Interviews May 2, 2014 | 9:48 AMby Colin McGourty

Grischuk: I’m not narcissistic about my play

Grischuk and his daughter Masha at the prize ceremony of the 2013 Aeroflot Open | photo: Russian Chess Federation

Alexander Grischuk’s star performance at the recent Russian Team Championship saw him sneak almost unnoticed up to world no. 3 on the live ratings. In a recent interview he talked about what that means (or doesn’t mean) to him, why looking for the best move in a position has become outdated, why Magnus Carlsen is dominating chess and much more.

30-year-old Grischuk has often played second fiddle to his fellow Russians, but his FIDE rating is currently above them all, including the four who played in the recent Candidates Tournament. That was the starting point for an interview Grischuk gave to Oleg Bogatov for R Sport. We bring you some highlights:

On his rating

How significant is third place in the world to you?

Alexander Grischuk: I can’t say it’s very significant. Recently a lot of players have approached the 2800 mark, but then slowed down. So for now there’s nothing to talk about.

But does it really not warm your soul that you’ve got the highest rating among Russian players?

I already had the best rating among Russians once before. Of course it’s better to be rich and healthy than poor and ill, so it’s better the way it is than otherwise, but it’s nothing special. I don’t see any reason to give a detailed commentary.

On only being interested in playing when a lot’s at stake

Sometimes the starting fees of invited players are high and the prize fund much lower. What interest is there in playing then?

That happens, but recently, by the way, the trend has actually been towards high prize funds, which I’m glad about. Everything depends on the particular tournament, though – for example, in Wijk aan Zee there were always high starting fees and almost no prize fund. It’s the same situation in Dortmund. In Linares or in Stavanger, though, there are no starting fees and the prize fund is higher.

On the Candidates Tournament

The Candidates Tournament recently finished in Khanty-Mansiysk. Do you think the outcome was fair?

I think it was perfectly logical – especially as Viswanathan Anand won quite convincingly and ensured himself first place with a round to spare.

What, in your view, is behind the failure of your friend Peter Svidler and Vladimir Kramnik?

Svidler and Grischuk at the recent Russian Team Championship | photo: Vladimir Barsky

Kramnik unexpectedly encountered opening problems, although that’s always been his very strongest side. Moreover, towards the end of the tournament he was exhausted, although it’s all connected. When things are going well for you in the opening you can rush through a large part of the game in your home analysis, without excessive effort, and you have more energy left. But Vladimir had to put a lot of effort into positions in the opening and by the end he was tired. As for Svidler – I really liked the fighting spirit he showed but it seems he was simply in bad form, hence a lot of mistakes.

Observing the games did you catch yourself thinking you should be playing there?

Not at all. I had every possibility to qualify through the World Cup and the Grand Prix series and no-one got in my way. I had to finish first or second but I came fourth or fifth. Therefore there’s no-one to blame but myself – I didn’t play well enough.

On perfectionism and time trouble

Many experts say, “Alexander wants to find the very best move in every position”. Does that approach work against you?

In some ways, perhaps, that method has become obsolete. When I learned to play chess it really was thought that there’s a best move in every position and you can find it, but now with the appearance and spread of computers it’s become clear to everyone that in many positions there’s a certain number of moves that are equally strong. However much time you think at the board or analyse afterwards it’s impossible to fathom which move is best.

You quite often drive yourself into time trouble and chess beauty then goes out the window and the play becomes ragged. Doesn’t it upset you that you spoil the integrity of many games you’ve created?

I’ve got no regrets about the games themselves, as frankly I’ve never been narcissistic about my play. As for the result – yes, at times it’s annoying, but it’s very difficult to find the golden mean between getting into time trouble and just quickly “bashing out” moves. Sometimes players move quickly – bang-bang-bang, and then it turns out there’s a lot of time left, but it’s time to resign.

On chess and poker

In recent years many chess players have actively and successfully combined chess with poker. What’s behind that, in your view?

Chess and poker really do have a lot in common. To play both you need a lot of very similar qualities – perseverance, attention, the ability to concentrate and analyse possible options, logic and good calculating skills. On the other hand, for each game you need some kind of specific inborn talent. For example, after his wonderful basketball career Michael Jordan began to play baseball, but he didn’t gain any particular laurels. It would seem as though they both require similar skills, but in basketball he was one of the greatest players in history, if not the greatest, while in baseball he turned out to be mediocre. Despite that, for some chess players poker absolutely could become a real profession.

Are there some qualities or habits in poker that can be useful in chess?

All those that I mentioned – they’re interconnected. And once, after all, it was quite widespread that the same people could play at a top level in both football and hockey, for example Vsevolod Bobrov. When I’d just started playing poker you still didn’t need such narrow specialisation in order to succeed. And back then it was undoubtedly easier for me as a chess player.

On World Championship ambitions

A few years ago you said that you’re not a contender for the World Championship title. Has your opinion changed in these four years?

I don’t entirely understand the point of the question. It’s not important whether you’re a contender or not, but how you play. I also often fail to understand the question, “who do you consider the tournament favourite?” Particularly when that’s asked about an event in which someone is taking part themselves. It’s not important who the favourite is but who wins the tournament. Here as well – it’s not important who’s contending but who becomes the World Champion.

But do you set yourself such a goal now?

Goal would be going too far.

Grischuk-Carlsen in Round 11 of the 2013 London Candidates tournament, an event where time trouble thwarted the Russian's ambitions | photo: Anastasiya Karlovich  

I’ll put it another way – have you set yourself the target of qualifying for the next Candidates Tournament?

I don’t understand – if you set yourself such a goal does it make it easier for you? It seems to me it doesn’t. Any person who plays undoubtedly somehow strives for that and tries to win. I never understood the words, “I set myself such and such a goal”. It strikes me everything depends on a person’s character. Someone, for example, sets himself the goal of quitting smoking, while I, for example, know that it won’t work for me. I won’t give up until I want to myself. And if I’m not going to want it but set myself that goal I won’t quit smoking.

And have you been smoking for a long time?

I’ve been smoking for quite a long time, around 12 years.

On Magnus Carlsen

What qualities have allowed Carlsen to dominate chess and become World Champion?

The guy simply plays chess well. It seems to me that in such cases people are inclined to look for some supernatural explanation, although the simplest explanation is also the most appropriate: the guy simply plays chess well.

How big is the group of players who are capable of competing with him in the coming years?

It’s hard to say because his results recently are undoubtedly impressive, but history shows that it’s very rare for any domination by one person to last for a very long period of time. The group of Magnus’ competitors isn’t so small – eight to ten guys.

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