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Interviews Jan 14, 2022 | 1:17 AMby Tarjei Svensen

Kramnik on Carlsen's new target, what Firouzja needs to do and the top young talents

Vladimir Kramnik speaks about Magnus Carlsen and crossing 2900, what Alireza Firouzja needs to do, his memories from Wijk aan Zee, and Nodirbek Abdusattorov and the rise of the young generation in the first instalment of a candid, two-part interview. Always the good-natured gentleman, the 46-year-old was generous enough to give an exclusive interview for chess24 readers.

14th World Champion Vladimir Kramnik during the interview with chess24 

The retired 14th World Champion, who finished as high as 3rd in the World Blitz Championship in 2019, skipped the event in Warsaw and instead spent Christmas at home in Geneva, Switzerland. He ended up having to spend one week in bed with fever, but not with COVID like the rest of his family.

I am actually quite happy I didn’t go there, because I think maybe one third in the event got COVID! 

Kramnik doesn’t spend as much time on chess anymore, he says, with more than 50% of his time devoted to projects outside chess. But he tries to follow chess events when time permits it, especially when he appears as a commentator, as he did for the Julius Baer Challengers Chess Tour last year.

“It would be an absolutely incredible achievement”

Vladimir Kramnik during the rest day of the 2017 Norway Chess tournament in Stavanger | photo: Tarjei J. Svensen

Tata Steel Chess begins in Wijk aan Zee on Saturday, with Magnus Carlsen hunting his 8th title. The 2865-rated 31-year-old also announced he is targeting breaking the 2900 barrier

In this year’s edition, the 5-time World Champion needs to score 9 points in the 13 rounds just to avoid dropping any rating points. Scoring 10 points, would mean a gain of 11 points.

How does Kramnik rate Carlsen’s chances of breaking 2900?

It's very difficult. There is a chance, I would say, but I wouldn't say this chance is very high. The chance is 10 percent, maybe. It would of course be absolutely amazing if he would do it and it would be an absolutely incredible achievement.

But just objectively, simply because the theory nowadays has developed so much, that even if you are Jesus Christ you cannot beat some top player with Black if he doesn't want to lose! (laughs) It's just becoming so difficult!

He adds:

Let's say he wants to achieve a 100 Elo points difference with other players. That's one story: to be much, much better than the number 2. That is possible. He is practically there. But to be 2900, you have to start making +5 in top tournaments every time. It's just very difficult, because even if you play perfectly they just don't let you win, because they know theory and simply because they play well.

Somebody probably needs goals, like Magnus. He has this character that he needs some goals, so anyway he set this goal. I never really cared or set goals. If he feels like he needs a goal, and that will help him to perform better and to give us pleasure to see high-level chess, then it is good for everyone. Only that achieving it will be difficult.

“It's not like Firouzja is now clearly the guy to challenge Magnus”

Magnus Carlsen announced that he will only play another World Championship match if Alireza Firouzja is the challenger. The question is: will Firouzja qualify? | photo: Lennart Ootes/

Closest to Carlsen on the world rankings is Alireza Firouzja, who, rated 2804, is 61 points behind in the world no. 2 spot. The Iranian-born Frenchman has been particularly impressive over the past year, and is hailed as a future World Champion. 

Having qualified for the Candidates, which is set to take place in June, Firouzja will turn 19 during the tournament and could become the World Champion before his 20th birthday. All he needs to do is to win the event ahead of Fabiano Caruana, Teimour Radjabov, Jan-Krzysztof Duda, Sergey Karjakin, Ian Nepomniachtchi and the two qualifers from the FIDE Grand Prix. And beat Magnus.

Kramnik is impressed by the teenager, but says:

He is of course impressive. To be 2800 at this age… he is the biggest player of the new generation. As always, he still has a lot to learn. It’s not like he is now clearly the guy to challenge Magnus. He still needs to improve his game. I don’t think his game is flawless yet.

Kramnik doesn’t want to go into further details as to where Firouzja needs to improve, not to give any hints to his opponents.

It’s clear that his play is not so complete yet. He still has lots of things to improve. But it’s clear that I am impressed. And I believe he is going to play a World Championship match one day, let’s put it this way. But is it going to be now? Well, there is a chance, but he is not the favourite in the Candidates, let’s be frank, because, at minimum, he lacks experience, and so on. But there is a chance, and I guess he is going to work hard to try to make use of this chance. But even if he doesn’t, it’s not a drama. He needs to get experience, and experience playing the Candidates is really essential. It’s very important for him that he is going to play in this event. 

Kramnik, who played in five World Championship matches himself, has a few tips for Firouzja.

I think the best for Firouzja, just my thinking, is not to be too concentrated on trying to win it, because he has time, he is young. There are some players in this Candidates whose time is starting to tick. They don’t have so much time left. Firouzja has all the time in the world. Of course you always want to perform immediately and now. It would be amazing if he wins it, but in any case it will be an incredible experience. Maybe then, in a couple of years, he will become a more rounded player, and learn some things. Then maybe in two years, he will be a fully ready player. Who knows? Or maybe in four years, he will just be 22-23, it’s nothing. 

If you want to become World Champion, there is no reason to hurry. There are not many World Champions, so even if you are 30, it’s still okay!

He continues:

He has a dream situation. He is young, he has already achieved a lot, he is playing the Candidates, he is getting incredible experience. In his case, I would just relax, try to do well and don't really think about winning it. Of course you can have it in your mind, but not keep all the pressure on you of trying to win it. 

Even for Magnus there is no guarantee, and why does it necessarily have to be Alireza? There are some incredible players also, like Aronian and so on. You just have a chance and can play, and okay, if you get there close to the end of the tournament, then all of a sudden you have chances, then you may start to put pressure on yourself. 

But if you start from the beginning, especially based on the media, based on all these people who just now believe the match is going to be Carlsen against Firouzja, it’s not very productive, especially when you are young.

The world no. 2 is missing in Wijk aan Zee, after the organisers rejected his demands for compensation over the row at the end of the 2021 edition.

“I am surprised that some of them are still not very high-rated”

Firouzja isn’t the only youngster posting impressive performances these days. 17-year-old Nodirbek Abdusattorov sensationally won the World Rapid Championship in Poland, a performance that led to him being gifted a flat by the Uzbek government.

Nodirbek Abdusattorov sensationally won the World Rapid Championship, where he defeated Magnus Carlsen along the way | photo: Lennart Ootes/FIDE

When asked about Abdusattorov, Kramnik says even Top 10 would be a big achievement for him, then starts talking about the rising generation of young players.

It’s clear that this generation is coming, it’s actually quite a powerful and very talented generation, quite a number of extremely talented players who are going to be Top 10 soon. 

I have noticed that by working with them, talking with them, and I also give masterclasses. I notice the dimension of talent. It’s a very, very strong generation.

It’s not a surprise for me that they are going slowly, and surely. We can also mention Praggnanandhaa and Gukesh, and many, many others. They are really good, really top, top guys. Then you need to realise that probably not all of them will realise their potential 100 percent. But it’s clear to me that all these guys will be Top 10 players, it’s just a matter of time. Then maybe one of them will become a World Champion.

In this sense it's no surprise they are improving, it’s actually the other way around — I am kind of surprised that some of them are still not very high-rated. They are not showing better results, because I think they can.

What is lacking, and why aren’t they posting better results? 

I don’t know, everybody has his own thing. Everybody has their own pace of development, it never goes smoothly. Sometimes you jump, then you kind of stabilize. It seems like for one year you are not improving, and then all of a sudden you accumulate certain experience and knowledge, and then you jump high. That’s why everyone is at his own pace. All in all, sooner or later quite a number of guys from this generation will be challenging these old lions, Caruana, So and other grandpas. 

Does Kramnik see anything special in Abdusattorov?

Of course, but as special as 2-3 other guys. I don’t want to name names, but I believe there are maybe five guys who have a very big talent, including Abdusattorov. Who will do better, you never know. They will all do well.

I wouldn’t say Abdusattorov is something extremely special. He is special, but it’s not like he is the best or clearly better than all the others. There are some other good guys. I wish him well and he is extremely talented. I had some sessions on chess24, and I saw him play. He has some things to work on. I told him, and will not tell you, but there is still some serious work to be done. 

But again, if you have talent, will, and want to work, then I don’t see the problem. The only problem in this situation can be to not understand, to think everything is fine and that he is flawless. But I don’t think he is like this.

Two of these talents will be tested in Wijk aan Zee — Praggnanandhaa and Andrey Esipenko, who beat Carlsen in last year’s event.

“I was half an hour late for the game, but I won it anyway!”

While the Masters and Challengers will go on as planned despite the lockdown in the Netherlands, Kramnik thinks the absence of the amateurs and spectators will have an impact on its atmosphere.

I don’t know how I would feel with all these restrictions. Last year was a bit sad, as I understand it. It’s a little bit difficult to play in this atmosphere without spectators. I guess professional players are used to it now, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s just not the same, especially when you have played the event for many years and know how lively the atmosphere is, and you come to the same hall, and it’s empty. For me, it would be a bit difficult psychologically. It’s like football without spectators. It’s a very difficult feeling, it’s not the same.

Kramnik does himself have some good memories from Wijk aan Zee, where he shared first place with Viswanathan Anand in 1998. He calls it “a very special tournament”.

It was always a bad tournament for me, it was my worst tournament in general, even if I liked the atmosphere for actually a simple reason. I knew that every time I wouldn’t do well, but I just like the tournament so I would come anyway. I had a very good tournament in 2018, I made +4.

I remember from 1998, I was so young, I remember against Boris Gelfand I overslept. It starts too early, at 1:30pm. I woke up in my bed, and it was 1:40. I was half an hour late for the game, but I won it anyway. Some good memories, some funny ones. But 1998, can you imagine how many years ago it is?

The second part of the interview with Vladimir Kramnik will be published in the coming days.

Meanwhile you can follow Tata Steel Chess live on chess24 from Saturday 13.30 CET with Peter Svidler and Jan Gustafsson commentating in English: Tata Steel Masters | Tata Steel Challengers

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