26 October 2020

Maksim Chigaev: I Tried to Keep My Mind Fresh

The Russian Higher League winner answers Vladimir Barsky’s questions

A Fruitful Lockout

– Maksim, my congratulations on your victory! Before we start talking about the tournament, please tell us how the so-called lockout went for you.

– It was more or less fruitful, especially the first couple of months. I devoted quite some time for physical training and chess at home. I had to discontinue it in May and June over some health issues, and July and August were again very productive in terms of going back to chess. However, there came a moment when I ceased my physical exercises, and it was somewhat sad for me, but when fitness clubs reopened, I cheered up again.

Of course, I regularly played in online tournaments. What else could I do? For example, I participated in the Titled Tuesday (a popular tournament on Chess.com, which only admits holders of international titles - ed.) every week, having never missed a single event.

– Your team "Molodezhka" has defeated the entire world. Whose idea was it to take on foreign teams?

– Daniil Yuffa took on the role of administrative manager, and Vladimir Potkin supported him. It was fascinating up to a certain point before we grew tired of easy victories. We have a decent team as it is, not to mention the blitz chess where my teammates stand head and shoulders above their opponents.

The Molodezhka team players Maksim Chigaev and Mikhail Antipov have landed 1st and 2nd in the Russian Higher League


– Do you rate online tournaments as an interesting type of chess or just a sort of "replacement"?

– In fact, I do not rate it so badly because playing from home has its pros. Of course, cheating is everyone's nightmare that requires no explanations. At the same time, I don't really understand those who criticize online chess indiscriminately. I am a person who was born in Kemerovo, who had no tournaments whatsoever to play in Siberia. I grew up as a chess player on the Chess Planet by taking on masters and grandmasters. Perhaps, the most striking example is Vlad Artemiev. When he still lived in Omsk and studied chess with Ivan Smykovsky, they agreed that Vlad would have no more than some 10 games a day. When Artemiev found out about Play Chess in 2011, he registered there and did things that you do not feel like recalling. It applies to me in equal measures.

I can't claim that online chess is a totally different game. It clearly has its inherent specifics, especially when it comes to time controls with no increments, but I found nothing wrong with it. Of course, the environment is greatly spoiled by cheating.

– Some people are anxious about this; others yet take it easy. What about you?

– I feel like a bull taunted with a red cloth when I learn about grandmasters doing it. This is a disgrace, the way I see it. I won't give any names, but when people rated above 2600+ engage in such nonsense, I can't say it is for lack of money…

– Is it a disgrace to the trade?

– Of course, it is. To see anyone shake such players’ hands in polite society would look very strange after that.

– Have you prepared for the Higher League mainly online?

– My work on chess has proved very productive. I have worked a lot since I started playing on a professional level, and I can't say that something has changed drastically in this respect. The only unusual thing was the inability to go anywhere, but I am otherwise pleased to have had a break like this. From October 2019 to February 2020, I dropped 60 rating points, which hurt a lot. When I caught my breath, the tournaments ended and the pandemic broke out, and my rating was 2590. I realized that it was time to get down to serious work.

– Do you prefer training with practice partners, coaches, or on your own?

– I play training matches with friends, or I study something on my own. Besides, I do like solving puzzles on different websites, such tactics on chess.com, super cool tasks on Chess Tempo that Yura Eliseev showed me back in 2012. Since I had some free time, I finished reading Mark Dvoretsky's Endgame Manual and Boris Abramovich's Taking Positional Decisions. I can't say it was a waste of time. I spent time reading some smart books.

– You have become a professional chess player not so long ago, right?

– I started playing in decent tournaments rather late because I could not do it until I turned 20. When I studied in St. Petersburg, I played in junior championships mostly. My performance was great, but what next? I had no money to go to the European opens. Neither was I a grandmaster, but a master rated about 2550. In fact, I began my professional career at the end of 2016, when I earned the GM title. It became easier for me financial-wise.

– Do you live in Tyumen now?

– I do, it has been for three years now.

– Do they support you there?

– They do. Thus, the Anatoly Karpov regional chess center sent Daniil Yuffa and me, the leading athletes of Tyumen, to the Higher League at center’s own expense. We have been very lucky in this respect for the last couple of years as they sent us, for example, to the Aeroflot Open and the European championship. I would have gone there at my own expense anyway (I used to do this whenever I had the opportunity), but the financial support is definitely very important and encouraging.

– What is required of an athlete in return?

– I give lectures and simuls to chess fans on a regular basis. And, needless to say, I try to be a worthy representative of the Tyumen region at all major competitions.

– Are there many chess events organized in the city and the region?

– Yes, we have many events organized indeed. Gennady Shanturov and Evgeny Prokopchuk often travel in remote areas and villages to give lectures and simuls. Before the pandemic, the Tyumen region used to enjoy a rather eventful chess life. However, there seems to be a gap between children and adult chess. Our talented youth play in the Russian Children's Cups but never go to adult tournaments because they are supposed to bring home medals. So, there is something to work on.

– Do promising young chess players switch to higher education after finishing secondary schools?

– They do. Chess helps many people in life, though. For example, my friend Mikhail Popov, an International Master, used to write books and recently took up a job as a coach. Even those who change their job drastically would never quit chess entirely.


Why you need to move pieces on the board chess

– Now let's talk about the Higher League. What does it feel like playing in a live tournament with classical time control after a six-month break?

– I went to the Kurnosov memorial in Chelyabinsk in September. Both here and there, I tried to leave my past failures behind and rather than trying to bounce back after a failure by all means because it usually ends badly. Besides, after many hours of preparation with the computer and going over my book lines before the game, I felt like going crazy, roughly speaking. I realized this very distinctly when I failed to convert many positions in a seven-hour time control tournament in the Isle of Man.

In Chelyabinsk and here, I decided to change my approach in that I would not burden myself with learning by heart. I brought a chessboard with me to Sochi, set up the pieces, and repeated the lines that seemed most likely to happen that day. It develops a mechanical memory effect, and, most importantly, I tried to keep my mind fresh because this is very important in a tournament of this caliber.

– Very few people seem to use a real board for preparation nowadays…

– A significant part of the preparation clearly takes place on a laptop, but at some point, I come to the conclusion that this position is very likely to happen this day. Then I set up a position on the board and make some first 15 moves from memory, and then I look at the pieces and think what next move my opponent is likely to make. I tried to foresee the game development from a purely human perspective rather than learning computer lines.

– Has this method proved effective?

– Yes, my mind was very fresh and I blundered on very few occasions.

– What was your progress curve?

– I suddenly found myself in the "plus three" zone. In round one, I outplayed Eric Obholz, then Evgeny Klimentov. I was somewhat lucky to be paired with a 2222-rated opponent in the second round because all other players of my rating level played against 2500-rated opponents. My opponent got a bye the day before. Objectively speaking, Klimentov is a much-underrated player (he gained 21.6 ELO points in Sochi – ed.). I scored "plus two", but in round three I let Alexey Goganov escape. I had a technically winning position and much thinking time left, but I hurried to appropriate a pawn…

In round four, I was White against Vladimir Fedoseev, and we made an easy draw. We are long-standing friends, we studied chess with Denis Evseev, and I did not feel like locking horns. And then, I managed to outplay Alexander Rakhmanov suddenly quickly. Alexander is a robust chess player who meets 1.e4 only with the Petroff Defense. I opted for the Four-Knight opening and played 4. h3 as I thought this idea to be good enough for one game. This is about the question of keeping your mind fresh. If he were to find all the best moves in the opening, it would have been a draw. It could have been a draw in the Petroff Defense, too. However, he would have been familiar with all positions arising there. I thought the surprise might be at least unpleasant for such a tough player playing such a robust opening. My preparation proved fully justified.

– Does 4.h3 really involve some serious preparation?

– The move is actually quite poisonous.


Chigaev – Rakhmanov

1. e4 e5 2. Nf3 Nf6 3. Nc3 Nc6 4. h3

Black to move

4…Bb4 5. Nd5 Ba5

Bishop's placement on a5 is quite precarious, but it involves knowing much theory to put it to c5 as well. 4. h3 is a good move and is not as simple as it looks. The point in going for it was to avoid the Petroff Defense rather than some serious home preparation. Thus, in checking my opponent's opening horizons, I suddenly hit the mark.

6. c3 Nxe4 7. d4

As far as I see, Black's position is very dubious already. It seems that Rakhmanov simply could not believe it at first.

7…Ne7 8. Qa4 c6 9. Nxe7 Nxc3 10. bxc3 Bxc3+ 11. Bd2 Qxe7 12. Bxc3 exd4+ 13. Be2 dxc3 14. 0-0 0-0 15. Bd3, and White gradually converted his edge.

Finally, following my victory in round six over my teammate from Molodezhka Mikhail Antipov, I made it into the +4 group. He completely misplayed the opening, and I got an almost winning position as Black. However, as it was very hot in the playing hall that day, I committed a terrible oversight: in playing Bd7-c6, I thought that I was attacking the e4-pawn and just forgot to count the number of attackers and defenders. Mikhail came back by attacking my bishop with his knight, at which point I realized that the pawn was not hanging…

I managed to pull myself together after that. I was lucky that my position was almost beyond spoiling. I followed by making only practical moves, while Antipov blundered and lost.

– Was the home stretch a challenge for you?

– Round seven was an uneventful draw as White with Andrey Esipenko, and then I had two games as Black against Vladislav Artemiev and Konstantin Sakaev. I was lucky that Vlad was not in excellent shape in Sochi and often blundered, which happened in our game, too. I could have given him a hard time in the endgame, but then thought again in favor of sealing the qualification to the Superfinal. That decision to make a draw nearly backfired on me.

I was most unlucky with the last round pairing as it pitted me as Black against Konstantin Sakaev, who needed nothing but victory. My only wish not to blunder something in the opening didn't materialize, and I found myself in a nearly hopeless situation. However, then I somehow managed to fight back with some heroic defensive moves. I first managed to transfer the queen to f4, and when I found the pawn's march to f3 after the exchange of queens, I calmed down as I realized it was an escape for me.

Maksim Chigaev and Konstantin Sakaev

– Is this your first qualification into the Superfinal?

– Yes, although I was very close to qualifying last year. I failed to defeat Boris Grachev in round eight in the endgame that evaluated as +7 in my favor. Not only that, having a choice of winning continuations that I was aware of, I managed to go astray nonetheless. Back then, I took seventh place, and Sakaev finished sixth. I remember thinking after the final round that taking sixth place would be such an upset!

I think I deserved the qualification last year in terms of positions that I had had, but it happened only now. Of course, I'm very happy.

– What are your expectations of the Superfinal?

– It's hard to say because the lineup is still unknown. It might be one of the strongest Superfinals in chess history with all the best players willing to participate. After all, the Candidates Tournament was also postponed to the spring. Quite some developments! If not a super tournament, this is going to be something close to it. I tried to qualify into super tournaments and was close to it in Wijk aan Zee. I was in the lead in group B for 11 rounds, but I didn't make it. I am looking forward to gaining valuable experience against strong players more than anything else. I have very few classical games against 2700+ rated players, let alone 2750+. Something to start preparing for!


I follow Nepomniachtchi and can't stand Nakamura 

– Let's go back to our "semi-quarantine" times. All sorts of streams and online broadcasts have become trendy now. Are you part of this?

– Yes, I have commented on youth rapid chess championships matches on chess.com recently. I streamed the first couple of quarantine months, then abandoned it, and now I think to resume it again. However, I first need to slightly upgrade my computer and buy a comfortable chair to equip my workplace as comfortably as possible.

– How attractive is this virtual life?

– It becomes interesting when people watch you. It's mental anguish to comment for 10-15 people only. However, around 500 people watched me on chess.com, and it feels nice to see your efforts not go in vain. Of course, you should not get too involved in this. On the other hand, with virtually no tournaments now, you feel like doing something.

– Was there any sort of feedback from the audience by asking you questions?

–They indeed sent many questions for me to answer. I thought I was doing pretty well.

– Did you stream for free?

– It is clear that it was not for free when I commented on chess.com. As for my own channel, it is, in fact, a sort of hobby as the audience is not large. This is all for the future: if my channel succeeds financially over time, then why not. Overall, streaming is a lot of fun.

– Do you watch other broadcasts?

– I do. I like the way Ian comments. I almost don't watch Hikaru because I can't stand him.

– Why is that?

– I keep recalling his attempts to take the move back against Aronian in the Candidates Tournament, and I don't really understand how you can respect him after that. It's just disgusting, in my opinion. I don't like him because of this background, although his streams are objectively good.

I watch Vladimir Fedoseev's streams from time to time. I often visit the Levitov Chess channel. However, it happens from time to time. I don't have it that, say, I sit down in front of the screen at five o'clock in the evening, pour myself a cup of coffee and start waiting for someone to stream. It usually happens that I study chess and do things that I need to do, and then go online in the evening. If anyone happens to comment on something, it's good.

– You don't teach anyone, do you?

– I decided that I'm still too young to give lessons. My chess career started rather late and I haven't played enough chess yet. Besides, I'm quite good at it. I've recorded several video courses, but I'm not ready to train anyone yet.

– You used to shine in rapid chess earlier, didn't you?

– Yes, I was rated about 2730 in rapid chess at some point. However, I unexpectedly dropped many rapid points at the World Championship in Moscow at the end of last year. I got sick on the first day and performed very poorly. On the other hand, I performed well in the blitz section. Still, last year I mostly played in some decent tournaments with long time formats, such as Aeroflot, European Championship, World Cup, Isle of Man, playing for the national team, European Cup, Russian Cup… There was no time left for the Russian Rapid Cup stages, and there are few rapid chess tournaments elsewhere.

– Do you prefer any particular time format?

– Rapid chess has always appealed to me. I disagree with those who claim that rapid format is not a big deal. I have always believed that to win in rapid chess is about working hard, especially in the opening part of the game. If you ask your opponents a question, they just don't have time to answer. Overall, chess continues to accelerate, in my opinion. Rapid chess is more spectacular, of course. In my opinion, all types of chess should coexist and develop uniformly. Classical chess is clearly a cornerstone of chess.

– You mean the seven-hour classical format?

– By no means! In my opinion, you should keep the seven-hour format only for world championship matches. I had successful tournaments that featured a seven-hour format, but I never really liked them. I think this is absurd in the modern chess world; how can anyone be interested in it? That is, I have nothing against it, but I much prefer the five-hour format, as has been here in Sochi.

– All in all, the more excellent and different tournaments, the better!

– This is indeed something to look forward to!

Photos by Vladimir Barsky