Interviews Sep 20, 2016 | 8:21 AMby Colin McGourty

Richard Rapport: “I don’t really have any support”

At 20 years old Hungary’s Richard Rapport is the world’s top junior, rated 2752 and world no. 16. He suffered at the Baku Olympiad, though, both from possible food poisoning and over the board, where he lost four games and 23 rating points. In the following interview Richard and his wife Jovana talk to Dorsa Derakhshani about their life together, including how a lack of support and opportunities is holding back one of the world’s most original and talented players. Richard is disillusioned and comments, “right now I’m not so sure if I want to keep on playing chess all my life”.

The Rapports at dinner after Round 8 of the Baku Olympiad - they were advised not to eat pizza with their hands in case the water was behind the food poisoning | photo: Dorsa Derakhshani

The interview took place over dinner after Round 8 of the Olympiad, when Hungary’s men’s team had beaten China (Richard drew with Ding Liren) and Serbia’s women’s team had overcome Canada (Jovana beat Qiyu Zhou).    

Dorsa Derakhshani: Congratulations on your marriage! We all love to see a chess couple turn into a marriage. It’s just so wonderful and we want to know as much as possible about it!

Richard: She always takes the right side of the bed! (Both laughing) Can I start here?

Jovana and Richard Rapport married in June | photo: Camilla Jovard

So how did it all start?

Jovana: We met in the 2012 World Junior Championship in Greece - that’s where and when it all started. After the tournament was over we kept in touch and everything slowly fell into place, although we started our relationship in 2013.

I would have guessed it was love at first sight!

Richard: I liked her very much from the beginning, but it wasn’t that easy.

Jovana: I was playing hard to get! 

The Rapports on their wedding day | photo: Camilla Jovard

Would you say a chess relationship and now chess marriage is “hard work”?

Jovana: I don’t feel much difference since we got married. Maybe the reason is because we were living together for more than two and a half years!

Richard: Now that everything is half-half I feel a bit scared! Except for this, nothing has changed. We just wanted to be married because it feels nicer.

Jovana: About a chess marriage, I don’t really know. We didn’t have a long distance relationship for a long period of time, since we started living together about a year into the relationship. I think distance would be a problem for any relationship - even now we don’t spend much time apart.

Richard: Maybe Belgrade is not my city, though. It’s hard to have a feeling for or love the city.

You don’t have to love the city – just love the girl! 

Jovana: Exactly!

Richard: That’s what I do!

How would you say the relationship has affected your chess?

The Baku Olympiad was a tough event for Richard Rapport | photo: Dorsa Derakhshani

Richard: I’m not sure how it affected it since my chess went everywhere! From 2700 to 2650 - back to 2750 - and now losing 20 points here. Maybe it’s not so normal for chess players to have this many ups and downs.

Jovana: I wasn’t too steady either. I’m not really professional and I have my studies besides chess, so for me I don’t see chess as a profession, but somehow there is never enough time to work on my chess in order to improve as I hope.

How did Richard propose to you?

Jovana: The classic going down on one knee – he had a speech ready. Very romantic, just the two of us.

Who says chess players aren't romantic? | photo: Camilla Jovard

Richard: Just in case! Wanted to be more secure and not so public. You never know!

Were you expecting the ring? On that exact day?

Jovana: No! But we had quite a long engagement. It was not easy to plan everything and get it all in order, but it was very nice, of course!

Did you guys find some time to have your honeymoon already?

Jovana: We wanted to, and we had some plans for it - we got married at the end of June. But unfortunately my father passed away very unexpectedly and he was working in the USA. I’m still shocked, and the whole process of transferring my father to Belgrade was also hard.

So sorry for your loss, I can’t imagine what you’re going through. 

Jovana, you switched to his surname right after marriage. Not all couples change their names - why did you?

Jovana: I felt like it was my duty to do it as a wife and I never had any second thoughts about it. With my dad passing away so suddenly after our marriage it wasn’t so easy, but even he supported my decision to change my last name and he was very happy about it. When you’re starting your own family it’s just better to have one unique name. For me it was very important.

How did you start playing chess?

Jovana: I was just watching my father giving chess lessons to other kids - he was an international master. So I got interested. I started at quite an old age - 8-9. Actually my dad didn’t want me to play chess because he knew what kind of life I would be getting myself in to, but I just wanted to do it because he said no. Then I kept on asking so he gave me a chance by telling me: ok, you’ll go to the national championship and then we’ll see! So I played there for the first time, without any work beforehand, and I got 4th place. Then he started to train me and ever since I’ve won every national championship and many others.

Chess wasn't entirely absent at the wedding... | photo: Camilla Jovard

You changed your federation from Montenegro to Serbia - how did that happen?

Jovana: Well, our country kept on changing names! First I was playing for Yugoslavia, then it changed to Serbia and Montenegro, later on Serbia and Montenegro were also separated (2006), then I decided to play for Montenegro because they offered me much better and more promising conditions for a coach, tournaments and so on. In Serbia there was no offer! But over the years they just stopped their side of our contract, and then since I’d always lived in Belgrade I came back to play for Serbia.

You’re not planning on changing to his federation, are you?

Jovana: Who knows! But I do like the way the Hungarian federation works better. They’re investing in women quite nicely, but I haven’t thought about it seriously. (Richard nodding)

Richard: Actually my father taught me the game because I wasn’t very good at maths in second grade and my dad came up with the idea of me playing chess so my concentration would be better and I would be more focused, but I was not so happy about it as a little boy… and now I ended up here! I got the GM title before I was 14. Maybe just lucky!

The Hungarian team might have benefited from having Judit Polgar as a player not a captain | photo: Dorsa Derakhshani

Does it feel any different to be playing on first board for Hungary?

Richard lost to some very well-known attacking players

Richard: Not really. I’ve played some team events before. I’m not having a good tournament, so maybe I’m not the best person to be saying it. I lost three games to normal opponents.

How do you like Judith being the captain instead of playing?

Richard: Well, it’s the second time she’s been our captain (she was the captain in the European Team Championship as well) so we’ve got quite used to it. She’s doing her job. She was also a great player who played with us in Tromsø 2014, where we won a medal.

You play quite rare opening choices and differently than is usual for other chess players. What is your “chess philosophy”?

Richard: I don’t think I have some kind of philosophy, I just choose random moves. I’ve always been dynamic, especially around the time I achieved my GM title. About openings - I choose very randomly. For example, today I played a line Jovana used to play years ago. She gave me a file from when she was 14 or 15 and I played it today against Ding Liren and equalised very quickly after 10 moves or something. He didn’t know 15-year-old Jovana’s analysis! But usually it’s totally random choices. Today in the Chigorin Opening lots of games have already been played!

Jovana: Compared to other players at your level ok, perhaps you do play unusual openings!

Do you consider yourself to be a World Championship challenger?

Richard: Actually that’s an interesting question! Because honestly, at some point some time ago, I was thinking I could be, but so much shit is going on in our lives and so many things are not happening for my chess that I don’t really think about it anymore. To be a player with a certain claim to the throne you have to be playing with certain opponents and be steadier, but I play more normal opponents in normal tournaments. I don’t really have the chance to play at a higher level against higher-rated players, plus I don’t have a coach and I work all by myself, so I don’t really have any support! Even if I am considered to be more talented than other players, they have some crucial advantages besides chess, so I don’t consider myself a World Championship challenger.

What do you think you can do to achieve it?

A place of their own | photo: Camilla Jovard

Richard: Ok, I’m in need of a sponsor to support me financially, like lots of other players.

Jovana: Compared to other chess players, he has almost no support!

Richard: We’re building our life and family all on our own, with no one else to support us. When we started living together we decided to be completely independent, so we didn’t have any support even from our families. Some good has come out of it, but it makes chess seem a source of income for me, not just a game to be focused on and skills to be improved.

Jovana: Everyone sees the huge potential in him, but somehow no-one cares enough about it to actually step in.

Well, you are not even 21 yet! Hopefully this problem will be solved soon and we will be able to see your talent in action more.

Richard: Hopefully, because right now I’m not so sure if I want to keep on playing chess all my life. It’s too much of a burden and stress and I don’t feel the love for it some other players do. I just want to make the best of it. But we are young and we don’t have much experience. I mean, we probably don’t even know how it would feel to be supported and play only because of chess, and regularly at the top level, and so on.

Maybe I would also need a change of style and a change of hairstyle! But for now, I need to stop playing bad moves!

Why is Leko not playing?

Richard: I think he had some private issues at this time, but not exactly sure what.

So far which game of yours, or at least which move, did you like most in this tournament?

Richard: I want all the moves and the plans to be perfect, which has happened very rarely, so I don’t really like any of my games here. Even when winning a game, if I miss a move or a plan I won’t consider that game of mine likeable. When I’m losing and my opponent is playing really strongly and the game is supposed to be nice, from his point of view, I somehow make it easier for him and make some ridiculous mistakes - at least compared to what I expect from myself. I cannot judge if it was a good game or not if only one side is playing well, so I don’t like any of my games here.

I lost like 70 points in three months! From around 2720 I dropped to 2650 - it might be happening again. Give me more games and see! (laughs)

Jovana played on top board for Serbia | photo: Lennart Ootes

Jovana: I’m feeling a bit sad for my team in this tournament because we had such nice opportunities and I feel as a team we played well, but we missed great chances against strong opponents like Ukraine. It’s very painful, because we all had nice positions but we didn’t manage to maintain it. We are good as a team, so it’s nice to be playing a team tournament.

Do you do coaching besides playing?

Jovana: My father had a successful chess school in the USA and was there for more than 10 years. He was eager for me to start teaching as well. He thought it would be a nice experience and also useful for my chess and life - teaching is less stressful than playing and it also has a regular income, but I never liked it. Even if I was interested, I would want that life for when I’m older!

Richard: I have only one student (pointing towards Jovana) - it’s quite difficult already! I get lots of offers to give lectures and stuff like this, but I never agree. Maybe I just want to keep the wisdom for myself! (winks)

How do you like this Olympiad so far?

Richard: Loving the food!

Jovana: I heard some other people also had problems with the food here. Lots of people say this is much better than the previous Olympiads, but I can’t agree because of the hotel meals. We’re here all day! Besides that, the playing venue is nice and everything is on time.

Smiling in the face of adversity... | photo: Dorsa Derakhshani

Richard: (laughing) I have food poisoning, have to travel to the hall for about 40 minutes - even that I can be ok with - and then they’re beating me! That I cannot deal with! (laughs)

Do you think only one Bermuda party is enough for each Olympiad?

Richard: I only played one Olympiad before - I’m not such an expert.

Jovana: I’ve played since 2008. I liked how they organised this one, but a higher number of parties would be better, of course.

What do you think about the “toilet rule” - which was also written in the regulations? Was that enforced by the arbiters?

Jovana: Well, they cancelled this rule after the first few days, so now there is no problem with it.

Richard: I had some conversations with Judith about it and before the tournament we didn’t believe they were actually going to do it! When they were actually expecting the players to go along with it, Judith and some others helped to put an end to it, which was very important.

Jovana: Some of the new suggestions about preventing any kind of cheating are fine…

Richard: Such as not bringing your lucky pen?!

Jovana: …but some of them are just weird and the players won’t accept them.

One last question, who do you think will win the Olympiad in the Open and also the Women’s section?

Richard: In the Women’s I can’t think of any other team besides Serbia! And Russia for the Open section. They haven’t won the Open section in forever, so it’d be nice to see them win.

Jovana: In the Women’s China will win and in the men’s I can’t say any other team besides Hungary!

Best wishes for both of you!

IM Dorsa Derakhshani

Dorsa was born in Tehran, Iran in 1998 and now lives in Barcelona. Both an International Master and a Women's Grandmaster she has a peak rating of 2405. She won the Asian Youth Championship three times (2012-4) and travelled to Baku as a FIDE-accredited journalist

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