Sergey KARJAKIN: “Dreams come true!”

Text: Evgeny Atarov
Photos: Evgeny Atarov

When talking to Karjakin you can’t, however much you want to, avoid doing a double take. On the one hand, you see a still very young and smiling kid, who at age 22 hasn’t fully overcome his shyness and addresses everyone without exception using the formal Russian “you”. On the other hand, you realise you’re looking at the fifth best chess player in the world, whose chance, or rather promise, of becoming World Champion is far from imaginary.

The topic of the World Championship is one of the most relevant when it comes to Karjakin. He moved from Ukraine to Russia a few years ago exclusively for that reason. And he’s just signed a sponsorship contract beneath a corresponding slogan… Sergey has all the requirements to do what everyone’s expecting of him, and what he’s also expected of himself, in his own words, since he was around six years old. At only 22 Karjakin has, after all, already twice found himself the second of a World Champion. First he was the “tactical coach” of Ponomariov (at 12 years old!), and then later, of Kramnik.

One thing is lacking – genuine champion’s play. An iron will and the desire to go all-out against everyone for the sake of a great cause! Karjakin, who undoubtedly has enormous talent and a champion’s character, is for now overly rational and a little restrained; just like Karpov he doesn’t want to waste his energy for no clear benefit. However, even if he’s not shouting it from the rooftops, he clearly isn’t satisfied with his current fifth place on the rating list, or the secondary role he ends up playing at the majority of supertournaments. You can be sure that when the time comes we’ll see a completely different Karjakin. There’s not long to wait…

Evgeny Atarov: Recently your chess career has featured numerous interesting, if not to say “momentous” events. But the formal reason for this interview is, above all, your success in Dortmund. So why don’t we start with that. How did you find the current tournament? Did you like its unusual format?

Sergey Karjakin: I really liked everything. The organisers did excellent work and I’ve got no complaints. And the format? It was normal. One of the possible formats… Take, for example, Wijk aan Zee: a few Dutchmen always play there, and they’re weaker than the rest. The full German line-up was here. I think if Gustafsson hadn’t collapsed so badly everything would also have been totally normal, within reasonable limits.

Е.А.: Can the current Dortmund tournament take the prefix “super”?

S.K.: Why not? Yes, the specifics of the line-up meant there were players at the tournament you had to beat. If I’m choosing between games against Kramnik, Leko and Bartel then of course I’d try to place the emphasis on the game against the Pole. That’s clear. But you still need to be good at “crushing the tail” – that’s also a sign of mastery.

Е.А.: When you have the starting line-up in front of you do you formulate a conditional plan: at some point I need to save energy, at some point I need to go all-out for a win?

S.K.: If we’re talking about saving energy then after Astana that was relevant. I gave everything there and was very tired… So in the game against Kramnik I lacked energy. Although I surprised him in the opening I didn’t manage to get a game, and I played it very safe. But then after a while I thought: it’s good that I’m playing after Astana – I was able to “warm up” there. And right up until the end I went for a fight in every game.

Е.А.: When deciding how to play do you sometimes deliberately seek out a fight or do you always try to keep things in a zone where you’re playing for two results? And how much are you willing to risk playing a chess player who’s 100-200 points below you?

S.K.: I always try to play according to the position. Take, for example, the game against Meier. I played the opening badly and got such an unpromising position that I was grateful to draw, although I’d gone into the game aiming for a fight.

You can’t throw yourself headlong at your opponent without sufficient justification… If something’s gone wrong a draw’s also a good result. If I’m given a chance as, for example, in the game against Bartel, then of course I’ll try to take it.

Е.А.: And it’s not important who you’re playing?

S.K.: No. It’s chess. You have to be objective.

Е.А.: But look at Carlsen, who tries to take any chance, even in a drawn position, if he thinks he’s capable of outplaying his opponent!

S.K.: Carlsen far from always “squeezes” out his points… If he’s given a chance then he’ll grasp it, but if not – then there’ll be nothing doing. For me objectivity is important.

Е.А.: But Carlsen makes such attempts all the time. Are you capable of engaging in a struggle and fighting for a win with either colour against any opponent?

S.K.: Here I’m of Fischer’s opinion: it’s not important who’s sitting opposite – I play against pieces! Therefore, yes – I try to get a struggle. And then we’ll see what happens next. I never deliberately reject the chance to play for a win.

Е.А.: Aren’t you let down by being a little too academic, by being inclined to play “correct chess”?

S.K.: If you look at my play in tournaments with a classical time control this year then you can’t talk about correct chess. The first was Wijk aan Zee, which I played in an absolutely uncompromising fashion – I won five and lost five. It was clear I wasn’t keeping things tight. That was a relative failure, but then I played the Russian League in the same style – and the result was totally different: I won four and drew three. In Dortmund I won three and had six draws. I think I’m playing pretty boldly – with the way I play it’s very hard to squeeze out more than I manage.

Then in Astana, due to the time control, unbalanced line-up and other factors, I played even more boldly. And that had its effect. It’s swings and roundabouts.

Sergey and his mother

Е.А.: Tell me, at Wijk aan Zee, after your uneventful “reinforced concrete” +1 in the 2011 Tal Memorial, did you specially decide to liven things up and play “different chess”?

S.K.: Correct. A good acquaintance of mine told me before I headed off to Wijk aan Zee that it was a “training” tournament, that I didn’t need to hold myself back and that it was possible to play “for fun”. Perhaps it was a mistake that I listened to him and stopped thinking objectively. (Laughs.)

At Wijk I should probably have played the way I usually play. As for the Tal Memorial and that uneventful +1 … Well, this year Carlsen scored +2 at the same tournament without showing anything special – and the result was he won. That’s the norm, and it would be foolish to expect someone to score Kasparov’s +6 or +7 nowadays. People play differently, and in order to win a game you need to expend a huge amount of energy. And in order to get a big plus you need to play either rapid or blitz chess!

Е.А.: But in the given situation the question was about self-perception: scoring 50% after playing 10 decisive games, and +1 without taking any risks in a single game – isn’t the same thing.

S.K.: Yes, I agree… In any case, at Wijk aan Zee I showed that when I’ve got the urge I can play “lively” chess, but I don’t want to lose my objectivity. That might appeal to spectators, but when I stopped the clocks realising I’d “abused the position”, I can’t say I was very happy… I felt like that more than once.

Е.А.: So in Wijk aan Zee you were simply improvising rather than trying to reconsider your approach to chess? Perhaps you wanted to try something unusual…

S.K.: I always try to look at my own performances critically. Even if the result was very good I still look for flaws in my play and work on correcting them. Self-criticism is the best means of making progress.

Е.А.: Do you have an idea of some kind of “ideal chess style”?

S.K.: I don’t know about an ideal style, but in modern chess it’s very important to be a good psychologist and have a feel for your opponent – to sense that sometimes it’s better to go for what perhaps isn’t objectively a very good variation… but is one your opponent will find very unpleasant and won’t expect from you, rather than to get a better position where he’ll feel like a fish in water. In my view too much now depends on the opening and on taking an individual approach to each of your opponents.

Е.А.: Which line of conduct do you prefer: the approach of Kramnik, who in almost every game comes out with a novelty but isn’t in ideal form, or the approach of Carlsen, who often starts from a blank sheet but is full of energy and focussed on fighting until the last move? Or, finally, the approach of Nakamura, who often simply plays Random Chess, and whose results are unpredictable…

S.K.: I can definitely say I don’t play “according to Nakamura”. If you take Kramnik and Carlsen as two poles of the approach to a practical game then the ideal is somewhere in between.

And you always need to act based on your opponent. If you feel he’s unprepared in the opening then you need to go for some kind of principled line; if, on the contrary, he’s too well prepared then it’s essential to switch the focus of the struggle to the middlegame. Finding the golden mean between those two approaches isn’t so easy!

Е.А.: Do you manage to find it?

S.K.: Not always. I can recall, for example, my game against Efimenko from the tournament in Poikovsky, when I managed to find a very good balance between the two. We were playing in the penultimate round and in order to get into a share of first place I had to win. On the evening before the game I asked myself: what variation should I choose? The thing was that Zahar always plays the “Berlin endgame”. I thought and thought, and then… I decided that could all go to hell, I’d play 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 and simply play chess!

In that game the Carlsen approach fully justified itself – I literally managed to win in 20 moves. Well, and if I’d gone for the Ruy Lopez more likely than not I’d have got a better position, but what good would it do? It would probably have ended in a draw, as for example against Naiditsch.

Katya Dolzhikova. First colleague, then wife!

Е.А.: And during a game do you think you can “steamroller” an opponent?

S.K.: Self-confidence is important and I’ve got it, but I don’t think your optimism should overflow during a game the way it does, for instance, with Aronian… Levon’s optimism gauge has a tendency to go off the scale during a game, in my view.

Е.А.: And that doesn’t happen to you?

S.K.: If I feel I’ve prepared well for a tournament and I’ve got strength and energy, then I have a certain surplus of optimism which I try to make use of.

Е.А.: From the outside I personally get the impression that you unwittingly hold yourself back, as if you underestimate yourself… While if you look at the ratings, there are only five people above you; you should be able to “throttle” the rest!

S.K.: Yes, there are only five people. Actually no, it’s now four, as I’ve overtaken Anand (that was before the Superfinal)! It’s hard for me to judge how it looks from the outside, but when I enter any tournament I aim exclusively for first place. Then if I get even theoretical chances of victory I try to take them. I’ve been like that since childhood.

Е.А.: And are you ready to fight to “bare kings” in the struggle for that chance?

S.K.: In principle, yes. Why play a tournament if you don’t want to win!

Е.А.: The way Carlsen does?

It’s not only Carlsen. Everyone wants to win! Every strong player… For me that came from a World or European Junior Championship – I no longer remember which. My coach and I had already travelled there, and at some point he asked me: how’s your mood, and what position are you counting on? I answered something along the lines that I wanted to be first, of course, but that 2nd or 3rd place would also be normal for me. He then looked at me and said:
“If you’re happy with 2nd or 3rd place then we can go back home now! You need to play only for first place…” I replied: “Yes, of course!” And I won that championship. From that point on I go to tournaments only for first place.

Е.А.: And how do you assess the tournament in Dortmund from that point of view? Do you think you did everything in your power to win?

S.K.: Of course I didn’t do “all I could”. There were some games in which I didn’t fully manage to take all my chances, although I “picked up” almost everything. That turned out to be insufficient to finish first. But, as I already said, it’s impossible to win a game out of nothing. Everyone’s well-prepared.

There’s nothing I can criticise myself for in that tournament. Perhaps only that I wasn’t able to engage Meier in a battle. If I’d beaten him I’d have had +4. On the other hand, to say I didn’t take first place because I couldn’t outplay him with Black would also be inappropriate. The German is a good grandmaster, and chess isn’t a mathematical problem that can be solved by simple calculation.

One against all…

Е.А.: Are you satisfied after such tournaments?

S.K.: But why shouldn’t I be? I shared first place and won in the last round “on demand” against Gustafsson. I made some difficult draws – against Ponomariov and Meier. It wasn’t so easy. All in all, things went normally.

Е.А.: What do you think happened to Kramnik? It seemed as though he was confidently heading for first place, but first he failed to win against Leko, and then, just as at the Tal Memorial, he fell to Caruana – and he wasn’t a contender for victory going into the last round.

S.K.: He was simply tired… Otherwise it’s hard for me to explain what happened. First there was the game against Leko where Kramnik missed at least three clear wins, and then the loss to Caruana. Of course it would be better to ask Kramnik himself about that.

Е.А.: And do you have an explanation for the “Caruana phenomenon”? Can you really adapt to supertournaments so easily straight after playing in opens?!

S.K.: It was a surprise! Caruana plays very confidently for a man who’s only just being playing in Swiss tournaments… He no doubt works a lot on chess, and you might say he lives it. He’s playing all the time, and thinking about chess all the time. I think in terms of his immersion in chess he could be compared to the early Vassily Ivanchuk.

Е.А.: You’re judging as a professional?

S.K.: I think so, yes. He’s a real fanatic!

Е.А.: Fanaticism’s all well and good, but there should also be a concrete basis… It’s not just that he’s talented and a phenomenally hard-working chess player, but in his first two supertournaments he’s shown such stubbornness and twice overcome Kramnik at decisive moments. It seems Caruana has something special?

S.K.: The chess world actually has quite a lot of talented players who are unable to fulfil their potential only because they’re a little lazy. Here we’ve got the opposite. Fabiano isn’t only a very talented guy, but he also works a lot. For now the Italian is objectively weaker than the top players, but with such devotion he’ll go a long way. He’s only 20, and if he assimilates some things that all elite chess players need to know it’ll be difficult to compete with him. I doubt he’ll reach Carlsen’s level, but he’ll try.

Е.А.: Do you think hard work can make up for the absence of a classical chess education, which is something Caruana clearly lacks?

S.K.: Maybe it won’t be entirely enough, but it might be partial compensation. In actual fact only time can answer all these questions. We’ll see…

Е.А.: In your view is Caruana a kind of computer in the flesh?

S.K.: I think the computer has a very strong influence on his play, but it influences it in a good sense. Caruana very often plays according to the first line, and in a game he can do that for 10-15 moves in a row. That’s very unpleasant for opponents.

Е.А.: What emotions do you experience when you look at games like Caruana – Kramnik in Dortmund, when the Italian began to produce his “computer series” out of nothing, and his opponent simply couldn’t withstand that accuracy?

S.K.: Yes, that game made a strange impression. White didn’t get anything out of the opening, after which Caruana simply tried to maintain the tension, Kramnik made a couple of mistakes and that ultimately led to the Italian’s victory. In actual fact the ability to maintain the tension in a complex position is a sign of great mastery. If he can do something like that against Kramnik then it means playing Caruana won’t be so straightforward.

Е.А.: What's your attitude to such play from the point of view of a “classical” player?

S.K.: In recent years chess has changed, and quite fundamentally. Take the opening. While previously people strove for some kind of clear evaluation – they’d bring their analysis to ± or even to a won position – nowadays White is often glad simply get a playable position and not some forced draw.

The whole concept has changed! Now the main concept is “to get a playable position and maintain the tension”. And then just see what happens…

Е.А.: Opening concepts have probably changed as well?

S.K.: The direction of the search has changed, but the essence remains the same: you can dig deeply in one place, or jump from variation to variation… It’s simply that if previously people, as Grischuk recently told me, thought += was too little out of the opening they’re now often overjoyed simply to get a playable position.

Е.А.: Could you name the five players who are best at that?

S.K.: Hmm… Not an easy question. I look on chess as professional work. I can get purely aesthetic pleasure from a game, but in order to single out whose play or approach to chess particularly appeals to me?! I’ll have to think… First of all, I’d probably name Levon Aronian. I like the way he plays; he always has some unexpected ideas in the opening and middlegame. It’s precisely his ingenuity that distinguishes him from Carlsen: so I’d put Levon in 1st place, and Magnus in 2nd. Who else? Probably Kramnik, who does a stunning amount of creative work at home. And that’s all… Perhaps we should stick to that three.

Е.А.: Would you include yourself on that list?

S.K.: That probably wouldn’t be very appropriate. Let others judge my play.

Е.А.: But what percentage of your talent do you think has been fulfilled?

S.K.: I’ve never thought about that, but I don’t think I’ve yet reached my peak.

Е.А.: And if we take your virtual race with Carlsen do you think that at some point you slowed down and lost pace with him? Or is everything going the way it needs to, and Carlsen simply emerged before you?

S.K.: At some point perhaps I dropped off, but overall I’m gradually trying to make progress. The way Magnus managed to break through to number one is, of course, impressive! But I believe everyone has their path and as I’m only 22 everything is still in front of me…

Е.А.: If Kasparov offered to work with you the way he did with Magnus would you agree? And would you have been able to part with such a coach as easily as the Norwegian did?

S.K.: If someone offered then I’d undoubtedly work with him! As for parting – it’s a complex question… One you can probably only answer after working together.

Е.А.: What about another aspect: the Norwegian has a renown that continually inclines people to think that the World Championship cycle is incomplete if Carlsen doesn’t participate. Does it annoy you that no-one talks about your absence in the cycle in the same manner?

S.K.: The moment I become number one everyone will suddenly start saying that about me!

Е.А.: But you didn’t manage to get into the Candidates Tournament in London…

S.K.: No, I didn’t manage, but I’ve got the status of first reserve, so if something happens I might be able to play. Of course the chances of that are pretty slim.

Е.А.: If you got into the line-up how would you rate your chances in that tournament?

S.K.: It would unquestionably be a colossal experience. And my chances? A lot would depend on my form… I think I’d be able to fight for the top three, but for that I’d need to do a huge amount of work and preparation.

Е.А.: And in a title match against Anand if you managed to qualify?

S.K.: I’ve never played long matches, and I simply don’t know what to expect… Given that in terms of rating Anand and I are level I’d consider myself to have chances.

Е.А.: Well, we’ll wait two years until the next cycle… By the way, you’ve already become World Champion once – in rapid chess. How do you rate the significance of that title you won in Astana? I recall that when Grischuk won the World Blitz Championship in Israel he put that achievement above his classical victories. And you?

S.K.: I’d rank the victory pretty high. It was very pleasant to win in Astana. It gave me confidence in my ability. But should it be considered the most significant peak I’ve climbed? I’ve nevertheless won Wijk aan Zee and the Tal Memorial. You have to say those are different forms of chess…

In my view you shouldn’t compare things that aren’t comparable. If you take rapid then the victory in the World Championship in Astana was undoubtedly my top achievement, although I’ve won other tournaments like the ACP World Cup in Odessa.

Е.А.: Is rapid chess so far behind classical in the hierarchy?

S.K.: Not as significantly as it was, let’s say, two years ago. It’s simply turned out that playing only classical chess now has become a little dull. When +2 or +3 out of nine games is considered a wonderful result something’s not quite right.

Е.А.: You want to return to 10-15 years ago when in Kasparov’s time you needed +6 or more to win a supertournament?

S.K.: That was more interesting than now! By the way, it seems to me Kasparov wouldn’t score +6 in supertournaments now either. The thing is that back then he dominated in the opening, while nowadays no-one is as far ahead of the rest, not even Kramnik.

However sad it sounds,
it strikes me that classical chess has lately been a little “diminished” and the future belongs to rapid chess and blitz.

In that sense I’ve become more inclined towards the position of Grischuk, who thinks it’s long since time to reject classical and contest all the titles in rapid chess…

Е.А.: Do you see your victory in Astana as more a matter of coincidence – after all, after the first day you were a whole point and a half behind Carlsen – or was it an indicator of your strength and stubbornness? That you didn’t give up, but fought on until the final moment…

S.K.: There’s undoubtedly no way of winning a tournament at rapid chess without luck! When in each game you have to take crucial decisions with your flag about to fall anything whatsoever can happen. It turned out I found myself in a situation where things didn’t depend on me alone… I could only do what I could and hope that Carlsen would lose points somewhere. I gave it everything and… it all worked out.

Е.А.: But after you lost to Carlsen in the last round of the first day didn’t you have the feeling that “the game was up”? After such a wonderful start you’d lost to your direct rival – and you were a whole one and a half points behind…

S.K.: There was a bit of that, particularly as I’d been leading with 7/8, and then I lost two in a row – first to Mamedyarov and then to Carlsen. Moreover, while Shakhriyar won a good game against me, Magnus… No, I’m not belittling his merits in that game, but in the given case it wasn’t so much that he won as I lost. Even at the very end the position was drawn, but I didn’t manage to make a draw. It was very annoying, but somehow I managed to maintain my self-possession, and on the second day I continued playing as if nothing had happened. I have to say I was surprised myself at how easily it all went.

A key role in my success was, of course, played by Ivanchuk. Against me he lost on time in an endgame that was roughly even or perhaps better for him, and in the next round he won a very good game against Carlsen. He really tried!

Е.А.: Do you think that after that game against Vassily Magnus started to “drift” a little?

S.K.: It’s hard for me to judge. Perhaps… I was more concerned about my games.

Е.А.: And what happened to him on the first day of the blitz tournament?!

S.K.: It seems to me he was very frustrated at letting victory in the Rapid Championship slip… After the first day it might have seemed as though first place was already in his pocket, but things went differently! It’s hard for me to judge. Actually Magnus gets really upset when he doesn’t manage to succeed and take his usual first place. Maybe his thoughts were still on that tournament, and he was recalling it…

Е.А.: And what about you? While playing blitz did you recall your rapid victory?

S.K.: Yes, and it really got in the way! It was hard to force myself to work and strain in every game. Although I don’t think I played badly at all in blitz either.

Е.А.: Personally I was stunned by the total dominance demonstrated in both tournaments by you, Grischuk and Carlsen over the other far from weak chess players.

S.K.: I was also a little surprised. It turned out that in any particular game any of the tournament participants represented a real danger, but if you take the tournament as a whole our edge was quite obvious. What was the reason? Probably just that chess is a game for the young. And we’re trying to take our chance before others squeeze us out…

Е.А.: When they handed out the prizes and large cheques were you overcome by emotion?

S.K.: I was overcome after the last game, when I realised that Carlsen could no longer catch me. At the closing ceremony it was merely pleasant. I’d already managed to “digest” it. Grischuk, on the other hand, was overwhelmed; but after all, he’d only just won.

Е.А.: Recently FIDE has started calculating ratings in both rapid and blitz…

S.K.: It was high time to start. So far, however, there haven’t been that many rapid tournaments and they’re irregular, so it’s impossible to take the ratings seriously. But the fact that they exist strikes me as nothing but positive. In the future they’re bound to come in handy.

Е.А.: You’ve got 2830 in rapid and 2877 in blitz…

S.K.: And I’m not first on any of the FIDE rating lists! In rapid Carlsen has more – 2845, while in blitz Grischuk actually has a rating above 2900.

Е.А.: And do you look at the rating lists at all?

S.K.: I can’t say I do it often… I have a look when a new rating list appears, but no more often than that. I’m not in the habit of calculating how many points I’ve won or lost after each game. Moreover, rating lists now appear once a month.

Е.А.: How do you feel when you find yourself in the role of the rating favourite of a tournament?

S.K.: I don’t pay so much attention to that, and I don’t look at the ratings of those I’m going to play… And ratings mean nothing at all in each particular game. That’s more for spectators and journalists, who love such topics…

Е.А.: Did you feel you were the favourite for the Russian Championship?

S.K.: I didn’t even think about it. After Kramnik and Morozevich pulled out I had the highest rating, but in a tournament with Grischuk and Svidler no-one can consider himself favourite. I’d say the three of us had the best chances.

Е.А.: Why did the tournament end up being so “tight-knit”, without a clear leader?

S.K.: The line-up was pretty solid, and even those who qualified via the Higher League, with the possible exception of Sjugirov, also played very soundly. For example, many expected the 16-year-old Dubov would fail to withstand the strain and collapse, but he withstood it and played well. It’s very tough to win in such conditions! By and large none of the players at the tournament managed to dazzle.

Е.А.: But didn’t you get the impression that the well-known players weren’t capable and the lesser-known players didn’t want it so much?

S.K.: Perhaps the favourites really turned out not to be in form. For example, I picked up somewhat less points than I should have done. I also had some not particularly good positions – for instance against Grischuk. Even in the one game I won I’d had a dubious position at one stage. But Alekseev lost track and I managed to win that game.

I don’t want to make excuses, but you can’t deny that the general level has greatly risen and in order to win “one game in a row” in such company you need to try very hard.

Е.А.: There was also the impression that victory in that tournament wasn’t a matter of life or death for anyone. It seems it was only Grischuk who had some drive!

S.K.: Yes, he tried very hard… Because of that he practically committed suicide in the final game. He thought that Potkin would lose to Alekseev, and therefore he had to beat Svidler. Sasha played very boldly… and lost. While Alekseev… failed to win.

Е.А.: And what about you? Didn’t you feel obliged to win at all costs in the final round with White against Sjugirov?!

S.K.: How can I put it? Of course I wouldn’t have rejected the chance of winning and becoming Russian Champion. But to be absolutely frank, I can’t say that tournament was so important for me, although in itself the title of national champion is prestigious… I tried to take my chances, but alas I only managed to win one out of nine games. And then in rapid chess it’s hard to blame yourself for scoring +2 in five games. Perhaps it would have been worth changing the format and holding the play-off not as a single round robin, but a double?!

Е.А.: During the tournament were you angry at yourself for failing to “wake up”? Before the seventh round you wrote to me something along the lines of “now or never”…

S.K.: I was unsatisfied and even angry that things weren’t working out. I was playing insipidly and just making draws…But ultimately, what could I have done?! When I was playing Black everyone played extremely solidly against me. No-one gave me any chances! I only felt as though someone wanted to beat me in the games against Svidler and Grischuk.

Е.А.: And when you had White?

S.K.: They were simply incredibly solid, and no-one even considered the option of playing to seize the initiative. I’m not even sure how I managed to beat Alekseev. And, perhaps, the only chance I didn’t take in the whole tournament was in the game against Dubov. But there I had to find quite a complex tactic.

Е.А.: So overall, it turned into a tournament of the “play and forget” variety?

S.K.: You might say that. I wasn’t satisfied at all. On the other hand, you can’t say where I could have played better. And then formally the result wasn’t so bad – second place. I think Andreikin was a fully deserving winner of the Russian Championship title.

Е.А.: But, despite the fact that Morozevich pulled out of the team and freed up a place, he didn’t make it into the Olympiad team! By the way, aren’t you surprised that the line-up doesn’t include a single Russian Champion from recent years? Neither Svidler, nor Andreikin…

World Champion. For now only in rapid chess…

S.K.: And Nepomniachtchi’s not there either… Maybe in that case it’s been wise not to try and win the Russian Championship? As soon as you win it you’re immediately deprived of any chance of getting into the national line-up! (Laughs.) In actual fact the team has a coach, and he selects.

Е.А.: Incidentally, you’re now going to play for the Russian team at the Olympiad for the second time. Is there any hope that after ten years the team will finally win?

S.K.: There’s always hope. Our team is strong and everyone’s preparing seriously… I’ve already won the Olympiad in the Ukrainian team, and I can say that the difference between those two teams is that everyone plays in a particular mood against Russia, with double the energy, and a different level of resistance. But I think we’re perfectly capable of finishing first. It’s time Olympiad gold returns to Russia!

Е.А.: A good slogan… Similar to the one beneath which you just signed your first sponsorship contract, except there it talked about the World Chess Championship crown.

S.K.: Exactly. But it’s always better to have a goal than to act spontaneously…

Е.А.: On your contract with the company alpari – did that come about by chance or is it a serious, well thought-out step? How in general did you suddenly find yourself in the sphere of interest of financiers?

S.K.: You might say it was a pleasant surprise, and I’m very glad that in my third year living in Moscow I’ve found a sponsor. Frankly:
if I’d had a sponsor at the moment when I was playing for Ukraine and living in Simferopol I don’t think I’d have decided to move and change nationality…

But it’s all for the best.

Е.А.: How relevant is the slogan about returning the chess crown to Russia?

S.K.: I think it’s pretty relevant. Until now I’ve had to bear the heavy financial burden myself: paying for coaches, training camps and travel. Now it should all become much easier in that regard. I’ll try very hard to make the slogan a reality.

Е.А.: What’s your opinion about sponsorship in general?

S.K.: It strikes me there are companies who throw crazy amounts of money at football, hockey and basketball… I don’t think the return from advertising is so large that it can compensate for the enormous costs. In chess the sums are much lower, and it’s easier to keep track of the benefits based on the number of appearances of the logo or name of your firm in news or in live coverage.

Е.А.: What contractual obligations are included in your contract with alpari?

S.K.: I don’t have any strict obligations, but at official events I should appear with the logo on my clothing and mention my sponsor in interviews. I’ll take part in some promotional events they’ll organise. There’s an idea to hold a simultaneous display next month with well-known people.

I don’t know so far, but I definitely don’t have to do anything out of the ordinary. I don’t see any problem with having to make an effort once every month or two, or with alpari labels appearing somewhere. I like the people involved and we’ve got a good relationship. This is all a first for me.

Profile of a champion

Е.А.: Do you think this contract and the opportunities it opens up might change the direction of your career and life?

S.K.: Above all it’ll allow me to establish a very powerful coaching team, and also not to drop behind the other top players in terms of computer support. I know from reliable sources that some of my colleagues have supercomputers costing $50,000 and more at their disposal, which allow them to be many steps ahead of the rest. I don’t have such a computer! That means I’m at a handicap and I don’t want to be at a handicap against anyone. I want to be on the level of the best…

Е.А.: If you look at Carlsen he’s got a whole group of sponsors. Are you planning on keeping working in that direction? And are you planning to work on your “screen image”? To take part in some talk shows or TV programs…

S.K.: Carlsen’s done well. I’ve got my own career and I want to have a sponsor who’ll resolve my financial problems… As for the number, I don’t think that’s so significant. I like the contract alpari offered me. I think it’ll be worth talking about this topic in a year when we’ve drawn conclusions.

As for the rest, I am, as they say, open to offers. I’m not going to seek “exposure”, but I’ve got a friend, Kirill Zangalis, who’s taken on the role of my press attaché (the contract with the company alpari in particular is his personal achievement), who simply tells me where I need to be and when … He agrees on my interviews and taking part in any events, and recently he’s been setting up my personal website, for which I’m of course very grateful to him…

Е.А.: When famous sportsmen conclude sponsorship contracts we’re usually talking about large amounts of money. Do you think that will possible in chess?

S.K.: It would be a little naïve to demand some kind of multimillion contracts in chess. On the other hand, no-one’s demanding any accountability for the money the contract provides me with. If I so desired instead of spending the money on coaches or purchasing a computer I could simply pocket it and no-one would say a word. But I need a sponsor not in order to become richer but to achieve a concrete chess goal. I want to achieve it!

Е.А.: Is it realistic to return the chess crown to Russia?

S.K.: Everyone knows perfectly well it’s my dream. I’ve been saying it, I think, since I was six! And as they say in one well-known advert: “dreams come true”…