Interviews Oct 11, 2016 | 2:27 PMby Colin McGourty

Karjakin: "If Carlsen wants to beat me he needs to show the best play of his life"

The Carlsen-Karjakin World Championship match starts exactly one month today in New York, with the players now entering the finishing straight of their preparation. Magnus Carlsen is said to have already entered his “bubble”, while Sergey Karjakin recently gave a final press appearance in Russia before he heads to Miami on 17 October for a training camp. In a lengthy interview with R-Sport Karjakin talked about his “killer instinct”, his work with Mamedyarov and Nepomniachtchi, and what he expects in New York.

Sergey Karjakin making the winner's speech after qualifying to play Magnus through the Moscow Candidates Tournament | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

The World Championship mind games have already begun, with many people noting on social media that trying to open in your browser instead takes you to...

Sergey Karjakin as you've never seen him before...

That little joke didn’t escape Karjakin’s attention, with the Russian grandmaster commenting in a press conference:

I want to talk about a funny episode. Not so long ago Team Carlsen bought the domain name and made it redirect to their site. I think I can sue to regain that domain. At least I’m considering it…

Carlsen’s manager Espen Agdestein has denied to that the Carlsen team had any involvement in the matter.

Magnus, meanwhile, was in New York last month for the Play Live Challenge, where he took on 11 opponents selected from the users of his app. That trip also featured one of the least explicable photo opportunities ever – with Magnus ending up at the same table as Bloomberg CEO Michael Bloomberg and the controversial figures of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and former US diplomat Henry Kissinger:

Another recent appearances of Magnus in the press was a “lifestyle” interview in the Financial Times, focused on his Oslo house:

He’s also set to “appear” in the Simpsons, with VG TV showing footage of his recording his lines:

After that whirlwind series of appearances Magnus is planning to cut back on anything not related to chess:

Sergey Karjakin, meanwhile, hasn’t been quite so prolific, but gave a final press conference a few days ago when he talked about the match. We particularly liked:

He’s also given longer interviews, which brings us to the following talk with Anatoly Samokhvalov for RSport, which we've translated from Russian:

Samokhvalov: Carlsen is known for his killer instinct.

Karjakin: Yes, that’s definitely the case.

Are you ready to take on that killer?

Why not? I’ve also got that instinct. You know what the difference is?


For me that killer instinct is only in chess, while for him it’s in life.


Yes, he behaves as if he wants to win in all sports that he plays, in football, cards or whatever. When he loses he gets mad. In my view I’ve got a preferable form of that killer instinct, because I try to win where it’s important, while he does regardless of whether it’s important or not.

You don’t like to win at cards?

That’s funny. I simply don’t play those games, but football or tennis… I want to win, but at the end of the day it’s not so important for me.

But what’s more important than hitting the back of the other team’s net? An incisive pass?

In football what interests me is enjoying myself and improving my physical shape.

And when did you develop that killer instinct?

Long ago, in my childhood. Once I spent three days travelling by bus from Kiev to Greece for the European U10 Championship. I was nine years old. The journey was absolutely crazy, and the moment I got off the bus they sat me down at the board. I was so exhausted I blundered a piece on move 10 and lost. In order to win the tournament I needed to score eight points out of eight, and I did it. In my career I’ve won a large number of deciding games, and the roots of that were planted in my childhood.

You’re in a good mood before your departure for the USA. What’s the basis of that? You’ve got nothing to lose?

No, I can’t pretend that the result of the match isn’t very important for me. I want to win and return the crown to Russia. It’s not for nothing my sponsors, training staff and I have been doing so much work. Of course I’ll try to win, but from a psychological point of view it’s tougher for him to defend his title. Everyone expects nothing but victory from him, but it might not be so easy for him. Carlsen will have to work full out during the match, and we’ll see what kind of form he’s in. If I’m in good form then I’ve got every chance of success.

Karjakin with the 12th World Chess Champion Anatoly Karpov at the recent Tal Memorial blitz | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

This is the second time today I’ve heard you talking about “good form” or “peak form”. What does that look like, that peak, from the inside?

Of course it all depends, and there are a lot of factors that play a role – and a little luck. If my opponent leads me in the opening into a variation where I can play an opening bomb we’ll then see how that bomb explodes, and if I can win the game. Then you can say I’m in peak form. Or perhaps you could say I was just lucky. Peak form can’t even be seen from the inside, so it’s more important to guess where Carlsen will lead me, into which openings, and where he’s trying to catch me out. It’s going to be a battle of nerves, and mainly behind the scenes.

So you’re putting the emphasis on the opening, which isn’t Carlsen’s favourite area?

The basis of all games is the opening. From childhood onwards I was taught to fight for an opening advantage, but over time the emphasis has changed: at one time a chess player with the white pieces wanted to get a big advantage rather than “a little better”, while a few years later “a little better” was the mark of success in the opening with White. Now it’s considered good if you can simply get a playable position that you’ve studied better than your opponent. Therefore winning a game in the opening is almost impossible and there’s going to be some kind of fight.

How prepared are you for aggressive play and complications?

I don’t consider Magnus an aggressive chess player in terms of his style. What I mean is that he can be mentally aggressive, he wants to beat you, but at times he tries to do that via the ending, via dry, positional play. Tactics only occur in his games when they’re essential. Carlsen plays strictly according to the position. He’s not, for example, like Mikhail Tal, who would sacrifice and aim for crazy games. Magnus is more balanced.

In your view as his rival, what kind of form is Magnus in now?

A World Championship match is such a special tournament that form doesn’t have a big significance. It’s important how well he manages to prepare for the match, and not only for the chess but in psychological terms. It’ll be interesting to see whether the need to win the match puts pressure on him? But those are questions for him, while I’ll just say that he’s not going to have an easy ride.

Levon Aronian also told me that it’s not worth overestimating the factor of form before title matches. Viswananthan Anand became World Champion after entering the match in almost terrible shape.

True, though Carlsen does nevertheless give some basis for analysis. He plays quite often, at the Olympiad, at the tournament in Bilbao. The issue is to find those crumbs, those stylistic features, which I can either exploit or, on the contrary, avoid during play. That work isn’t visible to outsiders, but it’s underway.

Did you find those same Norwegian crumbs in that tournament in Bilbao in July?

Of course. Even just the fact that I lost to him there despite having a good position forces me to consider what I did wrong and what I need to be worried about.

The warm-up in Bilbao didn't go quite as planned for Karjakin...

But by now answers should already have been found to those questions, it seems.

We’ve drawn conclusions, but the analysis continues.

Bilbao – wasn’t that a dangerous event for you, considering Carlsen’s first place with 17 points while you were quite distant on nine points? Perhaps you should have skipped it?

But nothing terrible happened there. I gained experience, played two games against Magnus, losing one, but I showed people that I’m not afraid to engage Carlsen in an open battle. Many advised me not to take part in that tournament, but I don’t see anything tragic about the result.

It didn’t send a chill down your spine?

No, it’s business as usual. The main thing is how it goes in New York. Let’s again recall Viswanathan Anand, who before winning his title match against Veselin Topalov [it seems Karjakin means Vladimir Kramnik] also suffered a debacle in Bilbao. Moreover, in Bilbao he lost to Topalov in a crushing fashion back then. Vishy was wiped off the board. Do you see the tradition? I merely lost to Magnus in one individual game.

The Vice President of the Moscow Chess Federation GM Sergey Smagin told R-Sport that you can count on success in the USA if you show the “best play of your life”. What should the “best play of your life” look like?

I think that if Carlsen wants to beat me he needs to show the best play of his life. Actually, it’s all subjective, and in order to win it may be enough to catch your opponent out in some nuances. At times it’s enough to beat an opponent in one game, and then he can get nervous, although the 12-game length makes it possible to mount a comeback.

You still won’t fully reveal your coaching team?

No, I want to preserve some surprises, but my team is big, and includes both people connected to chess and unconnected. Before our conversation I rang my doctor, with whom I’m also working very seriously.

What does the doctor specialise in?

He’s a masseur, who will also accompany me during the match. I’m counting on his non-chess help.

It’s hard to imagine you without your coaches Yury Dokhoian and Vladimir Potkin.

You don’t change a winning team, so we’re all together.

You also worked with Azeri Grandmaster Shakhriyar Mamedyarov.

And we’re continuing to cooperate. I don’t know if he’ll help me directly in the USA or remotely, but he will help me in some way. Shakhriyar introduced a certain aggression into my play, since my style was a little bit more academic than you need to beat the world’s best chess players. He added a little spice, since Mamedyarov is a very aggressive and dynamic grandmaster. At the Candidates Tournament in Moscow I sacrificed a queen and a rook, and I had no qualms about smaller sacrifices such as of a pawn. That was the influence of Mamedyarov. That aggression enabled me to win back then, and I hope it’ll help me in America.

Did your cooperation prevent Mamedyarov from performing well at the Tal Memorial?

Perhaps, although the very first time he came to the Tal Memorial Shakhriyar played the most boring tournament of his whole life, making nine draws. On this occasion he at least won two games, though he lost two as well. He took risks and sacrificed a piece in the game against Anand.

The winner of the Tal Memorial, Ian Nepomniachtchi, has also worked with you. What did that give you?

Ian has simply started to study more chess and not waste time on cybersport or whatever else, that perhaps distracted him before. Given how talented he is, it didn’t take long for the results to follow. I won’t talk about the purely chess things that we studied together, but he’s a wonderful sparring partner – that’s for sure. Ian is the same age as Magnus and I, so it’s always fun and that also helps things along.

You still haven’t switched to a regime of training based on American hours?

It’s a little early. We’ll switch to a new regime in Miami, where I’m heading on 17 October. 20 days on the US coast should be enough to acclimatise. In general America is, of course, interesting. Whatever you think about it, it’s a great country. My wife flew to New York first for the match inspection, and said that she liked the match organisation, but not New York itself. 

So I’m wondering what impressions I’ll have of that city and Miami.

Ilyumzhinov said that he’ll invite US President Barack Obama and the current candidates for his post – Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton.

If they all turn up it’ll be fun, but I don’t think it’s likely that will happen.

Which of them would you like to talk with?

With Trump. In my view he’s the most insane! It would be fun to chat with him.

What would you ask him?

Does he play chess and has chess helped him in his business success?

Nothing provocative?

Perhaps if there were no journalists present I’d ask him something else… But with reporters, only about chess. After all, I’m representing not only my own interests but the interests of chess, so I consider the presence of any head of state or other influential figures to be to the benefit of our sport.

FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov loses the "who has the biggest smart phone?" battle to Karjakin at the Tal Memorial | photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation 

Can you take the black caviar that helped you in the Candidates Tournament to Miami and New York?

It’s forbidden to take it. If they allowed it I’d take it.

They sell it in duty-free?

As far as I know when you enter America they ask you: “Are you carrying any food products?” I need to check.

So you might have to do without that huge jar that you talked about at the tournament in Moscow?

Perhaps it won’t be with me. It’s true that jar at least partially helped me to reach the match for the crown.

Original at RSport (in Russian)

In organisational terms the big news is that the video broadcast from the match will be pay-per-view. That was announced by Agon CEO Ilya Merenzon during a press conference at the Baku Olympiad, with similar wording used to when the World Championship coverage was last pay-per-view for Anand-Kramnik in Bonn in 2008. That didn’t revolutionise the chess industry back then, but the availability of 360-degree virtual reality video is a novelty, at least for chess. The verdict after its widespread use, for instance at the Rio Olympics, has been mixed, but the small space and proximity of the players may mitigate some of the technical issues… how closely you want to stare at the players and board may be another issue!  Check out more details at the official website.

For Norwegian viewers, meanwhile, the coverage will be available for free on national TV. Here at chess24, we’ll keep you informed of how we’re going to cover the event in the days and weeks to come – you won’t want to miss it!

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