Interviews Mar 29, 2020 | 11:05 AMby Colin McGourty

Anish Giri: “The tournament ended surprisingly chaotically”

In a big interview for, Anish Giri talks about the moment the Candidates Tournament stopped while he was busy preparing to play Ian Nepomniachtchi in just four hours’ time - a scramble to book flights and pack bags followed. He also talks about the build-up to the event, including a training camp in Portugal, why he never considered withdrawing like Teimour Radjabov before it began, and what happens now with the Azerbaijan player.

"Everything began very badly, but then it got better and better" - Anish Giri | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE/official website

Anish Giri was almost the fourth Russian player in the 2020 Candidates Tournament, since he was born in St. Petersburg and grew up speaking Russian as his native language before eventually settling in the Netherlands. In a big interview with Mikhail Kuznetsov for the Russian Match TV he began by talking about the two countries before going into detail about the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg. We’ve translated it below:

Mikhail Kuznetsov: Where are you now?

Anish Giri: At home in the Netherlands.

What’s the atmosphere there?

Compared to how it was before the Candidates Tournament the situation has changed. When I flew out everything was normal. Now in the airports they warn you that you have to keep a 2-metre distance, it’s almost empty and no-one flies anywhere. I don’t particularly leave the house, although the weather’s good.

You’re not in quarantine?

No. People quarantine themselves from purely humanitarian considerations. I will, in any case, definitely be very, very careful for the next two weeks. I’m not going to go out anywhere. It seems it’s not written that we’re obliged to self-isolate after flying in from abroad, but it’s logical. You need to adhere to the recommendations.

In Russia the demand for toilet paper has increased. How is it in the Netherlands?

The same. There are all kinds of jokes and memes about toilet paper. I haven’t been to a shop for a long time myself, but they say people are hoarding.

I saw memes that you had long queues in front of coffee shops.

Yes, there was that. I also saw that on the internet. Of course I didn’t stand in such a queue myself, but probably there were.

Is there a difference in the atmosphere around the coronavirus pandemic in Russia compared to the Netherlands?

It seems to me that the situation is identical. By and large everyone understands that it’s necessary to self-isolate, and if you leave the house it’s better to wear a mask and to stay away from each other.

By the way, on being cautious, what mentality do you have: a law-abiding Dutch one or a freedom-loving Russian one?

The Dutch are also a very freedom-loving people. It seems to me that sensible people in all countries have approximately the same strategy when it comes to caution. To do otherwise would simply be stupid. In the Netherlands as well there are people who try to protest or somehow show off.

The football coach Leonid Slutsky, who worked in the Netherlands, spoke about the law-abiding nature of your citizens. By way of an example he gave the situation with speed limits on roads, which the Dutch never break.

I can explain what that’s connected to - it’s not about mentality. In the Netherlands it’s very hard to pass your driving test. I only managed with difficulty. I spent a huge amount of hours, time and nerves in order to get my driving licence. It’s all very strict. When you get it the rules are so deeply embedded in you that you follow them. So here it’s more connected to the system of getting that right, while there are hooligans everywhere.

Let’s bring the topic of mentality to a close. Right now there’s a popular app Gradient: people upload their photograph and it shows them, in percentages, to which nationalities they belong. If you represented yourself in percentages, what would the result be?

It’s very tricky. Probably I’d give 45% to Russian and Dutch and the remaining 10% to Nepal. The fact that my mother is Russian and I was born in Russia left a serious stamp on my mentality, but I grew up in the Netherlands. Education here also played a role. It turns out that there’s some kind of internal conflict.

You don’t give Japan any percentage?

No. I don’t think I adopted any kind of Japanese mentality.

When did you understand that you were going to get into the Candidates Tournament by rating?

I learned about that possibility when I was knocked out of the World Cup. Someone told me that I had chances. I began to follow it. It required Ding Liren to get to the final of the World Cup, which he managed very convincingly.

Did your preparation for the current Candidates Tournament differ from that in 2016?

It was similar in that there was little time left for preparation. I had a busy schedule. In both that year and this year the main focus was on February, as in January I always play in the traditional Dutch tournament in Wijk aan Zee. Therefore in February there was a full-scale training camp for the whole month. This time I tried to take into account past experience and keep everything that worked best.

On photographs from the February camp you have the geotag “Secret location”. What was the secret place?

It’s more of a joke – people like some kind of mystery. Everyone who was seriously interested could see that there were some kind of signs on the photographs in Portuguese and could see what flights there were when I flew out of Rotterdam. 

In actual fact there was no secret in the fact that I held the camp in Portugal.

Why in Portugal?

I didn’t want the weather to be too cold to walk without a winter coat. We found a very good spot there, a fine house with a huge garden, a swimming pool, a football pitch and tennis courts. And a pretty good deal in terms of price. We were lucky with the weather. It was much better than promised. The camp turned out to be simply brilliant.

Was your family with you?

No. There was the wife of one of my coaches. She helped when it came to logistics so that we could focus only on chess. None of us, of course, brought our families. Preparation of that kind requires particular concentration. You need to get away from all domestic and family issues.

How did you get to the Candidates Tournament?

After Portugal we flew to the Netherlands, on the same day when I think there was the first coronavirus case in our country. It was a nervous flight - we were afraid to meet that man, then a couple of weeks at home. Some time was needed to recover.

Do you still have a Russian passport? Do you need a visa?

I need one. It’s not hard to get, but there are so many tournaments in Russia and before each one you need to organise a visa. It’s not very pleasant. Previously I had Russian citizenship, but now I’ve already been living quite a long time in the Netherlands.

Was it hard to get Dutch citizenship?

At that point I’d been living in the country for five years and finished school there, which was also very important. Those two factors almost guaranteed me Dutch citizenship. It’s much harder to reject Russian citizenship. You need to prove that you don’t owe anything to anyone and collect certificates from all kinds of offices.

Were any of your Russian friends invited to the Candidates Tournament?

No. I sometimes visit St. Petersburg. The last time was at the end of 2019. Back then the World Rapid and Blitz Championship was being held in Moscow. After that I went by train to St. Petersburg, where I spent a few days. This time I flew to Yekaterinburg via Moscow and there was no time or possibility to meet anyone.

Did you have any doubts about whether or not to take part in the Candidates Tournament?

I had no choice. Naturally I want to fight for the World Championship. There were worries about catching the coronavirus in the airport. We tried to be as cautious as possible: keeping a distance, wearing a mask. 

Whether to play or not was never a question.

You could have withdrawn, like Teimour Radjabov.

Why withdraw? It’s my life, my career. Qualifying for the tournament isn’t easy – it happens once every two years. I don’t want to give anyone else my place.

When you arrived in Yekaterinburg you didn’t need to go into quarantine?

No. At that point only the Chinese were in quarantine. They simply checked us for the virus.

How much did that tournament differ from all the others you took part in?

Greatly. It was impossible to miss it. There were special safety measures and few people around the tournament. During the games there were just two people in masks in the playing hall. They served us food only in our rooms. They said it was better not to go to the restaurant at all. Twice a day we were checked by a doctor. That didn’t particularly bother me. At some point I got used to it. And in general, eating in the room is pretty convenient. You save a heap of time. We were careful when he went walking. You try to cross the street when you see some person at a distance. It was unusual.

Did you sense a general nervousness among the grandmasters?

It seemed to me that there wasn’t, but for some reason many of the players talked about it. I don’t know what they had in mind. I think that the players followed the world news. 

Of course when you read about what’s happening you get nervous. At some point I took the decision to focus only on the tournament. I felt much calmer that way.

Tell us about the day when the tournament was stopped.

It seemed to me that the tournament organisers were in constant contact with the authorities and everything was going according to plan, but the tournament ended surprisingly chaotically. On the day of the 8th round my coach was called by a girl from the organising committee. 

It was 12 o’clock and the game was supposed to start at 4pm. It seemed to me that she was calling because the day before I’d accidentally missed one of the doctors’ checks and I thought she wanted to tell us off for that. I didn’t hear what my coach was saying to her. Then he told me the tournament is over and we need to go home. “You’re joking?” “No”.  

The problem was that they told us that the next day airspace was going to be closed. We needed to find tickets. I was afraid that there simply wouldn’t be any, but we were lucky. We managed to buy them right away and the flight was leaving in 2.5 hours. We had to pack up all our things quickly and take a taxi. Then it turned out that the others hadn’t managed to buy tickets. A new charter was organised for them that night. We decided not to rely on fate and buy them ourselves.

It was a very dramatic change of circumstances. Until twelve we were preparing for the game. I had to play with Black against the leader, Ian Nepomniachtchi. It was a very important game for my tournament situation. We had to analyse a lot of opening variations. However, unexpectedly, I had to pack.

How did you react to that news?

Not positively, to be honest. Firstly, buying tickets is an unpleasant procedure. You have to fill out your name, surname, passport details, find a credit card, enter all the codes. Doing that quickly is even more unpleasant. And then you have to pack things which are scattered all around the room. I don’t like to do that anyway, while here it was in such a rush.

Secondly, I wasn’t glad that the tournament was over. 

I thought it should be held until the end given all the safety measures that had been taken. At that moment it seemed to me as though they’d abandoned me. Then I thought a bit and understood – the organisers had no other option given the unpredictable problem with the closure of airspace.

You could have travelled to St. Petersburg.

Yes. My wife later said that nothing terrible would have happened and I could have gone to Petersburg. But what about the other players? For example, the American Caruana? What would he have done in the vastness of our big country? For me it wasn’t the worst option if I got stuck in Russia, but besides the chess players there were also other people around the tournament who needed to fly home.

Right now you quite often hear the question of what to do about Teimour Radjabov? To continue the tournament with him or not?

Teimour believes that his rights have been violated. If he’s included and someone else is excluded then that will violate the rights of someone else. If everyone plays then the question arises: how many points do you give Teimour? If you give him a lot then that violates the rights of other players, if you give him few, then his rights. If the tournament starts afresh then that’s unfair to the leaders and helps those who find themselves at the bottom of the tournament standings. One way or another, someone has to be harmed.

How do see your chances when the tournament continues?

During the tournament I was very optimistic. Everything began very badly, but then it got better and better. I almost beat Caruana, I stopped playing extremely weakly, I was in danger in almost none of the games and was always playing for a win. I beat Kirill Alekseenko with the black pieces. The tournament was just starting to take shape. A lot would have depended on that game against Nepomniachtchi, which was supposed to have taken place on the day it was stopped. Ian had lost before that and he’s well-known for not being the most stable of players. Now I’ve kept the status quo. It seems to me that I still have chances of victory.

Giri got off to the worst possible start as he lost to Nepomniachtchi in Round 1 | photo: Lennart Ootes, FIDE/official website

Which of the players is stopping the tournament most advantageous for?

That’s speculation, of course. It’s hard to say. 

It will be most advantageous for the player who spends the time best until it’s resumed. 

If Ian was feeling bad after the loss then, of course, it’s advantageous for him. He’ll have some respite. If Vachier-Lagrave was feeling good then it’s disadvantageous for him. Ding and Fabiano were clearly not in their best form. For them it might not be too bad. They can recover and then start afresh with renewed energy. One way or another, stopping has broken the natural course of the sporting event. It’s no-one’s fault - that’s simply the way it went.

How do you feel about the idea of playing the tournament to the end online?

Strangely enough, I heard that proposal. It seems to me that it would be totally weird. In order to avoid cheating you need someone to come to our homes. That’s not very good, considering the current situation. Even if some observer comes then the cheating control will nevertheless be weak and inadequate. I’ve never played serious games online. In general it’s not done. 

Online you can play blitz, at most rapid, but not classical chess. I think it’s too radical. No-one will start doing that.

For now it’s unclear when any kind of tournament will take place. How do you prepare for that?

It’s very hard to prepare for something when you don’t know when it’s going to be. I’ve already started to study chess a bit. In general I love to study chess, regardless of tournaments. 

If I was locked in a room, given a computer and they said I’d be there forever, I’d still study chess.

Sooner or later the situation will improve. When dates will be set then the preparation will intensify. For now there are no tournaments. Maybe you can somehow promote your ideas and thoughts. Maybe someone wanted to write a book, to film video lessons or in general do something other than chess, but he never had time for it. Now we’ve got it.

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