While on his way to winning the Minsk Open, former World Champion Alexander Khalifman gave a long and thoughtful interview to Elena Klimetz for the openchess.by website. Topics include why his career tapered off after winning the world title, parental pressure on young chess players, and the match in Sofia.
The interview was conducted while Khalifman was leading with 6/7, and he went on to win the tournament on a tie break with 7/9. The full table can be found here.
Greetings, Alexander! Your participation in the “Minsk-Open 2010” was a pleasant surprise for all the participants and guests of the tournament. Presumably the choice wasn’t made by accident? What connects you to Minsk?
Yes, there are, of course, reasons. I’ve always liked the city and sometime in the middle of the already distant 80s of the last century I often played here. Not that I was particularly successful, but I’ve got a lot of happy memories of Minsk. After all I was also here for a week in 1990, and in 1994 I came to Minsk for Boris Gelfand’s wedding. And now, clearly in connection with some sort of change that comes with age, I feel more and more nostalgia, a desire to revisit those places I visited in my youth. So, finding out about the current tournament in Minsk, and given that the chance to play chess now doesn’t present itself so often, I decided to come. And, all things considered, I’m very glad.
You said that you don’t manage to play so often now. As far as I know you’ve got your own school in St. Petersburg, which has been operating successfully for more than 10 years. How do you see yourself nowadays: more as an active chess player or a theoretician? Or perhaps a trainer?
Yes, I do indeed have my own school, which along with working on books takes up the majority of my time. Therefore it would be a little naïve to consider myself an active chess player. It’s so worked out that I’m continually engaged with absolutely different things, though they are connected to chess. I only play now from time to time, so that my hand doesn’t forget how it’s done. Meaning that I just play for my own pleasure, without undue nervous tension, which was previously hard to do.
But nevertheless, how do you manage to maintain such a high level and win tournaments. What’s the secret?
Well, it’s already quite a long time since I won a tournament, and I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, after all there’s still a tense finish to come. As for maintaining the level, with that, no doubt, the thing is that what I’m doing is still connected to chess, in one way or another. And, more likely than not, if I’d gone into the banking or building industry it would be much more tricky to maintain my form. Although even where I am now is just a semblance of my previous level. But I’m still grateful for that, as chess now has become a game for the young. It’s hard to compete with them in dynamic positions demanding the maximum effort and concentration. So the fact that I’m managing to compete with them despite being over 40 is something it’s impossible not to be happy about.
But you still enjoy playing, which is why you play?
Yes, and maybe it’s only now that I enjoy it. After all before, when I was focussed on the sporting result, it was enormous and difficult work. While now I have the possibility to simply play and enjoy it.
However, it’s hard not to be amazed by your chess history. After all, you’re one of the few to have managed to become World Champion, in 1999. And then you suddenly opened up your own school and practically stopped playing…
In actual fact that chronology is a bit off, as I’d opened the school in 1998, and only became World Champion a year later, so it was more that I decided to keep working with the school. But that, I think, wasn’t the main thing. You see, after winning the title it was no longer so easy to travel to some run-of-the-mill open tournament without special conditions. To put it crudely, my colleagues wouldn’t understand me. They’d say look, you’re the World Champion and you’re not asking for conditions which means, surely, that they’ll soon start making us pay to take part i.e. it would have seriously baffled my grandmaster colleagues. And as for round robin tournaments… it’s not something I want to go into in great depth, but it turned out that for some reason they didn’t invite me. So you get a funny situation: the World Champion, one of the very highest ratings… others are invited to round-robin tournaments, while I’m not. So I started to devote more time to my school, I started to write books. And, all things considered, I don’t regret a thing. Yes, perhaps I could have played a bit more at some point, but at the time I was already 33 years old, and I understood perfectly well that I’d already achieved the greatest success in my life and that it would be naïve to expect that I could keep making progress for another 10 years. Moreover, after 30 you want some sort of stability, a foundation. It’s not so easy to flit between tournaments and make your living that way, without any guarantees. I don’t know how things are in Belarus, but in Russia if you win, you earn something, if you don’t, you don’t. Of course the hand of poverty wasn’t at my throat, as I’d played at quite a high level, but nevertheless stability was lacking. And as for all those wild Russian businesses – that wasn’t for me at all – I decided to stick with what I knew and could do. So that was how this long-term project with the school was born, with promise for the future. There were, of course, difficulties and mistakes, mainly in terms of personnel, but the school’s still going and will keep on going. And it’s something real, tangible. So that all that happened in my life belongs to me.
Perhaps the way things went turned out to be your salvation? After all the majority of those few who manage to become World Champion complain of subsequent depression, linked to a loss of goals and purpose… You didn’t have such problems?
No, it seems to me that it’s more of a danger for those who very early on and single-mindedly get to the top. While by that time I already had my feet firmly on the ground and was perfectly conscious of the laws of the world around me – who and what I was. Therefore there was no dizziness, euphoria or depression, I was simply glad that I’d achieved such a result. It was great, but life goes on. Perhaps in life I’ve lacked a certain creative element, but I always stood with my two feet firmly on the ground – regardless of a run of success or failure – I was in harmony with the world around me.
A rare quality, it has to be said! Particularly in the chess world. So that, in principle, there haven’t been any moments in your life that you’d like to go back and change?
No, but that’s already philosophy. We can start looking back now and say if only I hadn’t been unfortunate and commandeered into the army in 1976 for 2 years, after which it still actually took me more than a year to recover and in the end I became a grandmaster 2 years later than I should have done. If I hadn’t argued with someone there in the Russian Chess Federation and had had more chances to play for the national team. If only, if only, if only… But now, when you look back and cast a glance over it all you understand that those were all trivial little things and details. And, summing up my professional career, I think that everything went fine.
The interview moves on to talk about the teaching at Khalifman’s St. Petersburg Chess School, before focussing on introducing children to chess:
As far as I know you’ve got a daughter. Did she ever try playing chess? Would you want her to?
No, she didn’t, I think, ever have that desire. Of course, she knows the names of the pieces and how they move, but nothing more. My daughter is more like her mother and the so-called “competitive spirit” is almost absent in her. And to convince her, to force her to do something… I’ve never been a fan of that approach. And my wife isn’t either. A child is also a person, so let her do what she wants to do. All the more so as I see a mass of examples at my school, and it’s not only unrestrained joy. Particularly when you come across cases when they’re trying to make a child into something he doesn’t want to be and will never become. Which is a sad spectacle. It’s one thing not to allow your child to be idle, but quite another to force them to do something they don’t want. Deciding what you like, and what you want to do, should after all be a matter for the young person.
So you consider that if a child is very talented – visible even to the untrained eye – but he doesn’t want to play chess, it’s not worth forcing him?
It’s a complex question! To be honest, in practice I’ve never come across a situation where a child is very talented but doesn’t like playing chess. After all if he’s talented he’s winning, and everyone likes to win. It’s only possible in cases where there are some additional factors causing chess to be rejected. As, for example, with the strict father of Gata Kamsky, who forced him to study 14 hours a day. It’s no surprise that Gata lost all desire to continue that regime. However, normally (as far as I can tell from my experience) if a child is capable he finds chess interesting. In my time I’ve asked a lot of people who have already become chess players about their chess childhood, and I haven’t met anyone who ever had to be forced to study chess. If a child’s talented then he beats his peers, he likes it, and he’ll continue to find chess interesting.
The second serious area you work in involves books. However, both of your series of books – “Opening for White according to Anand” and “Opening for White according to Kramnik” have quite a specific title and purpose. Why did you decide in favour of exactly those two chess players?
Firstly, no-one can argue that Anand and Kramnik aren’t very serious and significant figures in the chess world. On the other hand, if a chess player at the level of candidate master starts to play the opening “according to Kasparov”, then either I’ll have to deceive him, because it’ll be the opening according to someone else, or he’ll simply get lost in the wilds of opening variations and complications and there’ll be nothing but trouble. Therefore it was exactly because there’s some sort of healthy positional basis to the opening repertoire of Anand and Kramnik that I chose them as models.
And why not, for example, the opening “according to Khalifman”?
There’s no such thing, and that’s the point. Of course, I’ve got quite a wide opening knowledge, but I don’t have any one particular key opening and I never had one. I was always more interested in taking into account certain psychological ideas during preparation, changing openings to force my opponent to fight a shadow. Therefore “Opening according to Khalifman” would be an opening encyclopaedia.
Just now you touched upon an interesting question, which worries many young chess players. What’s best, to have one basic opening, where you know all the ins and outs and continually improve it, or to have a superficial knowledge of a great number of openings and to change them depending on your opponent, taking into account psychological factors and the tournament situation?
It’s an interesting question but the answer isn’t so simple. You described two extremes and the truth is somewhere in between. It’s good not only to have a basic opening for white and black, in which you’re absolutely confident, you could play it in your sleep with no problems anywhere, but it’s also good to have a wider knowledge of other openings so that you have the chance when required to surprise an opponent. Of course, it’s very complex and demands serious work. But chess in general demands a lot of work. Even if you have great talent, you still need to work a lot.
And what do think of half-correct ideas “for one game”? Is it worth using them?
I think that’s going a bit too far. Personally I rarely resorted to such means and I don’t think they can be justified at the classical time controls. It’s worth getting the hang of such ideas more if you’re specialising in short time controls as there it could be useful. While at the classical time control you can try it once, well, or even twice if it’s very beautiful. But having a selection of half-correct opening lines and using them continually – for me, that’s the wrong approach.
And it’s no longer so easy as all the games end up in the database…
Exactly! Everything ends up in the database, computers are more and more powerful… It was before, in the days of my golden youth, that such an approach worked. You’d use an idea and then two rounds later you could use it again. There were no computers and deep analysis required a lot of time – your opponent might lose his way. But now that’s all gone. If you’ve played something incorrect you can’t get away with repeating it – he’ll push a button and work it out, even if he’s never played the line before. The computer will help him.
Khalifman talks about his daily routine, and how he analysed the Anand-Topalov match for the Russian chess magazine, “64”.
And how would you characterise the match?
For me, it turned out to be a good match. The chess was very good, and in sporting terms it was always a heated struggle with no short draws. While the result was fair. Despite the fact that Topalov had prepared superbly it has to be admitted that in terms of talent he’s still inferior to Anand. And even the age difference didn’t tell. Anand’s a genius. He emanates light.
Exactly that. I know as I’ve played him.
Towards the end of the interview the questions touch on the support Khalifman received from his family and what he does with his limited free time. He’s also asked to name his favourite places in St. Petersburg:
Oh… the whole centre. I don’t even want to pick something out. I grew up on the outskirts. But from my childhood I recall the colossal impression that the city centre made on me, with all the history gathered together there. And from my childhood on I’d dreamt of moving to live in the centre. And then after the win in Las Vegas it was possible to repair and furnish the flat that I’d already bought in the city centre. And, at last, we moved, which really delighted me. Because if you live three minutes on foot from Isaac’s Cathedral, next to the Neva, it’s a stunning feeling. So that it’s hard to pick out one particular favourite place. I also really love the suburbs. And Peterhof, and Pushkin and Gatchina.
The interview ends with a “blitz questionnaire”:
Strategy or tactics?
Knight or bishop?
Attack or counter-attack?
White or black?
Classical or blitz?
Talent or work?
Meat or fish?
Tea or coffee?
Today or tomorrow?
For anyone who’s enjoyed this interview with Alexander Khalifman his three part response to reader questions at Crestbook is highly recommended. It can be found here. It might be a good idea to make a cup of coffee/tea first!