Interviews Jul 31, 2016 | 11:37 AMby Colin McGourty

Karjakin: “I didn’t feel very comfortable in Spain”

Sergey Karjakin’s last individual tournament before his World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen didn’t go to plan. He failed to win a single game in the 2016 Bilbao Masters, and lost the first game and came close to losing the second against the World Champion. The Russian star reflects on his performance in a recent interview and talks about the Russian team’s chances in the upcoming Olympiad in Baku.

Karjakin suffered a heavy defeat against Carlsen in their first game in Bilbao | photo: Bilbao Chess

Sergey was talking to Dmitry Perlin for the Russian Sport-Express newspaper:


Sergey, you didn’t have the most successful tournament of your career in Bilbao?

To be honest, it was hard to expect anything else. At the moment there’s a certain amount of responsibility and restraint. I want to preserve energy, not reveal opening preparation and play cautiously. At the same time, making dry draws and acting cautiously also isn’t in my nature. Therefore I didn’t feel very comfortable in Spain. On the other hand, though, practice was essential, and I didn’t especially want to avoid meeting Carlsen before the match. Therefore I took the decision to play. I went for a fight against Magnus, but it didn’t work out.

What happened in the first game?

Against 1.e4 I chose the Sicilian, which I’ve played quite rarely. I decided to play actively, but I chose a mistaken strategic plan and quite soon ended up in a hopeless position. Of course that upset me: at the very least the position I had was good enough for a draw, but I went wrong with my rook. After taking a look at the position at home I realised that if I’d chosen the correct plan it wouldn’t have been a comfortable game for Carlsen.

In the second game with White you also gave your fans nothing to cheer. You wanted to surprise your opponent with something, but you again ended up in a difficult position…

I went after a pawn in quite a risky manner and ultimately my queen got stuck behind enemy lines.


15...cxb5! was the computer's try for a black win, while 15...axb5 led to a draw

Perhaps if Carlsen had played the way the computer recommends I’d have been hoping for a miraculous escape. It would have been extremely unpleasant to lose to Carlsen twice.

In the end you didn’t manage to win a single game in Bilbao. Why?

The reasons were all the same as mentioned at the start of the conversation. In the last round I wanted to end the tournament on a high, beating China’s Wei Yi, but I simply no longer had the energy or the necessary mood. The most important thing now, though, is to draw conclusions and approach preparation to the match correctly. That’s what matters most to me.

Sergey during his final game against Wei Yi in the 2016 Bilbao Masters | photo: Manu de Alba, Bilbao Chess

What are your plans in Moscow?

I’ve got everything planned out by the day. I’m going to recover a little now, and then preparation will continue. There’s very little time left, and my coaching staff understand that as well, so work’s in full swing. We’ve got good conditions. The Russian Chess Federation provided us with ultra-modern computers essential for analysis, and private sponsors have provided me with funds to pay coaches, so I’d like to give individual thanks, as always, to my personal sponsors Alpari and Morton. I’m happy with everything and preparation is going the way I’d planned.

In a month’s time the World Chess Olympiad begins. As I understand it, that’s your last official event before the match?

Yes, my individual tournaments are over, but immediately after the Candidates I told the RCF management that I really wanted to be of use to the Russian team. I’ve already been a silver medallist twice with the national team. It was particularly frustrating that we let gold medals slip in Istanbul in 2012 and we really want to finally take gold. RCF President Andrei Filatov is putting big hopes in the men’s team. He even returned to his original profession and became our coach.

Russian Chess Federation President Andrei Filatov shows a wartime chess display to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi earlier this year - it's a fair bet Filatov will be the only billionaire team coach in Baku in a month's time! | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

Before every Olympiad Russia is considered the favourite. Our team has the highest average rating…

That’s not important, and I’m not even sure that we’ll now be first on paper. The USA team looks very powerful, with three grandmasters in the world Top 10. And how strong are the Chinese – the reigning champions? We still need to look at their entry in order to be sure who now has the highest average rating.


So far even though selecting Nepomniachtchi ahead of Svidler lowered the team’s average rating slightly, Russia will be favourites in Baku. If the other teams pick their strongest line-ups the rankings would look as follows (based on the new August FIDE rating list):

1. Russia

  1. Kramnik: 2808
  2. Karjakin: 2769
  3. Grischuk: 2754
  4. Nepomniachtchi: 2740

Average: 2765.75

2. USA

  1. Caruana: 2807
  2. Nakamura: 2791
  3. So: 2771
  4. Robson: 2674

Average: 2760.75

3. China

  1. Ding Liren: 2755
  2. Li Chao: 2753
  3. Wang Yue: 2737
  4. Yu Yangyi: 2725

Average: 2742.50


Each year the competition grows. Ukraine and France are traditionally strong. No doubt the tournament hosts, Azerbaijan, will be inspired on home soil, and after all, they’re the two-time European Champions. You shouldn’t forget about India and Hungary. Nowadays anyone could hit form, but we do, of course, set ourselves the goal of finally winning gold. We’ll do everything in our power to achieve that.

You have a good example – the women’s team…

Yes, the girls have done great. They’ve been first three years in a row, despite the clear favourite in their tournament being China. I think they still want to continue that success. At the last European Team Championship both the men’s and the women’s teams took gold, so we showed that we can work in tandem. (laughs)

Karjakin didn't play in the European Team Championship, missing out on an epic selfie!

Theoretically Russia might face Norway, and Carlsen’s playing there…

You’re hinting at yet another duel? Well, firstly, we still haven’t revealed who’ll play on which board. Secondly, even if everything comes together the captain decides who to play in a match. Thirdly, if it’s fated that Magnus and I will play yet another game before our match, I don’t see anything terrible about that.

Original interview at Sport-Express (in Russian)

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