In Part II of Peter Svidler’s recent Q&A session the Russian Champion explains why he rarely analyses his own games anymore, what separates Carlsen and Caruana from the rest, what makes the Caro-Kann and the French tougher to play with Black and why it’s a myth that Morozevich’s offbeat openings were based on over-the-board inspiration.
Peter: I think the 1.d4 part is definitely very valid and there’s absolutely no problem with only playing the Nimzo and Queen’s Indian against 1.d4 - those openings are extremely sound and very solid. There are openings out there that could be said to be even more risk-free, but this is as sound positionally as you can hope for in a repertoire against 1.d4, and I’m saying this as a life-long Grünfeld player. I still love the Grünfeld, but the Grünfeld presents all kinds of different challenges, and it’s definitely riskier positionally than the Nimzo/Queen’s Indian complexes.As for the Caro… playing exclusively the Caro will probably get you into trouble at some point. I’m not saying it’s a refutable opening – I think these days if you play anything well enough you can survive – but the Caro will present you with very, very serious challenges, and you will constantly have to keep ahead of recent developments. It’s a solid opening, it’s fine, but I think if you want to play one opening against 1.e4 for the rest of your life it probably has to be either the Ruy Lopez or some kind of a Sicilian. If you’re playing the Nimzo against 1.d4 it’s probably the Ruy Lopez against 1.e4 in terms of soundness and safety and the general approach to openings.
But this was a book and the title kind of gives you a hint – Karpov’s signature opening against 1.e4 is the Caro-Kann, at least in the later stages of his career, so the argument had to be made. There was a period when he was playing pretty much exclusively the Caro-Kann against all-comers and doing very, very well. His contribution to the opening cannot be overstated - for instance the signature position where Black gets checked along the a4-e8 diagonal and just plays Ke7 is more or less called the Karpov king now - but I think if you want to build a lifelong repertoire although it’s not impossible to play the Caro for your whole life you’re challenging yourself unduly. I think there are easier lives out there.
Jan: But don’t you super-strong players just believe that White is better after 3.e5 because there’s more space?
Peter: It’s a simplistic approach. The problem with that – what I’ve been playing for the past 15 years with some success, as I’ve stopped almost completely allowing dxe4 on move 3 – is, as with everything else in current chess, people start looking for forced draws. It’s no longer a game of concepts. Conceptually, I think 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 3.e5 has to be better for White, but it’s very hard to play a conceptual opening game these days against somebody who is prepared to meet you head on and look for forced draws. Then the question becomes – is there a forced draw there? I think the jury is still out.
It’s very hard to play a conceptual opening game these days against somebody who is prepared to meet you head on and look for forced draws
There was a very
important game in St. Louis where Maxime Vachier-Lagrave played a line which
was supposed to give Black perhaps the best chance of a forced draw against 3.e5, but he ran into some monster
preparation and lost. Whether there is still a draw or not if he’d found the
best play for Black I can’t really say, but basically it becomes an arms race,
as with everything else.
Peter: Not greatly, unless it’s something like the Candidates, when I have motivation and resources enough – because I do have to say that without help from the Russian Chess Federation it would have been hard to do what I did for the past two Candidates. When I’m on my own my preparation regiment has not really differed greatly for the past twenty years or so. I don’t really prepare that much before a tournament. I do quite a lot of work during the tournament preparing for each game, but not before the tournament.
But for the big events in the past couple of years I’ve been able to basically hire people to work on chess together and this of course makes a huge difference, because both in London and Khanty I felt I had no serious opening problems to speak of, which is a very, very novel feeling for me, to be honest, and allows me to play with a degree of freedom which I don’t normally feel.
Peter: There will be some videos to do with 1.e4. I’m right now in Gib having finished work on my opening salvo in my 1.e4 videos. I’m hoping those will be released at some point.
Jan: I thought those were for White?
Peter: Yes, those were not black repertoire videos. As with all these things, it’s called a white repertoire, but I think it’s a reasonably safe bet that black players can find something in there that will be useful to them as well. They’re not prohibited from watching this and learning something, hopefully.
Peter: I think in the Grünfeld the one that comes to mind – and once again I may be wrong about this, but I’ll keep this answer as it’s the only one that came to my mind immediately after I saw the question – is the structure in the classical Bc4 lines where Black plays both c5 and e5 and White gets a passer on d5 which is not immediately challenged. Black is in time to switch his knight by, let’s say, a5 and b7 to d6 and, generally speaking, if Black by this point is not getting mated on the kingside he should be doing quite well.
But I think the machine still tends to overevaluate the spatial advantage in these structures. I think those leaks are very far and few between nowadays. They not only mate you quite efficiently but are also much, much better compared to previous years in correctly understanding what to aim for. They are pretty decent, I have to say.
Peter: When I was growing up analysing your own games was something you did, or at least I did, which was a huge part of your development, but it was manual work. You did it yourself and improved that way because you were forced to analyse, you were forced to figure out what you did wrong in the opening and in that way you developed your opening understanding. It was a huge part of your game, of course, but these days there are answers readily available online the moment you get back to your room from the game, and that kind of discourages you.
When I was growing up analysing your own games was something you did...
Not only are they readily available, generally they’re very unflattering, so you look at your games if you played something that’s important to you theoretically in the opening and it got refuted, or you feel it might have got refuted and you need to check if you can still play the line, but in general I do this less than I did when I was a kid.
computers out there. They’re making us lazy - it’s so hard to motivate yourself
to look at something without an engine which gives you an instant answer.
Peter: Yes, that is a problem. Analysing something live and trying to really understand something in the position – yes, it will be slower compared to when you’re using an electronic helper – but it’s still very important to do that at least every now and again. But it’s hard work convincing yourself you have to.
I think mainly it’s two things. I looked at this question before and I spent some time thinking about it, and I think the answer is youth, in my case, which is something they have and I no longer do, but mainly I think it’s consistency. I can still play a game of chess every now and then that I’m very happy showing to anybody and that I think will stand the test regardless of what you compare it to. But these days I play more and more games which are not really all that good – maybe not all that bad, but not all that good – whereas Magnus, despite some uncharacteristic games in the last half year, is incredibly consistent. He doesn’t really make huge mistakes at all, and this is what separates him and others who aspire to that level from the rest.
He doesn't really make huge mistakes at all
What was perhaps most striking about Fabiano’s performance in St. Louis was not the result itself, which was unbelievable – no words, use your own adjectives – but the fact that he was winning all those games committing perhaps minor errors when the game was already settled. Basically the machine says you can win in five moves, and he’d win in seven or ten. To my eyes that was the most striking thing about his performance – the absolutely unbelievable level of consistency game after game, move after move. He did get tired towards the end of it – he is still human – but for the vast majority of the event he was playing… there are no words. This, I think, is what separates the very, very top and someone like me.
Peter: I would very much like to agree with that sentiment because it implies that I’m not a five-time World Champion and an all-time great because I chose something else in life.
Jan: Let’s blame your kids!
Peter: Yeah, that’s the way to go, obviously, but although there is some truth to that it’s a simplistic explanation - it’s a very convenient one for me, and I may have even used it in some interviews, and if I did I should probably feel slightly ashamed. Dedication is absolutely necessary, but dedication to the extent of the exclusion of everything else – maybe yes, maybe no, I’m not entirely sure – and definitely thanks for the compliment, but I think people who emerge as all-time greats are there for a reason, and people who don’t are not there for a reason. And the reason is not just the fullness of your life outside chess.
I think people who emerge as all-time greats are there for a reason
Jan: I know this Carlsen guy. He does a lot of crap. He’s not that dedicated to chess, is he?
Peter: Yes, once again – I don’t think the theory holds up even if you don’t take those four names and start actually taking apart their lives. It’s a generalisation, which as all generalisations go is true to a degree, but it doesn’t really explain the entire world.
Jan: The problem is putting in the hours is probably needed at any level, right?
Peter: Yes. I’m fairly sure that my results, or lack thereof – in as much as you can say that I did not achieve something in my career – had a lot to do with not working enough, but that should not be explained by me living a full life and having a family. I think it’s just the way I’m built, regrettably. Without family and kids I would have found something else which would have distracted me from working as much as I should have worked when I was younger.
Peter: I quite like the Candidates Tournaments. I would like to play another one of those and maybe win one. Then I would get to play a World Championship match. That actually is a legitimate goal I have. The number of shots I will get at this is probably not increasing, but that is a legitimate goal.
Peter: I have to say that I’m not a Yorkshire supporter as such, but they played a fantastic season and they’re the deserved winners and I think it’s a travesty that Andrew Gale was not allowed to hold the trophy… and let’s leave it at that before Jan gets too upset about this line of questioning.
Jan: If this was basketball I would keep it going for hours, but cricket. Nah, I shouldn’t say anything wrong – I’m already at war with David Smerdon.
Peter: That one is very easy and I will tackle it happily – win more matches!
Peter: That one I probably shouldn’t touch, because it’s noticeable that Vladimir has not played as well as he normally plays in his recent tournaments, but even trying to answer why would be ridiculous from my viewpoint. I don’t know and I wouldn’t want to speculate. He’s a great player and I will not try to get into his head and determine what’s going on with him.
Jan: We’re still working on that Kramnik Q&A – we need a bit of patience.
Peter: There will probably be more questions like that further up the screen and I just want to preface anything I say on the subject with – and I don’t want to sound in any way dismissive – I don’t really remember. It’s been a while, and it’s very, very hard for me to effectively imagine what it’s like to get from 1800 to the 2000 level. So what I will be saying is very general advice which is I think applicable to chess progress in general. I’m sorry if this is not specific enough for your situation, but once again, it has been a while.
Play tournaments, play blitz, submerge yourself in chess as much as possible because when you’re just learning the game nothing teaches you faster than practice
I think solving tactical puzzles is a decent thing to do but it shouldn’t be the only thing you do, and if I were giving advice to a young person who is beginning to play chess I would give him or her the advice that was given to me when I was growing up, which was “play as much as you can”. Play all the chess you can get your hands on. Play tournaments, play blitz, submerge yourself in chess as much as possible because when you’re just learning the game nothing teaches you faster than practice. Try playing against people who are slightly better than you, obviously, not a lot better but slightly better – people who will beat you occasionally, people who will teach you things, people who will show you things you haven’t seen before. Practice, above all, should be helpful at this level.
Peter: I’m not sure then if you’re not watching my videos – come on, I should show some pride in my work! But once again, if the Grünfeld is not to your taste then try to find some content which you feel relates more to your current situation – but learning is good. Find something to watch and watch it. Read books. If you asked me those videos are good and you should watch them even if you don’t play the Grünfeld. They’re fun and there are interesting positions to observe…
Jan: What you really want to watch is my series on How to build your 1.d4 repertoire. There’s no tactics, it’s all very dull and abstract.
Peter: You see – I was planning to pass this on.
Jan: We do have a lot of good content, for all levels, and I also think you don’t need to be a genius tactician to play the Grünfeld – it is strategic?
Peter: There’s a lot of strategy going on but in its foundations it’s a more tactical opening than the Nimzo, for instance. You do eventually have to play very concretely in a lot of lines to survive. In that respect I think Paul is correct, but still, at least some of those videos I’m very, very proud of – some of them are proper masterpieces, in my opinion.
Peter: I think the answer is twofold. Firstly, both the Spanish and the Sicilian offer you a much broader scope to choose from. If you play 1…e5 you’re not really limited to one structure, let alone one line. That’s not necessarily to say the French is one structure and one line, but it does limit Black’s opportunities more than the Spanish or the Sicilian. But I think the bigger issue with the French is, at least for me, that it was always a very, very difficult opening to understand. I didn’t do that badly in terms of practical results, but actually understanding what’s going on in the opening is another matter – even from the white side, and it’s generally accepted that the white side is the more comfortable side of the French Defence.
That brings me to my second point. This was mainly to do with the fact that I played French games almost exclusively with Alexander Morozevich, who put a tremendous amount of work and imagination into building his French repertoire. If you do that it becomes a very attractive option against 1.e4, because people don’t encounter it that often these days. People are no longer very convinced with their choices and I think it’s very playable and also a very sharp opening that you could argue definitely gives you more counterchances than the Spanish. If the white player would prefer a quiet life he will find it harder to find a quiet life in the French than in the Spanish. But it does require…
The amount of work he invested into his offbeat openings is absolutely stunning
Jan: Just to clarify – by the Spanish you mean 1. e4 e5, right? The Italian, for example, strikes me as even duller than the Spanish.
precisely. 1…e5 does give White a
number of options where playing for a win with Black is not impossible, but
there are problems. The French is an incredibly fighting and very exciting
opening. It’s very playable, but the amount of work required to make it work
is, I think, much larger than it is in particular in the Spanish. People who
are prepared to do the hard yards and work on this opening find it very
rewarding. Morozevich’s results were fantastic in the French. He kept on
getting very good positions and positions which suited him personally very
well. Once again, and this is a bit of a tangent…. given Morozevich’s obvious
tactical genius and the originality he showed in almost all of his games I
think people often have the misapprehension that this was all inspiration over
the board. The amount of work he invested into his offbeat openings is
absolutely stunning. That’s not to take anything away from his playing style – which
made him one of the most watchable chess players in the history of chess, and
he still is when he’s in good form – but people somehow tend to assume that
this was all entirely over the board inspiration. It wasn’t.
End of Part II
The third and final part of the transcript of Peter Svidler's Q&A session will follow shortly.
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