Saturday, November 05, 2011

Remarkable Interview III: Kramnik on chess, Anand, Topalov and his future

Here is a remarkable interview with former World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik. Despite the apparent length of what is reproduced below, the editor actually took quite a big of time to edit it down. It goes much longer, and is linked here (click red).

There are even discussions as to his preferences in food, opionions about politics, social life, and of course assessments as to--if you can believe it--hard to find weaknesses in Anand's chess playing style.

This is intended as an obvious continuation of the interviews we had published before, for example with Lev Aronian here, and here (click red at L). In the future, we have an equally wonderful long interview with Anand to share in turn, but that must wait another day. Enjoy.

The above video is from another interview, and is intended just to give a sense about his personality.

Kramnik on chess, Anand, Topalov and his future
(full version)

Vlad Tkachiev: This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about. As far back as the end of the 90s it seemed to me that Vladimir and I held positions that seldom coincided, and now finally I had the chance to clarify all the contradictions. Right from the outset the plan “sprung a leak” – firstly, because in the run-up to our conversation Kramnik had given a series of exhaustive interviews, and secondly… It’s not so easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant to talk to. Even during the process of agreeing a time and place for our conversation Vladimir turned out to be impeccably polite and at times even aristocratic in his manners. My fighting spirit slipped away, and I simply had the urge to talk about topics that interested me with a great chess player. Here’s what became of that …

V.T.: Have you ever tried to determine you biorhythms when establishing your tournament schedule? For example, I always play badly in January.

V.K.: For me winter is a difficult period. For example, I always play in Wijk-aan-Zee and it always goes badly, while correspondingly I play well in Dortmund. In winter I simply don’t get enough daylight. I go to sleep and get up very late, and at Wijk-aan-Zee I have the impression I don’t see daylight at all. So there are perfectly rational reasons to explain it.

V.T.: For an outside observer there’s been the impression in recent years that you’ve tried to sharpen your style. Is that true?

V.K.: No, I haven’t tried. My play always depends on how I’m feeling, and that simply changed when I lost the title. Perhaps I became more indifferent or liberated. Before a tournament I never decide what style I’m going to adopt, and although some changes do take place, they’re out of my control.

V.T.: Do you agree with the widespread view that while preparing for the match against Kasparov you changed your style so much that it later began to hold you back? Perhaps the seeds of your loss in the match against Anand were sown in your victory over Kasparov?

V.K.: Perhaps, but you always need to choose, as after all I don’t consider myself capable of playing brilliantly in any style. Yes, in order to beat Kasparov I had to make real changes, though that had already started to happen to my style before then. And afterwards I again tried to somehow transform myself by starting to play 1.e4, but for various reasons that didn’t work out. Above all, I was lacking a certain inner harmony. There was a lot of squabbling and political problems that I’d never enjoyed dealing with, but I considered myself obliged to do something as the situation was so difficult. Perhaps I was wrong and should have… Either way, those attempts to play sharply no longer corresponded to my inner state. My style is in any case more positional, and sharp play isn’t my thing. Of course, you’re partly right, but I don’t regret it. After all, I achieved a lot, becoming World Champion 3 times. I lost to Anand, but I could also have lost to him in my very best form.

V.T.: It seems to me that you’d already won the match against Kasparov before it started, as he wasn’t expecting to see such a Kramnik. And then Anand managed to do the same thing against you, undertaking a colossal amount of work to drag you into a concrete struggle from the first moves.

V.K.: In the match against Anand everything went wrong from the very beginning, just as it did for Kasparov in his match against me. I’m actually a fatalist to a degree, and feel that if that’s how something goes then that’s how it was fated to happen. Of course, Kasparov’s preparation couldn’t be compared to Anand’s – there’s no question Anand managed to do things much better, more intelligently and cunningly. Yes, he completely outthought me.

V.T.: Everything he did came as a surprise for you?

V.K.: Yes, my preparation period didn’t go well and I had practically nothing for White, although I’d worked a great deal, more than before the match against Kasparov. The things I’d put my emphasis on in preparation simply didn’t pay off. I had absolutely nothing against the Meran, although I’d spent months working on it, and I realized that I simply needed to make draws up until around the 10th game, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to such cynicism – after all, it was a World Championship match. So I was in two minds to a degree, although I realized that was my only chance.

V.T.: I’m not talking about that just now, but about the way you placed great restrictions on yourself: the Petroff, the Berlin, which, by the way, have started to unravel. After all, we can still remember the old Kramnik – the Sicilian Defense against anyone, trading blow for blow. Perhaps you made a mistake?

V.K.: Yes, but as the years pass, unfortunately, you don’t have any particular choice. Firstly, everyone limits themselves. Even Kasparov would always play the same thing. Moreover, your memory is no longer what it was at 20 years old, and you can’t do the same amount of work as before: family, a child. Of course, if you’re a fanatic and work 24 hours a day you can play all the openings, but that’s very hard to do if you want to spend time with your family and not forget about the pleasures of life.

V.T.: Especially if you live in Paris?

V.K. Perhaps. Over the years a new circle of acquaintances has emerged, certain social obligations, and so on. I’m no longer ready to sacrifice everything in order to get half a point more in each tournament. Therefore I make a choice and work with what I’ve got, and it turns out the way it turns out. Of course I understand such an approach has its drawbacks, but what can you do? Name me another option and I’ll think about it. I don’t see one.

V.T.: I consider you to be one of the most productive chess players in terms of openings in the whole of history. Moreover, I think your positional understanding is also among the purest I’ve come across. Do you agree with that?

V.K.: I always worked a great deal and really did dig up a lot, more than others. I’m not sure it was more than Kasparov, but it was at a comparable level. But in any event, a very large part of that nevertheless goes to waste. Little gets used; in percentage terms perhaps it’s 5-10%. That’s a problem for chess players in general, which is why you also get people who are lazy. In football things are much simpler: you go to training and know that if you run around and work on shooting it’ll benefit you later. But in chess it might very well work out the opposite: it often happened that I did a great deal of work on some line or other, and then someone refuted it a move earlier, meaning it all gets thrown in the rubbish bin. That’s the real reason, in my view, why chess players work relatively little in comparison to other sportsmen.

As for the positional style, I don’t know how pure it is. That’s something for others to assess, although I do agree it’s my specialty. Positional play is a very complex matter. I’ve often noticed that it’s strung together from short-range calculation. When Karpov began to weaken it wasn’t that he’d stopped understanding, but simply that he’d begun to miscalculate short variations. When he’d make one move in one direction and then go off course on the next you might get the wrong impression. When I’m in bad form I also understand chess badly, while in good form everything seems to be fine. But overall, positional play is my strong point, as are playable endgames.

V.T.: I had the impression that you’ve deteriorated a little in that regard in recent years. I can recall a few won positions that you couldn’t…

V.K.: No, I’ve always played won endgames poorly and couldn’t even tell you why myself. Perhaps I relax too soon. It’s when the evaluation isn’t yet clear, += or =+, that I play well and turn those endings into won ones, which I then sometimes make a mess of, just as I did in my younger years. To be honest, I’ve never particularly stopped to think about the features of my own style, while I could give you a full breakdown on Anand.

V.T.: Let’s try that.

V.K.: I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess. Each champion has had some sort of specialty, and his is creating counter-play in any position out of absolutely nowhere. He’s got an amazing ability to constantly stretch himself so that even in some kind of Exchange Slav he nevertheless manages to attack something and create something. He also plays absolutely brilliantly with knights, even better than Morozevich – if his knights start to jump around, particularly towards the king, then that’s that, it’s impossible to play against and they’ll just sweep away everything in their path. I noticed it’s better to get rid of them when you’re playing against him.

In general, he’s improved a great deal in recent years, at some point after 2002. He’s a chess player of genius, but previously he didn’t work enough, by and large.

V.T.: But how has he managed to improve? Did marriage help?

V.K.: Perhaps. He’s matured, while previously he lacked the character to become World Champion. I remember in 1995 against Kasparov it was enough just to poke him a little and he simply fell apart. In the match against me things were completely different. Plus, he’s started to work a great deal and now his opening preparation is among the best, if not the best. At the given moment I don’t see who can compete with him when he’s on form. Perhaps only Carlsen in his very best condition, though probably not. I think he’ll only leave the stage when he weakens himself and ceases to maintain that extremely high level.

V.T.: His weaknesses?

V.K.: The trouble is there almost aren’t any…

V.T.: So nowadays it’s impossible to play the psychological card against him?

V.K.: Yes, though in any case I never wanted to do something on the level of slamming doors (it seems this is hinting at the well-known case of game 10 of the Anand-Kasparov match in 1995, when Kasparov, or so many people claimed, slammed the door noisily on purpose in order to affect his opponent – V.T.) and so on. That’s something that in any case probably wouldn’t work now. His main weakness is that he’s no longer so young, and now he’s also got a child. I can’t imagine he’s still going to work his socks off as before. But at the given moment I think he’s the best in the world in terms of play, namely in terms of play.

V.T.: And the defense of passive positions?

V.K.: He’s doesn’t get passive positions, as they immediately become active.

V.T.: It seems to me he’s got a very big weakness, only it’s difficult to get at it – his play in blockaded positions. I could list half a dozen examples.

V.K.: He does have weaknesses. For example, he doesn’t sense some nuances or move orders very well. But the thing is that in modern chess you can arrange the whole play to suit your style – that’s the problem. So with a computer you can create your own little chess world and live in it. Ok, blockaded positions, but then he probably knows about that too. If you can tell me how to block everything in the Meran and still get an edge I’d be very grateful.

I think that namely in terms of play Anand is in no way weaker than Kasparov, but he’s simply a little lazy, relaxed and only focuses on matches. In the last 5-6 years he’s made a qualitative leap that’s made it possible to consider him one of the great chess players. Perhaps it doesn’t look like that to observers, but when you play against him you sense what a great range he has.

V.T.: Are you for or against introducing rapid and blitz ratings from 1 January?

V.K.: I’m not against it. Definitely for rapid, while I’m not sure about blitz, though that’s also an option. Another possibility would be to include rapid ratings in the calculations for the classical rating, but with a lower ratio, although separate ratings would still be better. Let’s have different forms, like beach, mini and normal football, and a separate championship can be run for each of them. The important thing is simply to standardize the 3 different time controls, after which the market can decide. I don’t agree with Sasha (Grischuk), as it seems to me that’s wishful thinking. Let the market decide, which is actually what’s happening at the moment as no-one’s forcing anyone to organize Wijk-aan-Zee or Linares using the classical time control.

V.T.: What are your political convictions?

V.K.: Ah, now that’s a very complex question.

V.T.: Well, for example, Grischuk’s got a wild aversion to what’s going on in Russia. What about you?

V.K.: No, I don’t have any aversion. I’ve noticed that it’s very hard to explain any of my political leanings, because I look at all of this from a completely different angle. I don’t really understand the point of view of other people, and perhaps they don’t understand mine. I look at all of this from a rational point of view, in terms of common sense and real possibilities, of what actually exists or could exist. People mostly dream. When it comes to Russia they say that everything’s bad, but you need to understand that at the given moment we don’t have the potential to become a Germany or Switzerland. If I started playing tennis now I wouldn’t expect to take part in next year’s Wimbledon. It strikes me that we’ve still got some inflated expectations left over from Soviet times.

V.T.: And in terms of corruption Russia has the right to be 135th in the world? … then you’ve got a clear aversion to the communist project in Russia?

V.K.: Yes, of course, an absolute aversion. Of course, there were some positives, but it’s all a question of the cost. Stalin was a multifaceted man, even a talented one, but how clever do you need to be to imprison millions of people and then get them to do hard labor for nothing to rebuild a country. That absolute villain laid waste to a whole generation of people. … I was really inspired by the example of China. They were all busy somewhere and had gone completely quiet on the international stage. That lasted for around 20 years and then, all of a sudden, they’re a world superpower. Now they’re beginning to seize control of the financial markets and increase their influence, and rightly so. What we need to do now is pull ourselves together and improve human welfare.

V.T.: It seems despite the fact you live in Paris and you’re married to a French woman you still consider yourself Russian?

V.K.: Yes, of course, and my passport’s also Russian. I love Europe. I like the way people relate to each other, which is something we don’t do quite so well. But I grew up here and even if I ever receive a French passport I’ll still remain Russian.

V.K.: It’s just that my circle of acquaintances changed a little. There’s a time for everything. When you’re 17 years old that’s all fascinating, cool: parties, company, girls, alcohol, but then you grow tired of it, and want something else.

V.T.: And how do things look nowadays?

V.K.: Well, everything’s more moderate, as after all I’ve got a family, a child. But my house is still open for many people who often turn up without calling first or stay the night.

V.T.: Have you got more friends who are French or Russian?

V.K.: It’s probably something like 50: 50. I’m still quite free and open with people, but my circle of acquaintances has changed, which is natural. I’ve got some nostalgia for those times and I’m very glad that was part of my life, but the chapter’s closed and I’ve got no desire to repeat it. After all, my career’s gone well and I was also able to party a bit, while not doing any harm to my health. Many people who start their professional career at an early age never had that period, and then they try to catch up when they get to around 50. A big change in my relations with people was brought about by my World Champion status. For some I became unapproachable, it seemed. It wasn’t even a matter of envy or jealousy but, perhaps, some unachieved ambitions got in the way. In any case, the relations changed and perhaps became more cautious. I didn’t change greatly myself and I’m still quite down-to-earth with people. That’s a chapter I’ve closed.

V.T.: What are you preferences in terms of drinks and food?

V.K.: I’ve now become a bourgeois Frenchman. I drink a little wine but, in general, I don’t remember the last time I got drunk. When I was younger the goal was – to sit down and drink in order to get drunk, because why else would you? Now it’s no longer like that. I also like good cognac, and it’s always standing there at home. In the evening I like to have a glass or two.

V.T.: French affairs.

V.K.: Yes. I’m quite omnivorous when it comes to food. I love lots of things but I have to restrict myself because of my tendency to put on weight. For example, I like Indian cuisine, but that’s immediately a kilogram of extra weight the next day. I do in fact consider French cuisine to be the world’s unrivalled no.1.

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