Seven-time Russian Champion Peter Svidler recently spent 90 minutes answering questions from chess24 premium members. Although he prefaced his answers by saying, “people are expecting a lot from someone whose area of expertise is TV and possibly cricket”, there simply isn’t a man in world chess more suited to this formula. We decided, therefore, that it was worth transcribing Peter’s comments almost in full for those who prefer to read rather than watch.
Part I covers the first 32 minutes of the full Q&A session, which you can also watch below:
The topics covered even in this first section ranged wildly, from opening theory, the distinguishing characteristics of top players and chess literature to computer games and TV series (with a brief digression involving horse-sized ducks…).
The questions, which were put to Peter by his friend and fellow grandmaster Jan Gustafsson, have been shortened to the bare essentials. The answers have also been lightly edited, but otherwise this is a full transcript of the mammoth session. Enjoy!
Peter: I’ve always had this choice, as I think does pretty much any top player these days, but since recording the Grünfeld series this has become a major concern. To my slight amazement it seems to have been reasonably well-received, and I have no idea who has seen it and who hasn’t. Playing the Grünfeld with Black these days there’s an additional level of danger because people might know even more about it than they do normally, but I think it depends on your feeling on the day.
...there are people out there who you expect to just kill you outright if you get caught in their preparation
It also depends on who exactly you’re playing, because yes, when people play White against me they do expect a certain range of openings and they do prepare against them, but I fear some people’s preparation more than others – let’s put it like this. I’m not going to name names, but there are people out there who you expect to just kill you outright if you get caught in their preparation, and there are people out there who don’t really aim for that – who aim to get a playable position more than just win the game straight out of the opening.
Generally speaking, you do need to know a lot of sidelines to be able to play an opening more than once per tournament, so I generally tend to stick to my own stuff in most cases.
Peter: 1.e4, exclamation mark!
Jan: I thought you were more of a 1.g3, 1.Nf3, “exclamation mark” guy nowadays?
Peter: That’s me – I’m an old man who has no energy to do any proper opening work. I still think 1.e4 is a very decent move, but it has run into some problems recently and you need to work on chess a bit.
Jan: That’s annoying.
Peter: Yes, I know!
Peter: I think there was a quest game I played when I was a little kid called Loom, but I’m not sure if that’s what’s being referred to.
Jan: It’s a LucasArts adventure – I’m sure that’s what he means.
Peter: Yes, I loved it when I played it but that was about 25 years ago. I don’t remember much, although I remember it was one of the things I really enjoyed playing. There were bits of it that were very nice. I thought some of the concepts were very original. The Legend of Kyrandia as well – a blast from the past. I haven’t really returned to this material.
Jan: I haven’t played those but I recently got Monkey Island 1 and 2 as apps on my phone. Those are great.
Peter: I had to install some kind of MS Dos simulator to play Monkey Island and I got my kids to play Monkey Island, which I was very happy about.
Peter: I was kind of dreading that question for the past 5 hours. I’m not entirely sure. I still… why am I always answering this question honestly? “I want to become World Champion, Thomas!” I have no idea why I always try to answer this question as though it’s a real question. It’s a mistake. I must do something about it.
Peter: I have no set date in mind. I remember a Kramnik interview where he said something about playing until he’s 40 and then gradually phasing it out. I think you can’t just set an age and say I will quit the moment the clock strikes 12 on whatever the day may be. The moment you feel you’re no longer competitive at a level at which you’re used to yourself being competitive at you begin seriously considering it. I don’t think I’m there yet, to be honest, even though a couple of my recent performances may have prompted this question.
Peter: That’s a tricky one, because to my honest regret at some point I almost gave up on chess literature, for whatever reason. I thought the whole thing kind of moved online and you didn’t really need books anymore. I think that was a huge mistake, because as far as I can judge from reading the reviews and talking to people we are living in a golden age of chess books and there’s a lot of really good stuff being produced.
...at some point I almost gave up on chess literature
I definitely bought the Avrukh books on the Grünfeld and they will be on the list, but it will be hard to name five because I think if I wanted to reach the magical number I would really have to go back a long, long way. Some of the stuff I read recently I got as files, so that probably doesn’t count – mainly theoretical books, sadly. I think there’s also a lot of very good stuff that’s not really theory related that I should be reading.
Jan: Did you read Kasparov’s books – the Predecessors?
Peter: I should at some point do that. I read all of Kasparov’s earlier books – the ones he wrote when he was still writing them in Russian – and those were excellent, but somehow with the Predecessors there’s just too many of them, and when they were coming out I was in this phase when I was not reading chess books at all. I was reading a lot about chess, but not chess books as such. I’m fairly convinced, especially in case of the Predecessors, that it was a huge mistake, because people whose opinion I respect value them greatly.
Jan: Yeah, I like them too
Peter: Playing Magnus is very, very challenging, but also very interesting and somehow I don’t feel that he is my most awkward opponent, even though it’s very hard playing him and it will obviously become harder if I still get to play him, which is not a given. My earlier success will be very hard to replicate, but somehow I feel I’m doing ok when I play him. I don’t feel as hopeless as, let’s say, I used to feel when I was playing Vlad in the olden days.
Jan: Are you being humble again? You have a plus score against Magnus, right?
Peter: Yeah, I know, but the recent trend is… actually the results even recently have been ok, but the game in Stavanger is still very fresh in my mind.
Jan: It was a
Peter: It was a draw, yes! (laughs) It was a fighting draw where White even had winning chances towards the end, which would really have been embarrassing for everyone concerned.
Peter: If you take the top five, the very crème de la crème, I think the difference is not significant, or maybe there’s none at all, because then you’re only taking the very best from a couple of generations. But in general I think the level increased. It’s very, very hard to argue that better chess is not being played now than has been played before. I don’t know if the difference is so marked if you compare chess just now and chess of the 70s and 80s, but if you compare it to, let’s say, the 40s, 50s or 60s I think the difference is quite significant.
Peter: That’s actually a very nice set-up question for me because I grew up playing the Colle myself. I played it almost exclusively until I was 14 or 15, with great results, for whatever reason.
Jan: What is the Colle?
Peter: Basically you play the Meran a tempo up, which explains why it’s not such a bad system. You go d4, Nf3, e3, Bd3, c3, Nbd2 – you keep the bishop on c1 – I was never one for developing it towards danger zones on f4 and g5, except against g6.
It might be a decent idea, yes, although I’m not a huge specialist. I've always had trouble figuring out what I should do against people playing the Tromp, to be honest.
Jan: Just play d5 and you’re fine.
Peter: As a black player you always feel somewhat challenged by the Tromp – you think, what do I play to preserve a double-edged position with winning chances? If that is your aim you might not equalise. There are many lines where Black looks for complications for the sake of complications in the Tromp and those are very, very dangerous potentially. If you want to equalise I’m fairly sure you can equalise there, but if you want more it becomes very interesting.
But the Grünfeld itself was such a huge project – trying to answer the actual question – that by the time I was done with those videos the idea of doing additional videos on the small stuff at the time did not appeal particularly, but now I might get back to that at a later date.
Peter: I always play 6…Bb4. I know 6…Bc5 exists, but I’ve spent quite a lot of time making all the various subplots of Bb4 work and I’m very set in my ways in this respect. I still think 6…Bb4 is fine, but there’s 7.Qb3 Bc5. I think this is supposed to be the line which White pins his hopes on. I’m not sure if you should start with 8.0-0 or Na4, but basically we’re talking about the same position: 8.0-0 0-0 9.Na4 Be6 10.d4:
I think this was first played by Peter Heine Nielsen and I played in that tournament, so this was actually happening before my eyes. That was the NH Chess tournament of young people against old people – I was playing for the old people, of course. This is a very serious try and there have been some high-level games since. Without going into too much detail – because I think this is actually live opening theory which I might have to at some point use – but I think the position after 10…exd4 11.Rd1 c5 12.e3 is holdable for Black, although White definitely gets a lot of play here and there’s never any question of White being worse. This doesn’t refute the line and you can still play it, but you do need to have something against this line.
Peter: I saw that question and I briefly considered looking up his results against the Grünfeld, but I decided against it because I think I know the answer – and the answer you probably won’t like because it’s kind of simplistic – but I think he was simply better than his opponents. Generally with White he had great results against the Dutch and fantastic results against the King’s Indian. I think this mainly had to do with the fact he was playing people who were worse than him and I don’t think it had any particular stylistic explanation. I think he was just a fantastic chess player playing good but worse chess players than him.
Peter: I think basically as people progress – as they learn and continue to play – the sum of their knowledge grows, and if you play for long enough and get further you just know more than people who are starting out. Opening knowledge, in particular, is a huge part of today’s game, and maybe it’s slightly out of proportion just how much your opening knowledge determines how well you do in the current climate. But I don’t think there’s any class of things that an International Master knows and a FIDE Master doesn’t. I think a FIDE Master is an International Master who hasn’t played chess enough yet.
...a FIDE Master is an International Master who hasn’t played chess enough yet
Some people do have a ceiling they will never reach above, but it’s very, very difficult to determine who does and who doesn’t, and in general it’s a question of experience. I could use psychobabble like “pattern recognition” which also has, I think, a lot to do with experience. The more you play the more you learn to recognise certain things you’ve seen before and react to them in an optimal way.
Once again, I’m not a deep thinker on questions of chess philosophy and I think it’s mainly to do with experience and your level of commitment to the game, but I don’t think there are classes of things which top-level people know and lower-level people don’t apart from openings. Openings definitely are one area of the game where the top players have a huge advantage over people lower down the rankings.
We all have a level at which we get found out
One thing I wanted to point out is that perhaps the difference between the really, really top players and players lower down the ladder is that they got there and didn’t get killed. If you do that it means you adapted and you probably are an all-rounder – a more or less complete chess player who has no obvious holes in his game. We all have a level at which we get found out, so to speak, and if you reach really, really high – playing against the best of the best – and stay there for a while, it means that you weren’t really found out. Let’s say, if your positional understanding or endgame technique is abysmal – or rather much, much worse than your position – they will consciously steer you towards those positions and beat you there and you’ll disappear from sight. If this hasn’t happened then it probably means that you’ve acquired those skills which you may have initially lacked. The people at the top are much more complete chess players.
Peter: Fantastic question. I did some research as I ran into this before. My initial reaction was always to fight a bunch of duck-sized horses, because it just feels ridiculous – they’ll be there, you can stomp on them – it just sounds like that should be an easier fight. I’ve met horses up close – they are impressively dangerous animals – but they’re big as well.
I did some research and apparently you can imagine a hundred duck-sized horses sort of functioning reasonably well for a while, whereas a horse-sized duck will probably collapse under its own weight, will definitely not fly and might not be able to survive for very much, so in terms of pure EV I think it’s better to fight a horse-sized duck.
Jan: I could not agree more. I’d be scared – a hundred small horses teaming up against you?
Peter: I understand, but still, the ridiculousness factor I think is higher with a hundred duck-sized horses. The idea sounds laughable, somehow – they’re pets, whereas a horse-sized duck is a monster. I gravitate towards pets versus monsters when I think about this. As I said, if you want to win the fight I think you have to pick the duck.
Peter: I should probably address the book question first because the TV series might take a while. I don’t think you can name one essential chess book. For me, the first book I read from cover to cover – and actually destroyed in the process of re-reading as I read it so much over and over again that it fell apart in my hands when I was about 7 or 8 – was How to Beat Bobby Fischer by Edmar Mednis. My dad’s colleague at work had a copy, extremely rare in Soviet times, and loaned it to us. It was actually rather awkward because we couldn’t return it as it was in such condition that we actually had to compensate him somehow and keep the book.
It’s not an essential book, but I loved it with all my heart. I read it over and over again and it must have influenced me in a huge way, at least in terms of falling in love with chess content. It’s not the most impressive book in the world, but that’s the first one I absolutely devoured, including literally.
There are all the obvious candidates, although I think modern thinking is that My System may not be such a great book. I was brought up that you were given My System at some point and told to read it and report when you read it. That was the way the Soviet kids were taught. The current thinking, I suspect from what I hear, is that My System is obsolete and you don’t need it.
Jan: I’m not a big fan of the book but I read it at a later age. It always surprises me greatly when people say My System was the one book that really influenced them.
Peter: I can’t say the concepts in that book made a profound difference to my life – more than any other book – but I did read it and I found it interesting and well-written and definitely useful, but as I said, I suspect it’s somewhat out of fashion. There are a lot of good tournament books, but naming one that’s essential is I think almost impossible.
...if you’re just beginning to learn chess read as much as possible
In general, I think if you’re just beginning to learn chess read as much as possible. I know it kind of clashes with what I said about not reading for the past 10-15 years, but when I was a kid my parents at some point bought me about two and a half full libraries of chess books. People were selling at that time, so basically I had a huge choice of books, and I think if I said I read upwards of 90% of what was on the shelves it would be an honest assessment. I think it’s hugely beneficial to avail yourself of any chess knowledge that’s out there and then I think your brain will filter out what you don’t need and you’ll assimilate what you do need. So do read – I highly recommend it!
Jan: So now let’s get to what happened after you read all these chess books – the TV series.
Peter: Yes, I think there could be a correlation there, actually, because the moment I seriously got into watching TV series I may have started slacking off on the chess book reading. But the essential TV series… do we want to get involved with this?
Jan: It’s not like we like it, but we have to answer every question…
Peter: This is supposedly a 90-minute show and answering this question can take pretty much any time available.
Jan: Let’s shorten it: the correct answer is, The Wire, as everybody knows.
Peter: Yes, but you don’t want to give “the correct answer” – it just feels wrong to blithely assume that it’s The Wire and let’s move on. It absolutely has to be watched, but I don’t think… The question was the essential TV series, right? If you have to go with one I think it’s still The Wire, although we are now basically confirming every racial stereotype out there. We’re two white guys saying The Wire is the best thing ever. This is what we’re supposed to say and this is what we’re saying. It still is the best thing ever… I think if we said anything else there would be shock and outcry.
...we are now basically confirming every racial stereotype out there
Jan: As long as you don’t say Breaking Bad. I respect Breaking Bad, it’s beautifully done and it’s very clever and every detail has been thought out, but it doesn’t compare to The Wire. All these people saying Breaking Bad is the best show ever…
Peter: Yeah, that’s what he keeps saying and I sit next to him and nod and think, you Philistine, you have no idea, but… let’s move on!
Jan: Anyway, it’s your Q&A – you’re very wrong…
Peter: I’m not very wrong. I was trying to think of a larger answer, because the moment you just nod your head and say yeah, The Wire, it’s lazy answering.
End of Part I
Parts II and III will follow shortly!
More from Peter Svidler:
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