Interviews Jul 5, 2017 | 5:14 PMby Colin McGourty

Aronian: “I get over losses more easily than wins”

Levon Aronian failed to make much of an impact on the Leuven Grand Chess Tour, but before that he’d won the GRENKE Chess Classic and Altibox Norway Chess in style, finishing far clear of World Champion Magnus Carlsen on both occasions. In an interview after Norway he talked about why he doesn’t get bored playing the same guys, how he’d feel if classical chess vanished, what we owe to Magnus Carlsen and much more.

Levon in Leuven - what's not to love! | photo: Lennart Ootes

Levon Aronian was talking to Sergey Kim for the Russian chess website ChessPro. We’ve translated the interview below from the point at which Levon was asked if he reads and watches films to relieve the stress during tournaments:

Levon Aronian: Yes, and in addition I listen to music, walk and sometimes go on runs. Like everyone else. But in contrast to other chess players I probably devote more time to music. It’s as if I have my own profile.

Sergey Kim: And what music attracts you most?

That’s not important. The main thing is that it’s sincere and… how can I put it? That there’s something spiritual about it. Don’t get the idea that means religious, but I should grasp that the person writing or performing the music had exalted feelings, emotions… Cheerful, entertaining stage songs, like “someone stole a piece of sausage from someone”, as you can imagine, don’t interest me greatly.

So classical music suits you more?

Not necessarily. It can be folk music, it can be rock and even rap. After all, they’re also full of emotions.

“A travelling circus” is how in an article Tigran Vartanovich Petrosian labelled the group of chess players who would constantly take part in the famous tournaments in Tilburg… You perhaps, with rare exceptions, play in elite round-robin tournaments where the “staff turnover” is relatively low. Do you sometimes have enough of playing games largely against the same opponents?

Once again I’ll respond with a musical example. Does a conductor, for example, feel he’s had enough of conducting Beethoven? Or a singer of singing with Maria Callas? Of course not! It’s the same here. You feel you’re in the company of the most worthy and strongest people, each of whom is capable of beating you. Currently such things don’t actually happen that often, and I really value it. It’s rivalry among equals.

And when you play an open tournament? Let’s say you play six games against players of a 2600 level, who play pretty well. You beat three of them and make three draws, and you feel you shouldn’t have made those draws even though you played correctly, because you need to beat them or otherwise you lose rating points. And ratings are important. That’s invitations to strong tournaments and you can even qualify for the Candidates Tournament by rating. And at some point you start to play not chess but the “shell game”. But what can you do? There’s no other option - in order to win you need to swindle your opponent.

The following question arises in connection to that. How closely do you follow the standings on the rating list? Does it have any real significance for you to be, for instance, in the second or fifth spot?

Lately it’s simply become interesting - pure curiosity. You look at some figures and follow them: you’re gaining or losing ground. If the situation was as it was before, however, and it was impossible to qualify for the Candidates Tournament by rating, then there wouldn’t be any sense in following it. Now, however, it’s of course extremely important and I try not to forget about that.

Levon is one of six players in the 2800 club, with Magnus no longer untouchable | source: 2700chess

Does the problem of difficult opponents exist at the elite level, or is it just a string of bad luck which happens to affect encounters with particular opponents?

It definitely exists. You often witness how one chess player scores a clean sweep against another, and from a psychological point of view it’s held that you play very strongly if you’re used to beating a particular opponent. A lot still depends on the opening, when you get positions that you like, while your opponent is simply playing “your” opening – that’s a fashion just now – and hasn’t got round to coming up with his own.

In principle, though, it’s a problem you can fight against. At some point I had a terrible “minus” against Ivanchuk, while now it seems it’s not bad at all (smiles). I recall it was -7 or maybe even -8, but I’ve managed to return that to somewhere in the region of -1 or -2.

Aronian beat Carlsen in Stavanger in a thrilling game | photo: Lennart Ootes

In Stavanger you beat Magnus Carlsen, who you’ve also had quite a difficult relationship with… Does beating a difficult opponent inspire you, adding confidence and optimism?

It’s very important! Especially as previously I had a terrible minus against him. It’s still a big one now, but at least I’m the one who’s won our last three decisive games! You know, that already gives some hope that, perhaps, over time it will turn out as it did with Ivanchuk.  

You’re great at controlling your emotions regardless of the result of your game. Some players (even the World Champion) don’t consider it necessary to hide them from the public, although, perhaps, that’s part of the game. In general, how tough is it for you to get over losses?

I get over losses more easily than wins (smiles). When you win you reluctantly start to think (especially if it’s a memorable win) about how to continue the “series”, while when you lose you’ve been shown your place and you need to focus all your efforts in order to get out of there. Therefore I treat losses as part of my path in chess, as an essential test.

How tough is it for you to play against a chess player you’re friendly with, one who commands respect and is pleasant as a person?

I never particularly thought about it. In general I find a lot of people pleasant, but then it’s all the more pleasant to beat them! Afterwards you can discuss the game and even put in some effort, since you’re looking at and analysing the game with close friends.

I’ll put the question a different way. Can an opponent who you feel antipathy towards for this or that reason provoke a wave of sporting aggression?

To paraphrase a little: “you can never have too much sporting aggression”. The more of it you have, of course, the better, but there are very few people I’m in any way unfriendly with. If I don’t like someone I try simply to ignore him. I don’t have that, “I really must beat this guy!” And in general the results probably show that there’s no direct correlation between whether you have a good or bad relationship with an opponent and how you play at that given moment. It often happens that my results are much better against my closest friends.  

Aronian and MVL head to play the Altibox Norway Chess blitz | photo: Jose Huwaidi

Do certain ethical barriers exist which, in your view, can’t be crossed? Of course I’m talking about at the chessboard.

I would never in my life use a computer during play, or any other electronic help or crib sheet. By that you betray not only the Game, but yourself as a person. If you go for that kind of deception you don’t have the right to call yourself a person.

Meanwhile there are things that I do allow myself, for example, “to flag” an opponent in a drawn position. What can you do – it’s a sporting principle. It seems to me, however, that I act within the bounds of our common rules and culture.

Even the best of friends can fall out over an Armageddon game...

Do you think the problem of cheating is possible at tournaments of the very highest level?

In elite tournaments it doesn’t exist. That problem is more of an issue in tournaments one rank lower. Someone who has achieved the very highest results is unlikely to bother with such stupidity.

You yourself mentioned “flagging”. How promising is the path of reducing the time control? And how would you feel about it personally if it was declared that classical tournaments would end and we’d move completely to rapid and blitz?

We’re professionals and we always adapt. Take even the last tournament in Stavanger: 1 hour and 40 minutes instead of the usual 2 for 40 moves. That was a test. For someone a difference of 20 minutes might seem like nothing, but not for top level chess players, who experience that difference the hard way.

How would I feel? No doubt like a 5,000 meter runner who suddenly hears that no distances exist anymore other than 400 and 100 i.e. I’d react with understanding, but no particular enthusiasm. With the long control you have the time to create a canvass. Returning again to musical analogies – propose to a composer that he composes a symphony with only one part. Or an allegro, or an adagio. You do also get some good games in blitz, and rapid, but there’s something you often see during a game: an interesting position has arisen and there’s such an option, but there’s no time to bring it to life.

You’re a creative chess player who tries to take a non-standard approach to the resolution of complex positional tasks even, it seems, in well-known positions (your game with the World Champion alone speaks to that). But here’s the thing: the computer has now already studied many opening tabiyas in such depth that, perhaps, the moment really has come to switch to Fischer Random Chess?

I’ve already on many occasions declared my love for Fischer Random Chess. I hope there will still be tournaments and people will value that variation of the Game as I do.

In principle, though, we’re currently playing something akin to Fischer Random Chess thanks to Magnus Carlsen, who brought a lot that’s new with his approach. Above all, he managed to minimise the role played by the opening. It’s the Petrosian-Fischer approach – let’s manoeuvre and see who turns out to be the best. Carlsen has changed modern chess and the majority of players now seek ways to get off the beaten path as soon as possible in the opening, to get a non-standard position. That’s prolonging the era of classical chess.

Talking about interest in classical chess – what’s your view, as a participant in the Grand Prix tournaments and the last Candidates Tournaments, on the policy of the company Agon to declare a ban on broadcasting the events they organise?

It’s hard to say… After all, in the majority of sports the organisers sell the broadcast rights, but it’s a purely legal question. Of course as a chess fan I’m against it, but I can’t evaluate the “business model” and judge the people who are organising something and paying for it with their own money. But if you’re talking about popularising chess, then of course free broadcasts attract a lot of people.

Agon's propaganda seems to work better than their chess promotion - their exclusive right to the video broadcast of their events, as in other sports, has never been questioned. What is a legal issue is whether they can copyright the information "Magnus Carlsen played e4" - in other sport that's not legal, and so far, despite all the money and time wasted on it, Agon have failed to persuade any judge of the contrary | photo: Jose Huwaidi  

What do you think about the modern World Championship system? Isn’t it time to change something?

The system has stood the test of time. I had some suggestions along the lines of the three winners of the Candidates Tournament playing a match-tournament, but of course that’s too messy. I thought differently back then. Now it seems to me that the simpler the system the better. Perhaps, as in tennis, you could unite all the supertournaments in one tour and set, let’s say, a rating with which people would qualify for that tour. For example, 2700. And then the winners would play a qualification match and the winner of that would play the World Champion. Perhaps that would be simpler.  

It’s not worth radically altering the system, though, because it seems to me that the World Championship match is always of interest to the public and has historical value. The qualification however – yes, that could be made simpler. Two qualify from there, three from here, that one doesn’t qualify at all (smiling). I can’t say the system is bad, but it could be improved.

And what about the match being played over 12 games, and in case of a drawn outcome deciding it in rapid? Perhaps classical games could be added?

12 games is a sufficient number for modern chess. Do you recall Capablanca suggested 16 games? In that distant past! Therefore 12, or at most 14 games, is the optimal number. Fewer would be too few. And rapid? In my view that’s totally normal. The Champion has to be decided somehow.

When you’re conducting a mental calculation of variations, what language do you think in?

And you thought he was thinking of chess! Aronian at Altibox Norway Chess 2017 | photo: Lennart Ootes 

I’ve never thought about that. It’s even hard to say. Perhaps some kind of specific chess language exists? But usually I mentally hum something to myself, or sometimes think about something unrelated. Like the majority of players.

Do you have catchy tunes you can’t get out of your head?

That happens as well, but more often some kind of sketch arises from the game. The course of the game recalls either a scene from a movie or some person or even some kind of situation. There are a series of moves and you see something comical in the piece rushing around the board…

Does it disturb you or, on the contrary, help that you’re so popular in your native country? Many players, by the way, haven’t played so successfully at home (again, how can you help but think of Magnus?). How does that go for you?

It seems to me that it helps, having a lot of fans… But sometimes I play badly and I immediately sense it. I sit in some taxi and the driver says: “Listen, if you’re not able then don’t do it! Quit, for god’s sake!” (laughs) But I see that people are genuinely supporting me, rooting for me and trying to help in some way. And that helps! And playing in Armenia… that usually works out for me! I’ve always played well in home tournaments.

Petrosian also once wrote that he had the same attitude to fame as to good candy. If it’s there, it’s good, if not, you can get by without it. Do you share the same position?

Honestly, living without fame wouldn’t be so pleasant (laughs). So if you’ve tasted that “candy” once you want to always have it on hand!

A sincere reply! You’re about to reach another life milestone…

In October I turn 35.

Well, that means you’re approaching your peak, and all that’s left is to wish that you make the maximum impact!

I’ll try!

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