Interviews Jun 25, 2017 | 12:30 PMby Colin McGourty

Kramnik on Carlsen’s slump & the Candidates race

Vladimir Kramnik turned 42 today, and the former World Champion did so as the no. 2 rated player on the live rating list after beating World Champion Magnus Carlsen in Altibox Norway Chess. In an interview afterwards he talked about the slump in form of both Magnus and his recent challenger Sergey Karjakin and also discussed his own hopes of qualifying for another World Championship match.

Vladimir Kramnik on the day of the 2017 Altibox Norway Chess blitz | photo: Jose Huwaidi

Vladimir Kramnik was talking to Marina and Sergei Makarichev in a Russian interview published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta. We’ve translated it below:

Marina and Sergei Makarichev: Vladimir, we don’t even know whether to congratulate you or to offer sympathy. On the one hand, sharing 2nd-3rd place in such a tournament isn’t bad at all, on the other hand, you can’t say luck was on your side in Stavanger…

Vladimir Kramnik: The result itself, as they say, is nothing special, but at the same time I played a lot of interesting games. I’d say that if the level of the tournament had been just a little bit lower I would have won a lot of them. Chess players in the world’s Top 10 put up an incredible amount of resistance, meaning that even if you achieve an advantage it’s extremely tough to beat them. Yes, So and Nakamura found long sequences of only moves and managed to hold very difficult positions. Meanwhile there’s almost nothing I can criticise myself for – they simply defended brilliantly! Such “bad luck” is testimony to the extremely high level of the tournament.

But you managed to bring the game against Magnus Carlsen to victory!

The play there was utterly different – very sharp and tempo by tempo, while in the games against Nakamura, So and Karjakin although I had a decent positional edge my opponents retained significant defensive resources. In the encounter with Carlsen one inaccuracy, a single mistake could cost the whole game, and I’m very glad I managed to exploit that mistake by my opponent.

Magnus Carlsen resigns against Kramnik for the first time in a classical game since 2010 | photo: Lennart Ootes

If only it wasn't for the stumble in the game in the penultimate round against Vachier-Lagrave where, having played the opening sharply with Black, you tried to win at all costs and even obtained a certain advantage… Were you hoping to win the last two games and fight for first place?

Kramnik had an up-and-down Altibox Norway Chess event but finished in joint 2nd behind Aronian

Yes, but alas, it didn’t work out…

On the live rating list you’ve now risen to second place in the world, and the gap between you and Magnus has been reduced to a minimum…

After the tournament the gap isn’t big at all, but I don’t pay any attention to that. First or second in the world… Of course it would be nice to be first at some point. No doubt that’s very important for the young guys who have never yet in their lives been first, but I was World Champion, and no. 1 on the rating list. It’s another matter that the rating reflects some kind of objective reality, and if you glance at the rating list then you’ll see that there are a few people who are now in direct proximity to Magnus, including myself. In principle you can see that if Carlsen continues to play how he’s been playing recently then someone will soon overtake him. I don’t know if that will be So, Aronian or myself. It’s clear that it’s time for him to come to his senses and get out of the crisis, as otherwise by the end of the year he’ll have lost first place on the rating list. 

At some point Magnus Carlsen was beating almost all of his opponents and winning tournament after tournament, but now something has changed dramatically – almost 180 degrees. Does that impression correspond to reality?

He really did play very strongly. Perhaps Carlsen’s results were a little inflated relative to the quality of his play, but it’s always like that when you’re on a winning streak. Your opponents get the impression you’re invincible and experience if not fear (that would be putting it too strongly!), then at the very least uncertainty. As they say, money goes to money, and results to results. Magnus is now experiencing a decline, but I think he’s actually playing significantly better than it seems from the outside. His results are too low for his level of play. In all of this there’s also an obvious psychological background, connected to the fact that for the first time in many years rivals have sensed his vulnerability.

Kramnik came within one game of swapping places with Carlsen, but instead Magnus kept his lead, for now... | source: 2700chess

And stopped fearing him!

They’ve started to play more boldly and confidently against him. It turned out that he also has weak points. At this tournament he was well-beaten by both Aronian and myself. It was also by no means inevitable that he would beat Karjakin.

In that game Magnus took crazy risks and could easily have lost!

He could. His remaining games ended perfectly logically in draws. In other words, you can’t claim that he should have got more from the tournament. I think it’s a temporary crisis that Magnus will overcome, but while a few years ago he was a clear leader it’s questionable whether he can regain that position.

In terms of live ratings you’ve climbed to second place and are only ten points behind Carlsen. Does that mean that you’ll qualify for the Candidates Tournament on rating? That topic is always pretty unclear…

Three people are currently fighting for the two rating places in the Candidates Tournament – me, So and Caruana. That unusual competition takes into account the 11 final rating lists of each month, starting with January and ending with December 2017. We’re now very close to each other, so it’s hard to say how things will be by the end of the year. It all depends on our play in the remaining time and, of course, on our performances at the World Cup.

All three of you are playing in the World Cup?

Yes, and we won’t only compete among ourselves but we’ll also reluctantly help each other. After all, both finalists qualify for the Candidates Tournament as World Cup winners, so if just one of us gets to the final that clears the way to the Candidates Tournament for the other two. Strictly speaking, it’s not even necessary that I get to the final…

But it’s nevertheless better to get there.

It’s better, of course, to get there and even win the Cup… I’ll try really hard, but I repeat that even Caruana or So getting to the final would guarantee me the Candidates Tournament.

You’re one of the few who has a decent score in encounters with Magnus Carlsen. How do you rate your chances if that match took place?

It would be very interesting to compete with Magnus, if only because that match would be some kind of completing the circle of my career. After all, I played World Championship matches with Kasparov, who was significantly older than me, and with representatives of my own generation, and with those who were a little younger than me. Carlsen is already the next generation. And although now he’s experiencing some kind of decline, it’s nevertheless obvious that he’s a unique chess player, the best chess player of the new generation. And from that point of view it would be extremely interesting to test my strength in a clash with that new generation, with the very best representative of it. I think that on account of experience I would have chances, although I would have to do very serious work. It’s clear he’s a powerful opponent, but… first of all, you need to qualify for such a match and, you know, that’s no easier than succeeding in the match itself.

Aronian & Kramnik both dream of unseating the current World Champion | photo: Jose Huwaidi

It’s harder to qualify for the match than to play it?

In any case, it’s comparable. The competition is now extremely high. The Candidates Tournament will be an incredibly strong tournament and, if Carlsen played it himself, there would be absolutely no guarantee that he would win it. So, Caruana, Aronian and Nakamura are now extremely strong. Mamedyarov has also improved a lot. That’s a whole array of wonderful players, close in rating to each other and also to Magnus. Each of them dreams about a match with Carlsen, so it would be strange before such a tournament, which (if I get into it!) it will be necessary to win, to talk in advance about a match for the chess crown. Nevertheless, I hope that I have good chances of qualifying to play him, and I’ll be very focussed on it…

Sergey Karjakin took clear last place in this tournament. How do you explain that result and how difficult it is to get out of that condition?

Even before the start of the tournament I considered that anyone could finish last, but also first. A very balanced line-up! And, if Karjakin hadn’t lost a wonderful position to Carlsen (and Sergey might also have won!), the World Champion would have finished in clear last. That’s something absolutely no-one expected! If you relax in such a tournament then you can easily drop to last place. Everyone faced that danger. Sergey Karjakin has lately been spending a lot of effort and energy on popularising chess and many things unconnected to chess. It seems to me that’s why he has problems with energy and is getting tired by the end of tournaments. My feeling is that he held on normally until the finishing straight, but then collapsed. It strikes me he needs to rest a little and fully get back to chess. The competition in the world just now is so great that the moment you get out of the training and playing rhythm it immediately becomes tough. I think he needs to take a time-out from any public activities, shut himself off, rest and do some good work. And then it will all come together.

They say you don’t become a champion but are born one. Are there any young chess players in Russia just now who could in future make a bid for the chess crown?

It’s impossible to predict who’ll become a champion. In order to be one of the leading players, never mind a world champion, it’s not enough simply to have a great chess gift. For that, besides enormous talent, you also need luck. After all, there were only 16 World Champions in the whole history of chess! I wouldn’t now want to name any young players since that would only stand in their way, but I’ll be working closely with the Sirius Chess School in Sochi to prepare young kids. This summer I’m planning to go to training camps there in order to give some lectures. There are wonderful conditions in Sirius and we – our coaching staff and me – will do all we can in order to help the guys fulfil their talent.

Vladimir isn't the only top player who celebrates a birthday on 25th June  Happy Birthday, Jan!

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