General May 22, 2020 | 9:31 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

Grischuk: "Procrastination is definitely the main factor"

Alexander Grischuk was knocked out of the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge despite winning his last game and finishing level with Aronian and Dubov, but if the wildly popular Russian returns as a commentator his loss may be the tournament's gain. FM Andrey Terekhov profiles the world no. 6 and 3-time World Blitz Champion, who shares his views on the controversial Candidates Tournament. This is the fourth installment of the #HeritageChess campaign, supported by the Lindores Abbey Preservation Society.

‌Early Life & Career

Alexander Grischuk was born in Moscow on 31 October 1983. He is the second-oldest player of this tournament at 36 years old and represents the “1980s generation” together with Levon Aronian and Hikaru Nakamura.

Grischuk learned to play at the tender age of 4 from his father. His first trainer was Mikhail Godvinsky, then from 7 to 10 years old he was coached by Maxim Blokh, whom many chess players know as the author of immensely popular books on chess tactics. Maxim Blokh was also a grandmaster in correspondence chess.

When Grischuk was 10 years old he started to study with IM Anatoly Bykhovsky. According to Grischuk, it was Bykhovsky who influenced him the most and shaped him as a player. They continued to work together for more than a decade, right until the moment that Grischuk entered the Top 10.

Grischuk progressed quickly and played in national competitions from an early age. He has a unique track record in the Russian junior championships, winning U10, U12, U14 and U16 sections. He also shared 1st/2nd place at the World U10 Championship (silver medal on tiebreaks, behind Luke McShane).

At the age of 15 Grischuk played in his first Russian Championship (a Swiss tournament) and scored 5 out of 11.

Grischuk’s first breakthrough came in November 1999, when he won the Chigorin Memorial in St. Petersburg with the score of 7 out of 9. I was fortunate to witness that in person as I also played in that massive Swiss tournament. There were 140 players, with many grandmasters and strong IMs, mostly from Russia, and the competition was tough. The triumph of Grischuk, who only turned 16 a few days before the tournament, left a huge impression.

Two weeks after the Chigorin Memorial Grischuk played his first games for the Russian national team at the European Team Championship, scoring +3 =6 on the reserve board.

In 2000 Grischuk represented Russia once again, this time at the Chess Olympiad in Istanbul, scoring +5 =5 on the second reserve board. The Russian team, which was missing Kasparov, Karpov and Kramnik, still managed to win gold.

Two weeks after the Olympiad Grischuk travelled to New Delhi to participate in the FIDE World Championship, which was a giant knockout. 16-years-old Grischuk sensationally made it all the way to the semi-finals, where he lost to Alexei Shirov. It was the first tournament in which Grischuk demonstrated his impressive skills in quick time controls, winning 4 out of 5 matches in tie-breaks.

In 2001 Grischuk received an invitation to his first Linares tournament. That tournament ended most unusually, with Kasparov clear first with “+5”, and the other five players of this double round-robin sharing 2nd (and simultaneously last) place with “-1”.

In 2002 Grischuk was second in Wijk aan Zee (behind Bareev), then shared 1st/2nd place at the Aeroflot Open and won another Olympic gold with the Russian team – this time on 2nd board, behind only Kasparov. It is mind-boggling, but the Russian men’s team has not won the Chess Olympiad since – 18 years and counting...

This streak of successful performances catapulted Grischuk into the World Top 10, which he entered for the first time in January 2003. He was #3 in the world for a few months in 2014 and 2015, when he also reached his peak rating, 2810. Grischuk is currently #6 worldwide with a classical rating of 2777.

The King of Blitz... and Time Trouble

Grischuk is famous for his horrific time trouble, reminding one of Sammy Reshevsky or Vitaly Tseshkovsky. Grischuk routinely spends most of his time in the opening and the early middlegame, leaving himself only a few minutes for the next 15-20 moves until the time control. He has tried to fight with it for many years, but there seems to be no cure for this bad

Like most interviewers before me, I asked Grischuk what causes him to sink into thought for 30-60 minutes at a time. His reply was laconic but unequivocal:

Procrastination is definitely the main factor.

The only upside is that Grischuk retains a very high standard of play even in time trouble.

This skill also transfers to tournaments with faster time controls. Grischuk was fortunate to appear on the scene when rapid and blitz tournaments started to come into vogue. Already in 2002 Grischuk reached the final of the Dubai Grand Prix by defeating Morozevich, Radjabov, Bacrot and Shirov in consecutive matches before losing only in the final to Peter Leko. It was the most unfortunate of losses – in the final time scramble Grischuk dropped a piece and lost on time while adjusting it.

Grischuk won his 3rd World Blitz Championship in Berlin in 2015, where he beat Carlsen and lost only to Radjabov on the way to the title | photo: Nailya Bikmurzina, official website

Grischuk plays even better in blitz. He is a three-time World Blitz Champion (2006, 2012 and 2015), making him the only person other than Magnus Carlsen to have won the blitz crown more than once. Grischuk was also the highest-rated player on ICC (the Internet Chess Club), one of the earliest online chess platforms, and won two samovars in the traditional Moscow Blitz Championships.

I asked Grischuk whether he is more comfortable in classical time controls, or in rapid and blitz, and he replied:

I think that ratings don’t lie, so I guess blitz is my worst time control now. Still the most enjoyable though.

However, the difference in Grischuk’s ratings in the different formats is so small that this answer sounds somewhat tongue-in-cheek. On the latest FIDE rating list, Grischuk was rated 2777 in standard time control, 2784 in rapid and 2765 in blitz.

The key results of Alexander Grischuk

Grischuk has been playing at the highest level for the past 20 years, so it is impossible to list all his achievements in a short article. I am going to mention only some of his biggest victories and the most heartbreaking losses:

  • 2004 – shared 1st place in the traditional tournament at Poikovsky (with Sergey Rublevsky); 2nd place at the Russian Championship (behind Kasparov)
  • 2005 – reached the semifinals of the FIDE World Cup, a knockout with 128 players (lost to Ruslan Ponomariov)
  • 2007 – won Candidates Matches vs Malakhov and Rublevsky, thus qualifying for the World Championship in Mexico. Unfortunately, Grischuk’s result in the most important tournament of this cycle was disappointing, as he finished last with 5½ out of 14
  • 2008 – shared 1st/3rd at the Elista Grand Prix (with Radjabov and Jakovenko)
  • 2009 – won Linares (shared 1st/2nd with Ivanchuk, but had a better tie-break); later he also won the Russian Superfinal (incidentally, this is the only Russian Championship won by the three Russian participants of this tournament!)
  • 2011 – Grischuk played in the Candidates Matches after Magnus Carlsen withdrew at the last moment. Grischuk defeated Aronian and Kramnik in tie-breaks before narrowly losing the final match to Boris Gelfand, 2½:3½. It was the closest Grischuk has come to playing in a World Championship match so far
  • 2013 – another Candidates, this time in a tournament format. Grischuk finished in 5th/6th place with 6½ points out of 14
  • 2014 – won the Petrosian Memorial in Moscow with 5½ out of 7 (it was thanks to this victory that Grischuk crossed the 2800 rating barrier)
  • 2017 – won the Sharjah Grand Prix
  • 2018 – played in the Candidates. Curiously, Grischuk’s result was identical to his previous Candidates Tournament – 6½ out of 14, shared 5th/6th place
  • 2019 – won the Grand Prix series and thus qualified for the 2020 Candidates Tournament

In 2020 Grischuk played in the Candidates and drew all seven games before the tournament was suspended. He was unhappy about the fact that the Candidates was played in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and let his feelings be known to the world while the tournament was still in progress.

I asked Grischuk how he feels about the 2020 Candidates Tournament now, two months after it was abruptly suspended:

What are your thoughts on the 2020 Candidates Tournament?

It is difficult to comment on this, since it is clear to me that FIDE had some unspoken reason(s) to try to hold the Candidates Tournament at all costs, so almost anything I could say would be speculation.

Should it have been held in the first place, given the coronavirus pandemic?

The only strong opinion I have is the following: it is MUCH better not to start the tournament at all than to start and then interrupt it.

I heard some people saying [including Magnus Carlsen], “At least they played half of the tournament”, “Better than nothing” etc. I completely disagree with that.

Can you recall any other tournaments in chess history that had a break of a few months between the two halves?

No. At least not for tournaments of a similar caliber.

In your opinion, what is the best way forward – replay the tournament to the end? Start anew? Include Radjabov? Cancel the whole cycle?

I think the only more or less fair way is to continue it. Anything else would be extremely unfair to the leaders.

Also, I think that the Radjabov problem is 100% FIDE’s fault. Why in response to Teimour’s letter couldn’t they tell him, “We are not cancelling the event now, but we are following the situation, and may cancel/interrupt it any day. So you are either staying in or decline, but then you have no right to complain if we eventually cancel/interrupt it”?

After the end of the first half of the Candidates Tournament, Alexander Grischuk remains within striking distance of the leaders (Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Ian Nepomniachtchi). However, it is still unclear when the Candidates is going to be resumed.

Grischuk’s best games

In a 2019 interview Alexander Grischuk was asked which of his own games he likes the most. He mentioned the following:

You can replay the three games using the selector below:

Of these three games, I find the following king march the most incredible:

Gashimov – Grischuk
World Team Championship, Bursa 2010

If you have not seen this game before, try to guess where the black king will be 15 moves later.

23...Bb4+ 24.c3 Nxc3 25.Bd2 Qd5 26.Rf7+ Kc6 27.Rc1 Kb6 28.Be3+ Ka5 29.a3 Ka4! 30.axb4 Qxd3 31.Qa5+ Kb3 32.Rxc3+ Qxc3+ 33.Bd2 b6 34.Qxb6 Qe5+ 35.Kd1 Bb7 36.Qxb7 Rhd8 37.Rf3+ Ka2 38.Rf2 Kb1

This position deserves another diagram:

The black king has found shelter on the other side of the board. In fact, it is the white king that will soon find itself in danger.

39.Qf3 Rac8 40.Qb3+ Qb2 41.Qxb2+ Kxb2 White resigned.

This masterpiece makes for an interesting counterpoint to Daniil Dubov’s victory over Rasmus Svane, in which Black’s king did not survive the journey!

The master of quotes

Alexander Grischuk has a unique personality, which comes across most vividly in his post-game interviews. Grischuk does not try to amuse people, or at least he always answers with a deadpan expression that would make Buster Keaton proud, and yet his replies always make the audience crack up with laughter. In that sense, Grischuk is similar to Gregg Popovich, the legendary coach of NBA team San Antonio Spurs. The only difference is that Grischuk deals with chess, not basketball, and talks with a heavy Russian accent that always reminds me of a famous stand-up sketch, Russians are scary.

Grischuk’s curt, no-nonsense answers turn into instant memes. The 2018 Candidates Tournament is probably best remembered not for Caruana’s victory but for Grischuk’s press conferences. Someone turned them into YouTube clips under the title “Grischuk Thug Life”. Grischuk’s responses there included the following pearls:

Interviewer: So, a perfect game is the one without mistakes?
Grischuk: No, the one with the mistakes only by your opponent, it’s even better.

Grischuk: You know, I always try not to watch Svidler during the tournament, because he is too brilliant for me and I start to feel miserable.

Interviewer: How long you were actually preparing to this game?
Grischuk: Well... my whole life!

It should come as no surprise that the 2020 Candidates tournament added another instalment to this series. If you have not seen it, you are missing five minutes of pure entertainment:

In combination with Grischuk, even a simple piece of home decoration could become an interesting story. For example, during the 2018 Carlsen-Caruana match a wall lamp in Grischuk’s home suddenly become a hit. I don’t remember why and how it happened, but this lamp is mentioned on Twitter to this day!

Any press conference or game commentary with Grischuk is worth the price of admission, even if it means suffering through the Berlin Endgame. I hope that Grischuk will continue to share his unique, Zen-like wisdom with the chess audience during the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge.

FM Andrey Terekhov

Andrey Terekhov (@ddtru) grew up in Russia, lived in many countries and currently resides in Singapore. His best results at the board are victories at the Munich Open (2008), Nabokov Memorial in Kiev (2012) and shared 2nd place at the Washington Open (2018). He is the author of the Two Knights Defense course on Chessable. For the past few years Andrey has been writing a book about Vasily Smyslov, with publication planned for late 2020.

How did you get into chess? Share your experiences in the comments or using the hashtag #HeritageChess!   

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