Interviews Oct 17, 2017 | 9:20 AMby Colin McGourty

Levon Aronian: “We should be like wolves”

Levon Aronian has had a fantastic year, both on and off the chessboard. The world no. 2 won the GRENKE Chess Classic, Altibox Norway Chess, the St. Louis Rapid & Blitz and finally the World Cup, before then marrying his long-term girlfriend Arianne Caoili. In a new interview he talks about coping with stress, irritating habits of opponents, how he proved people wrong as a late-starter and more.

In Tbilisi this year Levon Aronian won the World Cup for a 2nd time | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

Levon Aronian is an Armenian national treasure, as illustrated by Armenian President Serzh Sargsyan and the first lady taking a leading role in his wedding ceremony. At the same time, he’s never lost his sense of humour:

The recent interview with Mark Grigoryan was in Armenian, and if you can understand the language you can watch it below:

Champord also provided a translation of some highlights from the interview in English. That’s recommended, but since the Armenian and Russian version of the excerpts included far more quotes, we decided to translate that below:

Mark Grigoryan: Playing chess at a high level involves terrible stress. How do you cope with that stress?

Levon Aronian: A very interesting question. If I could cope with it I probably wouldn’t make blunders (laughs). That’s why many chess players use various methods. I understand my own peculiarity – in good physical form it’s easier for me to cope with that stress. For me it’s very important to be physically prepared and I try to train daily.

So in order to combat, cope with or lower stress, you attempt to be in good sporting form, which as far as I understand is no less important than chess preparation?

Since at the current moment I have decent experience, knowledge and have played a large number of openings, which I can draw out of my “archive”, it’s important for me to have energy beyond chess. It seems it’s working, since I’ve been training every day since February.

I understand that you have to be “in love with” that stress. Otherwise life is tough and loses its meaning?

It’s tough with stress and without it (laughs). It’s always interesting to see if you can cope. There are periods when everything works out, but then a little later nothing works out (smiles). A top-level chess player or sportsman should be able to adapt, since opponents understand what you want to do and they work on that. You constantly have to improve your play.

Regarding stress, I’d like to ask one more question, which I’m sure will interest many chess fans. When you play against Azeri chess players do you feel any additional stress?

At the start of my chess career playing against Azeri players probably brought some extra stress with it, but currently I don’t feel stress and try to cope. When you think a lot about how you have to win the opposite happens.

And do they feel the same stress?

It’s been known. I’ll tell a story, not naming names. In 2003 or 2004 I was playing in the European Championship and at 1:30 am the father of one of the Azeri players phoned me. He asked for the game between myself and his son to end in a draw, since it was important for them. I refused, since I don’t like such things. The next day the game went badly for me and I was on the verge of defeat, though ultimately it ended in a draw (laughs).

Aronian on the way to finishing ahead of Carlsen at the 2017 GRENKE Chess Classic | photo: Lennart Ootes

In one of your interviews you said that: “When you play against a normal person, a normal chess player, then during the game you have normal relations. But if your opponent tries to unsettle you, behaves “unsportingly”, then naturally that creates a certain “baggage” that has an impact.” What kind of tricks have been used against you?

It’s happened many times. One Israeli player (not a leading one) drank tea during the game and squeezed a teabag with his fingers, then made his moves (laughs). During the game Alexander Grischuk, who was nearby, came up to me and said: “Levon, it seems you’ll win the game, but will you be able to come up with something so you don’t have to shake his hand?”

It varies. Even when playing against top players it happens that they try to take back a move.  For example, Nakamura and Carlsen. In both cases I called an arbiter. They continued to deny it, but the arbiters confirmed what I said. They also knew that there were devices recording it on video and, ultimately, they admitted I was right.

Chess is a very fair game. It’s not important what’s happening off the board - if you’re strong, you’ll win. Look at how large a role referees play in other sports. In chess rating is the most objective thing. If you play well your rating is high, and if at the current moment you’re playing badly your rating falls. That’s very positive.

Chess and conflict. For you chess is a game, but a game of chess is a conflict?

Of course. With each step you talk with your opponent. At first you try to seize the centre, then develop your pieces and then find a mistake in the way the person sitting opposite you is conducting the game. At the same time he tries to explain to you that “it’s not a mistake, I did that so you’d come and grab that weak pawn, and I’d trap you”. So the game is always a puzzle, a conversation, which always contains a conflict.

Returning to your previous interviews I read the quote: “Until you come into conflict with public opinion or with one of the chess players of the past, with their ideas, you can’t consider yourself a major chess player”. What’s your conflict with public opinion?

When I became a grandmaster I was already 19 years old. Many people told me: “Well, if you’re still not on the list of the top 50 or 100 chess players before reaching 20 years old you’re not going to have any great chances”. I proved to them that age doesn’t have such a great significance.

And with which of the chess players of the past do you have the greatest conflict?

Probably with [Armenian World Champion Tigran] Petrosian. He’s very close to us all – from a young age you try to play like Petrosian and you always come into conflict with him, since it’s very tough to grasp his play, and now it’s easy to criticise him, since his play wasn’t tempo-by-tempo but adagio.

But at the same time as being adagio it was also attacking. While keeping things balanced, he was always trying to pressurise his opponent.

It’s simply that nowadays opponents very rarely allow such a thing. It also depends on modern openings. In some cases you make 15 moves and there are only two rooks, a knight and a bishop left… you’re already playing an endgame.

When I got acquainted with analysis of your games I saw that experts in some cases noted, “here Aronian made a mistake and needed to make another move”, but you still went on to win those games. Does it happen that during play you know that with such and such a move you’d score a win quicker, but you continue to play on the psychology of your opponent. Do you sometimes play with your opponent like a cat with a mouse?

No, I never liked that style of play. Many players like to act in such a way that their opponent has some hopes, but I always felt that we should be like wolves. When your opponent is weak you have to eat him, and as fast as possible.

But what if the wolf is your opponent?

Ah (sighs), that’s a tricky situation. We try not to encounter wolves (laughs).

A few days before this interview we invited our Facebook users to ask you questions. Olesya Vardanian from Tbilisi asks: in Vladimir Nabokov’s “The Luzhin Defence”, the hero suffers a serious illness after a loss. He doesn’t recall the cities where he’s been since all his trips are connected to chess. Is it really like that? It’s probably hard to explain to the non-chess world?

There are chess players like that, but I’m not one of them. I became a chess fanatic at what was already a fairly respectable age – 26-27. I enjoyed it, I really loved chess, but I didn’t live thinking about it. At that age it was as if chess became my monastery.

Lucine Grigioryan from Stockholm asks: why do women not take part in men’s chess championships?

I’ve spoken a lot about that topic. In my view women can and should play against men, though that should start from a very young age. In many countries it’s hard to arrange that. Among us as well there’s the idea: “Well, she’s a girl, it doesn’t matter, there’s no need for her to succeed – she’s supposed to become the mother of a family, which is more important”. In chess, though, there are few such successful mothers.

We can expect to next see Aronian in action in the European Team Championship that starts on Crete in 11 days' time.

See also:

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