Fabiano Caruana, currently world no. 2 on the live rankings list, sat down for this interview with Iranian IM Dorsa Derakhshani after winning his third round game in the 2016 Baku Olympiad. The USA team was ensured of victory, but teammate Hikaru Nakamura was still playing and trying to hold a difficult position against Argentina’s Sandro Mareco. Fabiano discussed what the Olympiad means to him, his experience so far and also more general topics such as the question of what constitutes luck in chess.
Dorsa Derakhshani: How are you settling into Baku?
Fabiano Caruana: How am I settling in? It’s not my first visit, probably my 3rd or 4th time here. I always like being here. It’s a fun and really beautiful city. The thing about this Olympiad is that most of the players are kind of spread out because it’s such a big city, so it’s different from, let’s say, Tromsø, but still, I’m settling in well and having fun. So far I started well - two wins.
What’s the USA team’s goal in Baku?
How good do you think your chances are?
I don’t think we are considered favourites, necessarily, but we are one of the favourites. Our average rating is like 20 points below Russia, but I think in a match between us and Russia our chances are more or less equal, and if everyone’s on form we have very good chances of gaining a medal or winning.
If by any chance USA doesn’t manage to win, who would you like to win?
(Big laugh) Who would I want to win? Interesting. I’ll pick either France or Peru.
How different is it to play the Olympiad for a team with big ambitions rather than playing for Italy?
Yeah, it’s actually more interesting to play for a team like this, because when I was playing for Italy when we were playing top teams like Russia or China it was always more or less decided before the start that we would lose the match. Now it’s a lot more interesting to be on even chances with top teams like that and, you know, not to go in with an already defeated mindset. I mean, I don’t think I ever won on first board against top teams when I was playing for Italy – usually we would just get wiped out 3-1 or 3.5-0.5, and now we have everything to play for, so it’s a lot nicer.
How important is the Olympiad to you as a player?
If I’m on a team that has good chances to win, and now I am, and if we do get a medal and/or win, it is very important to me. I mean winning would be a huge - not only team – success, but also I would consider it a huge personal success that I would be able to be in a team that could win the Olympiad.
How well do you get on with your teammates?
I’m on reasonable terms with everyone. I wouldn’t say I’m close friends with any of the players on the team, but I’m on decent terms with them.
Is it easy to forget about your rivalry for the rest of the year?
My rivalry with the players on the team? Yeah, I would say that Nakamura and Wesley are direct rivals - I mean I play them in lots of tournaments and I’m hoping/trying to beat them - and now I’m hoping that they win their games, so it’s a bit of a change for me, because usually I’m not hoping that other players win games, but here of course I want them, all of us, to win as much as possible.
Have you had a training session together?
No, during the tournament we share ideas but before we didn’t have any team training session.
You said you share ideas, you mean like preparing together?
We don’t really prepare together. We have a coach, Alexander Lenderman, he’ll work with the players, but if someone has an idea which might be useful for another player he will share it.
How important would you say opening choices are?
Very important! Especially at the top level in modern chess it’s no less important than any other aspect of the game. If you get a good position, if you get your idea on the board or your preparation, then it goes a long way towards establishing a good rhythm for the rest of the game, putting yourself in a good mood, putting your opponent on the back foot… it all goes towards playing better. I know for a lot of people, and also for me, if my preparation is successful I might play better in the rest of the game as well.
Something like what is happening right now to Nakamura?
Well, I hope he holds his position. He had a bad - very bad – opening, but he is one of the players who is quite good at defending. He’s a tremendous defender - it’s one of his strongest sides.
How do you work on your openings?
Well, I’m working on finding new ideas all the time, thinking of new stuff to play and a lot of it is just general preparation, like just trying to play new stuff and some of it is specific, like looking at my opponents and trying to find something which is useful against them.
Chessboard or engine?
Most of it is on the computer. Sometimes I use a board, especially if I’m working with someone. If I’m working with someone else we might use the board to play through a position, play a training game, or to see what feels natural, because even if you know what the best move is probably from the computer’s point of view, if you get the position over the board and your opponent makes an unexpected move you have to be able to do it on your own, so it helps to look at it from using your brain not just the engine.
How do you prepare for each game?
I look at my opponent, look at his past games, with the emphasis on his most recent ones, and try to see where I have ideas to use against him. Usually a lot of it is just deciding what to do and not actually doing preparation, because lots of the work is already done and you just have to try to find the weak point in your opponent’s repertoire.
What about your preparation before tournaments?
That’s just very general opening preparation, usually. Just trying to find new ideas and trying to make sure I don’t have any weak holes in my repertoires.
Is Lawrence Trent with you in Baku?
No, he is not here.
You’ve answered some public questions through #AskFabiano. How did you come up with this idea?
I didn’t come up with it. I have people who were giving me advice on social media and it was their idea.
What are your favourite things to do when you’re not playing a tournament?
I like to go out and spend time with friends, sometimes meet new people if I have the chance, but if on my own I’ll usually just listen to music, watch movies, play video games occasionally. But I prefer to spend time out with people not doing anything in particular, it could be having dinner, going for drinks and I like trying new things. If I haven’t tried something before and it seems fun then I’m usually down to try it. I do like doing active things, not necessarily sports, but just active stuff.
Do you also think it’s human nature to party? (Nigel Freeman on the official Baku Olympiad website)
Will you be attending the Bermuda party?
How would you define luck?
It’s quite hard to define it! Let’s say you’re playing an opponent who is 2750. There’s a chance that one day he will play like, let’s say, not 2750 but 2300, 2400 or 2500 – he’ll just have a very bad day. Just a recent example - Nakamura against Ding Liren in the last round of the Sinquefield Cup was just an example of a very strong player having a very bad day, but I think it all balances up. You might have cases where your opponent is playing very poorly, but also cases where your opponent plays just unstoppably and doesn’t give you a chance, or you fall into preparation and lose because your opponent just had a new opening idea. Or the reverse! You win because of your new opening idea. I think in general it balances up, but there are ways to increase your luck just by fighting and never giving up. The more resistance you put up the more chances there are that your opponent will screw up.
In other words, the harder you work the more luck you gain?
I don’t think I would call it luck, but that’s how it might seem to outsiders. For example, how Carlsen often saves bad positions or wins drawish positions because he keeps playing and trying to push and make the most of the result. From the outside it might look like luck, but it’s really more the result of hard work.
Do you have any “dark horses” who you think can surprise everyone?
At the Olympiad?
Let me think… not exactly sure. I can’t think of a country off the top of my head. Well, there are teams that often come up and cause upsets, but you know, I wouldn’t consider a team like the Netherlands a dark horse, necessarily. They have a top player on first board, but they are obviously a bit of an underdog compared to, let’s say, Russia, China or the United States. France, if Maxime is on form. They can be extremely dangerous and some of the players are also dangerous if they are playing well, but I don’t think there will be huge surprises. I don’t know who will be at the top in the end but I don’t think that it’ll be huge surprise.
You’ve managed to be the 3rd highest rated played in chess history at your young age. To what do you owe this success?I think I was having an extremely good period. I won 40 points in one tournament. It could have gone another way - I could have just had a few good tournaments, but all my success was basically concentrated on one tournament and that’s why I (laughs a little) won seven games in a row and my rating went up to 2840… I still wonder why I had that result and some results after it were very good, like the European Club Cup and after the Grand Prix. For some time I was playing extremely strong chess, probably stronger than I deserved (laughs). Maybe I had some luck as well! Because I had the strong period, and for a couple months after that I was struggling. In Wijk aan Zee, Zurich the next year I had like a six-month period where I was struggling to show good results, but for that especially one tournament (Sinquefield Cup 2014) I was unstoppable.
How is it to play the same players over and over again?
It can get boring. That’s why I enjoy the Olympiad - I get to play against new players, new openings, new types of positions, new problems that I have to face. If I play Vishy or Anish, who I’ve played about ten times a year, it can get a little boring.
So you encourage tournaments such as the Qatar Masters?
Yes! They’re attractive to play. I’m going to play the Isle of Man, which is an open tournament with strong players - Nakamura, Wesley So - but I also have the chance to play players I normally wouldn’t have.
Good luck and thank you for your time!
The rest day is the day after the night before… but judging by social media there were plenty of players up bright and early to explore Baku:
For some it’s time to leave Baku!
Congratulations to Veselin Topalov… and also our own Jan Gustafsson, who kicked off his Banter Blitz show earlier from an undisclosed location (“I couldn’t find myself on a map”) by outing himself as the new father of a baby girl.
It’s a day of Banter Blitz here on chess24, with 17-year-old Dutch Champion Jorden van Foreest expected to join the action, though virus problems on his computer may delay that show (update: the viruses won that battle and we'll have to wait), while in the evening Christof (“ChessExplained”) Sielecki will wrap up the day. Check out all the shows (you can watch live or on demand) on our Shows Page.
That’s not all, though, on Thursday at 19:00 CEST we have 7-time Russian Champion Peter Svidler playing just when the last Olympiad games should be wrapping up. As you might have noticed, three of our stars could stake a very good claim to be playing in Baku!
Many of you are no doubt among the 1,371 people to take part in this year’s Fantasy Chess Olympiad. If things aren’t going so well for you (check out the league tables and stats here) there’s a chance to start over in the Week2Sprint Competition. The closing date for entries is 12:00 GMT on Thursday 8th September. Good luck!