Categories: Russian

Vladimir Potkin on chess coaching and cheating

Vladimir Potkin, European Champion | photo: aixlesbains2011.fr

In an interview given after becoming European Individual Champion, Vladimir Potkin talks about how he won, what it means for his “day job” of coaching Ian Nepomniachtchi, and gives his view on the cheating scandal that was the talk of the town in Aix-les-Bains.

The Russian GM Vladimir Potkin, who started the European Championship ranked only 43rd with a 2653 rating, led the event from start to finish. His 8.5/11 was enough to clinch the gold medal on tiebreaks over Wojtaszek, Polgar and Moiseenko. It was all the more remarkable as his main role at the championship was to coach Ian Nepomniachtchi. Instead, the relationship was reversed – almost literally, as last year Ian Nepomniachtchi won the championship himself with a superb 9/11.

Yury Vasiliev points this out at the start of his Sport Express interview with Potkin, who responds:

Ian and I always support each other, and my current success will strengthen our partnership even more. We do the majority of our work in training sessions before tournaments, while during the events we just make adjustments.
Of course, when I also play in a tournament I’m not able to give Ian as much help as when I’m only a second. But this, I think, is where the advantage of our duo lies: I’m convinced that it’s wrong to impose your will on a student and deprive him of freedom of thought. You have to leave him the freedom to choose. That, by the way, is what the thesis I’m writing is devoted to.

Chess is developing very quickly. Five years ago, when I helped Levon Aronian and was his second in Linares, it was possible to guess an opponent’s opening and impose a favourable pattern of play on the game. But chess has now become much harder, and in order to win it’s not enough to have the complete commitment of your student: the trainer himself should also improve his skills in order to be able to help. I hope my personal development will allow Ian to achieve more as well.

Vladimir Potkin with students old and new in Wijk aan Zee this year | photo: ChessPro

I remember in January in Wijk aan Zee, after a fantastic combination by Nepomniachtchi in his game against Anish Giri, you went up to him and said only one word: “Genius!” Both that combination against Giri, and an extremely subtle endgame against Magnus Carlsen which brought Ian a deserved victory over the Norwegian, testify to the colossal potential of your student. What do you think, will Nepomniachtchi be able to take a real part in the battle for the highest title in the next World Championship cycle?

It’s obvious that Ian has enormous talent and great promise. I think that if he does serious work then the very greatest achievements await him. He’s capable of fundamentally shaking up the chess elite.

Let’s get back to your successful European Championship. You managed to win six games, post a brilliant performance and add over 25 points to your live rating. Your fantastic 26-move win with Black against the strong Georgian GM Baadur Jobava was particularly impressive. A few words about that game, which we want to show to our readers.

There was a prehistory to that encounter. The day before, in the 9th round, I was playing White against the Romanian GM Parligras. He was playing well, but I put my hopes in having White. I wanted to make it a real battle and try to win. However, my opponent managed to surprise me in the opening, my reply was rushed and poor, and I was forced to make a quick draw.

Of course, I was very upset. But when in the next round I had to play Black against as strong a chess player as Jobava I was glad, because the Georgian grandmaster is known both for playing himself and allowing his opponent to play. And that was precisely what I needed at that moment.

In the opening I used a very risky set-up, my opponent got an edge, but then he chose the most aggressive reply, corresponding to his mood but not to the demands of the position. As a result, Black managed to catch White out in sharp counterplay connected to an interesting queen sacrifice which Jobava admitted he’d underestimated.

Game viewer by Chess Tempo

In the last round you played the famous Judit Polgar, who’s managed to beat Kasparov, Kramnik, Ivanchuk and other outstanding chess players. Although you had White, in Judit’s hands the sharp King’s Indian is particularly dangerous…

I realised that, of course. The King’s Indian Defence is in Judit Polgar’s repertoire – I was ready for the possibility she’d play it, and in that case there’d have been a real struggle. But Judit chose the calmer and safer Nimzowitsch Defence, making it clear that a draw suited her. Such a course of events suited me as well, as I had the best tie-breakers. I offered a draw, which Judit accepted without any particular hesitation. After the game she said she saw how well I was playing in the tournament and therefore didn’t want to take a risk with Black.

Vladimir, when talking about this Championship I think it’s impossible to ignore an unpleasant topic – cheating, or, as we say in Russian, zhulnichestvo. Before the 8th round an open letter by 19 people was distributed. It talked about the atmosphere of suspicion that was accompanying the championship. It included calls to give the arbiters the right to take radical measures in order to exclude the possibility that computer help was being used. Weren’t you approached with the letter?

No, I first saw it on the internet. But if they had approached me then I’d also have signed it, because the topic is very urgent. The latest rulings of the Disciplinary Committee of the French Chess Federation, in which Grandmaster Feller is accused of cheating, reminded me of our match with the French team in the World Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. Artyom Timofeev, who was playing well, lost a completely one-sided game to Feller. Now, after the French Chess Federation’s investigation, it turns out that Feller achieved victory with dishonest methods.

Russia-2 coach Potkin with Artyom Timofeev (centre) and Evgeny Alekseev in Khanty-Mansiysk | photo: russiachess.org

It’s clearly a serious blow to chess. Technology is developing, computer programs are improving, and now even an average program running on a mobile phone can give tips that will affect the course of a game. That’s one of the most primitive methods, but no doubt there are lots of others that are more sophisticated. I’d like to believe that FIDE, the European Chess Union and the Russian Chess Federation will seriously attend to the problem and set up a special commission to deal with the matter. 

But in France Feller was playing alone, according to the claims of those who made a point of observing him, including some real specialists. And he played well, taking 7th place…

You see it’s not for nothing they say: “Having lied once, who’ll believe you?” Caught cheating once – and according to the evidence of his colleagues to the French Federation’s Disciplinary Committee, Feller’s play was dishonest at the Olympiad – he’s always now going to be under suspicion. And if his federation disqualified him then during that period he probably shouldn’t take part in tournaments.

I wouldn’t want our conversation to end on a sad note. Has your success in Aix-les-Bains influenced your motivation and inspired you to new achievements? What are your plans for the near future?

In a week Ian and I are going to play at the Russian Team Championship. It’s a pity, though, that we’re playing for different teams – Nepomniachtchi for Saratov, and me for Moscow. But in the summer Ian’s in the line-up for the Russian team that’s heading to the World Team Championship. I hope I’ll be able to help him perform well.

The French team’s defeat of Russia-2 at the Olympiad has been a focal point for Russian discussion of the cheating scandal. It even made it onto the leading Russian TV channel, Channel One. Note the following video is worth watching just for the elaborate graphics used to illustrate the cheating method – though unfortunately they make the same mistake as the BBC and assume 64 tables are necessary!

This is what Ilya Levitov, the Chairman of the Russian Chess Federation Board, had to say when interviewed at the start of the broadcast:

The French team played a crucial match against our second team. Three of the four games ended in draws, while on the fourth board the wretched Feller was playing against our grandmaster Artyom Timofeev. Artyom played a brilliant game, but lost because he was playing a computer. That was a terrible tragedy for Artyom, because his loss, and consequently the team’s loss, deprived the second team of any chance of winning a medal.

“Brilliant game” is a little over the top, as Sergey Shipov responded at the Crestbook forum (see also his “letters from France” on the cheating theme, “How can you play against Feller?” and “Danailov’s Dances”):

Ilya clearly mixed something up. Or didn’t look at the game. Artyom played a woefully bad game. However, if Feller really did cheat, then it doesn’t matter how his opponent played…

Perhaps the most interesting part of the video, however, is when the Ukrainian GM Zahar Efimenko is interviewed by telephone and reveals there were already suspicions among the other players during the Olympiad:

Feller drew against Efimenko while his three compatriots lost | photo: ugra-chess.com

At the Olympiad there were already rumours about some sort of unusual play from him. Not everyone paid too much attention to that, but the thing is that when I played a game against him he made precisely the moves that the computer would have made. They’re quite strange, because they don’t look like human moves. That fact made me suspect he might be playing dishonestly.

When the verdict of the French Chess Federation’s Disciplinary Committee was published it emerged that GM Laurent Fressinet had looked at the games with the chess engine Firebird. He found that in the game against Efimenko Sebastien Feller had always followed the first line, while against Timofeev he only played one 2nd and one 3rd choice move before the position was completely won. You can play through both games in the viewer below and judge for yourself:

Game viewer by Chess Tempo

Whatever the truth of what happened in Khanty-Mansiysk, it’s clear this is one issue that isn’t simply going to go away!

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