Answering reader questions almost a decade after becoming FIDE World Champion as an 18-year-old, Ruslan Ponomariov provides both a revealing insight into the life of an elite player, and a damning indictment of the chess politics that saw his match against Garry Kasparov collapse.
Ponomariov was responding to questions posed by chess fans in Russian at Crestbook’s KasparovChess forum, and in English, here at Chess in Translation. The great appeal of these “KC-Conferences” (and this is the 11th in the series!) is that they provide a truly comprehensive portrait of the player in question. Including a biography, an introduction by Sergey Shipov, and a selection of annotated games, the conferences could be made into booklets – not something to read in a couple of minutes, but perhaps the best means of getting an idea of how the world’s top players think.
The full text of Part I (yes, there’s more to come!) can be found here: KC-Conference with Ruslan Ponomariov: Part 1
I’ve selected a few highlights below to whet your appetite:
One of the most intriguing aspects of the interview is finding out how Ponomariov sees both his own chess and that of his rivals. After the deadline for questions passed, I was a little dismayed to note that no-one had asked Ponomariov about his tendency to play on in seemingly hopeless positions, sometimes even to mate. Luckily, however, Ruslan brought up the question himself when discussing what the World Champions brought to chess:
It’s somehow immodest to talk about myself, but it strikes me that in the match against Ivanchuk I introduced an element you could call playing to the end, seeking out chances in positions where, it might seem, there are no longer any resources to continue the fight. My opponent complained that my games were too drawn out, and that in somewhere like Linares people resign or agree to draws much sooner. And then he started to play that way himself!
You can sense Ponomariov sees something of a kindred spirit in another player who reached the chess summit at breakneck speed:
didac: Which current player do you admire most?
It’s probably the play of Magnus Carlsen that appeals to me most. Of course, he’s also a human being: he makes quite a lot of mistakes and he’s lost quite a lot of games recently. But the way he fights, calculates lines, and finds chances in complex situations – that really makes up for it.
It’s interesting to compare this with what Ponomariov has to say about an ex-World Champion:
Who do you consider the best player you’ve ever faced, not in terms of pure score, but in terms of understanding of the position? […]
Of course it’s very important to objectively evaluate the situation on the board during a game. It seems to me that Vladimir Kramnik is very objective when assessing a position, sensing danger on the board in time. But, on the other hand, I suspect that at times a healthy optimism gives you much better sporting results. You sense that particularly when you play young chess players: they don’t always evaluate positions correctly, but they play quickly and confidently.
You can perhaps get a better idea of how Ponomariov sees the situation from his extensive commentary on his crushing victory over Kramnik in Dortmund last year. Unfortunately that isn’t yet available in English, but here’s one moment:
17…Qd8? Vladimir doesn’t withstand the pressure and falls apart in literally three moves. I’m sure that in his place Magnus Carlsen would have been able to keep his cool and calculate the lines, which is something I found out to my cost in the tournament in Bazna.
It’s hard to resist quoting the following passage, where Ponomariov describes a remarkable situation from the final of the World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk in 2009. It brings to mind trees falling in forests with no-one around to hear:
And then there was also a curious situation during the first game of my final match against Gelfand. He made a move and went off somewhere. I replied quickly and also left the board to go and drink some water. Coincidentally, the arbiters had also gone somewhere at that point, and there were absolutely no spectators in the hall – nobody! It struck me as a very depressing spectacle for chess :(
The Kasparov Match
Which great deceased player would you like to play?
Joking aside, it’s clear the “match-that-never-was” against Kasparov was a traumatic experience for the young Ponomariov, and one that took a long time to recover from.
A brief recap: Ponomariov won the FIDE World Championship in Moscow in 2002, beating Vassily Ivanchuk 4.5-2.5 in the final. Even for a knockout sceptic like myself, it’s noteworthy that: 1) the 128-player event was incredibly strong – only Kramnik and Kasparov were missing, and 2) despite the “matches” being only two games + tie-breaks until the semi-finals, the cream rose to the top – suffice it to say that Peter Svidler and Ruslan Ponomariov were the closest thing to a “surprise” in the quarter-finals.
After that, it all gets much more complicated (I’d recommend these links to articles from that time for those wanting to explore the subject further). The Prague Agreement’s plan to create a unified World Champion determined that Ponomariov would play Kasparov (as the number 1 rated player), and the winner would then play the winner of Kramnik-Leko. The match against Kasparov was planned for Argentina, but when that collapsed it was switched to Yalta in Ukraine, before finally being cancelled altogether.
Ponomariov’s description of that process is a must-read. There are some intriguing tidbits – e.g. Loek van Wely showing Ponomariov a Kasparov database sold to him by Azmaiparashvili, or this spectacular game from the practice match with Nigel Short (Short won the game, but lost the match, contrary to later rumours) – but what stands out is the power of Ponomariov’s cool-but-impassioned assessment of what went wrong:
The official reason for the cancellation was my stubbornness when it came to questions of match organisation. But try to understand me on this. I wanted, as the current champion, to have the same rights and opportunity of winning the match as my opponent.
In what follows it’s hard not to sympathise with the Ukrainian grandmaster – eighteen is a little too young to be thrown into such a viper’s nest. I won’t reveal all of Ponomariov’s conclusions here (the text needs to be read in full), but here he is assessing what the match’s failure meant for those involved:
Valchess: Who gained the most from the match not taking place?
It’s hard to say. Let’s look at the facts.
I remained World Champion until July 2004, but that was a very poor consolation. Kasparov never did go on to play another World Championship match against anyone, and in March 2005 he completely withdrew from professional chess. That’s what the consequences were for the two of us.
Ilyumzhinov, however, managed to remain FIDE President. Perhaps, from his perspective, it became easier after that to organise the World Championship cycle – in the sense that chess players, under the threat of disqualification or replacement by another player, became more compliant. After that expenditure was reduced, and it became possible to stage events less frequently.
Without meaning to offend anyone, I’ll give some examples: the next World Champion [Rustam Kasimdzhanov] after me was already prepared to agree to any conditions – if only he got to play a match against Kasparov. Gata Kamsky had to agree to play a Candidates Match on his opponent’s home turf with financial conditions that were unfavourable to him.
So did everything go well for all of us and for chess as a whole?
To read the interview in full and discover, for instance, Ponomariov’s opinion on Silvio Danailov, his manager at the time, click below: