22-year-old Russian Kirill Alekseenko is the clear outsider for the Candidates Tournament that starts in Yekaterinburg in just over one month’s time. While the other players are established Top 15 stars he’s currently live-rated just below 2700, and his wild card qualification ahead of Maxime Vachier-Lagrave was controversial. It was no fault of Kirill’s, however, and in a long interview with Oleg Barantsev for sports.ru he explains he’s no fan of the wild card system himself.
If there’s one mystery man in the 2020 Candidates Tournament that will decide Magnus Carlsen’s next challenger it’s Kirill Alekseenko. He had quietly been picking up open titles – the Chigorin Memorial three times in a row as well as the Rilton Cup – but it was only in the second half of 2019 that he caught fire, almost knocking Ding Liren out of the World Cup and entering the 2700 club by finishing 3rd, ahead of the likes of Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian, in the Grand Swiss. That latter result made him eligible for a wild card, and when it turned out he was the only eligible Russian he was the automatic choice of the organisers.
In this in-depth interview with Oleg Barantsev, translated from sports.ru, we get Kirill’s account of a remarkable year and the struggle that now lies ahead:
Oleg Barantsev: How did you manage to get into peak form for the two strongest tournaments of the year?
Kirill Alekseenko: It happened by itself. I played a lot of tournaments in a row and it turned out that by the World Cup and Grand Swiss I’d managed to warm up, while for tournaments at the end of the year there was nothing left and I was playing on will power alone.
The start of the year was unsuccessful. Progress came after the GRENKE supertournament in April, to which I travelled as a second for Peter Svidler. Immediately after that I played well at the Russian Team Championship.
What result did you plan for at the World Cup and Grand Swiss?It’s hard to predict the results of such tough tournaments, where a lot depends on luck and the draw. At the World Cup, when I saw the bracket, I wanted at least, or at most, to get as far as Ding Liren. It seemed as though I could compete with the rest, while Ding was the main tournament favourite. At first I wouldn’t have been upset to be knocked out by Ding Liren, but the way the tournament and the games against him went it was a bit disappointing.
In the second game against Ding Liren you had a clear advantage…
…yes, it was very close to winning…
…what was lacking for victory?
I wanted to fix the advantage in the endgame, to take no risks. I needed to retain queens and try and play for mate.
The ending of knight and bishop vs. rook (with pawns) was already drawn and Ding defended very accurately.
You suffered two losses in the tiebreaks, with the first rapid game turning into a massacre. Did you burn out?
Before the games it seemed as though I still had energy. It’s roughly the same as with long-distance running when it seems you can make a final sprint, but it’s not as simple as that.
I rested, got a good night’s sleep, prepared, but before the first game my head just wasn’t working at all. It was hard to recover before the second game, but it seems nerves and fatigue also affected him, as he gave me real chances of a comeback, until I failed to capture a piece in one move.
Were you satisfied with how the World Cup had gone?
Certainly, given I wasn’t knocked out in classical games.
Let’s talk about the Grand Swiss.Of course there was no plan to qualify for the Candidates Tournament (smiles). I simply wanted to get into the top 10 and play as many games as possible against elite players, since there aren’t so many tournaments where I can encounter them. It turned out that in the last five rounds I got players with a 2700+ rating (plus Grischuk in the fourth round), so from that point of view I’m happy with how it went.
The tournament also featured Carlsen, who had no need to qualify, and Caruana, who had already booked his place in the Candidates Tournament.
At the Grand Swiss you drew against both Magnus Carlsen and Vishy Anand. Were you afraid before those games against great champions?
Strangely enough, in that tournament situation I didn’t want to meet them. I felt that I was playing well and could fight for the top five, or even top three, and when you play against Magnus it’s tough, when he has that kind of streak - at that point he hadn’t lost in around a hundred games - and you need to beat him on demand… Not the most pleasant opponent.
There was no fear playing him. I ended up better after the opening and it seemed as though I could press, but Magnus defended very accurately. In the end I had to find accurate moves – there was a beautiful cooperative mate, but I didn’t go for it (smiles).
Against Anand it was the dullest game of the tournament: I got nothing in the opening and he equalised very easily.
For me that was the first tournament where I encountered Magnus and Vishy in classical chess.
Can you rate the result of those games as positive?
I wouldn’t say so, as after all I had White in both games.
You were counting on more?
Of course. You always want to win with White.
The decisive game turned out to be the win over Sergey Karjakin. Describe your emotions during that game.
The game went off the beaten track from the very start. After move three there were only four games in the databases.
Just as I didn’t expect the first move 1.Nf3, Sergey also didn’t expect my reaction. From move four we started to think a lot, and in total we spent over 90 minutes on the first 7 moves.
On move 8 Karjakin sacrificed a piece. How correct was that?
I checked and it was interesting, but Black shouldn’t be worse anywhere – interesting, sharp positions, but with good chances for Black to take over.
Roughly in the middle of the game Sergey silently offered you a draw with a repetition of moves. A draw didn’t suit you?
By that point I was already winning. From around move 10 I was already in terrible time trouble, and when there were checks I tried not to fall into a 3-fold repetition, so I moved my king around different squares in order to get to move 40. The rest was just a matter of technique.
What emotions did you feel during the game, besides concern about a 3-fold repetition of the position?
I was glad that I managed to conduct a very solid game from start to finish, as it’s not so often that you don’t blunder anywhere and see everything. Perhaps it was the best game…
…of the tournament?
Of the tournament, and the year and perhaps my career.
But everything could have changed in the last-round game against Nikita Vitiugov. It seems to me that nerves were at breaking point for both of you, since victory in the game would guarantee (or almost guarantee) one of you reaching the Candidates Tournament. Did you calculate the outcomes before the last round and during the game against Nikita?
Unfortunately it very soon became clear that we’d both lost any chance when we saw that David Howell hadn’t gone for a draw against Wang Hao on the neighbouring board and instead lost quickly.
Before the game I didn’t want to go all-in. Nikita is a highly-skilled chess player and it’s tough to beat such a person on demand.
How did you assess Vitiugov’s mood: was he also focused on winning or, seeing your form, was he ready to play carefully, especially with the black pieces?
We had a very similar situation when we played in the Russian Championship Superfinal in one of the last rounds. I was also playing White and we both needed to win. Nikita came out aggressively in the French Defence and we got a very complex game. At some point I managed to seize the initiative and was winning, but I didn’t find the win.
This time he decided to play more solidly and the game largely followed a positional path. For the whole game it was roughly equal, then around the time control Nikita underestimated a defence, went for an attack and I even had an extra pawn, though it was a very long way from a won position.
Wang Hao quickly won and got the only qualifying place for the Candidates Tournament and you realised that there was no chance to overtake him. You could only catch him, but by tiebreakers (the average rating of opponents) he would be higher in any case.
I nevertheless wanted to go out on a high. I had a good position with some winning chances and I just tried until the end, while there were still chances. It was the last round and I wanted to put all my remaining energy into the game.
When did you realise that you got third place?
Immediately after the game. During the game there was no time for that and I didn’t see the tiebreakers. I knew that Wang Hao would definitely be ahead of me, even if I won, but I didn’t know that I’d take third place with a draw. There were serious rivals: Levon Aronian, Hikaru Nakamura and David Anton.
And you immediately realised that you had a chance of getting into the Candidates Tournament?
Theoretically. But that was back when neither Alexander Grischuk nor Ian Nepomniachtchi had yet qualified via the Grand Prix. At that moment there were still three places left in the Candidates Tournament.
Your third place ultimately ended up being “golden”. What would have happened if Alexander Grischuk and Ian Nepomniachtchi hadn’t got into the 2020 Candidates via the Grand Prix? Would there have been a 3-way match tournament or would one of your older colleagues simply have been sent there?
Yes, they talked about a match officially, so I was prepared to play in it if necessary.
When Russian Chess Federation President Andrey Filatov declared that you were getting the place in the Candidates Tournament Maxime Vachier-Lagrave’s manager wrote an open letter calling for the organisation of an MVL-Alekseenko match. If the RCF (suddenly) agreed to that, would you have been ready to play?
I think I’d have had no choice, but all the rules were written in advance. I’m also of the opinion that the Candidates Tournament wild card should be abolished and all the participants should come through a sporting qualification.
In human terms I feel really sorry for Maxime, who also ended up 9th in the last qualification…
What would you feel in MVL’s place?
It’s very tough… When you don’t make it into the Candidates Tournament once you can somehow get through that, bear it, but when it’s in such a situation… It’s really very painful.
In terms of merit, Maxime has been one of the best elite chess players for many years and has earned the right to play the Candidates Tournament, but FIDE prepared the rules and you have to stick to them.
Andrey Filatov called you the “joker” of the Candidates Tournament. Who do you consider yourself to be?
I like the role of “dark horse” in this tournament. No-one expects any great result from me and there’s no additional pressure.
For the participants of the Candidates Tournament you’re little known, since you haven’t played the majority of them in classical chess. For whom will it be easier to prepare: you or them?
It strikes me it’ll nevertheless be easier for me. There’s a great deal of information on them and they’ve been playing the same openings for many years. I’ve got half as many games, few games against strong chess players and no fully-developed repertoire – that’s something I can work with.
You’re focused on winning the Candidates Tournament. Is that healthy ambition or an attempt to put psychological pressure on your opponents in the style of a boxer?
Of course it’s my ambition: it’s not every day you get the chance to play in such a tournament. For example, Ian Nepomniachtchi has qualified for the first time, while Maxime hasn’t played at all. It’s a great opportunity for a young player. I’m sure that all eight players will be fighting for first place, since it’s the kind of tournament where it’s either first place or nothing.
Whose style of play seems most unpleasant for you? And vice versa – is the most comfortable?
It’s hard to judge when I haven’t played someone, but of those I’ve played I’d mention Alexander Grischuk. I played two games against him and in both of the games I felt how deep a chess player he is. He plays slowly, but with big ideas, and it’s very tough to withstand him.
There aren’t any opponents who it’s pleasant to play. It’s not pleasant against anyone (laughs).
Your main coach now is Andrey Lukin. Who else will be helping you?
I’ve got a team, but I’m not going to name names before the Candidates Tournament.
Will you play in any tournaments before the Candidates?The Gibraltar open is starting in a few days. The main goal is to warm up, so my head hasn’t switched off, to look at some chess. My last classical tournament was in November and four months without classical chess would be pretty tough. The fatigue from the end of last year has gone and I’m ready to play.
Will you play your main openings or try to confuse the preparation of your opponents for the Candidates Tournament?
It’s hard to say. I could lie that I haven’t even thought about that yet. We’ll see (smiles).
(Kirill provided an update after the tournament: In Gibraltar, of course, I wanted to play better, but on the other hand I’m satisfied that with such mediocre play I managed to go the whole distance without a loss.
I’ve got normal relations with MVL. He’s more complaining about the qualification system than me.)
Describe your style of play.
(after a long pause) You can probably find people who will do that better. It seems to me that I try to play as deeply and thoughtfully as possible, always trying to find a way to go for a fight. If there’s an option of going for simplifications or complications I always choose the second.
Like many top players you play the Italian Game. Why is that opening so popular?
The main reason is that the positions haven’t yet been studied inside out and there’s quite a large space for fantasy. If you compare them with the Scotch or the Ruy Lopez, you get fresher positions where more pieces remain on the board. You can create more problems for your opponent.
As an amateur I was impressed by your win over Evgeny Levin in the 2019 Russian Team Championship, where you refuted the aphorism “all rook endings are drawn”. Did your opponent defend poorly or you turned on “Magnus mode”?
The game went well from my side. I guessed rightly in the opening, got a calm position where Black was no worse and even had small chances of seizing the initiative. Then Evgeny made a couple of inaccuracies and we entered that rook ending.
Initially it was, of course, drawn, but after the move 28…Rd4 I gradually began to lay siege to the e5-pawn.
In time trouble it was very tough for White to defend such a position, since he has options you can choose on every move, and it’s very tough to guess what will happen in 10 moves. And when you have two minutes on your clock it’s very tough to choose the correct move. The position would be unpleasant even for normal play.
Here I was planning to ask about your best game, but you’ve already answered that…
I’d also mention the first game against Harikrishna at the World Cup. Everything worked out: the opening, the middlegame and the conversion. It’s not often it all comes together.
Which chess player of the past made the greatest impression on you?
Of the past… (long pause) Probably Kasparov. If you can consider him of the past (laughs).
Well, he stopped playing when you were only starting, so yes, for you he’s the past… And who among contemporary players has influenced your play?
(instantly) Grischuk. I admire his style of play. I can’t say that I imitate him, I impose my own game; but there are qualities Alexander has that I’d like to have as well.
At the World Rapid and Blitz Championship at the end of 2019 you scored a modest +2 in both disciplines. Blitz and rapid aren’t your thing?
Yes, I prefer classical tournaments, but again, that was the end of the year, I was very tired, and it was more that I wanted to somehow end the year. I didn’t want to miss such a tournament, but from the start I realised that I couldn’t count on a high finish. I simply tried to show interesting chess and enjoy myself.
You won the Chigorin Memorial three times in a row (!), and people joked that you go there as if to pick up your salary. Are opens your thing?
Yes, I won a few major opens - the Rilton Cup, for example.
Opens suit me well, because there you have time to warm up, in the first rounds you get weaker opponents and you have a chance to get into the tournament. Particularly when you arrive tired after study or another tournament you can rest a little in the early rounds.
How much time a day (or week) do you devote to chess? How is your work organised
The toughest question (smiles). I don’t have any regular plan, but if you take it on average then now about 5-6 hours a day, though that really depends on tournaments. For the last half a year I was travelling to tournaments and there simply wasn’t time to study – in the breaks I just rested. Now the number of hours is going to grow which is, of course, connected to preparing for the Candidates Tournament.
I mainly work independently. It’s been less often recently, but previously I would regularly go to Andrey Mikhailovich Lukin: we solved studies and looked at openings.
You were born in Vyborg and took your first steps in chess there. You moved to St. Petersburg when you were 8. Was that connected to your success in chess?
No, for different reasons. My sister was studying in a gymnasium in St. Petersburg, my mum went there to work and gradually I moved as well. I finished the 1st grade in Vyborg but from the 2nd onwards I was already in St. Petersburg.
Tell us a bit about your family.
Now I live with my mum, who’s a Russian language teacher. My sister is in St. Petersburg, she’s working in the city administration.
In St. Petersburg you enrolled in the second gymnasium. Why?
I studied in the second gymnasium from 3rd grade onwards - they promised to help with trips and already back then it was clear that there were a lot of junior events and I had to go away for a couple of months a year to tournaments. And those in charge kept their promise: in 9 years there were never any problems with that.
You’re now studying at the Polytechnic University. What’s that choice connected to? Do your lecturers and the authorities understand why you often miss classes? How’s it going?
The reasons were the same. The main one was that there was the chance to combine study and travelling to tournaments. I can’t say that I’m a great student. I’m in the fourth year now, but I took a time out.
You love football. You support Zenit and Liverpool. While everything’s clear with Zenit, why did you pick the Merseysiders?
I began supporting them 10 years ago. The first game I saw was against Chelsea in the quarterfinals of the Champions League. At home they lost 1:3 and I was watching the return match. Liverpool led 4:3, could score again, but let in a goal and the match finished with the scoreline 4:4. It was the first time I experienced those emotions. I both liked the club, with its rich history, and the supporters. I also admired the captain, Steven Gerrard, who became my idol and favourite player, so the choice was obvious.
The new coach of Barcelona is Quique Setién, who’s known as a great chess fan. He played in simuls against Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik and Karjakin, and even played football with Kasparov. Will you follow him?
He’s a very interesting coach. I recently saw that he was once the assistant to the head coach of the Russian beach football team. Now he’s one of the most interesting coaches in La Liga. If I understood correctly he’s the last coach who beat Barcelona on their own pitch. It’s also interesting how he transformed Betis, as after all they’re playing in the European cups for the first time in a long time… It’s pleasant to see.
He’s also impressive as a chess player: he has a 2055 rating, a good Candidate Master.
Does chess help you to play football? How often do you hear the phrase, “football isn’t chess, here you need to think”? :)
I hear it a lot. I think it helps. Of course it depends on the position on the pitch. I like to play in the centre, in central defence or just ahead of it, since I love to make long passes and to play across the whole width of the pitch. I really like guessing what opponents will do and intercepting balls.
The World Champion is known as a big football fan. Did you get to play him at football?
Yes, at the World Rapid and Blitz Championship we had a Russian team led by Pavel Tregubov. The team consisted of Alexander Motylev, Daniil Yuffa, Evgeny Tomashevsky and Ilia Iljiushenok.
There were 4 teams: a world team, a FIDE team, a Moscow team and us. We played a knockout, and in the first round we came up against Magnus’ team. A tough battle ended 1:1 after normal time, but we won on penalties: I scored a penalty while Magnus missed. We scored both our penalties and they missed both.
In the final it was similar: 0:0 in normal time and we scored both.
So we can write: you beat Magnus… How is he on the football pitch?
Very similar to his chess style: he’s always running ahead, has good stamina, barely gets tired and is always focused on the goal. He often prefers going it alone to team play: taking someone on. On the football pitch he also always wants to win – he’s got huge ambition.
Carlsen’s unbeaten streak has now stretched to 112 games (at the moment of the interview – now it’s 119 and counting). What’s your longest streak?
I didn’t count. I think around 45-50, but I’m not sure.
Magnus was for a while no. 1 in the Fantasy Premier League standings. Do you like such games?
Yes, for fun.
Does your team consist mainly of Liverpool players?
As far as I recall you can’t have more than two players from one team, while of course if I could I’d take the whole team.
How do you relax from chess, besides football?
I like to read books, to watch series and films.
What did you last read?
John Hennessy, Leading Matters. That’s a book by the President of Stanford University on the fundamentals of leadership.
Your favourite film?
In search engines I looked at a lot of your photos and could barely find a photo where you were smiling. Perhaps only the photo with your first trainer Sergey Balyakin, where you still smile more with your eyes than your mouth. Are you always so serious?
Since such photos are mainly taken at tournaments it’s tough when all your energy is put into the games and they photograph you during or just after a game.
But even after the Grand Swiss, where you finished third, which can be considered a big success as well as a chance to qualify for the Candidates Tournament, your colleagues smile, at least a little, while you’re serious.
You still haven’t seen the photographs where I won first place (laughs), for example in the Rilton Cup.
After your recent successes, have you got a sponsor or support from the federation?
For now that’s at the discussion stage.
Would you like to have a personal sponsor?
Of course (smiles).
We respect your privacy and data protection guidelines. Some components of our site require cookies or local storage that handles personal information.