Leinier Domínguez is world no. 21, the top player in Latin America and a 4-time Cuban Champion. Despite winning the 2008 World Blitz Championship and spending seven years rated above 2700, though, he’s never quite become an established member of the absolute world elite. In a big interview with Michel Contreras for Cubadebate he talks about why not, but also gives refreshing answers to some questions. For once we have a grandmaster who wants to play until he’s old and would encourage his son to play chess!
You can find the Spanish original of this interview at Cubadebate, where there are also some excellent photos by Katheryn Felipe.
Michel Contreras: Why do people get upset every time you agree a draw?
Leinier Domínguez: I think it has more to do with the level at which I compete than with my attitude or personal style of play. The opposition is very tough, featuring players who are both very strong and well-prepared. It’s difficult to unbalance games at that level. Cubans look at my statistics, of course, but if you look at other chess players you’ll find something very similar, with a significant percentage of draws. Of course when I play lower level tournaments my results change for the better, but in the Grand Prix, Wijk aan Zee and other such events the story is very complex.
Many people, at times with reason, accuse you of having a certain tendency to agree quick draws...
Ever since Sofia Rules were introduced few games end in less than 30 or 40 moves. In many events my games are hard-fought right to the end. The Capablanca Memorial is an unusual case because it’s held under the previous system. I’d say, though, that my draws “without playing” are those when I face chess players who are my friends or prepare with me, like Bruzón or Peter Leko. I think a high percentage of my draws in the last five years have gone to the endgame.
So you don’t consider yourself an uncombative player?
Not at all. I almost always try to win.
Do you feel as though the public demands too much of you?
The thing is they credit me with a level I don’t have. My Elo has fluctuated in recent years between 2720 and 2760 at my peak, and that’s my range, not that of the 2800 players. I’m not one of the Top Five. I’m not Carlsen or Caruana. I understand people want me to win. I also want that, but objectively I don’t have any reason to expect to enter a tournament with an average rating of 2750 and start winning day after day.
Could you ever reach that level, or have you already hit your ceiling?
I don’t think I have. There are things I can do to improve, but I don’t have all the means to achieve that. Although who knows - even if I do top level training, in better conditions, with a full team working for me and so on it’s far from certain I’d achieve the results many expect of me.
What does it take to become a 2800 player?
The main thing is work. You need a good coach, several strong analysts… a professional team that will bring your preparation to the next level. However, not everyone can do that because it’s very expensive. Kasparov had that when he was at the top. Kramnik has that. Anand, Topalov, Carlsen as well. But there aren’t many.
Lately many opponents have escaped against you in the ending. What’s been happening?
I don’t think it was down to problems with technique but time management, which has always been one of my weaknesses. That’s an area I have to improve, since time trouble occurs in almost all my games and, as a consequence, I spoil advantages or lose level positions.
How can you explain a former Blitz World Champion having problems with time?
That’s often the case. For example, Grischuk is a great blitz player who often struggles with time. I don’t know why that happens. In my particular case it’s got to do with a lack of play in recent years.
Do you like rapid chess or could you spend your life playing only at the normal time control?
I also really like blitz. I grew up in Güines playing “rapid transit”, as we used to call it. It’s something that’s very enjoyable, involves more adrenaline and is more spectacular.
Has that prolific school in Güines retained its quality?
No, it’s lost it. The activity there was there before no longer exists. The coaches that were there back then have gone and there isn’t the same atmosphere. It would be worth restoring it, since it was no accident that that period produced Aryam Abreu, Holden Hernández, Orelvis Pérez, Carlos Manuel López, me… The whole secret was in the coaches, so we need to find a way to stimulate or re-motivate them. That basis of having a good coach in any academy – as I had in Raúl Pérez – was what made the Soviet School great.
In my view one of your limitations is your opening repertoire...
At one time it was. I’ve done serious work on that and expanded it somewhat since the Tbilisi Grand Prix. I’ve incorporated systems as White with the queen’s pawn (1.d4), and with Black I’ve resorted more to the Nimzo-Indian. It’s all about becoming less predictable, although obviously that has the inherent danger that if you incorporate new lines you’ve got less chance of knowing them fully.
Do you prefer individual or team tournaments?
I find both attractive. Team events give you that sense of being part of a collective – the spirit of uniting not only to ensure your own personal result but for everyone. That can make them more exciting than individual events.
Are you a clearly-defined positional player?
I think so, yes. My style has changed, because previously I was more inclined to tactics and combinational play, but over time I’ve put more emphasis on technique.
Is Fischer still your favourite player?
Yes, although I really like Capablanca and Kasparov.
Can you tell me a tournament you have fond memories of...
The Thessaloniki Grand Prix, two years ago.
And a very painful one...
There have been several. I’d go with Corus 2009, where I lost in the final round to Karjakin. Or the 2014 Baku Grand Prix.
What goes wrong for you against Carlsen?
He was always inconvenient for me, even before he was as strong as he is now. There are players who you find more difficult, and everyone has their slayers in that regard. I’ve had advantageous positions against him, for instance in Biel 2008, but he escaped and the tournament slipped away from me as well. Also in Sofia 2009 I could have beaten him but didn’t manage.
And why do you also lose so often against Baadur Jobava, whose rating is below yours?
After the opening I usually have a comfortable position, so there may be something psychological in that.
Apart from them, who do you not enjoy facing?
Elite players are all inconvenient and against them you feel under pressure very early on. They create problems from the first moves and you need to employ all your time in order to resolve those difficulties. Aronian is one of those. Ivanchuk as well, when he’s on form.
In which phase of the game do you consider yourself stronger?
Realistically, when I compare myself against the five best in the world I look weak in all the phases. I’ve worked hard to perfect each one of them, although I feel that’s gone better in the opening and middlegame.
How many 2700 players have you beaten?
I don’t have the stats. It would be over a dozen, but I don’t know the exact number.
Would you like your
son Sebastián to play chess?
Yes, because he would have what I didn’t – a full-time teacher. If he has talent he’d be able to go far. Why not?
There’s a moment at which chess stops being a hobby and becomes a way of earning a living. Has that reduced your love for the game?
I’m still a chess fan, I read a lot and when I’m not playing I usually have an interesting position or some idea I want to work out in my head. It’s true that I try to lead a balanced life, not concentrating solely on the board and devoting time to my family, but it seems to me I’m going to play until I’m old, and if I stop getting good results I’ll do it anyway for enjoyment.