Evgeny Surov’s interview with Vladimir Kramnik after the recent London Chess Classic provided not only an insight into Kramnik’s thought processes during that event, but also a review of 2010 as a whole and an indication of his hopes for the coming year.
You can listen to the interview with Kramnik here at Chess-News – the site that’s hands down the revelation of 2010 in terms of Russian chess coverage. There you’ll also find a transcript of the interview, which records exactly what was said. As the repetitions and hesitations of normal speech would otherwise make it tough to read, my translation below is quite heavily edited, but I hope it still remains faithful to the original.
You’re listening to Chess-News. My name’s Evgeny Surov, and I’m on the line with one of the participants of the recently finished tournament in London, Vladimir Kramnik. Good evening, Vladimir!
If I’m not wrong you ended up sharing 4th-5th place with Nakamura. Do you think perhaps the three-point system, the so-called “football” system, which was used in London doesn’t suit you?
But why? It’s a system like any other. I’m a bit more used to the normal, classical system, but this one also has the right to exist. I don’t think it seriously affects the final placings. Perhaps players with a more aggressive style of play, who like to bluff, will find it a little more favourable – i.e. those who often take deliberate risks. But overall anyone who plays well according to one system also plays well according to the other. Therefore I don’t think that was the problem – the problem was that whatever the system for allocating points you still need to win games with an extra piece, particularly in an endgame. So I’ve got no complaints about the points system.
We’ll come back to that game, but I’d like to focus on what’s maybe not a trend, but also perhaps not a coincidence, that for the second London tournament in a row you haven’t managed to achieve a satisfactory result?
I wouldn’t say that. The first tournament went pretty well for me overall – I increased my rating and came second, only half a point behind Carlsen. He was also hanging on in the final round, so I could have won the tournament. This year, on the whole, I played at around my rating, but I let a huge number of opportunities slip. I think the level of my play both last year and this year was pretty good, so you can’t say it’s not my tournament. Just a few details were lacking.
Last year, perhaps, it was an unlucky draw to get Carlsen with black in the very first round. Then now for the second time in a row I got one more game with black, which is always a little unpleasant – more so in such a short tournament. This year despite that everything went normally, except that I needed to win the won positions I had against McShane, and especially against Carlsen – where it was simply difficult not to win. So if the result was average this time round it was because of my own stupidity, and nothing else. You can’t say I was in bad form, in contrast to the Moscow tournament, for example, where I really didn’t play very well (I did have problems with my form there). Here there were no problems with form – here there was a problem with my head.
So for a chess player it’s not the same thing – to have problems with form and problems with your head?
No, what I mean is that the mistakes I made weren’t linked to my chess form. It was clearly something on a different plane. Firstly I think that a certain physical tiredness had built up – I’ve played an awful lot recently and I’m no longer 17 years old. Then I caught a cold, and had it for the whole tournament. But that’s just one of those things – it happens. For example, in last year’s Tal Memorial I managed to win in poor physical condition, so you can’t blame everything on that.
Of course, I’ll need to reflect and work a little on some things. Unfortunately this year (although I’ve always had the same issue) I missed a particularly high number of chances. I made the most stupid mistakes, and in very important games, simply gifting my opponents and main rivals points out of nowhere. I’m not talking about failing to win a better position – that’s normal and can happen when your opponent defends well. But games like the one against Aronian in the Tal Memorial, or Carlsen here, and not only those – they, of course, make you think it’s time to stop giving such generous gifts to your opponents and rivals. I think if I manage to overcome that, then I’ve got chances of playing better next year and posting better results. Even without that I’ve got quite a high rating and consistently decent results but, of course, it’s simply annoying to give away points out of nowhere.
As I see it not only the two games you’ve mentioned – against Carlsen and McShane – had an influence on the final result, but also the second round game against Nakamura, where something unexpected happened on the board. Could you tell us about that game? (Translator’s note: see GM Sergey Shipov’s commentary on the game, and Nakamura’s comments on his blog.)
Against Nakamura it was just one of those things. Given the system for calculating points I deliberately took a big risk, sacrificing a piece i.e. it was conscious – I realised it was a very risky decision. With the normal system for counting points I wouldn’t have played that way, of course. I’d have played more calmly, and there was almost a forced draw. I saw that. But in the given situation I decided to take a risk. Moreover, the tournament – it wasn’t the World Championship, it was a tournament…
A commercial tournament.
Yes, it was nothing serious – if you lose you lose. I realised the risk was huge, that more likely than not the sacrifice was incorrect, but nevertheless I decided to go for it. It was a conscious decision. It didn’t work out, although my opponent didn’t convert things well and, in fact, I could have made a draw immediately after the time control. But even though it was, of course, simple enough, and the main thing was that there weren’t any other moves, so that, as with the Carlsen game, it’s difficult for me to explain why I played as I did – nevertheless, I still have to admit that it was an accidental chance. It was a logical outcome of the game that I lost. But that didn’t disturb me. I perfectly understand why it happened, and I perfectly understand that it wouldn’t have happened in other circumstances. Therefore in the given situation I don’t have, so to speak, any complaints against higher powers. And overall I don’t have any complaints against myself either, as I lost not so much because I played badly, but because I simply took too big a risk and it turned out that I shouldn’t have done it. But the other two games – there, of course, it was annoying…
But then haven’t you changed of late? Previously it was practically unheard of for you to take such risks – simply giving up a piece with some hazy chances of an attack.
Yes, perhaps my nerves have simply gone?
No, I’m joking. The thing is that the main tournament in the near future will, without question, be Kazan – the Candidates. And partly because of that lately I’ve been playing a lot, and I’ve tried to play in different ways, in the most varied of styles. I’ve tried to experiment a little, and that game was partly an experiment. I wanted, so to speak, to get my fill of the game. I saw that otherwise it would end up as quite a dull draw and decided – well, let’s have a go. It was a chance to test myself in such dubious, boundless complications against a player who’s famous precisely because of his good play in that type of position. For me the positive thing in the last few tournaments is that I’ve managed to learn an awful lot of interesting things, and each of the tournaments was interesting in its own way. Now I only need to carry out some work on correcting and eliminating mistakes, but in general the picture’s clear enough for me. In that sense I’m very satisfied that I’ve had such a packed season.
So in the tournaments before the World Championship, Wijk-aan-Zee and…?
I’ve got Wijk-aan-Zee and the tournament in Monaco, though that one’s more a question of entertainment.
Yes, rapid chess. And if we take classical tournaments…
That’s all. As things stand I won’t be playing anywhere else, firstly, because there’s nowhere else. Secondly, I don’t really have much time… The candidates’ tournament is almost upon us, with only four months remaining. Well, and I don’t have the urge – I’ve played more than enough. I’ve managed to clear up everything that I wanted to in these tournaments.
I wanted to ask you about the tournament in Wijk-aan-Zee – it’s clearly not one that enters onto the list of those where you’ll decide to experiment, is it?
It will be to a degree, but I think I’ll try to play a little more cautiously. That’s how I feel at the moment, anyway, but we’ll see how it goes. I’d like to play a little more cautiously as I’ve become bored with giving away points. Moreover, it’s a long tournament, and the last classical tournament before Kazan, so I think I’ll approach it a little more seriously.
Coming back to the game against Carlsen and the failure to convert the extra piece, and what you said about it – that this season you’ve had more than a few such situations where you’ve given points away like that – can you explain it to yourself? How do you explain it and have you already found the antidote? (Translator’s note: see Shipov’s commentary on the game.)
What can I say? I think I’ve already cleared things up for myself and know where the problem lies, but I wouldn’t want to talk about the topic publicly. I know what I need to do to work on it and we’ll see how things go.
In order to understand the context of Evgeny Surov’s next question, it’s necessary to have some idea of his interview with Kasparov’s legendary trainer, Alexander Nikitin, during the Tal Memorial. At the time I considered translating it but decided I’d already included part of an interview with Nikitin from Ilya Odessky’s reports on the Tal Memorial, and was also put off by the overwhelmingly negative outlook on contemporary chess. The most relevant answer in this context is when Surov asks Nikitin when he came to the conclusion that Carlsen wasn’t fated, as he’d previously thought, to reach Kasparov’s 2851 rating:
When he worked for half a year with Kasparov – who promised the Norwegian federation that he’d get Carlsen to number one on the rating list. In that half a year he got him to first place. And then Carlsen decided… In general he’s not very clever. 20 years old and his thinking is still poor. He decided that he’d get by on his own and took the initiative to end his work with Kasparov. That was it – they don’t meet anymore. And then there were two tournaments where Carlsen managed to let his 2826 – also a wonderful marker – slip to 2800. Now it’s official that he’s no longer first, but second, in terms of rating. That’s how it is. It’s hard to get up there, but it’s very easy and painful to fall back down. Veeery painful. Kasparov, by the way, got to 2851 only going upwards. He never fell back and had to start over again. He only rose. That speaks of his potential, while for Carlsen, it seems, he might have 2820 potential, while all the others won’t get up there at all. Anand is already finished. Kramnik will never rise up. He’s sitting at home, in Paris. It’s great for him there, warm, there’s no wind blowing. And he’s satisfied with his life. And if you’re satisfied with your life, then just stay there. Stay at your level.
Back to the Kramnik interview:
Vladimir, I have to confess that I’ve recently heard a few people in the chess world, who haven’t consulted with each other, saying that Kramnik is no longer what he was, that he won’t rise to the challenge again. They give a few reasons. Some say age… At 35 in modern chess you can’t rise to the challenge of becoming World Champion. And some say – for example, Chess-News interviewed Alexander Nikitin during the Tal Memorial, and he said that Kramnik’s fine as he is: he sits in Paris, has his life sorted out, and there’s no motivation. By the way, you’re talking to me from Paris now, aren’t you?
Well and how is it? Are thing going well for you there?
They are, yes.
It’s not too windy?
It’s pretty cold and there’s some snow, yes. It’s been snowing for a few days. All in all, everything’s normal here, everything’s fine. First of all, I don’t pay attention to various opinions, and more so when those are authoritative, or more often not entirely authoritative, opinions of people who are far from contemporary chess or simply have a prejudiced view of the topic. Some people simply don’t like me, or really like one of my rivals, and want to think like that. For example, Nikitin – he’s clearly rooting for Carlsen, and has long since tried to explain to everyone that he’s unique and unrepeatable. No, everyone has their opinion, and I don’t pay attention to all that.
As for the suggestion that I won’t rise up to the challenge – firstly, I haven’t yet had a serious fall either. I’m in direct proximity to the top, even on the rating list, and frankly fourth place isn’t tragic. And secondly, on the question of lacking motivation – it’s not true. It’s absolutely clear I’m motivated, and to a very high degree. It’s simply visible in my play, in my games. What else can be said? Simply look at my games and it’s clear I’m playing interesting chess, even playing riskily, you might say, and I’m playing a lot more than before.
So that doesn’t correspond to reality. Of course I might not succeed, as after all my rivals are strong, but on the other hand for now there’s no justification, it seems to me, for considering myself clearly weaker that anyone else. It’s true that my tournament results of late have perhaps been a little worse than Carlsen’s or, for example, Aronian’s. But on the other hand I’ve got quite a big plus in head-to-head games against both of them, and going by my level of play it seems obvious that I’m fully capable of fighting on at least equal terms. Therefore I think I’ve got a chance. The question after that is whether I’ll be able to take it or not – and there, of course, I can’t give any guarantees. But I don’t assess the situation so tragically. I’m quite optimistic. I’m absolutely sure that if I can eliminate certain mistakes which I’ve been making (particularly this season), then I’ve got a realistic chance of playing a match for the World Championship again. After that it doesn’t all depend on me, but you can be sure I’ll try.
Thank you, Vladimir. By the way, during the interview was that your daughter we heard?
Could you tell us her name?
Daria, Dasha. In a week’s time she’ll be two years old. So we’re getting ready for some celebrations.
You’ve got Christmas there, and then your daughter’s birthday?
Yes, it’s all together. She’ll be two on the 28th December.
I’ll pass that on to her!
And I hope that won’t be the last reason we have to congratulate you in the foreseeable future.
Thank you, I’ll try my best. I hope that Wijk-aan-Zee will go a bit better. But all the same, of course, the tournament for me is Kazan. And the most important thing is that everything goes the way I want it to there. That’s tournament number one, and all my plans and preparations are leading up to that tournament now. I think it’ll all go ok. I feel good, at least, and full of optimism and motivation. So everything should be fine.
I’d like to take this chance to wish all the readers of Chess in Translation a Happy New Year! Work commitments and a nasty flu have meant limited updates of late, but I hope normal service will soon be resumed – and yes, Part Two of Peter Svidler’s answers to your questions is very close to publication! (Peter’s checking the translation now)