Boris Gelfand’s view, in an interview with Chess-News after winning the Candidates Matches in Kazan, was that an in-form Ivanchuk is still the best player in the world. As well as the topic of age in chess, he also talked about preparation, computers, Sofia Rules and the World Championship format.
Boris Gelfand was talking to Evgeny Surov of Chess-News and, as always, he provided thoughtful and eloquent answers. I’ve translated highlights below, trying not to include too much overlap with the long selection I made from interviews he gave immediately after the Candidates Matches.
“In 15 years the composition of the world elite hasn’t changed greatly”
Near the beginning of the interview, Gelfand was asked about how Anand and himself were managing to buck the trend for chess players to become younger. Gelfand responded:
I’m sure it’s exaggerated. I remember a couple of years ago playing in Wijk aan Zee. I played poorly, but in terms of rating it was one of the strongest tournaments and included all the top players. I think more than half of the participants had also played in Linares 1994, in a similar tournament. (Translator’s note: 6 of the 14 players in Corus 2008 also played in Linares 1994 – Kamsky and Shirov were absent from Corus.) That was probably the strongest Linares, when Karpov won brilliantly. So in 15 years the composition of the world elite hasn’t changed greatly. Of course, people have come in – like Carlsen and Aronian… But still, those who were playing before – Anand, Ivanchuk, I’ve been a little less successful but I’m at about the same level, plus Kramnik and Topalov, who’ve already been in the elite for an incredible length of time, Shirov – it strikes me that on the whole they still haven’t got any weaker. Of course, as the years go by it’s harder to maintain stability – I’ve realised that. Therefore the swings in results are far greater, but when one of the players from our generation is in good form it’s hard to say that any current player is better. Who plays better, Ivanchuk in good form or Carlsen? It seems to me it’s Ivanchuk in good form.
How to work on chess
The interview moves on to the question of how Gelfand works on chess, and it’s perhaps worth including some of Aronian’s praise for Gelfand in his recent long Crestbook interview:
You know, it’s easy to work when you can see an immediate return, but he’s had difficult periods, and still to believe in yourself and try to keep working despite that… I’m very, very glad for him, that his dedication and love for the game has borne fruit.
Surov asks Gelfand:
You expressed an interesting idea in one of your interviews – that you have a method of preparation which consists of working constantly almost every day, regardless of when the next tournament will be or when the last one finished. Did I understand you correctly?
Yes, that’s absolutely the case. And that’s also how it was in those years when there were no tournaments at all. I have to say there were tough years around the turn of the century – from 1999 to 2003, 2005, – when there were no tournaments, and no realistic chance of any. But still, I worked in more or less the same manner, with about the same intensity. I didn’t do anything very differently.
And could you – maybe not so much for me, as for young chess players – say what this daily work consists of? I’m not asking you for an hour-by-hour breakdown, but still, what is it you do? How do you prepare?
Well, how do I prepare… I review the games that have been played. If, for example, you don’t have much energy for creative work then you can sit and look through the games played, searching for some ideas. There are a lot of ideas you can draw on from tournaments. That’s become the norm for everyone now – reviewing other people’s games. Sometimes I look at old books, or read magazines. I flick through endgame books. You still have to refresh your endgame knowledge. If you don’t refresh it for a long time then at the critical moment it might not surface. It should be at the level of instinct.
I also sit, of course, and look at my own games. I try to advance opening theory. There are specialists who don’t consider that so important for the growth of chess players and think few games are decided in the opening, but it strikes me that’s not exactly the case. Take, for example, Polugaevsky. Or Geller. Or also Kasparov. They became great chess players precisely because of their work on the opening. Therefore it seems to me that working on the opening is incredibly important, particularly nowadays. If you don’t work on the opening you often can’t even get a playable position. Your opponent will be well-prepared and you simply won’t get any chances of making a game of it. Or you’ll do that at too high a price – you’ll end up with a bad position. I’d also formulate a concept that’s rarely seen now: how you set out to play the game. It strikes me as an incredibly important concept as it’s crucial you don’t simply look at opening moves, but the idea behind the play. That’s the area I think about and work on.
A little later in the interview:
I’d like to return for a while to your daily preparation between tournaments. I’m still interested in whether you take a break from chess? I can’t believe you’re only involved with chess.
But that’s the secret. If you do something every day then you don’t need to make any, let’s say, extreme efforts. If you don’t work for a month then you need to make extreme efforts in order to catch up on what you could have done in that month. But if you work regularly then you can also do other things and lead a normal way of life, finding time for everything.
“It might be +0.40, but the position is lost”
Gelfand gives an interesting insight into how a top-GM uses computers:
In going through your methods you didn’t once use the word “computer”. However, I won’t believe you if you say you don’t turn one on at all.
No, I absolutely do switch it on. Of course. And quite a lot. But I try to have a critical attitude and use it within sensible bounds, meaning I don’t treat it as an ultimate authority. Instead I look and compare it with my own impressions: do I like this position and is the computer correctly evaluating it. Many don’t doubt that any computer evaluation is correct, but there are a great number of nuances. Again, I don’t want to reveal everything just now, but it seems to me that working sensibly with a computer and getting the maximum benefit out of it is one of the elements of chess mastery nowadays.
You don’t believe bare evaluations?
Well, and what, for example, does the evaluation +0.02 mean? That position might be a dead-drawn one, or even totally won. It’s not clear. Or the machine gives one line the evaluation +0.4 and another +0.35. Which is the best? After which move will the position be easier to play? It’s hard to say, so after all you need to think about it…
It’s hard to argue with that.
Or it might be +0.40, but the position is lost, because you’re up an exchange, but you can’t move a piece and your opponent has a simple path to improve his position. Or perhaps your position is good, but you won’t make the essential moves, because they’re absolutely absurd. Will it help you that the computer gives +0.3?
From my own experience, if you like (forgive me the phrase), I’d note that the computer and its evaluations still have a certain psychological impact. If it shows 0.00 (let’s say, you’re looking from White’s point of view) it’s already lodged in your head that it’s a position without any sort of advantage. That’s the psychology.
Yes, there is that aspect. You need to combat it, because what else can you do? If you take, for instance, that position from the match against Grischuk. The computer doesn’t rate it highly after 13. b3, but it’s clearly, at the very least, easier for White to play. That’s an example.
As far as I know it’s not even just the computer, but in general that variation isn’t considered the most dangerous for Black.
That’s why you hold Candidates Matches and tournaments at the very top level. People prepare for them in order to refute well-established judgements, and to move chess theory forwards. It strikes me that part of the point of such World Championship matches or tournaments is to set a direction and give a push to the development of theory in the near future.
Death by draws?
The interview inevitably turned to the question of the “dull” chess in Kazan, and the “problem” of draws. In part Gelfand is responding to the opinion of Silvio Danailov, ECU President and Veselin Topalov’s manager, that the high number of draws was a “shame and disaster for the image of chess and FIDE”, and that the main failing was not to introduce Sofia Rules:
But I’d say the opinion is exaggerated. I played 14 games (I only like to answer for myself and no-one else), and ten of them involved an extremely interesting struggle. Despite the draws the struggle was interesting. Four games weren’t so exciting. In the fourth game of the match again Mamedyarov I agreed to a draw from a position of strength. In the fourth game of the match against Kamsky I came up against strong analysis, and the game ended up in a dead-drawn rook ending almost before it began. And the third and fourth games against Grischuk. In one of them Sasha came up against preparation and realistically the position, despite the presence of a majority of pieces on the board, became dead-drawn. Not equal, but dead-drawn. If we hadn’t agreed to a draw then in a couple of moves we’d have finished setting up our pieces and would simply have had to stay put. And in the fourth game of our match, where there was an extremely subtle struggle, Sasha managed to outwit me and the position was, let’s say, dull-equality. I wouldn’t say it was dead-drawn, but dull-equality – where you could have played on but the game wasn’t, let’s say, ever going to go down in the annals of history. The position was very dull: you could move, wait for a blunder from your opponent… But the remaining ten games were interesting.
If we take the tournaments which were held in San Luis or Mexico, then the percentage of dull draws wasn’t any lower. And in San Luis in general the winner, Veselin Topalov, spent the whole second half essentially just making draws with no play. I don’t know if they were agreed in advance or if they were taken in theoretically drawn positions, but it’s not so important. There weren’t any complaints about it. It was understandable – he was, to put it crudely, fixing the World Championship title. He seems to think that people have bad memories, but fortunately my memory’s fine. It’s simply that chess has developed, and it’s very often the case that if Black’s analysed an opening very deeply, and White hasn’t done it as well, then the game might not even start. But that’s a characteristic of modern chess. Fortunately it doesn’t happen in half of the games, or even a third. But it happens from time to time. And in these matches it basically happened in three games out of fourteen. That’s not such a high percentage. It won’t be any less in any other format.
The only thing I want to say on that score is: of course, if the matches are longer play will be sharper. Firstly, there’s more opportunity to take risks. We saw that in the final match. Although Sasha and I were both tired it was clear that we tried to fight in all the games. In almost all the matches – I don’t recall a game without a struggle. Perhaps the one exception in the whole tournament was a rapid game where White didn’t try. That’s a minimal proportion. Plus, I have to say that it’s never the same twice. Whatever the system you can get absolutely different tournaments. For example there were two tournaments with eight people. In one of them one participant won all the games in the first half, while in the second tournament the battle was fairly even, although Anand broke away a few rounds before the end. I had a slight chance of catching him, but it would have been more a question of counting on him collapsing than on my own mastery.
Any format better than none
Surov asks Gelfand about his unwillingness to discuss the format of an event while the event’s still in progress:
Firstly, it’s true that during tournaments I don’t discuss those things. If I’ve sat down to play in a tournament according to some format then I should play to the end. And again, I’ve got a good memory. I remember well the years between 1995 and 2005 when there was no format at all; when, to put it bluntly, I didn’t have the slightest chance of fighting for a World Championship match. Or rather, there was one chance when Leko won the tournament in Dortmund. But then that means there were no chances for, let’s say, Svidler or Grischuk to fight i.e. there wasn’t a tournament where every chess player, even the strongest, could fight for the world title. Therefore when tournaments are run according to a format which isn’t ideal, no doubt, but isn’t the worst possible – then it strikes me as somehow silly to criticise it. It’s great that it’s being run, and you should thank the people running it. Thank goodness that it’s run well, at a good level. Therefore it’s a combination: on the one hand, none of the formats are as bad as during those ten years when there was no real format at all, and then, of course, I don’t want to get distracted during a tournament.
“The situation isn’t tragic enough to adopt radical measures”
Gelfand provides his view of the Sofia Rules banning draws except by repetition or in positions the arbiters accept are drawn:
While the players see chances of victory they should play. That’s the essence of the Sofia Rules, as I understand them. And that’s correct. But it’s also clear that, as with any rules, someone’s going to have to interpret them, as you rightly said. And you can interpret them correctly, or incorrectly. So to consider Sofia Rules a panacea against all ills is, at the very least, naïve. Objectively in chess you often get positions with dull equality, or where play’s dried up, and no rules will help. In the absence of those rules I played ten games in Kazan. There was a high percentage of draws, but a minimal percentage of dull draws. If rules had been in place then I don’t know, perhaps at some point I’d have realised that if I don’t fix a draw now then no-one will allow me to agree to one. And I wouldn’t go for open play, but instead I’d have sucked the life out of the position. That’s also a factor. It might seem as though there are easy decisions here, but there aren’t any easy decisions in the fight against draws.
And the second thing I want to say is that the situation isn’t tragic enough to adopt radical measures. It’s not tragic. The overwhelming majority of games in major tournaments are played out, and interesting. Therefore if we look at games, and not statistics, we’ll grasp that the situation isn’t bad at all.
It’s perhaps worth noting here that in an interview earlier this year the Azerbaijan GM Vugar Gashimov expressed a very similar idea to Gelfand’s about Sofia Rules sometimes leading to less interesting chess:
It seems to me that when there’s a ban on draws it puts pressure on you, and you start to play more limited chess. More solidly, perhaps… And grandmasters who find a three-fold repetition usually make it immediately at the first opportunity – as there’s a risk that you might have to play some stupid position for seven hours, and in any case the game will end in a draw.
“I’ll have less chance at home”
One of the last questions for Gelfand was about the location of the World Championship match against Vishy Anand, and his answer was perhaps surprising:
And would you like to play in your native country?
There are many pros and cons, so I won’t try and say. I think I’ll have less chance at home than in any other country (let’s say, than in Russia) – for a number of factors. But we’ll see what happens. I don’t think the situation is so ideal that we’ll have dozens of offers.