11 February 2016

Vladimir Kramnik Interview, Part Two

Final part of the extensive interview to Sport-Express newspaper.

Winning a game involves creating high tension 

When you follow up on recent tournament live broadcasts, supplied with computer evaluations to each game being played, an impression is such that there is no single player left, apart from Carlsen, who still remembers how to play chess…

“Well, this is not exactly so! It is simply due to computers becoming ever so stronger, plus the intensity of tournaments is very high. In modern chess the role of training is constantly on the increase, with players paying more and more attention to their home preparation, which in turn hits at their freshness during a game. It's one thing when it takes you an hour to get prepared, catch your sleep, take a walk and head for the game, and it’s quite another thing when preparation takes as many as five hours. In the second case, you have already spent a lot of your energy when you show up for the game. However, the overall level of performance is high enough – clearly higher than it used to be some 10-20 years ago.

“Kasparov, for one, was often able to get substantial advantage out of the opening, the rest of the game being a simple matter of delivering precise finishing blows. It goes without saying that his play was brilliant, but a lot of his games were won owing to home preparation effect. Now those days are gone because the computers have markedly improved, making everyone’s preparation equally powerful. Winning a game now requires creating high tension on the board in approximately equal positions. Your win comes through taking correct psychological decisions such as, for example, drastic change of the game direction, going in for unexpected positional complications approaching time trouble. If you want to win, you have to create a sharp, nonstandard type of positions in order to supply your opponents with opportunities to commit errors, as they say. However, you should keep in mind that you yourself is not immune to oversights for that matter. Regrettably enough, on a high level it is nowadays close to impossible to play an immaculate game in a sense of getting substantial advantage out of the opening and bringing it home afterwards. Therefore, from time to time you get an occasional feeling about the amount of errors being way over the limit.”

Do you seriously consider the new time control to be suitable for the World Championship matches?

“Right now I see absolutely no problems about playing match games with a classical time control. However, the computers improve fast, and the opening theory develops... In any given tournament there will anyway be one or two interesting games, while the match features only one game per day. Let’s say that Black manages to neutralize White's starting advantage through his home preparation, thus bringing the fight to an end. Should this scenario become standard, it might prove necessary to play two games per day. With this in mind, a match will consist of 24 rather than 12 games within the same period of 12 game days. It is unlikely to happen in the next couple of years, but in due course of time we may arrive at this point, perhaps.

“Let me repeat it: it is important to find out whether the new time control is going to do any harm to game quality. If we see that the number of blunders has increased dramatically, it will definitely mean that this step is not a positive one. In addition to making chess a more emotional game, it is equally important to keep up the high level of play.”

I did not celebrate my victory over Kasparov “the Russian way” 

Vladimir, you have taken part in a multitude of tournaments and World Championship matches. Could you recall any highlight moments? Such as, for example, the year 2000, when you defeated Garry Kasparov himself and became the strongest grandmaster on the planet.

“I find it difficult to single out the brightest moment of all. There is very little, if any, that can measure up to that match throughout all years of my career in terms of intensity and tension of work. Standing up to Kasparov at a time when he was in his top form, when he had the highest rating of his career, required tightening your nerves into steel bands and going all out beyond your capabilities. Therefore, my memories linger more over the hard labor, even though the memories are still sweet because of the results that this hard work produced in the final run.”

What were your feelings at the moment you realized your victory over the Great and Powerful? Carlsen, for example, upon wrestling the crown from Anand jumped into the pool fully dressed. What about you, did not you want to take, say, a champagne bath?

“Strange as it may seem, but I felt almost nothing at all. I was so overwhelmed with exhaustion that there was not a drop of energy left in me to rejoice. I do not know about other athletes, but following a tough tournament or a match an immense desolation would follow inevitably. Of course, my entire team was engaged in wild celebrations of my victory over Kasparov, but not me, I did not feel like celebrating it “the Russian way”. Up until your last move on the board it is your high level of adrenaline that keeps you going. However, as soon as it is all over, you suddenly realize that there is nothing left in you. Not a thing. After that your normal sleep will just fail you for a while. It would happen to me following each World Championship match.

“Wise people say that true force is in motion, and I share their point of view. Once you have achieved a certain goal you need to move on. Resting on laurels is not a good idea.”

That is, fist pumping or taking down shots of liquor is not about you?

"It seems not. What is best remembered is not the day when I became the World “Champion, but rather the path which lead me to this title. I read the other day that following his victory in 1985 over Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov burst into his hotel overwhelmed with happiness, shouting and throwing up his hands in joy. By nature he is a more temperamental man than I am. My emotional reactions were not as strong. It is also because I was never hung up on any particular result in a sense of either becoming best of the best or nothing at all. Even if I had not become World Champion, I would have been quite happy about my life and my career. My creed is to strive to do everything to the max, sparing no effort along the way, and if you failed to conquer the summit - then you are just not worthy of it.”

Topalov’s team conduct was outrageous, launching a real harassment campaign against me 

Ten years ago you defeated Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov in the World Championship match. The whole world, and not only the chess one, still remembers that Toiletgate. By way of protest against it you even refused to play one of the games, granting your opponent a crucial point… Since then you’ve shaken hands neither with Topalov nor with his manager, have you?

“At the recent World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Berlin we were demonstrated a new Hollywood film “Pawn Sacrifice”. When it came to the scene in which Fischer didn’t show up for game two, chess players began joking about it perhaps being high time that a film about my encounter with Topalov be put on screen! Anand and Carlsen even went on to suggest famous actors for our roles. I can no longer recall, however, who the proposed candidates were. Actually our match was by no degree less dramatic than the 1972 match. It’s simply that back then there was a lot of politics around chess, with the Cold War looming strongly around.”

There were absurd allegations about your too frequent visits to the toilet, obviously hinting at outside help. Was the match against Topalov about more than just chess?

“After what Topalov and his manager Silvio Danailov said and did I was really unwilling to go down. That was a matter of principle, since they’d assaulted my honor. I could easily have lost, since I took the decision to play on after being illegally deprived of a full point. During the match the conduct of Topalov’s team was nothing short of being outrageous, launching a real harassment campaign against me. I’d never experienced similar aggression during a chess event before that and, hopefully, I never will again.”

What did you feel after defeating Topalov in the tiebreaks? 

“I was much happier than after my victory over Kasparov, even though Topalov, being a very strong chess player indeed, is clearly inferior to Garry. The emotions in Elista clearly outweighed those in London. It was essential for me that the Bulgarian be punished for his behavior. People adore winners and quickly forgive them their faults. I was very well aware that if Topalov ended up winning no one would recall his behavior during the match before long and he’d become a hero. I really didn’t want to allow that happening!

“Starting from that moment the chess world has held a very negative opinion of Topalov and he even would not be invited into certain events. That’s a blot on his whole life. In 2006 he put everything at stake: honor, decency – he was so desperate to win. From the moral point of view it was vital for me that he didn’t end up being a golden boy. I took risks and could have lost, since I was trailing behind during the match, but I equalized the score and managed to come out on top in tiebreaks. I think that from the point of view of resilience and will power that was the greatest achievement of my career.”

Do you happen to remember Topalov’s look after the defeat?

“I was somehow paying him no attention at the moment (laughing). It goes without saying he was deeply disappointed, to put it mildly. His manager was undoubtedly enraged, since he was the mastermind of the whole scandal and outrageous behavior. Topalov also failed to find the inner strength to apologize in public for his unsporting conduct, despite him being condemned by many leading grandmasters.”

Will you ever forgive him?

“I never leave people without a second chance, but in the case of Topalov he didn’t seize the opportunity. Therefore I’ve long since discontinued having any contact with him and never offer him my hand to shake.”

About half a year ago, when Topalov landed into number two position in the world ranking and you were closing the Top 10, Danailov uploaded a screenshot on social media, writing that life had sorted everyone accordingly, as if recommending to just paying attention to where Kramnik was, and where Topalov was. We know you don’t lend to provoking easily, but would you like to use this opportunity to respond back? (Right now Kramnik is number two in the world ranking, while Topalov is number eight – note by Sport-Express.)

“There is no mistaking these people for me since long ago. I take absolutely no interest in what he says or writes, and I’ve certainly no intention to react anyhow. If it were not for you telling me about it, I wouldn’t even be aware about what they come out with. Their reputation is so poor that they would be better off taking care of their own problems. Inasmuch as is known to me, the FBI has taken a serious interest in his manager, investigating his activity connected to his work for the Bulgarian and European Chess Federations. So his main worry right now should perhaps be about staying a free man.”

Carlsen's strength is his consistency

Just very recently, in London 2013, you could have qualified for a World Championship match. In the Candidates Tournament you scored equal with Carlsen, but finished second on some tiebreak coefficients. Was it upsetting that the fate of first place was sealed not even through the chess penalty shootout, but by some incomprehensible numbers?

“It was not at all upsetting. Even though the regulations were foolish, they had been fixed in advance. I was simply out of luck: I stood better according to three of the tiebreaks, but Carlsen was above me on the first one. It’s another matter that the topic was later followed up by a great deal of discussion. Even Magnus labeled the system weird. However, no one felt the urge to step in to introduce some change, and the rules for the next Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk remained unchanged. I advocated the changes, but out of curiosity made up my mind to see whether anyone other than me would attempt something in that respect. It turned out no one was especially interested. Well, from my side I let the matter be as is, since at some point the coin will perhaps fall on the other side and the rule will work in my favor. You need to understand that grandmasters are often such people who prefer to simply play chess, while not being much bothered about organizational issues. “

Kasparov recently tweeted about Carlsen standing out and playing in a league of his own, like Djokovic in tennis. Do you share this point of view?

“Sure enough, he’s currently number one in the world, but there are also a few other players who are in the same league as him. You can’t say that the existing gap is of some enormous dimension. On the other hand, there is no denying the fact that Magnus is superior to the rest, but there are three, or perhaps five, grandmasters who could still contest him in a long match. So the cosmic gap between him and the remaining field is somewhat exaggerated and it is not certain that Carlsen will go on dominating for many years to come. After all, a World Championship match is a special trial. Kasparov also used to crush tournaments one after another, but the world crown matches against well-motivated and prepared challengers would cost him an enormous amount of effort. On the other hand, Carlsen’s strength is his titanesque stability. No other chess player can boast that.”

World Championship matches is our trademark and must never be abandoned!

Carlsen’s current proposal is about abandoning the crown match in favor of replacing it with a yearly knockout similar to the World Cup.

“This is a question that requires a systematic type of approach, without thinking about any given grandmaster’s benefits but rather observing the interests of the whole chess community. For me it’s absolutely clear that World Championship matches is our trademark. This is the most valuable thing we have as chess players. A great deal people who rarely follow up on our battles and are only amateurs, or even less than that, only know the history of the crown matches such as Capablanca-Alekhine, Botvinnik-Tal, Fischer-Spassky, Karpov-Kasparov, and Anand-Carlsen… That film “Pawn Sacrifice”, with famous Hollywood actors, was based on exactly such a match. I fail to comprehend why that established system must to be destroyed. Let’s be honest! The World Championship match is a sole chess event that keeps attracting the entirety of world’s press and sponsors. The substantial financial prizes - two million dollars - just confirm that point of view. And it shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that the first official World Championship match took place as far back as in 1886. Throwing that all away as if it were some sort of garbage could be nothing else but a huge mistake.”

So, you positively disagree with Carlsen on this issue?

“I certainly respect his opinion. He’s an honest guy and always says what is on his mind, and it’s his right to make such statements. I simply don’t see anyone profiting from it, so I was amazed to hear about it and couldn’t grasp the essence. The World Championship title is a standalone issue. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had very few chess champions since 1886. In knockout tournaments a lot is decided in blitz and there’s a large element of chance. Although I won the World Cup myself, I wouldn’t say the format could in any way measure up to a full-fledged match. Therefore I hope that in the near future no changes are going to take place. No-one needs it: neither fans nor sponsors.”

The Russian Chess Federation President Andrey Filatov maintains that the Champion could be challenged to a match by a famous billionaire, like Bill Gates, or by a strong chess player who is capable of putting up a prize fund. FIDE would consider the challenge proposal. At the same time the official cycle for screening a challenger would remain unchanged, so that there would be more matches, more money, more promotion…

“I remember hearing something of the kind, but am unaware of any specific details. However, I believe that money shouldn’t be a decisive factor in sport. I could admit something like that if a challenger has realistic chances coupled with it being a match that the chess world, fans included, is eager to see happening. If that’s feasible, then you need to introduce stricter criteria and not just financial considerations.”

Hard measures are to be taken urgently about cheating 

We can’t but touch upon this sensitive topic. Technology is being developed in leaps and bounds, and if a chess player makes use of computer hints, he is impossible to defeat. Do you think the risk increases?

“Such a problem does exist. Cheating is slowly propagating and you can tell that from the number of cases the sportsmen have been caught red-handed. It’s good that it hasn’t happened in top level tournaments yet, at the very least no one has been caught in the act, but of course such incidents will happen all the more often. You don’t need to hide your head in the sand – on its own cheating is going nowhere. In all forms of sport doping has become a very serious problem indeed. Whole anti-doping committees operate to deal with it, but scandals still break out. Besides, in that case doping still doesn’t guarantee victory: if you’re weaker then no injections or pills will let you win. In chess, however, computer assistance is a guarantee of success in a game against any opponent, and after all, money and titles are at stake.”

How to address the problem then?

“It really unsettles me that no practical work is being done in that respect. At some tournaments they take cosmetic measures, which are supposed to ensure security, but an experienced specialist can easily bypass those defensive measures. There is simply no stopping a skilled cheater. I spent time studying the issue of what you can do in that regard and came up with multiple proposals to the FIDE anti-cheating committee. I’m willing to declare with certainty that there’s a method of fully extricating cheating, but it calls for certain financial investments, even if nothing over the top. However, the moment it comes down to money no one is eager to spend even a cent. I really don’t want to see the chess world being shaken by similar scandals in future, so we would be better off taking measures right now.”

Questions - Kirill Zangalis and Vladimir Barsky