Interviews Dec 21, 2017 | 8:43 AMby Colin McGourty

Svidler on going down in Russian chess history

Peter Svidler recently won the Russian Championship for an 8th time, setting a record that’s going to be extremely tough to beat. Afterwards he gave a fascinating interview to Fontanka.ru where he discussed not only the latest championship but his first successes in the 1990s, how his university career was cut short, his first encounter with Garry Kasparov and how Kirsan Ilyumzhinov’s alleged alien abduction affected chess.

Svidler during Round 3 of the 2017 Russian Championship, held in the State Museum of Russian Political History in St. Petersburg | photo: Eteri Kublashvili/Vladimir Barsky, Russian Chess Federation

Peter Svidler is currently in Hamburg, where he’s filming a short video series for chess24 and doing some Banter Blitz shows – his session on Tuesday 19th December was one enjoyed both by Peter and all who watched or took part (and yes, it was Fabi!):

The interview with the St. Petersburg news site Fontanka.ru was conducted by Artyom Kuzmin and stands out for digging deeper into the early years of Peter’s career. We’ve translated it below:


After beating Botvinnik’s record did you feel that you’d written yourself into Russian chess history for all time?

If I’d stopped at seven victories I don’t think my place in history would differ in any fundamental way from what it is now. It’s hardly as if I had something else to prove. Eight victories is, of course, better than seven (and nine are better than eight, and so on), but with seven victories I would also have gone down in the history of the Russian Championship. It’s nice to win the tournament after a long break. It’s nice to do it on home ground, in front of my family, who have suffered for my work for years and don’t often get the chance to directly experience positive emotions from it. So that’s all great, but to say that waking up as an 8-time champion I somehow felt fundamentally different is something I can’t do. It wasn’t a record I was particularly chasing after.

You’ve often pointed out that you’re always more successful at the Russian Championship than in other tournaments, though the competition is among the fiercest in the world. Have you tried to analyse why it goes like that?

Peter Svidler, the Tsar of Russian chess | photo: Russian Chess Federation

I’ve got a theory. I’m not sure it’s the case, but it would partly explain my success in these tournaments. The theory is that it’s psychologically easier to win somewhere where you’ve already achieved success. You already know it’s possible and you don’t have that internal block telling you: “This is a very difficult tournament and it will be extremely tough to win”. That’s an internal barrier you have to overcome. I first won the Russian Championship in 1994, when I was still a fledgling youth. Back then it could be explained by the fact I was on the rise. When you’re young such things come more easily: the demon of doubt hasn’t taken root so firmly in your head. But the fact that in my youth I did a good job of marking out a path there allows me, even at quite a ripe age, not to feel that the tournament is impossible to win. For a person like me, inclined to reflection and to doubt in my own abilities at the first opportunity, it’s useful to play in tournaments that I know how to win. 

The winners of the men’s and women’s tournaments were given certificates for all-wheel drive crossovers. Did you already receive your car?

No, as far as I understand the ceremonial handing over of the car will take place in Moscow in January. The date hasn’t yet been set. I’m in no rush: our family has a car. Again, my first title, which I won in 1994, was also accompanied by winning a car.

Remind us how that went.

The 1994 Russian Championship was the first in many years with good prizes. There was a period when there were no prizes at all and the tournament didn’t feature very strong line-ups, but 1994 was a new era, and I was lucky enough to win it. In 1995 the line-up was ever stronger, but there was no longer a car, although I also won that tournament. The organisers periodically find car manufacture sponsors, but not every year.

What car did you win in 1994?

A Hyundai Sonata – back then a very decent car in a well-equipped version. However, in order to make it look more impressive it was driven from Moscow to Elista, and then subsequently taken back to St. Petersburg. That seriously lowered its market value, since a car of that class back then sold much better with no miles on it. In 1994 no-one in our family drove, and for all our joy at winning the car its main value was that it could be sold. We did sell it in the end, but with some difficultly and for much less money than we could have if it had remained in the salon in Moscow and they’d brought us only the keys. I’m not complaining, though – it was still a very good prize.

How much did you sell it for?

I don’t remember exactly. It seems somewhere in the region of $15-17,000. That was my first major win at that point. That year in general was the first when I began to earn some money from chess. After all, I wasn’t even a grandmaster back then.

What did you spend the money on?

Life. Not on anything specific.

What’s the prize money usually like at the Russian Championship?

For quite a long time now the first prize has been a million roubles, regardless of what that million corresponds to (currently about $17,000). I’ve always had quite a clear attitude to this: I never specially look for information about the prizes until the end of the tournament. When you start to count money which you still haven’t earned you start to play worse. I always try to play as well as I can in the tournament, and only then, having played the last game, do I open the file with the tournament regulations and rejoice or get disappointed – depending on how I played. It’s clear that the better you play the more you get.

Is a million roubles a big sum for you now?

It doesn’t fundamentally alter my life, but it definitely won’t go to waste in our household.

The prize ceremony for the 2017 Russian Championship, with Nikita Vitiugov taking 2nd place and Daniil Dubov 3rd | photo: Boris Dolmatovsky, Russian Chess Federation

What’s the most you’ve earned in your career?

I won the World Cup and for victory back then you got $120,000. From that 20% was taken by the international federation – FIDE. So it worked out at 96,000.

20%? Isn’t that a bit much?

For all questions relating to FIDE the majority of people you talk to will give you the same answer (shrugs his shoulders). FIDE is an organisation that will only spoil your mood if you try to explain its actions logically.

Let’s get back to 1994. Your first victory at the Russian Championship. The situation in the country was complicated almost everywhere and in everything. What were the circumstances in which the chess tournament was held?

People who love chess, both then and now, generally aren’t so wealthy. In Elista there were some purely everyday things that required adaptation, but it was always pleasant to play there. Chess players are not spoiled by public attention, therefore to play in places where people are genuinely interested in chess, where spectators gather in the hall and where people come up to you on the street and ask you something about the day’s game (moreover, asking something meaningful and then being able to carry on a conversation) – that’s quite rare. It’s pleasing when it happens. The Russian Championships took place there from 1994 to 1997. That, and also the fact that there were good prizes plus a car, is connected to the fact that Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, who back then had only just arrived in chess, was actively involved in promoting chess and Kalmykia to the masses. Before that tournament the majority of us wouldn’t have been able to find Kalmykia on a map. Thanks to Ilyumzhinov a kind of artificial oasis was created there, where chess at that moment was developing more rapidly than anywhere else in Russia and, perhaps, the world.

Russian chess was lucky to have someone like Ilyumzhinov?

Currently he’s not involved with Russian chess but with chess overall, since quite quickly he got promoted and he’s been in that promoted position for, it seems, 20 years. How can I put this… I’ve got no doubt that when Kirsan Nikolaevich first arrived his intentions were exclusively good, but his first attempts to do something in chess were met with hostility. He hasn’t been popular in the West for a second. In my view, for the first years after he switched to FIDE that was undeserved, but what FIDE has turned into in recent years… it’s very hard now to find anyone who wouldn’t agree that FIDE needs radical changes in personnel. But, as practice shows, achieving that isn’t so easy.

How was his announcement that he’d met aliens treated in the chess world?

Well, what can I say… with a smile. If we’re talking seriously about that topic then it’s clear it’s one of the problems that chess currently has to resolve. When the federation is headed by someone who, when you google his surname, you get all these results, it’s unlikely that attempts to find serious commercial sponsorship will succeed. When you go to people from company “X”, who know nothing about chess, what’s the first thing they do? They ask an assistant to prepare a report on who and what they’re dealing with. Well, and what’s that report going to be like? Sanction lists, encounters with aliens.

A memorable report.

Yes. It’ll be interesting to read. The real state of affairs after such a report will no longer matter to anyone, and that story about aliens is another obstacle on the way to attracting serious sponsors. Not the only one, but one of them.

Do you believe in aliens yourself?


I’ve never encountered them.

That’s good, but do you believe in them?

That’s a strange way to put the question. I try, as far as possible, to approach life rationally. Therefore to believe or not to believe – I don’t judge in such categories. I haven’t encountered them. I’ve also seen no documentary proof of their existence.

Let’s return to the early 1990s for the last time. Did you have a choice before you: to remain in chess, an occupation that at that moment guaranteed you nothing, or to do something more reliable?

I was never affected by such a choice. In that sense the story of the main coach of my life, Andrey Mikhailovich Lukin, is more interesting and representative. I was just a youngster back then and had a ready-made tool in my hands to achieve something in life. By 15 years old it was already clear that I’d become some kind of chess player. The question was only what kind, and what exactly I’d achieve. If at that moment I’d had a bigger choice – to do chess or something else, then yes. Again, in that sense Andrey Mikhailovich Lukin, a man who did a great deal for me in life, was also an engineer besides being a very strong chess player. He was working on some kind of aerospace alloys, and when all the changes began in Russia he decided that working as an engineer would be more reliable. I never had such a choice.

What kind of education do you have?

I’ve got a secondary education. I enrolled in university, studied there for an extremely short time and came up against unpleasant difficulties connected to the fact that even at a faculty that historically treated chess players kindly…

Which one?

The Economics Faculty of St. Petersburg State University – chess players had been enrolling there for decades i.e. they understood what chess is and had a patient attitude towards chess players. You always find lecturers, however, who dislike students who don’t attend their lectures, and I came across one of them. I didn’t go to the lectures not because I had a mocking attitude to some subject or other, but because back then I had a schedule which meant that I wasn’t in the city for half of the year. At the same time, I knew the subject at a solid “B” level, but I couldn’t pass it: the lecturer looked in the register, saw a long string of the letter “a” and decided that until the wrongness of the path I’d chosen in life was clearly made evident to me I wouldn’t pass the subject. Well, and somehow I looked at that whole process and thought: and do I want to be an economist? Probably not. I can’t say I never regretted that decision. From the point of view of professional growth it was correct. From a personal point of view – there you can argue. I had examples of guys I played at the same level as when we started studying at university, but when they graduated their universities I’d pulled very far ahead of them as a chess player.

In 1997 you beat the reigning World Champion Garry Kasparov in Tilburg, thereby entering the symbolic Mikhail Chigorin club. It seems to me that’s a somewhat tragic club.

What club is that?

It’s a club of chess players who were never World Champions themselves, but still managed to beat the reigning World Champion in an official encounter.

Frankly speaking, I didn’t even know about the existence of such a club. In any case, for me those are completely extraneous things that don’t affect my life in any way.

How well do you recall that encounter with Kasparov?

I remember that game perfectly. Kasparov was my childhood idol. I built my opening repertoire on his games, I was a student of his school and so on. For me personally Garry Kimovich was an extremely important person, and to beat him in my first game against him was a matter of honour for me. The game was extremely tough. In general, games against him always took a lot of energy from me, but that’s how it should be when you play against really great players.

1. e4 c5 2. ♘f3 d6 3. c3 ♘f6 4. ♗e2 ♘bd7 5. d3 b6 6. O-O ♗b7 7. ♘bd2 g6 8. d4 cxd4 9. cxd4 ♘xe4 10. ♘xe4 ♗xe4 11. ♘g5 d5 12. ♗b5 ♗g7 13. f3 ♗f5 14. g4 h6 15. gxf5 hxg5 16. fxg6 a6 17. gxf7+ ♔xf7 18. ♗a4 ♖h5 19. ♗e3 ♘f6 20. ♕d2 ♕d6 21. ♖f2 ♖ah8 22. ♖g2 ♖h3 23. ♖f1 ♖8h4 24. ♗c2 ♘h5 25. ♗f5 ♘f4 26. ♗xh3 ♘xh3+ 27. ♔h1 ♕f6 28. ♖g3 ♕f5 29. ♗xg5 ♘xg5 30. ♖xg5 ♕h3 31. ♖g2 ♗f6 32. ♕d3 ♖xd4 33. ♕g6+ ♔e6 34. ♕e8 ♖c4 35. ♕d8 ♕f5 36. ♖e1+ ♗e5 37. ♕b8

1-0

You weren’t disappointed by his quitting for politics?

He’s an adult. It’s up to him to decide what to do. It’s also a strange sort of emotion: why should I be upset because of what other people do? With some things that he says I agree, with others I don’t. But it’s his life.

What was your view of his return to chess?

Well, in actual fact he didn’t return to chess - he played in a couple of exhibition events. It was a great pity for me that I didn’t end up in a tournament with him. In St. Louis there were a series of tournaments: first in classical chess and then in rapid and blitz. I was given a wild card to the classical event and if you get a wild card to one tournament you can’t get a wild card into another. I was extremely happy to accept that invitation, and it was only afterwards that they announced the list of the people who were invited to play in rapid and blitz. At that moment I thought that of course I was happy about the classical chess, but after so many years to play a few more games against Kasparov would have been incredibly interesting.

One of the most popular videos with you on YouTube is called “Svidler lost $30,000 in one move” – that was when you lost the third game of the 2015 World Cup final to Sergey Karjakin while you were leading 2:0. After that he managed to turn the match around and win the final. And instead of $90,000 you received only $60,000. Is that your biggest mistake in life?

It wasn’t about the 30,000 at all. It was about the stress. Because of that back then I wasn’t able to handle the relatively easy tasks that I faced at the board. 30,000 is a lot of money, but it wouldn’t have fundamentally changed anything in my life. At stake was the title of World Cup winner, and in my case it would have been the second such title, which up until that point no-one had managed. And that thought undoubtedly put pressure on me. It was only this year that Levon Aronian won it for a second time, showing people like me how it’s done. The match between Karjakin and me ended up being extremely spectacular.

People afterwards kept writing: “Don’t be upset, you still qualified for the Candidates Tournament, and it was interesting to watch”. But for Karjakin and I the word “interesting” just doesn’t describe it. After the match a series of photos were taken where we’re standing together and Sergey is handed the cup. The fact that I look terrible is understandable: I’d let a completely unique chance slip away. But Sergey also looks terrible, and he’d perhaps achieved one of the greatest successes of his career. We were simply gone. The World Cup lasts a month, and to play a final match at the end like that – it’s a real test.

In this photo Karjakin just about managed a smile | photo: official website

Karjakin has totally opposite political views to your idol Kasparov. What do you think about his politicisation?

He’s also an adult and has the right to his own views. The important thing to understand about Sergey is that he’s an extremely sincere person. If he says something that means it’s what he really thinks. Of course professionals handle his PR, but at the same time I know that he’s not lying. I often won’t agree with him, but it’s his life and he lives it the way he considers correct.

“I always openly supported Vladimir Putin, but now, finally, I can do it officially. Putin team. I’m in the team!”

Would you follow him and join the Putin Team?

Me? No. In general I don’t join any kind of teams.


There’s more Banter Blitz on Thursday 21 December, with Jan Gustafsson warming up for the man himself!

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