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Interviews Oct 4, 2017 | 11:33 AMby Colin McGourty

Sergey Karjakin: “I’m simply a fighter”

Sergey Karjakin was knocked out of the Tbilisi World Cup by Daniil Dubov in Round 2, but says in a new interview that “part of me was glad”, since it meant he could spend a full three weeks at home with his wife and their new son. His thoughts are already turning to the Candidates Tournament this March in Berlin, though, with Sergey estimating he’ll need four months to prepare for the event. He also talks about fame in Russia and reveals Vladimir Kramnik and Anatoly Karpov both helped him before the World Championship match.

Sergey Karjakin with Vishy Anand at this year's Norway Chess tournament | photo: Jose Huwaidi

Sergey Karjakin was immediately confirmed as a participant in the 2018 Candidates Tournament when he lost his World Championship match to Magnus Carlsen. We now know he’ll be joined by World Cup finalists Levon Aronian and Ding Liren, Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So by rating (unless Vladimir Kramnik can put together a brilliant run to catch So), while two of Shakhriyar Mamedyarov, Alexander Grischuk, Teimour Radjabov and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave will qualify from the FIDE Grand Prix. Those seven are joined by an organisers' wild card, who must have been rated 2725 or above on one of the 2017 rating lists.

Karjakin's recent interview with Moskva 24 began with a question on how he rates his chances of victory in the event:

Sergey Karjakin: I have stable results in the Candidates Tournament. I’ve taken part twice and finished second once, while the other time I was first. That shows that when a tournament really matters I can prepare well for it, and I really am a contender to win. In order to live up to that level, though, I’ll have to work very well.

When will you start preparation?

Given that the whole preparation will take around four months, my coaches and I will conduct our first serious session in November. We’ll get together for two weeks and answer our phones less often. In January I’ll play my last tournament before the Candidates Tournament and then February has been completely freed up. Naturally I’ll spend it entirely on preparation.

How many coaches do you have and why do you need them at all? After all, objectively speaking you play better than they do.

My team consists of two or three permanent coaches. Those are grandmasters, but not run-of-the-mill ones, but of a very high level. They needn’t play better than I do, though. Their task is to point out my flaws. They notice that, let’s say, I more often make mistakes in the opening or the endgame, they collect material based on that issue and we work on that stage of the game. Apart from that we prepare for opponents, looking at where they make mistakes and where we can catch them out.

On his return to Moscow after the match Karjakin had two of his seconds, Vladimir Potkin and Alexander Motylev, on his right - both have won the European Championship | photo: D Isayeva, Soviet Sport/

Before the match against Carlsen I gathered together as big a team as possible – about ten people. Among those six worked on chess preparation. I consulted a lot with all kinds of leading specialists. They included some famous names – former World Champions Vladimir Kramnik and Anatoly Karpov.

A few people were responsible for my physical preparation and massages. It was important to take care of every detail. For the trip to New York I even specially hired a cook as it was necessary for me to have normal Russian food. Besides, before the games there was absolutely no time to go to a restaurant.

The match against Magnus Carlsen ended up being very hard-fought and you lost only on tiebreaks. What was the psychological experience of winning the eighth game, taking you into the lead in the match?  

That was one of the most exhilarating days. When I broke clear there were only four games until the end, and at that moment I felt that here it is – a real chance to win. At that moment I already felt that I could win.

And in the next game I had a big advantage, but I didn’t manage to convert it, and that, perhaps, was the key moment. If I’d managed to convert in the next game, with plus two and only three rounds to go, then most likely that would have been the World Championship. It’s a pity that it didn’t work out in the end, but we still had his nerves jangling.

Magnus Carlsen’s team released a mobile app for playing chess – Play Magnus. Every level of difficulty corresponds to a certain age of Magnus. After the match in New York did you have the urge to beat the computer on the highest level?

You have to understand that in that app you’re not playing against Magnus Carlsen. You’re playing a computer, whose style is supposedly adapted to Magnus’ style. In actual fact, though, it’s just a computer, and it doesn’t matter how it’s called – Play Magnus or, let’s say, Houdini. Houdini is one of the leading chess programs. The leading programs have long since been stronger than people. It’s much more interesting for me to play the real Magnus Carlsen and it’s good that I have the chance.

But hasn’t your team had the idea of making a chess app with your name?

Actually there is such an idea. Moreover, if things go well it’ll be implemented in the next half a year. The app is already being worked on.

Karjakin was knocked out in Round 2 of the Tbilisi World Cup, but surprisingly Magnus only made it one round further! | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, official website

Magnus Carlsen didn’t get a higher education. He explained that studies would have taken away a lot of energy just when he was experiencing his fastest chess development. You, as a professional chess player, graduated from the Russian State Social University. Didn’t studies get in the way of your career?

That question is more relevant to when I was studying in high school. Back then I was developing and it really was very tough to combine everything. My teachers came up with an individual system of education just for me. I could study at home and prepare subjects and then come to school to take the tests. At university my studies weren’t overly stressful and didn’t get in the way of my career. I got a good education in “Social Pedagogy”. But the main event at the university was meeting my future wife Galiya. 

Now you have two children. Your eldest, Alexey, is two years old, while your youngest, Mikhail, is two months. What changed for you after the children appeared?

A lot. Before the children were born Galiya often accompanied me to tournaments and I had good results with her, but then the children appeared and she began to stay at home and we started to see each other much less. Therefore I try to find time to be with my family and, if possible, to reject any insignificant kind of event.

After I was knocked out of the World Cup in Tbilisi quite early over the last three weeks I’ve spent as much time at home as I probably managed in the last half year. Perhaps, and this may sound paradoxical, but you can believe it or not: Yes, I was very upset to lose, but part of me was glad. I spent time at home and realised how important that is.

Can you give a rough sketch of your typical day?

It’s hard to talk about some kind of typical day, because every day is different for me. If we travel to training camps then we study chess for almost the whole day. If I’m at home, then I don’t have very much time for chess. I try to force myself to spend two to three hours on it.

I’d planned on spending the whole of September at the World Cup in Tbilisi. I turned down all other events, aiming to reach at least the final, but it turned out I was knocked out at an early stage of the tournament and three weeks were completely freed up. I spent those with my family. Plus, for a few days I flew to Crimea to my parents, but those weeks were an exception.

On social engagements I can say that I’ll soon travel to Sochi and give chess lectures in the Sirius educational centre. Also in Sochi, in mid-October, I’m planning to give a simul at the World Festival of Youth and Students.

I often meet with children and try to support children’s sport. I hold a lot of popularising events on a charitable basis.

This year the tournament in Stavanger in Norway didn’t go well for you and you finished last. Vladimir Kramnik explained that by your being tired towards the end of the tournament, and advised you in an interview to a sporting publication “to take a time-out from any public activities, shut himself off, rest and do some good work”. Do frequent public activities to popularise chess have a negative impact on you as a sportsman?

You could say there’s a grain of truth in his words and I actually did follow his advice. For a while I stayed away from appearances, and then after that I played an excellent classical tournament in St. Louis in America, beating strong opponents and increasing my rating.

Karjakin beat Wesley So and Peter Svidler in the 2017 Sinquefield Cup | photo: Austin Fuller, Grand Chess Tour

Which characteristics of a chess piece appeal to you more than others?

In life? You always want to be a king, the most important, around whom everyone moves, but if we’re talking analogies then I definitely began my career as a pawn. Will that pawn go on to become a queen? I’d like to believe that I’ll achieve even greater success. But if not a queen, then I’ve definitely already become a rook.

In terms of playing style, are you more a defender or an attacker?

Many people say that I’m an excellent defender, that I save positions in which some would even resign. Here the secret is simply that I fight until the end. It’s not that I’m a defender, I’m simply a fighter - from every position I try to squeeze the maximum. But in general from my childhood on I’ve tried to make my style universal, so I attack and defend equally well. And in my career there have been a lot of games where apart from wonderful saves there are excellent sacrifices and winning combinations.

Are you also a fighter in life?

Life is multifaceted, with bad periods alternating with good. I’ve had very tough moments in my career, but I’ve never given in. In 2014 I finished last in the Russian Championship. I was the ratings favourite and should have fought for first place. To say that was a total failure would be putting it mildly.

I continued to work, though, and my coaches and I held a few training camps. And literally half a year later I won the World Cup. Then I won the Candidates Tournament and qualified for a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen. I made a leap, thanks to which many have heard of me, but few know that was preceded by a total failure. Therefore the main thing is to believe in your own strength.

Was there a moment when you felt that you were famous?

Yes, there was such a moment. After my match against Carlsen people began to recognise me everywhere. I’d been promoted on the main TV channels over the course of a month. When I returned from New York, where the match took place, I’d objectively become one of the country’s most popular sportsmen. Plus I started to be filmed in various adverts. People sometimes come up to me and ask, “Are you that chess player from the advert?” I suspect that not all of them know my name, but they recognise my face.

Karjakin with his dad, mum and younger brother at the "white cliff" in Crimea

In September I visited my parents in the Crimea. I managed to oversleep and miss the night flight and was flying on the next, but at the entrance to the airport I saw a billboard with my image, wishing people a pleasant flight. That considerably raised my spirits.

Sergey, you’re 27. How far ahead are you planning your chess career?

I feel as though I still have the energy to fight for the very highest prizes, including the classical World Championship title. I hope for another ten years I’ll play at the very highest level, but if I then realise that my results are dropping there won’t be any point in remaining. I’ll become a coach or take part in some chess-related activity.

As for age, I’ll try to match Vladimir Kramnik. At 42 he’s playing at the very highest level. To do that you need to study a lot and keep yourself in good physical condition. He probably works twice as much as Carlsen, and that’s essentially why Kramnik has kept himself at number 3-4 in the world rankings. I think it’s unlikely Carlsen will be able to maintain such a level at that age. To do that you need to drop everything, turn down a lot of things and work your socks off on chess. 

In years to come will you also be ready to concentrate like that on chess?

I think so. When I returned from the US after the match against Magnus Carlsen I was very popular and I was invited onto television a lot. Of course I went, told people about chess and said how great it was. After that there was a big chess boom, with a lot of children starting to play chess. Many parents came up to me and thanked me for being an example to their children. That’s very precious.

But now, when the wave has receded already, I realise that I again need to show results and prove not with words but actions that I’m one of the world’s best chess players. Therefore I’m now going to focus more on chess.

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