Former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik turned 40 today, and in a wide-ranging interview he explains why he’s not ready to quit chess just yet but is also unlikely to follow in the footsteps of Vishy Anand. He also comes up with an all-time Top 10 of chess players, reflects on his changing style and compares star players to composers, noting Magnus is no Mozart but Kasparov could be Rammstein. Unmissable!
The Sparkassen Chess Meeting in Dortmund starts this Saturday, with Vladimir Kramnik facing the likes of Fabiano Caruana and Wesley So as he attempts to win the event for an incredible 11th time. The Russian no. 1 and current world no. 6 reflected on his career in a long interview with Boris Levin for the Russian chess website ChessPro.
We’ve translated some of the highlights:
Boris Levin: Forty… Previously in chess that was the peak of a career, while now sporting life is so compressed that it’s already time to reflect on the finish line, especially since you’ve mentioned this age as critical on a few occasions yourself.
Vladimir Kramnik: I never said the moment I turn forty I’ll quit on the spot. It’s more of a milestone after which it really is worth stopping to think. What I can say is that I’m definitely not planning on playing on into old age, since I really don’t want to experience what it is to descend to a lower and lower level after having been at the very top. It’s also about quality of play. As long as I can maintain my standards I’ll keep on playing, then I’ll quit.After all, it’s also important to enjoy the process, although pleasure perhaps isn’t entirely the right word, since chess today is a very tough job. However, one way or another you should have drive and interest. The moment they start to disappear I’ll stop immediately, since I don’t play chess for money but because I realise I’m still capable of something.
Who do you feel closer to: Kasparov, who ended his career at 42, or Anand, who won a World Championship match at 43 and continues to achieve great results?
A lot depends on physiology. Anand is a man with a clearly defined Buddhist approach to life, implying a reasoned expenditure of energy and a smooth flow of events. Plus I don’t think anyone else has Vishy’s capacity for recovery. In that regard I’m closer to Kasparov – much more emotional. I use up more energy. And I saw how he played his last tournament in Linares – it really was tough for the guy, with sweat just streaming down his face.
In that case it was probably also down to his very energy-intensive style of play?
Probably, but that’s not the main thing. Someone very rightly said that age isn’t the number of years you’ve lived but the number you’ve experienced. The intensity of a life and career, all these World Championship matches… Boris Spassky once remarked a World Championship match takes three years off your life. If I played four of them, then it turns out I’m 52, not 40! (smiles)
In general, I think I’ll definitely play for two or three more years, but I wouldn’t want to look any further ahead. Geller once said that years are basically no problem, you just need to work more and more, but I’ve got a family, children, social projects and it’s hard for me to find so much time. Therefore the chances are that at 45, like Anand, I’ll no longer be able to stay at the top level, and then – why do it?
I think Geller’s phrase was in essence true, but modern chess work differs greatly from that at the time of Efim Petrovich. Recall the love with which Lev Polugaevsky talked about honing the variation that carries his name. His creative discoveries brought him even greater satisfaction than the points they later earned him. But now what? You put a position on the computer and just need to manage to remember it…
Not exactly: you still come up with some of your own ideas, but they really are honed by the machine. Nevertheless, if I now work ten hours or so a day I could keep up for a long time, but where will I get those 10 hours from!? Give up the childhood years of my daughter and son? Or push aside everything else in life? (…)
At the level I play everyone has the fundamental opening knowledge. During my youth that knowledge had be to acquired manually – reading books, studying “Informants”, analysing one position or another – and therefore great experience could compensate for lower energy levels.
But now you turn on a computer and everything’s brought to you on a silver platter, just as long as you can recall it. So it turns out the advantage of experience is largely offset, while the advantages of youth have become much more noticeable. The energy levels at 20-22 are just very different than they are at 40 – I can see that from myself.
If you were offered the chance now to go back 50 years or so and play chess in the pre-computer era, would you?
You know, chess is now more interesting – it’s more complicated, dynamic and sharper. But that’s good for the spectators, while for the players it was all much easier back then. Therefore I’d probably agree without a second thought. (smiles)
I recall now my first Linares – 93. What a joy that was compared to current tournaments! Preparation for a game took an hour, two at most. Me and my then coach Vitaly Tseshkovsky would push the pieces around a bit, some small idea would occur to us – all was fine and I could go and play.
Now you spend two hours clicking through a variation with the computer and suddenly you realise it doesn’t work. And this one also doesn’t work. And that one. The end result is that preparation during a tournament takes up almost all the time between the games.
I know you’ve been tortured by similar questions before but still, could you articulate how Kramnik-2015 differs from Kramnik-2000, who won the World Championship?
I think so. My motivation is now no longer so crazy, and my energy levels aren’t, once again, the same. On the other hand, I have greater understanding of the game and experience.
Those are everyday things that everyone understands. I’m more interested in the changes in your style of play, in your approach to conducting a game.
Stylistically, I’m a very unusual character. I can’t recall another World Champion whose style has completely altered at least twice over the course of his career. In the 90s I played very active and aggressive chess, constantly going for tactical complications. Then, at some point around 1998, everything changed dramatically – my games were conducted in a purely positional manner. That continued until 2005, when I started to return to sharp play. Now everything is again gradually changing towards a more classical approach. Moreover, you can’t say those twists were conscious never mind planned – I can’t find any clear explanation myself.
But some reasons must nevertheless exist.
In the 90s it was probably all connected to my working a lot with Sergey Dolmatov – a very clearly defined positional chess player. In any situation he would first of all look for a calm move, striving for the endgame.
Why I returned to sharp chess is harder to say. Most likely I finally felt liberated after losing the World Championship title in 2008. The crown is a great responsibility – you constantly need to prove something, and at times you reduce all risk to a minimum.
But what’s happening now when you’re again returning to the positional track?
Well, first of all I realised it’s still the foundation of my play, instilled in childhood. And, secondly, my opponents are getting ever younger, and in complex, energy-intensive games it’s harder and harder to outplay them. Moreover, the majority of modern young talents are clearly defined “counters”. It’s useful to drag them into slow positional play, where I can use my trumps.
Can veterans today achieve results merely on account of their positional understanding the way Smyslov did – after all, Vasily qualified for a Candidates Final at the age of 63?
That’s much tougher now, if it’s possible at all, mainly due to the greater intensity of tournaments – we’ve long since forgotten, for instance, about adjournments. But it’s also due to the sheer abundance of tactical positions, which is the result of global computerisation.
To conclude this conversation on style, it might be appropriate to recall the well-known opinion of Mikhail Tal, who introduced an analogy between chess players and composers. If you recall, Tal compared Botvinnik to Bach, Smyslov to Tchaikovsky and himself to the king of the operetta, Kalman. Considering the conservatory education of your mother, you shouldn’t have too much difficulty continuing that series?
Let’s give it a go.
Which composer is closest to Kramnik in spirit?
It’s hard to evaluate myself, especially given the changes in style mentioned before. (pause) Perhaps Rachmaninoff.
Very precise! He also varied.
Yes, and moreover, Sergei Vasilievich had periods when he couldn’t compose a thing – I also resemble him in that. (smiles)
Let’s move on to your closest rivals. Carlsen?
Everyone compares him to Mozart - we even sometimes jokingly call him that among ourselves. It’s become some kind of a cliché, although Magnus’ chess in no way resembles the Austrian’s music. He’s more of a technician.
Definitely not Mozart. (smiles) Beethoven, perhaps.
By the way, Tal also said that the young (he had in mind Kasparov) were closer to more modern composers – Prokofiev, Shostakovich. Perhaps it’s already time to switch to pop music?
Ah, yes: Kasparov is a typical Rammstein. (laughs)
Here Mozart does in part fit – in terms of ease, naturalness and innate talent. For the latter Vishy ranks among the greatest in chess history.
But at the same time, he’s not a genius? I’ve got in mind one of your interviews, where you include only four geniuses – Kasparov, Fischer, Capablanca and Tal.
That’s using the strictest of measures, and I also had in mind chess players who had already finished their careers. If you lower the bar a tiny amount then both Anand and Carlsen would be among them. Moreover, Magnus’ career is only beginning – in another decade or so he might perfectly well move into the category of the very greatest.
If you were the coach of the all-time team comprised of ten boards, who would you include in the line-up? You could, by the way, also be a playing coach.
Interesting, I’ve never thought about that… We already mentioned the top four…
What would the board order be for them?
That would be very tough, and in the given situation the order would be insignificant anyway. Anand and Carlsen would also get in, and then… Definitely Karpov. Definitely Alekhine. Unquestionably Lasker. And then for the tenth spot there are a lot of candidates – Botvinnik, Smyslov and many others.
But exclusively World Champions?
Why? I’d seriously consider the candidacy of Akiba Rubinstein. A very significant figure.
Would such a collection of stars play as a unified team?
With their individual strength that would be unimportant. They’d tear everyone to shreds.
Which game will be the visiting card of Grandmaster Kramnik in future chess encyclopaedias?
It’s hard to choose one – partly because my style changed so much. You could try to find characteristic games for each creative period. In the 90s one would probably be the win with Black over Kasparov in 1996 in Dos Hermanas. By the way, that was the only decisive game between us when Black won, as all the others full points were scored by White.
1. d4 d5 2. c4 c6 3. ♘c3 ♘f6 4. ♘f3 e6 5. e3 ♘bd7 6. ♗d3 dxc4 7. ♗xc4 b5 8. ♗d3 ♗b7 9. O-O a6 10. e4 c5 11. d5 c4 12. ♗c2 ♕c7 13. ♘d4 ♘c5 14. b4 cxb3 15. axb3 b4 16. ♘a4 ♘cxe4 17. ♗xe4 ♘xe4 18. dxe6 ♗d6 19. exf7+ ♕xf7 20. f3 ♕h5 21. g3 O-O 22. fxe4 ♕h3 23. ♘f3 ♗xg3 24. ♘c5 ♖xf3 25. ♖xf3 ♕xh2+ 26. ♔f1 ♗c6 27. ♗g5 ♗b5+ 28. ♘d3 ♖e8 29. ♖a2 ♕h1+ 30. ♔e2 ♖xe4+ 31. ♔d2 ♕g2+ 32. ♔c1 ♕xa2 33. ♖xg3 ♕a1+ 34. ♔c2 ♕c3+ 35. ♔b1 ♖d4
There were also, however, two spectacular wins with Black over Topalov – in 1995 and 1997, and also a win over Kasparov in 1994 in rapid chess. I’d also single them out.
In the next segment of my life I’d note the last game of the World Championship match against Leko – it’s hard to imagine anything more important than that in a sporting sense, while the quality of the game was also excellent.
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. e5 ♗f5 4. h4 h6 5. g4 ♗d7 6. ♘d2 c5 7. dxc5 e6 8. ♘b3 ♗xc5 9. ♘xc5 ♕a5+ 10. c3 ♕xc5 11. ♘f3 ♘e7 12. ♗d3 ♘bc6 13. ♗e3 ♕a5 14. ♕d2 ♘g6 15. ♗d4 ♘xd4 16. cxd4 ♕xd2+ 17. ♔xd2 ♘f4 18. ♖ac1 h5 19. ♖hg1 ♗c6 20. gxh5 ♘xh5 21. b4 a6 22. a4 ♔d8 23. ♘g5 ♗e8 24. b5 ♘f4 25. b6 ♘xd3 26. ♔xd3 ♖c8 27. ♖xc8+ ♔xc8 28. ♖c1+ ♗c6 29. ♘xf7 ♖xh4 30. ♘d6+ ♔d8 31. ♖g1 ♖h3+ 32. ♔e2 ♖a3 33. ♖xg7 ♖xa4 34. f4 ♖a2+ 35. ♔f3 ♖a3+ 36. ♔g4 ♖d3 37. f5 ♖xd4+ 38. ♔g5 exf5 39. ♔f6 ♖g4 40. ♖c7 ♖h4 41. ♘f7+
Then there were also some very good games, such as the win against Anand in Wijk aan Zee.
To be honest, it’s hard for me to choose when there aren’t clear criteria. I also struggle to answer questions about my favourite writer or composer, especially since in different periods you have different preferences. You could come up with ten, as with chess geniuses, but choosing just one of them… It’s the same with games.
If you were allowed to live your career again, but with the experience you have now, would you change a lot?
Of course. There were so many mistakes!
Though you had one of the most successful of careers?
With my current understanding and the energy I had in my youth it would be much more successful! At least +50 rating points, independently of everything else. You know what I particularly missed?
The presence beside me of a man like Nikitin for Kasparov or Furman for Karpov. A wise mentor, who would have led me though life, giving me tips in difficult situations and allowing me to learn from the mistakes of others rather than my own. I achieved everything by trial and error – if I was now the coach of the 17-year-old me I would simply have forbidden a lot of things.
On the other hand, if you take it as a whole I don’t have any regrets: everything went pretty well and successfully.
Every person recalls moments when they were really afraid.
My most critical one had nothing to do with crime or some kind of scandal, but a normal trip from Linares to the airport, when the chess world could simultaneously have lost both me and Kasparov.
Please tell us more about that!
I no longer remember exactly what year it was, I think 96. Or 98. The latest Linares tournament was over and we had flights quite early the next day, while it was about three hours’ drive to the airport. Therefore Kasparov and I travelled from about six in the morning, in the same car. And the driver, it later turned out, simply fell asleep at the wheel while going at quite a decent speed.
We were sitting there, talking about something and noticing nothing, since the driver was wearing dark glasses. The road was empty, so 120 km on the speedometer seemed perfectly normal. Then a car appeared ahead of us and we started to rush towards it. There were only a few meters and we were flying right into it!
Kasparov was in the front seat (which could have ended even worse), and I was in the back, but we both sensed the danger absolutely simultaneously, jumping up as one. Our sudden movements woke the driver, and literally at the last second he managed to turn the wheel.
Kasparov, a passionate man, told the driver just what he thought about it all. That guy, meanwhile, stopped the car, poured himself some coffee from a thermos flask with shaking hands, and a few minutes later he simply calmed down. Then we got to our destination without incident, but I still remember what I felt in the critical second to this day.