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Interviews Feb 2, 2015 | 12:30 PMby Colin McGourty

Aronian: “Magnus’ main secret is his composure”

Levon Aronian has the white pieces against Magnus Carlsen in Round 1 of the GRENKE Chess Classic today and will be looking to improve on his minus 7 score against the World Champion. In an interview late last year Aronian talked about Carlsen, while also touching on a wide range of subjects including the influence of computers on the game, his ideal World Championship system and why we haven’t seen new Polgar sisters.

A full-page portrait of Levon Aronian at the TASHIR Chess Tournament | photo: Evgeny Pakhol, Bolshoi Sport

The interview took place during the TASHIR Chess Tournament held in November last year in memory of the Armenian World Champion Tigran Petrosian. Aronian, the current Armenian no. 1, finished third behind Alexander Grischuk and Vladimir Kramnik after one win and six draws. Andrei Supranovich asked the questions for the December issue of the monthly Russian magazine Bolshoi Sport. A few responses have been left out below as they referred to events that have already happened, such as the Aronian-Nakamura match in St. Louis.

The tournament was dedicated to the memory of Tigran Petrosian. What’s your relationship to the master? Who was he for you when you were growing up?

You know, sometimes you watch a performance, in whatever sport, and you see a player who’s strange and awkward, but nevertheless succeeds. For example, a short basketball player or, on the contrary, a very tall hockey player. It’s the same with Tigran Vartanovich. He’s an “offbeat” player. I’m sure people will agree with me that he’s the most mysterious chess player of all time. Petrosian is an icon. In your childhood you simply worship him, but then, when you start to grasp more about chess, you realise that it’s impossible to imitate Tigran Vartanovich. It’s like trying to draw like Modigliani. It’s just not going to work out.

So whose games did you grow up with as a player? Alekhine’s?

Levon on the big screen at the TASHIR Chess tournament | photo: Boris Dolmatovsky, official website

Yes, of course. Also, if we’re talking about the great, then I always loved to observe Kasparov’s games. He’s a wonderful strategist and tactician but, which is more important, he’s easy and interesting to watch both when you’re a strong player and a beginner. Garry Kimovich’s play is very direct.

In recent years Kasparov and his eternal rival Anatoly Karpov have moved into politics. Do you follow their activity?

It’s somewhat hard to follow. In chess we’re used to looking at games and evaluating a player’s motives. In politics, though, it’s often not clear what motivates this or that person, what his decisions are based on. So I still prefer to look at the great games of Kasparov and Karpov rather than their political careers. If their new activity was connected to culture or literature – things close to me – then I’d love to follow them.

How do you explain the phenomenon of the Armenian school of chess? How, in such a small country, did you manage to build a team which won three of the last five Chess Olympiads?

First of all – tradition, since after all we had Petrosian. The second reason is on a geopolitical level. The best coaches were Armenians living in Baku, but after what happened they returned to their homeland, where they began to bring up the new generation. My coach also came from Azerbaijan.

Recently you declared you were ready to travel to Baku for the World Cup. Was it easy to decide on such a step?

Yes, that’s my wish. You can’t just always ignore the tournaments of our neighbours. However, I’m yet to sign any contracts, so it’s not clear if my wish will become a reality.

Going back to the Olympiad. In Tromsø in August you only took eighth place. Did something go wrong for your team?

Our poor play in Norway was only a continuation of a series of failures for our team, starting at the European and World Championships. Our problem is that not all of the players are 100% prepared. Chess is a very demanding and tough sport. You can never let your level slip.

And what didn’t work out for the Russian team, which despite having an excellent selection of players also didn’t make it onto the podium?

Aronian enters the Tata Steel Chess playing hall in Wijk aan Zee | photo: Alina l'Ami, Tata Steel Chess Facebook

Due to chess databases and computer engines even non-elite chess players can draw with White against a very strong player. Average teams have begun to play extremely well, and against the likes of Bangladesh problems constantly arise. Breaking through the defence with Black is extremely tough. Previously, you went into a game knowing you had a repertoire which would ensure you an advantage, but now you have to compete with opponents under equal opening conditions. All professional chess players, though, spend 90% of their time on openings, so you can imagine the extent to which strength has evened out. In such situations you have to take risks in order to win, but at times risks lead to defeat. And if you lose with White then it’s all down the drain – the match is lost. That’s what happened to the Russian team.

So it turns out that in the “computer era” psychology rather than preparation comes to the fore?

Of course its role has risen a lot. How was it before? Kasparov knew the openings much better than the rest since he worked on them as if it was hard labour and was head and shoulders above the rest. Now the leaders are those who are stronger in spirit.

Michel Platini is constantly trying to introduce changes to the rules in order make football more entertaining. Perhaps something similar should be done in order to return chess to its previous popularity?

I think it’s very useful to explain to people the beauty of chess. I do that with my friends: I sit them down at a table for an hour or two and show studies that lead to an understanding of the charm of our sport. Chess can be compared to classical music, which you can’t change but can learn to listen to. Take, for example, Bernstein’s program of classical music for children. It’s breathtaking how he explains Mahler and of enormous interest for everyone! The same needs to be done for children with chess – before you learn and grasp what it’s about it’s going to seem like the most boring thing in the world.

There’s been an awful lot of debate about how you determine the World Chess Champion. What do you think about the current format for finding the strongest player?

To be honest, I think the tennis system with something like the ATP ratings is ideal, with the number one declared at the end of the year. In chess, though, it’s hard to create that since the system of inviting players to tournaments isn’t transparent. That’s the fault both of personal relations between the players and hidden fees. If a corporate sponsor appeared who could bring stability… However, I also like the current system, while there are others I don’t like.

What’s behind the phenomenon of Magnus Carlsen, who seized the chess crown?

Carlsen beat Aronian in the Rotterdam round of this year's Tata Steel Chess Tournament, after beating another GRENKE Chess Classic opponent Fabiano Caruana the day before | photo: Zhaoqin Peng, official website

I’d say it’s all about his incredible calm and nerves which, strangely enough, failed him at times in the recent World Championship match. But overall Magnus’ main secret is his composure and the absence of any soul-searching after mistakes during a game. At times, after all, you blunder and then hate yourself, saying: “You should be ashamed of yourself – children are watching”. But Carlsen doesn’t have that. He fights to the end, even if he’s playing badly.

Should we expect new names in the coming years? Who can emerge?

If you look at the FIDE rating list you realise that big changes occur there once every 5-7 years. It’s unlikely someone is capable of emerging from nowhere.

And when can we expect a new Judit Polgar?

I’m absolutely sure that girls are capable of playing no worse than men. If you compete against candidate masters then you’ll always be a candidate master, but if you go up against grandmasters then you’ve got a chance of developing. If from childhood on girls played in the same group as boys we’d long since have had new Polgar sisters.

You said that ideally you try to devote about five hours to chess and two to sport each day. Do you manage?

Here, at the tournament, I went skipping in the gym before the games. I’ve really loved that since I did boxing.

And how do you prepare for the tournament? Did you analyse all the opponents you were going to have to play against?

No, I try to do what you might call all-round work. I went dancing, boxing a couple of times and I played chess with my Yerevan friends.

You’re not annoyed by spectators during matches? They “interfere with the thinking” of many players.

For me they’re a blessing since that means chess is still alive and of interest to someone – that there are people with sufficient intellect to appreciate what we’re doing. Their presence doesn’t bother me at all. In my homeland playing halls are always packed with people during matches, and that’s wonderful. I never thought that people in Armenia loved chess so much.

Do you have favourite opponents?

I’d name Carlsen and Volodya Kramnik. They’re the most complex to play against, but I’m drawn to complexity. I also love to compete with Borya Gelfand. We’ve long been friends, but we constantly end up with bloody battles. Afterwards we make fun of each other – where would we be without that?

Full interview at Bolshoi Sport (in Russian)

So how will today's encounter go? Watch Aronian-Carlsen from 15:00 CET with live commentary by GMs Jan Gustafsson and Nigel Short right here on chess24!

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