Interviews Dec 3, 2016 | 12:06 PMby Colin McGourty

Karjakin and Kasparov lock swords after match

Garry Kasparov was almost alone in failing to praise Sergey Karjakin after the World Championship match, describing the challenger as “drab”. In an interview for Radio Svoboda Kasparov went on to say that it would have been a debacle (or “misunderstanding”) if Karjakin had become the 17th World Champion. Karjakin hit back in some of his post-match interviews, describing Carlsen as a more universal player than Kasparov and saying the former champion “does everything against Russians, so naturally he was supporting Carlsen”.

Karjakin faces the press on his return to Moscow | photo: D Isayeva, Soviet Sport/

Kasparov and Karjakin

Garry Kasparov is now based in New York, but was conspicuously absent from the World Championship match. That was no doubt partly due to his icy relationship with the World Chess Federation, but also his political views could hardly be more distinct from those of Crimean-born Karjakin, who said on his arrival back in Moscow (captured on video here):

Vladimir Putin himself was also supporting me, so I’m very glad to be back home where people love and are awaiting me.

Garry tweeted during the Champions Showdown in St. Louis:

And then after the match was over:

In an interview with Radio Svoboda he went into much more detail about the match. Highlights include:

It’s obvious that Carlsen played this match significantly below his capabilities. I don’t know what amount of opening and psychological preparation he did, but from the way Carlsen played it’s obvious that he nevertheless was unable to take his opponent seriously. It’s clear that Magnus is the favourite and surpasses Karjakin in almost all stages of a game of chess, but a match is an encounter between two characters, so the mental resilience for the struggle is very important. It seems to me that at the start of the match Magnus was looking beyond Karjakin, thinking of how his chess career would develop and what he’d manage to do to promote chess in America.

What happened in the third and in particular the fourth game just doesn’t fit into my conception of how Magnus can play. If in the third game the win was elusive, in the fourth by move 20 Magnus had a won position, the evaluation of which didn’t change for 25 or 30 moves. He could have won on many occasions and it didn’t even require any complicated calculation of variations. The fact that Karjakin ultimately managed to build a fortress strikes me as having come as a shock to Magnus, and in the following four games, while the initiative didn’t exactly switch to Karjakin, he at least played pretty confidently. When Magnus once more pushed too hard in the eighth game he was punished for it. Nevertheless, even those twists and turns in the match didn’t change the overall assessment. After all, Magnus is a World Championship level chess player, while Karjakin is simply a strong grandmaster whose fighting qualities enabled him to reach a match for the World Championship title.

In your tweet you called Karjakin “drab”. That means that, as a former World Champion, you weren’t satisfied with his level of play, or there are some other reasons?

I was only commenting on the chess aspect. Karjakin as World Champion would have been a debacle. After all, the 16 World Champions, starting from Steinitz, are a series of outstanding masters whom chess can be proud of. It would have been very strange, the stars would have had to align in an unusual configuration, for a chess player of Karjakin’s level to beat a player of Carlsen’s level.

If Karjakin had chosen differently in Game 9 above there's every chance he would have become the 17th undisputed World Champion, but instead like Leko, Topalov and Gelfand he fell just short 

You’ve coached Magnus Carlsen, of course, and know him very well. Does he still have room to grow or has he already reached his peak form?

I worked with Magnus seven years ago, and since then Magnus has changed a lot. Already back then it was clear to me that he had absolutely fantastic potential, and he’d begun to realise that potential. He’s now 26, so he still has some time to develop precisely when it comes to mental resources. He needs to constantly set himself some goals, but it’s also obvious that chess players reach their peak by about 30, or perhaps earlier. Will Magnus be able to climb even higher? It’s hard to say. At the level at which he’s playing now – a phenomenal level, when he really gives his all and not the way he played against Karjakin – it’s hard to say if rivals will be able to beat him in 2018 or even 2020. More likely than not, Magnus’ main matches will be played with players who are younger than he is, even if only a little younger. But Magnus looks like being the favourite in the upcoming two, or perhaps four years.

In your view has the match that’s just ended made a serious contribution to the theory of chess?

It’s hard to talk about a serious breakthrough in chess theory, because computer preparation for such matches largely neutralises the level of surprise. Everyone tries to play as cautiously as possible, not getting into long theoretical duels where it’s possible to lose the game without making a single move of your own. Therefore the play was pretty manoeuvring, but I think any such match makes some contribution to the development of chess theory. I also think the match demonstrated that classical chess, with the traditional time control, can still lead to exciting play i.e. the myth that everything speeding up will kill chess has, it seems to me, been refuted by how the match went. Of course, there was the short Game 12, which provoked a lot of negative reactions, but I wouldn’t focus too sharply on that, because it was clear: the players’ thoughts were already concentrated on rapid. Magnus took a completely correct decision not to risk in one game but to play four games in rapid, where his chances of victory were much greater.

Karjakin, who is now planning to rest until the World Rapid and Blitz in Qatar, gave a big interview for Sport-Express in which he compared Carlsen and Kasparov:

What makes the Norwegian the world’s best player?

The average level of his moves is very high. While I can finish first or sixth, Carlsen maintains his level and rarely falls below second place. He makes almost no mistakes.

In your opinion, who’s stronger: Kasparov in his best years or Carlsen?

Magnus, I think. It’s not just that I lost to him. It’s simply that the Norwegian is a more universal chess player. Kasparov had very good openings and tactically he was at a very high level, but in positional play and the endgame it seems to me that he was far inferior to the current Carlsen. I consider the Norwegian a more universal chess player.

Karjakin talked about his relations with Kasparov and Karpov:

In general Kasparov and I don’t speak, and I have no intention of doing that since I think that he’s doing a lot of bad things, including for chess. Anatoly Karpov and I, meanwhile, have excellent relations. From time to time I go to visit him and we play training games. In particular, before my trip to America I was at his house again and he gave me tips that I employed. They were useful.

How the match went

Karjakin also talked about the course of the match and the expectations before it started:

I understood perfectly well that there was a chance. And that’s what I always said. Recall history. When Kramnik beat Kasparov it was a sensation. Before the match nobody believed in such a turn of events. And when Alekhine beat Capablanca? Their direct score before that was 0:5! So I couldn’t understand why, for example, the bookmakers overestimated Magnus’ chances so much.

When did you feel anything was possible?

After the third and fourth games, which proved very tough. It was my own fault for letting myself get into such positions, but nevertheless I managed to hold the defence even in those. And then I understood that I can “dig in”. Already in the fifth game, where I was playing Black, the initiative was on my side. I had a serious advantage, but I failed to find the means to convert it into a win. But the match at that point was getting very sharp. And the segment from the fifth to the tenth game took place with the advantage on my side. Then, however, Carlsen found his game.

Sergey, when Magnus left the press conference after losing the game did you sense that he’d cracked at that point?

I had that impression, and therefore in the next game I played very sharply, choosing a principled line. That proved justified, and back then Magnus only escaped by a miracle. His confidence was seriously shaken, as he admitted himself when it was all over – and also that our World Championship match had been the toughest for him.

Missing a forced draw with Nxf2 in Game 10 had huge consequences, as Magnus went on to win and, as he later said, get his mojo back:

Firstly, here you have to recall the ninth game, in which I played White and had a big advantage. But at some point Magnus began to defend fantastically and was able to draw the game. That was already quite an unpleasant moment for me, because I wanted to win a second game in a row. And then, in the tenth game the task was to hold, not to lose with Black. It didn’t even cross my mind that my opponent could overlook the situation with a possible perpetual check. I treated him with too much respect and didn’t even check such a natural move. You might say I fell victim to my own respect for Magnus.

24-hour seconds

Sergey’s known team of seconds are all those who have helped him before: Vladimir Potkin, Alexander Motylev, Shakhriyar Mamedyarov and Kasparov’s old coach Yury Dokhoian. 

Vladimir Potkin and Russian Chess Federation President Andrey Filatov in New York | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, FIDE

Yury also gave his assessment of the match for Sport-Express:

I think we performed almost at our maximum. If in future we get another such chance then of course we’ll make some corrections, but overall, taking into account the predictions before the match and the result we ended up with, everything went normally. You have to understand, Sergey is the kind of sportsman and person who doesn’t always achieve a result on his first attempt. If you recall, even in the Candidates Tournament he was initially second, and then he won the next one. The chess community was very unwilling to acknowledge Karjakin as a World Championship contender. Our world is conservative, and over the whole course of his career Sergey has had to prove that his own ambitions aren’t accidental. It seems to me that with this match he’s forced people to respect him.

We came up with a strategy whereby the seconds would work for Sergey around the clock. While Vladimir Potkin and Alexander Motylev were sleeping in New York I’d be working in Moscow. The idea was very interesting and we really did do a good job of using the time difference. I got a task, fulfilled it, and then the guys would wake up and find the result ready in their email.

The main thing is that Sergey understood that in principle it’s possible for him to become World Champion, and even when the whole chess world is sceptical you can beat Carlsen himself i.e. a person who’s ahead on rating not only of you but of the whole world. Magnus now realises that it’s not all so simple. I think that before the match he nevertheless underestimated his opponent. I’m sure that Sergey’s goal remains the same regardless and the next match, if we’re granted one, will at the very least be more unpleasant for the World Champion.

Carlsen and Karjakin’s ways of coping with pressure

Magnus Carlsen had already told us in the post-match press conference that he was “in a dark place” after his loss in Game 8, when he found himself behind for the first time in a World Championship match, and with only four games to go. 

The headline of the NRK story on Magnus coping with defeat (with help from Google Translate)

In a story by NRK Magnus’ coach Peter Heine Nielsen is quoted as saying “it was out of control”. In order to try and get Carlsen back in the groove they resorted to “partying”, though that may be something of an exaggeration. In any case, Carlsen’s chef Magnus Forsell is credited with the idea that they went out for a burger and then stayed up late with the whole team, chatting about football and basketball and playing computer games. Those late night sessions would continue, though it’s hard not to credit the victory in Game 10 for turning everything around.

Karjakin and his manager Kirill Zangalis, meanwhile, revealed some extraordinary information in the Sport-Express interview. First Karjakin explained:

During the tournament I don’t talk to anyone, I turn off my telephone. Before the tournament I switched my SIM card and barely gave anyone my new number, not even Kirill. I do that because there’s a very large flow of information, and in chess you need to have full concentration. You need to disengage from and remove yourself from the outside world.

That was nothing compared to what Kirill claimed a moment later, though:

Sergey and I have an unspoken agreement dating from 2014. We didn’t immediately arrive at that because Sergey is a polite person and couldn’t immediately tell me that it wasn’t just me but everyone that disturbed him. In New York they would ask, “Well, and how is Sergey?” And I’d reply, “You won’t believe it but I only saw him at the opening and the closing ceremony”. I’m the only person who didn’t know in which hotel he was staying, although that sounds incredible. For now, as you can see, that was helpful. At the Candidates Tournament Sergey had a personal request that I didn’t allow any of his acquaintances into the playing hall.

If true, it wasn’t quite the hands-on approach of Magnus’ manager Espen Agdestein... So what did Karjakin get up to after the games?

The rest day in #NYC . Photo by @photochess. #worldchess2016 #restday #Karjakin #Карякин

A photo posted by Sergey Karjakin (@sergey_karjakin) on

In New York we went for long walks every evening and got away from what was happening, gathering our thoughts and mentally preparing for the next game, discussing the current situation with our coaches. And what else could I allow myself to do? It’s tough to say. There are chess players who play sport during events, but for me that gets in the way in a chess sense. Therefore I simply lie down, rest and go for walks.

Sergey revealed the first thing he did on getting back to Moscow, after facing the press in the airport, was to go and see his one-year-old son, who during the match had taken his first steps:

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