Interviews Aug 3, 2016 | 8:23 PMby Colin McGourty

Chess legends interviewed in Denmark

In Round 8 of the Xtracon Chess Open Alexei Shirov beat Jan Timman while Boris Gelfand commentated live on the game, as though 25 years of chess history had never happened. Shirov went on to tie for first place with six more players, and while 19-year-old Matthias Bluebaum took the trophy on tiebreaks it was the veterans who stole the show. Simen Agdestein and Julio Granda were among the players interviewed by the organisers, with top seed Granda confessing to never having been a chess fan and finding most elite chess games boring. We have highlights from the interviews.

The Xtracon Open brought together a wealth of famous names | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

As with the Czech Open that ran simultaneously, the interest of the Xtracon Open (previously the Politiken Cup) to non participants was less in the sporting outcome than in who was taking part. We should mention at least one “youngster”, though, since Jon Ludvig Hammer did everything he could to make the event a thriller. In Round 2 he got caught up in a devastating attack but somehow managed not only to survive but win. In Round 5 his luck ran out, when he allowed Jonathan Carlstedt to play 26…Ne4!

The only move to try and avoid material losses is 27.Rc2, but that runs into 27…Rxc1! 28.Rxc1 Rd2+! and the rook and knights will deliver mate. Hammer played 27.Rd3 and resigned a couple of moves later, but didn’t let that setback discourage him as we went on a four-game winning streak. 

So near yet so far for Jon Ludvig Hammer | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

In the last game, as the last of the top players to finish, the way he pressed against Jean-Marc Degraeve would have made his boss Magnus Carlsen proud… up to a point!

Here he played the super-subtle 44…Bc7?, when with 45.Nb5! White had not only won a tempo to bring his knight back to stop the black pawns, but could also use the h-pawn to seal the draw later in the game. Instead it seems 44…Bxh4! was the path to untold riches. Hammer finished 6th:

You can play through all the games here:

And the standings at the top looked as follows:

Rk.SNoNameFEDRtgPts. TB1  TB2 
110GMBluebaum Matthias26188,055,552,75
23GMShirov Alexei26748,055,053,50
35GMAmin Bassem26548,055,052,75
429IMCarlstedt Jonathan24578,052,049,50
514GMMarin Mihail25768,050,550,00
66GMHammer Jon Ludvig26528,050,547,25
713GMDegraeve Jean-Marc25798,050,048,75
84GMDreev Aleksey26647,555,549,00
99GMMaze Sebastien26287,554,549,75
1016GMTimman Jan H25597,554,549,00
1124GMRasmussen Allan Stig25047,554,548,75
128GMNaroditsky Daniel26347,554,548,25
1311GMAgdestein Simen26037,553,547,25
1418GMBurmakin Vladimir25497,553,046,75
1527GMRingoir Tanguy24747,552,546,75
162GMFressinet Laurent26777,552,046,25
1712GMVorobiov Evgeny E.25847,552,046,00
1819IMSvane Rasmus25497,552,045,75
1920GMAndersen Mads25257,551,044,50
2025IMLeenhouts Koen24917,550,545,25
2150FMMcPhillips Joseph23417,548,042,50
2222IMDelorme Axel25147,547,538,75

Xtracon 2016 winners Bassem Amin (3rd), Matthias Bluebaum (1st) and Alexei Shirov (2nd) | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

Prodigy Veteran watch

Let’s switch to the stars of this report, though, with a quick summary of how the veterans got on. Ok, 44-year-old Alexei Shirov doesn’t quite fit that billing, but the Latvian star hasn’t featured in supertournaments for some time now. He owed his second place to a victory over 64-year-old Jan Timman:

22.c5!! ended the game on the spot. That was Jan’s only defeat, as he finished a mere half point back in 10th place.

Top seed Julio Granda took on the youngsters on the football field as well | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

Mihail Marin (51) and Jean-Marc Degraeve (45) finished in the tie for first, Aleksey Dreev (47) and Simen Agdestein (49) were among the players on 7.5/8, while top seed Julio Granda (49) finished another half point back in 25th place after losing to Marin in the final round. It was a second disappointing result in a row for Granda, who had reached a live rating of 2699 before he played the Benasque Open earlier in July. All he needed was to win an easy first round clash to claim a single rating point and hit 2700... but alas, his opponent didn’t show up at the board and although he got a forfeit win he never reached 2700. It was all downhill from there, with a shocking 20-move loss to Veselin Topalov’s manager Silvio Danailov in Round 9 followed by another defeat to an IM in the final round and the loss of 26 Elo points for the event. Another 14 slipped away in Elsinore.

The one player we haven’t mentioned yet is 48-year-old Boris Gelfand, who didn’t play in the main event as he was mainly there to promote his new book. He did show up at the chessboard for the blitz tournament, though, scoring 15 wins and 1 draw in two qualifying tournaments, then winning the semifinal 2:0 against Daniel Naroditsky and the final by the same scoreline against Swedish IM Christian Jepson. You couldn’t say Jepson didn’t deserve to make it to the final, though: he was the one player who managed a draw against Gelfand!

So then, let’s get to the five interviews, which were conducted by Tom Skovgaard and shared the same themes. You can watch them below, or scroll down to read some highlights:

Note Boris also gave a 2-hour lecture, which you can watch here. No time to watch all the videos? Check out some excerpts:

Playing style


I never thought about developing my style. My aim was always to play the best chess I can. I just thought that if a player wants to play a good game of chess he cannot avoid complications, because if you start avoiding complications on purpose it means you’re doing something wrong and your opponent can use it in some way.

But you like complications?

I couldn’t say I like them so much. If I feel I have things under control then of course I like complicated positions. If I feel that I see more than my opponent sees, then it’s ok, but it’s not always the case. The other thing is that I don’t think about making a draw out of the opening. For example, I never offer a draw to my opponent… When the Sofia Rules appeared I thought, “I’ve played under those rules all my life”, so I wasn’t bothered about it.


You’re a player who’s known for playing by natural talent, not learning a lot of theory and playing by intuition alone.

You’re right, but because of computers the level of chess has risen too much - too much information. It’s getting harder and harder, especially for me, because I got used to making a living from playing chess – too much pressure, because you have to earn… That’s why I try to play something different, but it requires a lot of energy, inspiration. It’s difficult to play all the time that way. That’s my problem. Sometimes I play dubious openings. I can play in a classical way but… I get bored!

Which players impressed them


I’m still very impressed by Kramnik – the way he plays. Of course Kasparov and Karpov. I learned a lot from both Kasparov and Karpov.


I was witnessing the development of Magnus Carlsen, so it’s an easy answer. The first time we played was in Drammen in 2004, so he was 14 – he beat me in a complicated game. That was the only game I lost in the tournament. [I could see he had] very strong calculation skills and very strong play in complicated positions, and he also became famous for his endgame technique. I realised that his strength is that he’s just able to play any kind of position. That’s why he’s so strong and wins so many positions.

This was a feeling the whole chess elite would soon get to know! | photo: ChessBase

Kasparov – his preparation. You get kind of out of the opening, or that’s what you think, but in fact he’s still in his opening book and he simply makes three or four moves that he at least thought about before the game, and when you already have to find your way on the board in that case he had a big advantage over his opponent. Now it would be very difficult for him to have the same advantage over his opponent, so he stopped playing chess at the right moment!


I played some top players, but only four of them really impressed me. Kasparov, Karpov (not now, before!), Ivanchuk and Anand. Only four. When I played against them I felt something special.

Kasparov I played when he was the strongest player in the world. He had almost everything - deep preparation, good attitude, a good fighter, everything. That’s why he was maybe the strongest of all time. Twenty years being number one is almost impossible.


A lot! Kasparov, Karpov, Kramnik, Anand, Ivanchuk and Carlsen.

How the computer has changed chess


I like the computer very much when I make endgame studies, though I think that it’s a pity, because the real interest, the adventure in chess, has faded a bit. That is the problem with the computer. There are no real surprises. If some hidden combination was found in the past it was some sensation, but now it’s just anybody can see it with his computer. It’s a pity.

On the other hand, I think it’s quite good for chess that the computer is so powerful. You see new, hidden ways to understand chess, to understand endgames, to understand middlegames. I always learn.

You look at what a computer has to say about a certain game and you think, well, this is just very unusual, and then one has to find the idea behind it. I find this very intriguing. I’ve been playing chess for such a long time and we had our own guides, the guidelines of Botvinnik, Capablanca, Alekhine. Later on we had Spassky, Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, of course, but now we have the computer, and it’s different. You have to live with it – it’s like that.

Without the computer I couldn’t maintain my high level – this is clear. I need it also for preparation, but not only that, also for understanding.

Jan Timman: "Without the computer I couldn't maintain my high level" | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival


When I don’t have so much time before a game I prefer just to study some games from the database to see human ideas in the position and just think over them.

Will computers kill chess?

In a certain way they already killed chess because, for example, the tournament we play here cannot in a way even be considered like an official sporting event. It’s more like a social event, because to make a tournament like this you need to make some anti-cheating measures, but in fact there are none. Fortunately there’s every reason to trust everybody…


Nowadays it’s almost impossible to create something new because of the computer.


Basically it changed the game just at the very top level. If you go to club level it changed very little. The only problem with computers is that some opening lines are so deeply analysed it’s impossible to play them. Other than at the top level it doesn’t affect much. It’s a very rich game with a lot of possibilities.

Best chess memories


Mostly tournament victories. I have enjoyed tournament victories more than match victories, even though the matches often meant more.


I think when I qualified for the final against Anand in New Delhi. Ok, I lost that final in Tehran, but still, to get to the final was a great achievement for me - something that will stay with me for all times. I also have special memories of Sofia 2009, when Magnus Carlsen was already not that young anymore and I managed to beat him in the last round and win the tournament. That’s probably the highest point of my career. In 2010 I also won a strong tournament in Shanghai. That was like my last big victory but the highest point was still Sofia.


To tell you the truth, I’m not a real chess fan. It’s a pity, because I knew how to play chess when I was five years old - my father taught me. In fact, he taught my brothers, but I learned at the same time. After that I began playing some local tournaments, then some national tournaments, international tournaments. I did relatively well. It helped just to continue chess, but in fact I didn’t want to be a professional chess player. Of course, I like playing chess, but to get better you need a deep passion.

Julio Granda: "I didn't want to be a professional chess player" | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

Gelfand, on losing the 2012 World Championship match in a rapid tiebreak:

It came to a point when it was a matter of destiny already. It had nothing to do with chess. Some people are destined to win…


Magnus becoming World Champion… I can’t remember anything particular for myself - nothing that I’m particularly proud of.

The future of chess


I think the best would probably be to have a Candidates Tournament with the World Champion, and the first two play a match for the World Championship.


My opinion is that chess as a sporting game should be rapid, because then at least nobody can go to the bathroom and look at his device. The only way to cheat is to have a device in your ear, but then if you get caught you can just easily be forfeited for life.

The other reason I believe it’s more interesting to have rapid tournaments. I’m not sure whether it’s so good that you have the opportunity to prepare for a concrete game. For me I feel a bit uneasy that – imagine, I’m playing a weaker player but he has time to prepare for me before the game. So he looks at all of my games, all of the lines with the computer, and then I have to start thinking which line he hasn’t prepared, because otherwise I’m playing against a computer, not against a person. You can risk a little bit more in rapid chess.


Maybe a shorter control would be a different approach, to make chess more exciting. You can watch games at the top level and most of them are very boring – maybe more than 50% of the games are boring. It’s a bit difficult to change, because chess has a long history, and even though there is that information and deep preparation there is still a World Champion. Of course I would like to play different chess, for example Fischer Random… I like it very much, but it’s not popular enough.


It’s a completely different sport than what it was when I was young. Maybe they’re going back a bit again, because there’s so much to learn, it’s impossible to know it all… I’m really impressed by Granda Zuniga, who knows absolutely nothing, I think, and is still at that level. Chess is still a sport when you come out of the theory.

Their chess in Denmark and future plans


Maybe I became a little bit lazy, because I had to work a lot at the times when I was among the world’s strongest players, but now I’m still kind of taking my holidays, but it’s time maybe to finish these holidays and start playing serious chess again!


All is fine, except for the chess! I play worse and worse and I have no ambition… I should be here as a coach, not as a player.

Agdestein: "All is fine, except for the chess..." | photo: Copenhagen Chess Festival

Gelfand, on keeping playing into his 70s like Korchnoi:

I aspire to it, but it depends not only on me but how much energy I have. I’ll try my best - it’s my hope!


Something strange happened, because I was playing not at a great level, but still chess, and I didn’t lose for maybe close to 80 games, and before coming here I played another tournament in Spain and something went wrong - I don’t know why. Somehow I started to play really bad, and I lost a game, many… I don’t know how to find my way. You can’t always play at your best, but to play much weaker…

You’ll keep playing?

I don’t know. I don’t really know. I’m not feeling well.

Fortunately, it seems, Julio Granda isn’t ready to return to his other career as a farmer just yet, since he’s the top seed in the Andorra Open that started today! 

Who said chess is a young man's game?

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