Fresh from his victory in Dortmund, ex-FIDE World Champion Ruslan Ponomariov gave an interview to GM Dmitry Komarov of the Ukrainian Fakty, where he talks about chess and music, the upcoming Olympiad, some of the secrets of his recent success, and a valuable preparation tip from Veselin Topalov.
Ruslan Ponomariov’s decision to play on board two for Ukraine at the Olympiad, making them second favourites, is a success story that as recently as December last year had looked unlikely. Back then Sergey Karjakin had switched to Russia, Anna Muzychuk was playing for Slovenia and Pavel Eljanov was quoted as saying, “the majority of strong Ukrainian chess players want to change federation”. Ponomariov starts by describing the recent turnaround:
I’m leaving the interview as published so that readers (and myself!) will know not to put much faith in anything they see by Komarov, or in the curiously named Fakty newspaper.
I always wanted to play for the Ukrainian team, but under the previous management of the chess federation it was impossible for reasons of principle. I talked about them six years ago in a live discussion for “Fakty”, which took place immediately after returning from our triumphant performance in the World Chess Olympiad in Spain.
For that victory at the World Chess Olympiad the government paid us a prize of 10,000 hryvnia each [about 1000 euro]. That’s dozens of times less that other countries pay their players.
It’s not so much about money, but about self-respect. How are we, as Ukrainians, worse than our colleagues? It wasn’t only that the chess functionaries at the time didn’t want to have a dialogue with the players, but they actually absolved themselves from dealing with the most urgent issues. It was only after the change of leadership in the federation that my playing for the team became possible.
There are rumours about a return to the team for Sergey Karjakin, who a year ago switched from Ukrainian to Russian citizenship. Is that true?
I’ve heard that the federation’s new team does have such ambitious plans. But, to be honest, I haven’t taken an interest in the details of the negotiations. I know that in Khanty-Mansiysk Karjakin is going to make his debut in the line-up of the Russian team.
When I became World Junior Champion I also received offers to play for another country. Those were hard times when it came to travelling to tournaments – there wasn’t enough money. It’s not a problem now: organisers pay for travel, accommodation and an appearance fee. But back then, at the end of the 1990s, my trainer and namesake Mikhail Ponomariov even had to sell coffins to pay for trips to tournaments. It was only by chance that I remained in Ukraine. On a plane returning from a competition I became acquainted with Viktor Avramenko, the President of the AVK confectionary company. He took an interest and started to help and the question of moving simply disappeared.
You must, undoubtedly, have gained confidence for the upcoming Olympiad after your recent successful showing in Germany.
After the successful finish I spent a long time trying to remember when I’d last won such a big tournament. In November 2006, I was first at the Moscow Tal Memorial on tiebreaks, while here I was the sole winner, and with a gap of one and a half points to the second place player. It’s the first time I’ve played in Dortmund. The tournament line-up is quite conservative. Out of six players those with a continual pass to the event are Vladimir Kramnik (the Russian has won in Germany nine times and before it began the majority of experts were predicting a tenth win), the Hungarian Peter Leko, the winner of the Moscow “Aeroflot Open” and also a representative of the organising country. Only two places remain and after all there’s no lack of strong chess players in the world.
I’m also glad because the time I had for preparation (after playing in Romania) was very short – only 10 days.
Would you be willing to share the secrets of how you prepare for events?
Why not? I left Romania for Spain with my second, Grandmaster Zahar Efimenko from Mukachevo. We stayed at a hotel in the Basque Country, in a beautiful place not far from the city of Bilbao. The Atlantic Ocean was nearby, so the summer heat didn’t particularly bother us. To take a break from chess we went to a Rammstein concert in Bilbao.
Does music help you get in the mood to play?
Events are often held in theatres, and in order to warm up the players and spectators they usually put on some music. For example, in Germany before every game you could hear the German Composer Richard Strauss’ symphonic poem “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, widely known thanks to the Stanley Kubrick film “2001: A Space Odyssey”. That piece put me in a fighting mood.
And what else can improve your mood before a game?
If things are going well then before each new game I try to observe a particular ritual. I remember that during one of my most successful events each day at breakfast in the hotel I’d ask the same waitress to bring me green tea. And of course when one day that girl took the day off I suffered my only loss. After something like that how can you not believe in omens?
Do you have a favourite dish and can you cook it yourself?
I don’t have any particular preferences. The main thing is that the food is fresh, tasty and lean. Previously I was capable of making borsch myself. When I stayed with Veselin Topalov in Spain I made borsch, while I took a recipe from the Bulgarian for a Spanish soup made from tomatoes: gazpacho. It’s particularly good in hot weather.
Your most famous talisman was the sweater that you didn’t take off for a month during the World Championship in Moscow and the final match that you won against Vasily Ivanchuk.
What do you mean! Since becoming World Champion I haven’t worn that lucky sweater once. But I didn’t throw it away either. I’ll have to ask my mum where it is…
In Khanty-Mansiysk the rating favourites in the struggle for “gold” will be the Russians headed by ex-World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. All in all a record number of teams are appearing at the Olympiad – 158. Do the line-ups include any awkward opponents for you?
Recently I managed to get the better of Kramnik and the score in our games at classical time controls evened out – 3:3. I’ve done well, in general, against Russians, but not so well that I’d consider them convenient opponents. My results also haven’t been bad against the strongest grandmasters from other countries. The only exception is the World Champion Viswanathan Anand. So far I’ve found it difficult to adapt to his style of play. In general, you don’t get any weak teams at the Olympiad (well, except perhaps in the first round), and any team could pull off a surprise.
That just leaves electronic opponents – computers. How is your rivalry with them going?
It’s very hard to beat a machine: they don’t make crude blunders, they don’t suffer time trouble and you can’t win by attrition, though if a man sets out not to lose then it’s perfectly possible to draw. I think that it’s still too soon to talk about man’s struggle with a computer being a complete fiasco. While the machines haven’t calculated the whole game to the end, starting from the first move, then we humans still have chances. When I switch from playing computers to playing games with my colleagues it’s even somehow liberating. I feel that I’m sitting against another person who’s also liable to make mistakes.
Though a person can try to knock you off balance…
Mainly, by the way, at the Olympiads. Among the thousands of players you can come across some who love to play on their opponents’ nerves. It can happen that a guy comes and looks at you as if he wants to hit you. As a result you also want to rearrange his features. And there’s another trick – nervously rocking on your chair or intentionally sniffing in order to force your opponent to lose concentration. Serious grandmasters don’t allow themselves such tricks.
You’re often spotted on the metro. Do you sense the additional attention you attract?
During a journey someone always recognises me and asks for an autograph. But it’s nothing like it was immediately after I became World Champion. I remember that after beating Ivanchuk I returned to Kramatorsk. It seemed to me then that the whole town was on the street! At the station they picked me up and carried me. A huge crowd of people – you couldn’t get through, you couldn’t escape it… Now I’ve got used to it.
In fact it’s not that I’m specially trying to be popular. Of course, I’d like to get my driving license and ride a motorbike, and not just a bike. And then, you never know, to learn to fly some sort of aircraft. Except that there’s just not time for all that.
Do you have a favourite chess figure [piece]?
I don’t have favourites on the chess board. If you’re thinking of a female figure then there’s nothing more beautiful that a big woman. Of the Rubenesque variety… (Laughs).
The recipe for the Spanish soup gazpacho, according to Ruslan Ponomariov:
500 g of tomatoes, 300 g of Bulgarian pepper, 300 g of cucumbers, 150 g of onions and one or two cloves of garlic should be peeled and sliced not too finely and mixed in a blender. Add the juice of one lemon and 100 ml of olive oil. Add salt and pepper. Mix it once more. Put it in a fridge for 3-4 hours. Sprinkle some herbs on the soup. Serve with croutons.
This interview at times bears an almost eerie resemblance to an interview by Dagobert Kohlmeyer that appeared on the German Chessbase page. One of Ponomariov’s answers there that is perhaps worth adding is about the upcoming FIDE Elections (as translated by Thomas at Chessninja):
I support Anatoly Karpov. I appreciate him a lot as a player, have trained with him and learnt a lot. Regarding chess politics, in my opinion it’s high time for a change within FIDE after 15 years.
Finally, here’s a clip from that Rammstein concert in Bilbao! There must be something to it, as Anand said after winning the World Championship in Sofia:
We always had music during preparation. This time we took good speakers with us to play it loudly. We’d start preparing, and Rustam Kasimdzhanov would put on “Rammstein”…