Vladimir Kramnik, who had a very bad day at the office in the Tal Memorial first round, was in better form in the interview he gave to Evgeny Surov before it began. His comments on ratings and the World Championship take on extra significance after Carlsen’s shock withdrawal.
Levon Aronian, your opponent in the first round, told me that having reached 2800 he’s relaxed and now he’ll play calmly – a psychological weight has gone. While for you in terms of ratings… recently you haven’t hit the heights, or at least not your former heights. Does that weigh on you at all?
No, I don’t think Levon will relax because 2800 is quite an arbitrary number. It seems to me that in rating terms until you’re at least first on the rating list you can never relax, if you’re an ambitious chess player. And both of us are, of course, ambitious chess players. So I don’t think so. I’m absolutely sure he’ll try to become the world number one, as will I, but generally the way it’s worked out in chess first place on the rating list isn’t as significant as the title of World Champion. So for me, of course, the current cycle and the coming Candidates Matches next year are much more important. I’ll try to win there are meet Anand in a match. The rating, on the other hand, is something incidental. Of course you’d like it to increase, to get higher and higher, but again, it’s not so crucial, especially as I’ve already been first. That’s still ahead for Levon, no doubt, and he should still conquer that summit. I’ve already been above 2800, and number one, so again it’s nice but less important than achieving it for the first time. Of course I’d like to increase my rating a little in any case, and in fact things have been quite positive recently – my rating’s gradually increased, slowly but surely. I’ll keep working on it, but again I don’t put that first. For example, winning a major tournament is, of course, more important for me than ten rating points. It’s some sort of marker that you remember: I’ve won the Tal Memorial twice already, moreover alone and by a margin. Well, that’s nice to remember. As for ratings – well, I was once second, third, but that’s all forgotten very quickly.
Did I understand correctly that you’re seriously intending to fight for the title of World Champion i.e. that goal is no less important for you now than previously?
It’s simply different. It’s important, but in a different way. Of course, if I set myself a goal then it’s only that one – what else? I’ve already won lots of tournaments, and so on. But I’d say it’s a totally different motivation. It’s got a totally different flavour; it’s more a kind of test, to prove something to myself… While before it was probably more of a striving to reach the top, to extract the maximum, it wouldn’t be a great disappointment for me now if things didn’t work out. But, strange as it sounds, despite all that I really hope it happens, and I’m working hard and in general taking it seriously. It’s more a test of sorts for myself than trying to prove something, because, firstly, that’s not in my philosophy, and secondly – there’s nothing to prove to anyone at the given moment in chess. But for myself it would be… I’d say that I’m a perfectionist by nature, and if I do something I want to do it as well as possible. And in the current situation it can only be the World Championship title. So if I don’t get it (which, of course, is entirely possible), I’ll feel that I didn’t go as far as I could, at least in these years, from 2008 on. That I came up a bit short. But I’ll try.
So what is the Tal Memorial for your now? A stage in your preparation? Or something in itself…
No, all tournaments are to some degree a stage in preparation. But, of course, this is too serious a tournament to consider it simply training. I also want to win major tournaments as they’re milestones in your biography. I don’t have Kasparov’s approach – first place or nothing. I’ve never had that, by the way. But my tournament chess biography shows that you can definitely still reach the top without that. I never had that kind of approach. Even when I played the match with Kasparov I didn’t have the mentality that I should win at all costs. No, I simply played, forgot about the result and showed what I was capable of. That’s more or less the same approach I have now in tournaments. I don’t think that I absolutely have to take first place. I simply turn up and try to get in the best possible form, to prepare for the tournament as well as possible and to show what I’m capable of. And then what happens happens. I wasn’t fixated on the result before and now I’m even less fixated on the result, particularly as it’s simply an international tournament. But, of course, as the tournament goes on you try to go all out to play and win it. Even more so as it’s in Moscow, and the tournament’s very strong. It all comes down to working seriously.
Do you regret that your “client” isn’t playing at the Tal Memorial? [Surov’s referring to this interview where Kramnik joked that Carlsen was his “client”]
Well… not exactly regret. I’d prefer that he played, along with Anand, who you definitely can’t call my client. No, I simply always like to play in tournaments that are as strong as possible. In fact, for me it’s ideal if the best are playing as it spurs me on and gives me an extra incentive to get down to it and show all I’m capable of. That’s why, by the way, I’ve quite often managed to win very strong tournaments, including the last Tal Memorial, and Bilbao now – because it somehow gives me an extra incentive – to beat Carlsen, to beat Anand, for example. Therefore I’d prefer that, but everyone has their plans. And, in general, the tournament’s strong enough already. On the other hand, it’s good to see some different faces as the rest of us have already played together so often in other tournaments, and it gets a little dull. In any case all three of us are going to play in London, and again in Wijk-aan-Zee, so we’ll have had enough of looking at each other.
Surov goes on to ask about the Russian team’s performance at the Olympiad, which is perhaps of more interest to Russian readers/listeners. Kramnik defends both his personal performance and that of the Russian team, but the interview ends on an interesting note:
In any case, I’ve set myself the goal of not leaving chess before we win the Olympiad once more.
Great. So now we have to hope that we don’t win any more Olympiads?
No, I’d still like to win the next one… In Turkey, I think… Well, I definitely think we’ll win one of the next two. I can almost guarantee it. I’m sure of it. But, of course, it’s a shame: we had enough of a chance in Khanty-Mansiysk, but what can you do…
After today’s game Surov also interviewed Aronian again. There were two topics: today’s game (Aronian mentioned he made the “rash decision” to go for a sharp line he knew nothing about, but was saved by Kramnik not knowing everything “to the end” either) and Magnus Carlsen’s decision to drop out of the Candidates Matches. Asked for his opinion Aronian responded:
Well, every player has a choice. If someone thinks the system’s unjust and has a different opinion than the other players, that’s his choice.
But you have a different opinion about the World Championship system?
Well, in general it’s changed so much… Each time, of course, it’s very unpleasant. But it seems to me that Candidates Matches aren’t bad. Candidate Matches are in a sense a return to the correct system. Well, and I also really like the idea of the Grand Prix. If, of course, the selection for that was stricter, linked to rating… i.e. if those who had the highest rating could play in the Grand Prix then it seems to me that it could win over many professionals, who see it as a democratic approach to the World Championship system.
As I understand it Magnus’ main complaint is that the World Champion has too many privileges.
And that the system has stretched out over almost five years.
Well, of course, that’s clear. But I think it’s unlikely that a player who’s first on the rating list – and it’s not important if he’s first, second or third – it’s unlikely that one of the leading players in the world can speed up the system by leaving it.