Interviews Apr 14, 2018 | 9:20 AMby Colin McGourty

Gelfand on returning to Belarus after 20 years

49-year-old Boris Gelfand was born in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, but moved to Israel in 1998. Since then the 2012 World Championship challenger hadn’t been back until this month, when he visited his old home partly to promote a bid to hold the next World Chess Olympiad in Minsk in 2022. In an interview with Sergey Kanashits for the Belarus Today newspaper he talks about how the city, and also chess, has changed in the intervening period.

Boris Gelfand at the recent Tal Memorial in Moscow | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

The interview begins with Boris talking about the parallels between football and chess:

Boris Gelfand: In football you study your opponents in just the same way, working out a strategy and choosing an opening. Many coaches, I know, are chess fans – Wenger, Hiddink, Guardiola… I even played against Gadzhi Gadzhiyev, he’s a Candidate Master. The development of tactics in chess nowadays is very intense. A team that’s not the strongest in terms of names but is well trained tactically will beat the stars. The competition among coaches is pure chess.

Sergey Kanashits: Do you remember the day when you left Minsk 20 years ago?

Not in detail, but roughly. There was no heartache. It was a decision that had been built up to and prepared. The thing is that from childhood onwards I’ve had a very strong Jewish identity. Even in those Soviet times my grandfather would go to the synagogue almost every day, and those traditions were passed on in my family: we celebrated all the Jewish holidays.

And having come back now, where did you go first?

I came with my family, my wife and children. I showed them the flat where I lived. That’s on Kuzma Chorny Lane, behind the “1000 trifles” shop. We walked past the places of my youth: where I bought ice-cream, books… We went to the school where I studied, on Kirov Street, we went into the Pioneers Palace, though they’re doing repairs there now. And into the Dzerzhinsky Club, of course. That’s where the 1979 USSR Championship took place. That was a big event for Minsk: the ex-World Champion Mikhail Tal played, and the young Garry Kasparov, but it was 54-year-old Efim Geller who won. I was just 11, but I went to watch the games every day, not missing a minute of the championship! That tournament had a huge influence on me. 

Where else? We were at Komarovka, but it’s a pity Monday is a holiday. I’ll still definitely go to the market there, as I was given orders on what to buy. We travelled to Smilavichy to the grave of my grandmother and grandfather…

I read in your father’s book of recollections, “On that day my wife Nella, Borya and I went to a photo studio and had some family photos taken. Soon a big photo of Borya with curly hair was put in the shop front of the studio on a central street in Minsk. We lived nearby and often passed it, looking at the photograph and enjoying life”. I saw that photo – it really was cute. Where was that?

The photo studio is no longer there – I went there specially to look for it. It was on Lenin Avenue, now Independence Avenue, opposite Kalinin Square. The “Flowers” shop, a bakery… Now there’s a pizzeria, some small shops. Times goes by and the city changes.

But why was it so long before you came back to your homeland – you weren’t drawn to it?

All of these years I was living and still live at such a tempo that there simply wasn’t a window for a visit. Every day I spent working, taking almost no breaks.

Has Minsk changed a lot? Is it like a modern European city now?

That’s what it is – a modern European city. Pleasant. The centre is very beautiful. The old area has been expanded and it’s very pleasant to walk around there. My wife comes from Almaty and was here for the first time. She liked it. She was struck by the faces of the people: calm, without aggression.

How many times were you recognised on the street?

Not once so far. Chess has its own specifics. There are probably plenty who know and recall us by name, but we’re not very often shown on television, so we’re not very recognisable. Although in 2012, after returning to Israel from Moscow, where I played a World Championship match against Viswanathan Anand, it was hard to walk along the street – people would recognise me every step of the way.

The Belarussian School of Chess has scattered across the whole world: Golovey, Kapengut and Shulman to America, you and Smirin to Israel, the Atlas brothers to Austria, Agrest to Sweden… Do you often talk?

With all of them, and constantly. Moreover, when I played the World Championship match all of the Belarussian chess diaspora converged on Moscow to support me. It was pleasant. It has to be said that they spent the time pretty well: the reception when they met and shared recollections will no doubt be remembered for a long time.

The internet has significantly simplified communication – it’s wonderful. But for chess is that a great revelation or a great evil?

Portisch ended up better after the novelty 8...Ne6 but only drew, with his second Bent Larsen later publishing analysis in an Argentinian newspaper. It was 10 days later that Korchnoi used the move to win the decisive game of his match!
There’s no unambiguous answer. It’s like a knife: you can use it to cut bread, or you can use it to kill a person. Now, for example, you can follow almost any game from almost any tournament live. I’ll tell you a funny story about that. 

In 1980 the Candidates Matches were taking place. In the semifinals in Buenos Aires Viktor Korchnoi was playing against Lev Polugaevsky, while Lajos Portisch and Robert Hübner met in Italy. Hübner played a novelty thanks to which he won the decisive game and qualified for the final. The match in Argentina was still in progress, and in the morning Korchnoi went to the kiosk, bought a newspaper and saw Hübner’s move. And although that novelty was quite risky, he decided Polugaevsky wouldn’t want to waste his daily allowance on the latest newspaper and would find out nothing. That’s what happened: Korchnoi played like Hübner, and won. 

Gelfand and Nakamura both played 10.b4!? Inarkiev replied 10...Re8 and lost, while Karjakin on the same day in the Sinquefield Cup chose 10...e4 and drew
And now we switch to our days. Recently I played against Ernesto Inarkiev in Ingushetia, and I played an interesting novelty. I won, had dinner and got back to my room. Only a few hours had passed, but in a tournament in America, in St. Louis, at the other end of the earth, Hikaru Nakamura repeated my combination in his game against Sergey Karjakin. There’s the answer to your question on how the internet has changed the chess world. There’s been an incredible acceleration.  

Has chess changed seriously in the last 10 years? In what does that change consist, above all?

A great deal. One of those things is what we’ve already talked about – the speed and accessibility of information has grown incredibly. The number of chess players has also grown sharply and, as a consequence, the level of knowledge and competition. If you don’t work hard you can’t win a game against anyone nowadays, and it’s become much harder to win. Plus the geography of chess has expanded greatly – now there are good masters everywhere. In general, China and India have flooded the world with their chess players: soon I think every third game in the world will be either against a Chinese or an Indian player.

When did you realise that chess is your calling?

Chess is a narrow profession, a rare one, with great internal competition. Moreover, there’s no stable financial income. Usually by the end of school, when the time comes to choose a path in life, you need to give a clear answer to the question of whether or not you’re prepared for the path you’ve chosen, and to grasp at the same time that serious chess really is for people who are possessed!

Well, but for you everything was extremely clear at 17 years old: you’d already managed to become the Belarussian Champion twice among adults and won the USSR Junior Championship!

In the key game, I recall, I beat the Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk, a rival my whole life, but in the end I finished just half a point ahead of him.

And what subjects did you like at school?

Most of all I remember the lessons of history and social science – because of the teacher, of course. She instilled a very important skill: to convey any paragraph in a single sentence – to be able to grasp the key point, to highlight the essence. That’s also essential in chess. Nina Sergeyevna Tsybulskaya was her name. Perhaps she’s still alive.

How do you keep yourself in shape nowadays?

For the last six years I’ve been playing table tennis, one and a half hours of intense activity from two to four times a week. When there’s no training session I try to walk – rapidly, from 40 minutes to an hour. Previously I also swam.

You really love football and support Barcelona. By the way, please accept my condolences – the Catalans were knocked out of the Champions League by Roma. Do you play yourself?

I used to play, but 10 years ago I stopped. The thing is that in Israel the playing fields are mainly cement-coated, like the US Open tennis courts in New York. My doctor said that’s very dangerous for my knees.

And did you go to see Dinamo Minsk play in 1982? You were 14 back then.

Of course I supported them. And I watched the 1982 World Cup, crying when the Brazilian team lost to the Italians. And I remember Dinamo’s matches perfectly. I went to the stadium in Minsk a few times. I don’t know where I get that passion from, but family legend has it that when I was just 7 years old my grandfather watched football matches specially, although he was completely indifferent, just to be able to discuss them with me afterwards – that was a great topic of conversation. (...)

The post-mortem after the wild Gelfand-Kramnik draw in the Tal Memorial | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

On the 24th June you’ll turn 50 - a nice round figure. Is that a milestone? And what does your childhood friend Grandmaster Ilya Smirin think about it? He already reached the half century on 21st January.

I’m calm about that. There’s no big celebration or party planned – I’ll keep on working. But I’ve drawn conclusions: first of all, I need to take more care of my health, to monitor it more and think through my tournament schedule in order to replenish my energy. And Smirin? We haven’t discussed the passage of the years, but Ilya still looks as fresh as ever.

Smirin, by the way, says his favourite chess player is Mikhail Tal. And for you?

Yes, Ilya also really loves to attack, and the King’s Indian Defence. By the way, he wrote a wonderful book on that theme that was published both in English and Russian. As for me, I’d name Akiba Rubinstein, whose games taught me the most, but I always made a careful study of all the great masters, and I advise young chess players to do the same.

Bobby Fischer once said of Tal’s play: “How does Tal win? He develops all his pieces towards the centre and then sacrifices them somewhere”. How would you categorise Boris Gelfand’s style?

First of all I’ll continue the topic of Tal. Previously people thought that he was simply bluffing and making incorrect sacrifices, but time has shown it wasn’t like that at all. It was simply that at that moment Tal’s chess was ahead of his time. His sacrifices almost always had a foundation – they were non-standard decisions that didn’t significantly worsen his position, but his opponents turned out to be absolutely unprepared for them. And myself? I have different approaches and try to have a wide range in my arsenal. There’s both strangulation, and an uncoiled spring, but I counterattack better than I attack.

As a fan of Barcelona I’ll ask you a question: can Magnus Carlsen be compared to Lionel Messi? Two of the brightest modern figures on the chessboard and the football pitch.

Carlsen is more like Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s very competitive: he plays both football, and basketball, and it’s important for him to be first in everything, always and everywhere. Messi relies on other qualities – he has an amazing vision and understanding of football. Who’s the Messi in chess today? I don’t even know.

Was Fischer like that?

A young Boris Gelfand | photo: ChessPro

He was also a little different. Of course all the greats had a touch of the divine, but in chess it’s hard to point out anyone who has a vision of the game like Messi has in football.

And who would be stronger at the chessboard today: Fischer or Carlsen?

We already indirectly touched on that question earlier. The information Magnus absorbed in his childhood due to the current possibilities far exceeds the knowledge that Fischer possessed even at the peak of his career.

And is it true that Magnus’s father asked your opinion of whether or not it was worth his son continuing to study chess?

Well, I don’t think he only asked for my opinion. That was in 2007. He asked, “Magnus plays chess well, but we don’t know if it’s worth him continuing or it’s better for him to concentrate on his studies”. I said that he has a huge talent, and if the guy lives for chess then of course he should play. I don’t think my words had a decisive significance on the career of the future World Champion. However, it’s true that such an episode did take place.

Could you right now name one or a few of your most memorable games?

The win against Sergey Karjakin in the World Cup and the encounter for the right to play a World Championship match against Anand when I beat Alexander Grischuk. It’s particularly pleasant to note that my best games were played at moments of peak tension.

Do you sleep well before such clashes? Do you dream of chess?

I don’t dream of games, but it can be hard to get to sleep. I think everyone knows that state on the eve or after decisive and important matches.

How do you calm yourself down: cognac, cigarettes?

I’ve never smoked, and I don’t think that would somehow help.

And has it happened that you’ve ever overslept? Or absent-mindedly put on a shirt back to front?

Oversleeping – no, but back-to-front can easily happen. When you’re thinking only about chess, completely absorbed by it, then absent-mindedness in such a state is perfectly normal. It’s happened more than once.

What do you regret most in your career?

Nothing overall, although some absolutely crazy things did happen. For example, I recall that in the early 1990s Lev Polugaevsky, one of the world’s best analysts, from whose books I’d learnt (my style is very similar to his), offered to work with me, and for some reason I went and said no. I still can’t understand why. There’s no answer. I said I was busy, perhaps sometime later… And a few years later he passed away. Although in terms of our approach to chess, to openings, to the game as a whole I am, you might say, his creative successor. Polugaevsky, by the way, is also from Belarus, from Mogilev.

And the Armenian Grandmaster Levon Aronian’s father is from the Vitebsk Region. There are clever people living in Belarus.

Yes, Levon and I have often discussed that topic. He recalls his roots and would travel to Belarus to visit his grandmother and grandfather.

How much time do you spend on chess nowadays?

I remember what Pele said: I train one hour a day, while the rest of the time I think about football. I wake up in the morning, do exercise and sit down at the chessboard. If nothing interrupts me I can work like that the whole day long.

The surname Gelfand derives from a Slav variation on the German word for elephant (Elefant). Is that true?

I think so. While travelling to different countries around the world, by the way, I like to visit zoos and watch the elephants. Previously I collected souvenir elephants.

What will you take with you to Israel when you fly back?

I already sent some “Narochansky” bread with my wife. I’m planning to buy a souvenir plate. I’ll go to Komarovka: for mushrooms, herring…

Will your next trip be in another 20 years?

I hope it’ll happen sooner.

In any case, it will no longer be Minsk here but Novye Vasiuki (a reference to a famous chess scene from Ilf and Petrov’s “12 Chairs”). In the good sense of the word. The representative of the Belarusian Chess Federation Anastasia Sorokina has done a great job of promoting chess to the masses. And she’s had great success.

That’s wonderful and I hope it all works out for her. And that the World Chess Olympiad in 2022 will take place in Minsk. That really is a big event and I think Minsk is the favourite among the contenders.

Boris Gelfand speaking to the press on his return to Minsk | photo: Igor Klevko, Belarusian Chess Federation 

And a last question for today: you haven't abandoned your dream of becoming World Champion? Do you still have it?

I never had such a dream. There was another one – always to make progress. And I remain faithful to that.

See also:

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