Interviews Jan 6, 2017 | 1:59 PMby Colin McGourty

Svidler on Carlsen-Karjakin, computers & more

There’s a week to go until the chess year kicks off in earnest on Saturday 14th January in Wijk aan Zee, with Peter Svidler commentating on the first seven rounds here on chess24. In a recent in-depth Russian interview the 7-time Russian Champion talked about commentary, the Carlsen-Karjakin match, the influence of computers, how Kramnik has adapted his style and much more.

Peter Svidler at the 2016 Tal Memorial photo: Eteri Kublashvili, Russian Chess Federation

Peter Svidler was talking to Leonid Romanovich of the St. Petersburg newspaper Sankt-Peterburgskiye Vedomosti. We’ve translated the interview in full below:


Leonid Romanovich: The recent match in New York between Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin took place under the sign of the Ruy Lopez, your trademark opening. How would you assess the opening duel in that match?

Peter Svidler: Yes, viewers even criticised me that during the broadcast on chess24 I spoke a lot about my own experience, but at some point it was very funny: they started to play variations in which the theory consisted almost entirely of my games! And I began to list them: I played this against Anand, this against Dominguez. Someone wrote in the comments: “What’s he doing, it’s not his match!”…

Game 9 followed Peter's analysis all the way to move 23!

Overall it was a strange match in terms of openings, and more so when it comes to Sergey. Magnus showed balanced, sound preparation, but played his, let’s say, officially declared repertoire. Nevertheless, he won the majority of the opening micro-duels! That’s absolutely stunning, considering the approach of the players. Karjakin is one of the best modern players in terms of how theoretically equipped he is, and then there was his widely hyped preparation for the match, featuring phenomenal figures for the money spent. And despite that he didn’t trouble Magnus anywhere! For me that’s a mystery. Karjakin said in an interview that a huge amount of work had been done but at times his team hadn’t guessed what Magnus would play.

During the match did it ever cross your mind that it could have been you in Karjakin’s place?

I can’t say it didn’t cross my mind at all, but such thoughts didn’t torment me. You could say Caruana, who missed out on victory in the last round, no doubt found it pretty unpleasant to watch, but I’m not in Caruana’s position. Yes, I played in the Candidates Tournament and, if the first half had gone a little differently, I might have been able to fight for victory, but it went the way it went. So there wasn’t anything even close to the impression that they were playing my match.

Karjakin and Svidler met in Round 1 of the 2016 Candidates Tournament in Moscow

In New York we had children of the computer era, while you started out in a completely different time. How easy was the transition for you? And in general, how have computers changed chess?

For me personally there wasn’t any kind of cognitive dissonance – it all went pretty smoothly. But chess, of course, has altered very significantly. The main change, a completely fundamental one, is the new evaluation of defensive resources. Previously a huge amount of analysis stopped in the region of move 17-19 with the symbol for “with an attack” – that was really good. Now, having worked with computers for decades, you understand very well that “with an attack” isn’t an evaluation. The computer defends positions that previously, having taken a single glance at the board, you’d consider to be mate. You didn’t know how, but there was no need – you’d find it at the board. But the computer finds such resources that people as well have started to evaluate defensive resources completely differently. It’s become clear how balanced the game is and how difficult it is to upset that balance.

So it turns out they made the game richer?

Yes, on the one hand. On the other, because of that people play less of the romantic chess that spectators love so much. The realisation that, more likely than not, an attack is incorrect, really weighs on you. And there are no longer so many romantics who aren’t bothered by that.

So a typical child of the computer era would be Karjakin, ready to defend any position?

I don’t know to what degree that can be explained by computers. It seems to me that in his case it’s more about talent. Few people can do the same, because to look at a bad position for hours is very tough mentally. You get a position which makes you feel nauseous, it’s unlikely to get any better, but it’s still too early to resign. You have to sit there and simply find the best moves. That’s a most precious gift! In that regard Sergey is one of the best, if not the best in the world. I, for example, have also saved bad positions, but in that respect I don’t even come close to Karjakin!

People have long talked about the computer death of chess, about everything having been analysed. One of the cures for that is so-called Fischer Chess, or Chess960, where the starting position is determined by a drawing of lots. Incidentally, you’re a 3-time World Champion in that format…

4-time. Unfortunately when Hans-Walter Schmitt stepped down from organisational activity as a promoter of that game Chess960 went into decline. He organised tournaments in Frankfurt am Main and believed it was an important format which would help chess remain vibrant and young, but at some point his main sponsors left and the tournaments disappeared, and now there’s almost nowhere to play. It’s a great pity, because everyone I know plays Chess960 with great pleasure.

I’ve heard it said that leading players regret the huge amount of opening work that would prove useless in Chess960…

No, that’s not the issue. If suddenly there was no other chess then that work would have been in vain, but there’s never been any serious talk about replacing classical chess with 960. The main discussion now in terms of the future of chess is what to do with the time control.

If we take the match in New York, then it was rapid chess that was the highlight of the match.

Yes, at chess24 our audience during the tiebreaks was about four times higher than in the most interesting games from the classical part of the match. It’s very possible that the future really is rapid chess, but at the same time you have to understand: broadcasting rapid, never mind blitz, is impossible without really good commentators.

Will he or won't he? Jan and Peter commentate on the final moves of the match

You commentate without the help of computers, in contrast to the overwhelming majority of your colleagues. Why?

That’s not entirely the case. We try, for the first four hours or so, while our heads are still operating at their peak, not to switch on the computer at all. And that’s except for positions when you can’t immediately find a solution, but you feel that there is one. Then you feel awkward in front of the viewers, who’ve already found everything with the help of their “silicon”, while we’re telling them that the position is unclear. And then after four hours of non-stop talk you start to malfunction, and you get the impression that you’re not really giving viewers all you could, so you start to turn on the computer more and more. But overall, I think my role as a serious representative of the chess elite is to show how such a person thinks without “crutches”. So the viewers can see: this is the thought process, here I missed something, I blundered. That gives the viewers an impression of how it goes in a real tournament.

Your level is probably a little high for the majority of viewers?

Yes, there’s always one critical remark about my work – I don’t attempt to lower the level of the analysis. I honestly say what I see, and I still see quite a lot and pretty quickly.

But after all, you commentate as a duo? Who are your partners?

Yes, on my own I’d go mad. Spending many days in a row broadcasting into the void is extremely tough. In the last match for the first games Eric Hansen worked with me, and then Jan Gustafsson returned. He’s my constant partner, and we’ve been working together for many years, also discussing a lot of absolutely non-chess topics: movies, TV series – we’ve done it all over the years. We consciously chose for our model a broadcast where there would be a range of such trifles. And many people, I know for a fact, watch us precisely because of that. For example, in the 11th game of the Carlsen-Karjakin match we had a wonderful discussion that was a hit on social media. We showed the final position of the game half an hour before it arose on the board. It was clear that the e2-pawn wouldn’t become a queen because White would give perpetual check. We said that about three times, while they kept sitting there thinking. After that we switched to talking about this, that and the other… 

Naturally, in order to do that it’s necessary that we understand each other well and have a range of interests in common, while also being on good terms doesn’t do any harm. Gusti and I have all that. I get huge pleasure from working with him and, in a good way, we’re both waiting for the moment when we can let ourselves go…

Everything’s clear when it comes to commentary, but how does your own chess work go?

My specific work on chess usually goes badly… And in general there’s almost no work being done without a computer. Yes, sharp tactical positions are interesting and pleasant to analyse “manually”, but you burn up a huge amount of time that you can save by clicking on a button. However, there are exceptions. I’ve played three Candidates Tournaments in the last four years, and for each of them I prepared a new opening repertoire. As a result, there are a huge number of structures that I didn’t previously play, and when you need to grasp where the pieces go in principle in some types of position then the computer is put to one side and you sit down with your colleague and move the pieces with your hands.

Who do you work with most often?

I’ve got a group of people who I’m on good, friendly terms with. Above all, that’s Maxim Matlakov, while for the first two Candidates Tournaments I was given simply invaluable support by Nikita Vitiugov. That’s who I consider to have a correct, systematic approach to working on chess.

And who have you helped yourself?

I was a second of Kramnik’s in Brissago for his match against Leko and also helped Grischuk prepare for a Candidates Tournament. With Kramnik an important motivation for me was to check if I was physically able to withstand it – I already had some idea what it meant to work with Volodya. I did withstand it, but then I didn’t touch the chess pieces for half a year. I’ve never worked so much before or since – never in my life!

Svidler and Kramnik before a tense draw in the 2016 Russian Team Championship in Sochi | photo: Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation 

Kramnik has now changed dramatically…

It’s not that Volodya has ceased to work on chess, but he’s finally had a revelation: he plays chess so well that it’s not obligatory for him to win each game in the opening. He can simply bring out the pieces and outplay people.

As Carlsen often does…

Yes, while in those years Volodya perceived chess to a high degree as a mathematical puzzle which demanded a solution. For me the new Kramnik is a model of sorts. I would also be very interested in changing something in myself, but I don’t see how. And I watch him with great admiration, because the guy had spent his whole life working one way on chess, and then at around 40 years old he decided it didn’t suit him anymore and managed to change. For me that’s an out-of-this-world achievement!

But you’re also trying to change your approach. For example, a few years ago you admitted that you’d started more often to force yourself to play for a win…

Yes, that was an important conclusion I drew from tournaments in which I’d been weighed down too much by the thought: “I mustn't lose this game”.

In general when comparing our school and the West you get the feeling that from junior chess onwards we’re still excessively focussed on the result. Is that true?

I really don’t like making such generalisations, but Nakamura, Caruana – all these guys grew up in American open tournaments, where only the first two or three prizes had any significance. Therefore in those you play sharply for a win in every game, and that’s carried over into your future career, while I, for example, quite quickly started to play in elite round robins, where there’s a somewhat more relaxed atmosphere… You’d get a dull position from the opening, offer a draw and go home.  And then later, of course, that was something you needed to overcome. In that regard I’m very grateful for the appearance of Sofia Rules, which simply banned that option. I really did have a huge number of short draws, but at the same time it was far more often I’d agreed to a draw than that I’d offer one i.e. I was always ready to continue playing, but if someone offered me a draw then it felt somewhat awkward to refuse. I have a good relationship with everyone, and in the majority of cases these were my friends…

There’s a view that in order to fight for the crown Peter Svidler is lacking toughness, a “killer instinct”. In contrast, for example, to Karjakin and Carlsen.

Actually against those guys things don’t go badly for me. No doubt I could be tougher, but I don’t think that’s my main problem. If you take Carlsen, then he simply plays chess better than I do. But the main thing is that I can and need to work more than I work.

And why doesn’t it work out?

The thing is, it’s very hard for me to work alone, and people who I feel comfortable working with have their own careers. We find some kind of mutual window, meet somewhere and look at one or two positions, but as the years go by it’s harder and harder to find a window. For instance, Maxim Matlakov and I understand each other very well, our work brings lots of benefits, but he has his own serious career and I can’t bend his calendar to mine. In general, by the age of forty it would do no harm to learn to work independently, but it doesn’t work out very well, because there’s always some distraction. 

What, if it’s not a secret?

Oh, the list is endless. Different card games, films. Family and children, of course, aren’t in last place.

And you thought Svidler only streamed his chess...

By the way, on your children. Your twin boys didn’t become chess players. Are you glad about that?

On balance, yes. If they’d shown any talent for it then no-one would have stood in their way, of course, but no particular talent revealed itself. And then you also have to take into account that it’s impossible to have my children study anonymously. People would have pointed at them and whispered. Do they need that?

And did you ever have the feeling that it would have been better if you yourself hadn’t gone into chess, but something different?

No. It’s hard for me to imagine an alternative universe in which I don’t do chess, though I would, no doubt, have come up with something else to do.

What did you graduate in?

I quit during the first year. I was studying Political Economy at St. Petersburg State University. It was a special department where chess players could study, but reading those textbooks put me into a state of depression. I scratched my head and decided: “no”. I don’t want to be an economist – why should I go through all of this? In part it’s a pity, because I cut myself off from some kind of life-altering experiences. Perhaps they would have taught me to work a little if I’d gone through all five years, but at that moment it was clear that I was going to be a chess player, and I considered there was no need for a higher education. And the example of my contemporaries – Vasily Yemelin, Vadik Zvjaginsev, who I competed with as an equal, shows I was right. They graduated with glowing diplomas from serious institutions, but that held back their chess development. If you study something seriously then you have to take a break in your chess career, and those are precious years when you absorb things like a sponge and experience explosive growth.

After not studying Economics Peter was eventually reduced to signing chess24 mugs for a living...

There’s now a boom in junior chess, with more and more children signing up for chess classes. Do you sense that growth in interest in the game?

It’s a fact that chess is receiving much more attention now in Russia. I don’t really understand how the connection works, but the attention devoted to the sport at the top really does lead to interest growing at the grass roots level. It’s clear that much more attention is now being given to the development of junior chess and once again we’ve started to win some junior championships. After all, there was a period when the situation was catastrophic for a country with such traditions, particularly if you compared it with the boom now in India or Iran. They’re simply developing fantastically there and, more likely than not, in 2018 the Iranian team will already be fighting for medals at the Chess Olympiad.

You’re a 5-time Olympiad winner as part of the Russian team, but all the victories were gained up to 2002, when Kasparov was in the line-up. Then it all stopped. Why?

It’s not directly connected with Garry Kimovich. Those were victories for the USSR chess school, but it was already clear that the process that began with the break-up of the country would make the Chess Olympiad incomparably tougher, that sooner or later the republics which previously provided talent for the USSR team would become serious rivals – as happened, for instance, with Armenia.

Nevertheless, the Russian team is always the Elo favourite, but always loses. Perhaps something’s not right with the approach?

No. We’ve all become a little tired of answering that question. They all stare us in the eyes: “No doubt you all hate each other?” No, we’re on excellent terms within the team – sometimes friendly, sometimes simply neutral, but never worse than that. There are other reasons. Firstly, although Russia remains the rating favourite that leadership is already open to question. At the last Olympiad the gap between us and the US team was purely symbolic.  The ball is becoming rounder and rounder, and soon it’ll be completely round. That doesn’t change the fact that once or twice the favourite might also win. It’s clear that it’s already become some kind of curse that weighs on us. With each new Olympiad we want to win more and more, and that leads to people becoming tense and fearing doing something wrong. I know from myself that the necessity to play my best chess has a counterproductive influence on me. It goes better for me when I play as freely as possible, while that internal pressure on Russian players is getting greater and greater. There’s only one recipe. To nevertheless win one of them – and relax. 

On the other hand the St. Petersburg “Bronze Horseman” team won the Russian Championship for the first time in a long time…

To be honest, the Russian Team Championship in recent times has turned into a kind of local affair. Of course it’s always pleasant to beat the all-star Siberia, but the club puts more emphasis on the European Club Cup, where we finished second. That’s also not so bad, but we had real chances of winning it…

And in general, is it more comfortable for you to play in individual tournaments or in team ones?

It’s simpler, of course, to play for yourself, but playing for the St. Petersburg club is a pleasure – a well-established team, good relations, internal club traditions. Team meetings take place in the most warm and friendly atmosphere, especially at the Russian Championship in Sochi. There we have our own local old women (babushkas) who we buy fruit, vegetables and pick-me-ups from… You can’t imagine the homemade pomegranate wine they come up with!

Among your numerous titles which do you value the most?

The victory in the World Cup remains the number one and, of course, seven Russian Championship titles. The most memorable is always the first, but I look on them as something of a set.

Do you want an eighth?

I want it, but for now it’s not quite working out. This year I think I missed a wonderful chance. Nobody played particularly well, and over the course of four rounds in a row I had very good positions but didn’t win one of them. That just killed me!

Peter won his first game in the 2016 Russian Championship against Ernesto Inarkiev... then drew the remaining eight! | photo: A. Ziler

You turned 40 this year. Do you notice signs of ageing or problems with calculation?

My career is, of course, closer to its end than its beginning – it would be silly to deny that. We’ve got two flag bearers, Gelfand and Anand, who are already approaching 50, but they’re nevertheless exceptions. I do note some age-related issues and I’ve started to go wrong more often. Mistakes that simply can’t be explained rationally have begun to happen not once a year but once every three tournaments. But in chess there are clear objective criteria. There's the rating list and I’m in the Top 20 – that means I’m still not playing badly. In some things I’ve even become stronger. Understanding comes with experience, and I have a better feel for some things. Moreover, I play unfamiliar positions pretty well, which has always been my strong point. Therefore it’s easier for me to vary and adapt my opening approach. Of course I don’t see any reason to quit chess. Such a moment has not only not yet come, but won’t be tomorrow either. Nevertheless, I do need to start thinking about that topic, of course, and working as a commentator is an obvious back-up plan.

And can you see yourself in the role of a coach?

I don’t really understand what kind of coach I’d be. Above all, I’m a practical player, and practical skills are very hard to pass on to the next generation. For example, Mark Dvoretsky, who passed away recently, was a man with a clearly constructed picture in his head of how you need to work on chess. Currently I don’t have that. I have an idea of what works personally for me that I’ve accumulated during 25 years of playing at a relatively high level, but it’s not formalised and only something that I grasp myself at an instinctual level. What use that would be for potential students isn’t entirely clear to me.

And the last question: how did chess educate you? Which character traits do you owe to it?

Sometimes I have to say something to parents who are considering whether it’s a suitable occupation for their child, and I always say that chess helps develop those sides of your character that aren’t so easy to develop in a vacuum - responsibility for your decisions and the ability to handle defeats. Mentally a chess player is ready for a fight from an early age, and that’s very important.

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