Interviews Sep 27, 2015 | 12:13 PMby Macauley Peterson

Pavel Eljanov, World Cup standout

Ukrainian veteran Pavel Eljanov has been one of the biggest surprises of this year's World Cup. He rocketed to six consecutive wins in the first three rounds, including a 2-0 blanking of seventh seed Alexander Grischuk, and most recently his quarterfinal upset of the fan favorite, Hikaru Nakamura.

In his post-game interview on the live webcast after beating Nakamura, Pavel mentioned being enamored with a Soviet-era comedy Бриллиантовая рука (pronounced: "Brilliantovaya ruka") or The Diamond Arm, which was shot in Baku in the late 1960s. He calls it "one of the best Soviet movies I've seen," and was interested in tracking down the site of some of its famous scenes. That sounded like a great idea for a backdrop to an interview!

Setting off for Baku's Old Town | photo: Maria Emelianova

The film's protagonist, Semyon Gorbunkov (played by Yuri Nikulin), is mistaken for a smuggler who was supposed to feign a broken arm and use a code-phrase to signal his arrival at a predetermined meeting point. But when Gorbunkov accidentally slips, falls, and actually breaks his arm, he blurts out the same phrase, and gets unwittingly fitted with a cast containing the trove of diamonds.

On the rest day, we set out to find the street where the mishap happened.

Top: Yuri Nikulin in The Diamond Arm | screenshot: YouTube; Bottom: Pavel Eljanov | photo: Maria Emelianova

Macauley Peterson: It's hard not to notice you've had this tremendous string of decisive games, considerably more than the rest of the field. You also mentioned that you felt you were a bit lucky?

Pavel Eljanov: Of course the key point of this tournament was my first game against Grischuk because I was Black and was slightly worse from the opening. But I think I played well up to some point and in the time trouble — it was mutual time trouble but Alexander had less time still, he had like one minute or even less, but I had five minutes. He just pushed all in — he moved his king on the edge, on h3, h4. It was a really crazy position and two times I was lost, but fortunately he didn't find in time trouble a few killing moves.

In game 1, Grischuk missed 39.Qf5, and after 39.Kh3 instead the evaluation went from +5 to -3 in Eljanov's favour.

After time trouble I was already much better, and close to winning. So it was really a turning point in this tournament I think. Otherwise, after an eventual loss in the first game against Grischuk of course it would be very hard to return in the second game.

Macauley: You used the phrase, "he pushed all-in" with Kh4. Grischuk is also known as a poker player. Is there some poker in your background as well?

Pavel: No. I mean I tried to play — it was so long ago — one week I just tried to play on the Internet, just to try, what it was, something different, but I didn't find it was something interesting. Compared to chess, not much interest in my opinion.

I wasn't so lucky when I saw Grischuk in the third round in my path.

M: When Anish Giri was asked about your game with Nakamura afterwards he said he felt that Hikaru may have underestimated you and was playing the first game for a win without any justification. Do you agree?

P: I really didn't feel that he played the first game for a win because his choice was one of the more solid openings in his repertoire — the Queen's Gambit — because he could play for instance the Dutch Defense, something else much more aggressive, but he chose the most solid opening. Also in the second game I was sure he would play something more aggressive. I considered any move, including first move f4 for instance, just to play some more or less random chess, very much more aggressive than he played against me.

M: I noticed even on move two you were thinking for several minutes. What was that about?

P: Strangely enough, this line I had already for the third time in the tournament, and I wasn't really sure why he was going again there. So I was trying to figure it out. What was his preparation, what did he have in mind?

Eljanov played 5...Bd7 rather than the main move Nbd7, which he played previously.

So I decided to play something else than what I played against Jakovenko twice and against Grischuk as well in this tournament. It was a different plan, compared to what I did. It looks like it was a very good choice for me.

On the way we found a bath house said to be 300 years old | photo: Maria Emelianova

Just before the tournament got underway, we asked 178 chess24 readers who would win from among the top ten rated players on the starting list. Pavel Eljanov at number 26 was not among them; the only one remaining is Anish Giri who garnered just 7% of the vote.

M: We've been talking about several players booking flights home — whether one considers oneself a favorite, booking a one-way ticket or booking a flight at the end, and change it if needed. Going in at least rating-wise you were sort of in the middle so it could go either way. You mentioned that you only bought a one-way ticket. Was that a conscious choice as good luck, or just practical?

P: No, I don't know my return date, so I just buy a one-way ticket. That's all. I wasn't so lucky when I saw Grischuk in the third round in my path. He was a rather unpleasant player for me because I had a minus [score] against him previously, especially in rapid games. Even after Grischuk I didn't know who was in my path before the tournament. I didn't even see it until just before the round against Grischuk I decided who could be after him.

M: Playing with Karjakin, do you feel that is affected at all by your opposing views on the Ukraine situation?

P: Our relation is good in any case. I have normal relation with any chess players from Russia. There's no tension. Fortunately this conflict is not touching personal relations in my case.

Eljanov flanked by two of the Fairmont Hotel Flame Towers | photo: Macauley Peterson

M: It's been a difficult period for Ukraine and Ukraine's chess players. There were comments recently by Adrian Mikhalchishin in the latest New in Chess magazine noting that Ponomariov and Ivanchuk had received draft notices from the military. Is that an issue for you as well? Is the conflict affecting you personally?

P: No. Of course it was very nervous — I'm in Kharkov, this is in the East of Ukraine, very close to the war area — 150 km from the war zone. So, from the beginning, when it started in 2014, it was a rather nervous situation and of course very unpleasant. I hope it will now be more peaceful. It looks like now it's more or less stable, but for me and for my family it was very unpleasant.

M: Does it worry you that some players like Ipatov, Nyzhnyk and Kovalyov have left to play for other countries.

P: No. For example with Alex Ipatov I have friendly relations. It's nothing personal at all. The Ukrainian chess federation is more or less OK, but from the government we have not much support, so for youngsters it's very hard to improve in Ukraine. For us — for Ukrainian team members — it's more or less OK, but still it's not like other chess countries like Azerbaijan, Russia and others. But for youngsters like Ipatov and Nyzhnyk it's really hard to improve because there's no support from the government.

M: Has the upheaval in the government in recent years also had direct impact on the support for chess players in the country.

P: For the government, nothing changed because before the conflict with Russia it was also almost nothing, and afterward, the same. I would say we have a good president of the [chess] federation and he's doing everything in his [power], but it's not enough as he's just one person. Without government support it's too hard to build something massive.

M: Are you going to be involved at all in the Woman's World Championship in Lviv. What do you think Mariya Muzychuk's chances are against Hou Yifan?

P: I don't know if I'll be involved. I think she's a very ambitious player, and she's so young still. I know she works a lot and also there is about half a year until the match. I think that if she will be very well prepared, it will be a tough fight.

M: Speaking of Lviv, of course Ivanchuk's home city. Now that his career is waning, would you regard yourself as the Ukrainian number one?

P: We have three players including me and Vassily and Ruslan Ponomariov, and of course they are much more titled players players than me in any case, so it's too far to say that I'm the strongest. I would like to say that we have three strongest players. Vassily has won so many fantastic tournaments, for instance Sofia, with a fantastic results 8/10 about five years ago. So still for me it's very far from his peak.

A chess career is also a rather unpredictable thing.

M: Growing up in Ukraine, your father was also a chess player and author. How did that environment influence you?

A quick stop at a Sevimli Bala Club, an art school co-founded by Teimour Radjabov's wife Elly Rajabova-Nasirli | photo: Macauley

‌P: He was a Soviet master and was really a chess fanatic. Almost all his life, everything he did, was connected with chess. He was an organizer in the Soviet Union time, then he was a chess publisher — of the Dvoretsky books, among others. I think his dream was of course that I become World Champion. I'm not sure that he really believed in this, but OK.

M: Why do you say that?

P: I don't know. Maybe to become World Champion should be some special talent. Maybe he wasn't sure that I have it. That's just my feeling.

M: But you got an unusually rich chess culture at a young age.

P: Yes, we worked on these books in the 90s — the Dvoretsky books — from the beginning. I knew everything in our books because we were [editors] correcting everything, chess mistakes and also mistakes [in the text]. So I worked a lot on this material and I think I improved a lot after it.

M: Is there a connection between starting a family and your rating dropping from its peak in 2010?

Eljanov's daughter turns 4 in November | photo: Facebook cover photo

P: It's hard to say but of course my daughter was born at the end of 2011. It's really life changing. Of course I'm much happier than before she was born. What about my career? Is it really much influenced or not? I mean, a chess career is also a rather unpredictable thing.

See also:

Macauley Peterson

Macauley is currently Content Director for chess24. His written work has appeared in Chess Life Magazine and Chess Life Online (U.S.A.), New in Chess (Netherlands), "64" (Russia), Chess (U.K.), Jaque, Peón de Rey (Spain), Torre & Cavallo (Italy). He is a former "Chess Journalist of the Year" as voted by the Chess Journalists of America. Visit Macauley's profile.

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