3-time Polish Chess Champion Radek Wojtaszek turned 34 today and on Saturday he gets to take on Magnus Carlsen and more of the world’s best players in the Tata Steel Masters in Wijk aan Zee. In an interview late last year Vishy Anand’s second for five World Championship matches talked about his ambitions, his young rival Jan-Krzysztof Duda and meeting the Polish actor Marcin Dorociński, who played World Champion Vasily Borgov in the hit Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit.
The first topic addressed in the interview by Marcin Stus for onet.pl, however, was the case of 17-year-old Polish player Patrycja Waszczuk, who was banned for two years by the Polish Chess Federation for cheating. Marcin asked about Patrycja’s spectacular game against Jolanta Zawadzka from Round 1 of the 2020 Polish Women’s Championship.
Patrycja here, in under three minutes, played the only move that the computer claims to give an advantage to Black – 26...Kf8!! Wojtaszek explained what’s so surprising about that move:
Radek Wojtaszek: It’s the same scale as if a junior appeared in Poland who can run 100 metres in 9.5 seconds. Even people better than me weren’t capable of finding that move in the same situation on the chessboard. It goes against all logic. No human thinks in the categories she allegedly thought in at the time. Afterwards they asked Patrycja Waszczuk, the person in question, where the idea for that move came from, and her answer was definitely unconvincing.
I reviewed Patrycja’s earlier games and wouldn’t have expected such a move from a player of her level. But you know, chess is, after all, a finite game, there are a few million possible moves, so you can’t prove that she wasn’t capable for some reason to move the king like that. So the possibility exists that she thought the move up herself, though by my reckoning that’s 0.0001%.
Marcin Stus: What’s so special about that move?It’s illogical for a human, from the point of view that with a lot of pieces on the chessboard (and there were at the time), a person wants to protect their king from attack. It’s only in the endgame that the king should approach the centre, but in that situation it was really hard to see the endgame on the horizon.
The matter seems clear, but the player herself and her family deny it.
In chess it’s very hard to catch a player red-handed, so
that you have 100% proof. Of course the
case will probably end up in court, because the player claims she’s innocent,
and she has the right to a defence. But if someone asked me about that move,
then I’d say that I wouldn’t make that move because it wouldn’t occur to me. Her
female colleagues had suspicions before, seeing that she very often went to the
toilet during her games and usually, on her return, made the strongest move,
while without leaving she made weaker moves. During one of those visits it
was caught red-handed, but I understand that she doesn’t admit to that,
treating it like one person’s word against another’s.
So chess players are sly. Is that true? False? Is there a lot of bad behaviour? In the series The Queen’s Gambit it was shown how players try to distract each other. One would keep smirking, another would obsessively comb his hair. Have you played with such eccentrics?
The higher you get in the rankings, the fewer cases of such behaviour. It’s juvenile and ugly. And the better a chess player you are the more resilient you are to such tricks - they don’t make a big impression. But yes, I’ve met various players… One cleared his throat all the time, another wanted to unsettle me by coming along in clothes that definitely weren’t fresh. It didn’t make a big impression on me. Psychology is incredibly important in chess, but in a different form. We sit opposite our opponent for, let’s say, five hours and try to sense his weaknesses. I follow the breathing of my rival. When I make a move, I pay attention to whether it changes, or if there are different facial expressions. That gives me information as to whether he expected the move or thinks it’s good. At the highest level the purely chess differences aren’t so great, so mental preparation comes into play and – please don’t laugh! – also physical preparation. We also work with psychologists and physical preparation coaches. Currently that’s nothing out of the ordinary.
To sit for five hours concentrating at a chessboard is a big effort, after all.
Particularly as that’s just one day, while events last 13-14 days. The longest game in my career lasted seven hours. The word “tired” just didn’t express my state afterwards.
How much does a chess player earn?
The winner of a World Championship match earned 1.5 million euro. In this year’s Polish Championship the first prize was 15,000 zloty [about 3,300 euro]. My biggest win was £50,000 for winning the open on the Isle of Man. Of course I don’t win such events non-stop, but the world elite doesn’t do badly at all. Still, it’s impossible to compare our earnings to those of players in more mainstream sports.
Does the life of a chess player at your level look like it does in The Queen’s Gambit? Expensive hotels, foreign travel…
That serial portrays the reality of a chess player’s life very well, but in the 60s or 70s. Back then chess players could smoke, which no-one could imagine today, and the same goes for alcohol. We don’t want to limit our chances, we’re sportsmen. Returning to the series, the storylines about travel were true. It resembles the life of a tennis player. In 2018 I spent about 100 days at home. Hotels? When I worked with Vishy Anand we always stayed in very expensive places.
You were in the team of a World Champion. In practice does it look like in the series for Borgov, played by Marcin Dorociński?
Yes, it’s similar, though there’s a difference. Back then games were often adjourned, which means that after say five hours the game was interrupted and moved to another day. The teams would gather at night and analyse everything. That’s not an option nowadays since chess programs are too strong. My role as an assistant of the World Champion was to prepare him for playing himself in World Championship games. We were looking for strategies that would allow us to surprise a given opponent.
You met Dorociński while he was filming The Queen’s Gambit.
I had the chance to meet Marcin during filming for the series. Up to that point all chess productions were done very badly in chess terms. The moves that were shown were wrong, and perhaps crudely so. It’s as if you’re filming a movie about basketball and a three-pointer was from a distance of one metre from the basket. Basic rules were broken. The series sounded great, so I wanted it to be good from a chess point of view. Dorociński assured me that it was very well-prepared from that point of view and indeed, for me, as a chess player, the series is brilliant. The actors were taught particular, sometimes quite long, sequences of moves. Dorociński told me that the man responsible for the chess was Bruce Pandolfini, the former coach of the current world no. 2. So in the scenes where Beth meets Borgov they reproduce six moves each and everything makes sense. Marcin was ready for that role in that regard before I met him. After all, he’d had contact with chess before, observing Karpov’s matches against Kasparov. He played his role very well. He played a Soviet master from the 60s, a very cold person. And I can ensure you that’s precisely how they behaved back then.
I watched the actors more than the chessboard.
And I was the opposite. And I can assure you that those were moves, sequences of moves at the highest world level. It really made chess sense, and also the moves of the main character got more and more complicated as she grew. That also applies to the books that she read – they were arranged as they in fact might be for a future master.
If we’re talking about a master – you once beat the current number one, Magnus Carlsen. Was that your toughest opponent? How did you prepare for that game?
I beat him, it’s true, but once, while I've lost four times. He’s probably the best chess player in history and will be ranked alongside Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. No doubt he’s my most difficult opponent. My preparation was easier, since I’d previously helped Anand in matches against Carlsen. It’s true that both ended in defeat, but that gave me some knowledge. The Norwegian wanted to surprise me with an aggressive opening, but I was even better prepared and quickly got an advantage. I dictated play and that made it very comfortable. If my opponent had played less riskily then perhaps I would never have beaten him. At a certain point, however, I lost the whole advantage, but Carlsen committed a very big mistake, which happens exceptionally rarely to him. That in turn resulted from the fact that he’d had problems from the beginning of the game.
Chess has recently been in the news in Poland because of 22-year-old Jan-Krzysztof Duda, the world no. 19 in classical chess, while you’re 36th. He’s also managed to beat Carlsen.
He’s a phenomenal player and person, who has every chance of going very, very far. Huge potential, as I’ve experienced first-hand. I’ve managed to beat him, but also to lose to him. After all, he knocked me off first place in Poland, but I’m glad that we have a world class player. That gives us great chances in team competitions. The better Janek is the better we play in the chess Olympiads; in 2018 we were fourth, which is a great success. We only lost to countries who are almost impossible to beat. Duda is very strong, and young as well.
You’re the husband of Alina Kashlinskaya, also a chess grandmaster. How did you meet? I guess at the chessboard.
Yes. A long time before that we already knew about each other’s existence, because the chess world isn’t particularly big. We played in a tournament in Hungary – my wife in the women’s event while I was in the men’s. It turned out that we both won and a photo was taken with the cups. It seems Alina didn’t think back then that something would come of our acquaintance. She decided that she’d come out very well in the photo while I wasn’t particularly necessary, so she published a photo where I was cropped out. A nice photo, but without that one person. Two years later we started dating, and we got married five years ago.
I bet you haven’t had your last word to say.
I agree. Chess players reach their peak at around 30, when you’re experienced but not old, or around 40, when you’ve got great experience but your head still doesn’t refuse to obey. I still have a chance to achieve more than I’ve achieved. The highest ranking I’ve had so far was 16th in the world. I’d like to get into the Top 10.
Waszczuk, who we mentioned at the start, no doubt had the same plans.
Yes, she’s now 17 years old and a year ago she became European Champion in her age group, so it’s clear that she was treated as a big talent. The question is how long this unpleasant procedure could take. I took a look at her games from the European Championship and they’re also extremely strange. We should also remember that these brilliant moves were made with a very short period of time to think. I can understand them occurring to you after 30 minutes, but she made moves in 120 seconds that the world’s top players wouldn’t find. Both myself and my wife, who’s 14th in the women’s rankings, wanted to believe to the last moment in her innocence. Probably naively.
Wojtaszek will be in action from Saturday as he plays the Tata Steel Masters, when we'll have live commentary from Jan Gustafsson, Peter Leko and Tania Sachdev!
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