Alexander Grischuk was the focus of controversy over the recent Candidates Matches. His route to the final, winning no classical games and sometimes agreeing to short draws with White, seemed to highlight the format’s problems. Grischuk himself, however, welcomed the difficult times for classical chess.
Grischuk was talking to Evgeny Surov of Chess-News, and provided a refreshingly honest assessment of his performance in Kazan, while also giving his view on the overwhelming percentage of draws in the knockout matches. As Gelfand said in his own interview with Surov:
I have great respect for his opinion. Sasha [Grischuk] has always stood out for expressing his opinion with absolute sincerity and great clarity.
In my translation below I’ve left out relatively short sections at the beginning and end. The phrase about the “burial of classical chess” was uttered by Grischuk in the press conference after Vladimir Kramnik achieved an effortless draw with the black pieces in the third game of their match in Kazan (I included some more of his comments from that press conference in an earlier Grischuk interview).
So then, at the start of the Chess-News interview, Grischuk has just said that there were no outsiders in the matches:
And how do you explain that the chances were approximately even in all the matches? The format?
No. People had a lot of time to prepare, and good preparation is very good at hiding any advantage the players have had recently. Therefore the chances become close to even. For example, Kramnik – Radjabov: essentially there wasn’t a fight in any of the games, including the rapid. On one occasion Kramnik managed to exert a tiny bit of pressure in the Catalan. And when there are so many draws it’s clear no-one can be a 3:1 favourite in two games of blitz.
Yes, the idea’s clear. You can prepare in depth for one opponent. But when the quarterfinals have taken place, and you’ve got into the semifinals – it’s unlikely you prepared for one of the Kramnik – Radjabov pairing? Or did you nevertheless prepare in advance?
Firstly, the thing is that Aronian, for example, plays an awful lot of openings, so I had to start off preparing for everything. And what applies to Aronian, applies to Kramnik, applies to Radjabov – they all play 1. d4. Again, I had to prepare for White in more or less the same way as for Black, so there wasn’t any difficulty there.
So you might say that the preparation coincided?
Yes, but I think it was like that for the majority of players. Let’s assume you want to play 1. d4 as White in the matches, and your opponent mainly plays, for example, the Grunfeld. You’re not going to prepare just for the Grunfeld – that would be idiotic – so you nevertheless have to prepare some other openings. Therefore there was no difficulty.
I didn’t immediately mention the other reason why you weren’t considered one of the favourites. Of course, a role was also played by your performance in Wijk aan Zee in January, where, to put it mildly, you didn’t play as well as you could have done. And then there was such a big difference between Wijk aan Zee and Kazan. Did you manage to prepare that well? What was the cause of your poor performance in the Dutch tournament?
I didn’t play particularly well in classical chess here either: I made thirteen draws and lost one. Of course, that’s a long way from Wijk aan Zee, but it’s also impossible to describe it as some sort of success. Well, to start with in Wijk aan Zee I didn’t particularly feel like playing. I had absolutely no motivation, and then I started losing from the first round on… In general, everything fell apart.
But what if you’d also lost in the first game in Kazan – might you also have fallen apart?
Firstly, there weren’t really enough games to fall apart here. And secondly, there was, after all, motivation. When you’ve got motivation that doesn’t usually start to happen. You start to fall apart when it barely matters to you anymore and you’re just thinking about getting it over and done with as soon as possible. But here, lose a game and you just needed to win one to level the score. And if you lost a second then that would mean the match would in any case end in the third game, more likely than not. Of course, Levon would have been the clear favourite if he’d won the first game, but you can say that about any match: if anyone wins a game he immediately becomes the clear favourite in a four-game match.
Yes, but nevertheless there weren’t many games in the tournament where someone had as clear an advantage as Aronian had against you. There was probably even a direct win in the endgame?
Yes, it was easy to win. To be honest, after the game I was surprised I’d managed to survive.
But you expressed an interesting thought, that you consider your performance in Kazan not to have been very successful, as you didn’t manage to win a single classical game. Correct?
I’ve got the classical games in mind. How can you talk about success if I didn’t win a single game in fourteen? But, on the other hand, right from the start that didn’t particularly bother me. It made no great difference to me how I won the match – in Armageddon or 3-0 in the classical part. The main thing was to win the match. But if you look at it precisely from the point of view of classical chess then I didn’t show anything special here.
How was that idea conceived – to completely give up the white pieces in the match against Kramnik?
No, there never was such an idea. I gave up White in one game – in the fourth rapid game.
And in the classical games?
In the classical games we played. For example, in the first game with White I chose a move order that’s apparently self-evident, but no-one had played that way before and it contains a couple of traps. It was simply that Volodya played in the correct manner, against which I had no ideas, and I immediately offered a draw. While in the last rapid game – yes, you could say that was deliberate. But as I’ve already said: I didn’t see how I could get a fight without going for a worse position. And I saw no reason to simply go for a worse position in the last game when the scores were level.
So that was only in the rapid, yes?
Yes, of course.
You hadn’t decided on that approach before the match?
Nothing of the sort. It’s another story that day after day the Queen’s Gambit was spoiling everyone’s mood… At first we didn’t expect it from Aronian. Then we already expected it from Kramnik, and Gelfand, but we couldn’t come up with anything. Or rather, I played some tricky little variations against Gelfand – and it was just that he somehow wasn’t so well prepared, and then in two games out of three I got promising positions with White. But I think if I’d played both of those lines against Kramnik there would definitely have been a couple of quick draws as, to put it mildly, it’s not hard to find a defence for Black there. If you’re prepared.
So you agree with the opinion that the Queen’s Gambit is the main guilty party in the birth of what’s already become your catchphrase about witnessing the burial of classical chess?
I still think that if someone playing Black chooses a defence with high drawing tendencies – for example, not the Najdorf or the King’s Indian, but some sort of Queen’s Gambit, the Petroff or the Berlin… There’s no shortage of options: it might also be the Queen’s Gambit Accepted, or even the Nimzowitch, the Queen’s Indian or the Slav… And has prepared it well… But “well” – that’s not so simple, you have to have done it like Kramnik – to be phenomenally prepared… in that case you really do get this so-called death. And that’s not even the main thing. For now we can discuss and debate about whether we’ve come to that yet or not. But it’s clear that the situation will get worse and worse, by the year, by the month. How is it all going to end? For me that’s obvious. For now it’s still possible to argue about whether we’ve come to that stage.
And how can we escape?
The escape is either reducing the time control, or Chess960, which I consider the ideal solution – simply ideal in all regards. That also allows you to play with a long time control. Moreover, at the moment we’ve got a situation where the control is quite artificially extended, because it was always two hours for forty moves (well, or two and a half), but that was for forty moves! Or for thirty. While now you often end up with two hours for fifteen moves. What on earth is two hours for fifteen moves? It’s idiotic. In Chess960, however, it really will be two hours for forty moves, without any forced draws… I simply don’t entirely understand why chess will lose anything from that. Well, it’ll be impossible to tell children that the king is the king, the queen is his wife, and they should stand together, holding hands. And then that to the side of them are the pontiffs, the horses and in the corners there are castles. I really don’t think that’s such an enormous part of chess.
An interesting thought, particularly in regard to the time control. You mean that everyone has got it into their head at the moment that the time control is getting shorter as time passes, but you’re proving the opposite, that it’s getting longer.
The idea’s not actually mine. I heard or read it somewhere, I don’t remember where. But it’s simply that I absolutely agree with it.
Sasha, in the final, in contrast to the previous stages, you were actually considered the favourite by some. Or, in any case, the chances were approximately even. No-one picked out you or Gelfand (while, let’s say, in the quarters and semis they nevertheless picked out Aronian and Kramnik). Did that put pressure on you? Did it have an effect on your mental form, let’s say? Or did you pay no attention?
No, given that I considered the chances approximately even in the final, as they were in the semis and quarters. So nothing had really changed for me. The only difference was that it was easier in terms of openings – I managed to get some sort of play as White.
I can’t help but ask about the last game, especially as you’ve already said there are a mass of openings you can use to equalise with Black, to get a draw. Why did you nevertheless go for the Grunfeld?
As I was saying, that happens precisely when some opening has been very carefully studied, the way Kramnik or Aronian do it (and even Aronian does it to a lesser degree). And as we’d prepared the Grunfeld for the tournament it would have been silly to change track. It’s hard to prepare something else in a couple of days. If there’d been a break of ten days before the final then it might have been possible to prepare, but when you have two days it would be a dubious decision. And moreover, Borya played a game where I don’t think you could criticise a single one of his moves. You can always lose a game like that.
You think the main reason was your opponent’s good play rather than, perhaps, some of your own shortcomings?
Yes. I think Borya simply played wonderfully in the final. He wasn’t sufficiently prepared (for this level), but in terms of practical play, I think he conducted all the games wonderfully. He made one bad move – Bxh8 in the second game. That move made no sense to me as despite winning back the exchange he lost his whole initiative and simply got a tough position. But otherwise, he played wonderfully.
Tell me, Alexander, have you expressed your opinion on the World Championship format for the coming years officially? For instance, by responding to Sutovsky’s letter?
Yes, I actually replied to it yesterday, but I don’t have any official opinion. I’ve just got some thoughts.
Can you share them?
I think it would be ideal to have longer matches – eight games, or six. Well, or first six and then eight and finally ten. But then you get the problem of it being impossible to hold them together as they were in Kazan, as otherwise you’ll end up playing for more than a month, which is unrealistic. And if you hold it in two stages then it’ll be very difficult to find sponsors and organisers. So it probably comes down to a choice: either some sort of double round robin tournament, or the sort of matches we had in Kazan. Well that, again, is if you have eight candidates. You could have four, and then play two eight-game matches, for example.
And then how do you decide that four?
Don’t ask me! FIDE never even knows how to decide on eight. No, for me personally it’s more convenient to have more candidates. It would be very tough for me to get into a four. But from a general point of view it would be possible to have four candidates. It’s in no way obligatory to have eight.
And do you think that adding two more games to the matches – playing quarterfinals and semifinals with six games – will be a fundamental solution to the problem, let’s say, of draws, or simply of uninteresting games?
No, my point of view is a little different. Here everyone was complaining about the system, saying the games were uninteresting. But what can you say… Of course, when someone needs to score “+1” then that alone means the games will be less interesting than in a double round robin tournament, when at some point someone will have to win. In a double round robin tournament it’s not so important whether you get +1 or 50%. But, let’s say, +4 or +3 – that’s a gigantic difference. For example, it’s the difference between first and second place. But in matches there’s no difference if you win 3-0 or +1, but between +1 and 50% the difference is enormous. It’s only in that sense that the system’s to blame. But by itself – no, I don’t think long matches will lead to much more interesting games. Again, I think it’s going to get worse with each cycle.
You predictions are pretty pessimistic…
No, on the contrary, they’re optimistic. Since childhood I’ve been hoping for a gradual switch from classical chess to something else more interesting. Now I can see the objective prerequisites are finally beginning to appear for that. So in that respect I’m actually glad.
There are people who say that switching to Fischer’s chess is no sort of escape in any case, as over time computers and technology will nevertheless learn to analyse those 960 positions, and it’ll come to the same thing.
No, or rather, it depends on what sort of timeframe you’re thinking of… Perhaps our great-grandchildren will encounter that problem. But it really won’t be soon at all, in hundreds of years. And to remember all of that will be absolutely unrealistic. It’s hard to remember just now. Many say at the moment: look, everything’s been analysed. But just try and remember it yourself! What sort of game is that, if the main thing is memory? And learning nine hundred positions and more will be absolutely unrealistic.