And he isn’t an opera buff. If you’re wondering why that matters, it’s because Levitov is one of the most influential men in chess: President of the Russian Chess Federation Board, a FIDE Vice President and part of the new Foundation for Modernisation. He gave his verdict on the current state of chess.
Ilya Levitov was talking to Yury Vasiliev of Sport Express, and expressed the view that the future of chess lies in rapid (“chess rock”) and Fischer Random Chess, while also giving details of this year’s Tal Memorial.
Vasiliev explains the interview came shortly after the recent meeting of the FIDE Presidential Board in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, which established a “Foundation for [the] Modernisation of FIDE”. That involves a “working Commission” headed by Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, with notable members other than Levitov including ECU President Silvio Danailov and FIDE Deputy President Georgios Makropoulos.
Vasiliev starts by asking about the new initiative:
What’s the essence of the proposed reorganisation, and what’s the role of the commission that you’re part of?
The essence of the reorganisation is that we need to change the prevailing state of affairs. Chess has reached something of a dead end, a “zero point”, which it needs to find a way out of. You can’t deny we’re witnessing stagnation. We’ve got a situation where what matters is that a tournament is held: an event took place – and it’s good that it took place. How it took place, how many spectators watched it and what resonance it had around the world – essentially no-one’s bothered about that. And that’s no good at all.
We’ve got the statistics on visits to the official site of the Candidates Matches in Kazan. There were almost a quarter of a million visitors. Not bad, you’d think? But in actual fact, that’s low. After all, it was the critical stage of the World Championship. For comparison: the television broadcast of the football World Cup is watched by more than two billion viewers.
We’re stuck in a situation where chess is of interest only to chess players themselves. So in order to improve matters, to gather together new ideas and discuss and analyse them, a working commission has been set up for the modernisation of chess.
And what ideas do you have personally?
There’s no need to reinvent the bicycle. You can make use of ideas that have already been validated. For example, FIDE, in cooperation with the company SportAccord, is holding an extremely interesting tournament in China. It’s going to include four sections: rapid, blitz, blindfold play and playing two-on-two. Each section will have a separate prize fund. (Translator’s note: SportAccord is holding World Mind Games in Beijing from 8-17 December 2011.)
Grischuk and Svidler came up to me after Kazan and said, “Would it be possible to move the Superfinal of the Russian Championship, as if it takes place in December, as planned, then with all due respect to that event we’d like to go to China?” I looked at the guys – both excellent professionals, leading Russian grandmasters who always play in the national championship and for the team. Their eyes were burning as they want to test themselves out in interesting forms of chess. Just imagine: the pair of Grischuk – Svidler against the pair of Aronian – Kramnik! That would be extremely interesting!
Why shouldn’t we organise such events in Russia as well?! After all, we want to hold something that’s interesting both for the players and the spectators: rapid, blitz, blindfold play, two-on-two! And Fischer Random Chess tournaments should be run – only not using all 960 possible positions that the computer can randomly choose, but excluding those which lead to overly absurd and disharmonious starting positions.
Vladimir Kramnik says, “That’s a different game”. I agree with him. But just look who becomes World Champion in that “different game”: Svidler, Aronian, Nakamura. Well-known faces! Those who play well in normal chess don’t feel so uncomfortable in Fischer Random Chess either!
I’m convinced we don’t need to be afraid of experimenting, and it’s essential to run more events with an accelerated time control. Although, I’ll emphasise, the fast control alone won’t solve any problems. We need to learn how to show chess differently, to explain the position to the viewer and show the beauty of the game. In order to do that you need to train a whole class of commentators and constantly modernise live commentary and video broadcasts. That’s something we’ve been doing, by the way, from tournament to tournament. Only a comprehensive series of measures – reducing the time control, lively commentary, cameramen and directors working on the broadcast – will cause that 250,000 people to fall in love with chess, and not simply watch a wonderful player thinking for 5 minutes, and then go off to a poker site.
Critics claim the quality of the games will suffer if you reduce the time for thought. Do you agree with that?
Well, I don’t know. Anand just said that his game against Shirov in their rapid match was one of the best of his life. (Translator’s note: in this video interview at Chess-News – the questions and answers are translated into Russian, but Anand speaks English – he mentioned the 5th game against Shirov as one of his best as World Champion.) I recently rewatched recordings of old football games played many years ago. The tempo of play there was two or even four times slower than it is today. The tempo has increased with the level of play. And life’s got quicker as well. That’s a natural process, which we’re artificially holding back in chess.
They tell me: you’ll get blunders. Of course you will. Messi sometimes loses the ball and sometimes doesn’t even score from five metres out. And great goalkeepers sometimes let the ball slip out of their hands and it flies into the net. Mistakes are part of the game. Computers don’t make mistakes, but who’s interested in 150 moves of computer nonsense in games played between Houdini and Rybka?!
I remember my conversations with the unforgettable David Ionovich Bronstein. He said: “Grinding something out with a chain of heavy thought – that’s not a game. It’s only in rapid chess that it’ll become clear how good this or that player is. You need to think quicker!” (Translator’s note: more from Vasiliev’s conversations with Bronstein can be found – in Russian – at ChessPro.)
I agree that given the contemporary rhythm of life you need to think quicker. No matter how much of a genius a director is, it’s impossible to film a thriller that the spectator will watch with interest for seven hours in a row.
And it’s not that it’s a question of there being lots of draws. It doesn’t matter, at the end of the day, if it’s a draw or a non-draw. But while you’re waiting for that result you’ve got time to fall asleep, wake up, get hungry, eat something, fall in love and fall out of love. Your whole life passes you by while you’re waiting for them to play that seven-hour classical game!
But you don’t want to get rid of classical chess completely?
No-one’s planning to get rid of or replace classical chess. For me, classical chess is opera. It’s not something I love, but there are connoisseurs who really do like it. Men turn up in suits, and women in evening dresses. But let’s not forget about rock concerts when people arrive in ripped jeans, but fill up entire stadiums! We need chess rock, we need sport clubs and stadiums packed to overflowing! But Tal Memorials, beautiful classical tournaments with ten participants, won’t go away.
Here Levitov goes on to talk about the situation in Russia, where four stages of a rapid Grand Prix have already been held, and plans are in place to increase that to as many as 50 stages a year. The weekend format involves two days of rapid chess and then a third day when the professionals interact with the audience. Although that’s attracted relatively low-rated players so far, we should all get to see the format in action this September, when Anand, Kramnik, Carlsen and Aronian are the four competitors in a Botvinnik Memorial event in Moscow.
That’s great! But you’re not going to forget about classical opera? Is the line-up for the 6th Tal Memorial in November known yet?
Anand, Carlsen, Aronian, Nakamura, Gelfand and Wang Hao have already confirmed their participation. Russia will be represented by Kramnik, Karjakin and Nepomniachtchi. We want to invite Ivanchuk. I’ll talk to Vassily when he finishes playing in Bazna.
It’s very likely the 6th Tal Memorial will be a Category 22 tournament, unique for ten participants. The tournament will take place in the best site in Moscow – Pashkov House. That majestic classical building, with restored interiors from 1861 and extremely high ceilings, is enchanting. After attending the tournament chess fans will be convinced that, despite my unconditional love for rapid, i.e. chess rock – we rate classical very, very highly. In all senses.