay attention and be ready for anything.

V.T.: Particularly in Yekaterinburg?

A.M.: Particularly in Yekaterinburg, particularly in the evening and even more so when you’re alone.

V.T.: Did you pump up your muscles so as not to get beaten up?

A.M.: Alas, it was already after I’d been beaten up (laughs). And then I also simply like sport.

V.T.: They say you’re the best table tennis player among chess players!

A.M.: Noooo, Macieja is much better, though no doubt I’d be in the top-10. Actually, I prefer football, I think, and my football’s probably better than my table tennis. Recently I’ve also started playing normal tennis, which is a very interesting game as well.

V.T.: What pastimes do you have other than sport?

A.M.: I read books, listen to music. The usual…

V.T.: What’s your literary top-5?

A.M.: First place, by quite some distance, is of course Salinger – his short stories are simply brilliant. I was lucky Kasimdzhanov opened my eyes to him. Then Sheckley – his short stories are also breathtaking. I’ve probably got a preference for short forms. Then it would most likely be Dovlatov, and after that it gets trickier.

V.T.: What was the last book you read?

A.M.: “Literal Translation” by Liliana Lungina. She had a very interesting and intense life!

V.T.: Now let’s switch to music.

A.M.: I come from Yekaterinburg, which had a famous rock generation: “Chaif”, “Nautilus Pompilius”, “Agatha Christie”, “Smyslovye Gallyutsinatsii” [“semantic hallucinations”]. I listened to them all in my childhood. Of course, there was Vysotsky and “Kino”. Among more recent music – “Kukryniksy”. At the moment I listen more to foreign music. Things I’ve liked lately include – Morcheeba’s “Blood Like Lemonade”, “Blood Pressures” by The Kills, “The Suburbs” by Arcade Fire – I really like those albums. Recently, based on a friend’s tip, I’ve become addicted to post-rock – God is an Astronaut and 65daysofstatic.

V.T.: OK, and what about cuisine?

A.M.: I love good cuisine. My preference is for Japanese, Chinese and Italian. In general, I like to savour seafood somewhere by the shore, in a small coastal restaurant…

V.T.: And you also love the sunset, the reflection of light in a glass of wine and pleasant company… are you a romantic?

A.M.: Probably, yes. Although just having pleasant company is often enough.

V.T.: And what quality do you rate above all in women?

A.M.: Above all, femininity. A man, in contrast, should treat women honourably and forgive them their various charming little foibles. Also a sense of humour, perhaps. In general, I like people who don’t lose heart at the first sign of difficulty and go through life with a smile.

V.T.: You’re married now, but everyone knows the interest the female sex take in you. Did you have a lot of loves?

A.M.: A lot, of course. You see, it’s very easy for me to take a liking to someone, and when I felt that way I never was afraid of establishing contact.

With those last phrases I think Alexander has said the most important thing about himself. He pronounced them in a tone that would have convinced any cynic, never mind me. It’s all become extremely clear. He probably really does stand alone in the chess world – as a uniquely good-natured person.

Such a thing is possible.




Mr. Tkachiev, thanks for the nice interviews!


i cant help but like the portrayed person here

I looked at the game between

I looked at the game between Motylev and Malaniuk that was referred to in the interview, in order to understand the insight that Motylev gained from the experience, but don't think I quite get it. Motylev's "blunder" in the endgame (when it definitely became winning for Black) came much later--in fact, just a couple of moves before capitulation when he played 33. b4. If he had "passed" with, say 33. Bd3 or 33. Ke2, then it would still be hard for Black to win in spite of the pressure. It would be great if Motylev or Tkachiev could comment on why declining the second rook exchange was the right decision. Was it because White would still retain some counterchances in a sterile position instead of simply defending?

Motylev's game

Basically you said everything right-it still was a draw even after exchanging rooks,of course,but if white did not do that they  would stand by no means worse since black's king can't get such an active position in the centre while the rooks are still on the board.That's it,I hope I was able to explain!Please,tell me if not.