Peter Svidler is one of the youngest and most active legends in the chess24 Legends of Chess, but the 8-time Russian Champion has been playing chess at the top level for 26 years. He first won the Russian Championship as an 18-year-old in 1994, won the World Cup in 2011 and almost again in 2015, and has performed well in World Championship events, but still it feels as though in terms of sheer talent he might have achieved even more. His idols were Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Tal, but it was the latter’s geniality and brilliance he inherited more than Garry’s work ethic.
Peter was taught chess as a 6-year-old growing up in Leningrad and was soon hooked. By 1991 he’d become an International Master and in 1992 he tied for 1st in the last ever USSR Junior Championship, but he credits starting to work with IM Andrei Lukin in 1993 as crucial:
I read an awful lot in my childhood – my parents put together an enormous chess library for me which I practically assimilated in its entirety. The real breakthrough, however, coincided very closely with the moment I started to work with Andrey Mikhailovich Lukin – without him I really might have come to nothing.
1994 was Peter’s coming of age, as the 18-year-old won the
World U18 Youth Championship, became a grandmaster, scored 5.5/8 while winning
the Chess Olympiad on a Russian team including Kasparov and Kramnik, but above
all won what would become his signature event, the Russian Championship. It
came with the bonus prize of a car, which was sold, since no-one in the family
Peter went on to win the Russian Championship again in 1995, 1997, 2003, 2008, 2011, 2013 and most recently in 2017, in his native city, eclipsing the records of Mikhail Botvinnik and Mikhail Tal. The event varied in format and strength, but was never short of formidable and, for instance, in 2011 and 2013 also featured Vladimir Kramnik, Sergey Karjakin and Ian Nepomniachtchi.
Peter entered the Top 100 in January 1995 and really announced his arrival on the world stage when as a 21-year-old he beat Garry Kasparov on the way to tying for first place with Garry and Kramnik in Tilburg 1997. He later commented:
I remember that game perfectly. Kasparov was my childhood idol. I built my opening repertoire on his games, I was a student of his school and so on. For me personally Garry Kimovich was an extremely important person, and to beat him in my first game against him was a matter of honour for me. The game was extremely tough. In general, games against him always took a lot of energy from me, but that’s how it should be when you play against really great players.
1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. c3 ♘f6 4. ♗e2 ♘bd7 5. d3 b6 6. O-O ♗b7 7. ♘bd2 g6 8. d4 cxd4 9. cxd4 ♘xe4 10. ♘xe4 ♗xe4 11. ♘g5 d5 12. ♗b5 ♗g7 13. f3 ♗f5 14. g4 h6 15. gxf5 hxg5 16. fxg6 a6 17. gxf7+ ♔xf7 18. ♗a4 ♖h5 19. ♗e3 ♘f6 20. ♕d2 ♕d6 21. ♖f2 ♖ah8 22. ♖g2 ♖h3 23. ♖f1 ♖8h4 24. ♗c2 ♘h5 25. ♗f5 ♘f4 26. ♗xh3 ♘xh3+ 27. ♔h1 ♕f6 28. ♖g3 ♕f5 29. ♗xg5 ♘xg5 30. ♖xg5 ♕h3 31. ♖g2 ♗f6 32. ♕d3 ♖xd4 33. ♕g6+ ♔e6 34. ♕e8 ♖c4 35. ♕d8 ♕f5 36. ♖e1+ ♗e5 37. ♕b8 1-0
Peter broke into the Top 10 on the January 1998 rating list and entered the 2700 club in July, when he also tied for 1st place with Kramnik and Mickey Adams in the Dortmund supertournament. Often when discussing chess legends you can write, “and that’s where he stayed for the next 20 years”, but Peter’s first stay in the club ended after January 1999. In a brilliant interlude in his chess24 The Grünfeld according to Svidler video series he recounts “Half a year in the life of a Grünfeld player”, or how in the first half of 1999 he lost to current, future and past World Champions Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand and Anatoly Karpov.
The video is full of Peter's trademark self-deprecating humour.
Peter summed up:
As you can perhaps glean from this video 99 wasn't a particularly good year for me. By the end of it I was out of the Top 20 and out of the 2700 club and I think it took me the best part of two years to recover from that half-a-year stretch. But I did eventually recover and I didn't stop playing the Grünfeld. I never really blamed the Grünfeld for any of this.
Getting back above 2700 actually took almost four years, but for the 17 years since April 2003 Peter has been rated above 2700, hitting 4th in the world on a number of occasions.
In the 2005 World Championship tournament in San Luis he finished in 2nd place on +3 with Vishy Anand, though Veselin Topalov finished 1.5 points clear. That qualified him for the 2007 World Championship in Mexico, where he finished 5th.
Peter played in the 2013, 2014 and 2016 Candidates Tournaments and often came into those events as one of the best prepared players, despite opening preparation not usually being one of his strong points. 2013 in London was particularly memorable, since Peter beat Magnus Carlsen with Black in the final round to finish in 3rd place, just half a point behind Magnus and Kramnik.
If Peter came close in those events his greatest career triumph is probably the 2011 Khanty-Mansiysk World Cup, where he won matches against Caruana, Kamsky, Polgar, Ponomariov and finally Grischuk in the final to win that 128-player event. It wasn’t just the result but the style. After beating Fabiano he didn’t need tiebreaks for the last four matches, which included some spectacular blows:
26…Re2!! against Gata Kamsky could have come from the 19th Century. The point is that 27.Qxe2 runs into 27…Qg3! And if the white queen goes anywhere else Black crashes through on f2, as happened in the game. Why can’t you play 26…Qg3 immediately? With the queen on c2 that can be met by the saving 27.Nc6!
Alexander Grischuk felt a pawn sacrifice Peter played against him in the final was an even better move, while castling queenside with Black in the Grünfeld and beating Ponomariov in the semi-final also made an impression.
In 2015 Peter proved that was no fluke by beating Nisipeanu, Radjabov, Topalov, Wei Yi and Giri to get to the World Cup final in Baku. He then took a 2:0 lead in the final against Sergey Karjakin before disaster struck. A move or two away from an historic double (though one Levon Aronian later managed) Peter went on to lose the next three games and, after an insane final where all 10 games were decisive, the match. Finishing runner-up was bitter, though still a highly impressive achievement.
In an interview after winning the 2011 World Cup, Peter was asked what he wouldn’t be willing to sacrifice to become World Champion:
My attitude to life, no doubt. I’ve got a calm and good-natured attitude to the world, and I’m not prepared to become someone else.
They say that all the champions were ruthlessly bloodthirsty. So how can you compete?
They say that, yes. I don’t know how much truth there is in it. And partly because people say that, Tal has always been a hero for me.
Peter has always had interests outside of chess, from literature (he regularly answers that his “other” career would have been as a literary translator), to poker, to TV, to cricket (blame English Grandmaster Nigel Short!) to Hearthstone, which in recent years he can often be found not just playing but streaming during major chess tournaments.
The best response to the question of what he might have achieved if he’d been more focused perhaps came in an early chess24 interview Rustam Kasimdzhanov conducted with Peter back in 2014:
Rustam: How much of a chess player are you? How important is chess for you in your life?
Peter: Yeah, that is a fair question! (laughs) I still think I’m primarily a chess player, but the question can perhaps be phrased: “Have I been as much of a chess player as I should have been over the course of my career?” And I think to that the answer is no. But once again, by now that’s probably unfixable and I’m probably more of a chess player right now than I was three years ago – so I’m trying to do something about it.
I have been somewhat… relaxed towards my chess career in general over the past decade or so. Who knows what could have happened… but the whole, “what would have happened with him if he’d worked on chess for 12 hours a day,” is completely pointless, because I don’t see myself working 12 hours a day whatever I do. It’s a non-starter. I know of some people who do that, but I can’t imagine changes in my life which would lead me to that.
Working a bit more and generally being slightly more focussed on chess perhaps wouldn’t have hurt at some point, but once again, it’s a question of balance. Time is what you make of it. I’m not sure my time management is ideal – probably actually it’s not – but I’m very set in my ways when it comes to this. I’m very reluctant to give up on anything that I’m interested in to any degree.
Peter’s wide interests and brilliant English have been a boon to chess fans for many years now. He’s one of the world’s best chess commentators (often in combo with Jan Gustafsson), a Banter Blitz natural and of course the author of chess video series here on chess24, where he shares his knowledge and enthusiasm for the game.
However long Peter remains a top player – and the likes of Vishy Anand, Boris Gelfand and Vasyl Ivanchuk are great sources of hope there – the good news is that it looks like we can expect him to stay around the chess world as a commentator and more for a long time yet!
In case you missed it, you can watch Peter talking to Tania Sachdev during the chess24 Legends of Chess.
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