Interviews Oct 21, 2020 | 7:34 PMby Colin McGourty

Vladimir Kramnik: "It's ok to lose!"

In the run-up to the chess24 Legends of Chess, 14th World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik gave a Question and Answer session where he talked about his matches against Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand and Peter Leko, his experience working with young Indian chess prodigies, how his style changed over the course of his career, and much more. It’s a must-watch, in case you missed it, and now we’ve added transcripts of some of the highlights from the over one-hour show.

Vladimir Kramnik was interviewed by Canadian GM Pascal Charbonneau, with questions posed by chess24 premium members. You can rewatch the full show below:

Here are some of the highlights:


On D Gukesh and other top Indian youngsters

First of all, of course, Gukesh is a very talented, very good boy and has good prospects, but he’s by far not the only one from this team of young players I’m working with in India. 

They have an incredible generation of juniors. 

Of course Pragg, everybody knows Pragg, already over 2600, I think, and he’s just one year older than Gukesh. There will hopefully, I believe, be a few top players from this generation, and for me it’s a pleasure. I like to help them to realise their best, because I have no doubt that quite some of them will be very strong chess players, but there is quite a difference between being just a strong chess player and maybe World Champion, or a very top player, one of the challengers.

I think I’m trying to give not actually so much precise concrete knowledge, but more my vision of chess, how I see chess. There is wisdom, I would say Eastern, which goes like this: “you cannot teach someone, you can only learn something”. I’m trying to give my know-how, how I see chess, how I see different positions, but of course it’s always up to a student to learn, to get the best out of it, because my method is quite far from Botvinnik’s method.

I’ve been at his school, and I know that he was very strict and he believed in his method. I believe that you always have to find your own way, trying to get a lot of food, good quality food, chess food - strong players, who are expressing their views - but then you have to take… That’s at least the way I was studying chess. I was lucky enough to be a part of the Kasparov-Botvinnik school, so I had a few sessions, not of course one-to-one, but Kasparov and Botvinnik were present, and for me the most important was just to see, just to listen to them, to see how they see chess, how they assess different positions.

There was nothing very concrete, but that was enriching my chess enormously, and also I’m trying to tell to my kids, to my pupils, that they should not copy me. They should not do exactly what I think is right. They don’t necessarily have to see a particular position, or chess in general, in the way I see it.

They have to develop their own vision of chess - without it you cannot be a very, very top player. You can be a strong player, but really to be a top player you need to develop your own vision of the game.

But I’m trying to enrich it and to help.

Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand in Chennai to teach talented Indian juniors | photo: Amruta Mokal, ChessBase India

I’m very glad that our last session I invited Boris Gelfand, who is an extremely strong player and a very deep positional player, and he was also present there, and more strong top players. The more lessons of such players they experience the better it is for them, but let’s see. I really believe in them, in my kids, I’m sure they’re going to be top players, but my dream would be for some of them to maybe become World Champion, or at least a challenger for World Champion. I think that I can judge professionally - it’s very difficult to explain exactly how you judge it - 

but I feel that the scale of talent of some of the kids is enough to be a very top player and maybe even World Champion in future. That’s my feeling. Then it’s about last, but not least, to realise your potential. That is something maybe more difficult than to have genius. 

But at least it’s very important that you have a unique talent, and I see a few guys have a very, very big chess talent and that makes me enthusiastic working with them, because I see how far they can go if everything goes well.

On not missing the adrenaline of playing chess

I would say I don’t miss playing, I don’t miss adrenaline, I’m not an adrenaline addict. The adrenaline part of it was never the one which was the most attractive to me. I definitely wouldn’t like to play professional chess, to play tournament after tournament, that would be too tiring, but actually just playing from time to time I really like somehow, maybe even more than before. Actually maybe that’s one of the reasons why my last two tournaments I was quite successful - blitz tournaments I played with top players - 

I think I enjoy it more than anyone else, because it’s very rare for me nowadays to play chess.

Of course it has drawbacks, I’m opening-wise not so well-prepared, I’m rusty, but I’m really enjoying a lot now playing such events, and that maybe compensates everything else. I really like it from time to time, especially short time controls. Of course it’s not that serious as classical chess, and I still like classical chess, I think it should exist, but now as a pensioner this faster time control fits better. So I’m really looking forward to this tournament, just to enjoy playing.

Kramnik won mini-matches against Anand, Leko, Ding Liren and Gelfand but ran out of steam at the end and missed a place in the final-4 knockout 

It’s not really adrenaline, it’s just I still like chess and I probably will like it for the rest of my life, and then playing it as an amateur hobby player with top players is a pleasure, especially if you don’t do too badly, which was the case at least lately. So for me it’s pure fun, but it’s not adrenaline, it’s kind of love for chess. I like this intellectual effort - to think about the position, to find some right moves. It’s more this type of pleasure now which makes me like playing such events. No adrenaline, I don’t have any ambitions in the tournament.

Kramnik would have made the knockout if he'd beaten Magnus Carlsen in the final round...

On what chess can teach

For me personally I’ve been blessed. I have a lot of gratitude to chess and to my father, who showed me chess, as I mentioned, without any bad intentions! He never thought I’m going to be a professional chess player. It was just a part of culture, I was just 5 or 6, and he couldn’t do anything better than that, because since then it’s been my passion, it’s been my profession, but also my hobby - my passion and a very important part of my life, which I believe helped me in a way, created me as a personality as I am, like it or not. It’s been a very important part of my life.

I think chess, I can say, there is no harm studying, and lots of positive aspects, especially for the kids to start to play chess. One of the aspects is that nowadays the world is changing quite significantly, I’m also partly involved in certain AI projects… and I can clearly see many experts are already telling that the world is going to be very different in the next maybe 10-20 years. I fully agree with it, it’s true, I really believe so, and actually the ability of critical thinking, strategical thinking will be important, even more important than nowadays - so called soft skills. 

Chess is one of the tools which can help a kid nowadays to develop those skills and to get ready for the new world that is going to appear in maybe 10-20 years. 

It’s very difficult to predict what kind of jobs will be still there, which will disappear and be done by AI, but those general skills of let’s say the right patterns of thinking, the right way of seeing things and combining them together, the flexibility of mind, will be even more important than nowadays, and I think chess is one of the very good tools to develop it.

On his changing style and being “over-optimistic” late in his career

The problem is that I was surprised about it myself - I haven’t been changing my style on purpose. It just happened, it was happening and all of a sudden I would realise that I’m enjoying playing a different type of chess than before, and then ok, I just had to follow it, yes? But strangely enough, because I like chess, I think chess is a very complex game, there are lots of possible ways to play it, and in a way

maybe subconsciously I wanted to try it all, all sorts of styles, all possible ways of playing.

And it was usually, I think, reflected in my inner state at that moment of time, and also sometimes it was quite accidental. For instance, sometime in the middle of the 90s I started to work with Sergey Dolmatov, a very strong chess player extremely good in endgames and in defence. And ok, it was not the point to learn this from him, but somehow it just happened, and then all of a sudden I found myself actually not losing for 80 something games in a row in top tournaments and defending well and improved my endgame skills quite significantly, but I didn’t mean it, I was not really trying to work on it!

Then I just started to play sharper at some point, and 

the last few years of my career, yes, I was just enjoying life, I decided ok, now I knew I’m not going to play forever, or too long, so I wanted just to have full fun. 

And somehow I started to get this concept, it’s more philosophical, that whatever you do you have to do it on the full… so I decided I’ll try to keep the game going, I’ll try to play the most intense games and most possible content in the games, to create something, to take risks, just to play a full game if I can, at any moment. I want to play! I want to get a game, so I’m not going to force a draw at any possible moment, even against stronger players like Magnus Carlsen. I just want to play. Then I was taking lots of risks, I was playing in a very strange style which I didn’t believe my own eyes that I’m playing like this, but I was playing it.

In his last Candidates Tournament in Berlin, Kramnik got off to a great 2.5/3 start, but then took some huge risks on the way to losing 4 of the next 6 games | photo: Niki Riga

And over-optimistic? It’s a little bit different! I explained in my interview in New in Chess the point behind it. It was not really so much being over-optimistic, it was something else. If you want, I can go into details on this issue. Believe me, if you are totally inadequate in assessment of the position - at some point I was number two in the world playing this crazy chess and being over-optimistic - you wouldn’t probably be number two in the world, so it was a little bit different. 

In a way it was my - too strong a word maybe - protest. I didn’t like this modern tendency of assessing a position, assessing a player, assessing a game just by a computer. It’s like the assessment of a computer is a final proof - I didn’t like this concept! 

That’s why I was sometimes, I would say, teasing a little bit my opponents, especially young opponents, who are very much dependent on the computer assessment. So I was trying to tease a bit, but it was just to show that the computer assessment is not the only thing that counts, or what matters in a practical game, and I was trying to prove it by playing strange moves which computers don’t approve, but still being at minimum competitive. It was more this than, it was more a general, global philosophical concept than being over-optimistic without any reasons.

On seconding Kasparov for his 1995 match vs Anand

Concerning this 1995 experience, it was quite accidental, because Garry had invited me just to play a few training games for one week at his camp, and then by the end of the camp we played a few training games, but actually we also analysed a lot, just because I liked it, for free, not charging anything for it, for me to analyse with such an amazing player. And then he probably liked the work we’d done and he invited me just one week before the match, he invited me to join, and I checked my schedule and I saw, ok, actually I can join, so it was pretty accidental that I ended up as one of the trainers.

What did I learn? Definitely less than he had learnt about me, or could have learnt about me, because after all, I was just there, I was analysing and actually showing to Garry quite a lot of things which I knew at that time of my repertoire, and no, it was not the idea to learn something from him. It just of course is always very useful to work with such an amazing chess player, and actually just a few months after I became number 1 in the world. I made a very serious improvement, but again in the same fashion, in the same way as I explained earlier, he was not trying to teach me, I was not trying to learn, but I learned, because it was a very good quality food.

I had absolutely no idea that I’m trying to find, to get some information from Garry, because I want to play a match with him or even to beat him. 

I never assessed myself as a chess player of the scale of Garry Kasparov 

and I didn’t really think that I would ever play him, but even beat him, especially at that time, I was absolutely not believing in it and I was not thinking about it at all. That was not the point.

On beating Kasparov in the 2000 World Championship match

I actually am a very strange sportsman - I am not very competitive! I don’t care about being the best, or number 1 or number 2, it doesn’t actually feed my soul… 

I always was very inspired by an inner challenge, when you have the toughest possible opponent, the toughest possible challenge. That was actually motivating me a lot, but in another way, not really to win, but just to show my best, to show what I can. That was actually a very big test for me, philosophically, when I played Garry, because ok, it’s clear that I was already a strong player, winning some top tournaments, from time to time, and clear that I’m a good player, but such a test when you play a 16-game match with the best player of current times, and maybe one of the best in history, it actually shows you who you are in chess on a big scale.

I didn’t want to show anyone who am I, my main motivation was to learn myself, to understand myself, what am I worth in chess? Am I just a very good player, a very strong player, or maybe I can even try to get a fight with Garry? Maybe I can actually have a chance, or maybe even, miraculously, I can even win. I didn’t know myself. So that actually was very important for me – it was more to know my limit. 

I didn’t mind to lose at all. I would be very sad if I would finally lose and understand that actually I haven’t done all I could, that in fact if I would have done more maybe I would have chances, so actually my only goal was to get to the best possible shape I can, to do all I can, to do my best, and to see, and if it’s not enough, if I would still lose badly, then ok, it just means I’m not on the level, that’s it, I wouldn’t be disappointed. I would be disappointed if I would know that I didn’t work enough, I didn’t do my best.

I was quite surprised myself that it was enough. I didn’t know, I didn’t think about it actually if it would be enough or not for me to beat Garry when I am at my best, and again I was pretty much surprised myself that it was enough.

On celebrating winning the World Championship

Nothing too big. The Eastern wisdom goes that the path is much more important than the result. Of course I was just imagining, what if I would win? 

I thought I would be happy for one year. 

No. Ok, it was fine, I won, very nice, but that’s it, it’s past already, there’s some new challenges, new things. Maybe even I can tell you I was a little bit disappointed by the lack of this amazing emotion which some people used to have after becoming World Champion – like Garry Kasparov himself wrote that he was half an hour just shouting in his room after he won the match, that he was just getting his emotions out. For me, no, quiet conversation and next day already things were as usual.

On chess and knowing yourself

I think definitely your character influences your chess a lot, that’s for sure, and one of the very important things to be successful in chess, I believe, is to stick to your core values, to stick to your character, to understand who you are deeply inside, and then to build your chess, to build your chess routine and method of training and playing depending on that.

There is a certain concept, usually it goes like “you have to know your opponent”, to understand your opponent, and this is a key of success. That is true, that’s useful, but much more important is to understand yourself, actually, very well, because that is very difficult. 

Sometimes you have certain ego ideas, sometimes you try to have a picture of yourself you would like to have, sometimes you are not very honest with yourself.

Trying to know your limits and your advantages and who you are and what should you do, who you are as objectively as possible, that is much more difficult, but if you manage it I think this is much more important than knowing in detail your opponent.

On motivation

To keep myself motivated is not too difficult, because I like chess and I like the process of playing. I like to get better in anything I do, including chess. Basically it’s an eternal motivation. There’s again more of an Eastern sentence which I like very much. I learned it some time ago, and immediately when I saw it I understood it’s actually been my [motto] all my life, and still is, which is formulated like this, I will try to translate it from Russian – “the only person whom you have to compare yourself with is you from yesterday”.

So basically don’t compare yourself with anyone else, the only comparison is if you’re better, at least a little bit, than yesterday. That’s already good, so that’s why motivation was never an issue really. It started to be an issue when I started to feel that I am not getting any better. In the last months I just started to feel that it doesn’t make sense anymore for me, because my main sense was to do better, and when I started to feel I cannot, even if I still could do pretty well, it already somehow lost the appeal for me, professional chess.

On not fearing losing the World Championship title

I was never really stuck on the title, because again, it depends on your personality. If you really want to be the first, if you really have a very strong motivation of being the best, then that means a lot to you. 

For me it didn’t mean that much, the World Championship title. I was always ready to get rid of it, and actually even when I lost to Vishy I was not too sad. I was just unhappy that I didn’t play well, but otherwise my life didn’t change in the worse at all.

I understand that the title, especially in those difficult times which we experienced - there were so many headaches and problems with it also, so your life was not so fun. I was not even sure if I want to have it or not, but of course since I was playing a match I wanted to do my best, and before the last game I remember there was a rest day. 

Kramnik ultimately went into the final game of his World Championship match against Leko trailing by a point, but won on demand to tie the match and retain his title

I was not feeling well physically, I was not playing well, I was -1 against a player who almost never loses, maybe one game per year, and I knew my chances are very small, so I just wanted to give it a try. I kind of lost already in my mind. Ok, probably I’m going to lose, 80% or 85% I’m going to lose, but I still have my 15-20% and I should give it a try, and I was not thinking much about the result during the game until the moment when it was already getting closer, but before I just wanted to come and give it a try, and in this kind of philosophical approach that if I don’t win and lose the title who knows, maybe it will even be better - you never know!

I can tell you there are certain things that when you look from the distance… for example, I remember I lost a match against Shirov in 1998, and it was very painful at that time because I was sure I’m, ok, Shirov of course is a strong player, but I was sure that I’m a bit better than him, and ok, I wanted very much to play Kasparov, and all of a sudden I lost. 

But now, after some years, actually I realised that if I wouldn’t have lost this match I think I wouldn’t have beaten Garry. 

Never! Because it was such an important lesson for me.

At that moment, in 98, if I would have won this match, I think our match with Kasparov probably would happen, in comparison with the Kasparov-Shirov match which didn’t happen, and probably I would lose it in 98. And then ok, I lost this match, and then some incredible circumstances happened, which were absolutely beyond my control, which I could never imagine, that he couldn’t organise the match with Shirov. Then actually they already had an agreement with Vishy, and Vishy at the last minute refused for some reason, I don’t know why, and then there was no choice than very quickly to get me into the match, at least that’s what Braingames told me, and all of a sudden I found myself playing the match in 2000. I couldn’t even imagine it.

And in fact this losing the match against Shirov was probably the necessary lesson which helped me to win against Garry, and to keep the title for a while, so that’s why if you look at this from this angle in life, 

it’s ok to lose, maybe it’s better to lose! Maybe it’s better for you in the long run. So it’s ok, I don’t think there is such a big difference between winning and losing, or between being no. 1 or no. 2 as maybe the modern world is trying to convince us. For me at least it’s not.


On the pressure on Peter Leko in the final game

Peter played well, but of course there was a lot of psychology in this game, because I understand, ok, can you imagine for Peter Leko? He just needs a draw, which he usually manages easily against any opponent, and then he is the World Champion. It’s a big thing, he’s in the history of chess, and it had probably been his dream since childhood, and of course it’s much more difficult actually to play for him, for the person who just needs a draw, psychologically, than for the one who needs a win.

On how that game went

I think it was a good game, a good endgame, and for me also it was more of a, I would say personal, achievement – where you manage in a situation when nothing works anymore. I was in quite bad health, I was not playing well, the match was going totally wrong, and then in the most important moment somehow, I don’t know how or why, but I managed to show all I can show in this game. It was a really good high level game, and the most difficult is to show your best level in the most critical situations, and I managed to do it this time, so that was quite a memorable day for me. 

In the video Kramnik shows the final win against Leko in some detail

Only of course I feel pity for Peter. He’s a very nice person and a very strong chess player, and actually he was so close to become World Champion. Maybe one or two correct decisions, just to be a little less passive in this game, and maybe he would have been the 15th World Champion, but you never know what life gives to us.

On the Berlin Defence

I never believed it will be so popular. Just one thing I understood that it was a good opening against Garry in particular, and that it’s definitely not as bad as it is considered, because it was always considered a very strange opening where Black is definitely immediately slightly worse, but trying to hold somehow. I had a feeling that’s not the case, that it first of all can get sharp, can get double-edged, and also that it’s quite a serious equalising attempt, but obviously I didn’t expect that it would be so good. In any case, the practical point, which is that I felt it’s a good weapon against Garry in particular, specially against Garry, was more important than the objective assessment of it. 

But I’m quite honoured, I would say, that even after this AlphaZero program learning how to play chess and finally playing lots of games, it’s actually seeing that it’s the best opening against e4. 

Who knows, maybe in another 10 years it will say something else, but at least it shows, considering the level of AlphaZero, that there is no refutation of this opening. It’s not a bad opening, for sure!

But of course for Garry it was bad luck to face such a more or less new concept which is so powerful, and so difficult to break. Nowadays everybody already knows that it’s a serious opening, but at that time he wanted to break through, he thought maybe he will refute it, but he just couldn’t manage, so it was a wrong bet, I would say, from his side, to try to refute or try to hit there. Probably he should have done something else, but in any case, it was partly luck, but you get luck when you deserve it, usually, so probably I did the right preparation and had the right state of mind and somehow in this match everything was working in my favour.

There are some moments, like in the match I played with Vishy, somehow I felt everything worked against me and I’m trying to do my best, I’ve prepared very seriously, I’ve made a very serious preparation, but just nothing works. It’s like you are helpless, and I guess that was the same story with Garry when he played against me. He felt like nothing is working, all his preparation is not working, he just doesn’t get what he wants, he cannot show his best and it happens in life sometimes, like this.

On Grischuk and having a personal vision of chess

I always liked Grischuk, the way he plays. I like always in chess players when there is some concept behind the play, because you feel that the player has a certain vision of chess and he’s trying to play not just moves, not just openings because they’re fashionable, a certain concrete way. I feel that Sasha has a certain way of playing, his style, which is very difficult nowadays when there are such powerful machines and more or less everybody’s playing very similarly. So I like players who have their own style of play and this is something I cannot prove, I cannot explain why I feel like he has a vision of chess, he has a style and he plays according to it and this I like very much, but of course he’s by far not the only one.

Alexander Grischuk in action | photo: Niki Riga

Definitely Magnus, but also not because he’s so strong, but just because he has his own vision of chess, there is something personal in the way you play chess and that’s what I think is attractive for me and I guess for other people also, because who cares if somebody plays the best move, the perfect move according to a computer? After all, we are humans and we play chess for humans, so I think this emotion, this certain human touch, is the most important. There’s a very simple example. 

There are World Chess Championships of engines, but do you watch the games, do you follow it?

I don’t know anyone, or not so many at least people, who are watching every game of machines, played against each other. But why, they are playing much better than us, than top players, but because it’s not human, because there is no human touch, there is no emotion in it, and I think we like also in chess, which is intellectual, we like emotion, and emotion comes when you are very authentic, when you play chess, you play chess the way you feel, the way you think, the way you believe, and that’s why, that gives sort of emotion and Sasha, for example, with all his crazy time trouble and so on, you feel it’s him, he’s given his personality, he’s putting it on the table when he plays chess. Of course he’s not the only one. That’s what I like in chess players.

He’s authentic, he is as he is, playing chess and also in life, he doesn’t try to be another person, he doesn’t try to play someone else’s chess, even if it’s AlphaZero’s chess, even it’s some genius program’s chess. 

He still wants to play his chess and this is very important for me. I’ve tried myself to do the same all my life – I wasn’t always managing – but at least it was my goal.


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