KC-Conference with Levon Aronian: Part 2

We’re now publishing part two of the answers of International Grandmaster Levon Aronian to the questions of chess fans posed as part of the “KC-Conference” project. This conference is the twelfth since the project began and the third with a truly international character: the questions came not only from the Russian KasparovChess forum, but also from readers of the English site Chess in Translation.

Part 2 contains answers to questions on chess on the internet, chess books and journalism, the principles of preparation and improvement, openings, non-classical forms of chess, other games and also simply “on life”. Levon was also kind enough to provide us with photographs from his personal archive. Part 2 was published last week in Russian.

In the first part of the conference the popular Armenian grandmaster replied in detail to questions on his outlook on chess, his career, his chess-playing colleagues and chess politics. He also gave some reflections on the recent Candidates Matches. In part 1 you can also find an essay by Sergey Shipov, a biography and selected games of our guest commented on both by himself and analysts from our site.

Discussion can be continued: in Russian, in the KasparovChess forum thread and in English at Chess in Translation.

*** Questions posed in English at Chess in Translation are indicated by [CiT]

6. Books, journalism and the internet

Валентин: Could you please indicate the 5 best chess books of the last couple of decades.

I read chess books regardless of the date they were published. Among contemporary authors I’m closely acquainted with the works of Dvoretsky, Rowson, Nunn, Timman and Marin. I like Marin’s books in particular. He’s very scrupulous in what he does, his books convey personal experience from his career, and he has a good sense of humour.

Tom T: Could you please name your top 10 chess books of all-time? [CiT]

I’m not sure I can name ten, but here are some books I really like: “Secrets of a Study Composer” by Genrikh Kasparyan, “Into the Fire of the Attack” by Mikhail Tal, the 4-volume work by Mikhail Botvinnik, “50 Selected Games” by Bent Larsen, “My 60 Memorable Games” by Bobby Fischer and “The Strategy of Solidity” by Tigran Petrosian.

vasa:
- Levon, what was your favourite chess book in your childhood?

“Alekhine’s 300 games”.

- Do you read chess literature nowadays?

I do, but mainly endgame textbooks which are passed to me by my friend and fan Vartan. I’m embarrassed to admit that of the 10-15 books I’ve received only 2-3 of them have been opened. The presence of very complex material in them frightens me off.

moroshir: Hello, Levon! First of all, I’d like to wish you good health and success in your upcoming chess battles. I’d like to take the opportunity to ask you the following questions:
- Which of the old masters’ game collections did you study? Whose games made the best impression on you?

Thanks to the efforts of my parents I already had an extensive library at a young age. Perhaps for that reason I never did learn how to analyse games. For me, studying books meant roaming around with them to every place I went, and it was very common for all the nooks and crannies of our house to be dotted with my books, to my family’s annoyance.

My favourite players in childhood – the ones I “rooted for” – were Adolf Anderssen, Leonid Stein and Svetozar Gligoric, while I didn’t take a particular liking to any of the very old masters.

- In your childhood did you study the textbooks of Lasker, Capablanca, Reti and Euwe?

No, as my first coach, Melikset Khachiyan, paid more attention to game collections and, being a strong player himself, used his own teaching methods.

MS:
- Are there any chess books you cherish special feelings for?

I really love Kasparyan’s book “Secrets of a Study Composer” and sometimes I’ve even thought about working on it and trying to get it published in the West.

- Are there, in your opinion, books which a young and developing chess player with serious intentions can’t skip without harming his prospects?

As recent years have shown, a knowledge of classical chess literature is losing its importance. I think reading different books has more of an influence on the style rather than the quality of your play.

Серегааа: Which books helped you to improve?

Alekhine’s games, “My System” by Nimzowitsch, Dvoretsky’s books – the same, in general, as for 90% of players.

cher1508: Which chess books do you recommend studying?

It’s important to know that the author is someone who’s respected by his colleagues, and that strong players value his work. I think you should make your decision on the basis of the recommendations and choices of strong players.

Valchess: What’s your opinion on the series of books by Garry Kasparov?

As those books are all very different it’s hard to express a general assessment. The majority of the books are very interesting to read, and it’s the literary component that particularly interests me.

Lezheboka: Are you writing a chess book? Are you planning to?
Paul: Levon, when will you delight us all with a collection of your favourite games? THANK YOU!
moroshir: Do you have future plans to write a book of your collected games?
chandler: Do you think you might write a book in the future? [CiT]
Filip Helemans: As I love to read chess books & about chess, and as you are well known to the public for your kind, generous and witty character, when can all your fans, amongst whom is yours truly, expect your first chess book as (co)-author? Rest assured I (we?) wouldn’t expect “Nobel prize” literature – a mere personal account of something chess related would suffice… I am sure it would be uniquely funny & instructive, two traits I always look for in any situation/book/person. If you really really don’t have the time for such a thing, a DVD will do as well (!).
Very best wishes from Belgium and my sincere hope that one day you’ll not only top the rating list but also become World Champion!!! Filip Hellemans (Antwerp, Belgium). [CiT]

It’s something I’ve thought about, but first I’d like to collect some more material. Given that I don’t get the same pleasure watching DVD materials as I do reading a book, it’s unlikely I’ll ever release anything in digital form.

Valchess: Levon, here are my questions that have already become a tradition for our conferences – on chess journalism.
- How do you rate its condition, both in Russia and the world? Are there, for example, genres or publications which you feel we’re lacking?

For me that is, in fact, a sore point. I don’t like the way many sites and magazines are following the trend of the general press and turning into sensationalist publications. In two areas which are very important in my life – jazz and chess – there’s a negligible amount of information and serious analysis from those who are actually involved themselves. I’d like to see more material from strong players and experts who can talk about other strong players.

- Are there publications you try to read (or even subscribe to) – or do you simply glance at them if you have the chance, without worrying if you miss them?

I subscribe to “64 – Chess Review” and “New in Chess” magazine. I store some of the issues separately, as favourites.

- The same question, on chess sites and blogs.

There aren’t any sites I look at regularly, but if I decide to find out what’s happening in the chess world then I take a look at e3e5.com and chesspro.ru.

- Which well-known journalists do you rate? What’s your opinion on the “stars” – Genna Sosonko, Mig Gringard, Yury Vasiliev, Ilya Odessky – or perhaps there’s someone else I haven’t named?

I rate Genna Sosonko and Ilya Odessky. I even recommend some of their writing to people who are far removed from chess.

- The same question – on professional chess commentators. Is there any interest for a chess player at your level in following live commentary and/or games commented on in print, or is that only for fans?

When commentary is done with an awareness of the strength of the players and without the bias of computer evaluations then it’s interesting. But that, unfortunately, is a rarity.

- Do people often approach you and ask you to write something? Do you more often accept, or refuse? What are you criteria?

People rarely approach me, but if the topic interests me then I agree. It’s hard to select criteria as everything depends on the particular case.

MS: Do you use the internet to talk to people and to play?

I talk to my friends on Skype and play bughouse chess on the FICS server.

Cambat: Hello, Levon!
- Do you visit chess forums? If it’s not a secret, which?

I usually visit forums to read about computer engines. All kinds of forums – both in Russian and other languages.

- Have you been to Crestbook and do you look at the live commentary there?

I’m often there. I particularly like the conferences with players.

vasa: A selfish question. smiley
- Do you think there’s a point in having commentary by a Class A player on games by grandmasters in modern conditions (with engines, opening libraries and so on)?

If that commentary is corrected by a serious player, then why not? Perhaps the problem of commentary done by chess players at that level is that a great number of variations can be introduced, and entirely correct ones, but they’re given for moves which don’t need to be illustrated with variations – while some truly critical moments in games might pass unnoticed. But that, of course, is an overall assessment, while you need to look at particular examples. And in general, the more enthusiasts the better for the game.

Кофейный Лыжник: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! I’d like to pose a few questions, but first allow me to congratulate you on breaking the 2800 mark and wish you future success, all the way up to the greatest success possible for a chess player! Thank you in advance for your replies! Respectfully.
- At the moment there’s a widespread problem among the young – “internet dependency” and “gaming/gambling addiction”. Young people often “get hooked” on some sort of internet game and lose both money and – more importantly – their time and energy, letting real life pass them by. Do you think it’s possible to “get hooked” on chess in the same way? What’s your opinion as an experienced chess professional? What would you advise in a situation where someone’s got addicted to chess on the internet and can’t kick the habit?

There’s a big problem when promising players get hooked on one-minute games – that strikes me as harmful. But if a chess amateur plays blitz on the internet, then where’s the downside? On the contrary, I think that’s what we should dream about. But computer games are, of course, more dangerous. Even some of my colleagues have been dragged into that.

Valchess: If you don’t mind I’d like to add a few questions on a topical issue.
- You’ve been announced as a columnist for the new site WhyChess. Are you really planning on writing a blog there, which by definition would imply posting regularly? And why did you agree?

Yes, Vlad Tkachiev proposed it to me, and I agreed, as I’ve got a good relationship with Vlad. It seems to me that he wants to create a site corresponding to the spirit of our era, which will be able to attract young people and in general a wider range of people than usual. At the moment I’m not sure how the site will operate, but it might be interesting. And yes, I’m planning on writing for the site, although I haven’t yet started.

- I’ll quote the words of FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov from his interview under the significant title “Dash to the Market”, which was the first sensational material on WhyChess:
“…chess has come to the end of its tether. Either together with other sports federations we move towards the market or we languish in poverty and chess becomes a parlour game… there’s a proposal to formalise and include the World Rapid Chess Championship and World Blitz Chess Championship in the FIDE Calendar, with a subsequent match for the title of Absolute Champion between the winners of those events… And we’ll see which one sponsors will provide money for. The finance situation will show that if, for example, the absolute champion draws one million dollars and the classical champion draws only ten thousand then it will have turned out that that’s the value of his crown. Let the market decide… To tell the truth, as FIDE President I’m sick and tired of gathering money for champions. There’ve been a lot of examples where we tried to find money and they didn’t do anything, but then after getting the money they started complaining about both me and FIDE. Therefore, they’ll get what they earn.”
Quite a radical statement! What do you think about it?

Well, that opinion of Kirsan Nikolayevich is somewhat puzzling. Elite chess players – can you really imagine FIDE without them? Where would that organisation be without the great champions who created the history of chess by competing among themselves? So I’m amazed by such a blunt form of expression from the FIDE President towards leading players, many of whom are a great help to FIDE. Destroying the system, all these cycles, and switching to rapid and blitz perhaps isn’t that hard to do, but wouldn’t that also mean devaluing the titles, and the very game itself?

Perhaps it’s a case of his not being a grandmaster-level chess player himself, and not particularly grasping the depth of chess, and in his striving to speed up the game, to make it more spectacular and appealing to the wider masses, he’s ready to sacrifice that depth. You know, it’s like saying – you’ve got the Brandenburg Concertos by J.S. Bach. There are a lot of them, a whole six, and they’re so… long, with three-four parts each, and some listeners get bored while they’re being performed… An interesting thought would be to cut out one part of each concerto and make a single concerto, so that people wouldn’t suffer… Except that in doing so all the beauty, depth and meaning would vanish… And what would we be left with? I’m not convinced any good would come of such an exercise. Well, let’s see how things actually go, but for now I’m just a little bit amazed by such a project.

Арианна, Габри и я кушаем раков в Севане
"Arianna, Gabri (Gabriel Sargissian) and me eating lobsters in Sevan."

7. Improvement

Rudolf: Greetings Levon! I am a big fan of yours and would love to see you as the next World Champion!
- How many hours a day do you study chess and what does your training process look like? Thank you! [CiT]
Тактик: How much time a day do you devote to chess?

It all depends on the day in question. During training camps I often spend 6 to 7 hours at the board, while on those days when I don’t have a great desire to do the thing I love, I sometimes don’t work at all. The training process can be imagined as a stage on which two or three people pretend to be working at the board, while in reality it’s nothing other than waiting for a fish (computer) to bite.

Hanish Srinivasan: I wish to know what the right balance is (in terms of time spent) between over the board play (tournaments) and study time for the best chess improvement in young kids. Could you reflect on it from your childhood, as in how many tournaments (games) did you play a month until the time you became a master and then after that up until IM and GM, compared with the amount of time you spent studying and analysing games? [CiT]

Seeing as from early childhood onwards I had a strong coach working with me I combined taking part in tournaments with training sessions. One tournament every one and a half months would, of course, be ideal. During the periods when there weren’t very many tournaments the financial support of my sponsors at the time allowed us to organise small tournaments in which strong players took part. I’d often finish those tournaments with a deep minus score and, I recall, I once even started with an unforgettable 0 out of 5. After becoming a master I tried to play as much as possible. I think it’s helpful for a strong player to play 100-150 games a year. You need to use the rest of the time outside of tournaments for studying chess and maintaining your physical condition.

Sibarit: Greetings, Levon! Hello from Khanty-Mansiysk and good luck in the championship cycle!
- Could you tell us how many games you need to play a year at classical chess in order to be in optimal sporting form?

There’s no precise figure, but I like playing one tournament every two months.

Тактик: Does a chess player with an Elo of around 2500 need a constant sparring partner? Do you have one?

It all depends on the age and goals of the chess player. I started to have sparring partners when I was at around 2550 Elo. Nowadays I work with a large number of different players, but my very first sparring partner was Gabriel Sargissian.

Gonchar: Levon, good time of the day to you!
- Botvinnik – Ragozin, Petrosian – Boleslavsky, Spassky – Bondarevsky, Karpov – Furman, Kasparov – Dohoyan, Aronian - ?

Sargissian.

- Do you have a permanent coach or a stable coaching team? Or perhaps, in the computer era, that’s no longer so relevant?
Rudolf: Do you have a coaching staff and who are the members of it? [CiT]

I do, of course. The fact that besides yourself other people are also thinking about your career inspires you. Computers help out with the work, of course, but without analysis at the board I consider preparation incomplete. Lots of players are involved in my team, but Ashot Nadanian is absolutely irreplaceable. Besides the work he does himself he manages the whole process, while also planning training sessions.

phx: I’m interested to know about Lev Aronian’s relationship to his second(s). Can he tell us a little about the process of preparation and division of labour, as well as the personal relationship? [CiT]

I like working with very diverse chess players. The main selection criteria are their professional skills, although how we get on with each other also plays an important role. The main thing is that the people working together respect each other and have the same love of the game.

Ashwin: First of all, congratulations on breaking the 2800 barrier. Cool smiley
- What exactly is the arrangement between the Player and the seconds with regard to the novelties and improvements? Are the seconds allowed to play the novelties as and when they please? Or is there a time period before which they cannot play them? [CiT]

For me the normal state of affairs is that novelties found while working together can be used by all the participants in the analysis. When preparing for particularly important tournaments I usually ask that the ideas we’ve found aren’t used until those important tournaments are over.

Hanish Srinivasan: In teaching kids chess — is it best to have a proper chess trainer at the very beginning so that they learn it the right way or can this be introduced once the kid reaches a particular level? (if so, what level?) When did you first have a proper trainer? [CiT]

It seems to me that a first teacher has a special influence on the future chess player, which is something that stays with that player. And if that specialist loves his work and has at least a minimum pedagogical talent, then his chess skills aren’t so important. My first coach was the International Master Melikset Khachian, who at the time was young and quite active as a player. By the way, coaches who continue to play themselves preserve their love of the game for longer.

cher1508: Hello, Levon! I wish you success! Thank you in advance for your replies. I’ve got a few questions:
- Is it possible to make progress in chess without a coach?

It’s rare, but there are historical examples of such things. I personally saw the example of Karen Asrian, who was only helped in training by his father, who had little to do with chess.

Nvm: Good day, Levon!
- Where do you start when you’re thinking about a position?

The first thing I look at is whether I can take anything for free. If I can’t then I get down to the usual work – calculating variations, looking for plans.

- How do you search for a move – by brute force (looking at all the moves) or does it “come” to you, after which you make sure it’s correct?

You could probably call it “intelligent brute force”. I calculate variations, trying to look into all the possibilities. If the consequences of that work don’t inspire me, then I go into sleep mode and await enlightenment.

- Does the decision-making process of L. Aronian, the 2800+ Elo grandmaster, differ from that of L. Aronian, the candidate master, and if so, then how?

The process itself hasn’t changed, though I’ve recently improved my concentration.

- Are you distracted by stray thoughts during a game, or is your concentration so great that you forget about everything else?

There are usually different melodies spinning around in my head, which I like, on the whole.

- Do you try to play in the best manner possible, or is your move choice influenced by your opponent – for example, against a positional player would you go for tactics and vice versa, even though objectively you might not be playing the strongest moves?

I usually try to select the best moves, but when I really want to win I might go for some psychological gambles.

- Do you pay attention to your opponent’s rating or do you play at full strength against everyone?

My opponent having a high rating doesn’t have much effect on my play, but when my opponent’s rating is low I do sometimes lack focus.

- What rating (or level of play) do you think a chess player (without any mega-talent) can reach while not devoting very much time to chess?

It’s unlikely he’d achieve a rating above 2500.

- People often talk about the great stresses and loads on top chess players during games. Do you think those stresses are fundamentally more significant than the stresses in an average open or round-robin tournament (for an amateur it probably takes as much effort to calculate a 5-move variation as it takes a grandmaster to calculate a 20-move one)? It’s not noticeable, for example, that leading chess players lose weight during tournaments (e.g. at Wijk) .

The stresses come because a strong player tries to find the very strongest move in a position. With amateurs the search usually comes down to the choice of the move that looks better, so it’s hard to compare the stresses. The fact that elite players don’t physically lose weight during tournaments can be explained by their bourgeois way of life.

CAL|Daniel: How do you maintain your concentration during serious and long tournaments? Do you have special training techniques you use to help build up stronger concentration? [CiT]

As far as possible I try to spend some time on physical exercise during tournaments. I haven’t yet come up with any special techniques.

Zeppa:
- What do you do after a loss?

I try to understand why it happened, and I try to forget about it.

- And what do you do after a difficult and beautiful win?

I spend a while engaging in narcissism, and then I try to get in the right mood for the coming games.

Kit: How do you recover after difficult tournaments? Is it the same after successful and unsuccessful ones?

After successful tournaments it’s far easier to regain your strength. In general, after tournaments I like to play sport or go somewhere by the sea. After unsuccessful tournaments I only rest for a couple of days and then I start to work hard on chess, which in my case is akin to punishment.

Тактик:
- Do you think psychology plays an important role during a game? For example, will an IM who’s a psychologist achieve better results than an average IM?

It seems to me that psychology is more important in encounters between elite players. Until you get to the elite level good moves are more important than acting talent.

- Where do you draw the line between unethical behaviour and the will to win? For example, is playing out a 3 v 2 rook ending for three hours showing a will to win or not? And against Kramnik? smiley

It’s a very fine line, but in any case there’s nothing wrong with testing out your opponent’s nerves.

- Is it logical that when there’s a particular player who people regularly blunder against well-wishers explain it as “wearing down his opponents” while detractors call it incredible luck? Where’s the golden mean?

I’m ready to dispute the idea that such a concept as luck exists in chess. If people often go wrong against a particular player then it’s possible he’s able to influence his opponents to do that.

ChemaAnton: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! What’s your view on the progress of computer chess? Which programs do you use for analysis?

It seems to me that computer engines have got much stronger in recent years. Previously we thought there were one or two decent programs, but now that number’s at least doubled. I use different programs, but the one I switch on most often is Houdini.

Uralchess: Levon, could you tell us about your analytical work: which programs do you use, and which engines?
Mirzo: What’s your view of chess engines? Do they have to be used during analysis?

I treat chess engines as an evil, but one you have to come to terms with. Before they came along the creative component in chess was, of course, greater. If you want your analysis to bring the desired result, then you can’t escape the use of various engines.

Hanish Srinivasan: For those whose chess strength is between 1500 and 2200 and who seek to improve, what is the best way to utilize computers (specifically computer engines) for analysing your own games? Is it better to first analyse yourself manually and make notes and then check with the computer? Is it detrimental if you just run the computer first and let it tell you what mistakes you made? In what way did you most benefit from chess engines when you were developing your chess? [CiT]

In the improvement process for a chess player with the rating you mentioned the main danger with working with a computer might be the incorrect interpretation of its evaluations. It would be desirable if the game analysis a player does is checked by an experienced coach. If for some reason that’s impossible, then writing down the variations and then checking them with a computer is the best option. At the time I started working on chess, computer engines were very weak, and therefore I got by without them when developing as a player.

Sasho: Do you think it’s possible to become a GM (nowadays), if you’ve started playing chess in your 20s? [CiT]
cher1508: Is it realistic to become a grandmaster after 20 if your level is that of a FIDE master?

I don’t think that’s something out of the realm of fantasy. 7-8 years of intensive work should allow you to achieve that level.

Oton: I’m 18 and play at approximately a 1950-2000 level. Can I reach 2300 Elo?

2300 isn’t the kind of summit that’s hard to conquer. Even if you only devote 3-4 hours a week to chess you should be able to reach that level in a couple of years, as long as you have the chance to play in tournaments.

Серегааа: What’s better, spending an hour carefully analysing one position, or spending that hour solving as many positions as possible, without going into any great depth?

It’s better to spend a long time getting into the position, as that’s closer to combat conditions.

Garbushca: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! I’d like to ask you a few questions:
- Which are the best games to play when preparing for a tournament?
a) With a time control of 1:30 and above
b) With a control of 25m – 1h
c) With a control of 5 – 15m
Thank you in advance for your reply. Good luck in your tournaments and in life in general!

Gambiteer: I’d also like to know what you’d recommend as the optimal way of using your time with a control of 1:30 + 30, based on your enormous practical experience.
Thank you in advance.

I think it would be incorrect to try and give any recommendations on how to use your time. Games always develop differently. Personally, I’ve got used to the fact that when playing with a time control with an increment there’s no need to fear time trouble. But again, that’s an individual matter, as many players start to panic when they have a limited number of seconds for a move.

MS: A player at your level can’t avoid working on the openings, while in the middlegame you’ve got your “God-given” talent, but what about the endgame? Do you agree with me than in endgames playing ability is slightly devalued: the most important thing is analysis and the ability to solve logical puzzles? How do you feel in endgames? How do you work (if you work smiley) on endgames?

In the past I didn’t feel confident in endings, but recently I’ve started to work on that. By the way, as a result of my friend Vartan helping me out with them he’s read so many books and written so many notes that I think his endgame textbook should soon see the light of day.

pioneer: Hello Levon. First of all, congratulations on your continued ascent up the chess elite, and for winning the World Blitz title! I am currently 2200+ Elo, but admittedly don’t have a very good positional eye.
- How would you suggest that one improves their positional acumen? [CiT]

Reading books on that topic or analysing games with a strong player will allow you to develop that acumen. The main problem in such situations is usually getting rid of stereotypes. Simply the idea that “this opening doesn’t suit my style” hinders your making progress in that aspect of chess, and if you want to improve your understanding then it would also be useful to widen your opening repertoire.

- And secondly, what advice would you give on how to improve someone’s ability to evaluate unclear positions?
Continued congrats, and best wishes for the Candidates tournament!
P.S. I hope that you and Arianne are doing well… I remember playing in what was her first tournament in the USA back in 1996…long time ago :). [CiT]

Correctly evaluating positions with a material or positional imbalance is very difficult even for experienced grandmasters. I myself, for example, have got a clear bias for minor pieces or a rook and minor piece against a queen. As you can see, that flaw hasn’t stopped me becoming a good player. So don’t worry about that and pay attention to other, more important, components of our game. Good luck!

Paul: Hello, Levon!
- How many moves in advance do you see moves such as 32. Bd7 in the game against Anand in Linares-Morelia 2007 and 16…dxc4 against Kramnik in Wijk aan Zee 2011?

In those two particular cases the decision to select those moves was taken 2-3 moves in advance.

- How do you find them in advance? Is it really by an exhaustive search?

It’s not something you want to admit, but good and unexpected moves very often occur to you out of despair. When you think for a long time and simple continuations don’t work for some reason or other then you start getting angry and at that point you find the most unexpected solutions.

Бирюков Дмитрий: Hello, Levon! I’d like to ask: in your opinion, what rating do you need to have to play professionally and travel to tournaments? How easily do tournament wins come to you? And what do you think about my theory that “e4 wins by force but d6 doesn’t lose” and my sincere belief in it? Is that misplaced? Although up to a point it can bring you joy from the game.

In my view the size of your rating doesn’t significantly influence how much you can earn. It’s much more important where you live and whether there are people in that country or city who are ready to spend money on chess. Tournament victories are the result of many years of working on myself, which doesn’t always pay off.

I treat all theories expressing categorical opinions with scepticism. Thank goodness there’s still a lot we don’t know about chess. The fact that your theory brings you joy is good. The main thing is to try and confirm it by putting quality work into it.

Sasho: Do you train your tactical skills with specific exercises? How often? [CiT]

I don’t work on my tactical vision. If my concentration is good during a game then it’s not hard to see tactics.

Валентин: Levon Grigorievich,
- Is it more effective to train your calculating ability by exclusively solving studies blindfold?

Your question already contains the answer. Solving studies and puzzles blindfold and analysing games blindfold – that’s the best way of improving your calculation.

KidiK: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! I’ve got a few questions for you. I came to chess relatively late and I’m now 22 and a Class B player, but I want to improve my chess. What’s the first thing I need to work on? I play endgames badly and in the middlegame I can’t always find a plan. Of course, I’m not standing still and I’ve been reading various books. Sometimes I get into positions where I don’t know what I should do!
- Is there a preference at this level for what opening you should play for self-improvement? Can you recommend me some chess literature?
Thank you very much in advance.

Firstly, I’d like to note that it’s never too late to improve at chess. In the beginning it’s very useful to study typical endgame positions. The opening should come last, as it’s the most difficult thing. If you want to quickly improve your play then I’d recommend you have a couple of consultations with a chess coach. Among endgame books I’d recommend the wonderful works by Mikhail Shereshevsky

Igor Egin: Does White have enough compensation for the knight after 1.c4 h5 2.c5 g4 3.a5!? gxf3 4.gxf3?

For me, a fan of pushing pawns, it looks to the naked eye as though White has great chances of promoting one of those pawns.

Я с мамой в Венеции
"My mum and me in Venice."

8. Openings

regent: What, in your opinion, is the evaluation of the starting position: is it drawn or won for White?

If Black plays correctly – it’s a draw.

Kit: Is it true that 90% of a super-GM’s preparation is openings?

That’s true, but given the average depth of the analysis extends to the endgame we manage to learn a lot.

phisey: If you take, let’s say, the average of your last 50 classical games, then on what move do you start to play independently rather than reproduce analysis? i.e. I’m interested in a figure (the 15th, 20th, 25th… move).

In the majority of cases when an experienced player encounters something unexpected in the opening he tries to get away from the main line. For that reason the number fluctuates somewhere around move 20.

Серегааа: Hello, Levon!
- What’s the best way of learning openings?

It’s desirable to have a book on that opening at hand, as well as a database, and then it all comes down to analysing the different continuations. That’s work in which breadth, it seems to me, is more important than depth.

- How long does it take to learn an opening?

You can pick up the purely theoretical knowledge in 2-3 months, but it’s also important to get the necessary practical experience, and that might take years.

vasa: Do you think that after 1. e4 e5 White can no longer fight for an edge?

That’s almost the same as if you asked a football team’s goalkeeper if the ball would end up in his net from a free kick taken from 25 metres out. I really hope it wouldn’t, but I can’t give any guarantees.

moroshir: I’m still curious, why don’t you play 1. e4?

I’m trying to leave some room for creativity when I reach the veteran category.

Armenia: Why do you always reply to e4 with e5?

I like the manoeuvring and unhurried play which often arises in the Ruy Lopez and Italian Game.

Denis_Borisov:
- After e4 you always move your king’s pawn 2 squares forward. Is that somehow connected to your childhood? smiley Perhaps you used that move back in your youth (when you were around 12-14)?

In my childhood I played e5, using the Jaenisch Gambit. Yes, and in general, 1…e5 – that’s a reply after which Black can offer a gambit in many lines, which is a rare thing by itself and which really appeals to me, as an active player.

- What did you play when you were 10-16 years old? Topical openings or positional ones?

Up until 14-15 years old I exclusively played open games with White and I played them in the most crooked of fashions. It’s no surprise that I took a liking to the Reti Opening, which I was taught by Arshak Petrosian, and I’d still be playing it to this day if Gabriel Sargissian hadn’t enlightened me about 1. d4 one fine day. With Black after 1. e4 I played the Dragon Variation or the Jaenisch Gambit. After 1. d4 I played the Grünfeld Defence exclusively. As you can see, those were the openings of a player with an active style.

phisey: Could you please select one opening or variation in which you’re a leading specialist i.e. Gufeld – the King’s Indian, Svidler – the Grünfeld, Shipov – the Hedgehog, Aronian - …

The Marshall Attack in the Ruy Lopez. I’ve yet – touch wood! – to lose a single game at the classical time control.

bgo: Could you please name your top-3 favourite openings.

The Berlin Defence, the Czech Benoni and the Catalan.

Alex (USA): Hi Levon, I enjoy your internet interviews and best of luck in the Candidate Matches and the rest of your career.
- Your standard response to 1. e4 is e5 and you have done very well with it. Bobby Fischer changed his openings a bit in his 1972 WC match to keep his opponent off balance. Could we expect the same from you in the Candidate Matches? [CiT]

I’m always trying to introduce something new into my play. Seeing the surprise of your opponent is one of the pleasures of chess.

nik2203: Hello! A huge thank you for taking part in the KC-Conference! Congratulations on reaching the 2800 mark and I hope you don’t rest on your laurels but climb up even higher! Good luck and all the best! My questions:
- Do you think the Catalan is a good system for White? Which plans need to be looked at for White and Black in the lines with a capture on c4?

The Catalan is one of the most popular openings among elite players. I don’t think the opening needs any better recommendation than that. There are a great number of plans in the variation you mentioned and it’s difficult to name any particular plan that would be good in all the positions.

- Which are the most solid variations in the Sicilian Defence?

I think that’s a question it would be better to pose of players who play that defence regularly. For me, someone used to calmer openings, all the Sicilians seem lethally dangerous.

- Do you think that in the Slav Defence (1.d4 d5 2.c4 c6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3) it’s better to play 4…dxc4 or 4…e6?

After 4…dxc4 Black usually plays to equalise, but after 4…e6 he goes for full-blooded play. So it all depends on your opening tastes.

- I remember the tournament in Shanghai in 2010, when in the game against Kramnik you played quite a dubious Catalan variation with White. Could you give a brief commentary on that game, particularly the opening mistakes? It was a pity that you didn’t manage to qualify for Bilbao.

My main mistake in that game was to go for a line I didn’t know. Despite the fact that for a long time the position remained practically drawn, my lack of knowledge of the variation’s evaluation hindered my remaining composed.

- The King’s Indian Defence isn’t seen very often at the highest level. Why, in your view?
Julio Arjona: The top GMs are not using the King’s Indian Defence. Is there something wrong with it? I don’t even have an Elo rating, but if PROs don’t use it, I feel a certain fear about doing so. [CiT]

I can assure you it’s solely a matter of fashion. When Kasparov was using the opening in the 90s the majority of strong players were playing it.

Grafin:
- To what degree, in your view, does so-called opening fashion influence the opening repertoire of chess players in the top-100?

The influence is very strong, and that’s natural. Even back when Gabriel and I were deciding which opening to learn against 1. e4 we started to look at what strong players were using and gravitated towards variations with 1…e5.

- Could it happen that in a particular tournament situation against a particular opponent you would (if, hypothetically, you had the right to choose) prefer to have the black pieces instead of the white, or is the right to make the first move always an advantage?

That’s never happened to me. Playing White you usually have the right to make one mistake, and that’s a great plus.

- No doubt this is a slightly stupid question, but I’ll still go ahead and ask it: Levon, with Black you almost exclusively play symmetrical openings. But what if you absolutely have to play for a win with Black? Is your taste for the Ruy Lopez and the Slav Defence the result of a “classical” chess education, or a natural craving for solidity and rationality?

When you start playing against strong opponents you realise that a draw with Black is a good result. And when you’re playing for a win you can choose absolutely any off-beat opening, as in any case you don’t have the goal of equalising and there’s absolutely no need to have a deep knowledge of it.

- What, in your view, is the best response to 1. e4?
Zeppa:
- After 1. e4 you play 1…e5. Does that mean you consider that move stronger and more solid than 1…c5?

Choosing an opening isn’t a final diagnosis of a move, but simply the choice of a particular player and the result of his preparation. In order to give a diagnosis it’ll be better to wait for 32-piece tablebases.

- Do you think it’s realistic to hope to get an edge with White in the Nimzowitsch Defence if there’s ideal play from both sides?

Most likely no, as Black’s play is absolutely logical.

- The same question about the “Berlin Wall”.

The Berlin Variation is strategically dangerous for Black, but in practice it’s very hard to prove that. I think with absolutely perfect play White can still pose problems.

huibui: Levon, thanks a lot for answering our questions!
- Recognizing your great score with the Berlin Defence (C67), I would like to ask for your opinion concerning Black’s winning chances against a weaker opponent, and maybe you could give your opinion on how (un-)important deep opening preparation tends to be in this ending. Thank you! [CiT]

The Berlin Variation is good for playing against opponents who either want to refute it, or who play extremely passively. If your opponent’s playing for a draw with White, then if you want to play for a win with Black it’s not a good choice.

Zeppa: You’re the leading specialist in the Marshall Attack. Currently the Marshall is a tough nut to crack for White.
- But don’t you still have the impression that it’s a system that somehow goes against the demands of the position, and do you think it’s possible that sooner or later a line will be found which deprives the Marshall of its current appeal for Black?

Of course, it’s very strange that Black gives up a central pawn and in return only gets a small edge in development. Perhaps, sooner or later, White will find appealing variations, but for now I don’t see any particular problems.

MS: For my taste, the Marshall Attack is a boring and harmful opening. Boring, as I’m just waiting for the next perpetual check, extending official theory by half a move. Harmful, as Black’s successes “put an end to” the classical closed Ruy Lopez (which I enjoy watching and play myself with Black). I’d like to take a slingshot and shoot all the “Marshallists”. However, when I see the list of those who play it – the slingshot falls out of my hands.
- You love the Marshall as well? Or, “nothing personal”: it’s a dramatic means of fixing a draw with equals and catching out those who are less well-prepared?

The problem with all sharp variations is that there are a great number of forced lines leading to draws. At the same time, there’s absolutely nothing forcing you to go for those lines, and White has a huge number of playable continuations. The fact that games follow the known paths is the fault of those white players who don’t want to spend time studying the variation. I really love the Marshall Variation and I don’t see any reason to abandon the possibility of getting active piece play.

Thomas: One of my favourite Aronian quotes is “I play the Marshall when I don’t mind a draw, and the Berlin when I want to win”. I may know what you mean, even though I don’t understand, hate and avoid the Berlin in my own games with either colour.
- How do you feel if your opponent plays 5.Re1 against the Berlin? How often has it happened? [CiT]

In that I case I feel sorrow and mild hatred for an opponent who’s refused to go for that most complicated and interesting of endgames.

CAL|Daniel: You made a comment to a journal once that you play the Berlin to win and Marshall to draw. I’m sure it was half in jest but I always play the Berlin for a win myself and get accused of ‘playing for a draw from the word go.’
- Do you feel there is more richness to the Berlin than meets the public eye the way a swashbuckling Sicilian does? [CiT]

Of course there was a fair amount of truth in my comment. The main variation of the Berlin Defence leads to a position where both White and Black have a huge choice of different plans. At times that endgame even makes me think of Fischer Random Chess.

Gambiteer: Hello, Levon Grigorievich!
- It’s well-known that in your youth you often played the Dragon. Why did you stop? Don’t you want to try it again?

I stopped playing that variation as I wanted to improve my understanding by widening my opening repertoire. It’s possible I’ll soon return to the variation as I like the energetic play that’s characteristic of those systems.

- Why do you prefer the (Anti-)Moscow Variation to the Botvinnik Variation?

There are too many forced continuations in the Botvinnik Variation. Not possessing a good memory, I avoid such openings.

markkozyk: Dear Levon!
- Could you give your opinion on the Ruy Lopez Exchange Variation?

I didn’t use to like it when it was played against me, but now I’ve got a good antidote which I hope to use soon.

paavel: Hello, Levon. Here’s my question for you:
- Many of the best Armenian players of different eras (T. Petrosian, R. Vaganian and so on) played the French Defence with Black and were rightfully considered major specialists in that opening, but what’s your view of the defence, and aren’t you intending to use it in your own tournament play?

The French Defence sometimes leads to passive positions for Black. Perhaps over time, when I become wiser and learn how to defend well, I’ll start to use it.

Grafin:
- Which variations in the Ruy Lopez and Scotch are best suited to playing for a win with Black?

If you really want to play for a win with Black then it’s better not to allow the Ruy Lopez or the Scotch. Perhaps it would make sense to avoid symmetry on the very first move.

- How do you evaluate the position after 1. е4 е5 2. Nf3 Nc6 3. d4 exd4 4. Nd4 Bb4+? I recall you once made quite an easy draw against Radjabov that way.

That variation has a right to exist. If White plays correctly he gets a pleasant position.

Бирюков Дмитрий: Your opinion on the move 1…d6?

I don’t feel any burning love for it, but I don’t exclude the possibility of my playing it.

Denis_Borisov: Why don’t you play the Sicilian Defence?

I’ve never studied it seriously and I’m not distinguished by great courage – therefore I avoid it for now.

- After 3. Bc4 do you play the Two Knights Defence or the Italian? Did you ever take an interest in the Traxler Counter Attack?

I usually play the Italian. The Traxler Counter Attack is a very interesting variation, but I haven’t yet had the time to study it.

Aksenoff: Is the Traxler Counter Attack sound for Black at the current time?

As it isn’t played much at the top level I’ve got my doubts on that score.

Igor Egin: Hello!
- Why is the King’s Gambit unpopular at the top level?

It strikes me that it would be very interesting to play. That’s an opening in which Black has a lot of pleasant continuations that lead to comfortable play. For that reason it’s only used for surprise effect.

bgo:
- Can we expect to see the King’s Gambit from you in a serious or more-or-less serious game? And, by the way, what’s your opinion on the Falkbeer Variation?

I don’t yet know myself what you can expect from me. I don’t know the Falkbeer Variation very well, but from my experience I know that if you’ve got a choice between taking an opponent’s pawn or giving up your own it’s better to choose the first option.

- Which non-sound opening do you like most of all?

Among semi-sound openings I like the Richter-Veresov Attack and the Jaenisch Gambit.

Grafin: Is it possible to say that, for example, the Alekhine or Dutch Defences, and also the Volga [Benko] Gambit are better than their reputations as dubious openings?

So far none of the elite players has done serious work on those openings. Getting an advantage with White is a huge problem in the more popular openings, so there’s no time left for Black’s rarer opening selections.

Garbushca:
- 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 e6 3.d4 cxd4 4. Nd4 a6 5.Nc3 Qc7 – what do you think the best plan for White is in that position?

It seems to me the most promising option is the variation starting with the move 5. Be3, after which White tries to play Qd2, f3 and castle long.

- 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 Nc6 – in which variation do you think White has an edge and why? If 6.Bg5 e6 7.Qd2 a6 8.0-0-0 Be7, then which variation do you think it’s best for White to choose here?

I really like the Velimirovich Attack. The sharpness and synthesis of ideas make the play in that variation very lively. The line starting with 6. Bg5 is one I barely know and therefore I’d find it difficult to recommend anything to you.

Oton: Do you think this variation is sound for Black: 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4. Nd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6 6.Bg5 e6 7.f4 b6 8.Qd2 Qb2?

Considering the famous names of those who’ve played the line it’s hard for me, a player who doesn’t know it, to imagine it can be unsound.

Guamokolatokint: Hello, Levon!
- What did you think when Nepomniachtchi (in Wijk aan Zee 2011) ended up a rook down on the 10th move?

I was deeply grateful to him for providing the feast and waited until the end of the game in order to express my sincere gratitude.

Я и моя сестра Лилит дома в Берлине
"My sister Lilit and me in Berlin."

9. Other forms of chess and games

Sasho:
- What’s your favourite time control? [CiT]

Lately I’ve enjoyed playing with the 1:30 time control for 40 moves, plus 30 seconds a move, and an hour or half an hour with the same 30-second increment until the end of the game. In that case games don’t last so long and the quality doesn’t suffer greatly.

- Do you play blitz regularly? Does it help? [CiT]

I very rarely play blitz. If I spend my time at the chessboard it’s usually analysing various openings, while in my free time away from chess I sometimes play bughouse with friends.

MS: If games lasting several hours are abolished and people switch to rapid and blitz – will you breathe more easily?

No, because chess will lose its depth.

Alexander: What do you think of your internet nickname Drawronian? [CiT]

If the majority of the internet public consider that nickname appropriate then I’ve got nothing against it.

Dymko: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! In 2010 you became the World Blitz Champion. Did you prepare specially for that tournament? If so, then what did your preparation consist of? Thank you!

The secret of preparation is to get a good night’s sleep. In short games a lot’s decided by a player’s physical condition.

Тактик: Hello, Levon! I’d like to take the opportunity to congratulate you on your (relatively) recent win in the World Blitz Championship! I’d like to ask you a few questions:
- A slightly provocative question smiley Who would you include in the world’s top-5 best blitz players?

There isn’t really such a concept as the top 5 or 10 in blitz. It all depends on how well-prepared each person is for an individual tournament.

- Do you play on the ICC? If yes, then what’s your rating? By the way, do you happen to know what Carlsen’s username is there? smiley

I play very rarely and for that I usually create trial accounts, which cease to exist in a week or two. So I get my fill of playing on the internet but don’t get addicted. I’m not very interested in the real names of my virtual opponents, and I don’t know the handles of other players.

- Do you agree that internet blitz and playing blitz in person are two different games, and that people who play well in person can play poorly on the internet, and vice versa?

There’s a huge difference, and I feel it with myself. I see much more at the board.

- It’s well known that on the eve of the World Blitz Championship Carlsen and Nakamura played a 40-game match. It ended, by the way, at something like 4:30 in the morning. How do you think that went? smiley

I heard about that. I think Carlsen would have won as he’s the stronger chess player at the current moment. [Editor’s note: the Carlsen-Nakamura match was played after the World Blitz Championship in Moscow was over and finished with a score of 24.5 – 15.5.]

Aksenoff: Suppose you’re giving a simultaneous display on 30 boards.
- What’s the minimum/maximum rating range you’d set for the participants?

As I’m a maximalist by nature I like it when such an apparently showy event becomes a test of my abilities. If the very weakest player at least plays at the level of a Class A player, then the display can become a real challenge.

- What’s the average maximum [rating of your opponents] that would still allow you to achieve a victory to zero (not counting accidents)?

It’s very difficult to win on 30 boards with no losses. You can only guarantee such a result if you significantly reduce the average rating of your opponents. I’d dare to assume that if the general mass of players wasn’t stronger than Class B, then the probability of my achieving a clean sheet would be around 50%.

Uralchess: Hello, Levon!
- What’s your opinion on correspondence chess? Do you consider that the appearance of computers has made it obsolete or, on the contrary, has that raised it to a qualitatively higher level? Do you think it’s a fully-fledged form of chess? Do you use correspondence databases yourself, and how often?

Of course, the arrival of computers has made the games more mechanical. I really like to look at the games of correspondence players, and a database of their games is an important instrument in our preparation.

krey: What do you think about chess composition? Do you have any study or problem that you particularly remember?

Of course I’m not as active a composition fan as Nisipeanu, but I like to solve studies, even if it’s something I do very rarely. When it comes to problems and studies I don’t wander far from the classics, and I love Loyd and Kasparyan.

Ken: You play Chess 960 extremely well.
- First, do you have any general comments about the game? [CiT]

It’s a game I really love and I see it as the future of chess.

- Second, do you think Chess 960 can be played at blitz time controls in a way that the game quality is not laughably poor? (Unlike in normal chess, the opening in Chess 960 takes thought and time, so I worry that at blitz time controls there is simply not enough time in total for a typical game.) [CiT]

The blitz time control destroys the whole advantage of the game over normal chess. The greatest pleasure in that form of chess is that you have to use your head from the very first move, while a lack of time forces you to act without thinking.

Vladimirovich: Good day, Levon!
- What’s your opinion on Fischer Random Chess, and when will it go out the window?

The game will suffice for the lives of your great-grandchildren and mine.

MS: Does Fischer Random Chess offer the promise of devaluing opening theory or… 960 times more theory?

Fischer Random Chess is a fresh look at the game without a great loss of harmony.

Marignon:
- Are you interested in, and have you tried to play, other forms of chess, besides classical and Fischer Random?

About 10 years ago I tried playing all sorts of variations of chess. The ones I liked most were atomic chess and bughouse i.e. those which are very far removed from normal chess.

- What do you think about the prospects of enochian chess?

I had a look at the link you provided and could see that it’s very interesting. If I get some free time I’ll learn the game and challenge you to a match. You and I will be the only ones who’ve mastered it.

Хрущёв_Алексей: It’s well-known that you’re a great fan of bughouse chess smiley I’d like to hear your opinion on the prospects for that game. Is there any chance of that variety of chess being recognised as a sport? Will World and European Championships be held in it, and so on?

For me, bughouse chess is an opportunity to have fun. As it’s very important to monitor your time in the game you have to sacrifice good moves for quick moves. For that reason, play on the internet often resembles one-minute games. At the board it’s much more interesting, and during the Amber tournament we’d often arrange battles with me, Magnus, Sergey Karjakin and other players. As for the game’s prospects, I don’t have any settled opinion, but I hope other players will love it as much as I do.

Кофейный Лыжник: To what degree can you evaluate the chess qualifications of a player based on a bullet match (1 minute), let’s say out of 20 games? For example, can a Class A player win such a match with a 20-0 score against an IM or a GM? Or can such an outcome be considered statistically insignificant (in other words, unlikely)? Can you draw such a conclusion if the 20-0 victory is achieved not only on time, but on play?

I’ve never played one-minute as I’ve always considered it a harmful pastime which can stop a chess player thinking abstractly while not worrying about time. I think it would be extremely wrong to judge chess strength by evaluating the ability to play one-minute games.

Mustitz: Which other games do you like, apart from chess?

As I understand it, your question refers to table games. At home with my parents and my sister’s family we compete at Scrabble. With my friends I sometimes play poker and, once in a while, Belote.

WinPooh:
- Levon, have you ever played any chess variations other than classical and Fischer Random?

Apart from the ones I’ve already mentioned I’ve also played crazyhouse and kriegspiel. I like both games, but I don’t have many people to play against.

- Shogi, syanzi?

I’ve heard about those games, but I’m prepared to trust my friend Hao who doesn’t consider them to be so deep.

- Are you familiar with Go?

I’ve never played it, but I know it’s a serious game. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but apparently representatives of their federation banned the writing of computer programs that play Go. If that’s true, then they’re either wiser or more cowardly than us.

Бирюков Дмитрий: Your opinion on playing poker?

I like playing it, but I play as I sing.

Мои родители в Венеции
"My parents in Venice."

10. Life

Denis_Borisov: How are things? smiley Don’t you regret not qualifying for Bilbao?

Things are going fine for me. Rather than regretting the past I prefer to look to the future.

Kit: Which of your talents have you buried in order to work professionally on chess?

I had no problem making a choice, as I don’t have the necessary talent for other activities.

Korsar274: Hello, Levon!
- Do you have an unfulfilled childhood dream? For example, to go into space or to complete a round-the-world trip.

I’ve got a dream of learning to play some kind of musical instrument. I haven’t yet carried it out.

boz: Levon, what do you do when you are not playing chess? [CiT]

I live like a normal financially-secure person. I play sport, go to concerts and the cinema, travel.

Igor Egin: Do you consider yourself a normal person living a normal life?

A normal person has a lot of responsibilities I don’t have. For now the size of my income and the amount of time I can spend on leisure depends on me alone. That’s pleasant, and the majority of my colleagues, like me, consider themselves lucky.

Max-ML: Which character traits are responsible for people having such a good opinion of you? smiley You know, on chess forums (and not only there) fans love some people while others… aren’t loved so much. But almost all fans have a very positive opinion of you and Anand.
Respectfully, Maxim, Odessa, 34 years old.

It seems to me that both Vishy and I have a calm attitude both to life and our profession. He, like me, is interested in and gets pleasure from many things outside of chess.

vasa: Could you tell me if you have chess-related dreams?

Extremely rarely. However, I once found a very decent opening idea in a dream.

Alex (USA): You use your right hand to write down your moves but you use your left hand to make them. Why do you do that when most people use the same hand? [CiT]

I can’t explain it, but I find it very difficult to do it any other way.

chandler: Who’s had the greatest influence on your development as a person? In particular, can you detect the influence (any nice stories?) of someone on your highly pleasant whimsical attitude (that comes through in your video analyses and interviews)? [CiT]

As is the case for the absolute majority of people, the main influence on me was my parents. Perhaps a certain eccentricity comes from my dad, whose antics we often discuss and recall at home at the dinner table.

Григорий Гринчук: Hello, Levon. I read that your father lived in the Vitebsk Region. Could you say something about that? 

My father comes from the village of Kokhanovo in the Vitebsk Region. He lived there for 27 years. I’ve got very pleasant recollections of the village of Kokhanovo, as we spent every summer there with my father’s parents until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

jenya: Hello, Levon. It would be great to learn more about you and your family.
– Tell me, please, about your parents. Where and how did they meet? What did they study, and what are they doing now?

My parents met on Elbrus and got married shortly afterwards. My father, Grigory Leontievich is a physicist, while my mum, Seda Sarkisovna – is a mining engineer.

- Perhaps a slightly unusual question: what do your family call you? And your friends? Lev, Levon, or something else?

At home they call me Leva, while my friends usually call me Grigorich.

- What language do you talk to your girlfriend in? The chess world already has a few multi-lingual couples. To what extent do the language barrier and your different upbringing hamper communication?
Thank you! Good luck in your matches. Zhenya.

My girlfriend and I mainly talk English, but I think in a couple of years we’ll be speaking Russian.

Armenianpianist: First off, let me use this as an opportunity to express my gratitude for the pride you have brought to Armenia, and the role model you have been to me, though this small post will never do it justice. Thanks in advance for your responses, and best of luck!
- Anyway, when you play, do you ever have thoughts that you are “playing for Armenia,” or does this only occur in the Olympiads? [CiT]

Given the interest there is in chess in Armenia I’ve always got that feeling, and it inspires me.

- Also, are your parents slightly disappointed (not that they have much to be disappointed about!) that you are dating a non-Armenian? [CiT]

My parents are polite and cultured people, and I’m sure nationality is the last thing to bother them about a person.

Armenia: Barev Levon dzhan (Hello, Levon!).
- Don’t you miss Armenia?

I think I probably spend more time in Armenia now than ever. When I start to miss it I usually go there without informing my parents or friends first, as I enjoy dropping in for a visit (just like that).

kamil: Why is it that you don’t live at home in Armenia, but abroad?
Guamokolatokint: Which city do you live in now?

Currently I live between Yerevan and Berlin. I moved to Berlin 10 years ago in order to give myself a chance to take part in tournaments all around Europe. In those years, when I moved, flights from Armenia were very expensive. They’re not cheap now either, but that’s no longer such a problem.

Grafin:
- Levon, can you tell me, if it’s not a secret, how you ended up in Berlin?

Originally, when my family and I moved, we settled in the town of Genthin in Saxony-Ankhalt. Having lived there a while, we got used to it. Seeing as in order to fly to other countries we always had to fly from Berlin, at a family council we decided to move there.

- How do you find living there? What do like in German life, and what don’t you like so much?

In German life I like the calm and predictability of things which should be predictable. The main thing I don’t like is German cuisine.

- To what degree have you managed to learn German?
Thanks for your replies and I wish you new successes!

I barely speak German, but I know the words you need for everyday life. For everything else I use English, and fortunately the majority of Berliners understand it.

MS: You live (or previously lived), if I’m not mistaken, in Germany. Is another country for you simply a slightly different way of life, or do you feel isolated from your home or things you’re used to (language, people, places, climate…)?

Having started to travel when I was 9 years old, I gradually got used to Europe and other cultures. The only thing I miss in Germany is chess-playing friends (or people with a free mode of life), who I could play a game of tennis against or go somewhere with by bike.

- “A man is…”?

A woman’s best friend.

- What’s your circle of acquaintances like?

Usually they’re people who have free time to play sport or sit around in the evening, drink wine, talk about art or argue about something.

Oton: What’s your view of religion? Do you go to church? How often?

I’m tolerant of religion. I don’t observe rituals or visit temples.

Zeppa: Hello, Levon Grigorievich! Thank you very much for agreeing to take part in the KC-Conference.
- What did you dream of being when you were a child?

When we started fighting in kindergarten the coolest boy was considered to be the one whose dad was a policeman, and occasionally I’d resort to that vile lie in order to also seem important. Although I no longer remember my childhood aspirations now I assume I wanted to become a policeman.

- How many children would you like to have, and of what sex?

As by nature I’m a curious person then the more the better, while the sex doesn’t matter.

- Who would you like your children to become?

People who love life and are motivated and lucky.

- Which habit or character trait would you like to get rid of?

It’s not hard to get rid of habits. Among my traits I’d like to get rid of laziness and being easily distracted.

- Are you superstitious?

Categorically not.

- Can you name the most joyful recollection of your life?

I’ve got a great number of joyful recollections, and it’s hard to pick out the very top. Many of them are tied to my family and career, and the recollections from recent years are mainly connected to travelling to different countries.

- And the greatest sadness?

The death and illness of people close to me.

Gorodnichii: Dear Levon, thanks for being there at the top of world chess. It makes it easier to believe that human qualities don’t get in the way of achieving success smiley My question:
- Which activities, distractions or hobbies help you in difficult chess moments, helping you to deepen your understanding of chess and achieve success in it? Well, and if possible, could you say a little bit about how they help you?

Mainly I’m helped by my love of music, literature and cinema. Those hobbies calm me down and give me inspiration. Before a game I often listen to something by J.S. Bach or John Coltrane. Those two, a composer and a musician, are always with me. After a game I often read or watch something.

- And then the main question! What’s in the bottle?! smiley

Previously it was Chinese green tea of various sorts. Lately I rarely take a bottle with me, but as I’ll soon be in China again, I’ll think about resurrecting the tradition.

Zeppa:
- Which languages do you speak?
Bergstrasse: How many languages do you speak fluently? [CiT]
Don: Since chess is an international game, how many different languages are you either fluent or conversant in? Which is the most useful in general? [CiT]

I’m fluent in Russian, English and Armenian. The most useful is Armenian, as during team events you can calmly discuss your opponents with your teammates, and that helps to lift the mood and team spirit.

Kit: In which language do you think during a game?

There are a great number of expressions which are impossible to translate into other languages, and therefore, as in life, I think in a mixture of three languages.

Zeppa: Do you have any sort of hobby?
Kit: Do you have time for a hobby? Which?

Besides the ones I’ve already mentioned above, I also really love canoeing.

Zeppa: Your favourite dish and favourite drink?
Aksenoff: Your favourite alcoholic/non-alcoholic drink (if you’ve got one)?

For food – almost any unprocessed seafood  (i.e. different types of sashimi, oysters - molluscs). Among everyday drinks – Tahn or anything with mint. Among alcoholic ones – dry red wine and different types of sherry.

Kit:
- What’s your favourite cuisine, and favourite alcohol?

I really love Korean and Philippine cuisine.

- Is it true that Armenian cognac is dead?

The best recommendation you can give for Armenian cognac is that Vladimir Kramnik, living in France, promised me all sorts of riches in exchange for two bottles.

Кофейный Лыжник: What’s your opinion on the books of Arthur Conan Doyle? Can you treat his works as children’s literature?

Along with Jack London he was my favourite author when I was 12-14 years old.

Alex (USA): You’re a fan of Franz Kafka as I am. What makes him so appealing to you? [CiT]

It’s the vulnerability of a man who, fundamentally, hasn’t done anything wrong, which is reflected in The Trial, The Castle and America, and reminds me of Soviet and post-Soviet times. I also like the fact that in his works there’s an attempt to look at the world from the most varied of perspectives as, for example, in “The Burrow”, or in “Investigations of a Dog”.

cher1508:
- Which non-chess books would you recommend?

I can vouch for everything written by Platonov, Kafka and Gogol.

- Which films can be instructive for a chess player?

That’s something I’ve never thought about. Perhaps some drama film with a sporting or musical theme. For example, “Raging Bull” or “Round Midnight”.

Zeppa: Who’s your favourite writer?
regent: Hello, Levon! Which are your favourite authors and works (I’ve got in mind literature, and not chess smiley)?

Apart from those I’ve already named I also really love Mikhail Zoshchenko, Herman Hesse  and Albert Camus.

- What’s new in the world of cinema? What have you liked recently, and who are your favourite directors?

I don’t follow trends in cinema. My favourite directors include – Woody Allen, Truffaut, Hitchcock, Fellini, Kurosawa, Ozu, Kar-wai, Bunuel, Malle, Solondz, Bertolucci, Tarkovsky and Bergman

Zeppa:
- Who’s your favourite composer?

In classical music I love Bach, Scriabin, Ravel, Dvorak, Khachaturian. I know others less well, but I’m trying to fill in those gaps.

- Who’s your favourite film actor (actress)?

Among actors I really like Jean-Pierre Leaud, Fernando Rey, Johnny Depp, Alberto Sordi and Jean Gabin. Among actresses: Anna Maniani and Greta Garbo.

Bergstrasse: Prosit! Genatzt! Yung sing! Cheers! GM Aronian, I wish you good health and much success in the WCC Candidates Matches. Enjoy yourself!
- Can you name a novel or two or three that you’ve read at least twice? [CiT]

Having reached the mature age of 13 I decided not to re-read anything, so as to have time to read all the worthwhile books – and I’d already built up quite a pile at home. I can mention two books that I reread in my childhood – the “Collected Fairy Tales of Gianni Rodari” and “Karlson Who Lives on the Roof”.

Valchess: Could you please name three books, three films and three albums (musical) that you’d “take with you to a desert island”?

Among books I’d take “The Castle” by Kafka and think up its continuation, as I think there’d be time enough on the island, “Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livy” by Niccolo Machiavelli and a volume of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poetry. Among films I’d take something entertaining, something by Scorsese, something with Rita Hayworth in the main role and some film with aliens. Among albums – “Kulu Se Mama” or “Live at the Half Note 1965”  by Coltrane, “Live at the Five Spot” by Eric Dolphy and Booker Little and “Love Devotion Surrender”  by McLaughlin and Santana.

Mirzo: Hello, Levon! I’m glad to be able to ask you a few questions. Thanks in advance.
- Do you listen to music while analysing games and/or during preparation for a game or tournament?

It’s rare that analysis takes place without a musical accompaniment, and the music in such cases is very varied. The normal rotation is to have Otis Redding, Benny More, The Doors, many other groups and performers, and also jazz, folklore music from various countries and classical music.

- Which music do you prefer (in general) – mugham, or something more modern?

All plaintive singing has a bad effect on me. However, sometimes a group of us listen to the classics of the genre for fun.

- Who do you listen to and why?

I most often listen to music where there’s a lot of improvisation. I like to follow the train of thought of the performer.

jenya:
- Are you fond of music, art?

I rate both painting and music very highly, but I’m in the role of a spectator.

- In your childhood did you by any chance play a musical instrument, or did all your free time go to chess?

In my childhood I had piano lessons for a year, but as I found it easier to learn chess, and I didn’t really like my piano teacher, my brilliant musical career came to an untimely end.

Bergstrasse: Do you play a musical instrument? [CiT]

I don’t even have the slightest sense of rhythm.

Ken H. from N. California, U.S.: Greetings Levon — I saw that you enjoy the music of John Coltrane. You are lucky to have a good musical ear. My favourite period of his: 1957-1962. Yours?
By the way, chess must be somewhat popular in Armenia. I know three Armenian-American chess players, and they are all candidate masters and improving. Meanwhile, as much as I respect Mr. Anand, I’d be very happy to see you win the World Championship. Good luck! [CiT]

Nowadays I like his post-Miles period up to the splitting up of the quartet. I listen to his later works actively and try to understand them.

Bergstrasse: Well, I couldn’t help but notice, after reading some of the other questions, that you’re a big fan of the late John Coltrane, of Jazz. Are you familiar with the 1963 recording he did with Johnny Hartman? [CiT]

I’m familiar with almost all the recordings from his discography. On the recording you mentioned Coltrane and his team play very beautifully and I often use that album along with the recording of Coltrane and Duke Ellington’s quartet from 1962 in order to recruit new jazz fans.

Valchess: Are you interested in history, philosophy, ideology and, finally, politics? If yes, then what in particular are you interested in?

I’m interested in so far as issues arise on the given topics. I really like learning new subjects with the help of books.

chandler: Are you interested in philosophy? Spirituality? [CiT]

I do have an interest in those subjects, and sometimes my wiser friends supply me with useful reading material.

kamil: What’s your view on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh?

I regret that it ever started. I really hope that in time the Armenian and Azerbaijan peoples can again learn the art of being good neighbours.

MS: There’ve been cases in the past of Azerbaijan chess players allowing themselves to make anti-Armenian statements. As I understand it that’s a way of earning government support. Do Armenian chess players find themselves in a situation where there’s a demand (or an expectation) for “correct” political assessments?

For us, belittling or hating any other nation will never be considered a correct assessment.

Aksenoff: Is there a place on Earth you dream of visiting? smiley

Seeing as in general there’s no great problem for me now to go anywhere I want I’ll name a country where it’s not so easy to be a citizen of Armenia. I’d like to travel around various corners of Azerbaijan.

krey: Hello, Levon! You’re my favourite player out of the whole chess elite (and don’t think that’s flattery!). Chess players from Moldova tell tales about how at the end of the 90s a “sunny boy” visited them… And how he greeted them warmly in Armenia…
- When are you next planning on visiting Moldova?

I’ve got lots of memories of Moldova, and in a professional sense I learned a lot there. I played 4 matches with local chess players in Kishinev and took part in a few tournaments. I really hope I’ll manage to go again sometime to that country where I was treated very warmly.

Max-ML: Have you ever been to Odessa? smiley

I’ve been, but only in passing in the distant 90s.

Геннадий Иркутск: What do you know (or at least what have you heard) about our (Irkutsk, Baikal) area? Have you ever been?

I’ve heard there are wonderful places there and it’s somewhere you have to go at least once. But it’d be better if you came to us in Sevan. It’s warmer where we are.

bebop norway: Greetings from Norway Levon Aronian! Have you been to Norway? There are some quite good jazz festivals here during the summer, both more traditional and modern jazz, and many interesting young performers popping up. (Tips & hints for your Norwegian holiday can be traded for some modest opening prep for a 1500-player! he he). [CiT]

I haven’t yet been to Norway, so I’ll be looking forward to the Olympiad in Tromso. I’ve heard a lot about big jazz festivals, but I don’t yet have the time.

Ramon: Hi there Levon! Looking forward to the first ever Anand-Aronian WC battle. As we all know, chess players have an infamous reputation of being labelled nerds and introverts (although not all of us are, ALL are still prosecuted). Although we might have bragging rights in the intellectual area, we aren’t the guys who would actually get the girl.
- So to cut a long story short, how can chess players have that cool factor in them to get any girl of their dreams, without having to quit the game but still able to be at around master strength? [CiT]

Your faithful servant is a nerd and introvert, without even a hint of coolness. Usually it’s the girls themselves who find the chess players, seeing in them something more than a silent fanatic of his trade.

- How can strong chess players be an alpha male without being a nerd or an introvert? [CiT]

Hard to answer, as I’ve never set myself such a goal.

- How to make girls view chess as fun and not boring? This way, hopefully chess players could clear their reputations and make chess a respectable sport so supermodels would not only look out for golfers, footballers and tennis players but also give chess players an equal if not more fighting chance. [CiT]

If someone doesn’t see anything interesting in an intellectual activity, then it’s hard to influence that.

HEM: I hope this question is not insulting.
- Can you share with us top GMs attitude to sex during long events? Is it like in football when the coach says ‘no way’? I guess it would be harder in something like Tata where there are 13 rounds smiley [CiT]

Seeing as our profession doesn’t involve hard physical effort there’s a fundamental difference between us and football. So on that issue it’s all a matter of your individual approach.

Кофейный Лыжник: Have you heard anything about the exceptional chess talent of the famous mafioso Charles Luciano?

To be honest I haven’t, though the only mafioso I’ve known well for many years was a former chess master.

Julio Arjona: Have you heard about the thinking process method called SCAN? If you have, what do you think about it? [CiT]

It’s unlikely any chess player has ever thought about controlling or changing his thinking process. If you think it’s really important to know about that method then please be so kind as to write to me about it.

11. If only…

vasa: If a time machine existed would you want to change anything in your life? To put right some kind of mistake?

I’d return to my childhood and force my parents to get me into some active sport.

moroshir: If you had one hour in order to talk to someone from the past… Who would it be, and what would you ask him/her?
Zeppa: If you had the chance to meet any person from the past, who would it be?

I’d meet with one of my grandfathers, who I always remember.

Гость форума: If you were given the chance to play one game with one of the chess masters from the past, who would you choose? And which colour would you play?

I’d meet with Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian and offer to play blitz against him with trash-talking. [Translator's note: "trash-talking" is my attempt to convey the Russian original, which Sergey Shipov explained as follows - "it's a verbal accompaniment to each move in blitz games. Jokes, emotions, minor teasing, or sometimes very sharp attacks on your opponent. It's a powerful weapon. It can be used to mentally crush an opponent."]

Мастер Икс: Dear Levon! As they got to you first with the question about a time machine, I’ll phrase it differently: - Imagine that you’ve got a choice: to become the World Champion imperceptibly (you wake up and the matches are behind you) or instead to live through that path minute by minute, move by move, and with an unpredictable outcome. What would you choose?

As I come from Armenia, the path of Nazar the Brave, who didn’t do much to become King, is closer to me. And that’d also mean it was possible to preserve my nerves.

bebop norway: If a group of top players, let us say, Aronian (yep), Anand, Kramnik and Carlsen put their heads together in a match against a computer (like the Kramnik vs. Fritz match), do you think you would be able to come out with a win? [CiT]

I think our chances would be sharply improved if we also took a somewhat notorious French player into our team.

bgo: Imagine you were offered the chance to put a sum of money that’s very serious for you on the table and play the best program in a match of 3 (5) games. The program would be given a handicap of 2 pawns (the program has the choice of which pawns), but you have to win in the match, and a draw in the game will be considered a defeat (Armageddon). Would you accept such a bet?

I’d be afraid of accepting a bet, but I’d be curious simply to play.

Aksenoff: There’s a well-known story about A. Alekhine refusing to play a game against a fellow traveller he met by chance. To the indignant “But you don’t know me at all” he responded, “That’s precisely why”. How would you act in a similar situation? Has there ever been such a case?

When I’ve got free time I rarely turn down the chance to make someone’s day.

Zeppa:
- If you caught a golden fish that was ready to fulfil your three wishes, what would you ask it?

It’s hard for me to come up with even one wish, never mind three. All three wishes would probably be connected to space and humanity.

- If you encountered God, what would you say to him?

At such a meeting I think I’d lose the gift of speech.

12. In conclusion…

Zeppa: Could you let us know your e-mail address?
Геннадий Иркутск: What’s your e-mail?

If you want to contact me then you can write on my Facebook page.

vasa: Were the questions you were posed interesting?

If you’re expecting me to reply no – then I’ll have to disappoint you.

Арианна и я готовим адобо
"Arianna and me trying to cook adobo in the kitchen of a hotel in Armenia."

KC-Conference with Levon Aronian: Part 1

KC-Conference with Levon Aronian: Part 1 - in Russian
KC-Conference with Levon Aronian: Part 2 - in Russian

Valery Adzhiev (Valchess), Stanislav Phiseysky (phisey) and Colin McGourty (mishanp) took part in the preparation of this conference. V. Adzhiev was responsible for editing the text and translation from English and C. McGourty was in charge of the translation from Russian. Chess fragments were handled by Vasily Lebedev (vasa).

Other KC-conferences in English:

KC-Conference with Ruslan Ponomariov. Part 1
KC-Conference with Ruslan Ponomariov: Part 2

KC-Conference with Peter Svidler: Part 1

KC-Conference with Peter Svidler: Part 2

KC-Conference with Alexei Shirov

KC-Conference with Alexander Grischuk

KC-Conference with Michal Krasenkow

KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part One
KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part Two
KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part Three