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Interviews Feb 9, 2016 | 3:19 PMby WIM Fiona Steil-Antoni

David Navara: “What helps me is good intuition”

During the last rest day of this year’s Tata Steel Tournament, David Navara sat down with our reporter Fiona Steil-Antoni for a chat about his tournament, chess in general and much more.

I still remember the very first time I met David vividly. It was at the 2000 World Youth Championship in Oropesa — my first participation in such an event. I was representing Luxembourg and our team was being coached by national trainer Vlastimil Jansa. Once we finished our games, we would all meet up in Mr Jansa’s room to analyse. On this particular day, three or four of us had already gathered in his room, with one showing his game and the others waiting for their turn. However, suddenly David showed up and we were all happy to let him quickly go through his game. What happened next blew my mind: David showed his game at a speed I didn’t even think possible and before I came to my senses he had already left. I have since met David in various events all over the world and he never fails to greet me in Luxembourgish or put a smile on my face with his constant friendliness and good mood.

Having a chat with David and Harikrishna, 2015 European Club Cup in Skopje | photo: Maria Emelianova

During the last rest day of this year’s Tata Steel Tournament, David kindly agreed to meet me for a chat about his tournament, chess in general, as well as many other topics.

Fiona Steil-Antoni: Hello David and thank you very much for joining us. First of all, could you please introduce yourself to those people who might not know you so well. Where are you from and when did you start playing chess?

David Navara: I have been living in the Czech Republic all my life and I come from Prague. I’m 30 years old and I started playing chess at the age of six.

You are one of the few players at the very top who went to university. Can you tell us a bit about what you studied and how long for?

I studied logic in Prague. It’s not the most practical subject. It might have helped me a bit to train my brain, but basically it doesn’t have so much in common with chess. It was not easy. I studied six years instead of five, but that is more or less normal in the Czech Republic.

And how did you manage to combine your studies with playing chess at the highest level?

I somehow managed this, but I didn’t have time for anything else, if I exaggerate just a bit.           

Also, a lot of people know you speak a number of languages; how many?

Well I don’t know, it depends what it means to speak some language, but basically around five or six. When I was 15, I spoke just poor English and I knew some basic Russian. So I am very happy that I managed to improve my level. I became very interested in languages and it’s apparent that my English is far from perfect, but I can speak English and Russian fluently, my German, Polish and Spanish are significantly worse but still allow me to communicate somehow and my French is just on a basic level.

I’ve seen you using dictionaries in a few tournaments in the past. When you travel to countries do you try to learn some phrases in advance?

Sometimes I do, but mostly I am so occupied with my preparation that there is not enough time, or rather, not enough energy.

David at the start of Round 9 of the Tata Steel Masters | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

A few words about the tournament here. Ten rounds have been played and you currently have 4.5 points. How satisfied are you with your performance so far?

4.5 is a decent result for me. It could have been slightly better, but it could also have been worse. My objective is to achieve at least 6 points and I hope I will manage that.

You have been involved in many crazy and exciting games. How do you explain that?

I don’t think there were so many of them, but basically I’m trying to play interesting chess, but first of all good chess. I don’t like quick, boring draws, because I esteem the spectators. I think if you want to see some interesting games of mine, I would recommend watching my games from the European Individual Championship 2015 or maybe from Biel.

It’s the third time you participate in the Masters group. How does it feel to play here in Wijk aan Zee?

It’s very nice to be invited to such a prestigious event, but on the other hand it’s a big nervous pressure on me, because I’m not used to playing in such elite tournaments. I’m used to playing in leagues etc. and I’m very nervous (smiles).

How do you deal with that then? How do you relax and what do you do in your spare time here? Also, how do you prepare, is there anyone here helping you with that?

As for relaxing, I’m not very good at it, but recently I have improved because I’m not so young anymore and become tired quicker so I relax passively, but I also do some sport. I’ve been riding a bicycle here three times for example. As for preparation, my coach is grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa from the Czech Republic, but in this tournament I am cooperating with grandmaster Igor Stohl from Slovakia. Also my manager came here for a week to write some reports for his website and to support me, but he is not involved in my chess preparation.

With our common coach (well, former coach in my case) Vlastimil Jansa at the 2015 European Team Chess Championship in Reykjavik | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Yesterday round ten of the tournament was played in Utrecht. How was it for you to play in front of so many people [around 3000 people attended the event on that day]?

Maybe I will disappoint them, but basically I focused on the games and didn’t care about the people who were there. But the museum was very nice and it was also nice that so many people came and that they were interested in our games. It is probably a good idea to play in other cities as well, even though for the players it might be uncomfortable at times.

David was clearly unfazed by the Utrecht craziness | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Thanks. Now on to some questions people sent me on social media. Let’s start with Twitter.

@vinit_vishal: Just ask him how he keeps his calm and ever smiling face after loss. In chess fraternity this behaviour is unique.

You know, if a doctor makes a mistake, a patient might die. If a pilot makes a mistake, he might kill, or indirectly kill, hundreds of people. But if a chess player makes a mistake, he just loses one game and sometimes not even that. So I don’t think chess should be so important. Okay, it’s my profession and I’m trying to do my profession well, but I am not overestimating its significance.

@EchecsBlois: He seems to really love chess; why?

I decided to play chess when I was young and I don’t know, it’s not easy to say why you love a certain person or chess or a certain place. But okay, chess keeps fascinating me from my very childhood and it was my decision to play chess, I was not forced to do it. Of course there are times when I don’t want to play chess and so on, but it’s part of my life and quite an important one.

@fischerandom: Hi & thank you Fiona! David: I wonder which are your favourite chess books? Did you like My 60 Memorable Games by Bobby Fischer?

If I should name three favourite chess books it would be Mister Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual, which is quite a good book and of which I am going to buy a new version in the near future. I also like ‘A Psychological Guide through the Chess Game’ by Czech FIDE Master Jiri Vesely. [Psychologický průvodce šachovou partií in its original title, but sadly the book was never translated to English.] He was an old player, but he was a very talented writer and it made for amusing reading. The third book is Bronstein’s opus on Zurich 1953. I read ‘My 60 Memorable Games’ and I think it’s a good book. The comments are not too long, but relatively exact. There are some inaccuracies, but not many, especially for that time. And Bobby Fischer was a great player for sure.

@dagbruggeman: In your game with Shak you didn't go for 10.cxd4 (occupying the centre: nice!) but chose a complicated line (e5). Why?

Position after 9...exd4

For a computer it looks strange, but basically we both considered 10.cxd4 and didn’t find it so dangerous for Black, but it was in fact. I disliked 10...Nxd4, say 11.e5 Nxf3+, now I considered even 12.Qxf3 Bxa4 13.exd6+ Kf8 dxc7 but it’s fine for Black in more than one way. So White should play 10.cxd4 Nxd4 11.e5 Nxf3+ 12.Nxf3 instead and then I disliked Ne7, thinking that after 13.exd6 cxd6 14.Bxd7 Qxd7 15.Qe2 Bf6 Black just completes his development and equalises. But in fact, instead of 14.Bxd7 White has the strong move 14.Bf4, after which he has a big advantage. Black can improve in different ways, but it’s still favourable for White.

Surrounded by Shakhriyar and David after their Round 10 encounter | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

What you just said reminds me of a question from Michael Healey, who is wondering if you consider calculation to be your greatest strength?

No, I think it’s not. I’m trying to play balanced chess, but I have some drawbacks. If you compare me with players like Shakhriyar, for example, my calculation is not so good and I miscalculate quite often. I calculate quickly and I have a big imagination, but mostly what helps me is good intuition I think. Not always and not in all types of positions, but basically if I achieve some more or less normal position, I can intuitively suggest reasonable moves practically without thinking. I can also calculate, but it’s not my main strength.

@Putuma: If he has any immediate plans to shoot for a stay in the top 10 (where he belongs) and what that entails. If not ask why not.

Well, I would like to get there, but there are about 15 players who have bigger reasons to feel members of the top 10 and I think they are not going to allow me to join them! (laughs) They are just stronger, some of them are more talented, some of them prepare better, some of them are better in practically all respects, so I think it’s not realistic. You know, when I was playing well for 18 consecutive months I reached place 13 or 14 in the world, but then I played badly in one tournament and all the rating went away again. I think it would take too much effort to get into the top 10 and maybe if I were younger and could change something it would make sense, but basically I don’t regret my decisions and I don’t regret having studied at university.

This makes me think, when I was doing commentary on the tournament before coming here to Wijk aan Zee, one comment I often noticed in the chat was people calling you a genius and comparing you with Ivanchuk. What do you think about that? You also had some very big swings here in the tournament, for example when you played a brilliant game against Anish Giri and then lost to Hou Yifan the next day.

Yes, I think the comparison with grandmaster Ivanchuk is quite reasonable, but compared to him I’m a boring person with a limited opening repertoire and a poor level of chess. (laughs) He is just a more talented chess player and a stronger one. When I was playing here for the first time in the B-Group in 2006, someone told me that I am the second Ivanchuk, but then another person replied: “No, he is Navara, he is not Ivanchuk!”. (laughs) My form is not stable because I’m nervous at times and stability was never my forte.

Before the interview started, we talked about Wei Yi, who is making his debut on the top stage here in Wijk aan Zee, and you told me you played in the same team as him in China. What is your impression of Wei Yi?

In fact I played only four rounds in the Chinese league, but he scored superbly there. It was a year ago and he scored 16.5/19, with 12 wins and seven draws against really strong opposition. He could have pushed in the last game as well, but his draw was sufficient for the team’s victory. So he is a very strong player and he can quite convincingly beat weaker players like me (smiles), but at the top level he still needs to gain some experience. So far he has 50%, which is a decent result, but he still needs time to learn how to beat the best players in the world.

Do you think he could be a World Championship challenger in the future someday?

I think he will become World Champion one day, but perhaps Magnus has other plans. (laughs)

Talking of the World Championship, who do you think will win the Candidates Tournament?

It’s very hard to predict and I’m not good at predicting such things! (laughs) I remember the last time I was asked about the World Cup, which was already in progress, I expected that grandmasters Nakamura and Ding Liren would meet in the final, but Ding Liren was eliminated two days later and Hikaru was also eliminated before the interview went to press, so it was quite funny.

Moving on to the last part of this interview, here are some questions from people on Facebook.

David Kjartansson: At what stage of your life did you decide to be humble and genuine and how does it combine with playing at the highest level?

I have quite decent parents and they brought me up this way. I was not always like this, but I think I have been similar to the present stage since I was 12 or 14. It might not be an advantage when it comes to playing at the highest level, but I like to live this way.

Receiving the Vugar Gashimov Award for fair play from Vugar’s brother Sarkhan | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Angelina Kontini: What is chess to you and what do you like most about it?

It would be hard to enumerate everything that chess is for me. I love chess, it’s my favourite game. I can play it at a relatively decent level and it allows me to play games which people can enjoy. I spend quite a lot of time with chess and it’s a big part of my life.

David Haydon: Do you think you have reached your full potential yet?

I think almost nobody reached his or her full potential, because full potential is something you practically cannot reach. Some get closer to it and some further, but basically I cannot complain so much because there are certainly more than 24 more talented people than me and I am about number 25 in the world. Of course I could have gotten higher, but the other people can also say this.  Of course I had some ambitions and I have some ambitions, but I am satisfied with what I achieved in chess.

Hrafn Einarson: Who is your favourite player from the past?

I don’t know, there are many. I am trying to adopt from each player their strengths, but that’s easier said than done. My favourite players might be grandmaster Reti, who was playing for Czechoslovakia, or grandmaster Keres, but it’s hard to say because you didn’t meet those people in person and you would need to know quite a lot to reply to this question. (smiles)

Talking of difficult questions... Albert Pi Pares:  What is your goal in life and what is your favourite book?

I want to live a decent life and behave well to others. Perhaps I would like to find the woman of my dreams and start a family, but I don’t know when exactly and frankly speaking I am not doing much for it because I am just playing chess, writing about chess and so on. (laughs) As for my favourite book, it’s also hard to say. I like some classical novels by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but not the longest ones, because it takes a lot of time to read them. (smiles) I also like the books of Agatha Christie, for example, and some other others, so it’s hard to say which one is my favourite.

Daniel Thomas: Can you recommend any bars or restaurants in Prague?

Sorry, I have to disappoint you, because I don’t live in the city centre and mostly attend restaurants together with other chess players and those restaurants are ones they recommended or ones they prefer, so I’m not particularly experienced in this question.

Omar Salama: What is the best chess country in the world and which country you haven’t been to already would you like to visit?

He would like to hear it’s Iceland (smiles), and indeed Iceland is one of the best chess countries in the world, but I don’t know which one is the best. There are some countries where chess is very popular, for example Iceland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and many others, but it’s hard to enumerate them all, because you always forget about some country. I didn’t want to order them in any way, I just told it in the way it came to my mind, but I’m not going to compare them. As for the second question, I would like to visit several countries, but I’m not a big traveller because I get lost quite often and when not me, then at least my suitcases and so on. I’m quite forgetful and absent-minded. It would be interesting to visit some countries, but I would need some guided excursion on the rest day because otherwise it makes no sense to let me travel. (laughs)

Arne Hessenbruch: Are younger players using computers differently from you?

Of course and I am also different from the older players. When I was young I was also working with a computer, or rather playing with it in my leisure time, but basically computers were quite weak for today’s standards and it didn’t help me much. I believe if I had had guidance of some strong player who could tell me how I should prepare with the computer and how I shouldn’t, it would have helped me a lot, but I’m from a non-chess playing family.

Graeme Kafka: When are you coming back to the Sharks?

I played for Slough Sharks in the 4NCL, which is the British League, and it was nice to play there of course, but then somehow I stopped playing there. As far as I can remember it was because the club lost its main sponsor and it was not primarily my decision.

David at the start of the last round at the Tata Steel Masters | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

Guillaume Lestrelin: How do you work on chess?

It’s a simple question, but the answer will be complicated. I spend quite a lot of time reading chess magazines and chess books, spend a lot of time analysing my games, solving examples and studies, analysing the games of top players and working on openings, of course. But I would recommend to younger players not to focus on the openings too much, because your opening repertoire will never be perfect, it’s simply impossible. You cannot win everything with White and draw or win everything with Black in the long term. (laughs) At elite events I spend most time preparing for the opponents and looking at openings as well, because I cannot dramatically improve my knowledge and understanding of endgames or middle games during a tournament, but it might make a big difference to prepare for a line which might appear on the next day.

Jonathan Dourerassou: Is it true that each time you prepare for an opponent, you try to learn some words in his or her language?

Unfortunately it’s not true. Sometimes I do, but not each time. Frankly speaking, I have some talent for languages, but I started to recognise the talent relatively late. You can hear my English is far from perfect and with other languages it’s even worse. Basically I try to continue learning, but it’s increasingly difficult with age and I understand I cannot learn everything, I understand that it’s impossible. (smiles) I have limited ambitions, but I’m trying to continue learning or at least refresh my knowledge.

Thanks a lot for your time, David! Do you have any message for your fans out there?

I wish you to enjoy chess and thank you for watching/reading this interview!

See also:

Fiona Steil-Antoni

Fiona is currently a contributor for chess24. She started playing chess at age nine, earned the WIM title in 2010 and won a gold medal on board two at the 2006 Olympiad. She has worked as a press officer, commentator or interviewer at the Reykjavik Open, the PokerStars Isle of Man International Tournament, the 2015 European Team Chess Championship, the London Chess Classic and the Qatar Masters Open.

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