Interviews Jul 13, 2015 | 11:25 AMby Colin McGourty

Vladimir Kramnik: “I’m a bohemian”

The good and the bad sides of 40-year-old Vladimir Kramnik were visible in his performance in Dortmund this year, with three sparkling wins cancelled out by three disappointing defeats. In interviews he continues to reflect on the effects of age, telling Inessa Rasskazova that his bohemian attitude to life makes it harder for him than for the likes of Mikhail Botvinnik and Vishy Anand. He also compares his current approach, with no permanent coach, to that of Magnus Carlsen.

Vladimir Kramnik in pensive mood at the 2014 Olympiad | photo: Georgios Souleidis

Kramnik was talking to Inessa Rasskazova for We’ve translated some of the highlights of the interview:

Inessa Rasskazova: Vladimir, could you tell us what remains within you of that 25-year-old chess god, a calm and serious young man with the appearance of a pure thinker, who snatched the chess crown from none other than Garry Kasparov? Back then Kasparov characterised you as an extremely pragmatic man…

Vladimir Kramnik: A pragmatic man? Frankly, I’ve always been and remain above all, despite my approaching “retirement age”, a bohemian. I’ve got a lot of interests besides chess. The time when I lived only for chess and it occupied me twenty four hours a day has gone, and I consider that entirely natural, although it doesn’t prevent me from remaining a Top 10 chess player. I now really want to get into the Candidates Tournament, and the World Cup is important for me. I won the last World Cup, but so far no-one has managed to do a double…

The Olympiad is also important in my chess plans. I’ve been an Olympic Champion three times as part of the Russian team, but that was back in the 90s. In the last ten years I’ve played a few times and we often found ourselves literally millimetres from victory – it was very annoying. For example, in Turkey, everyone, including the winners, recognised that we were objectively the best, but we fell a millimetre short… So for me it’s a very serious aim: to try and finally win the Olympiad!

What an unexpected confession! I’d be glad if you could explain what being bohemian means to you, and how you sense that “retirement age”?

The years change us all. It seems as though chess doesn’t demand an excessive physical workload, but in terms of energy expenditure it’s a tough activity. Sometimes we play for six or seven hours, and that means seven hours of the most intense concentration. Of course it’s easier for the young - that goes without saying – but the main thing is that I still find chess interesting. I approach it with passion and determination, although I simply have to admit that my motivation is already lower than it was before. After all, I’ve got two children and a family. When you’re young you don’t have anything other than chess… I can see how Carlsen or Caruana, who are now at the top, work and think only about chess. They’ve also got more energy which, at twenty or twenty five, is natural. On the other hand, I’ve got some kind of wisdom. It’s clear you have to compensate for the age handicap. Somehow.

At twenty five, when I become World Champion myself – the same age as Magnus Carlsen now – it’s much easier to play than at forty. And, nevertheless, I’m still in the Top 10 and I feel I’ve got the strength to keep fighting with the world’s best players on a level footing. That demands more discipline, though, more effort. Even if you give everything physiologically at forty years old your memory is already a little worse, your speed of thought is lower and there are some things you just can’t allow yourself to do. It’s pure physiology. Simply over the years you need to find some new inner resources. 

For instance?

If you look, for example, at Vishy Anand – he’s been playing very successfully recently – then you can see it’s perfectly possible. New ideas: how to approach a game, how to prepare for tournaments. When I was young that didn’t play a key role – I simply worked and played. Now I need to carry out much more analytical work in order to maintain my level. I spend much more time on that than before, constantly analysing each of my performances, each game. I constantly think about the reason for mistakes and how to eradicate them. Is it possible to eradicate them and, if not, then how can I avoid such situations?

That’s where your experience comes in?

You start to behave more consciously, to think in more strategic terms. But still, I repeat, that’s largely a question of physiology, even genes. A sharp decline can occur and there’s no way to stop it. Kasparov quit chess at forty two when he felt he could no longer cope. Anand is forty five, but he’s playing very well. Someone else is done at thirty five… The stress of chess drains you, and there may simply start to be too much damage.

Although Levon Aronian is only 32 he's also been struggling to perform at his previous level recently | photo: Russian Chess Federation

Fortunately I’ve still got energy and desire and I don’t feel I’m inferior to the younger generation in a purely chess struggle. Of course if the moment comes in a few years when it’s already tough for me against them at the board then the game will be up.

Vladimir, do you live a normal life, or do you have a strict diet, a strict regime? Can a diet and regime increase the speed of your thought processes?       

I’m trying, but sometimes it doesn’t really work out…

Why not?

As I said, by nature I’m a bohemian. If I want to watch an interesting film but the regime demands I’m already asleep I’ll still watch that film! If I want to meet someone and talk but tomorrow I’ve got a match that doesn’t constitute a reason for me to postpone a good chat. You also have to listen to yourself. Some people are able to follow a regime without deviating one iota from it, but for me that would turn into such an ordeal that I just wouldn’t be able to play normally afterwards. Botvinnik went to bed at the same time all his life and took recovery seriously, cautioning me not to approach such matters fanatically: “Volodya, you can’t do that!” But he was a totally different person and for him that was natural.

Some photos of the young Kramnik have acquired iconic status...

In those years I had no real need to do that. Whatever I ate, however little I slept at night I had boundless energy. Now I need to pay attention, naturally, but I’ll never be able to subject myself to a strict routine for a long period of time. If you accumulate emotional fatigue and emotionally you feel bad that destroys the whole effect! You play better in a good mood and with inner harmony. Regimented guys, like Botvinnik or Vishy Anand – and he’s also strictly regimented – have it easier in some ways. Of course, it’s useful to observe a routine of sleeping and eating, but only if that suits your psychological profile. I’m searching for some kind of balance so as not to fall into depression from excessive discipline, but I can no longer allow myself to be as bohemian as I was in my youth. I’m looking for the golden mean... (...)

Do you have a trainer or have you long since been self-sufficient?

Sometimes I invite one, but I’ve already developed my own system of work – an overall strategic system of play. That involves independent work with the computer, and the help of coaches isn’t so important. Carlsen has a different approach. He has a whole staff of no less than ten people working for him. That is, of course, a very serious team. I don’t have that, but for a number of reasons I don’t think I need it.

So it turns out you’re competing alone against whole “think tanks”?

Partly, yes. But we’re now talking about openings. Openings are important, but it’s also important to play well. The playing part remains the main thing.

What will the moment when it’s time for you to quit look like? Can you imagine it?

When you start to lose interest in chess, when it starts to bore you. For now I feel both interest and drive. If that’s gone then what would be the point? I’ve got plenty of options to do something else and earn no less. And the second point – when I feel I’m weaker than the top players and have no way to respond to their trumps. Usually those two things are connected and I suspect they’ll occur at the same time. But in any case, I don’t see myself playing until I’m eighty, like Korchnoi. For me that’s totally unrealistic! A few years at most… Slowly falling out of the Top 10, then the Top 20, then the Top 100, descending to tournaments of a lower class… No, that’s not for me.

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