General May 19, 2020 | 8:34 AMby FM Andrey Terekhov

Daniil Dubov: From Russia with Ideas

24-year-old Daniil Dubov is a player whose impact on chess is greater than his career results so far. Magnus Carlsen brought the Russian onto his World Championship team and credits him for many of his boldest opening experiments. Dubov is no slouch at the board either, however, as he showed by winning the 2018 World Rapid Championship. He also beat Magnus in the recent Steinitz Memorial and will be hoping for more of the same in the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge. FM Andrey Terekhov looks at Dubov's career as part of the #HeritageChess campaign.

Daniil Dubov | photo: Niki Riga

Daniil Dubov was born in Moscow on 18 April 1996 and grew up in a chess family. His father, Dmitry Dubov, was a candidate master, and his grandfather, Eduard Dubov, was a famous chess arbiter and later a president of the Moscow Chess Federation.

Daniil learned chess at the age of 6 and joined a local chess club, where he met his first coach, Mikhail Ryvkin. Later he started working with IM Vasilij Gagarin. Before the beginning of this tournament, I had an opportunity to interview Daniil Dubov by email, in which Daniil shared that his partnership with Gagarin continues to this day:

Vasilij Gagarin is still my very close friend and sometimes he helps me as a second, which obviously means he's a very important person for me and my whole life. He has definitely influenced me a lot as a person – including improving my English, by the way.

As Dubov’s results improved, he also started to study with GM Sergey Dolmatov and then with GM Sergey Shipov. Dubov also worked with Alexander Morozevich (Dubov fondly remembers their endless blitz matches with tea breaks, which could run up to 24 hours) and later also with Boris Gelfand – an impressive list of chess coaches and partners that helped Dubov to shape his own, inimitable style. I asked Dubov who has influenced him the most as he was developing his style, and he replied:

Well, it's a tricky question. I have no idea who of them has influenced me most chess-wise, but it was very interesting to work with all of them for sure... I guess it was very inspiring to realize that chess is actually a very complex game and there are many ways to play it. Sasha [Morozevich] and Boris [Gelfand] are completely different persons with different opinions on many things, they have completely different approaches for chess, but they are both great players! That was a moment when I realized that I actually don't need to play like somebody to become a better player but I just need to improve playing and preparing the way I like.

In a recent interview for chess24 Dubov also said that he considers himself to be one of the last products of the Soviet Chess School, as he grew up learning from the players of that era. They taught Dubov to read chess books and think for himself instead of relying only on chess databases and engines.

It also helped that Dubov was growing up in the epicenter of Russian chess life, and came from a chess family. In an interview published in “New in Chess” in 2019 Dubov reflects on how it helped him grow:

I probably don’t know all the details, but grandfather clearly stood behind many opportunities I was given. I have no illusions about me being a self-made man. There were people with better conditions, of course, but mine were well above average, and everything has worked out well.

It’s interesting that our generation [those born in mid-1990s] was very strong. Suffice it to say I did not win a single Russian Junior Championship! There was Arseny Shurunov, who won a European Championship and two or three Russian Championships. I had “-3” or “-4” against him, with only one win. However, he was from Chelyabinsk, and they did not have enough chess action there, so I don’t even know if he is still playing, and he clearly did not become a chess pro. There is Darsen Sanzhaev from Elista, who also won several Russian Championship and was beating me badly. Something did not work out with him either. I could go on and on, a very strong generation indeed! Neither I nor Vladimir Fedoseev could really compete with these people, but we were lucky to live in Moscow and St. Petersburg, so our development has never completely stopped. My point is, there were many equally or more talented people, who just did not get sufficient support. I was getting most of it from my family, and for this I cannot be more grateful.

At the same time, Dubov’s father had serious misgivings about the viability of chess as a profession, and thus set some targets for his son. If Daniil would not achieve a given rating in time, or if he would not earn a master title by a certain age, then maybe chess was not the right career for him. However, Dubov beat the expectations by becoming a grandmaster at 14 years old, which quelled all concerns.

In 2009 Dubov won the “Young Stars of the World” tournament, which is organized annually in the small Russian town of Kirishi and that has previously been won by the likes of Nepomniachtchi and Karjakin. For a few years Dubov played in junior championships at a national and European level, but he quickly “graduated” to adult competitions. Here are some of his key successes to-date:

  • In 2012 the 16-year-old Dubov finished second in the Russian Higher League and qualified for his first Russian Superfinal, in which he scored a solid 4 out of 9, losing only one game.
  • In 2015 he shared 1st/2nd place in the Aeroflot Open with Ian Nepomniachtchi (the tie-break – the number of games with Black – worked in favor of Nepomniachtchi).
  • In 2016 Dubov won the bronze medal in the World Blitz Championship, confirming his enormous strength in quick time controls.
  • In 2017 Dubov added another bronze medal to his collection, this time in the Russian Superfinal.
  • In 2018 he worked as a second with Magnus Carlsen. This work certainly paid off for both sides as at the end of the year Dubov won the World Rapid Championship! 

Daniil Dubov interviewed after becoming the World Rapid Champion in 2018 | photo: Lennart Ootes, official website

In January 2020 Dubov made his first appearance in the main tournament of Wijk aan Zee and delivered a strong performance, scoring 7 out of 13 and finishing in shared 4th/5th place.

In an interview for “New in Chess” after the tournament Dubov mentioned that in April 2020 he was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro together with his second, Alexander Riazantsev, who is an experienced mountaineer. However, a week before they were supposed to depart on that trip, the tour was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Instead of Kilimanjaro, Dubov went to Yekaterinburg to comment on the Candidates Tournament. In fact, Dubov is still in Yekaterinburg – after the end of the Candidates he decided that the situation with the coronavirus there is less dramatic than at home in Moscow.

Just prior to this tournament Dubov successfully played in FIDE Online Steinitz Memorial. He defeated Magnus Carlsen in their first game and actually led the tournament after the first two days, but in the end he could not quite keep up with the World Champion. However, finishing second in such a strong field is undoubtedly a big achievement for Dubov.

“Play like Dubov”

For the past few years Dubov’s rating in classical chess has hovered around 2700 – a mark that he already crossed a few times. His classical rating is the lowest in this tournament, but in rapid he is at least equal to the competition. As a former World Rapid Champion, Dubov certainly commands respect, so none of his opponents are going to underestimate him.

Daniil was unbeaten in 15 games in the 2018 World Rapid Championship

I asked Dubov whether there is something about rapid and blitz that suits him better than the longer time controls, and received an insightful reply:

I like all the games, but classical chess definitely matters more for me. I don't think I'm that much better as a rapid or blitz player, it's just that classical chess is much more about the experience of playing the very best, while blitz and rapid just require a good intuition and calculation.

I think it's very natural that many strong players started to perform incredibly well in rapid and blitz earlier than in classical chess. And it's not only about guys like Alireza or Hikaru but even Magnus has won the World Blitz Championship before he became the World Champion in classical chess.

It's still a long way to go for me to become one of the best in classical chess but I really feel like I'm capable of making it. I actually don't think you can be strong in rapid and blitz being a weak chess player in general, classical chess just takes much more time, work and many other things.

Dubov is a “lefty”, both in life (he is literally left-handed) and in chess. His playing style has changed over the years, but it has always been special. Ten years ago, his coach GM Sergey Shipov compared Dubov’s playing style to that of Petrosian. Today Dubov plays a different kind of chess – aggressive but still unconventional. I asked Dubov if he transformed his style consciously, or if this sharpness has always been there:

I actually tend to think that [the sharpness] was always there but at some point I worked with a few coaches (including Shipov) who preferred a more solid style of play and tried to make me play that way. Shipov kind of succeeded in those terms, although I was still playing the Rauzer as my main opening as Black. Still, it's kind of weird to look at my normal +1=8-0 results of 2011-2014.

Few players can get away with the kind of attacking, almost reckless chess that is Dubov’s trademark today. His games are never boring, so I would not be surprised if in the next few years the phrase “played like Dubov” enters the chess lexicon, just like people have been saying “played like Tal” for the last 60 years!

Thanks to this attractive style, Dubov’s games regularly appear on the pages of chess magazines, even when he does not finish at the top of the tournament standings. Let us look at a few examples:

Dubov – Svane
European Team Championship, Batumi 2019


White has sacrificed a rook, and has just repeated moves with Qh3+ followed by Qh5+, to win some time on the clock.

29.Be6+! Kc6?

A decisive mistake. Black should have eliminated some of the attacking pieces with 29...Qxe6 30.Nxe6 Kxe6, and Black is still fighting. Instead, the black king embarks on a journey, which turns out to be his last one. However, to prove this White had to find a series of only moves. Any mistake would have led to the opposite result!

30.Qf3+ Kb5 31.Bxc4+! Ka5 32.Qd5+ Bc5

32...c5 33.b4+ Ka4 34.Ka2, threatening 35.Qc6 with mate, and now:

a) 34...Bd7 does not help: 35.Qb7 a5 36.Qxb6+–  
b) Black can prevent Qc6+ with 34...Qe8 but then the blow comes from another side: 35.Ne4!+–

33.b4+ Ka4 34.Qg2!

Botvinnik pointed out that long backward moves with the queen are notoriously difficult for humans to see, but it is clearly not a problem for Dubov.

34...Bxb4

I wonder whether after 34...Bf5+ 35.Ka2 Rg6 Dubov would have played another long queen move, 36.Qb7!, or if he would have settled for the longer but more human 36.Bb3+ Kb5 37.a4+ Ka6 (37...Kxb4 38.Qd2#) 38.Bc4+ b5 39.Bc4+ b5 40.Bxb5+ Kb6 41.bxc5+ Qxc5 42.dxc5+ etc.

35.Qc6+ Kxa3

The culmination of White’s attack, which deserves another diagram:


36.Bb3!!

The only winning move – in fact, everything else would lose: For example, 36.Re2? Bd2! 37.Rxd2 Qb4+ 38.Kc2 Bf5+ and suddenly it is Black who is on the offensive.

In the annotations to this game Dubov mentions that he made this move with only 10 seconds left on the clock!

36...Bd7

36...Kxb3 would lead to the same mate as in the game, only one move sooner.

37.Qc1+ Kxb3 38.Qc2+ Ka3 39.Qa2#

A fantastic finale. I highly recommend the readers check Dubov’s annotations to this game in “New in Chess” (#8/2019) and replay the game from the very beginning. The fireworks started on move 8!

For the other notable victory by Dubov I will only give a diagram and one move as a teaser:

Dubov – Giri
FIDE Grand Prix, Moscow 2019


19.0–0–0!

In the annotations to this game Dubov mentions that this move – or rather the whole concept connected with it – proved to be too tempting, which is why he missed a stronger continuation on the previous move. Chess fans should be thankful for that, because it’s not often that we get to see such a beautiful and messy position in a grandmaster game

Dubov is also known as an innovator in the openings. The most recent example is “Dubov’s Tarrasch,” the variation that he introduced into grandmaster practice at the 2019 FIDE Grand Prix in Moscow against Nakamura and defended in several later games. This idea received the seal of approval from Magnus Carlsen, who used it twice at the 2019 World Rapid Championship. Dutch GM Erwin l’Ami has recently published a special course on Dubov’s Tarrasch on Chessable. The theoretical debate in this line continues.

A few days ago Daniil Dubov played a blitz game which showcased all aspects of his talent. It started with an interesting innovation in the opening, led to an unusual position with the initiative, and was capped off by an inspired attack. 

Mamedyarov - Dubov 
FIDE Online Steinitz Memorial 2020

1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c6 4.e3 Nf6 5.Nf3 Nbd7 6.Qc2 

This position has appeared in more than 20,000 games, or at least that's what the database says; it could been played a hundred thousand times in blitz. And yet, none of the black players have ever played the move that Dubov uncorked here!

6...a5!? 


Black is preparing an expansion on the queenside - dxc4, followed by b7–b5–b4 and Bb7. In this context, a7–a5 could be useful. 

Curiously, I found two games in which this position occurred... with Black to move! In both cases it happened through the 4.Qb3 a5!? move order, with White later dropping the queen back to c2.

In the recap of this game for chess24, GM Pascal Charbonneau pointed out that another benefit of 6...a5 is that it prevents White from playing Mamedyarov's favorite pawn thrust, 7.g4. In the main line, 6...Bd6 7.g4, the pawn on g7 is not protected, and 7...Nxg4 8.Rg1 leads to a messy position that suits Mamedyarov's style perfectly.

7.h3 

The immediate g2–g4 does not work, so Mamedyarov decides to prepare it. As we will see, this plan is going to backfire.

If White plays 7.Be2, then Black can reply 7...dxc4 8.Bxc4 b5 and claim that he has won a tempo. It is an open question just how useful a7-a5 is, but grandmasters generally hate to give anything for free. 

In any case, a few rounds later Dubov repeated 6...a5 and Bu Xiangzhi went for this line. The game continued 9.Be2 Bb7 10.0–0 Rc8 11.Rd1 b4 12.Na4 c5 13.dxc5 Be4!? 14.Qc4 Bd5 15.Qf4 Be7 16.b3? Ne4! Suddenly the white queen is in danger, as Black is threatening to trap it with g7–g5, h7–h5 etc. 17.h4 Bf6 18.Rb1 and here Black could have secured advantage with the bold 18...Ndxc5 19.Bb5+ Kf8, or with the simple 18...0–0.

7...Be7 8.g4 dxc4 

It looks like Black has lost the battle for the tempo, but it turns out that the weakening of White's position is more important. 

9.Bxc4 b5 10.Bd3 b4 11.Ne4 Nxe4 12.Bxe4 Bb7 

Suddenly Black is completely developed, while White's dark-squared bishop does not have any prospects, and the white king cannot find anywhere to shelter. This kind of position is very difficult to defend even at a long time control; in blitz it's almost impossible.

13.Nd2 Rc8 14.a3


14...0–0! 

A bold decision. Black gives up a pawn with tempo to complete development. 

The computer insists that 14...Ba6 or 14...h5 are stronger, but after some deliberation, it approves the game move as well. It certainly gets extra points for aesthetic value!

15.Bxh7+ Kh8 16.Be4 Ba6 17.Bd3 Bb7 18.Be4 Nf6 

Bb7–a6–b7 resulted only in a repetition, so Dubov switches to a different plan.

19.0–0?! 

Another step towards the abyss - allowing the b7-bishop to rule the long diagonal unopposed is going to cost White the game. Mamedyarov must have been concerned about 19.Bg2 Ba6, and the exchange of bishops could only happen on Black's terms: 20.Bf1 Bxf1 21.Kxf1 c5 However, that was probably the lesser evil.

19...Nxe4 20.Nxe4 c5!? 

The engines scream for 20...f5, even though it allows 21.Nc5 Bxc5 22.Qxc5 and the bishop on b7 is blocked. It turns out that after 22...Qh4! White's pawns on the kingside fall apart, although there could still be some practical chances after 23.Qe5 fxg4 24.Qg3 Qxg3+ 25.fxg3 Rxf1+ 26.Kxf1 gxh3. In any case, the whole line is too random and unnatural for a blitz game.

21.Nxc5 Bxc5 22.dxc5 f5! 23.axb4 Bf3! 

A classical blocking move. The pawns no longer count - Black is playing for mate!


24.Kh2? 

Trying to prepare for Qh4, but now the decisive blow comes from another angle.

The only way for White to stay in the game was 24.Qc3! fxg4 25.e4! Qh4 26.Qe5! Good luck finding this in a blitz game!

24...Qc7+ 25.Kg1 fxg4 26.hxg4 Qe7 Threatening Qh4–h1# 27.Qg6 Rf6 White resigned. 

A blitz masterpiece by Dubov!

The straight shooter

Dubov stands out in conversations away from the chessboard as well. His views on the pressing topics of the day are not always mainstream but he does not hide behind the standard polite replies, instead preferring to tell things as he sees them.

One of the topics that Dubov is passionate about is fighting against cheating in chess. Five years ago Dubov starred in a video that GM Vlad Tkachiev accompanied by an article How I became a cheater, which was half parody and half an alarm call. At the time it did not create the buzz that its authors were probably expecting. Today, however, it seems only more relevant, as in-person tournaments have disappeared and playing online became the only option.

Dubov also does not shy away from sharing his opinion on politics, whether it’s playing chess in Saudi Arabia, or the status of the Crimean Peninsula. This is highly unusual for a Russian. Most of us are automatically censoring ourselves (it happens almost on a subconscious level), but not Dubov.

I asked Dubov if this openness has ever backfired on him. His reply:

I don't think it has ever been about to become a real problem, but yeah, I think people wanted to sue me after one of my interviews. Still, it didn't go really far, although I wasn't excited about it obviously. In general, there are many upsides and downsides of this approach, but first of all, it just feels natural to say what you think, and secondly, I tend to think it can be even more profitable long-term.

You might agree or disagree with Dubov’s views, but his honesty is certainly admirable.

Future plans

At the end of my email interview, I asked Daniil Dubov to answer a few questions about his plans:

Do you plan to write a book of your best games sometime in the future? (I am sure it would be a hit!)

Well, it feels a bit too early. I think Daniel Naroditsky has written a book about the ending at the age of 12, but I feel not smart enough even being 24.

A few years ago you said in an interview that all chess players can be divided into two categories – those who still dream of becoming a World Champion and those who no longer do. At the age of 24, do you still count yourself in the former category?

Sure! And I don't feel like losing hope before I'm at least 40 after winning the World Rapid :) But indeed, I don't think it makes sense to play chess only to earn money. So I just like playing interesting games and I still feel like I can improve a lot.

What are your targets for the next 2-3 years? (rating, qualifying to the Candidates etc.)

I don't really care about the rating, but it's kind of required to play the super-tournaments. The real goal is getting to the Candidates sooner or later and all the rest of the things are just kind of different sources to get there.



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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