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Interviews Jul 8, 2020 | 4:08 AMby Colin McGourty

Daniil Dubov on Carlsen, Kasparov & much more

24-year-old Russian Grandmaster Daniil Dubov has been on fire since chess moved online. He beat Sergey Karjakin, Ding Liren and Hikaru Nakamura in knockout matches to win the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, and has beaten Magnus Carlsen in individual games in 3 consecutive tournaments. In a big new interview he talks in length about Carlsen and Kasparov, why there are only 5-6 players really working the right way to be no. 1, how the likes of Botvinnik and Tal would fare if transported to the present, and much more.

Daniil Dubov at the 2018 Gibraltar Masters | photo: Sophie Triay, official website

Daniil Dubov gave a long interview to Oleg Bogatov of R-Sport after winning the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge, which qualified him for the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour Grand Final. It looked as though he was going to continue that success in the Chessable Masters, when after beating Magnus he was leading the Group A preliminaries with two games to go – but losses to Magnus and Hikaru Nakamura in the last two games saw him knocked out.  

We’ve selected some highlights of the interview below. For the first point Dubov is referring to losing to Ding Liren and Yu Yangyi on the first day of Lindores Abbey, and his general difficulties against Chinese players that he’s talked about in the past:

On Chinese players

They have a strange style, which involves at certain moments having some kind of conscious desire not to make the best moves. Decent moves, but not the best. And it discourages you. But then you make one incorrect move and they punish you for it. For now I’m far from resolving that Chinese problem, although I’ve thought about it a lot. I can even start to write a dissertation about it.

On the significance of winning the Lindores Abbey Rapid Challenge

Of course you can’t compare it to winning the World Rapid Championship, but it’s definitely extremely important for me, since I haven’t won any supertournaments. However, they rarely invite me to them.

On working with Magnus

I think the work brought extra experience, but it didn’t fundamentally alter the balance of power. He was and remains significantly stronger than me. It seems I improved thanks to that time we spent together, but probably he also got better thanks to our work (with a smile).

For both of us it was an advantageous and successful cooperation, but our games continue to go the way they went before. He wins more often, but I can occasionally bite back and manage to win individual games.

On whether Magnus is better than the rest

He is, undoubtedly, number one in the world, by a big margin. I myself consider that if my head is working normally then I can play against anyone on equal terms, apart from Magnus. When he’s showing his best play it really is a special case, even if I’m doing great. But if I’m not at my best when playing a game many people can beat me. At least 200 or so people can beat me on a bad day, and there’s really no need to be Magnus for that.

You can and should beat Magnus, but to do that requires more than for victory over players in the top 5 or top 3.

On how long Magnus will keep his title

Magnus is a special phenomenon in chess. It seems to me that if someone sometime topples him from the throne it’ll be a shock for the chess world. When that will happen, I don’t know, but I think it’s unlikely it will happen for the next two World Championship cycles. At a minimum. 

On Magnus in “real life”

An interesting, intelligent, erudite and very sporty person. Magnus reads a lot of books and is interested in everything going on in the world. And, of course, he’s an incredibly gifted chess player. His other strong sides are will, strong nerves and sporting qualities.

Many have those characteristics, but only Magnus has achieved that success.

It seems to me it would be wrong to think like that. In general, I think that the competition is not so great in chess. If, to put it crudely, you ask me how many people in the world: a) work at least 4-6 hours a day long-term, b) take care of their physical fitness, c) have a strong-willed character, a desire to fight and win, then I’ll surprise you. There are maybe 5-6 people like that in the world – who manage to combine it all. And among those, he’s the best.

Do you count yourself among those people?

I’m trying to somehow join them and meet those criteria.

On Magnus Carlsen’s weak points

His strength is that he doesn’t particularly have any. And therefore he can play in any style, and there’s a certain level below which he never falls. In the short term you absolutely can compete with him – for example, when our brilliant chess player Sasha Grischuk is on his best form and Magnus is at his best, then Sasha can put up a fight and their chances are equal. But when both are in mediocre form Sasha’s chances are small. It’s the same with the others. 

Carlsen is an absolute chess universal. He doesn’t have positions he’s afraid of or plays badly – he’s afraid of absolutely no-one.

If you draw a parallel to football, then Magnus is closer to Cristiano Ronaldo than to Messi, strangely enough. He doesn’t care what people think about him, he just does his job. And the second thing – Ronaldo can also do anything and score any kind of goal. Like Magnus. He has the reputation of being a genius, and that’s how it is…

On why he uses his opening ideas freely in online events

You can try to save things, but in any tournament I always try to go all-out for victory. I know I have many supporters and they want to see interesting play – regardless of whether I win or lose. I genuinely want to fill the chess with unexpected ideas. And if I get into a state where I regret ideas or have too few of them, then I simply decline to take part in a tournament. And I’ll calmly prepare in order to come up with enough new ideas.

On whether that costs him money

I don’t play tournaments for money but in order to show play that’s as interesting as possible, to delight people and achieve good results. To turn up, go through the motions, not show a single idea, finish mid-table and earn some kind of money has never been my goal.

Perhaps I play fewer tournaments than others, but I manage to build up quite a lot of ideas. And the more you have, the less you cherish them. And I can assure the respected experts (who felt he was using up too many opening ideas) that those aren’t the last, I’ve still got quite a lot more. I have an excellent team of like-minded people, above all, that’s Sasha Riazantsev, and our work allows us to find ideas with enviable regularity.  

I play less, I study more, and that’s how I get that effect. And why save ideas? For a tournament that will happen at best in half a year? In that time I’ll have come up with some new ideas. Yes, it really is a tricky process, but that’s exactly the strong side of our team.

On the suggestion that he’s already rapid top 5 and can be classical top 5

Chess is quite a strange sport without clear and understandable metrics. Even if you assume that I’m playing at the level of the top 5, which is far from obvious, then getting into it is a difficult technical task. To pick up rating you have to play in elite tournaments.

In general I don’t assign any significance to rating. For example, the favourite for the first stage of the Grand Prix series was Anish Giri, the world no. 5. I beat him in the first round in Moscow and until the final stage I retained chances of second place, but he was knocked out of all three tournaments in the first round. Then in Wijk aan Zee I finished half a point ahead of him. And, as a result, Giri dropped to 8th, but I still stayed at my 40th, or whatever.

Daniil Dubov at the Riga Grand Prix | photo: Niki Riga

It’s not only about having to play well myself, but that, let’s say, due to historical determinism, different people have different conditions. It’s tougher for a Russian than a European to get into some tournaments, and if you don’t constantly play against chess players in the top 10 or 20, then it’s significantly tougher for you to increase your rating.

In Wijk aan Zee I fought for the top three, finished ahead of Giri, Anand and an array of other grandmasters. But then what? They told me, “thank you for your interesting play”, but for now I’m not invited anywhere. It seems there’s some kind of quota for strong Russian players. Yes, in terms of play I don’t feel that I’m among the top 10, but at the same time I don’t consider myself to be at the level of 40th place.

And you can call players in the top 20 a “travelling circus”, which constantly moves from one tournament to the next. Of course, if you play brilliantly then you’ll make it in, but there’s actually a phenomenon - they play against each other and create a certain vacuum. And it really is hard to break through that shell. I’ll try, but there are factors not only chess-related.

And what’s the point thinking about rating? I know Carlsen plays stronger than I do. As does Caruana. They really have broken far clear of the others in classical chess – not only in terms of rating but strength of play. I’m trying to make progress, and what difference does it make if I’m already 20th or 15th? That’s not the goal – we hope to achieve more. 

On three players he’s based his style on

On no-one. Of course Carlsen is a truly great player, the best in the history of the game. I also really like Mikhail Tal and Garry Kasparov. But there’s a factor – the stronger you play, the deeper you understand the game, the tougher it becomes to have reverence for someone. Of course when I was younger I would name Tal, Boris Spassky and Kasparov.

But all those famous chess players lived in different times and possessed different information. And now I can even say that I understand the game better than Mikhail Botvinnik, but not because I play better than Botvinnik – simply chess has changed and now I have more information than he did. I’ve read books he couldn’t read, seen games he couldn’t see and so on.

And, unquestionably, the average level is rising very fast. If you could take the post-war Botvinnik and bring him to our time and give him three years to adapt then he’d understand the game perfectly. But if you brought him here and explained nothing, then in the best case he’d be an average grandmaster.

You’d go that far?

Yes, I think roughly the same would happen with Mikhail Tal. It’s simply that the times now are different.

And what about Paul Morphy, who played in the mid-19th century?

In terms of talent, Morphy probably enters into the all-time world top three, but I don’t rate players by their talent. The game has developed very noticeably and if you want to seek an ideal for modern chess players then it seems you have to start with Bobby Fischer. Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov…

On comparing his style to footballers/tennis players

It’s difficult to compare with football, as that’s a team game, but if you’re drawing parallels, for example, with tennis, then my favourite player is Stanislas Wawrinka. Our manners of play are very similar. Wawrinka plays very aggressively and if his crazy backhand down the line constantly hits the mark then he beats all the leaders. But if it doesn’t hit, then he’ll be beaten not only by Roger Federer but by another 150 or so people.

On how long he'll keep fighting to be World Champion

As long as it seems to me that I’m making progress and I have chances to become no. 1. And if I realise that’s over, then I won’t fight anymore. I don’t have any time horizon.

I’m simply trying to play better, and then, after the coronavirus, I’ll see what happens with the World Championship match qualification system. Of course I’d like to reach the Candidates Tournament, but for now that’s an abstract goal, just as it’s an abstract goal to become World Champion. 

On whether at 24 he’s at the right age to make a breakthrough

I’ve read many different autobiographies and I think that everything feels differently from the inside. And, in my view, you never know if you’re ripe for a breakthrough or not. Therefore you simply have to do a lot of work, believe in yourself and not look too far ahead.

It seems to me I’m at the age of a veteran. I’m exaggerating, but I find it a little funny to hear when in Russia myself or Vladislav Artemiev are called young chess players. At my age Magnus had already become World Champion in all formats. It’s strange to me that in Russia there’s a tendency to describe as young chess players those who in Europe would already be perceived differently.

Objectively I don’t consider myself a young chess player. In my view, young is a player from 13-16 years old. And that’s it, the period of advances is over and results are expected.

On how he spends his free time

I’m fond of street workout – a movement that involves exercises on horizontal and uneven bars. Some imbecile wrote that I can lift myself 40 times by one hand, but that’s complete nonsense. There’s no-one like that in the world. And it’s not a mistake, it’s clinical idiocy.

I can pull myself up on one hand two to three times, but no more. It’s very tough.

The movement has mass gatherings, where people meet at Vorobyovy Gory (“Sparrow Hills” in Moscow). There are always experienced guys who are happy to meet with new people and teach them something. I like that. You can spend a pleasant time chatting and hanging out. And that’s very good for your well-being. It seems to me that it’s much more beneficial than chess.

On whether he worked with Garry Kasparov

No, never. I know him to say hello to, but no more. Kasparov is a supreme chess player, who was far ahead of his time. And we’re still reaping the fruits of his revolution in the game, which began in the second period of his career – with the advent of computers.

I think there was a period when Garry Kimovich was the only chess player who was actively using a computer for preparation. And that helped him to find a huge number of opening ideas, which he, by the way, didn’t particularly conserve but tried to use.

And that really helped to speed up the progress of chess. If not for Kasparov then nowadays there also wouldn’t be a chess program based on neural networks that has opened our eyes to a lot. You could even say to some basic principles of the game, which before that were unknown.

Kasparov very sharply advanced precisely the quality of play. He was the first, in my view, hyper-dynamic player. And what now seems entirely natural started with him.

If you compare it to boxing, then he’s Mike Tyson. After all, before him there were other heavyweights, but Tyson came along and showed that you can box in an entirely different way. Kasparov demonstrated that you can play much more aggressively and inspired many grandmasters, including me.

Everyone understood that you can play much sharper variations and get better results. After all, that was where Tyson was taking risks – he wasn’t afraid to enter into close combat. And he believed that his speed and technique would help him. Kasparov as well – he carefully analysed everything at home and began to play variations that seemed risky. The principle of “hit or miss”. And all the time he “hit”.

And then it became absolutely normal. Now the world’s leading chess players no longer torment themselves by doubt about this or that variation – is it risky or not? We’ve started to think less in general categories – this is dangerous or this is solid. That’s all gone because of Kasparov.

I’d like in particular to mention his chess books – I read them all many times and continue to read them to this day. For example, his series of books on the World Champions formed almost half of my chess baggage.

On himself, Carlsen and Kasparov compared to composers

I should confess that I’m not so good in classical music. Carlsen is something as cold as possible, no doubt, Johann Sebastian Bach. Kasparov, it seems, is closest of all to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I really like Sergei Prokofiev. No doubt you can find some parallels between him and my play. But to do that you have to try very hard (with a smile).

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