Veselin Topalov: “Kasparov’s retirement helped everybody”
Interview with Yuri Vasiliev
My conversation with ex-world champion Topalov, which took place immediately
after the end of the category 21 tournament in Linares, went beyond the subject
of the battle in the tournament itself.
Yuri Vasiliev: Several top players do not like moving
between continents during this event. What do you think about it?
Bulgarian GM Veselin Topalov during the tournament in Linares
Veselin Topalov: There is no problem. The organisers invite
the players, and if you don’t want to play, you are free to decline. It
was not easy for me to adapt after the move from Mexico, because, unlike some
of the other top players, I fight to the full in every game. But I am satisfied.
Firstly I ended the Mexico half on a plus score, and then did the same in the
Linares part. But most of all I am pleased with the fact that I played all 14
games flat out.
Several of these games you played at a rating level over 3000, but in
others, you played much more weakly. What caused these lapses in your play?
When you win a good game, you feel that your best form has returned, and you
then play for a win in the next game. But the position does not always allow
you to do so, and this leads to failures.
Always uncompromising: Veselin Topalov on the soccer field
So are you starting to feel that you are once again playing like you
did in San Luis, and can crush everyone again?
I would say this: it is not always right to play for a win in every game. At
certain moments I simply lose my head, as they say, I just want so much to win.
And this sometimes leads to defeats. I need to control myself better.
Everyone is talking about Carlsen at the moment. What do you think of
him? Who does he remind you of?
Magnus plays beyond his years. Excellent positional understanding, good endgame
play. Ruslan Ponomariev, when he won the [FIDE World Championship] title at
18, had a similar style.
Ruslan became champion at 18; could Magnus do the same?
He simply won’t have the chance to become world champion before 2011.
The system does not allow it. Everyone is talking about having a stable system
for playing the world championship. Well, here it is. But the problem is that
the player who shows the best results one year, may not do so in a year or two’s
time. But even so, Magnus will have his chance to fight for the world title.
Then and now: Topalov in Wijk aan Zee 2008 in front of a portrait by Fred
Lucas in 2004
The length of the current world championship system has been widely discussed.
Morozevich recently said that it was not even like this in the days of Botvinnik
It seems to me that the system they have just got rid of was more dynamic.
When any player rated over 2700 could challenge the champion to a match, if
he could raise the minimum prize fund. This would have been a chance for players
of the class of Aronian, Radjabov and Carlsen, who have the support of their
But this system was widely opposed. Is it right that you only get the
chance of the title if you have access to money?
If you recall history, Capablanca only got to play Lasker because he could
guarantee a decent prize fund. Otherwise Capablanca could never have played
a match with Lasker. And why did Nimzowitsch and Rubinstein never get the chance
to play for the world championship? Simply because they did not have sponsors,
to use the modern term. When people nostalgically talk about the “good
old days”, they forget that in those days money played a bigger role than
it does today. It seems to me that results, plus sponsorial support, would be
a better method. Ten years ago, Kasparov suggested having a rating limit on
challengers – no less than 2750.
Topalov sticks out his tongue jokingly during a simultaneous display against
journalists, on one of the free days during the tournament at Sofia 2006. He
scored 100% against them.
Kasparov made many interesting suggestions. But he also found himself
up against the “united majority”. Do you miss Garry?
Strange as it may sound, I think that Garry’s retirement was a positive
thing for the remaining players. The point is not that he was very strong, and
retired when he could still have won the title back, but that he had always
dominated all the attention of the mass media and sponsors. Without Kasparov,
a tournament was of no interest to anyone. But as soon as he retired, the attention
of the press, and those interested in putting money into chess, switched to
the remaining players. Have you noticed how many new tournaments are springing
up nowadays? This never happened in Kasparov’s day. In countries where
there is a serious contender for the title, they organise tournaments to support
him. When Kasparov retired, many people were afraid that interest in chess would
wane, but in fact, it has grown.
Although the new FIDE Grand Prix has been criticised for its small prize
fund, the project itself is nice, even though lacking the four top players.
Why did you refuse to take part?
I think that in setting up their Grand
Prix, FIDE are just copying the Grand
Slam. I refused to play because, firstly, one has to guarantee to play in
four tournaments, which is not only a big commitment but also interferes with
my own plans. And since I always play only for first place, with my style, 100%
effort in every game, it would just be too much to play in the Grand Prix and
the Grand Slam at the same time. The aim of winning both would just not be realistic,
and I am not used to setting myself any other aims.
In the Grand Prix, they will use the “Sofia rules”, forcing
the players to fight in every game. This fits with your approach. But world
champion Vishy Anand, in a press conference after Linares, said that there
is no need to change anything in the rules. The world champion tends to dictate
the fashion, so do you think that chess is threatened by a return to pragmatism?
If you are being paid good money, and you turn up to the game, just to play
five original moves and be photographed, that does not look very nice, to say
the least. Those who behave this way do it because they are afraid of losing,
or want to save their energy. But sponsors do not like short draws, and they
damage the image of chess. So FIDE were quite right to impose the Sofia Rules
in the Grand Prix. If the position is drawn, that will be clear at the end of
the game. The Sofia Rules are not against draws, they are against short draws.
Colorful: Veselin Topalov in a trendy t-shirt
Your match with Kamsky will probably also be played in the spirit of
these rules, since Gata is another who always fights to the very end.
Yes, Gata is a great fighter! Winning the World Cup, beating all the top players
in the process, was a great achievement. And he did not only win, but did so
convincingly. I was very impressed with his play. He reminds me of a robot that
never makes mistakes. I got the impression that he could play 50 games in a
row without a mistake! And do you remember how he won his matches 15 years ago?
He not only won, he destroyed his opponents! As a match player, he is stronger
than Kramnik, I think. The match against him will require all of my strength
and colossal concentration.
You place Kramnik below Kamsky, yet Kramnik won a match against the great
Kasparov, whilst Kamsky lost to Karpov, whom Kasparov had beaten a number
of times… Isn’t it likely that you will again have to play a match
Three things need to happen first. I have to beat Kamsky, Kramnik must beat
Anand, and then, if these things happen, there is a third requirement –
we have to sign a contract with him, to play a match. Given the relations between
us, this will not be an easy thing.
Old adversaries: Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov during their title
match in Elista 2006
But can’t your relations change for the better?
I don’t think so.
The next super-tournament will be in May, in Sofia. Apart from Aronian,
Radjabov, Ivanchuk, and the Chinese GM Bu, there will also be two Bulgarians
– you and your regular trainer, Ivan Cheparinov, so famous for his opening
bombshells. How will you play against him? After all, you know each other
so well, and a trainer rarely wants to beat his charge…
It is not a problem for me personally, to play against someone I have previously
worked with. My games against Ponomariev, and against Loek van Wely, who worked
with me at Dortmund 2002, have always been uncompromising. Ivan Cheparinov is
making rapid progress, and he has many opening ideas. He will play in the first
tournament of the Grand Prix in Baku, and immediately after that in Sofia. I
am sure our games will be uncompromising battles. That is the sort of chess
Ivan plays, and I too.
The Three from Bulgaria: Veselin Topalov (right), Ivan Cheparinov (middle)
and their manager Silvio Danialov
Doesn’t it seem to you that there is a wave of youngsters, like
Carlsen, Kariakin, Radjabov and Cheparinov, who will soon overtake the “old
We recently watched the Oscar winning film “No
country for old men”. But for the time being, the “old men”
in the chess world are holding their own! I was very surprised how the older
generation dominated the top places at the Mexico world championship.
Do you think you can regain the world title?
Everything depends on the match with Kamsky. If it happens, I will prepare
I think we should play in November.
When will you start preparing?
In the summer.
From your experience of the Kramnik match, what is the optimum time for
It is never long enough. This work is endless, and it is always possible to
improve one’s preparation. Previously, two months of intensive work was
enough. Now, I don’t know; the volume of information is becoming greater
Making a point: Veselin Topalov in discussion with Danialov and Cheparinov
How do you see the current situation in chess?
There are moments when interest in chess is growing, and it is important not
to let it drop again. That happened when Kramnik refused a return match against
me. We are in a good time at the present – there are many tournaments,
and interest is growing. But we have to be very careful. It is important that
FIDE carries out to the end its splendid idea of a Grand Prix. I also hope that
the Grand Slam will reach its climax in September. I think that this is a very
good time for chess.
You have lived in Spain for how many years now?
More than ten years.
Do you feel Spanish? Do you support a football team?
I watch football, but I don’t support anyone. I like the game, but it
is not important who wins.
Veselin Topalov with Mario, the son of his manager Silvio Danailov in 2006
Are you only in Bulgaria during the Sofia tournament?
No, I am there at other times too. During the Mexico [World Championship] tournament,
for example, I had nothing to do, and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time in
Bulgaria. So much so, that I didn’t want to return to chess. At least,
I was not bursting to play.
Can you imagine a time when you will stop playing altogether?
It is not a question of not having enough money to live. It is another issue
– what else would I do? I cannot do anything except play chess.
You could play for about ten more years?
It is all about motivation. Korchnoi is still playing at 76. But I am not sure
I have the same motivation as Korchnoi or Karpov. I am noticing more and more
that if I don’t win a tournament, it does not matter to me at all whether
I am third or fifth.
Topalov during the 2008 Super-GM in Wijk aan Zee
At the closing ceremony at Linares, you were presented with a watch,
for the most uncompromising player. How many such watches do you have?
That was the fourth.
And what is the watch you are wearing now? /em>
It is one my girlfriend gave me as a New Year present.
No, Spanish. We live together, but at the moment, I am trying to retain my
© Pictures and text by Yuri Vasiliev, Linares-Moscow
Translation from Russian by Steve Giddins