Interviews Feb 10, 2016 | 12:51 PMby Colin McGourty

Kramnik on Kasparov, Topalov and much more

Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik has given a long interview to Sport Express in which talks about the Candidates, what it meant to beat Garry Kasparov and Veselin Topalov, the current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, cheating in chess and much more. The world no. 2, who plays in the Zurich Chess Challenge this Friday, also talked about the new 40-minute time control to be used there, suggesting it might be employed in future World Championship matches.

Vladimir Kramnik taking on Bela Khotenashvili in the first round of his last tournament - the 2015 Qatar Masters | photo: Katerina Savina, Qatar Masters website  

Vladimir Kramnik was talking to Kirill Zangalis and Vladimir Barsky in the interview for the Russian sports newspaper Sport Express.


Zangalis/Barsky: For the first time in many years you’re not taking part in the World Championship struggle. How do you feel in the new role of “observer”?

Kramnik: I’m calm about it. It was a twist of fate that I didn’t get into the Candidates Tournament. The rating taken into account was over a period when I didn’t qualify by rating. I’ve got no complaints. That period was determined in advance, but if you shift it two months forwards or backwards then I’d get in. Perhaps the Candidates should be chosen on a more recent rating in order to reflect the strength of a chess player at the given period of time and not a year ago…

It’s not the end of the world, though – there are other interesting tasks. I’ll try to improve my play. Of course I’d like to fight for the World Championship, considering I’m already an older chess player and I don’t have so much time left. It’s a little annoying to miss this cycle, but what can you do? Over the years I’ve become accustomed to accepting such things as they are.

Rating jumps happen to everyone, even Carlsen. He’s more stable than the rest but he also had a pretty big drop recently. There’s fierce competition and a very tight tournament schedule. Anand, for example, has also become unstable: half a year ago he was second in the world, and now he’s dropped out of the Top 10. Perhaps, though, he’ll soon be back, because he’s a player of the highest class.

What goals do you have other than the World Championship?

A lot! This year I’d like to win the Olympiad with Russia, to simply play well, to enjoy playing and to create good games. The most important thing is to maintain my interest in the game and motivation. If those two elements go then it’s time to put an end to practical play, but for now, fortunately, everything’s normal in that regard.

Who’s the favourite for the Candidates Tournament?

There’s no favourite: everyone is of a very similar level. Everything will depend on the form in which this or that player comes into the tournament, plus a little luck. Almost any participant could win – that’s not avoiding an answer but the current reality.

In the open tournament in Gibraltar Anand suffered two painful losses. Will that affect his confidence in his own ability?

Of course, but he’s got enough time to recover. He won the last Candidates Tournament very convincingly, and you can’t rule out him winning this time as well.

Caruana was the only Candidate who in any way impressed in Wijk aan Zee this year, here beating Wei Yi to move within half a point of Magnus with three rounds to go | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni 

In Wijk aan Zee were Caruana, Giri and Karjakin “keeping things hidden” and not going all out to win?

It’s clear they weren’t on top form. No doubt each of them considered this a “warm-up” or training tournament, although they also wanted to show good play. Caruana did better than the others, but that was mainly due to his fighting spirit. I think they’ll all improve, and some of them very significantly, before the Candidates Tournament.

Not long before Gibraltar there was an open tournament in Qatar, where both you and Carlsen took part. Is it a recent trend: top grandmasters playing in opens?

Yes, democracy (smiles). But then why not? In 2014 I played my first open tournament in a long time in Qatar, and I liked it. It’s important that the tournament was strong, as not all opens are alike. In Gibraltar or Qatar except, perhaps, in the first couple of rounds, you play against decent grandmasters and top players. It’s pretty interesting. At any age, at any stage of your career, you want to get new experience from a tournament, to add something to your baggage of knowledge. A weak open won’t give you anything, though, except perhaps money, and that’s not the most important thing. I talked with Magnus – he also liked the tournament in Qatar.

In your youth did you manage to win opens?

Of course! Although the last time I played was probably in 1993. But, as experience shows, the best players always end up in the top positions regardless of the tournament format or line-up. Class tells over a long event. Previously people liked to say that if you forced top grandmasters to play in opens they’d soon lose their ratings, but now I’ve played twice in Qatar and increased my rating, and it’s been the same for Carlsen and Nakamura.

Kramnik and Carlsen quickly agree a draw in the last round of the Qatar Masters Open | photo: Katerina Savina, Qatar Masters

In November last year the US Treasury imposed sanctions on the FIDE President. After that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov temporarily stood down. Did you ever think about heading FIDE at some point?

Hypothetically in the future – perhaps, but definitely not now. I’m number 2 in the world, playing professionally and, besides, no-one has invited me. Apart from that, I don’t have the impression that Ilyumzhinov is planning to quit. As for the temporary resignation, that’s a tactical reshuffle, while the sanctions themselves are very sad.

Whatever your opinion of him, I’m sure the charges are absolutely contrived. It’s more like revenge for Kasparov’s lost election in 2014, when he fought against Ilyumzhinov for the post of FIDE President and lost to him by a wide margin. After all, Garry Kimovich had huge support from the USA, including in terms of finance. It’s possible the people who were behind Kasparov had decent connections in the House of Representatives and those guys decided to combine work and pleasure: to get revenge for the disastrous election and try to prevent the signing of a major contract…

Which one?

This all went on when FIDE was planning to sign a major contract for the right to hold the World Championship match in November this year. A couple of months ago I personally talked with one of the instigators of that project, a major American businessman, and he confirmed that sponsors were ready to hold the World Championship match and, perhaps, other major chess events in the USA. The sanctions were announced literally a few days before the signing. Doesn’t that seem suspicious to you? I’d emphasise that’s my personal opinion, and I understand that for many it might seem like a “conspiracy theory” but, trust me, I’m far from the only person to believe in that version of events.

Besides, what’s the point of sanctions here? If Ilyumzhinov traded oil with terrorists that’s a criminal offence. Kirsan declared he’s prepared to defend himself in an American court, but no-one has come forward with any legal charges against him. And I suspect there won’t be any open criminal case, because then they’d have to provide clear proof of the accusations. In short, if there are concrete charges then take him to court, and if there aren’t, then there shouldn’t be any sanctions.

Kasparov lost no time in hitting back at Kramnik's comments:

The previous Zurich Chess Challenge tournaments were very successful and even launched a “Zurich format” – one round of classical chess and another of rapid. Now there’s going to be a new format: two games a day at a time control of 40 minutes until the end of the game, with a 10-second increment per move. What’s your view on that innovation?

After his victory in the Tata Steel Masters Carlsen was asked about the Zurich time control and commented, "40 minutes is a little bit strange because then you really want to play the quality of a classical game, just at some point you don’t have any time to think" | photo: Fiona Steil-Antoni

I think it has a future. At the current moment, no doubt, there’s no need to introduce that time control everywhere, but you can try it. For now it’s an experiment, but within five years the format “two games a day with a time control of one hour per game”, might well become the norm. Perhaps even World Championship matches will be held like that.

True, neither I nor my opponents have ever played with such a control, so we’ll have to get used to it, but that’s not such a big issue – it’ll gradually happen. It’ll be very interesting to see how much such a time control affects the quality of play. If the contrast to classical chess doesn’t turn out to be so big i.e. if the games are of high quality, then that time control will start to gain in popularity.

Lately when you watch live broadcasts with computer evaluations you get the impression that everyone has forgotten how to play, apart, perhaps, from Carlsen…

No, that’s not the case! It’s simply that computers are getting stronger and stronger, plus there’s very high interest in tournaments. In modern chess the role of preparation keeps on growing, chess players spend more and more time on home preparation and that has an impact on your freshness during a game. It’s one thing when you prepare an hour, sleep, go for a walk and then go to your game, but something else entirely when you prepare for five hours. In the latter case you spend a lot of energy, even before the game starts. Overall, though, the level of play is pretty high – clearly higher than 10-20 years ago.

Kasparov, for example, often managed to get a big edge out of the opening, and then it was just finishing someone off. Of course he played brilliantly, but very many of his games were won on account of preparation. Now those days are gone, and you have to generate extremely high tension on the board in roughly equal positions. You win on account of correct psychological decisions: for example, you drastically alter the pattern of play, suddenly playing more sharply as the time control approaches. If you want to win you have to create sharp, “ragged” positions so that, as they say, you give your opponent the chance to blunder. But at the same time you have no guarantee against blundering yourself. Unfortunately at the highest level producing a clean game – getting a big opening advantage and converting it into a win – is already unrealistic in practice. Therefore sometimes you get the impression that there are now more mistakes.

Do you really think the new time control could be used to hold World Championship matches?

For now I don’t see any problems with a match at the classical time control, but computers are getting stronger and opening theory is developing… In tournaments, whatever happens, you’ll get one or two interesting games, but in a match there’s only a single game a day. It may turn out that Black “sterilises” the position out of the opening and the struggle comes to an end. If that starts to become a mass phenomenon, then it’s possible we’ll have to play two games a day. And not 12, but 24 – using the same 12 playing days. It’s unlikely that will happen in the next couple of years, but it’s possible that over time it’ll come to that.

I repeat: it’s important to see whether the new time control means the quality of the games suffers. If we see that the number of crude blunders sharply increases then that won’t be a positive step. Besides making chess more exciting it’s also important to preserve a high level of play.

Vladimir, you’ve experienced many tournaments and matches for the World Championship. Can you recall the most memorable moments? For example, the year 2000, when you beat none other than Garry Kasparov to become the best grandmaster on the planet…

It’s hard for me to pick out the most memorable moment. In terms of intensity of work and tension there’s little that can compare with that match over all the years of my career. In order to play against Kasparov at that time, when he was at his peak and had the highest rating of his career, I had to strive to surpass my own limits. Therefore the memories that remain are more of hard labour, but nevertheless they’re pleasant, since that brought a result.

And what did you feel at the moment when you realised you’d beaten the Great and Terrible? Carlsen, for example, jumped fully-clothed into a swimming pool after taking the crown from Anand. Didn’t you want to swim, say, in champagne?

Strangely enough, I felt almost nothing. There was such a wave of utter fatigue that I didn’t even have the energy to rejoice. I don’t know how it is for other sportsmen, but for me after a tough tournament or match an immense desolation always follows. Of course the celebrations of my whole team after beating Kasparov were raucous, but not for me – it wasn’t at all “the Russian way”. Until the final move the high adrenaline levels keep you going, but the moment it all ends you suddenly realise that you’ve got nothing left. Not a thing. And after that you simply can’t sleep normally for some time to come. That happened to me after every World Championship match.

As wise men say – strength is in motion. And I think the same. If you achieve a certain goal – that’s it, you need to move on. Resting on your laurels just won’t do.

So letting your hair down and tossing back shot after shot isn’t for you?

It seems not. What stuck in my memory is not the day when I became World Champion but rather the path I followed to gain that title. I read that after his victory over Anatoly Karpov in 1985 Kasparov burst into the hotel, rejoiced, shouted and had his hands in the air. By nature he’s more temperamental. I didn’t have such raw emotions. That was also because I never focussed on a particular result – that I had to be either the best of the best or nothing. Even if I hadn’t become World Champion I’d have been happy with my life and career. My creed is to put everything into it, to use up all my energy, and if after that I don’t reach the top it means I’m simply not worthy of it.

Ten years ago you beat Bulgaria’s Veselin Topalov in a World Championship match. The whole world, and not only the chess one, remembers that “toilet scandal”. As a mark of protest you even refused to play one of the games, gifting your opponent a crucial point… Since then you’ve never shaken hands with Topalov or his manager?

Recently at the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in Berlin we were shown the new Hollywood film “Pawn Sacrifice”. When we saw the scene in which Fischer didn’t show for the second game chess players began to joke that perhaps it was time to shoot a film about my encounter with Topalov! Anand and Carlsen even suggested famous actors for our roles. I no longer recall, however, who the candidates were. Actually our match was no less dramatic than the 1972 encounter. It’s simply that back then there was a lot of politics in chess, with the Cold War interfering.

There were absurd allegations that you went to the toilet too often, hinting at outside assistance… Was the match against Topalov about more than chess?

After what Topalov and his manager said and did I really didn’t want to lose. That was a matter of principle, since they’d offended my honour. I could easily have lost, since I took the decision to play on after illegally being deprived of a full point. During the match the conduct of Topalov’s team was simply outrageous, a case of very real harassment. I’d never experienced such aggression during a chess event before that and I hope I never will again.

What did you feel when you beat Topalov in the tiebreaks?

I was much happier than after my victory over Kasparov, despite the fact that Topalov, although a very strong chess player, is clearly inferior to Garry. The emotions in Elista were clearly beyond those in London. It was important for me to punish the Bulgarian for his behaviour. People love winners and quickly forgive them everything. I was fully aware that if Topalov won everyone would soon forget how he behaved during the match – he’d become a hero. I really didn’t want to allow that!

Kramnik pumped his fist after beating Topalov in the European Club Cup late last year | photo: Evgeny Surov, chess-news

Since then the chess world has had a very negative opinion of Topalov and he even doesn’t get invited to certain tournaments. That’s a blot on his whole life. In 2006 he put everything at stake: honour, decency – he was so desperate to win. Morally it was important for me that he didn’t end up “living the life of Riley”. I took risks and could have lost, since I was behind during the match, but I levelled the score and managed to come out on top in tiebreaks. I think that from the point of view of resilience and will power that was the greatest achievement of my career.

And do you recall how Topalov looked after defeat?

Somehow I wasn’t particularly looking at him (laughs). Of course he was disappointed, to put it mildly, but no doubt his manager was furious, since he was the mastermind of the whole scandal and outrage. Topalov also didn’t find the inner strength to apologise publicly for his unsporting behaviour, although he was condemned by many leading grandmasters.

Will you ever forgive him?

I always give people a second chance, but in the case of Topalov he didn’t take it. Therefore I’ve long since ceased to have any contact with him and I don’t shake his hand.

Half a year ago, when Topalov was at number two in the world rankings and you were down at the bottom of the Top 10, Danailov put a screenshot on social media and wrote that life had put everyone in their place – as if to say just look where Kramnik is, and where Topalov is. We know you don’t respond to provocations, but would you like to respond now?

Danailov: "Who's who in world chess 9 years after Elista 2006. Facts and figures have ordered the heroes as they deserve" (on the February 2016 FIDE rating list Kramnik is 2nd and Topalov 9th)

I’ve long since been very clear about these people. It’s of absolutely no interest to me what he says or writes, and I’m certainly not planning to react. If you didn’t tell me then I wouldn’t even know what they come out with. They have such a bad reputation that it would be better if they took care of their own problems. As far as I know the FBI has taken a serious interest in his manager, investigating his activity connected to his work for the Bulgarian and European Chess Federations. So his main occupation just now should probably be to remain a free man.

Very recently, in London 2013, you might have qualified for a World Championship match. In the Candidates Tournament you scored the same number of points as Carlsen, but you finished second on some tiebreak coefficients. Was it upsetting that the fate of first place was decided not even by “chess penalties”, but by some incomprehensible numbers?

It wasn’t upsetting. The regulations were idiotic, but they were known in advance. I was simply unlucky: according to three of the tiebreaks I was better, but Carlsen was ahead of me on the first. It’s another matter that we then had a lot of discussion of that topic. Even Magnus said the system was strange. However, no-one had the urge to change anything. And at the next Candidates Tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk the rules remained the same.  I spoke out for changes but out of curiosity decided to see if anyone other than me would do anything in that regard? It turned out no-one was interested. Well, I let the matter lie as well, since at some point, perhaps, the coin will fall on the other side – the rule will work in my favour. You have to understand that grandmasters are often people who prefer simply to play chess, while they’re not bothered much about organisational issues.  

Recently Kasparov wrote that Carlsen stands out and plays in a league of his own, like Djokovic in tennis. Do you agree with that?

Of course he’s currently no. 1 in the world, but there are a few players who are in the same league as him. You can’t say that there’s some kind of enormous gap. On the other hand, I can’t deny that Magnus is better than the rest, but there are three, or perhaps five, grandmasters who could compete with him in a long match. So the cosmic gap between him and the rest is a little exaggerated and it’s not a certainty that Carlsen will keep on reigning for many years to come. After all, a World Championship match is a special trial. Kasparov also “crushed” tournaments one after another, but matches for the crown against well-motivated and prepared challengers cost him a huge amount of effort. On the other hand, Carlsen’s strength is his colossal stability. No other chess player has that.

Carlsen is now proposing abandoning the match for the crown and replacing it with a yearly knockout similar to the World Cup.

That’s a question you have to approach systematically, not thinking which grandmaster it’s beneficial for but observing the interests of the whole chess community. For me it’s absolutely obvious that World Championship matches are our brand. That’s the most precious thing we have as chess players. Many people who rarely follow our battles and are only amateurs, or not even that, only know the history of matches for the crown: Capablanca-Alekhine, Botvinnik-Tal, Fischer-Spassky, Karpov-Kasparov, Anand-Carlsen… That film “Pawn Sacrifice”, with famous Hollywood actors, was based on such a match. I don’t understand why that system has to be destroyed. Let’s be honest! The World Championship match is the only chess event that attracts the whole world’s press and sponsors. The significant financial prizes - two million dollars - just confirm that. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that the first official World Championship match took place in 1886. Throwing that all away would be a big mistake.

So you categorically disagree with Carlsen?

I respect his opinion, of course. He’s an honest guy and always says what he thinks, and it’s his right to make such declarations. It’s simply that I don’t see any advantage for anyone, so I was amazed to hear about it and couldn’t understand the idea. The World Championship title stands apart. Perhaps it’s because we’ve had very few chess champions since 1886. In knockout tournaments a lot is decided in blitz and there’s a large element of chance. I won the World Cup myself, but I wouldn’t say the format could in any way compare to a fully-fledged match. Therefore I hope that in the near future there won’t be any changes. No-one needs it: neither the fans nor the sponsors.

Russian Chess Federation President Andrei Filatov thinks that the Champion could be challenged to a match by a famous billionaire, like Bill Gates, or by a strong chess player who can put up a prize fund. FIDE would consider the challenge. At the same time the official cycle for deciding a challenger would be unchanged, so there would be more matches, more money, more PR…

I heard something about that, but I don’t know the details. However, I think money shouldn’t play a decisive role in sport. You could allow something like that if the challenger has realistic chances and it’s a match that the chess world, including the fans, really wants to see. If that’s possible then you need to introduce stricter criteria and not just financial ones.

Do we want to see more of this? Perhaps  Check out Jan Gustafsson's annotations!

We can’t avoid touching on an important topic. Technology is developing in leaps and bounds, and if a chess player uses computer help it’s impossible to beat him. Do you think that danger is growing?

Such a problem exists. Cheating is gradually spreading – you can tell that from the number of cases when a sportsman has been caught red-handed. It’s good that it still hasn’t happened in top tournaments – at the very least no-one has been caught, but of course such incidents will happen more and more often. You don’t need to hide your head in the sand – on its own cheating is going nowhere. In all forms of sport doping has become a very serious problem. Whole anti-doping committees are working to deal with it, but scandals still arise. Besides, in that case doping still doesn’t guarantee victory: if you’re weaker then no injections or pills will let you win. In chess computer help is a guarantee of success in a game against any opponent, and after all, money and titles are at stake.

How can you combat that?

It really upsets me that no real work is being done in that regard. At some tournaments they take cosmetic measures, which are supposed to ensure security, but an experienced specialist can easily get around those defences. A “professional” cheater won’t be stopped. I studied the issue of what you can do in that regard and made proposals to the FIDE anti-cheating committee more than once. I’m willing to vouch for the fact that there’s a method of fully excluding cheating, but it requires certain financial expenditure, even if nothing over the top. However, the moment it comes down to money no-one wants to spend even a penny. I really don’t want to see the chess world being shaken by such scandals in future, so it would be better to take measures now.

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