Interviews Mar 8, 2016 | 7:29 AMby Colin McGourty

Svidler on his Candidates chances

Peter Svidler is one of the eight players fighting to play a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen in the Candidates Tournament that starts this Friday. In a recent interview he explains why he’s played so little since last November and what he expects from the tournament. We’ve also included some quotes you might have missed from his recent Q&A session here on chess24.

Svidler qualified for his 3rd Candidates Tournament in a row by reaching the 2015 World Cup final | photo: Baku 2016 website

Peter Svidler has won the Russian Championship seven times, which is one cause for optimism as the Candidates Tournament in Moscow approaches. Last week he talked to Oleg Bogatov of RSport about the challenge ahead, and we’ve translated highlights below:


Is winning critical to you, or is it more important to show top quality play which both appeals to yourself and will be remembered by others?

A World Championship match is the only thing that doesn’t yet feature in my biography. Plus, of course, I want to reach a new level. But in any case, winning a tournament without demonstrating play that appeals to me would be pretty difficult, so it’s all interrelated.

Who do you consider your main rivals?

The whole line-up, and that’s not an attempt at a joke – it’s an absolutely serious reply. I don’t read analysis and I try to keep as far as possible from anything connected to the tournament, since that’s more likely than not to get in the way of playing. The opinion of all the experts I’ve seen so far, however, has come down to the same thing – it’s the most unclear Candidates Tournament in recent years, in the sense that it’s impossible to name clear favourites.

Many participants in the upcoming tournament took part in various events, including rapid chess, while you kept a low profile – you were in hiding. How and why did you arrange your preparation like that?

The preparation went as usual – sessions with friends where I tried to establish some kind of opening strategy, since however much we’d like it to be different the emphasis now is largely on the opening. As for the fact I didn’t play anywhere… I didn’t have any particular choice in the matter – there was no point in playing routine tournaments and I didn’t get an invitation to Wijk aan Zee, Zurich or a tournament of a similar level. 

Hikaru Nakamura looks on as fellow Candidates Tournament hopeful Vishy Anand loses his second game, to 16-year-old Benjamin Gledura | photo: Sophie Triay, Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival

I don’t know what Vishy will say after the Candidates Tournament is over. He played in Gibraltar, but I don’t know if that will work in his favour or against him. That’s not trying to take a swipe at Vishy, but I’ve played Gibraltar a large number of times and I know how tough it is. That’s the only tournament I could have taken part in, but playing Gibraltar before the Candidates Tournament struck me as a strange choice. Though on the other hand, Hikaru Nakamura also played there and he won, so perhaps I’m wrong.

You still didn’t fall out of the chess orbit, since you appeared in the role of a commentator for Wijk aan Zee. Does such a detached perspective and change of activity help you to look at chess differently? Or do you look on it purely as a professional with years of experience, one it’s hard to surprise?

I don’t think it somehow allows me to widen my horizons. I simply love the work, I find it pretty interesting, and I’m not bad at it, judging from the comments of others. I don’t think it somehow changes my attitude to chess – I don’t like to commentate badly so I try to do it well, and in order to do that you need to think constantly about what you’re saying. It’s a kind of “gymnastics for the tail” (smiles – the reference is to a Soviet cartoon).

Peter and Jan's commentary on the last round alone lasted almost seven hours!

What score, in your view, will be sufficient to win with a line-up that you describe in your own words as so “unclear”– plus two, plus three?

It’s very hard to say as a tournament with such a line-up is hard to predict. In these tournaments the outlook changes very sharply when you move from the first to the second half, as people actively start to get tired. I don’t really recall the statistics from the last tournament in Khanty-Mansiysk, but in the previous comparable event in London the second half simply became a “bloodbath” – people began to get tired, the number of mistakes grew, plus the tournament situation spurred people on. Everyone began to play much more sharply. And there it all ended up on plus three, although before the last round the leaders, Vladimir Kramnik and Magnus Carlsen, were on plus four.

And you took an active role in that, beating Carlsen in the final game…

Yes, you might say I wasn’t an entirely passive observer of what was going on. If you discount the crazy result of Veselin Topalov in San Luis in 2005, no-one has really run away with a Candidates Tournament, because the results are very close. If everything goes right for someone, though, and he “gets the wind in his sails”, then it’s probably possible to score a lot of points as well. I don’t know – I’m not great at predictions.

There was a happy ending for Carlsen in London, but first a gut-wrenching loss! | photo: Anastasia Karlovich, london2013.fide.com

Will the fact that you and Sergey Karjakin are playing at home give you a slight advantage over the other participants, or will everyone have the same chances?

To be honest, I’m not sure. Don’t take that as a pre-emptive attempt to justify potential failure, but it seems to me there’s an awful lot at stake in the tournament as it is. And there’s additional stress, since you’re playing in front of your acquaintances and friends. Let’s say it’s a double-edged sword – it can work in your favour, or perhaps the opposite.

In your opinion can we expect any opening innovations, or will it all involve well-worn systems?

It’s hard to say. Recently the tendency has been to transfer the brunt of the struggle to the middlegame. To put it crudely – to compete at chess and not in who’s been more successful pressing buttons on his computer at home. But in a tournament where so much is at stake players will attempt to squeeze the maximum out of the opening. If in such a tournament even in two or three games you manage to unleash “nuclear” ideas, which give a huge advantage immediately out of the opening, that will give you a big boost. I think everyone will try to play as critically as possible in the opening, but I don’t have any inside information… sorry (smiles).


As well as commenting on the tournament in Wijk aan Zee from our Hamburg studio, Peter also joined Jan Gustafsson to answer the questions of chess24 users in an epic Q&A session (watch it in full here). One of the first questions was about the music Peter would choose to make his entrance to if he was a boxer. He opted for Howlin Wolf’s Built for comfort (not for speed), which is too good a song not to post here!

 When Peter explained his choice the following exchange ensued:

Jan: You would want self-deprecating entrance music?

Peter: Is this not allowed?

That’s perhaps a cue to cite the view of Sergey Shipov, who in his Candidates preview (here we’re translating from the fuller version published in Russian at Crestbook – an edited English version appeared in New in Chess) writes about Svidler:

He’s constantly drawn to self-irony, which in my view is very harmful from a karmic point of view. Such conspicuous self-deprecation itself creates a certain ceiling you can’t break through, no matter how hard you try.

At the decisive moment, when the very highest summits are beckoning, his play loses its ease. And, most likely, those same “ironic” thoughts creep into his head. But even a small drop of uncertainty in your own ability, even an iota of self-laceration is enough to lose your balance. That applies even more so in the kind of doses Svidler deals in. 

Perhaps that’s why he never picked up the habit of winning supertournaments, although he’s played dozens. That’s why he didn’t take his chances in the Candidates and World Championship tournaments.

But there are also, of course, arguments in Svidler’s favour, which shine through despite his own attempts to play down his chances. He had this to say about who Magnus would prefer to play in the World Championship match and why (in the clip we included a bonus question on the most villainous villain in TV and film history):

I’m not really sure Magnus has any preference, to start with. I think Magnus, not without reason, is a very, very confident young man and he doesn’t really care that much who qualifies because he will feel that he’s a favourite against the field – judging simply on past results and personal scores against most people in the Candidates.  As for his preference – first of all, seriously I have no idea. I’m not a close friend of his and it would be very difficult for me to speculate… but probably to begin with, he doesn’t really care.

As for who has the best chances, once again it’s difficult to judge. You probably – and this is now immediately me starting to rule myself out – you probably feel that it has to be someone who – or maybe not ruling myself out, actually! This sentence is going on in my head. I’ve progressed further in that sentence in my head than you‘ve heard so far and I’m changing my opinion about the whole sentence as it goes along – I wanted to say it’s probably somebody who is fresh and who doesn’t really have the battle scars of lots of unfavourable experiences against Magnus, but that actually works both ways. I’m not the freshest participant in the Candidates but I’m one of the less scarred in that respect.

The Candidates – for me, at least, I’m taking it very, very separately. There is a Candidates Tournament which I want to do well in and I’m preparing for that and I’m not even touching in my head the subject of playing Magnus. If I qualify to play Magnus I will have some time to prepare for that and then I will switch to that idea. For now these things are very, very separate in my mind.

Peter also noted that the Candidates Tournament is why he isn’t planning to release an update to his monumental Grünfeld Series just yet:

My result in the Baku World Cup had actually thrown a wrench into the works there, a little bit, because I had this idea – and I already started formulating things I wanted to do in that series – I had the idea that yes, I still believe material I presented in my Grünfeld series is very decent and will serve at almost any level. Honestly, I feel more comfortable praising this particular thing because I’ve had very, very strong players come up to me and tell me that they watched it and liked it. When I just recorded it I wasn’t really sure if it was any good, because it was really my very first experience of trying to share anything in this way. Since then I’ve become much more confident in the quality of that material.

But of course theory moves on constantly and the Grünfeld is a very popular opening in which there are a lot of developments. And I had this idea somewhere in the summer that I’ll play the World Cup and then I’ll have a break at some point and I’ll come to Hamburg and record a “state of the opening” series in which I’ll try and point out the important developments which perhaps changed my assessment of some of the lines and which I now think should be addressed thusly, so to speak. But sadly, in some respects, with the Candidates looming it would be somewhat counterproductive, I think, to tell the whole world what I think are the biggest weaknesses of my main opening against 1.d4. It will still happen, but it will happen after I play the Candidates.

Let’s just hope that Peter isn’t too busy preparing for a World Championship match against Magnus Carlsen

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