KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part One.
We believe that our "KC-conferences Project" has reached that phase when it deserves to be available not only in Russian but in English. This will let chess enthusiasts from all over the world read our unique "people's interviews" with great chess stars and in the future to ask them their own questions. Our American friend Dana Mackenzie, chess master and writer, is working on the translation of our already published conferences. So welcome to the first KC-conference in English: grandmaster and FIDE World Champion of 1999 Alexander Khalifman answers to questions submitted by users of the KasparovChess forum.
Alexander Khalifman is the ninth featured interviewee in this ongoing project of KC-conferences. Here he answers in detail, among other things, questions about his view of the role of chess in society, his career, his coaching and literary work, his chess colleagues, and, finally, about chess politics. We will also present examples of the best games of our guest, commented by analysts from our site. The second half, containing answers to questions about chess literature and journalism, the Internet, principles of preparation and improving one’s play, openings, and simply "about life", will appear on our site in a few days.
The discussion will be continued in the same KasparovChess forum thread where the questions were posed: «KC-conference with Alexander Khalifman.».
Short Biographical Sketch:
Alexander Valerievich Khalifman was born on January 18, 1966, in Leningrad. He studied in the mathematics and mechanics department at Leningrad State University. He served in the army. He is married and has a daughter.
Alexander was six years old when his father taught him to play chess. His first trainer was Vassily Mikhailovich Byvshev. Later he worked for many years with a Honored Trainer of the Russian Federation, Gennady Nesis. Alexander achieved his first major successes in youth chess. He was the two-time junior champion of the USSR (1982, 1984) and junior champion of Europe in 1985. Among the titles he has won in official competitions are: two-time champion of Saint Petersburg in 1996-97, champion of Russia in 1996, member of the winning Russian world championship team in 1997, and a member of the winning Olympiad teams in 1992, 2000, and 2002.
He achieved the title of International Master in 1986, and became a Grandmaster in 1990. His highest FIDE rating was 2702 (October 2001, January 2003, April 2003). His current FIDE rating is 2625.
He was a participant in the Candidates’ matches in 1994. He has been the victor or a prizewinner in many international tournaments, among them Plovdiv 1986 (3), Dordrecht 1988 (1), Moscow 1990 (1), Groningen 1990 (1), New York Open 1990 (1), London 1991 (1), Ter Apel 1993 (1), Rakvere 1993 (1), Elenite 1994 (1), St. Petersburg 1995 (1), Hastings 1995 (1), Bad Worishofen 1996 (1), Ischia 1996 (1), St. Petersburg 1997 (1), Aarhus 1997 (1), Hoogoven 2000 (1), Kazan 2005 (1) (sharing first place in the premier league of the Russian championship) and others.
His greatest success was his victory in the FIDE World Championship in Las Vegas (USA) in 1999, a tournament in which practically all of the strongest players in the world participated, with the exception of Kasparov and Anand. The tournament was conducted by the knockout system. Alexander defeated the following adversaries consecutively: D. Barua (0-1, 1-0, 2½ -1½), G. Kamsky (1-0, 0-1, 1½-½), K. Asryan (½-½, 1-0), B. Gelfand (½-½, ½-½, 1½-½), J. Polgar (1-0, ½-½), and L.-D. Nisipeanu (½-½, ½-½, 1-0, 0-1, 1-0, ½-½). In the final he defeated V. Akopian (1-0, ½-½, 0-1, 1-0, ½-½, ½-½). After winning the title of FIDE World Champion the Petersburg grandmaster admitted, "I always knew that someday I would be first!"
Alexander Khalifman is a famous chess theoretician and writer. He is the author of the popular series of opening books, "The Opening for White According to Anand" (analysis of the move 1. e4, in 12 volumes) and "The Opening for White According to Kramnik" (analysis of the move 1. Nf3, in 3 volumes), which have also been translated into English. He is the co-author, with G. Nesis, of the books "Tactics in the Grunfeld Defense" and "Tactics in the French Defense". He has written numerous columns, which have been published in practically all the leading chess periodicals of the world.
Gennady Nesis’ book "Alexander Khalifman", published in 2000 by the publisher "Litera", tells the story of the player’s creative journey. In the same year, Everyman Chess published a book by Nesis and Khalifman in English, called "Khalifman: My Life and Games".
In 1998 Alexander Khalifman founded The Grandmaster Chess School.
Sergey Shipov writes about Alexander Khalifman:
Khalifman is a young chess classicist. He is an absolutely universal player, who handles both complicated dynamical positions and dry, seemingly boring positions with equal skill. I do not think that there are any typical middlegame positions where he orients himself poorly. He is strong in endgames. In general, he is one of the best representatives of the Soviet chess school.
Alexander possesses encyclopedic knowledge of the openings, which he has worked on a great deal. He is omnivorous, flexible, and cunning. The best way of preparing for a game with Khalifman is a good night’s sleep. It is simply unrealistic to guess where he will go in the opening. Notwithstanding his tournament victories, his world championship title and his dozens of brilliant games, he has not realized one hundred percent of his talent. However, he has many talents, and still a long time to live …
(Apology to English readers: The game annotations are not yet available in English).
Lalic - Khalifman (Linares 1997) (comments by Vassily Lebedev).
Khalifman - Karpov (Reggio Emilia 1992) (comments by Vassily Lebedev).
Almasy - Khalifman (Ubeda 1997) (comments by Ildar Ganiev).
Khalifman - Van Wely (Wijk aan Zee 2002) (comments by Vassily Lebedev).
Ehlvest - Khalifman (Reykjavik 1997) (comments by Ashot Shakhmuradyan).
Khalifman - Volkov (Kazan 2005) (comments by Ashot Shakhmuradyan).
Instead of an Introduction
The last thing I have ever wanted to do is to present my thoughts and opinions as the latest version of any kind of universal truth. Therefore, in order to avoid putting “IMHO” in front of every other sentence, I want to say this at the very beginning. In answering these questions I don’t pretend to teach or enlighten anybody; I am simply expressing my thoughts, which, I hope, will be of interest to some of you. - A. Khalifman.
vasa: Alexander, why do you think people play chess?
Now there's a question! Maybe we will have to postpone the conference, because already one can spend so much time answering this question? In order even to come close to an answer, the strong grandmaster and deep thinker Leonid Yudasin wrote a thick book, and you are asking for an answer from me in a few lines.
If I may write telegraphically: people play games because the competitive spirit is deeply ingrained in human nature. They play chess in particular because it is a fortuitous invention—a game of complete information, one in which the opponents start out in equal conditions, which is to some extent complex and to some extent simple. Other games could have appeared in place of chess: the Japanese, for example, play go, and they also like it.
Kamul: What valuable and useful contribution can chess make to the everyday life of an ordinary person?
Of course it’s hard to talk about some kind of tangible utilitarian value, but nevertheless a chess-like approach to many life situations can often help. The ability to organize your thinking, to separate what is important from what is secondary, to look at the same situation from different angles, and to anticipate the opponent’s conclusions and one’s own counter-conclusions: all of this is chess. And much more.
Caffeinated Skier: Greetings, Alexander Valerievich! I was rooting hard for you in the final match at Las Vegas! I’d like to take the opportunity to offer you my congratulations!
My question: Is chess useful for society, or is it simply a game? What do you think?
Chess has its own niche in human history. I will not attempt to evaluate its value to society either in a monetary equivalent or in lives saved, but without chess the world would be poorer, and in that sense it is not "just a game."
• Which is greater in your life: the amount that professional chess has taken from you or the amount it has given to you?
The second, with no hesitation. Even if it turned out tomorrow that my professional chess activity had done irreparable harm to my health (knock on wood), I would still be happy with the way everything turned out, even the things that didn’t turn out the way I wanted. They have been wonderful years, which brought me the joys of victory and creativity, many interesting meetings and the chance to spend time in various cities and countries. It’s even sad that everything has all ended so quickly.
• What has changed in chess, so that nowadays after five or six rounds grandmasters talk about being tired, and after 10 or 12 rounds the participants really do look like very tired people in the press conferences? It seems as if they had no such problems in the past:
Does it have to do with something other than chess?
This is not complicated to explain, and human nature or ecology have nothing to do with it. In those golden days, the preparation for a game went something like this: "Should I play the King’s Indian today? Hmm… or the Queen's Indian? Oh well, what’s the difference anyway." Now, without concrete preparation for the concrete opponent it is impossible to accomplish anything on the elite level, and so the working day has increased at least one and a half times. Correspondingly the pressures at the board on your thinking apparatus and your nervous system have also grown. In addition, the games used to be adjourned after 40 moves (in fact, this was still true when I got started), while now in the same game you might fall into time pressure two or even three times, and the stress grows in a geometric progression. In sum, to organize a tournament today with 20 or more rounds would be a mockery of chess and the players.
klf: To promote children’s chess – what applied skills of chess education do you consider the most significant?
Chess is fairly unique for the precise reason that it teaches you to think. Most subjects taught in school only weigh your memory down with information, without giving you the skills of independent mental work. Even the solution of physical or mathematical problems most of the time can be reduced to one standard algorithm or another.
But chess teaches you to think, and not only that, it does so in a playful form that is very natural for children. And at the same time, it brings you face to face with a very concrete result – either you win or you lose.
vasa: The traditional questions:
It's not so easy to answer. For some reason the first thing that comes to mind is the missed opportunities, and there have been many of them. But in order not to deviate from the theme, I would say it's the move 41. Qe1! in my game with Karpov (Reggio Emilia 1991/92).
As I was thinking about the position after the time control, I worked it all out to the end and became convinced that I was going to defeat one of the most outstanding chess players of all time. In general, I love exactly this sort of unostentatious beauty of short moves. By the way, if you happen to see a score of that game in which this is the 39th move, don't believe your eyes. Knowing my own habit of messing things up in time trouble, in the opening I did not forget to include the moves Ng5 Rf8 Nf3 Re8. And, as you see, it helped.
• What combination gave you the greatest satisfaction?
That would, without question, be the finishing combination of my game with Serper (St. Petersburg, 1994):
Of course it is not complicated, but I remember it vividly. When I discovered the combination, for a long time I couldn’t believe that such a thing could actually happen in a real game.
• Your most memorable game?
Now I have to talk about missed opportunities after all. I was 20 years old, and several rounds before the end of the USSR Championship (Kiev, 1986) I played a good game and had a simple win against the respected GM Vitaly Valerievich Tseshkovsky. If I had won, I would have moved into first place. Alas, I lost the game, and after that I fell apart at the finish. You would think that was all long ago, but it still bothers me to this day.
Grafin: Tell us, please, about your most memorable victory and most painful loss!
The most painful loss was against Tseshkovsky (USSR Championship, 1986), and the most memorable victory was my draw in the 6th game of the match with Akopian (Las Vegas, 1999)For several days after the defeat against Tseshkovsky I would even wake up, as in "Groundhog Day", hoping that it was only a bad dream, and today I would play the game as it ought to be played. Unfortunately, it was not a dream… But after the game with Akopian, such a feeling cannot be described. I was happy that this happened to me.
ischukin: If my memory does not deceive me, in 1998 you worked in some way with a company called “Shakhkom” (if I am wrong, forgive me). I remember that, still being very young (I was 20), I sent a letter to Shakhkom that had a virus attached to it which was going around the Internet, and the virus broke something. In any case, I received an angry letter with threats of legal action, and only after my detailed explanations I received a letter with your signature, in which you apologized for your overly emotional colleague. I don’t know if you remember that episode, but for me personally, after your victory in Las Vegas, this insignificant event took on a special meaning – after all, not so many fans receive a personal letter from the world champion (no matter what the subject might be).
• Could you say, Alexander, how you remember your victory in the world championship now? Do you remember it as the most meaningful event in your chess destiny, or maybe with the words, “God, how long ago that was,” i.e., without any particular emotion but with an understanding of how quickly time flies?
Well, after all I was not the right champion. :-)) By the way, I always try to answer all of my letters – before the championship, and after.
I never played a leadership role in "Shakhkom", and to be honest, I do not want to remember anything about the leader (aut bene aut nihil, you understand). Of course it is wrong to send out viruses, but if you are running a company that does business over the Internet, please be so kind as to put up a good defense and not to threaten inexperienced users with legal action for no good reason.
Naturally, I remember Las Vegas with nostalgia, as the highlight of my career, but it was indeed a long time ago, and it was what it was.
procrastinator: Hmmm, I suspect that it’s not so very few (fans who have received letters from Alexander – ed.). I received an answer from you when I participated in the Microsoft match “Kasparov vs. the Rest of the World.” I have a question about that. What inspired you to coordinate the world team? And how did that initiative affect your relations with Kasparov?
What inspired me? First and foremost, the excitement of being a fan. Secondly, it was after all a sort of advertisement for my school, which at that point was not even a year old. By the way, I do not regret at all the time and effort I devoted to it, because I was fortunate to meet many interesting people. I’m only sorry that the godforsaken world championship dragged me away and didn’t give me a chance to figure out what was going on in that endgame, otherwise we probably would not have lost.
My relations with Garry Kimovich at that time were a sort of constant, which my participation or non-participation in that match could not have affected.
klf: "At first you work for authority, then authority works for you." In your opinion, how much in percent (30% - 50% - 80% - 95%) of the things you have accomplished today could you have realized if you had not won the title of champion?
I always get lost when I try to answer such “if only” questions. Okay, perhaps I might not have won Las Vegas, but then maybe I would have won something else instead?! Maybe I could have promoted my connected pawns against Anand in Groningen 1997 or Delhi 2000?
Goodness, it’s very hard to evaluate this in percentages. Nevertheless I am certain that I have not realized my abilities to 100%, but what happened, happened. On the whole I am satisfied with the work I have done.
phisey: Is your style more tactical than positional?
My style is more universal than either of the categories you just named. The absence of even the smallest apparent talent always forced me to play off my opponent, in other words, to play in that style that would be most uncomfortable for that particular opponent in that particular game. That’s difficult work, of course, but at times it didn’t work out badly.
• How would you assess your style of play in chess (brilliant tactician, strategist, attacker, defender, etc.)?
I tried to be a universal player and act in a fashion that would be maximally uncomfortable for the concrete opponent.
• Your favorite, strongest phase of the game (opening, middlegame, endgame)?
People say the opening. Possibly that is so, although that has to do not just with the amount and quality of home analysis, but also with psychology. I often managed to guess where my opponent’s weak spot was.
Evgeny Bondar: Good day, Alexander!
• Let’s imagine a situation where you are playing an important game. The opponent is thinking about his move. He has two roughly equal continuations. Do you at that moment:
The situation is too abstract. If, let’s say, one of the possible moves could lead to complications, while the other would lead to a quiet positional game, then I will, of course, first calculate the tactics. But if the two moves are truly equally strong, and the character of the battle does not change, then if I am not in time trouble I will probably try to take a little bit of a breather, in order to concentrate better after my opponent’s reply.
• Do you play better with opponents who are unpleasant to you on the human plane, or …?
I am a very peace-loving person, and in principle I feel discomfort in situations of conflict. For that reason it is simpler for me to play people with whom I have neutral relations.
ischukin: Where do you see more chessic beauty—in a technically irreproachable duel, perhaps even ending in a draw, or in a game that is full of events, with oversights, missed possibilities, and the like?
Those are two forms of beauty, and each one has its partisans. Forgive me for the rather banal answer, but over time I have come to appreciate both one and the other. Maybe my personal striving toward universalism has played a role.
• How great are your present ambitions in chess?
As a player they are completely gone; I sometimes play for my own satisfaction. As a trainer—time will tell.
ot4eto: Greetings from sunny Bulgaria. How did you deal with the psychological burden of being champion of the world?
I won the championship at a fairly mature age, therefore life had already prepared me for being over-burdened. It was hard at first to accept the massive currents of hate that came my way, but I gradually got used to this.
Gena: "His greatest success was his victory in the FIDE World Championship in Las Vegas (USA) in 1999, a tournament in which practically all of the strongest players in the world participated, with the exception of Kasparov and Anand. The tournament was conducted by the knockout system…" After this victory, did you consider yourself an equal classical champion in the line beginning with Steinitz-Lasker- … up to Kasparov, or did you somewhere in your heart of hearts understand that it wasn’t so?
Thank you for your undoubtedly good intentions, but it never even came into my head to consider myself the equal of Steinitz. He defeated Zukertort, but I had to master Kamsky, Gelfand, and Polgar. Now compare. (P.S.: Unfortunately, I often run into a complete absence of a sense of humor in my opponents. I hope that this does not apply to you, dear readers, but just in case I would like to add: Insert smileys according to your taste.)
In my perhaps uneducated opinion, a world chess champion should prove his superiority not only over one outstanding challenger, but over others who are, perhaps, equally outstanding.
I do not idealize the knockout system and I do not even have any thought of considering myself a great chess player, but nevertheless the ideal system for awarding the world championship has not yet been invented.
razum: Alexander, hello! I have always read all of your materials with great interest and was rooting hard for you during the nighttime broadcasts from Las Vegas. (There was a time when chess was shown on generally available TV.) But even earlier I demonstrated your game with Balashov from the last round of the Finals of the Russian Cup-98 in Samara. Is it true that after this game you decided to quit chess?
My game with the respected Yuri Sergeevich is not especially relevant, although it is a dubious pleasure to play a game with a temperature of 39 (C.) It isn’t so much that I decided to quit, but I simply decided then that I would first and foremost occupy myself with the school, and I would do everything else—which included practical play—when time permitted. The decision was not connected with the result of any concrete game or tournament.
krey: Hello, Alexander.
"Given up chess" is too strong an expression. I completely acknowledge that the time of my greatest successes in practical play has passed, but nevertheless, almost everything that I do today (coaching, writing, running the school) is connected in the most direct way with chess.
As far as composition is concerned: I very much love to solve studies, but I have not succeeded in composing anything interesting, although I have tried.
3. The author's school and books
Valchess: Tell us about your “Grandmaster school.” How do you evaluate its current composition and prospects? What are its biggest problems? Plans? By the way, the title page of its website (http://www.gmchess.com/index_r.html) looks strange: the first thing that strikes the eye is an invitation to participate in the school tournament on "September 29-30, 2007."
I don’t even know what there is to tell. The work continues, and in some ways things are going well, in other ways worse than expected. On the one hand, the conscious decision I made from the very beginning not to ask for budgetary money under any circumstances allows me to save face, but on the other hand, some possibilities have remained inaccessible by definition. At the moment certain reorganizational measures have been completed (unfortunately, I have often made mistakes in my staffing politics). We will refresh the site—thank you for the suggestion. The thing is that it was never intended as a site for news, but on the other hand, announcing that your site is three years out of date is obviously a gaffe.
• On your grandmaster school’s website it says, "We invite you to visit the beautiful city of St. Petersburg for a 10-day program of chess instruction from only 400 € per person." Have the masses been coming?
Of course, they come. St. Petersburg by itself is an attractive destination, and it goes quite well with chess. Naturally I won’t claim that a crisis has never affected demand for our service (alas, how it has), but nevertheless life goes on.
• In a discussion of chess slogans on one of the forums, you wrote about the motto of your school: "From the personal and narrow example of my school, I can only add that our clients have latched on to the slogan "CHESS = INTELLECT + CHARACTER". It has been proven by practice." Can you give a little bit more detail about the ways in which the "clients latched on", and what is "proven by practice" in the context of chess P.R.?
As I recall, the conversation had to do with the most appropriate slogan for the advancement of chess. I don’t know exactly why and how this one works, but it is fundamentally true and it is easy to remember. I’m not sure what other details I can provide.
Gennady Irkustk: Are you planning to open any affiliates in Siberia, and do any teachers of your school teach at a distance (over the Internet)?
I am always open and ready for negotiations. I am not prepared to found hundreds of schools, but I would be glad to organize a couple of affiliates.
Of course, the school does give lessons over the Internet, and has for a very long time. But because the budgetary river has passed our island by, I'm sorry, but they are not free.
If you are interested, write to
Eriksson: How would you react to an invitation to give a couple lectures and play a simul against chess players from out in the provinces?
Anytime, please. Well, of course, not anytime, but when my calendar is more or less free. But in principle, I am always ready to consider proposals.
stirlitz: I saw that you have been named the trainer of the third Russian team at the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. Tell us about this, please. What tasks are you giving your team, and what place are you aiming for?
This is, to be precise, not exactly the third Russian team, but a team representing the hosts, i.e. the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District-Yugra. I have been doing this work already for a long time, since the beginning of 2009. For now I will refrain from talking about concrete problems, all the more so because they have been posed not by the team trainer but by the leadership of the federation. In general, the composition of the team allows me to approach the competition with cautious optimism. Of course it will be difficult for objective reasons to contend for the prizes, but we will try to finish in the top ten on our home field. The one thing I would add is that the real team will be somewhat different from that which appears on the list, but for now I cannot go into the details.
• Will there be tryouts?
The tryouts, so to say, already took place in Dagomys, because the club “Yugra,” which played in the premier league, coincided to a great extent with the Olympic team. But there will be more selections made immediately before the Olympiad.
• How do you see your role as trainer of the team?
The work of a trainer is really a cushy job. Rest at home for the whole day, just don’t forget to give the players a wake-up call in time. More seriously, there is a whole bunch of factors that the trainer has to follow. That includes determining the optimal team for a given match, keeping the team’s morale up at the necessary level, solving concrete opening problems, and many other things—I am not prepared to reveal all of the secrets.
vasa: Alexander, can you say how many more volumes are planned for "Opening According to Anand"? And will the publication of "Opening According to Kramnik" continue?
The two last volumes still remain in the titanic Anand project, and one of them will be out soon. I am continuing to revise the "Opening According to Kramnik" series, since I’ve already started, but I don’t have a lot of enthusiasm for it.
turas30: Hello! I liked your series on "The Opening for White According to Anand" a great deal. Have you thought about writing "The Opening for Black According to Anand"?
Thanks for the positive review. At the moment I am not planning any new series, because I need to carry the series I have already begun through to its conclusion and rest. And after that—I’ll think about it.
• Can you tell me, please, about the future of the series of books "according to Anand" and "according to Kramnik"? When are you planning to put out a volume on the Najdorf "according to Anand"?
The volume on the Najdorf with 6. Be3 e6 is coming out very soon, and after this I will get to work on the last volume in the series.
• I have some questions connected with these books. Are you satisfied with their commercial success? Is there a demand for the books?
This question is meant more for the publisher than for me, but it seems as if everything is going well.
• Are you satisfied with the quality of the analysis and recommendations? It’s widely known that the books have many mistakes and obvious lapses. In connection with this, are any new editions planned?
As far as "many" is concerned, allow me to disagree. According to even the pickiest critics, there are significantly fewer mistakes in the analysis than in other opening books. Again, don’t be too strict towards volumes published in the "pre-Rybka" period.
Revising The Opening According to Anand would be a hellish task, which I am hardly likely to undertake. One must also be aware of the fact that after the publishing of a new edition, there will eventually be a need for a new new edition and so on ad infinitum. To be honest, I am already unhappy that I committed myself to a revision of the series According to Kramnik.
• Don't you have any plans for repertoire books for Black?
To be honest, for now I am planning a certain pause. I have gotten a little bit tired of constantly working on opening books. I will put to rest the series I have already begun and then take a break, and we'll see after that. After all, “Rybka 5” may come along by then and show us the best move in every position without exception, and then opening literature will cease to be relevant.
• Say a little bit more about the team of authors of the volumes according to Anand and Kramnik. Is there an experienced advancer [Translator’s note: a player of advanced chess, i.e. tandem chess with a human and a computer] on your team?
Naturally you can't sift through all the rubble by yourself, and you will constantly need help. There is no team of authors per se, but we constantly attract different specialists in specific variations. If it's possible to highlight one of my co-authors, I am very grateful to Roman Ovechkin—there is one person who combines a fresh mind and a whole wagonload of ideas with healthy and rational self-criticism. And of course, it's impossible to overestimate the organizational and other work that has been done by the publisher of these series, Sergey Solovyev.
We have occasionally worked with an experienced advancer, but somehow it has never worked out well. He was clearly lacking in just that kind of self-criticism. However, I do not want to assert that this is a characteristic of all advancers. Probably we just weren't lucky.
• How large was the proportion of your co-authorship on the books "Tactics in the Grunfeld Defense" and "Tactics in the French Defense"?
In spite of my great respect for my guru of many years, Gennady Efimovich Nesis, I have a fairly critical opinion of those books. My role in them was extremely simple and limited—a certain number of commented games at the end of the book. I do not bear even the slightest responsibility for anything else.
• Do you have any plans for a Russian series of Black openings, and—if it's not a secret—whom would they be "according to"?
My plan is to carry the series I have already begun to their conclusion and take a little break, and it’s possible that I will write something that is not about the opening.
• Do you plan in the future to revise "The Opening for White According to Anand" and "The Opening for White According to Kramnik" completely or in separate volumes as the theory develops, or is this a "one-time" series?
In fact, the series "According to Kramnik" is undergoing revision right now, but I will most likely not hazard an attempt at revising "The Opening According to Anand".
4. Chess Players
Ruslan73: What are the personal characteristics that, in your opinion, are necessary to reach the highest level in chess?
Hmm, I don't even know. It seems as if no matter what you say, you can find completely convincing counterexamples. One of the most valuable that comes to mind would be the presence of a specific talent for chess, but as my experience has shown, it is possible to become FIDE World Champion without even that. A strong will and a powerful intellect are also salutary, but some people manage to do pretty well without either one or the other. Sorry, but I won't name any names.
Grafin: Who in your younger years was your favorite chess player?
I don't think that I had any idol per se, even in early childhood. If I had to pick someone, it would probably be Tal.
• Have you seriously studied the biography of any particular chess player? If so, then whose?
If you're talking about under a microscope—nobody's. On a popular level I am familiar with almost all of them.
• Name the chess players that you consider to be geniuses (if any).
Of the ones who are active today—Anand, Kramnik, Ivanchuk. Some people may say that I am lowering the standards, but that is my opinion.
I do not want to delve into the distant past, in order not to disturb the ghosts of past greats with a detailed study of the question of why, for example, A is a genius in my conception but B does not make the cut. It's not worth it.
• Have you studied the games of P. Morphy? How important is he for the understanding of chess by today's chess players?
Of course, I have studied them. They have no particular routine value for the contemporary chessplayer (after all, the vast majority of his opponents played painfully weakly), but they help a lot in building an understanding and appreciation of the beauty of chess.
• On the Internet a theory has appeared that A. Alekhine was the victim of an arranged murder. What do you know about this, and what is your opinion of this theory?
To be honest, this is the first time I have heard of it. It seems unlikely to me, but in the absence of information I am not prepared to argue about it seriously.
ot4eto: Whose games, among the former world champions, created the strongest impression on you?
You can learn something from all of them, but if I had to choose the absolute favorites, it would probably be Fischer and Tal.
• What score do you have in your personal meetings with other world champions (Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik, Anand, Topalov, Ponomarev, Kasimdzhanov, ...)?
Taking only the classics, against Karpov I am -1 in 7 games; with Kasparov I have four draws; with Topalov I am +1 in 4 games, but he was still quite young then. I lost one game to Ruslan, and I won one against Rustam. Against Kramnik I am -1 with several draws. Against Anand I have a terrible score.
• Your most difficult opponent?
It has to be Anand then. Perhaps I am not the first chess player to say that.
Незнакомец: How strong do you think Kasparov would be if he returned to chess today?
It’s always rather hard to answer “if only” questions, especially when you’re talking about something that is almost unbelievable. A very important question then would be: How and for what reason would this hypothetical return take place? After all, it’s one thing if he returns to play one tournament, and a completely different thing if he decides once again to battle for the highest of the heights, throws all his politics into the wastebasket, selects a team of seconds, and so forth ... The second scenario seems to me especially unrealistic, but in the former case he would probably play at about a 2750 rating.
• What is happening, in your opinion, with the popularization of chess in the far future? Do you think that the number of active players, grandmasters, and rated chess players will continue to grow? Will we die out, like mammoths, or run away into poker, billiards, or business?
I think that the number of professional players is a more or less fixed quantity. The increase in the number of grandmasters is first of all due to inflation in the title, and something should be done in this direction (perhaps it is really worth thinking about creating a new title). However, I hope that the popularity of chess will grow. It seems to me that the “poker craze” will be a temporary phenomenon.
• Chess, it seems to me, is running against the worldwide trends in sports. It had gotten younger and younger, and now suddenly it has gotten a lot older. The world champion and a good half of the elite are people who are fairly advanced in age. Why? And what is the optimal age for a chess player? That is, on the average.
I think that no new trends have appeared. The picture that we see today is only an indirect consequence of the collapse of the USSR and a direct consequence of the long-lasting chaos whose foundation was laid by Kasparov and Short.
I have considered and still consider that the optimal age in contemporary chess is around 25. We can and should admire those geniuses and monsters who manage to remain at the highest level of play up to age 40, but they are still completely exceptional cases.
Winpooh: Alexander, you wrote in your column on the match in "64" that Anand and Kramnik are geniuses, but Topalov is merely a talent. Could you develop this theme in more detail? And what place in the hierarchy of talent and genius can Magnus Carlsen aspire to, in your opinion?
This is, of course, only a subjective feeling. No special algorithm exists for measuring chess talent, and no units of measurement exist either. It simply seems to me that the talent of Anand and Kramnik is so outstanding that one can consider them geniuses. Topalov, of course, has great talent, but I can think immediately of ten other active chess players who are not less gifted. This number is already a little bit too large to consider all of them to be geniuses. This assessment is not intended in any way to offend Veselin. Quite the opposite. Talent comes from nature, but in order to achieve outstanding results with less talent, you need an extraordinary fighting spirit. The powerful natural gifts of Carlsen are obvious, of course, but for the time being I am not prepared to place him in the company of geniuses. Although this is, of course, more than likely.
Valchess: Alexander, people remind you regularly of the perhaps too pugnacious comment you made about Carlsen at the time of the Wijk aan Zee tournament in 2007, but I will not miss this chance: “… there is talent in Africa and there is talent in Norway, too. But there is not a SCHOOL … I don’t want to look like a naysayer and a reactionary, but for me the elite prospects for the young Norwegian are still hazy.” You also said that in order to acquire such a SCHOOL, the Scandinavian trainers Agdestein and Nielsen would not be able to help him—he would have to come to Russia… In the last three years the haze of doubt has dispersed, and it is become clear that a SCHOOL, in the most classical sense, exists, and this is in spite of the fact that Carlsen turned down the chance to work with the most famous Russian trainers, which was offered to him at one time. So: My question is not about the prediction itself, but about the concept of a “school.” What did you include in this concept when you were talking about Carlsen? And do you understand how he managed to acquire this school (which was barely noticeable from your point of view 3 years ago)?
Also, at the same time, if you can, characterize the strong and weak sides of Carlsen today.
I underestimated the scale of his talent, which of course can happen with anyone. Vishy also broke through nearly to the very top right away, and began to fill in the gaps in his schooling later. And in Carlsen’s play, too, in my opinion, certain gaps sometimes show through even to this day. By the way, he now has the assistance of a man who could even in passing teach not only a school but a university or an academy. So he wasn’t completely able to get by without the Soviet chess school.
What a school is and what its presence or absence means is something that you can understand very well if you analyze with Asian chess players. In February and March I worked a little bit with Le Quang Liem, and I will say honestly that sometimes my eyes popped out of my head. He is also a very talented boy (maybe not a Carlsen, but definitely out of the ordinary), and he is trying very hard to grow. But at the moment all he does is calculate and calculate variations. He calculates very well, by the way. But a school is, in my opinion, what you would call a basis of positional principles, playing from general considerations and this sort of thing. It’s very hard to learn it even from good books. In order to know which pieces should go where and when to exchange what, that is when it is very important to work with a qualified trainer.
Carlsen has a colossal natural talent in exactly this positional, intuitive direction, and that is his very strong side. It’s awkward to talk about weak sides with respect to a player who is number one on the rating list, but it seems to me that when the play enters into an irrational channel, that is when he sometimes starts to feel uncomfortable. In order to achieve his greatest victories he still needs to become more universal, because it is hard to believe that his current game will be enough, relying exclusively on technique and positional understanding.
ischukin: Do you think that Kramnik still has the ability to lead the worldwide ratings, or is he already too "played out" for such a task? Does a new generation of Russian players have a better chance?
I would be happy to be wrong, but it seems to me that this generation is starting to leave the stage. All of them—Kramnik, Anand, Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand—still have isolated tournament successes ahead of them, but the first line on the rating list is a very serious business. It will be very challenging to shove aside the "Viking with the propeller." (the reference is to the hero of “Karlsson-on-the-Roof” by Astrid Lindgren which is very popular in Russia – ed.)
Kamul: Tell us about Ivanchuk, please (both as a man and as a chess player).
Vassily is a genius, that's all there is to it. I don't have any desire to talk about his everyday, inoffensive peculiarities. As a chess player he is unfathomable, so that it’s hard even to describe his strengths. Like no other player, he has the ability in seemingly completely ordinary positions to arrive at deep decisions that no other player would have even dreamed of.
ot4eto: Tell us your opinion about the championship match between Anand and Topalov.
It was a very strong match. Both in the quality of play, and especially in the intensity of battle, I cannot even remember another one like it. I consider the result to be completely just, but Topalov also gave a very good account of himself.
Eriksson: Whom did you root for — Anand or Topalov?
For Anand. Not strongly, as for example I might root for Zenith (St. Petersburg’s popular soccer club – ed.), but just slightly. I don’t have the slightest antipathy towards Topalov, but that Mr. Danailov, at certain times, does not evoke positive emotions.
Neznakomets: Who will qualify to face Anand from the candidates’ matches?
I think that Aronian has the best chance, but for the time being the precise format and location of the competition is unknown, so it is impossible to give a serious prediction.
Valchess: Some questions concerning young talents and their system of preparation.
• Your opinion of Karjakin, Nakamura, Caruana, Giri, Nepomniachtchi, Syugirov, and Le Quang Liem (whom you have, after all, worked with)?
I described Liem a little bit in my answer about Carlsen. I don’t want to write anything concrete about the other young players you have named. Each one of them undoubtedly has the makings of a top-level player, but how they use those gifts is in their hands alone. It is not my style to announce that one of them is in my opinion not good enough for great accomplishments. The only exception is, perhaps, Nakamura. He is a little bit older than the others, but that is not even the main reason. In my opinion, those endless bullet marathons are interfering with his aim. Although, of course, he could become a repeat champion of the world at blitz. Perhaps that is in fact his priority.
• How are things going with young talents in “Piter” [Translator’s note: informal for St. Petersburg]? What is your opinion of Vityugov’s chances? (For some reason, in spite of his obvious successes and stable progress, no one seems to talk about him in the same way that they talk about the ones I mentioned above.)
Yes, Vityugov also has serious prospects. The fact that he is not being promoted with his name in lights in the West is, of course, an obstacle, but it is not impossible to overcome. Everything is in his hands. He needs to get registered more quickly for strong tournaments, and then we’ll see.
• In your time you went through the Soviet system of preparation of young prodigies. How do you evaluate its effectiveness now? The pluses are obvious—but were there any minuses? How do you evaluate the Russian system in its current state?
The Iron Curtain, I will tell you, was the kind of minus that outweighs a great many pluses. About the “pluses” I can tell you many interesting things, but I am not ready to yet. No one rolled out a red carpet for me, personally. I had to break through on my own. For today’s youths, of course, on the one hand it’s more difficult, but on the other hand it is easier because there is no longer the harmful illusion that someone will solve all your problems for you. And independence of thought is itself a major plus. The state of affairs today is, in my view, clearly better than it was 10 years ago, for instance—there are schools, there is income. Of course, it is a long way from pure Communism, but again I will return to the point with which I began: Communism was absolutely not all pluses, even if you limit the discussion to the education of young chess players.
phisey: Why has the Petersburg chess player Evgeny Alekseev recently receded into the shadows, judging from his results?
Zhenya is now going through a difficult time in maturation as a person and as a chess player. I am nevertheless certain that he will eventually prove himself.
5. Chess Politics
• Are you a member of the Russian Chess Federation (RCF) or any other chess federation?
As far as I understand it (at least, according to http://russiachess.org/content/view/12/26/) there is no such thing as an individual membership in the RCF. I am a member of the Chess Federation of St. Petersburg, although lately I don't really understand what the point is for me. In one of my earlier answers I touched on my relations with various powers. That is, by definition I have never managed to become friends with any of the leaders, but until recently I managed to have some sort of reasonable coexistence with many diverse leaders of the St. Petersburg Chess Federation. However, for reasons that I completely do not understand, our new leader has taken a very harsh line of excluding me from the city's chess life. At the moment, let me put it this way, I am surprised by all of this.
• In your opinion, what should be the main tasks of chess federations?
Just to do something like what it says in their charters: to organize competitions and to promote chess. Or are you trying to subtly lead me to the idea that in reality they do something completely different?! I know what is going on, but what can you do about it? These gentlemen really love to win elections. As for everything else—[they say,] don’t blame me!
Eriksson: Do you think that the RCF is about to collapse?
I think that what is going on right now is a common situation. When certain people pay the money and a completely different set of people order the music, that is a constant source of instability. I don't know all the details, but I am certain that everything will be smoothed out, and in fairly short order.
phisey: Do you think that it was right for them to rename the FIDE World Championship as the World Cup? After all, the way that the players are competing is still not child's play.
And why should one play at half strength for the World Cup?
To be serious, I have no formulated opinion on this question. Although the knockout system is far from ideal, the way that the world championship plays out today also does not seem to me to be the best solution, even with all of these sacred traditions attached to it. The most amusing part of this history is the fact that the tradition could have been completely different. In 1851, if I am not mistaken, a tournament was held in London by a system that is very close to the modern knockout tournaments. At the time, the most respected experts expected the winner to be the pride and glory of British chess, Howard Staunton, and then they expected to have a triumphal coronation. However, some unknown schoolteacher from the other side of the world interfered with their plans (Breslau? Where is that? What is that all about?) and the coronation somehow evaporated. If Adolf Anderssen had not made it to London in time, then today the traditionalist knockouters would be hurling insults at the reformer match-eviks. Tell me where it is written that in order to defend the champion's title one should only have to defeat one opponent, even if it is a very strong one? History sometimes plays very interesting jokes on us.
Kit: Your attitude toward the inflation of the grandmaster title. Does it exist? Is it dangerous for the profession?
Alas, it is what it is, and this is one of my serious grievances with the leadership of FIDE, which is that of the sake of some temporary benefits they have cheapened a previously proud title. Now it has, in essence, turned into a rating category. By the way, I am not throwing stones at Ilyumzhinov—the trend towards “first Saturdays” and “third Tuesdays” began back in the Campomanes years. Nowadays I am amazed to discover newly baked “senior masters” who have not even had to play (let alone beat) a single player of true grandmaster caliber. However, I do not see any particular problems for the profession—both fans and sponsors can look at the rating list and see perfectly well who is who.
Lolita: Alexander, I remember how you appeared on KC in the Afromeev case in the ranks of his exposers. [Translator’s note for Western readers: See Wikipedia article on Afromeev. To make a long-story short, Afromeev, a businessman from Tula, made it onto the FIDE Top 100 rating list by means that are widely suspected to be fraudulent.] Now on the Chess Glum forum, you associate on very friendly terms with users nicknamed "Pots" and "Lugan"—one of whom played in tournaments in Tula, and the other of whom was a defender of Afromeev. Have you changed your personal attitude toward Afromeev and his actions? Especially in connection with his initiative in supporting A. Karpov for president of FIDE? What is your opinion about fraud in chess and do you have any proposals for battling unethical players and organizers?
In recent times I have come to look at a lot of things more calmly. Of course, as before I have a negative opinion of Afromeev’s actions and as before I believe that the presence of such a personage in the leadership of the RCF is incorrect, to put it mildly. But I now have less desire to paint the world in black and white colors. Therefore, if someone takes a different attitude toward Afromeev and similar characters, that fact in itself is not enough reason for me to avoid having any relations with that person.
It is not my role to give advice to Anatoly Evegenievich [Karpov]. If he considers it acceptable to rely on allies like this—that's his choice.
How, as a practical matter, to battle with phony titles and tournaments, I don't really have a clear idea. Don't forget that in this holy war it is very important not to discourage the desire of normal organizers to run tournaments.
bekykh: Is there a doping problem in chess?
The problem of doping may exist, but it would not be a bad idea, as a first step, to study this question properly. What is going on now—in other words, when chess players are checked for compounds on the standard list of WADA—is stupidity and propaganda.
• Do you think that Topalov cheated at San Luis [Translator's note: a tournament in 2005 where several players, inlcuding Nigel Short, suspected Topalov of receiving hand signals from Danailov]?
I am almost one hundred percent sure that he did not. The "evidence" put forward by proponents of this theory is, to put it mildly, unconvincing.
• Have you ever had to play against a cheater in real life? If so, what was the result and how did you feel about it?
This "pleasure" has also passed me by. But I know that the problem exists, and in my opinion one must battle absolutely without mercy against this phenomenon. By assessing large fines and long disqualifications.
shyev: What is your attitude toward the introduction of a rating in rapid chess? Do you think that this is harmful to chess or not? It seems to me that the people who resist this are precisely those officials who are interested in extending the length of their terms. Meanwhile the majority of chess players lose contact with the game because of the length of tournaments and the impossibility of fitting them into a work schedule.
A separate rating in rapid chess is not a bad idea. But the officials, in my opinion, are not resisting anything so conceptual. Their main motivation is simply to do nothing. They are doing pretty well at that, in my opinion.
Anyway, I don't understand why amateurs can't participate in rapid tournaments, even if they are not rated. I played last year in Mainz, and they had an enormous amount of amateurs playing at the same time, and everyone was happy.
phisey: What do you think about the rule of giving a "0" for being late to a game?
The same way I would react to obvious ravings. Functionaries and organizers want to increase their authority at any cost, and the devil only knows what will happen as a result. I would understand if that rule were applied at a round-robin super-tournament, when all the chess players are living and staying in the same hotel. But applying this rule at the Olympiad or at large Swiss system tournaments is utter nonsense. I hope that this stupidity will soon enough be repealed.
ischukin: Don’t you think that the worldwide practice of chess clubs is harmful from the point of view of attracting the interest of fans? I have in mind the fact that when you cheer, for example, for Zenith, you are cheering for certain concrete players who play on a concrete club in a concrete city. But I cannot get emotionally attached to any particular club when the same grandmaster might play today in the Bundesliga, tomorrow in France, and the day after tomorrow in Poland… There’s something not right about that. I understand that a chess player wants to play anywhere that they will pay him, in the interest of earning a living. But in my opinion, this only damages the club’s brand. In any case, in soccer they don’t allow free motion among clubs and, even more, playing for two different teams at the same time. Even when one club legally buys a soccer star by paying a pack of money—the patrons usually will express their dissatisfaction, because this is a harmful practice for sport as a whole. In chess, this casting about from one club to another allows you to root for an individual grandmaster, but it just doesn’t work to root for a club. Maybe that is my personal view, but I would like to hear your opinion on this matter. Should we change something so that clubs would be associated with concrete players (it seems to me that this is important for the P.R. of chess), or is it better to leave everything the way it is, so that the main thing is to allow people a chance to earn a living?
To some extent you are right, but you have to face a harsh reality: not one chess club at the moment has the resources to pay the players a constant and living wage. Not only that, chess is by its nature a game of one against one, so that it is hard even to compare it with soccer, and also the niche of team competitions [in chess] is relatively small. So I will criticize neither my colleagues, blowing from one country to another in the club championships, nor the club organizers. Although of course there is something awkward about a situation where one grandmaster plays for 9 clubs, while another, who is no worse either in his results or in his rating, cannot find a single one to play for.
Gennady Irkutsk: How do you evaluate the development of chess life in distant regions?
To be honest, I am only completely up to date in one distant region: the Khanty-Mansiysk Autonomous District-Yugra. There for the moment everything is pretty good, however there has been a recent change of power…
Caffeinated Skier: What is your view on universal chess education in schools?
Kit: Should chess be an obligatory subject in school?
I vote for this with both hands up, but practically speaking, the question depends on the availability of a sufficient number of teachers. In order for chess to benefit children, you have to teach them with an understanding of the subject. The traditional “Mary-Ivanna,” babbling something according to the teachers’ handbook, is not what we need.
• I’m curious, Alexander Valerievich, about your attitude towards “children’s” chess. I don’t like that terminology. There are some good ten-year-olds who are already first-category players with two candidate norms in reserve. So I prefer to talk about chess among children.
This is probably already a question. I will try to answer. I have a very positive opinion of “chess among children,” because it is useful both to children and to chess. However, I am not completely convinced of the usefulness of such a large number of age groups (championships for “under 8,” “under 10,” and so forth). The surfeit of such categories and official competitions in them has led to a situation in which many trainers, instead of following a gradual training process, have to coach them for an immediate, temporary result.
• Vanya Somov (a late young chessplayer - ed.) was on your team. How did he get on your team? How did he hold up under the load? Did he have a reduced workload, or the same as the adults?
Let me correct the statement that “Vanya was on the team.” That is a bit of an exaggeration. Gennady Efimovich Nesis was training Vanya Somov and thought that it would be interesting and useful for him to observe the atmosphere of large tournaments close up. Fortunately this was possible.
• What do you think about the fact that the tournaments in Kirishi [Translator’s note: the annual “Young Chess Stars of the World” tournaments, dedicated to the memory of Vanya Somov] now include not only children, but also young men and women?
The age brackets of this tournament are completely the business of the organizers. In any case it is good that this tournament exists. I do not have any particular opinion on whether it would be better to restrict the age of the participants.
• Do you have any young protégés in “Piter”? Or perhaps in some of the other regions?
I would not be against it, but the trainers of young prodigies tend to hold onto them very jealously.
• Do you do any volunteer work (popularization of chess, free simuls in educational institutions, meetings, discussions, lectures, etc.)?
Periodically. Recently it has been very sporadic, because the new leader of the St. Petersburg Chess Federation has been doing everything possible to keep me from participating in the chess life of the city. The reasons for this are a mystery to me.
nucler: Who would you like to be president of FIDE, and why?
An abstract honest man, who would be able to recruit a team of professionals and work for the benefit of the chess world. As I say this, I am aware that "the fiction department is on another floor." .
Valchess: Alexander, it seems as if it would be appropriate to bring this round of the conference to a conclusion with a question about today’s “hot” topic—the competition between Karpov and Ilyumzhinov. Could you please formulate, more or less openly, your position? What is your opinion about the "election campaign"?
I am waiting to see if a third candidate will declare himself. I cannot believe in Karpov in a directorial or leading role (especially in tandem with Kasparov), and the argument that “At least it can’t get any worse than it is” does not convince me at all. It can, and much worse! On the other side, the lack of desire (or inability?) of Ilyumzhinov to remove Makropoulos from his team, who has many times demonstrated a flagrant lack of respect for chess players, does not allow me even the slightest possibility to support that candidate. I do not know the nuances of the campaign, and I am not prepared to draw any conclusions from the things we see above the surface.
The text in Russian was prepared for publication by phisey (Stanislav Fiseisky) and Valchess (Valery Adzhiev). Vasa (Vassily Lebedev) was responsible for the chess fragments.
English translation by Dana Mackenzie with editorial assistance by Valery Adzhiev.
Dana Mackenzie is a (U.S.) National Master and a full-time writer who specializes in articles about mathematics and science. He studied mathematics and Russian in college, including a semester at Leningrad State University in the bitter cold fall and winter of 1978-79. He has translated two mathematics books (but zero chess books!) from Russian into English. As a chess player, he was twice state champion of North Carolina. He has beaten a few International Masters but has never yet defeated a Grandmaster. If he ever succeeds in doing so, he will die a happy man.
Dana is a regular speaker at ChessLecture (www.chesslecture.com), has written four articles for Chess LIfe, and also writes "dana blogs chess". During the Topalov-Anand world championship match of 2010, he translated GM Sergey Shipov's commentary from Russian into English for his blog. His translations were very well-received by English-language readers, and we have invited him to join our team on a regular basis.
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