Vassily Ivanchuk’s recent interview with the Ukrainian daily newspaper “Den” isn’t your standard chess interview. In fact, Ivanchuk doesn’t talk about current chess events at all, instead displaying a deep interest in literature while also explaining, for instance, why Julius Caesar would have considered chess players happy.
The literary content of the interview is no doubt partly due to the interviewer, Yarina Senchishin, who describes herself elsewhere as “poet, translator and FIDE master”. She introduces the interview at “Den” (Day) by explaining how she knows Ivanchuk:
Vassily Ivanchuk and I met in front of the Taras Shevchenko statue in Lviv and went to one of the cafes close to the market square. We’re old friends who’ve known each other since the second half of the 1980s. We met when we were both seventeen and played in the same team, achieving our first chess successes. Even back then no-one had any doubt that Vassily was going to have a brilliant chess future. One of the world’s best chess players, when you talk to him he’s emotional, unpredictable and not given to saying too much. Therefore I had to try and get Vassily talking. Here’s what came of that.
On modern chess
Vassily, what, in your opinion, is modern chess? You started playing when the old regulations were still in force and games were adjourned. Now it’s all very different.
In regard to adjournments I think I was very lucky, because that helped me to improve my chess analysis skills. If games were adjourned nowadays people would undoubtedly use chess programs for the analysis. On the other hand, when I sit down to play a game now I know it’ll be over after a certain number of hours. What the result will be is another matter, but we’ll finish the game and there won’t be an adjourned position “hanging” over me.
Is it possible to play chess at quite a high level today without using computers?
It all depends on how you use them. If you don’t use computers for the work at all, then it’s unlikely you’ll achieve great results. But if you use them too much or unskilfully, then that can also do serious harm.
Now that there are very powerful chess programs is there still room for human creativity? Do you still produce new ideas in the openings?
Of course, I’ve been doing that all my life.
Have you ever thought: “If I hadn’t taken up chess what else would I have done?”
Perhaps some kind of scientific activity, or else I could have become a writer. I like writing.
That’s an area where it’s still perfectly possible for you to fulfil yourself. We still don’t, after all, have a good chess novel in Ukrainian literature.
And there aren’t many in world literature either.
But why? There’s Nabokov, for example. Have you read “The Luzhin Defence”?
A very poor novel. I didn’t like it. But the “pearl” is, of course, “Marabou” by Kuprin. In those six pages chess players are represented in an unimaginably unappealing light. An anti-advert for chess. [You can read “Marabou” here]
I also didn’t particularly like Nabokov’s novel, although his style is wonderful. I constantly had the feeling that the author wasn’t an active player and the situations he described seemed artificial.
Yes, perhaps Stefan Zweig’s “Chess” novella is more or less ok. There are decent films about chess – “Grandmaster”, “Queen Sacrifice” about Mikhail Tal, “White Snow of Russia” about Alexander Alekhine… I read a lot. I can read anything. Sometimes it depends on my mood. It wasn’t long ago at all that I read about the philosophy of Epicurus. I want to read about the history of the origins of different religions. I’m interested in philosophy, history and also fiction. Out of modern literature I recently read books by Iren Rozdobudko, Natalka Sniadanko and Maria Matios. I liked Rozdobudko’s works the most. Among the classics I like the work of Mikhaylo Kotsyubinsky and Olga Kobylanska. I recently reread “The Land” and other works. I liked them. It’s not a straightforward style of writing to take in, but you can feel the inner depth.
Where do you get the books you read: from your home library or do you visit book shops?
I’ve got a big library at home, but sometimes I drop into shops. There I can choose a book based on the advice of acquaintances or listen to the advice of the book sellers. Sometimes I exchange books with colleagues at tournaments. Almost every chess player brings books to tournaments and sometimes they recommend them to colleagues/rivals. For example, Grandmaster Alexei Shirov gave me “Norwegian Wood” by Murakami to read, while Grandmaster Kramnik gave me “Time Regained” by Marcel Proust. Sometimes the “vice versa” principle operates. I remember when my coach was still Mikhail Nekrasov and we once talked about literature and he told me: “Don’t read Hugo. He’s a very boring author”. The first thing I did when I returned to Lviv was to find the works of Hugo. I read and enjoyed them.
Did you read “Les Misérables”?
Yes. In Russian translation. And also “The Last Day of a Condemned Man”.
And did your and, as it happens, also my former trainer, Vladimir Stepanovich Buturin, recommend anything for you to read?
Yes, he did of course, and he talked a lot about history and geography. He was a very intelligent man.
Chess is often described as a model of life. Do you agree with that thought? If yes, then has chess helped you to find a solution to real life situations?
It’s an obvious fact that many people don’t play chess and there’s no reason to assume that someone who doesn’t play chess is somehow deprived. On the contrary, perhaps doing some other activity allows them to achieve a higher level of development. Chess players of course have their own particular world view, although it also depends on the person as you can’t say that all players perceive the world in the same way. There are certain qualities, however, both positive and negative, that are inherent to chess players.
I’d say that for a top-level chess player sincerity and openness are negative qualities.
But why in particular for a top-level chess player?
Because sincerity can work against a chess player when he blurts out some important information.
You look back with some nostalgia when you recall your school. Did you have any favourite subjects?
I didn’t so much like subjects as teachers. I remember my Ukrainian teacher very well – Gikavets Miroslava Dmitrievna. I still remember much of what she talked about. By the way, she once told me: “I’m amazed you’re capable of playing such a serious game as chess, as you’re a born clown”. In some ways she was right.
What’s your attitude to the idea of introducing chess lessons into schools? Is that a possible means of intellectualising the nation?
Chess can have a place in schools, of course, but exclusively as an elective subject. Why torture children with chess if they don’t like it? Those children who like it, on the other hand, should go to chess clubs. By the way, since the second half of December 2011 the Vassily Ivanchuk Chess School has been operating in Lviv. Children are going to study there from the age of five.
You don’t think it’s worth studying chess like mathematics or literature?
In general our school syllabus isn’t well thought out. For example, I remember my own school years. All those logarithms and integrals… Why did we study all of that? Of course, for the children who took an interest in maths it was necessary, but how many such children were there in the class? They could easily have studied all that in clubs. When the school syllabus is being established they should take into account what to offer all the pupils, and what should be individual or at least for those interested.
On happiness and success
In order to maintain your form do you work every day or do you give yourself longer breaks?
I study chess when I want to, because when I don’t want to the proportion of useful activity is low. When your head’s working well you can do a great deal in a short period of time.
Professional success and happiness – are they mutually compatible?
Here’s what I’d say. Take Julius Caesar. Not a stupid man. When Julius Caesar was asked what he considered the greatest happiness in life, he replied – freedom of choice. I can’t say I’m 100% in agreement with that thought. Moreover, for the majority of humanity freedom of choice in difficult situations can hardly be considered happiness. It gives rise to doubts, and if you take the wrong decision – to serious disappointment, but every hour, every minute, we make a choice, taking decisions that are more or less important. It’s a process that continues all the time.
Do you remember the moment when you clearly realised: “That’s it! I’ll do chess and nothing else?”
I can’t recall it because there never was such a moment. I simply work on chess and continue to work on it, without posing such questions.
So chess is the natural sphere of your existence?
Yes. It’s something I’ve played and something I’ve achieved success in. I continue to play and it’s natural for me. It’s like a centipede. If it thought about how to place its feet it would be difficult for it to move, but instead it just moves, and everything works out well for it.
On public fame
Do you watch television?
Barely at all.
Do you follow news on the internet?
I still sometimes read chess news, but it’s very rare for me to read general news.
Where do you get your information about what’s happening around you?
I talk to people. If I’m interested in something I can ask those who know more about it: “Please tell me what’s going on”. Then I draw my own conclusions. Sometimes when I’m interested in something in particular I can go onto the internet and look, but I don’t read everything at once.
Do people recognise you on the street?
They don’t recognise me that often. I’ll tell you a story. I was once travelling in a train from Kiev to Lviv. Apart from me there were three other people in the compartment. Overnight, of course, they didn’t recognise me. And then in the morning one of them went somewhere, and when he returned he started to talk excitedly: “You know what a celebrity’s travelling with us? Vasyl Virastuk himself!” And they ran to have a look at him. They called me as well, but I said no. They were really amazed by that.
- Interview at “Den” (in Russian)
- All the photos above are the work of Fred Lucas from this year’s Tata Steel Tournament in Wijk aan Zee