KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part Two.



with Alexander Khalifman: now in English

Part Two

Welcome to part two of grandmaster Alexander Khalifman’s interview with participants in the KasparovChess forum, the ninth in our series of “KC-conferences.” In this part, in particular, he talks about chess literature and journalism, chess on the Internet, the principles of preparation and improvement, openings, and also simply “about life.” In the first part, published a few days ago, Alexander discussed his view of the role of chess, his career, his activities as a trainer and writer, his chess colleagues, and finally his views on the particulars of chess politics.

6. Books, the Press, and the Internet

Kamul: What is your favorite chess book?

“Lasker’s Manual of Chess.”

Grafin: When you were a child, did you have a “bedside” chess book?

When I was a complete beginner, I studied “Voyage to the Chess Kingdom,” by Averbakh and Beilin, from cover to cover. After that it was time for “Lasker’s Manual of Chess” and “My System” by Nimzovich.

Yurvit: Hello, Alexander Valerievich!
- Do you follow the publication of new chess books in Russian? What do you think are the main trends in the development of Russian chess literature as compared with the rest of the world?

Of course, I follow new publications, but perhaps not attentively enough to distinguish the trends in Russian and foreign literature. Around 20 years ago there was an obvious difference: in the West they published almost exclusively opening books. Now that is no longer true.

- Which Russian chess books of recent years would you advise a chess player at the candidate master level to read, besides the books of M. Dvoretsky?

Have you “overpowered” Dvoretsky’s five-volume opus? Good for you! For those who have not quite mastered it yet, I heartily recommend it. But for those who have passed that stage, I suggest reading the two-volume work by Dvoretsky’s eternal opponent — Iosif Dorfman. Many of the things that he says can be debated, but he has an entirely fresh and interesting point of view. I think that it would be useful for anybody.

- Could you tell me, please, about the collection of Mikhail Chigorin’s games (1999) in the series ChessStars. What was the extent of your participation in that book? How do you evaluate M. Chigorin’s contribution in general?

The role of chess editor, I think, consists first of all of keeping control over the quality of the annotations. I commented on some of the games myself. Mikhail Chigorin is a monolith, and even though it’s possible that in the pedagogical sense there is no special point in analyzing his games, in order to penetrate the spirit of chess Romanticism it is exactly the place to start.

vasa: Alexander, are there any chess books that you simply like to re-read for your own satisfaction?

If you’re talking about something that is just for satisfaction, I would cite, for example, “Zurich International Tournament 1953” by Bronstein and “My System” by Nimzovich. Given the chance, I would also re-read “Lasker’s Chess Manual,” but it got lost somehow in moving.

Valentine: People often compare chess to a science. BUT! Teaching manuals in chess (for example, Nimzovich’s “My System” do not reach the level of scientific discourse, they are much simpler. Such manuals are accessible even to children who play chess and know the notation. Meanwhile, [scientific] books are hardly accessible or useful for anyone to read. smileySo it turns out that you can only compare chess books to pop science, as a joke. wink After all it is only a board game. I would be very interested in what you think about this. THANKS! 

The abundance of smileys in your question makes me think that even your joke is partly in jest. The distance from knowing the notation and rules to solving truly deep chess problems is just as great as the distance from knowing the Latin alphabet and multiplication tables to solving partial differential equations. I don’t even know what else I can say.

Valchess: Alexander, here are my traditional questions on chess journalism.
- How do you evaluate its condition in Russia and in the world? Could you compare it either with previous times or with some sort of “ideal”? Are there, for example, any genres that do not have enough publications for you?

There are not enough stories about tournaments and commented games from the first person. By the way, I know perfectly well that with the appearance of super-powerful engines this has become not simpler but harder.

- Are there any periodicals that you try to read (or even subscribe to), or do you simply look at them when you get a chance, without getting too upset if you miss an issue? I have the same question about chess sites and blogs.

Again my impressions are fragmentary. I like Mark Glukhovsky’s work for “64.” The magazine, in my opinion, is getting better, but of course there is room for improvement in the future.  

Of the Western magazines: The Dutch “New in Chess” and the German “Schach” maintain a level that is not bad, but I read them only now and then.

As far as sites are concerned (this is my main and constant source of information): maybe I am not curious enough, but for me the sites ChessPro, ChessBase and e3e5 are completely sufficient. Every now and then I find something interesting on your site as well.

- Which of the chess journalists do you appreciate most? What is your attitude towards the “stars”: G. Sosonko, M. Greengard, Yu. Vasiliev, I. Odessky, and maybe others whom I have not named?

Once again I have to thank you for enlightening me, because now I will know in the future who the “stars” are. Now let me go through them one by one: Gennady Borisovich’s, in my opinion, is not journalism but literature. Somehow I don’t care for his favorite genre of “extended eulogies,” but he has a masterly way with words, you have to give him that. Let me use this occasion to draw attention to writings by Viktor Toporov from my native St Petersburg who is not a chess journalist but writes on hot chess themes entertainingly and on a high literary level. I try not to miss his rather provocative chess writings and recommend them to everybody.

I have such a strong personal antipathy to Mig (and I think I’m not the only one) that I simply don’t read his writing.

I don’t have any personal antipathy towards Vasiliev and Odessky, and I commend many of their works. But at the same time some of what they write gives me a strong feeling of discomfort on the level of ideas, and that is a fly in the ointment when I read them.

The articles of Mikhail Savinov have made a very pleasant impression on me, but he has disappeared somewhere, unfortunately. The same thing is true of Evgeny Atarov.

I like Evgeny Gleizerov’s game annotations on ChessPro and the opening articles of Aleksey Kuzmin in “64,” but that is already a somewhat different genre. More specialized, you might say.

- I have the same question about professional chess commentators. For a chess player and trainer at your level, is there any interest in following online commentaries and/or annotated games by someone in print, or is that only for chess fans?

I follow them, but not regularly. I don't want to offend my colleagues, but if a game is interesting to me I can annotate it myself. Of the commentaries I have seen, my friend Konstantin Sakaev's have made the best impression on me. There is someone who really has a deep understanding of the game. By the way, chess fans, for whom this genre is meant in the first place, may have their own “rating list” of commentators.

If we aren’t talking about online, then of course there are some very good first-person commentaries, which I have already written about. It is too bad that their number has decreased recently. By the way, here I do not intend any sort of snobbery. Online is online, it has its flaws, but it is always useful to study serious grandmaster commentary at any level.

- Do people often come to you with requests to write something? Do you more often agree or decline? What are your criteria? Do you have any temptation to enter into the role of an online commentator? Does that kind of literary or broadcasting work make any financial sense for you?

Periodically they do come to me. As a rule I agree. Online is a tricky matter, of course. I could give it a try, but I don’t have any idea where or how. It doesn’t have a very important financial value, but as a perk, definitely.

- What do you think about G. Kasparov’s series of books?

Garry Kimovich is a great chess player, and also has a brilliant ability to present his thoughts in words. If you could take this series and squeeze out just the parts that Kasparov had a direct hand in, then you would probably have a fantastic three-volume series. A bestseller for all time. [Translator’s note: The actual series, My Great Predecessors, has five volumes, but Khalifman is saying that not everything in there is Kasparov’s work.]

- Have any historical books or memoirs, not purely of a chess nature (e.g. those by G. Sosonko, V. Korchnoi, S. Voronkov, and many other chess veterans, not to mention Kasparov) made an impression on you, or is that not your cup of tea? Do you have any intentions in the future to tell the story of your life “around” chess? In the forums you have published some very interesting stories (although they are ripe with a certain stylistic convention that is meant for “your” people; by the way, is that a style that you adopted on principle?).
[Translator’s note: Valchess explains that his question refers to “Olbanian,” a version of Russian that is used often on Internet forums, where words are deliberately misspelled—and many profanities are used—for humorous effect.]

I already said something about Sosonko’s genre, although I give credit to him for his mastery of it. I am ashamed to say that, unfortunately, I have not read Korchnoi yet. Voronkov writes very interestingly up until the point when he starts to slip into politics, which unfortunately happens rather frequently.

Yes, I absolutely must write a book about my chess life and my life around chess. When I will do that, I don’t know. The “Olbanian” style was nothing that I did out of principle; simply at that moment I had an inspiration, and for some reason I wanted to write that way. For anyone who is brave enough to read it, I apologize in advance and hope very much that the form (which may not be to many people’s taste) will not obscure the content (which, in my opinion, is satisfactory).

- Recently (in the world championship match and in major tournaments) Sergey Shipov has presented video surveys of the games. If you have watched them, could you tell us whether it was interesting for you to watch? For first-category players or candidate masters they are interesting (in my personal experience). But I wonder whether, with your grandmaster understanding of chess, you might have a sense that, well, I'm watching some kind of primitive stuff that is meant for amateurs and class players.

To be honest, I have not looked at the video surveys at all. I consider this format to be an architectural extravagance. Although I completely allow for the possibility of other opinions.

As for “primitive stuff,” that is a necessary element of a commentator’s work. The majority of the audience consists precisely of amateurs, and so the commentator’s first obligation is to address them.

- Do you think that chess will ever make it onto television? Are there any chances, and what would be necessary for this to happen?

The ratings of chess will never threaten those of soap operas, and that is even a good thing in its own way. But on certain cable channels, I think that chess could exist, and for that to happen we first need competent work at popularizing chess, which unfortunately no one in particular is doing right now.

- What is the purpose of chess sites dedicated to one person (for example, http://www.mamedyarov.com and http://www.pogonina.com)? Have you ever thought of hanging out your shingle this way?

I have never had any particular desire to do that. Especially, having lived for a little while with the albatross of being “the most hated person in the chess world” around my neck, I imagined that nothing very good would come of it. My school has a website, and that is enough for me. I suppose that for young chess players who are aspiring to the top, such personal sites may be useful. But what concretely they expect to achieve from this, you’d better ask them.

Eriksson: Is the Russian chess Internet bubbling with life or decaying? What do you think about the variety of chess forums?

In my opinion, life goes on in its own way, it’s neither decaying nor bubbling. I don’t see anything wrong with the multiplicity of forums: each one has the chance to find its own most comfortable milieu.

Svetlana Ershova: What does the forum ShPiL mean to you?

The ShPiL forum is the place I constantly inhabit on the Internet. Some people might consider it too free-wheeling, let’s say, but I like it. At least they don’t persecute you simply for having a different opinion on any subject. So if somebody doesn’t send in their question on time or forgets to ask me something, you can do it there practically any time.

Stirlitz: Good day, Alexander! You are an active participant in the forum ShPiL, and I have a few questions in connection with that:
- How does the real person, the ex-world champion Alexander Khalifman correspond to FY, the participant in the forum? 

Not one hundred percent, but they coincide to a great extent. Certain characteristics may be present in one and absent in the other, but that’s all fairly unimportant and not worth subjecting to serious analysis.

- What do you get from your interactions on the forum, and how important are they to you?

In “my” forum I feel very comfortable. There are many interesting people to talk with, and if we have different opinions on certain things, that makes the exchange of thoughts and information even more useful.

Let’s say that it has become a habit for me, and unlike a lot of other habits, it is not completely harmful.

- At one time you wrote a lot on the KC forum, but then you stopped. What flaws do you see in this forum?

That is a clever positional trap. Mark [Glukhovsky], who was not so experienced in Internet battles, fell into that trap and got flamed as a result. [Translator’s note: Mark Glukhovsky in his KC-conference had made a few controversial points about some Russian chess sites that led to a vigorous discussion on the forums.]

But I have more experience, and I will try to handle this. Let me say this: certain nuances of the moderation policies on the KC forum are not completely to my taste. It has nothing to do with the fact that curse words are not allowed, while they are allowed on ShPiL. It is all more complicated and at the same time simpler.

But please excuse me for not going into the nuances, because I am after all playing the role of a guest here.


7. On Improvement

Ruslan83: Alexander Valerievich, good day.
- Do you have any kind of formula for personal training (for example, 1/3 of the time on tactics, 1/3 on the opening, 1/3 on the ending, 2-3 hours a day 4 times a week), which you would be willing to share with us?

It all depends on the characteristics and abilities of the concrete individual and the problems that are placed before him. If you are talking about a young chess player, trying to achieve professional heights, then 8-12 hours a week is clearly insufficient. He or she should work 25-30 hours a week, with half of them on the opening, because that is the reality of contemporary chess. But one should not forget about general personal development and physical training.

- How many games a year (in your opinion) should one play at a classical control in order to maintain one’s form, and how much should one play to improve?

To maintain your form the necessary minimum is 30 games, and ideally you should play 50-60 games. But this, too, depends very much on the individual.

WinPooh: What kinds of engines do the professionals use? I have heard that the great majority prefer Rybka or Fritz. Maybe by inertia. However, within the past year the very powerful “Ippolit family” has appeared: Ippolit, Robbolitto, Firebird and so on. The reception of them, in view of their uncertain origin, has been mixed. But many enthusiasts of computer chess agree that, at minimum, they are stronger than Rybka 3, and close to the level of Rybka 4. Have you tried to analyze with them?

For roughly two months my main engine for analysis has been Firebird 1.2. I like it. I recommended it to some of my colleagues, and they are more or less satisfied. Although I also use other engines, Stockfish 1.7.1 also recommends interesting variations.

As for the “uncertain” origins, I will not venture to comment, because I am not a specialist. But the variations and evaluations of the “Ippolit-like” engines nevertheless differ considerably from Rybka, so I have not noticed any close similarities between them.

- What is your opinion of playing with programs for training purposes?

Only in very small doses, and you can do without it completely. Whether you like it or not, you will start playing an anti-computer strategy, and that can become a very harmful habit.

vasa: Alexander, when did you stop playing against the computer?

For some reason this reminds me of Karlsson (not Magnus) and his question to the teacher, “Have you stopped drinking cognac in the mornings?” [Editor’s note: As in Part 1, this is the reference to the hero of “Karlsson-on-the-Roof” by Astrid Lindgren.] 

To be honest, I never started. Machine play is very specific, and even if you play infrequently against the computer just for your amusement, it is easy to ruin your own routine for thinking against live opponents. In short, I do not advise it for anyone.

Valentine: Hello, Alexander Khalifman!!
- Do you play games with yourself? Can that sort of game help you to progress, or is it the same as playing with other opponents?

I think it is not the same thing, and it is simply a waste of time. Undoubtedly it is a good thing for your progress to analyze games and positions independently, but to play with yourself – good grief, it’s some kind of perversion. Even more so in the era of the Internet, when you can find an opponent with a pair of clicks.

- My trainer (a master of sport since 1960) absolutely ignores the games of today’s chess players, for example Kramnik and Anand. He calls it not chess but a computer-aided fishing for variations. He prefers chess players from the days of Tal, Smyslov, and even, for example, Yukhtman. Do you agree with these convictions? And how do you evaluate the talent of Yakov Yukhtman? Do you like his play?

I don’t see any smileys here, so I will try to answer seriously. I do not want to offend your trainer (maybe he is a more than respectable person and specialist), but this is completely wallowing in the past. Of course one must study the games of Tal and Smyslov, and Yukhtman was a great talent, even if he never fully developed. But what is wrong with the contemporary classics (the ones you mentioned, and Topalov, Ivanchuk, Gelfand, Svidler, Shirov and so on)? The greater role of opening theory in modern chess does not in any way take away from the fact that they are now playing stronger chess than the players in the middle of the 20th century did.

Nikola88: The appearance of computers has changed chess greatly. What is your prediction of the future development of chess as computer technology progresses?

What is there, really, to talk about? Yes, it's already obvious that the best programs play better than Anand, Kramnik and Kasparov, but so what?!

The role of opening preparation will grow in the near future, but it is impossible to completely replace the game with home preparation. And it will remain impossible. The level of play will grow simultaneously [with the level of openings].

ChesS_BotvinniK: Hello, Alexcander Valerievich!
- Now, obviously, is the era of computer technology. How do professionals work with the computer (do they make databases, or simply play with the engine, or something else)?

Some people create separate databases by opening and opponent, but I think that it's a matter of taste and habit. The analysis of critical positions with the assistance of various engines is, of course, an important part of the work, but one must never forget also to use one's own head.

- What should be included in the daily agenda for the chess growth of a first-category player? And the same question about the week.

The main thing is constant work. The regime of training for one day or for a week is an individual matter, and everyone will devise his or her own according to taste and habit. If you aspire to serious accomplishments, you will have to work on the average 25 hours a week. Besides the opening (which nobody ever forgets to study) it is necessary to analyze your own games carefully, dissect the games of the strongest players of the past and present, and study the literature.

- What can you read about chess psychology from the professional viewpoint, so that there would be some kind of advice and not just statistics and graphs?

Unfortunately, I have trouble recommending any special books on this subject. The niche, one may say, is not overflowing, or else I have overlooked something. However, good commentaries by strong grandmasters on their own games (and not only their own) often contain valuable observations on this subject.

- What is necessary, and how should one proceed, in order to become a grandmaster in a short period of time (say, 5 years)?

You must work a great deal and constantly, and play as often as possible with strong players. The result is not guaranteed.

- To what can you attribute it when one grandmaster beats another of practically the same strength (say, a 2702 against a 2700)? Is it preparation, mood, technique, ...? 

That's a strange question. It may be the first, or the second, or the third. Go over the games and you will understand.

Kit: How do you recover after a tournament?

The question has to refer to my past, because now I don't put forth any special effort, and therefore there is no need to unwind afterwards. But in my younger days, the best way to restore my strength after a big tournament was to immerse myself in simple domestic life with its simple everyday joys and difficulties. And of course sleep has always been, for me, the best medicine for everything.

bekykh: Hello, Alexander! I'd like to know how you maintain good sporting (physical) form during and between tournaments, and how great are the physical demands during competitions at the highest level.

The load is, of course, very heavy. In Las Vegas I lost somewhere around six kilograms. In order to maintain my form between tournaments I tried just about everything. In principle, any non-extreme sport will do. Overloading yourself in the middle of a tournament is not worth it. A walk in the fresh air or some laps in the pool are just what you need.

Kamul: How do you cope with strong emotions during a game?

Eh, if only I knew for sure... Breathing exercises helped me to a certain extent, but I think it is better to battle with this not during the game but before. This is one of the most important parts of preparation.

- Alexander, how do you recommend for a young chess player to overcome his jitters in a game against a much higher rated opponent?

That's not an easy question. If it's a serious problem, then it might be a good idea to show him some games (if you have access to them) where the opponent lost in stupid fashion. Everybody has games like that. It doesn't take a god to bake bricks! But I would do that only if he really is scared, because otherwise it could lead to not taking his opponent seriously enough, which is significantly worse.

- What is the best way to work with young people on realizing a positional advantage? Are general principles important, or does everything depend on the type of position?

Look at the games of the strongest players of the past and present, and analyze your own games very carefully. That is, in my opinion, how to develop your general understanding of the game.

- Is it useful to play 3-minute chess on the Internet (in your opinion)?

I think this is like an addiction. You should never and under no circumstances give into this temptation. But, nevertheless, if you want to study a new opening or if you don't have any other way to practice, it might be useful. But in small doses.

By the way, this advice is meant only for those who are trying to raise their level in real chess. For people who have fun playing blitz on the Internet, or even specialize in blitz, my advice does not have even the slightest relevance.

- How useful is it to solve studies?

One study is as good as another. That is, it is not harmful to train the brain by solving any studies, but again one should not overdo it. If the studies are similar to something from practical play, then they may be useful.

ischukin: Do you play chess on the Internet, and if so, then where and how often?

I gave up long ago. Blitz is completely not my game, and I have no chance of competing in Internet blitz, because I did not grow up with a mouse in my hand.

Uralchess: What is your opinion of correspondence chess? Do you use data bases of correspondence games? Do you consider correspondence chess to be a legitimate form of chess?

I greatly respect correspondence play. First of all, it is in my opinion one of the prime movers of opening theory. I am trying to collect a base of correspondence games, but it's just too bad that there is no centralized source (like TWIC). “Legitimate” is a somewhat strange word in this context. I think that it is a special brand of chess that is also quite interesting.

nucler: What is your opinion of blitz?

I don't criticize those people who like blitz, but for me it is a frivolous genre. I prefer above all to play with my head, not my hands.

Vladimirovich: Alexander, what is your opinion of Fischer random chess?

If somebody likes it, then let them play it. I don't especially like it, like all the other attempts to “improve” chess.

Caffeinated Skier: Can an amateur play with the strength of a grandmaster? In other words, is it possible to reach the level of a grandmaster without playing in official competitions?

Such a phenomenon is against the laws of nature. I cannot completely rule out such a possibility, especially in the era of the Internet, but nevertheless it would be hard to believe.

Tzariah: Forgive me, please, for what may be an unpleasant question. A long ago I was completely amazed by the game that you lost as White to Adams (Groningen, 1990) in the Bogo-Indian defense. No matter how I tried, I could not figure out what was the critical moment. After 15 moves it seemed okay for you, by the 22nd move it seemed as if Black had taken over, and then after that it was domination of the bad bishop by the good knight. I understand that this was long ago, but if you could recall your train of thought and tell me what was the mistake (or the mistaken plan), it would be very instructive. Maybe moving the knight to e4? Or was it a mistake to allow Black to expand on the queenside? And what would have been the right plan for White in this fairly typical setup, in order to battle for an advantage?

I underestimated Black's plan of moving the queenside pawns forward, and I missed the fairly subtle moment when I had to forget about trying for an advantage and try to accurately play for a draw. That sort of thing happens, and fairly often.

The most promising plan is to open up the c-file, but it has to be done accurately, constantly keeping in mind the opponent's possiblities for counterplay.


8. Openings

Kit: You are an acknowledged authority on the openings, so how far do you think that professional chess will go towards completely eliminating intuitive decisions and replacing them with memorized variations followed by technical realization [of an advantage]?

That will never happen, because the resources of human memory are still limited. It's another matter that a precise knowledge of variations is becoming more and more important, there is no way to get away from that.

Seregaaa: What is the best way to study openings?

A good question, a difficult one, and a standard one. People ask me about this about once a month. It’s like a monthly withdrawal, one might say.

I usually reply to this question with a whole series of questions: What kind of opening? What did you play before? How did you study the opening before? What kind of goals do you have? And finally, what level are you at? One studies different openings at the 2000 level, at the 2350 level and even (strange to say) at the 2700 level. The procedure depends on these tiny details. 

Therefore I will address the more or less average level:

1. It is a good idea to find a good opening book or CD. How do you tell a good one apart from a bad one? That is a complicated question. In general, by the name of the author. Shirov and Kasimdzhanov will not make a mess, but an “expert recommendation” by a 2350 player – hmmm… and who, after all, recommended him?! There are possible exceptions in both directions (for example, the “famous” manuscripts of Karpov and Kalinichenko), but we will not talk about such sad things.
2. Look at the games of strong chess players who regularly play the system you have selected; try to understand the connection of the opening to the middlegame and endgame positions that arise out of it.
3. Construct a tree of positions, and pay attention to when the games were played. In most cases a game between X and Y from 200… takes priority over a game, for example, between Tal and Spassky in 196…
4. Try to play as many training games as possible in the new opening. “If you don’t have stationery, write on plain paper,” so here, if you don’t have opponents at the right level to accomplish this goal, then play blitz on the Internet.
5. And only after all this, once you have identified the critical positions, turn on your Rybka or Firebird or whatever you have. 

ChesS_BotvinniK: Can you advise a method for memorizing a large number of opening variations? Does one have to repeat everything after a few years, or will it work forever?

There is not particular method for memorizing variations. At any rate, none that I know of. It is very important to soberly assess the resources of your memory and build an opening repertoire based on that assessment. And one has to review it, of course, not just once every few years, but substantially more often. Moreover, in topical variations mere mechanical repetition will not suffice: theory moves ahead every month and the evaluations change.

- Will the strengthening of theory, and the stark necessity for elite chess players to bone up on megabytes of theory before every game, lead eventually to cardinal changes in the rules of play? For example, to a transition from regular chess to Fischer random chess or to something that hasn’t been thought of yet?

Traditional chess is still far from exhausted. Preparation is only one necessary part of the game. I do not approve of the various possible innovations [in the rules].

- Is regular chess threatened by a death due to draws? Suppose that the great majority of topical variations, after some period of analysis, lead to drawn endgames, and deviating from them will not give White any advantage.

This sort of conversation has been going on for 100 years, and as before no death by draws can be seen on the horizon. If certain topical variations are analyzed down to a draw, then new topical variations will arise, and that’s all.

Grafin: To what extent, in your opinion, does so-called “opening fashion” affect the opening repertoire of the top 100 chess players (for example, the fascination of elite players, and not only grandmasters, with the Anti-Moscow Gambit)?

It is pervasive. At the moment the Anti-Moscow Gambit is not completely in fashion, in my opinion; there were periods when it was much hotter. Fashion, of course, exists and exerts an influence. However, as a rule there must be some objective reason why a particular variation became fashionable in the first place.

MichailWolopasoff: Hello, Alexander! It’s rare for chess players of your level to dedicate themselves to training others. Let me take the opportunity to ask you some questions relating to that work. I thank you in advance for your free lessons on improvement.

What opening systems are the most resistant to computer analysis? Please answer in as much detail as you can for both sides. I want to pick a battle repertoire for young students who are not fans of chess robotization (at the IM level). Thank you! I wish you success in everything!

I am not certain that this is a very promising approach. But if you really want to know – for Black, the Berlin against 1. e4 and the Stonewall against 1. d4. For White in general such an approach is a disaster, one is left with dregs like d4-Nf3-Bf4 or Nf3-g3-Bg2.

I do not want to give a more detailed answer because, I repeat, I do not approve of such an approach. Work on the openings is a very important element of improvement, and to restrict yourself because of a fear of “robotization” is a dead end. Especially for young chess players.

Grafin: Does it ever happen that in a certain tournament situation against certain opponents you (if you had the hypothetical right to choose) would prefer playing Black instead of White, or is the right to move first always an advantage?

Only in the case of an Armageddon game, when a draw wins for Black, but straight up—White is always better. It’s true, though, that I had a special knockout strategy against strong opponents: make a quick draw as White in the first game, and then catch them as Black “on the counterattack,” and it even worked at times, but that was only for the rapid games.

Zeppa: Hello, Alexander! 1. e4 or 1. d4?

Heads or tails? Black or red? It’s a philosophical question, I would say. In the big picture, both moves are quite good and do not change the evaluation of the position. Everything depends on who needs the answer, where and why. If you are teaching a child to play, you must begin with 1.e4. If you’re playing blitz just for your own satisfaction, play whatever you are used to and what you personally like the most. If you are playing in tournaments at a serious level and want to have more reasons to fight for an opening advantage, then today I would lean towards moving the queen pawn. And I’m not alone, both Anand and Topalov would seem to agree.

Svetlana Ershova: Alexander, which first move for White do you think will be the most topical in the future, 1. e4 or 1. d4? Or a third move? Of course, I would be interested in your opinion not just for elite chess …

I think that in the next few years 1. d4 will be more topical, and in fact we are already seeing that. I will not hazard a prediction over a long period of time. On the non-elite level, either one and even other possibilities are playable… Up to the 2600 level there is no particular need to pay attention to any new trends.

- I’m curious why in the last two world championship matches we have seen the move 1. e2-e4 only one time? Is this a peculiarity of Anand’s play or of people’s play against Anand, or the Berlin Defense and Petroff Defense (drying the game out to a draw) or some deeper reason?

I think that you have hit on the main reason. Recently after 1. e4 we have run into certain dead ends, and the two main ones are exactly the Petroff and the Berlin Defenses. Instead of dealing with them, it is simpler and more pleasant to prepare 1. d4. Most likely this is temporary.

- It seems to me that sooner or later theory will come to the conclusion that 2. … g6 is inadequate after 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4. What does your intuition and understanding suggest about this hypothesis?

I think that in the largest accounting of resources, Black’s position is solid enough, and the fianchetto is not antipositional enough to lose. It’s another matter that the practical problems the Black faces seem to get greater and greater every year, but that fact has its own advantages.

- Do you think anybody will find a way for White to get an advantage in the Chebanenko Variation of the Slav?

In fact it seems as if they have already figured out how to get an advantage, but it is another matter whether it is sufficient to win. In principle, the answer is almost the same as the answer to the previous question: the move 4. … a6 is not so bad that it should lose the game, but defending the position for Black in practice will get harder and harder every year.

- What is your opinion about the Berlin Defense in the Ruy Lopez?

I think it leads to a very interesting asymmetric endgame. I understand that the majority of fans lament the absence of queens and the impossibility of sacrifices and mating attacks, and also the subtleties of this endgame are, one might say, only for the aesthete. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the variation is neither better nor worse than others, merely very specific.

Grafin: At one time two of your games, which were annotated in detail by John Nunn in his remarkable book “Understanding Chess Move by Move,” made a big impression on me. The first was against Evgeny Sveshnikov (Elista 1996) and the second was against Bogdan Lalic (Linares 1997). Your victory over Lalic inspired me to start (trying) to play the Benko Gambit. Could you say a little bit about your opinion of that opening?! For a long time you played it successfully, and then you stopped. Did you just get bored, or were there some particular chess reasons? It seems to me that strategically the Benko is not as rich, after all, as the Nimzo-Indian or Queen’s Indian Defenses. What do you think?

I really don’t even know what to answer. The Benko Gambit remains as before one of my favorite openings. It is one of the best openings, in my opinion, not only because of its wealth of strategies but also because of its variety of active possibilities. The reasons for giving it up were purely chess reasons: about once a year I try very hard to find some kind of playable system against the fianchetto (White takes on a6 and then develops his bishop on g2), and every year I fail. In the remaining variations, I am satisfied with everything or almost everything.

ChesS_BotvinniK: Does Black have anything in the exchange variation of the King's Indian? And how should he play there? Why don't grandmasters play that variation?

Again, I fail to grasp the substance of the question. Yes, it is extremely difficult to play for a victory with Black in the exchange King's Indian, although some resources do exist. But it's White who doesn't play it on the grandmaster level, because what sense is there in playing strictly for a draw?

Extremist: Is the Scandinavian Defense sound?

At the highest level I think it is completely sound, in the sense that is the move 1. ... d5 does not give away the draw. As a practical matter I recommend playing it only on major holidays.

SylyukA: In your book “The Opening for White According to Anand,” do you recommend the most precise moves? My computer shows that far from all of the moves that you advocate are the best. And I don’t know whom to believe.

If the engine always and in all positions indicated the most precise moves, then there would be no point in publishing opening books.

Some of the strongest engines yet made consider 1. Nc3 to be stronger in the opening position than 1. e4. Are you going to believe them?!

Turas30: What is the best way to study openings—from a book or with the help of Fritz?

Computer engines (even the ones that are stronger than Fritz, and there are not a few of them) are not the best advisors in opening positions, so I propose to combine them: in other words, study openings from good books, and then polish your critical positions independently and with the help of a strong engine.

Ruslan73: In the ninth chapter of “Openings for White According to Kramnik,” 1b, after the moves 1. Nf3 Nf6 2. c4 g6 3. Nc3 Bg7 4. e4 d6 5. d4 O-O 6. Be2 e5 7. O-O Na6 8. Be3 Ng4 9. Bg5 Qe8, why do you suggest the rather sharp line 10. c5? Do you think that this scheme is fully in the style of Kramnik, or that other schemes simply don’t give White enough space to battle for an advantage?

In principle, Kramnik’s style is not so dry and insipid that he would avoid any complications and sacrifices. Yes, Vladimir does not like to play “torn-up” positions with unprotected kings or bad development, but the concrete move 10. c5, in my opinion, does not contradict the “according to Kramnik” approach. Moreover, at the moment that the book came out, I considered that this move was in fact the most promising.

Uralchess: What do you think about the contemporary opening books of various authors in Russian and in English? Do you like any particular book, or are they all more or less on the same level?

They are on very different levels indeed, from very good to out-and-out garbage. I would rather not single out any concrete books. Shipov’s “Hedgehog” is, of course, good, but it is not purely an opening book in my understanding of the words. However, evaluating the genre of opening literature in general, one must remember that it is a product that spoils rapidly. A book that was nearly a classic 10 years ago would today have to be used with a great deal of caution. Opening theory does not stand still.


9. Life

Eriksson: What characteristics do you like the most in people? Which are your least favorite?

To keep it short and clear, honesty and its opposite, duplicity. Everything else is either derived from them or not as fundamental.

Nikola88: What must be done to make people in our country change for the better? Are such changes even possible?

Oh, horrors! I will answer you honestly, and everybody will hate me for it. Only extreme measures will work. I see no other way. Corruption has become too rampant in our society. I would not apply the presumption of innocence to employees of the court system, recruitment offices, municipal governments, Ministry of Internal Affairs and the traffic police.

There, I’ve said it, now flame away!

ddt: Esteemed Alexander Valerievich,
- You started to study at the “math-mech” [Translator’s note: A nickname for the Department of Mathematics and Mechanics at St. Petersburg State University], but quit without finishing your studies. Could you say why this happened? There are rumors that you had a conflict with the assistant dean for education at that time. What was the nature of the conflict?
- What do you think about this episode in your biography from the vantage point of experience? Do you regret that you didn’t get your diploma? Or vice versa, do you regret the time that you spent studying at the university? To broaden the question, do you think that chess players need a higher education, and if so, what kind?

The assistant dean for education, not only at Leningrad State University (as it was called then) but in many places, is an evil little man with a personality complex, whose main goal is to ruin students’ lives. What is especially indicative is that their favorite target is not the dolts who get D’s, but the students who actually have a chance of accomplishing something in life. That is exactly what happened in this case. The little man refused to sign an excuse to allow me to travel to the premier league of the USSR Championship, and I simply could not afford to miss such a tournament. It’s not that I had such a great ambition to be in the Soviet Army [Translator’s note: Military service was the mandatory alternative for someone who dropped out of college], but at that moment I had been given lots of promises that I could simply transfer into a different university and everything would be blue skies. When I started getting messages from the military recruitment office, all of the people who made these promises somehow vanished. It was not the first and, unfortunately, not the last time that I was betrayed by my foolish trust in outer people. However, in all likelihood there was not any way out at that time.

Now I can admit that the decision to enter the “math-mech” was possibly a mistake from the beginning. It is too serious a discipline, and it’s unlikely that I could have combined it with chess tournaments. However, it’s pointless to talk about what might have been.

In general, I have a hard time answering the question of whether a chess player needs a higher education. Everybody, including chess players, needs to grow intellectually and culturally. However, I fail to see a direct connection between intellectual growth and the possession of a diploma. If you look at it from a practical point of view, any kind of academic institution is better than the army, but you just have to choose one that is not too serious.

- An analogous question about the army—how did you adjust? Do you regret those two years? Do chess players need military service?

In the army there was not as much lawlessness and criminality as there is today, so I served my time and did not suffer very much, especially because I often went to army competitions. But from the point of view of greater accomplishments, those two years were unquestionably wasted.

Eriksson: What do you think about the army?

Nothing good. That is, in principle I understand that such an institution is necessary to the state, but in the condition of the Russian army today, it brings only a small amount of benefit and a great deal more harm. It is in no sense a “school of life,” but a school of criminality and degradation.

Kit: What is your favorite cuisine and alcoholic beverage?

I am very fickle in my attachments in that area. Right at this moment, I would say Japanese cooking and white wine. But two months from now I might give a completely different answer.

nucler: Your favorite wine and dish?

Wine—dry Chilean. Dish—Japanese dumplings (gyoza) with shrimp. But again, that is temporary.

krey: A supplementary question: do you drink any alcoholic drinks (do you belong to the “alcoformation”)? What do you think about Moldavian wine? 
[Translator’s note: The first question is an inside joke. It refers to an eccentric FIDE Master named Dmitry Biryukov, who apparently believes that anyone who has even touched alcohol is affected mentally; it gives their thoughts an “alcoholic formation.” He also believes that 1. e4 is the only correct move for White and 1. … d6 the only correct response for Black, which explains Khalifman’s answer below.]

Of course I am a member of the alcoholic formation, if only because I don't always play 1. e4 and extremely rarely play 1. e4 d6. I do drink alcoholic beverages, but unlike the person of many fables, I do not do it fanatically. If you compare me to the average Russian, you could put me in the category of very moderate drinkers. For example, I don’t even remember the last time I drank vodka. And that is not because of any gaps in my memory, but because it was truly a long time ago. Perhaps when I flew home from the World Cup, in other words last year. I experiment with wine more often, but again in very moderate amounts. I do have pleasant memories of Moldavian wine (and brandy) from my youth, but again, that was a very long time ago. Now I would not even dare to buy the stuff they sell in stores under the name of Moldavian wine.

Kit: Do you have time for a hobby? What is it?

The answer is about the same as for the question about my favorite food. In this regard I am fairly easy to distract, and I am interested in many things, but somehow I can’t pick any kind of serious hobby. I have more free time now than I once did, which has both pluses and minuses.

Kamul: Do you have a hobby that you are interested in, besides chess? Cards, checkers, backgammon, dominos? Which of these games do you like to play, or know how to play?

I am interested in many things, I play almost all the card games and non-card games (the one exception is bridge, whose great wisdom I have yet to penetrate). However, I have not had great success at any of them. With such wide interests, it’s impossible to talk about any concrete hobby.

Caffeinated Skier: Do you like to play checkers, tic-tac-toe, go? How strong are you?

I know the rules, but have played very rarely. So I would evaluate my strength as practically zero.

Nikola88: Many chess players these days play poker. Do you? And what do you think is the reason for the widespread fascination with this game?

Poker requires somewhat different qualities. At the age of 20, I think I could have gotten interested in it and retrain myself, but now it is too late.

The personal qualities that poker demands can often be useful for professional chess. It’s worth noting that within three years (correct me if I’m wrong) Grischuk was able to play one on one against the best poker players, but it would be difficult to imagine anyone doing the reverse.

nucler: Hello, Alexander! It’s a daring thing to do a KC-conference, and few are willing. Let me start with some serious questions:
- Do you like the Strugatskys? [Translator’s note: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are perhaps the most famous Russian science fiction writers. Western cinema enthusiasts may know Andrei Tarkovsky’s film “Stalker” based on their novel “Roadside Picnic”]. Do you remember the globe of wishes in “Roadside Picnic,” where they say, “Happiness for all! … For free! … No one will go home disappointed! …”? If you had such a chance and only one wish, what would you wish for?

I admire the Strugatskys, their genre is not my favorite, but of course they are great masters. It’s too complicated to choose a wish. Of course it’s tempting to wish, say, for all the thievery in the cosmos to go away, but it is somehow too naïve and childlike. But beyond this I can’t really think of anything. There are lots of things that I am satisfied with just as they are.

- Do you write for money, satisfaction, self-expression, or what?

Mostly the third, although I would like to write completely different books…

- Now a not very serious question, if you don’t mind. How do you reduce the stress during a long and exhausting tournament? (Sex, alcohol, weed?)

That is all long in the past, nowadays chess does not cause me any stress. In my youth I tried everything, except that I did not mess around with drugs. A little bit later, the problem was not the stress itself, but the severe insomnia that came with it, and at that point I had to give up the sex. [Editor’s note: This answer, we suspect, should not be taken too seriously!laugh]

- Some more random questions, now that you’ve already agreed to answer. The conventional stereotype of a chess player is that of a four-eyed infantile genius, but you are more reminiscent of a warrior. Have you ever in your life been in a fight (in the Leningrad streets, in school, in the army)? Tal, they say, would even get involved in all sorts of scraps even when he was abroad, because of his untameable nature. Garry Kasparov even fought a SWAT team. Have you ever done anything like that?

In my childhood I fought often. But since then it has somehow never been necessary (I am more or less a law-abiding citizen, and only the cops have ever given me any reason to fight [Editor’s note: this is an ironic reference to the sad state of police forces in modern Russia which as popular opinion think are sometimes more dangerous for ordinary people than criminals]. I have not gotten involved with either politics or women to the extent of the players you mentioned.

- Does your daughter play chess with you?

That would be the last straw… My home is a chess-free zone.

- How many foreign languages do you know?

English and German. There are a few more in which I can make myself understood in a restaurant, hotel, or airport. But that doesn’t count, of course.

- What is your favorite book and author?

I don’t have a favorite. My opinions are very changeable in this category. If I had to pick something, I’d say Andrei Platonov and “Chevengur.”... “And he signed with his full title: Stepan Efimovich Kopenkin, Commander of the Rosa Luxembourg Division of the Fighting Bolsheviks of the Upper Motninsk Region.”

- What films do you like?

Again, it depends on the time, my mood, and many other factors. If I have to pick something, it would be the comedies of [Eldar] Ryazanov  and [Georgi] Daneliya.

Kamul: What is your favorite movie, actor and actress? Your favorite writer, your favorite literary work? What are you reading now (if anything)?

I don’t have any favorites. My tastes are very changeable. It’s not that I am omnivorous, but I watch and read a great deal, and try to find the good in everything (or almost everything). At the moment I am reading “Jack of Diamonds” by Vladimir Orlov. I think he is a great writer who is underappreciated. That is, quite a lot of people have read “Danilov the Violist”, but Orlov has written other remarkable books.

Nikola88: What kind of music do you like? Do you include it in your training?

Old classic rock. Russian and foreign. Aquarium, Kino, Dire Straits, Pink Floyd. You may think that is an eclectic collection, but “It’s all rock ‘n roll.” I rarely mix music with study.

Beatific Poet: Hello, Alexander!
- What do you think about music? Do you play any instruments? What, in your opinion, do music and chess have in common?

I like music, but I am not a fanatic. When I was younger there was more music in my life. I regret that I do not know much about classical music. As a child I studied how to bang on the keys of a piano for a few years, but there was no particular point to it. Both chess and music are connected with “algebra and harmony,” but I cannot explain it any more simply than that.

- Do you go to concerts? If so, to which ones?

I go more to the theater. The last concert I went to was BG [Translator’s note: Boris Grebenshchikov, a well-known singer-songwriter in Russia, founder of the band Aquarium], but that was quite long ago.

- Your opinion of poetry, your favorite poet?

About the same as music. There is no such thing as my favorite poet per se, it all depends on the time and the mood. If I have to name someone, it would be [Sergei] Yesenin

- What do you think about the cultural level of Russia?

It may sound like grumbling, but the new generation in general disappoints me. While my generation, as a whole, was somewhat more cultured than its Western contemporaries, today there is no difference between them. Apparently our educational standards have fallen. Of course, this all has to do with culture in the highest sense of the word. If you are talking about the culture of everyday life and behavior, then it’s just a disaster. A life of semi-poverty and a perverted system of values somehow are not conducive [to culture].

- What book (of any type) made the biggest impression on you? What musical composition?

It is very hard to pick out one in either category. I know it sounds as if I am brushing off the question, but really I like very many and different things.

- It seems as if at one time you wanted to write a literary book about a chess player. What has been the further history of that idea, and should we expect it to be realized?

I was talking more about something autobiographical. I must write one, but I don’t know when I will.

Winpooh: Alexander, what team are you going to root for in the World Cup of soccer?

I haven’t decided a hundred percent. Most likely for Holland, out of habit. I love that country, and the Dutch soccer during the time I was growing up was “forever”!

vasa: And who do you think will win? Who will star? Who will surprise us? And who will disappoint us?

The Russian team has already disappointed me plenty of times. It would seem that, judging from the choice of players and the level of play, we should expect a Brazil-Spain final, but I strongly suspect that at least one of those teams will not be there. The mentality just isn't right. One of the “small” European nations, like Denmark or Serbia, might be able to pull a surprise.

nucler: Do you care about “Dinamo” from Kiev?

Lobanovsky [Editor’s note: the late Valery Lobanovsky was the most famous soccer coach of Soviet era, who worked both with the USSR national team and “Dinamo” Kiev] was a great soccer specialist, but “Zenit” from Leningrad-Petersburg is my favorite team.

Gennady Irkustk: Alexander Valerievich, hello! The chess lovers of Irkutsk wish you good health and happiness! Have you ever been to Irkutsk, the Irkutsk province, or Lake Baikal?

I have heard about your beauties, but I have never had the opportunity. Last year I almost flew to play in the premier league in Ulan-Ude, from which the participants on their day off took a trip to Baikal, but I got sick just before the flight.

- What party did you vote for (if you voted at all) in the Russian elections in the 90s and 00s?

At the beginning of the 90s I voted for “Yabloko” and SPS [the Union of Right Forces], but then I came to my senses. The party slogans started to depart rather painfully from reality…

Today, because no matter whom you vote for, “United Russia” wins in the end, I don’t go to elections. A couple years ago I went to the local elections, because our “United Russia” leaders had nominated someone who was completely repulsive, but nevertheless they counted up the votes “the way they had to.”

- What party do you plan to vote for (if any) next time?

Because they have eliminated the candidate “None of the above,” it is hardly likely that I will vote. Only if the winds change…

- How would you describe your political convictions? – Communist, monarchist, liberal, Jewish nationalist, or something else?

I am relatively apolitical. Although I cannot describe myself in any way as a monarchist, I think that it is a form of government that is appropriate for Russia.

- What is your opinion of: a) I. V. Stalin, and b) V. I. Lenin? Strongly negative, strongly positive, or somewhere in between?

a) Strongly negative. Maybe I am subjective, but since my grandfather died in the Urals at the end of the 30s [Translator’s note: The time of one of Stalin’s most massive purges], it is impossible for me to be objective in this case.
b) Simply negative.

Caffeinated Skier: Have you heard anything about the outstanding chess talent of the famous Mafioso Charles Luciano?

Lucky Luciano is, of course, a figure who is famous in his own way, but somehow I have never been informed about his chess artistry.


10. Conclusion …

Eriksson: How do you usually answer inconvenient questions? In the style “F… Y…”?

I answer easily and simply to any question, even unpleasant or inconvenient ones. In general I try not to answer rude questions, but at times I may resort to the kind of language you describe. [Editor’s note: ‘FY’ is Khalifman’s handle on the chess forum ShPiL. He used to be known as 'ForeverYoung' on another forum.] 

vasa: Alexander, what question would you like to pose to yourself, and how would you answer it?

I would ask if I had any desire to try something on my own to change the chess world for the better. And I would say: Even if the desire is there, I have to realistically admit that there is no possibility. Any kind of politics, even chess politics, is not my cup of tea. People who devote themselves to it are cut from a different cloth. We speak different languages. I don’t pretend to be smarter or better than them, but I am just completely different.

On the other hand, I hope that the things I have said about possible changes will be taken seriously. I am not looking for profit or for the privileges of power, but I am simply saying what I think can be done better.

vasa: Alexander, is there any question that no one asked you, but which you would have liked to answer?

It’s strange that in light of the recent vigorous “Karpov vs. Ilyumzhinov” debates, no one has asked me the two eternal questions: Who is to blame? And what should we do about it? [Editor’s note: Here Khalifman refers to two classical novels of the 19 century whose titles have become idiomatic and are used as “eternal Russian questions.”] I do not want to answer the first question, because in my opinion it is completely irrelevant. (See how I ducked the question!) But what should we do? There the answer, in my opinion, is very simple. Instead of wasting your breath, it’s better to do something small but very concrete. For example, if everybody reading this can make some effort to ensure that the chess federation of your own region, however small and unimportant it may be, is not run by crooks and adventurers, then gradually the situation as a whole should get better. And this comment does not apply only to chess.

To be continued.

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.

KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part One

KC-Conference with Alexander Khalifman: Part Three