13 October 2022

Daniil Dubov: Triumph of Cold Calculation

The Russian champion answers Eteri Kublashvili's questions


 Daniil, my congratulations on your Superfinal success.

– Thank you.

– Let us recall how the event was unfolding. What was your strategy going into the tournament? Can you highlight any particular game?

– It would be a hard thing to do. There was no particular strategy, and I anticipated two potential scenarios. I am a seasoned Superfinal player, and when I saw the drawing of lots and round pairings, I immediately spotted two very promising games as White against Murzin and Iljiushenok at the finish stretch. Having said that, they both played superbly. Volodar was so close to making into the top three, and Ilia under certain circumstances could even win the tournament up until the final day. Nevertheless, the tournament was obviously a challenge for them.

They are first-timers, after all. 

– I recall debuting at the Superfinal at the age of 16. And, what counts most, the finish was not easy for them, although it was obviously going to be a challenge for everyone else as well. Among other things, my home stretch had two White games for which I had time to prepare. The +3 score seemed a decent result for me. In this respect, my mindset when playing Nesterov at the start was to try to win and then take it from there. That is, I thought that if I manage to win, I will continue playing calmly and in the end I will try to outplay Murzin and Iljiushenok, and if I don’t – I will have to play the rest of the field without any predictable results. I ended up defeating Arseniy, which allowed making a few more draws and calmly pray for the desired outcome of my home stretch games. It is quite funny that many friends of mine, including professional chess players, emailed me about having never seen a perfect calculation like this. I announced my plan towards round two about three games in which to have to fight and the rest of the games to make quick draws, and that there would most likely follow a tie-break match with two draws and an Armageddon game. We had a good laugh that this is exactly what I had foretold. 

– Your tie-break with Sanan saw some really short rapid games. Was it caused by fatigue?

– Indeed. First of all, this experience is new for me. I've only participated in the related discussions, but have never had any first experience of it myself.

– What exactly?

– Playing a tie-break the same day as the classical game. And I realized that it was going to be difficult.

– This is always the case at the Superfinals.

– Yes, but it’s just that I’m apparently an ungifted chess player, and I haven't had a similar problem before. This is why I was aware of the challenges in store for me. Secondly, Sanan had more time to rest in addition to facing no necessity of mandatory winning the last-round game, and a more or less calm draw is known to cost you less nerves. If we played a lot of non-committal rapid games, I would have probably rated myself as a slight favorite, although Sanan plays great chess. 

Well, it happened the way it happened. However, I find it amusing that if they had told me three years ago that I would be the person to win the Superfinal this way, I would have hardly believed it. It turned into such a triumph of cold mathematical calculation: "we are interested in three games, and if everything goes as planned, then we deal with no one else."

– In general, the event saw so many draws as never before. We talked with you a little about this in a brief interview after the game, and Evgeny Tomashevsky did the same in the studio as well. To put it simply, the openings have become so well studied that you have to have a good memory, and in the absence of errors a draw is the most likely outcome. 

– One of the reasons is the participants' lineup, and I would like to comment on the inclusion of Murzin and Nesterov in the event separately. I consider this decision a huge mistake and even considered withdrawing from the tournament if nothing was going to change along the way. It's not about who plays how, whether they are worthy of participating or not – it doesn't matter; there are a lot of chess players in Russia who could even win the Superfinal if luck sided with them despite having failed to qualify. The main problem is precisely the violation of the sports qualification principle:  it has been as transparent as possible for many years. There could be no finger pointing: everyone knew perfectly well that five players qualified from the Higher League, three players were winners of the previous Superfinal, and four players were highest-rated; in case of the latter players' refusals the next best-rated players were invited. I understand that this year's situation was especially difficult and that there were many refusals, but nevertheless, it was unnecessary to violate the well-rooted and transparent sports qualification principle. Firstly, in my opinion, this is lack of respect towards those on whom the chain of invitations by rating has discontinued. Do we have a situation when, for the sake of argument, all players down to Najer (I have great respect for Evgeniy, the problem has nothing to do with him whatsoever) qualify by rating, and the rest of the field could be so weak that an educated guess will suffice for such players' qualification? Secondly, it affects the tournament dynamics greatly: of course, abundance of draws is a direct function of the number of the tournament’s tailenders. Some of them played better, some worse – it doesn't matter; the bottom line is that special emphasis will always be placed on games with them – often to the detriment of games against the tournament regulars. Overall, our turbulent times seems ill-suited for changing anything that has worked well before. I do hope that this was a one-time action and will never happen again. Let me highlight separately that I am by no means against supporting young chess players – this should definitely on the agenda. It is just that the Superfinal is a sporting tournament, this is an official national championship, not a commercial competition, which means that qualification should also be subject to sporting principles. And you can otherwise support by inviting to commercial elite tournaments, like the Tal Memorial, via giving grants and many other different ways.

It applies to the first-time participations as well. When talking about the first-time participations, it is actually often the case (as it has happened countless number of times in the world championship matches) that draws suit you only until the first decisive game. It was clear that as soon as the decisive game had nothing to do with Nesterov, everyone would immediately switch to battling. That is, we are free to make draws until someone runs ahead of the pack. For example, I am on “+1”, I am in the group of leaders, the finish is good – why should I accelerate? And when Sanan won a couple of games, the situation changed drastically. Had it happened earlier, everyone would have started performing more aggressively sooner. However, no one could really win anything no matter the amount of efforts. Thus, Andrey Esipenko was after winning every game but not winning a single one. Maksim Chigaev also battled in all of his games: he won and lost, won and lost, but still could never make it to "+2". Had he achieved it, it would have relayed a clear message for everyone to start playing for a win. It did not happen. Therefore, I thought it was playing into my hands. 

– Calculation.

– Yes. This is not really something you're proud of from the creative point of view. On the other hand, my last rapid tournaments took place at Chess.com a year ago, in which you need to make into the top eight out of 35 players. Therefore, I trained my mathematical skills and my knack of soothing my chess conscience quite well and I did not feel bad about it at all.

– With rather infrequent over the board practice seen nowadays, is it not the case that these online tournaments only end up diluting players' brains and skills one way or another?

– It is more about corruption than dilution. These are slightly different things. I don't think you play worse because of it, but still...

– But maybe constant online chess has ended up downgrading players' level of responsibility?

– No, this is a totally different model. When we say "online", we primarily mean Chess.com, because Magnus' tournaments are essentially different. On the one hand, we cannot but say a huge “thank you” to Chess.com for bringing and giving an opportunity to earn money on chess even for average grandmasters. Nevertheless, this server is known for “how cool” videos when someone flags an opponent in a “rook versus rook” ending. You play in this environment for half a year and you know that you can calmly resign in a three-vs.-three pawns rook ending because you will undoubtedly be flagged. To perform well in the weekend tournaments in which I participate, you need to make into the top eight out of some forty players on Saturdays, and then play in a knockout the next day. Players made thousands of draws to make into the top eight. For the sake of argument, you started off to “+3”, and this is where your tournament ends because you face people of equal level of understanding, and your choice is reduced to two buttons: “Offer a draw” and “Accept a draw”. There is nothing else left for you to do. 

I have passed through every stage. At the onset of "online" events I attempted not to be overly aggressive. Then I had to acknowledge the fact that playing every week rather makes it a job than a pleasure. As it was an overall ranking, it became really important to make into these top eights from a certain moment. On the other hand, I thought why gift people now that if had been doing it for so long now. Therefore, if you can make a draw to seal your spot in the top eight now, then this is what you need to do. One draw is as good as many. This was my mindset going into this Superfinal. If not for "online" I would have probably had a different opinion, something like: "An interesting tournament in which to play for a win against everyone and score many points." However, Chess.com somehow taught me that people bother not about best games but about results. Therefore, when the task was set to try to win here, I played to the maximum. Having said that, I felt as soon as the start that my form was not ideal, which was an evident thing. Well, how can it be ideal after not having played for nearly half a year. My last classical tournament was the Grand Prix FIDE.

In fact, this year before the Superfinal, I had had three tournaments: Wijk aan Zee, where they withdrew me due to an alleged Covid-19, and the FIDE Grand Prix series in spring. The atmosphere was tense, to be honest. Besides, the system was such that to stay in the tournament you needed to qualify from the group with only one qualification spot up for grabs. Aronian won my group, and I failed to qualify. That is all, what can I do?

I probably played as many games in the Superfinal as during the whole year before. Thus, I really wanted to play at the Superfinal in Moscow and I aimed at the maximum at each game. I defeated both first and second prize-takers and delivered the game of the year, but I didn't make into the top three. Overall, the mood was entirely different. Ian Nepomniachtchi, who had won back then, negotiated the distance in principally the same manner by calmly playing to the upfront calculation. He made a quick draw in the final round and waited for me to defeat Karjakin and ended up taking the first place. At that chess tournament my sympathies were probably with Karjakin, and this time – with Sjugirov. However, justice never rules. Therefore, the one to triumph is not the one who battles or puts up more fight, but the one who simply wins his games.

– At the closing ceremony they praised your coach, Alexander Riazantsev.

– Yes.

– Who else is part of your support team, if you don't mind my asking?

– Of course, I have people supporting me. First of all, besides Alexander I want to say a huge "thank you" to Boris Gelfand, with whom we continue working on chess so extensively. I would like to take this opportunity to explain to many chess fans who may not quite understand the huge amount of work that stands behind a seemingly boring-looking game. For example, the line that I employed against Rakhmanov might look like “yet another quick draw” to a spectator. And you know what, Boris and I played probably as many as 40 training games in this line. Now I am free to share this info. And then you do it again over the board with such a draw as a result. 

I am also very grateful to Maxim Matlakov for a joint training session prior to the tournament. He helped me prepare even when it came to the tie-break. We always cheer for each other during the tournaments. 

– Not so long ago I heard the opinion that future belongs to the Fischer Random Chess now that all openings have been analyzed to death. Do you agree with this or not quite?

– It has really become a challenge in terms of openings because, as a classical poet put it: “you keep earning low, and even that by the sweat of your brow”. It drove me into a certain depression because such short draws in the past were usually made when people were unwilling to play and did not prepare. And now you really work hard and prepare for six or seven hours straight just to make this draw. I probably did not have a single game in Cheboksary that could compare with the time invested into its preparation. It is comical indeed. Even the Petrov’s Defense, which happened in the last round game against Iljiushenok, not only took me the entire night to prepare, but I had started looking into it a few days in advance. It has become a challenge in this respect. 

I was not a big fan of the Fischer Random Chess, to be honest, but then I played exactly one online blitz tournament and basically warmed up to it. I have little faith that audience will take to Chess960. 

– Why?

– Because there are some well-established things that people have come to associate with chess: the classical starting position, e2-e4 and so on. It is obvious to professionals – and we discuss it from time to time – that Fischer Random Chess would be of much more interest. There is no need to prepare, the one who plays better is the one to win, rather than the one who comes better prepared for the game. 

On the other hand, preparation is also an art, although not everyone seems to share this insight. It will indeed be true to highlight Sanan's twice as much time over the board during the tournament as mine. Indeed, unlike me, he pressed each game to the desired result, but I probably prepared more. These are just different approaches. I realized it only well, and to prepare as much as possible and go over a huge number of lines was part of the plan. But now that it has become way more difficult to commit anything to memory, all that is left to do is sit down to downright learn it by heart. You spend half the night preparing and another half committing to memory, and it is clear that in doing so you need to avoid long games every day because it would make for a huge load. And, for the sake of argument, you come out once every three days to shoot all this at your opponent and make uneventful draws in other games in between.

You need to breathe out, after all.

– Indeed, this is exactly so! Such an extensive preparation will simply not allow me playing for five hours straight every day.

– This is obvious. While the Superfinal was underway, the Carlsen-Niemann story received its further development, and then Carlsen came up with his statement (this interview was recorded prior to the publication of the large-scale report by Chess.com – Ed.). We briefly touched on this topic during the tournament in an interview after the game, but now I would like to focus more on the "Niemanngate". 

– My view on this conflict is simple. I don't know Niemann at all, but I know Magnus well. It looks like a situation when a person with an impeccable from my point of view reputation and no paranoia propensities accusing someone of cheating for the first time in his life. I would like to stress his lack of paranoia propensities once again. I have never heard him accuse anyone. There are some cases that they like to keep speculating about, there were some stories that they still discuss on the topic of cheating. When it came to discussing all of that, even in private conversations, Magnus would always insist on lack of any cheating. And here he literally accuses a person of cheating, who, as is already known, had previously resorted to outside help. I am not privy to all the details, but I trust Magnus. He never impressed me as a person falling for paranoia over his defeats from anyone. At the same time, there circulates a theory that he was upset over his defeat from Niemann. As many as half the tournament players, including me, managed to defeat him, and he never accused any of us of cheating.

- Yes, it is somewhat strange to hear people claim that Magnus has lost his nerve.

– Well, it is possible that someone believes in his losing his nerves. However, in my understanding it is called principles. If for some reason he is absolutely confident about...

– But the online game was beyond me: why did he resign on the move two instead of just never starting it?

– I played on this platform, and I think the explanation is simple: there is no resigning as such. As far as I understand, you need to make at least one move.

– Why not just walk out on your opponent and lose on time?

- The game does not begin until you have made one move. That is, if your opponent moved 1.d4, and you are smoking somewhere on the balcony, your clock is not running.

– Ok, that is clear now.

– Therefore, he made a move and resigned – this approach works. This is my theory, and I think it has always been like that on this platform.

– This is a purely technical stuff.

– Indeed.

– The following question might look somewhat stupid, but do you have any idea what are your next plans?

- I don't have any tournament plans yet. The situation is anything but simple. As far as I understand, there are no elite competitions in Russia at present. As for those tournaments to be had, they are not run by those who are my fans, let's put it this way. And my fans abroad, if any, don’t invite me either. Therefore, I will probably work for another half a year, play training games with Boris Gelfand, and conduct training sessions with Max Matlakov. I have to mention about a blessing in disguise, and even such a chess detox is not without upsides of its own. You suddenly realize that a number of things can be simply omitted, and that these are not the most pleasant things. Earlier, for the sake of argument, you needed to look for yet another fresh idea in the Berlin line, and then you always keep an eye if someone has already uncorked it. The way things stand, you have no particular use of any new ideas in the Berlin because there is nowhere to employ them. And I do not need an invitation to go to Chess.com. Even if I come up with an idea, there will be some 25 tournaments in which someone will also employ it because everyone uses similar computers.

All in all, I work on chess no less than before, I just allow myself the luxury of doing some non-chess-related things too.

– What are those things, if you do not mind my asking?

– If speaking about chess, you are free to do something just for yourself. For example, there is this Berlin endgame, which I have never played in official games with any color and do not intend to. It was a point of abstract interest throughout my entire career to take a month to analyze this very complex position. Usually, when you have a tournament in two or three weeks, you have no time for it because of more pressing problems: you have to patch up various holes here and there, to find five more draws in Gruenfeld, and so on. The way things are you are free to do what you want, or go over some old games. 

Beside chess, I did a lot of physical activities, and socialized with people. All in all, a chess player's life in normal circumstances, besides playing much chess, is also a constant looking forward to yet another tournament. You know when and where it is going to take place, you think about doing physical exercises and sticking to your daily routine because your competition is three weeks from now. The thing is, Chess.com is not an easy place to gear up for fighting, just like in a well-known Russian anecdote: "There is nothing to regret about the way it happened." And, yes, the takeaway is that you can just live out your life to your heart's content. I think I managed the above-stated this summer.

– When thinking and preparing for an interview with a hypothetical Superfinal winner in advance, I wanted to somehow shake it up by adding some entertaining blitz questions. Here I want to offer you the choice of two answers to my short questions. In our case, let's start with chess – 1. e4 or 1. d4?

– 1. е4.

– Tea or coffee?

– Coffee. In my opinion, this is a strange question, though. It depends on the situation, the way I see it.

– I think the opposite – it's easy to say what you like more: tea or coffee.

– Well, what do you like more: books or carrots?

– Books.

– All right, then. Then my choice is coffee.

– Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

– I wish it were neither of them. But if I have to choose, then I rather choose Dostoevsky.

– Ronaldo or Messi?

– Messi.

– Red or white wine?

– Red.

– Dogs or cats?

– Cats.

– Sea or mountains?

– Sea.

– A movie or a TV serial?

– Let it be a movie.

– South or North?

– South.

– Sense or feelings?

– Sense should be my choice following this tournament. This is obvious: feelings are not about me. I had it all calculated there.

– Yes, indeed. Daniil, thank you for this entertaining conversation and let me congratulate you on your success once again.

– Thank you.

Pictures by Eteri Kublashvili