Russian grandmaster Artur Yusupov is now one of the world’s best known and loved chess coaches, but thirty years ago he was arguably the third best player in the world after Karpov and Kasparov. In a recent interview he talked about his career, including how he played the games of his life in 1991 to knock a young Vassily Ivanchuk out of the World Championship cycle. He also talked about the Carlsen-Anand match and what it takes to be a World Champion.
54-year-old Artur Yusupov gave an extensive interview to Sergey Kim for ChessPro. When Sergey first made contact Artur was with some Swiss students at the European Youth Championships in Batumi, which provided a starting point for the discussion. We've selected some highlights below:
There have actually been important changes. I don’t know if it was part of some well-thought-out strategy or, perhaps, a pure accident, but FIDE did something very important which had a positive influence on chess development: they split the World and European Championships into age groups. That led to far more young chess players getting involved, having a goal and working at a serious level. The goal is clear: to win the championship in your age group, and that enables chess players to become professional sooner. Back then it wasn’t like that. We “grew up” later, and for us there was only one championship – U20, and it was pretty hard to get into. That was the only chance to make it into “big” chess, but now there are such opportunities every year. That’s led to more strong players and the level of the tournaments has risen significantly. Overall children play better than they did in our day.
In Leningrad, for example, I beat Karpov, although the person who made the strongest impression on me back then was Korchnoi. He caught me out in some trap and took a pawn. Then I got some chances. But what happened afterwards… On move 40 the rules were that the game would be adjudicated. He came up to the board, sat down opposite and thought for half an hour. I was simply afraid to breathe! It was extremely interesting! When the captain of our team, Yuri Averbakh, approached, Korchnoi showed him the winning plan he’d come up with. I wasn’t upset, because I’d had the chance to learn the lesson of a professional, serious approach to chess. I understood it wasn’t important for him to “condemn” me, but to grasp the position. He really did look for a plan to convert the extra pawn. If he’d found a draw then he’d no doubt have said: it’s a draw. But he found a win…
I simply became one naturally. When I managed to win the World Junior Championship in 1977 it was already clear, because I immediately got a stipend and therefore “automatically” became a professional. At that point it was a good, prestigious profession. Chess players were known and respected and, of course, besides a good stipend (salary) we had the chance to play in tournaments and win prizes. You also got to travel abroad and win prizes there. All of that looked appealing, and not only in material terms. The chance to see the world and other countries, to travel – that was also a pretty strong argument. So that’s the way it was: if you have the ability and you make it into the chess elite what else do you want? Now, of course, the situation has changed, though I see that chess players are still helped and there is a support system. Many countries give young chess players stipends for winning youth and junior championships. In such a situation playing chess professionally makes some sense. Of course if you’re talking about competing with serious specialisations then it’s hard to expect a young person to devote their life to chess professionally – if they’re not Carlsen or Karjakin.
Every element is important – the pure chess element as well, of course, but not only. It’s a case of increasing the probability of a good performance, which is something many people fail to understand. They think, “Ah! Today I didn’t play any sport but I still won, so I don’t need it”. Or the opposite. “I played sport but lost the game”. And people don’t realise that it’s a question of probability. You can do everything correctly and increase the probability of winning by some percentage, but it’s never going to be 100%. Surprises can’t be ruled out. You can, of course, do everything correctly and lose, or everything wrongly and win, but the person who does everything correctly will win more often. You can’t argue with the statistics, and that’s the big difference. Those who fail to follow a sporting regime can be very talented and win individual events, but over a long period of time they’ll do worse than the professionals, and that’s the whole point. When I went on all my runs before important tournaments I thought: “I’ll suffer now, but in the tournament I’ll pick up an extra half point!”
On that occasion Mark Dvoretsky and I had worked well on my style. We wanted to modify it and expand my options. One of the elements was studying Tal’s games, which we analysed closely. We managed to refute a bunch of combinations in our analysis. I didn’t start playing like Tal, but that was undoubtedly beneficial. It’s natural – you learn something else in chess, a different approach. That enriches you. In the same year I again qualified for the World Junior Championship, but I didn’t want to play there. I’d been invited to an international tournament in Amsterdam. Or actually it wasn’t even an invitation: I’d qualified for the main tournament by winning the side event the year before, but the federation decided differently. Before the Championship I also fell ill and wasn’t in a good condition at the start, so I decided: seeing as I don’t need this tournament at all I’ll play more aggressively. It went very badly, but interestingly! I remember in one game I sacrificed five pawns to my opponent, three of which he returned, exchanged queens and then beat me in classical style in the ending… Nevertheless, some creative impulses were noticeable. I analysed all the games of that tournament, found mistakes and came to interesting conclusions. I found that task so fascinating creatively that it seems together with the work done with Mark that prepared my next “leap”. That became clear shortly before the USSR Championship. I did well in the First League, although I didn’t qualify for the Higher League. I fell just short and made it onto the reserve list, but I was already playing much more interesting chess. Even if only as a reserve I managed to make it into the final. The tournament went well and was very important for me… Unfortunately I never did manage to surpass the result I achieved there (a silver medal).
If you lose a game you have to work out why you lost. The moment you understand why is an important step towards processing these failures. If you play a bad tournament you need to realise what you did wrong in preparation, analyse your mistakes and try to eradicate them the next time. Consequently losses are incredibly important for improving as a chess player. More likely than not, that’s the only way you can learn to play. I remember that losing the match to Karpov gave me a lot as a chess player when I understood the reason for it. You have to learn from your mistakes and then try to use the lessons learned. That’s essentially always been my approach – I tried to learn to play better chess!
A win is always the “achievement” of our opponents. I understood that very well when analysing my old games. I’d naively thought that I outplayed my opponents, but a closer analysis with the help of the computer showed: nothing of the sort! Basically my opponents had even understood the position better than I did and they played well (laughs), but at some decisive moment, perhaps, they lacked energy. They committed a bad mistake which altered the logical course of the game. Analysis showed a totally different picture. So you always win due to the mistakes of the guy sitting opposite. It’s simply not possible otherwise.
I think I played five Olympiads, and in one of them we managed to finish second, which was a very good result. It’s much harder to do that than it was to win as part of the Soviet team. In Istanbul 2000 I was suffering from back pain and was at a handicap, but perhaps it worked out positively. I was forced to sit at the board all the time, which may have had a good effect on my play. And the team was very friendly, which you couldn’t, incidentally, say about the Soviet team. Unfortunately… You often got a very polarised situation there due to the tension between Karpov and Kasparov. It was like a fissure that ran down the whole team. We won based on class. The “easiest” Olympiads were actually those where neither of them was present. In that case the team played relatively calmly, and the class of the players was pretty high. Karpov and Kasparov weren’t needed. In Lucerne 82, for example, although we posted one of our best results with them present, the situation was much tougher.
I played an interesting match after I’d moved to Germany – against Ivanchuk. I’m afraid, though, that I spoiled Vassily’s sporting biography, because he had good chances in that cycle. And he played the match better than I did, and he was a better chess player at that moment. But it turned out my experience paid off, and besides that some events took place which, at first glance, had nothing to do with either of us – the coup in Moscow. Naturally I was worried about what was happening in Russia, and my preparation for the games was interrupted by flicking between CNN and the BBC and studying what was going on at that moment in Moscow. It’s not a nice feeling when there are tanks in a city and I was worried for the people there, my friends, my relatives. Anything could have happened. In the match I was losing by a narrow margin, but at some point I managed to buckle down and even seize the initiative. Before the decisive eighth game (I was a point behind) the situation had clarified. The coup was over and it became clear that everything was going to be ok. Three people had died, but given the tanks on the street that was some kind of “study variation”. Minimal losses, and there just couldn’t have been any less… That gave me such an emotional boost that I hit top form. In two days I played that eighth game and then two tiebreak games – probably the best games of my life.
Those games were also singled out by Peter Svidler when he was recently asked to recommend a beautiful game:
1. d4 ♘f6 2. c4 e6 3. ♘c3 ♗b4 4. e3 b6 5. ♗d3 ♗b7 6. ♘f3 O-O 7. O-O c5 8. ♗d2 cxd4 9. exd4 d5 10. cxd5 ♘xd5 11. ♖c1 ♘c6 12. ♖e1 ♖c8 13. ♖e4 ♘ce7 14. ♘xd5 ♘xd5 15. ♖h4 g6 16. ♖xc8 ♕xc8 17. ♘g5 ♗e7 18. ♕g4 ♗a6 19. ♕h3 h5 20. ♖xh5 gxh5 21. ♗h7+ ♔g7 22. ♕xh5 ♘f6 23. ♘xe6+ fxe6 24. ♕h6+ ♔h8 25. ♗f5+ ♔g8 26. ♕g5+ ♔h8 27. ♕h4+ ♔g8 28. ♕g5+ ♔h8 29. ♕h4+ ♔g8 30. ♕g3+ ♔h8 31. ♕h3+ ♔g7 32. ♕g3+ ♔h8 33. ♕h3+ ♔g7 34. ♗xe6 ♕xe6 35. ♕xe6 ♗d8 36. g4 ♖e8 37. ♕f5 ♗c4 38. g5
1. c4 e5 2. g3 d6 3. ♗g2 g6 4. d4 ♘d7 5. ♘c3 ♗g7 6. ♘f3 ♘gf6 7. O-O O-O 8. ♕c2 ♖e8 9. ♖d1 c6 10. b3 ♕e7 11. ♗a3 e4 12. ♘g5 e3 13. f4 ♘f8 14. b4 ♗f5 15. ♕b3 h6 16. ♘f3 ♘g4 17. b5 g5 18. bxc6 bxc6 19. ♘e5 gxf4 20. ♘xc6 ♕g5 21. ♗xd6 ♘g6 22. ♘d5 ♕h5 23. h4 ♘xh4 24. gxh4 ♕xh4 25. ♘de7+ ♔h8 26. ♘xf5 ♕h2+ 27. ♔f1 ♖e6 28. ♕b7 ♖g6 29. ♕xa8+ ♔h7 30. ♕g8+ ♔xg8 31. ♘ce7+ ♔h7 32. ♘xg6 fxg6 33. ♘xg7 ♘f2 34. ♗xf4 ♕xf4 35. ♘e6 ♕h2 36. ♖db1 ♘h3 37. ♖b7+ ♔g8 38. ♖b8+ ♕xb8 39. ♗xh3 ♕g3
It took such cataclysms in the world to get me into optimal condition! I can’t play better chess than I played in the final games of that match. I never won anything in the “Informants”, except perhaps when featuring on the losing side, but for my games there I took first and second place. Some kind of extraordinary rise! The gift of a lifetime, a sign that this was the way I was capable, at times, of playing chess. Of course something like that could only happen on a single lucky day for me. A momentous creative surge! And so I managed to win that tiebreak, but I still feel somewhat uncomfortable towards Vassily even now, because it wasn’t entirely fair on him. Some outside forces intervened and he was simply unlucky. I repeat, at that point he was a better chess player than I was…
I’m not sure. It’s not so simple. Vasily Smyslov had something interesting to say about champions, which made a big impression on me. In answer to a question about what qualities a World Champion should have he said the following: “A World Champion is a man who drives forward like a battering ram”. You need, I think, to be born like that – with “battering ram” qualities. In principle, in order to achieve success in chess you need to have a number of essential qualities and if you’re lacking some of them it’s very tough to compensate.
Smyslov also talked about how the future World Champion should recognise his destiny. That he’s destined “from above”…
That’s less apparent to me. I don’t think there needs to be anything divine, but I agree with “battering ram”. You need to sweep away all obstacles in your path. And such people can’t be stopped. There needs to be a certain inflexibility of character.
Above all, I’m grateful to Mark Dvoretsky, because thanks to him I achieved a great deal – more than I could have expected. And I wouldn’t have achieved all that if I didn’t work with him. He instructed me clearly and enabled me to improve my skills while at the same time eradicating a lot of flaws. In formal terms I wasn’t so far from the top and played important matches. I even had very good chances against Karpov. Quite realistic ones, in any case. But you need to realise that Karpov played badly in that match. You might say he wasn’t in his best form, while at his best, to put it crudely, I wouldn’t have got a look in. Both Karpov and Kasparov were, after all, chess players of a different level, scale and talent. And they were clearly superior to me, and not only me. You have to concede that after carefully analysing their games – you can see it’s a different level of play. Could I have reached that level? Anything’s possible, but then I’d have had to work even harder, applying significant efforts to make a new “leap” in quality. I don’t know… I didn’t have an outstanding talent, although I had chess ability. I’d have had to become a workhorse, to work even harder (smiles). Perhaps that would have led to something… But I never had such fanaticism. I don’t regret the way it all worked out. I think I achieved what I could. With some luck I might have played a match for the World Championship, but nevertheless that wasn’t my “league”.
It’s clear that my human sympathies are on the side of Anand. I’ve known Vishy for a long time and for a while I worked as his second. We’ve got a lot in common and he’s somehow closer to me. And, of course, I’d like him to look good in this match. I wanted that in the previous match as well, but it didn’t work out for him. Perhaps now it will? I hope so, because the winners then would be both chess… and Carlsen! I’ve got a high opinion of Carlsen as a chess player. I really like him. I don’t know him as a person, but as a chess player he appeals to me. I like the way he talks and what he says about chess. He’s a very serious master of his trade and he’s already leading chess into new spheres – with his play, with his approach. His potential still hasn’t been fully realised. I think he’s capable of more. And in order to discover himself he needs a worthy opponent. Therefore I want Anand to be in his best form and really force Carlsen to go all out. Then it would be a magnificent match.
Yusupov actually filmed a 3.5 hour video series for chess24, in which he and Jan tried to explain what it is that makes Magnus Carlsen so special. You can purchase the series for $10.99, or also watch this series and hundreds more videos by purchasing a monthly premium membership at $10.99 a month.