Grandmaster Iossif Dorfman, a former USSR and French Chess Champion, talks to Joachim Iglesias about chess life in the Soviet Union, seconding Garry Kasparov for four World Championship matches, coaching the 9-year-old Etienne Bacrot, new chess talents (he feels Vladislav Artemiev has much more potential than Sergey Karjakin) and his book and now video series, The Method in Chess.
Before we get to the interview, here are some key moments from Iossif’s career:
You can play through all the games mentioned below, with computer analysis, using this selector:
Joachim Iglesias: Hello, Iossif. If you don’t mind, we’ll first take a chronological look at your career as a player, and then coach, before getting to current projects. You were born in 1952 in present-day Ukraine. At what age did you learn to play chess ?
Iossif Dorfman: I vividly remember the day a friend of the family offered to play chess and taught me the rules, but I didn’t really start to play until I was 11, which even at the time was very late.
Like Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, who has a degree in Mathematics, you went to university. Is that a choice you regret? Would you advise promising young players nowadays to do a degree?
I spent five years studying Engineering at the Kiev Polytechnic Institute. You have to understand that at the time becoming a professional player was extremely difficult, since the slots were so scarce. Rafael Vaganian, for example, finished runner-up in the 1975 Soviet Championship without being a professional. In the USSR, the best players had a huge amount of recognition - they were as well-known as cosmonauts and could play in front of halls packed with thousands of spectators. There was very little money, however, and you had to be a little crazy to choose to become a professional. In France there’s no recognition: who knows Maxime, Etienne or Laurent? No-one, or almost no-one. Having said that, nowadays it’s possible to live well from chess in France, but it’s become an altogether different and varied profession. You have to give classes, write books and make videos on the internet as well as playing games. We’re far from the cliché, still in vogue in the 90s, of a chess player who gets up at 2pm in order to play blitz for money in the bars…
On January 1st 1977, Karpov is the World Champion and you’re still only a Soviet Master of Sport, but you’re about to have an incredible year…
I’d already had major successes before that. You need to realise that in that era Master of Sport is like Grandmaster nowadays. To make a norm it was necessary to score +6 in the USSR U27 Championship, which, as you can imagine, was pretty tough. I’d won that tournament with +11, becoming a Master of Sport with 4 rounds to spare.
In 1976 I won the Red Army Championship, which was as strong as the current French Championship.
I then went on to win the Premier League, a qualifier for the USSR Championship final, by 1.5 points. It was almost all grandmasters, such as Tseshkovsky, Sveshnikov, Beliavsky…
In the final of the USSR Championship I won six games, but unfortunately I also lost too many for a place on the podium.
Joachim: Iossif won some fantastic attacking games in the 1976 USSR Championship. I can’t resist sharing the queen sacrifice against Romanishin:
Anatoly Karpov insisted on my selection to represent the Soviet Union in the 1977 European Championship in Moscow. At the time, apart from Timman and Larsen, all the best players in the world were in the Soviet Union, so for a young player still not an International Master to be taken onto the team seemed unthinkable. But I played and made a good contribution to the team becoming European Champions, scoring three wins and three draws.
For the final of the 1977 USSR Championship I’d decided to play more solidly, for example switching from the Sicilian to the Ruy Lopez. With that opening I drew against Balashov and Geller and beat Smyslov and Romanishin. In the end, I didn’t lose any of my 15 games.
Joachim: The endgame against Smyslov was particularly satisfying:
Iossif has just exchanged knights on g5. The a3-pawn will cost White his bishop, but the white kingside pawns look very menacing. Black wins in a study-like manner:
81...Ne4! 82.Kf3 Nc3 83.Bb3 a2 84.Bxa2 Nxa2 85.g6 Nxb4 86.Ke4 Na6! 87.Kf5 Nc7!
The black knight makes a heroic return just in time and Smyslov resigns because 88.Kf6 would be met by 88...Nxd5+.
At that moment, as the reigning USSR Champion, did you dream of becoming World Champion?It’s an excellent question… Everything I’ve done in my life, such as choosing to quit a career as an engineer in order to become a chess professional, I’ve done with a sense of destiny. Perhaps if I’d had the faith, like Joel Lautier, for example… Joel, an excellent player, was very motivated, very determined, he’d set a goal: to become World Champion. Perhaps if I’d had that faith, that capacity to set a clear goal and do everything to reach it, then I might not have succeeded, but I would probably have been a threat. But I never believed that was my destiny, and I started coaching very early.
In 1984, Kasparov, then 21 years old, made use of your services for his first World Championship match against Karpov. Your collaboration would last for four World Championships. What was it like?
I started coaching at 27 years old, as a second of Beliavsky. Then I worked with Polugaevsky during his match against Korchnoi, and with Tigran Petrosian, who is, you could say, one of my idols. I also took charge of the Ukrainian Junior Teams. So in 1984, when Kasparov asked me to join his team, I was already an experienced coach. Our team was composed of three grandmasters: Gennadi Timoshchenko, Evgeny Vladimirov and myself, and also one IM, Alexander Nikitin. Alexander Shakarov took care of our filing: since there were no computers he put our preparation onto punch cards that were very carefully sorted! Karpov had a team of 24(!) players at his disposal, including the likes of Geller and Polugaevsky…
We organised 24-day camps that were very intense. We did nothing other than chess, with the exception of a few breaks for sport or walks. At the end of each day we reported back to Garry on what we’d worked on. He didn’t accept the evaluation “∞” (unclear). If someone came up with a line that ended with “∞” he would reject it and say, “why are you giving me that, what do you want me to do with that?”
Joachim: this anecdote was confirmed to me by Laurent Fressinet. At the start of his collaboration with Vladimir Kramnik, Laurent gave a variation that was evaluated as unclear. Kramnik told him back then: “Kasparov said that if your variation ends with “unclear” it means you haven’t done enough work. And you know what? I think he was right.”
Obviously most of our work was on the opening. I have a story on that topic. For the famous 16th game of the 1985 match we had everything prepared until after 21…g5!, which wins for Black. I was watching the game live from the press room with Maia Chiburdanidze, who was an excellent player. I didn’t want to tell her that everything was prepared, but I told her that I thought Black was doing very well. She thought nothing was clear. So I told her, “perhaps there’s g5 for Black”. She looked at me as if I was crazy, “g5, what kind of a move is that?” Then Kasparov played g5. And Maia, who is a very intelligent woman, understood right away: “Garry is still in his prep – Anatoly is screwed!”
You moved to France
in 1989. Can you tell us what the circumstances were?
When Gorbachev opened the borders I took the opportunity to participate in five tournaments in the West. I’d worked for both a club in Belgrade and for the Yugoslavian women’s team, and it was there that I met Damir Levacic, who asked me to play for his club in Cannes. I came to Cannes for the first time in January 1989. I started on board one in the French Team Championship and won the first seven games, against good players: Polugaevsky, Salov, Illescas, Spraggett! Then at a tournament organised by the GMA in Moscow, Damir came up to me and asked if I wanted to settle in France with my family. That’s how I came to France, 30 years ago now.
Joachim: In 1989, at the Palma de Mallorca Open, Iossif played one of the most fantastic games of his career. He sacrificed so much against Petar Velikov that it’s hard to keep up: a pawn, the exchange, a minor piece, a rook, then another minor piece!
In 1993, you were introduced to a 9-year-old kid…
Etienne Bacrot had a 1930 rating, I think I recall. I hadn’t heard of him yet. Eric Prié, who was giving him lessons, was I think a coach for the federation, and he introduced me to his father. Etienne had a weakness that he wasn’t looking to punish his opponents when they left his preparation with a dubious move. He lacked the idea of refuting something and I realised that he had a problem with dynamic play.
It was while working with Etienne that I had the idea of the Method. At 13, he crushed Smyslov, who was still playing well, 5:1, with four wins and two draws! In 1997, Etienne’s name made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the youngest GM of all time.
In addition to Etienne, I took charge of other young French players who became grandmasters, such as Eloi Relange and Robert Fontaine. I organised training camps at my house, with sometimes a dozen young players. At one point I decided to hire a professional chef, who cooked so well that I suspect some people came for the food rather than the chess!
Romain Edouard filmed a video series for chess24 on the initiative in the hands of Topalov, a player he seconded, just as you did. What can you tell us about that collaboration?
I’ve always enjoyed the games of Topalov, who plays in the style of Vitaly Tseshkovsky: with all his soul. Tseshkovsky was a true chess genius. He died far too young. When he passed away, Spassky wrote, “Vitaly, why are you leaving me alone?”
Topalov’s manager, Silvio Danailov, contacted me to prepare him for a match against Kasparov in 1998. At the time, Garry was simply a monster.
We had an 18-day training camp in Las Palmas. We worked even more intensely than at that time with Garry: 8 hours of intensive chess a day and blitz in the evening! Veselin managed to draw the match with three wins apiece.
But our collaboration didn’t end well. I’d spotted a recurring flaw in Topalov’s play and I knew I could help him to fix it, but Veselin didn’t know how to question himself. On the contrary. Kasparov could be very demanding, even severe, but he always showed great respect. Let’s say that in Topalov’s case that could be missing.
In 1998 you published The Method in Chess, of which all the copies were sold in both French and English. You can find the book for resale at very high prices: €100, €150, at times €200! You’ve just released a 9-hour video version with Jan Gustafsson. Can you explain to us what your method is, and how it can benefit players?
The Method is for everyone, or at least for all players who want to work and make progress. A funny story about that: I gave a camp to two young hopefuls in Germany. The mothers who accompanied them stayed in the room and listened to the lessons. At the end of the camp they proposed moves that were sometimes better than those of their children!
For the first time I trained a 5-year-old child. The difficulty was in finding the words, but when I replaced “dynamic” with “fast” and static with “slow” he understood perfectly.
It has to be understood that the Method isn’t an algorithm for telling you who’s better, it’s a tool that allows you to find the candidate moves and then the best move, in critical positions. We first establish the static balance of the position, according to a descending scale, to determine who should play dynamically. The dynamic moves can be divided into three categories: moves that change the pawn structure, especially in the centre, moves that offer an exchange, and moves that seize the initiative. With that process we can find all the candidate moves in a few dozen seconds!
There are also some ground-breaking topics, such as the material balance with 1 bishop + 2 knights vs. 1 knight + 2 bishops, which has never been discussed before.
Alexander Grischuk said of your book, The Method, that it was the one that had given him the most. But for you, what book has given you the most?
Without doubt Zurich 53 by Bronstein! That’s a totally unique book. Not only are the ideas described with words and not simply variations, but it was also unprecedented for a player at his level, number 2 or 3 in the world, to reveal his ideas like that, with great sincerity. It’s a deep and honest book.
We’d already experienced the revolution with classical engines and we’re just experiencing the new revolution of AlphaZero then Leela Chess Zero, a World Computer Chess Champion available to all. GM Alexander Donchenko showed me an interesting novelty that he played against Pierre Villegas in the recent Top 12. It’s simply the first move of Leela, though Stockfish doesn’t suggest it:
1.c4 e6 2.g3 d5 3.Bg2 Nf6 4.Nf3 d4 5.d3 c5
And here 6.e4!
If Black takes on e3 then White is a little better, and after 6…Nc6 7.e5! followed by Bf4, Qe2, Nbd2, h4 White has a good King’s Indian Attack. It’s a rather old-school move that shows a good understanding of the game. Do you think Leela will once again change the way people prepare, or even opening theory?
Yes, I saw that game, with e4 for White - it’s a very good version of the King’s Indian Attack. The revolution had already begun with AlphaZero. It’s funny to see that it played the d4-d5 sacrifice in the Queen’s Indian which I’d prepared with Polugaevsky for his match against Korchnoi in 1980! I played it myself four times and it’s almost 30 years old. Obviously I didn’t have the technique of AlphaZero to convert it, but already at the time we understood how dangerous the position was for Black.
1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 b6 4.g3 Bb7 5.Bg2 Be7 6.0-0 0-0 7.d5!? exd5 8.Nh4 c6 9.cxd5 Nxd5 10.Nf5
This variation was played in the game AlphaZero vs. Stockfish in 2017, but AlphaZero was not a pioneer! In the semi-finals of the 1980 Candidates, Polugaevsky, who prepared with Iossif, played this position against Korchnoi. The player who would go on to qualify for a World Championship match went wrong immediately:
Stockfish has here tried both 10…Bf6, which allows 11.Nd6, and 10…Nc7 11.e4 d5.
11.e4! Ne7 12.Nxg7!! Kxg7 13.b4!
And White regained the piece with a clear advantage despite being a pawn down. 1-0 in 73 moves.
On the game where AlphaZero sacrifices all his pawns, Kasparov told a common friend that it laughs at all these pawns since they’re compensated by the activity of the pieces, especially the b2-bishop. I don’t really agree. Yes, we don’t care about all these pawns, but it’s in exchange for the insecurity of the black king, not piece activity! The safety of the black king is the first factor on my descending scale, more important than all the others combined.
Joachim: Iossif is referring to this game which Matthew Sadler called “Exactly How to Attack”:
Here’s a key position, where Kasparov sees above all the activity of the white pieces, while Dorfman points out the insecurity of the black king.
Do you think, like Laszlo Polgar, that any child can reach the top level? Can you define talent?
From the beginning I told Etienne that any gifted child can become World Champion, if he gives himself the means. The real talent is the ability to work hard.
Several conditions must be met for a young person to become very strong: he must love to play, he must love to train and his family must have the necessary time and money. When all of those factors exist, as with Etienne, anything becomes possible.
In 2007 Etienne and I had a training session and he asked me if I had a new young talent. I replied, yes. Etienne looked at me sadly and said, “it will be harder for him than for me”, implying that nowadays chess demands even more work.
As a trainer, do you have a specialty?
Where I can contribute the most is of course with strategy. All the technical stuff, like tactics or endgames, I can do it, obviously, but others do it just as well. I have a student, for example, who has another coach who takes care of the technical aspects while I’m in charge of strategy.
Which young talents around the world impress you the most?
Vladislav Artemiev. There’s no comparison between him and Karjakin. Artemiev has much more potential, but he still has a big problem with his repertoire. The other Russians, Dubov and Nepomniachtchi, I don’t really believe in for the World Championship title. Perhaps Ding Liren, who could benefit from state aid and having four or five 2700 players who would work for him.
Apart from your video series on the Method, you’re one of the main commentators on chess24 in French. What do you bring to our members?
I’m grateful to chess24 for finally giving me this platform. This is a great opportunity to transmit all my knowledge, to explain during the live games how my method works. The Method is the legacy of my whole career and I’m delighted to be able to share this accumulated knowledge with thousands of players.
Thank you very much, Iossif. I look forward to seeing you soon on chess24!
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