Interviews Jan 4, 2016 | 2:09 PMby Colin McGourty

Gelfand: “People are playing more pragmatically”

Boris Gelfand ended 2015 on a high with the best performance in the Nutcracker Battle of the Generations. Otherwise, though, it was a year to forget for the Israeli no. 1, who explained in two interviews that he was starved of games. Boris also talked about a trend towards pragmatism in chess, with “fewer interesting games”, though he singled out Vladimir Kramnik as perhaps the “most vivid player” of 2015.

47-year-old Boris Gelfand with the trophy for the best individual performance at the Nutcracker tournament | photo: Eteri Kublashvili/Vladimir Barsky, RCF website

Boris Gelfand joined Peter Leko, Alexander Morozevich and Evgeniy Najer in an experienced team that took on and beat four young Russian talents over Christmas — Vladislav Artemiev, Ivan Bukavshin, Mikhail Antipov and Grigoriy Oparin. Boris played the youngsters once at classical chess and twice at rapid to end with 5 wins, 1 loss and 6 draws for a score of 11/16 (classical wins were worth 2 points). His nearest rivals were Leko and Artemiev on 9/16. You can replay all the games below:

That was the starting point for a long and interesting interview Gelfand gave to Oleg Bogatov for R-Sport. We’ve translated some of the highlights below.

Victory in Moscow

Boris — why did you travel to Moscow at the end of December?

Gelfand on his classical win over Grigoriy Oparin: "We got an interesting position after the 40th move. Perhaps it’s possible to use as an exercise, if the move 41.Qb2! for White is correct. There were a lot of options there, but precisely that quiet move turned out to be the strongest"
I had the pleasure to be invited to the interesting “Nutcracker” team tournament — playing against talented Russian players. Last year I followed the event closely and saw a huge number of interesting games, both in classical chess and rapid. Before the tournament I studied the games of the young guys — each has his own style, and it was interesting for me to meet them.

Many well-known grandmasters avoid meeting youngsters — it’s hard to win, and a loss can cost you rating points.

That’s possible, but you need to be ready to play against any chess player. Incidentally, the same type of tournament used to be held in the Netherlands — we played classical chess in a “five vs. five” format. I once managed to win, and four of the young team I came up against are now in the world Top 10. Those are Fabiano Caruana, Hikaru Nakamura, Wesley So and Anish Giri.

In our team, meanwhile, the examiners were myself, Peter Svidler and other adult chess players. It was very interesting to play — that’s an enormous advantage of chess: you can encounter players of the most varied ages. 

ExperienceGelfand, BorisGM2739460710
ExperienceSvidler, PeterGM27342715.510
ExperienceVan Wely, LoekGM2677163410
ExperienceNielsen, Peter HeineGM2700244410
ExperienceLjubojevic, LjubomirGM25721543.510
YouthNakamura, HikaruGM2729442610
YouthGiri, AnishGM2672361610
YouthCaruana, FabianoGM2672262510
YouthHowell, David W LGM26163344.510
YouthSo, WesleyGM26740914.510

A legendary example of that was the game between Viktor Korchnoi and the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, played in 2004. The age gap between the participants was over 60 years!

His play in 2015

Can you sum up the year — how did it go for you?

In chess terms it was terrible, one of the worst and least successful of my career. I hope that my successful display in Moscow will help me to fight that trend and go on a positive run in 2016.

What do you think is behind your lack of success — your chess form or other circumstances?

There are a few points, and one of them is that I didn’t manage to arrange a good schedule of appearances. I either got two invitations to tournaments that were being held at roughly the same times and had to choose one of them, or months went by without any invitations at all for even half reasonable tournaments. The result was that over the course of the year I played very few games of classical chess — only 31. That was because tournaments in which I was planning to take part were cancelled, and when invitations turned up I was already busy. Of course that really knocks you out of your rhythm — it’s hard to play three or four games and then (long afterwards) two more, then again not to play for a long time.

Vladislav Artemiev was unbeaten until losing his final two games against Morozevich and Gelfand in Moscow. Gelfand commented on his opponent's opening play: "It seems to me that Artemiev has a modern, “Carlsenesque” approach. He doesn’t put an emphasis on the opening but tries to go for a very long game and take advantage of his strengths" | photo: Eteri Kublashvili/Vladimir Barsky, RCF website

I hope the situation will change in 2016, because I don't think there are any objective reasons for such failures. Yes, tough periods happen — you need to think about how to get out of them and overcome difficulties.

No money for chess in Israel

This year your chess team unexpectedly failed to take part in the European Team Championship. Is the situation so critical or is there some light on the horizon?

There’s no great light. At the start of the year the federation had a budget to take part in one tournament — the World Team Championship. That was spent, but then in parliament, the Knesset, people were upset about the situation and a decision was taken to send us to the European Team Championship. But the bureaucratic apparatus of the Ministry of Sport and the Federation spent a long time resolving the question together, and at the last moment they didn’t manage to do anything.

I hope next year there will be funds to send us to the Chess Olympiad in Baku, but the situation isn’t very clear since the sources of funding are minimal. And the majority of society as a whole lives, let’s say, with the mantra, “chess isn’t a profession – there’s no need to pay for people to push wood”.

Rather than playing in Reykjavik himself, Gelfand gave some tips to the Norwegian team in the run-up to the European Team Championship | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen, sjakkbloggen

They think you should play for fun?

Yes, chess is a game for a park bench or with your granddad. And, despite my success and the success of the team — that’s all good for the country, but when it comes down to officials then it’s alien to them as a class. Football fans who fought against each other are close as a class, while chess is close to the elite, who understand its role and significance – but that doesn’t bring any funding (smiles).

But doesn’t that hold back young talents?

Yes. The conditions for youngsters are a little better now than before, since a few people have found a private sponsor, which enables them to work with good coaches. That’s one of the problems that needs to be resolved, since for the last eight to nine years not a single talented chess player has managed to develop into a strong grandmaster. Our team has been playing with almost the same line-up since 2008, and there's only one young player who in the mid-term could be integrated into the team.

2015 as a whole

What was most unexpected for you in chess life in 2015?

It’s hard to single out one thing — it was a good year with a lot of interesting tournaments, but on the whole there were fewer interesting games. People have started playing more pragmatically, strictly for the result — that strikes me as a trend. Perhaps it’ll be short-lived and everything will soon change.

I’d like to note the progress of the Chinese players — that, perhaps, is the main conclusion to be drawn from the year, because a few young players have appeared who you might say have already entered the world elite.

Gelfand got first-hand experience of the strength of the new generation of Chinese players when he lost a match with Ding Liren 3:1 - replay the games here | photo:

There’s a view that World Champion Carlsen, who in 2014 was considered invincible, slipped a little in 2015, and there are now a few players who will soon be able to compete with him. Is that really the case?

It doesn’t strike me that someone made particular progress. Perhaps Magnus didn’t play so convincingly, but you can’t constantly play at the same exceptionally high level. There are always some ups and downs — perhaps he somehow changed his approach and that had a temporary effect.

But just look — on the FIDE rating list second place is held by the Russian Grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik, who for more than twenty years has been showing what a top class player he is. It’s wonderful that he’s maintained that level and, perhaps, he was the most vivid player of 2015. The way he played the European Club Championship for Siberia and the games he won — they were simply masterpieces.

It seems a fair guess Kramnik 1-0 Topalov was Vlad's most enjoyable game of the year | photo: Evgeny Surov, chess-news

What are your plans for 2016?

I’m working on putting together a good tournament schedule and I hope I manage to play much more. For my family and friends, meanwhile, I wish them health and that they continue to work on what interests them and make progress. And that fortune smiles on all of them.

Boris found other things to occupy himself with while not playing chess in 2015, though. He coached the Norwegian national team before the European Team Championship, taking a recently published book as the basis for his instruction. He talked about it in an interview with the Russian Chess Federation:

You recently published a new book in English. Could you tell us a little about it?

The book was written together with Jacob Aagard for the publisher Quality Chess. I dictated and Jacob wrote. It’s a serious work, since Aagard, as an experienced coach, lends the books educational value. During working on it we checked and fine-tuned a lot of things.

Is it a “Selected Games”?

No, as Anton Korobov said, it’s like Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe (laughs). Anton was having some fun. The book is called Positional Decision Making in Chess, with the topics “Space Advantage”, “Transformation of Advantages”, “The Squeeze” and “Transformation of Pawn Structures”. It has a lot not only of my games, but of games by, for instance, Rubinstein. I learned from his games and the book by Yuri Razuvaev, so we tried to draw analogies. Our book won the English Chess Federation’s “Book of the Year” award.

The second volume is already a work in progress. Its theme will be taking decisions in dynamic play.

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