A school drop-out, a world class GM and a CEO (2/2)

by Sagar Shah
8/16/2016 – In part one of the interview with Joel Lautier we spoke about Joel's early chess career, his World Junior victory, and his battles against Garry Kasparov. In the second part Lautier narrates his exciting story of working with Kramnik as a second and how the Berlin Defence came into play. He also tells us about the ACP and reveals the reason why he left chess. Reading this interview you will realize that it is absolutely no miracle that the man excels at everything he does. The reason is simple – he is a genius!

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Interview with GM Joel Lautier

by Sagar Shah

A quick introduction: Joel Lautier was perhaps one of the best talents seen by the chess in the early nineties. He was the youngest grandmaster in the world when he became one in 1990. He also has the unique distinction of being the youngest player to win the World Junior Championships (at the age of 15!) – a record which has remained intact to date. Apart from scoring a win against almost every elite player you can think of, the French grandmaster has a plus score against Garry Kasparov. Yes, two wins against one from their ten encounters. He was one of the people instrumental in Kramnik winning the World Championships in 2000 against Kasparov by preparing the Berlin Wall. Joel was the first president of the Association of Chess Professionals. In 2006 he retired from professional chess and turned his attention to the world of finance. He quickly climbed up the ladder and is currently the CEO of RGG Capital, a company that specializes in Mergers and Acquisitions.

Part one of the interview

Part II of the interview has something for everyone. If you are an ambitious chess player you can learn from Lautier's scinitillating combinations against Kotronias and Grischuk. An opening theory expert would get to know how the opening that is creating the biggest issues for 1.e4, the Berlin Defence, came into exisence. There are some engrossing anecdotes about Anand, Carlsen and Ivanchuk. Joel is candid and gives an honest answer to every question that he is asked. It is a must-read interview for every chess lover. Miss it at your own peril!

The Intercontinental Hotel on the Tverskaya street was where the interview took place  

Sagar Shah: We all know that you helped Vladimir Kramnik as his second in his World Championship victory against Garry Kasparov in 2000. How did your relation with Kramnik develop?

Vladimir Kramnik with Yuri Dokhoian, a long time second of Garry Kasparov, and Joel Lautier 

Joel Lautier: I met Kramnik in 1992, right after he made the huge score of 8.5/9 in the Manila Olympiad. We both were invited to a strong tournament in Chalkidiki in Greece a couple of months later. We played an interesting game against each other, where I was close to winning but it ended in a draw. He took the first place and I had to settle for the second. Evgeny Bareev was a common friend, and because I was travelling to Russia on a regular basis for training purposes, Vladimir and I started to meet each other more often and eventually started training together. We became very good friends.

Our serious training regime began with each other when he got the match against Garry. And I remember, the match was confirmed somewhere in March of 2000. We were both finishing the Amber tournament in Monaco. He said to me, "Look I am going to have this match. It's just been decided and I would like you to help me." Of course, I was happy to accept. It was a unique experience. And so there were three of us. Apart from me there was Miguel Illescas and Evgeny Bareev.

The way Vladimir managed the whole preparation and the match is a real textbook example of how you should prepare for a World Championship. He did all the right things. They always mention this book The Art of War by Sun Tzu. I think if Vladimir wrote a book about how he prepared, it would be much better! He was doing things in an extremely rational way. He was very lucid about his weaknesses and his strengths and I think he made the very best of what he had. One of the important features of the match was the Berlin Defence, and we are still suffering the after-shocks of that decision. People are still playing that damned opening after all these years! [laughs]

SS: Did you think at that time that the Berlin would be so popular even after 15 years?

JL: I had no idea this would happen! We thought it would be a good surprise weapon. Initially Vladimir stumbled upon it because he had a few criteria that he wanted to take into account for building his repertoire for the match. One of them was to play something that Garry had never played before. This would help to build some kind of a preparation advantage because the match was only a few months away. The other was to play something that didn't suit Garry's style. If possible it should suit Vladimir's. What sets Vladimir apart from others is that when he has a clear plan in mind he is very systematic. So he was really looking at every possible opening, because you don't think of the Berlin Defense naturally. I don't even remember what gave him the idea – maybe some game which he saw or someone played recently, maybe some blitz game. And he said let's take a look at it more seriously. Initially we didn't think this was a serious enough opening to play more than a couple of times. But then he dove into it deeper. It was also an interesting period because he had just come back from several training sessions with Dolmatov, who was a master of defence. Basically the training session taught him how to hold inferior positions. So, for him it was sort of a familiar territory in the match. For a normal player it is disgusting to play the Berlin Defence [laughs]. Unfortunately Vladimir appointed me as the person in charge of this defence. I had to suffer with that miserable opening for months! 

SS: You were a hard core Sicilian player from the black side. Checking your database I see that out of 385 games against 1.e4, you chose the move 1...c5 on 303 occasions. So why exactly was the Berlin Defence assigned to you?

JL: Must have been some kind of personal punishment! [laughs] I have no idea why Vladimir did that to me!

SS: There were no strong engines at that time, right?

JL: The engines were much weaker then. But, yes, you just reminded me that one of the important criteria was to play an opening that engines could not fathom, as working with engines during the match was a forte of Kasparov’s team. And this was a terrible opening for the engines. They would always say White was better and then all of a sudden White was worse. The machine had absolutely no understanding of what was going on. So from the point of view of the match strategy this was an absolutely brilliant choice and it contributed to at least half of Vladimir's victory.

SS: How was your overall experience of the match?

JL: It was a tough experience. We were working like hell but at the same time it was very exciting. There is a book written by Evgeny Bareev and Ilya Levitov about the match. (ed- London to Elista by New in Chess). I have fond memories because of the exceptional result. But I can tell you that after that match, after looking at that dreadful Berlin Defence for months, I couldn't play proper chess anymore. My tournament after that was the FIDE World Cup in Delhi and I lost in the first round. So it took me a while to get back to my senses. But, of course, it was very beneficial because in the year after that, in 2001, I played very well.

SS: So being a second, and preparing for the Match helped your chess, right?

JL: Yes! The moment I stopped seeing the Berlin I felt so much better! I still played the opening a couple of times after the match. I even played it with white against Aronian of all people, a couple of years later. He played that opening against me and I won a very good game against him. I was happy to get my revenge for having spent so much time on that wretched ending from the black side.

SS: After beating Garry in 1994 you would have definitely wanted to challenge him for the World Championship in a few years. However, in 2000 instead of playing him you were helping his opponent as a second. What didn't go your way in these six years that you couldn't reach the absolute top?

JL: First of all there is only so much room at the very top. I wouldn't say that I had the ambitions of becoming a World Champion throughout my career. At some point I realized it was going to be very difficult. So you set yourself more achievable aims. Perhaps I could have made a little more of my chances if I had worked on some of my defects better. As I said I was very erratic. Sometimes I could play really well and sometimes not so great. Often I was too aggressive and direct in my way of playing. But you know, it's very hard to come up with a clear answer, because if I knew how, I would have worked differently on those weaknesses. I was very ambitious when I was young. As you start growing you start to adjust a bit to reality. It didn't work out the way I wanted. Nevertheless I was in the top twenty for a while and won many strong tournaments. So all in all, it was not at all a bad career!

SS: Which were some of the best results of your chess career?

JL: Well, I would say the tournaments I won in Amsterdam, also the one in Ubeda with 1.5 point difference. There were lots of strong players like Leko, Korchnoi, Khalifman etc. I also won in Enghien in 1999 and the Poikovsky Memorial in Siberia together with Svidler in 2003. I showed the best performance overall in the European Team Championships in 2001 and reached the quarterfinals of the FIDE world championship that same year. Plus, of course, winning the Junior World Championship, and the adult French Championship twice. Quite a few things to remember.

SS: And the best games of yours that come to your mind?

JL: I would need to look at my games again (laughs). It's been a while since I have looked at them. Let's see. From my early period, I remember this game vividly against Kotronias in Sochi in 1989, with a similar motif to Botvinnik-Capablanca 1938. That was a game I liked. I also had some very nice wins against heavyweights like Anand, Karpov, Leko and Topalov, among many others. I also remember an interesting rook sacrifice I found against Grischuk in Poikovsky in 2004, where it seemed that I was lost, and I found this miraculous rook sacrifice that saved the game with a perpetual.

[Event "Sochi-A"] [Site "Sochi"] [Date "1989.??.??"] [Round "?"] [White "Lautier, Joel"] [Black "Kotronias, Vasilios"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "A14"] [WhiteElo "2465"] [BlackElo "2475"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [PlyCount "81"] [EventDate "1989.01.??"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "15"] [EventCountry "URS"] [EventCategory "10"] [SourceTitle "CBM 016"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1990.06.01"] 1. c4 e6 2. Nf3 d5 3. g3 Nf6 4. Bg2 Be7 5. O-O O-O 6. b3 c5 7. e3 Nc6 8. Bb2 d4 9. exd4 cxd4 10. Re1 Ne8 11. d3 f6 12. Na3 e5 13. Nc2 Nc7 14. Qd2 a5 15. a3 Na6 16. b4 $1 {The first unexpected move of the game. One has to simply bow down to the amazing concept of Lautier.} axb4 17. axb4 Ncxb4 18. Nfxd4 $1 {White picks up the central pawn. But what exactly is happening after exd4?} exd4 19. Ba3 $3 {Such an unusual theme. As Joel said, it reminds us of the game Botvinnik vs Capablanca. It is so difficult to see that the knight on b4 cannot be saved at all. Objectively the position is about even but when your opponent plays such an idea, you are bound to falter.} Nxc2 $1 {Kotronias makes the best move in the position.} 20. Bxe7 Qxe7 $2 (20... Nxe1 $1 {would have given Black excellent chances of maintaining equality after something like } 21. Bxd8 Nxg2 {The knight on g2 is trapped as of now. So White should save his bishop on d8.} 22. Bb6 Bh3 23. Bxd4 $11 {Black has a rook and two pieces for the queen. But his knight on g2 is stuck and the bishop h3 is also stuck defending the knight on g2. Maybe this wasn't something that Kotronias liked. But objectively the position is about even.}) 21. Rxe7 Nxa1 22. Qa5 $1 Nb3 23. Qd5+ Kh8 24. Qf7 Rg8 25. Re8 Be6 26. Rxg8+ Rxg8 27. Qxe6 {White has extra material and the rest is pretty easy.} Nac5 28. Qb6 h6 29. Bh3 Re8 30. Bf5 Kg8 31. Bg6 Rc8 32. Kg2 Kh8 33. Bf5 Re8 34. Bg4 Re5 35. Qd8+ Kh7 36. f4 f5 37. fxe5 fxg4 38. Qd6 Nxd3 39. e6 Ne1+ 40. Kf1 Nf3 41. Qf4 1-0

Joel Lautier - Alexander Grischuk, Poikovsky 2004

Grischuk (Black) was in a highly favourable position. He has moved his rook from b7-e7 which turns out to be an error. How would you punish him? Lautier (White) to play and draw.

We would recommend you to setup the position on a real chess board and work out all the details right until the very end, just like Joel did in the game. I tried giving this position as a test to many of my friends and they all felt it was an ideal one to improve the technique of calculation of variations. This is the reason why the solution below is in the form of training questions. Once you are ready with your answer you can make the move on the board and then move through the maze of variations. If you are unable to find an answer, you can click on the 'Show Solution' link.

[Event "Poikovsky Karpov 05th"] [Site "Poikovsky"] [Date "2004.03.24"] [Round "7"] [White "Lautier, Joel"] [Black "Grischuk, Alexander"] [Result "1/2-1/2"] [ECO "E58"] [WhiteElo "2676"] [BlackElo "2719"] [Annotator "Sagar Shah"] [SetUp "1"] [FEN "2Q5/1r4k1/5ppp/3q4/3PpRP1/4P1BP/1r4P1/6K1 b - - 0 42"] [PlyCount "13"] [EventDate "2004.03.17"] [EventType "tourn"] [EventRounds "9"] [EventCountry "RUS"] [EventCategory "18"] [SourceTitle "CBM 100"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2004.06.01"] 42... Re7 $2 {[%tqu "What should White play?","","",Rxf6,"Well done if you made this move. But the first move is not enough! A huge number of variations await you!",10]} 43. Rxf6 $3 $11 {A brilliant sacrifice which helps White to secure the draw. Well done if you made this move. But the first move is not enough! A huge number of variations await you!} Kxf6 {[%tqu "White has to be accurate here. Which check would you like to give?","","",Qf8+,"",10,Qh8+, "This unfortunately losses.",0]} 44. Qf8+ {The correct move!} (44. Qh8+ Kf7 45. Qh7+ Ke8 46. Qh8+ Kd7 $19 {And the black king is safe.}) 44... Ke6 {The trickiest move.} (44... Qf7 $2 {This natural retreat is infact the worst of all the options.} {[%tqu "","","",Bh4+,"Bravo! The bishop joins in",10,Qh8+,"", 0]} 45. Bh4+ $1 {This check is quite easy to miss or discard, simply thinking that g5 will block everything.} (45. Qh8+ $2 {This losses quite simply.} Qg7 46. Be5+ Rxe5 $1 47. dxe5+ Kf7 48. e6+ Kf6 $19) 45... g5 (45... Ke6 {This move loses.} 46. Qc8+ Kd6 (46... Rd7 $2 47. Qc6+ Rd6 48. d5+ Ke5 49. Bg3+ $18) 47. Bg3+ Re5 (47... Kd5 48. Qc5+ Ke6 49. Qd6#) 48. Bxe5+ Ke7 49. Qc7+ $16) 46. Qxh6+ Qg6 {[%tqu "What will you play?","","",Bxg5+,"",10]} 47. Bxg5+ {Pinned pieces do not move!} Kf7 48. Qxg6+ Kxg6 49. Bxe7 Re2 50. d5 Rxe3 51. Kf2 Rd3 52. d6 $16 {Bishop and three pawns for a queen should be good enough to win.}) (44... Rf7 {[%tqu "What is the only way to draw?","","",Be5+,"",10]} 45. Be5+ { This one is a easy draw.} Ke6 (45... Kg5 46. Bf4+ Kf6 (46... Rxf4 $2 47. Qxf4+ Kh4 48. g5+ Kh5 49. Qg4#) 47. Be5+ $11) 46. Qe8+ Re7 47. Qg8+ $11) 45. Qg8+ Rf7 46. Qe8+ Re7 {Grischuk agrees to a draw. But what happens to Kf6.} (46... Kf6 { Diagram [#]} {[%tqu "How do you plan to continue?","","",h4,"The only way to make a draw. The idea now is Be5. The most difficult part about the move is to actually decide on it at this very point. And to understand that Black can do simply nothing.",10,Be5+,"",0]} 47. h4 $3 {The only way to make a draw. The idea now is Be5. The most difficult part about the move is to actually decide on it at this very point. And to understand that Black can do simply nothing.} (47. Be5+ $2 Kg5 $19 {There is absolutely no way for White to catch the black king.}) 47... Re7 (47... Kg7 48. Be5+ Rf6 49. g5 $18) 48. Qf8+ Rf7 (48... Qf7 $2 {With the insertion of h4 this turns out to be suicidal.} 49. Qh8+ Qg7 ( 49... Ke6 50. Qe5+ Kd7 51. Qc7+ $18) {[%tqu "Can you see the entire variation that leads to a win now?","","",Be5+,"This works perfectly now.",10]} 50. Be5+ $1 {This works perfectly now.} Rxe5 51. dxe5+ Kf7 {[%tqu "Don't let the Black king escape.","","",e6+,"The checks keep coming.",10]} 52. e6+ {The checks keep coming.} Kf6 {[%tqu "Time to finish it all off.","","",g5+,"And the final one to end the game.",10]} 53. g5+ $18 {And the final one to end the game.}) 49. Be5+ (49. Qe8 $11) 49... Ke6 50. Qe8+ Re7 51. Qg8+ $11) 47. Qg8+ Rf7 48. Qe8+ Re7 {Amazing bit of defensive calculation by Joel. You can try using this position as training material with your friends. You will be surprised to see how many of them get caught in the branches of variations and are unable to calculate accurately.} 1/2-1/2

SS: In 2005 you faced Magnus Carlsen in the fourth round of the World Cup. What was your impression about him?

JL: He was very strong already. In our match everything was decided in that one game. I drew the first without much difficulty with black and in our second game I mishandled the position with white and he was quite accurate. It was nothing extraordinary but a good effort by him. It was obvious that he had a lot of talent. I realized at that point that he would really be one of the top players in the years to come. Of course there can be some accidents but usually players with such talent and calibre do reach the goal! I had the same feeling seeing Magnus that I had when I saw the sixteen-year-old Kramnik. Or even Vishy for that matter. Anand is a little older than me. We met in 1988 when he was around 19 years old. But he was already an impressive player.

SS: We spoke about Kasparov, then Kramnik and now Magnus. We should not forget the missing blank in there. Tell us something about Vishy and what you think about him as a player.

Seated: Mikhail Tal, Joel Lautier, Vishy Anand; standing: Bent Larsen, Viktor Korchnoi, Garry Kasparov, Bessel Kok, Jan Timman, Boris Spassky

JL: Vishy, he is an entire period of chess by himself! He has been incredibly consistent in all these years. I find that truly amazing. And he still manages that at an honourable age [laughs]. I think that's what is truly admirable about him. Without having a complicated character like Korchnoi, or without doing anything artificial he is able to maintain a very high level of play. I think he simply enjoys the process of playing chess, he still relishes the joy of the game, no matter how competitive it is. That's one of his unique features and his key to success. It was clear that Vishy was a rough diamond when he was young. He could do some complicated things with such ease.  He only needed to sit on his hands. Once he got the maturity, which was somewhere in the early 90s, he became a spectacular player. He has had a wonderful career and Vishy commands a lot of respect.

I have two little stories to share about him. A long time ago, Vishy and I both played in the GMA open in Belgrade, in 1988. At the time I was friends with an American GM called Michael Wilder, who later stopped chess and went on to become a prominent lawyer. Mike had been witnessing a postmortem by Vishy, and he was absolutely enthralled by Vishy’s tactical skills and speed of calculation. In the middle of his enthusiastic account, he suddenly saw me frowning (remember, I was very ambitious and competitive as a teenager) and he amicably said: “Don’t worry, Joel, you’re also very strong, you’ll be 2650 one day.” But then after a short pause he couldn’t help it and added: “But Anand will surely be 2750!” Well, what can I say, he has been pretty accurate.

The second story took place a few years later, in 1992. Vishy was visiting Moscow, and Evgeny Bareev invited him to join us for a day, at one of our training camps in a Moscow suburb, out in the woods. When you put several grandmasters together in the same room, it often ends up in a blitz contest, and this time was no exception. Vishy was in brilliant form, and he beat the hell out of both Evgeny and me. I was no mean blitz player myself, so this was both a shock and a painful experience, which I still remember today. As Vishy saw our dispirited looks during the ensuing dinner, he said with a smile: “Don’t worry guys, what I did to you today in blitz, Chucky (Vassily Ivanchuk) normally does to me”. The funny thing is, I don’t think he was joking!

SS: Those were some wonderful anecdotes! Joel, you formed the Association of Chess Professionals in 2003. What was the motivation to do that?

JL: We were in the aftermath of the GMA and PCA collapsing. There was some kind of a void and things were not going well with the ECU and FIDE. Some players were fed up with the fact that they could not be heard on issues. The trigger was some European Championship which was badly organized. There was a lot of discontentment. We figured why not try to do something about it. So, we created the Association of Chess Professionals. This was also the time when the chess world was split. There were two versions of the world title. This might also be the reason why Kramnik was keen to participate in the formation of ACP. Basically he needed a harbour to go to. He was not with FIDE and the future of the organization that set up the match with Garry was unclear. All of these reasons came about and we started spontaneously.

Official meeting of ACP in 2004: Lautier with Tregubov, Kramnik and Svidler [Photo: Frederic Friedel]

Slowly things became more organized. I was elected as the President and it was a very interesting experience and it gradually prepared me for what I later did which was not related to chess –  handling people issues, tackling all kinds of organizational problems. When you are a chess professional, in a way life is very simple. You have full control of your life and you do your best but you are not accountable to anybody. As soon as you are a part of a group, it becomes completely different. Then you have specific function to perform and you must report on that function. And that's all big news for chess players. I think that's what many chess players don't always realize, that they do not live in a vacuum. They need to integrate this into their thinking in a way that they better support the other stakeholders of the game: the organizers and sponsors of course, but also the journalists and the general public, whom they sometimes neglect. I haven't been following chess lately so I hope that things have changed for the better. But in the past there were conflicts where I think part of the problem was also with the players. They did not always understand the constraints of organizing chess tournaments and securing sponsorships etc. So that was a useful experience.

Maybe one of the highlights of that period was that under that association we had the next World Championship match where Kramnik played against Leko and sponsorship was found. It was a good achievement. And the other defining moment was when the World Cup was organized in Libya. I was the president of the ACP and my position was very clear that events like these must never be organized in places where some players are barred to take part because of their citizenship. This was the case with the Israeli players. They couldn’t travel to Libya. Getting sponsorship from Gaddafi is not the best thing to happen to chess. I was very vocal about this. I wrote a lot of open letters to FIDE and Ilyumzhinov in particular. I abstained myself from playing even though I had qualified and a number of players supported us because we had created the Association of Chess Professionals and they felt it was a duty to help their colleagues. These were the important events where the organization gained a bit of weight. When I quit chess I left ACP as well, but I am glad that ACP still exists and plays its part in the chess world.

SS: We can say that you were one of the main reasons why ACP exists today!

JL: Yes, but I was not the only one. We had a Board of close to ten people initially, if I remember well. We devised a whole system, in many ways inspired by tennis, where you gain points in preliminary tournaments leading to a final event, the details of which we invented ourselves. Pavel Tregubov was the driving force behind that. The ACP circuit culminated in a final Masters tournament, where all those who had collected points in various events would be qualified to play. And our first such tournament was held in Odessa, thanks to Vadim Morokhovsky’s support (he was the owner of a Ukrainian bank). In these two years when I was the President, we did quite some unique work, considering that it was all voluntary, and none of us at the ACP Board received a single cent for our intense efforts. I am happy to see that it is now led by Emil Sutovsky, and that it continues to play a useful role in top level chess.

SS: Don't you think it took you away from chess, that you could have spent more time in working on your game than for the organization?

JL: Of course, it took away a lot. I was spending a lot of time in the ACP work which I could have devoted to practicing or training. On the other hand it gave me a very useful experience of many things like being an organizer, managing other people, resolving issues, finding compromises that take things forward, etc. When I later turned to business I was very happy that I had this experience with me.

SS: What exactly triggered your decision to leave chess in 2006?

JL: A lot of factors. First of all, I had been playing chess since I was three years old. So I had been there and done almost everything – played top tournaments, met all the top players, and beat most of them at least once. I had also tried out all the different roles that chess had to offer: I had been a journalist, a trainer, a tournament organizer, a vice-president of the French Chess Federation, a co-founder and president of the ACP, etc. So there was this urge to discover something new. I didn't feel like travelling to the same places and doing the same things for the next twenty years. I was also thinking about my future. You know chess doesn't pay that well. I was making a decent living, but it is one of those activities where as you grow older the revenue shrinks, and that is not really a nice prospect. I wanted to have a family and kids, just like a normal person. So I thought that I should provide them with a more secure environment. First and foremost I wanted to try out something different and see if I could succeed there as well. When I quit chess I was 33 years old, and for me it was clear I didn’t have the luxury of waiting several more years before pivoting into a different profession. If I was going to make such an important move, I had to do it now. As blitz players say, “my flag was already hanging!”

SS: What is your exact profession right now?

JL: I am an investment banker. I have created my own company in 2009 and we do corporate finance advisory. We advise firms on mergers and acquisitions, on raising capital, doing joint ventures, disposal of assets and all these kinds of work. And we work with Russian and foreign companies. Our main transactions are in Western Europe and Russia.

SS: As you said previously you are a school dropout. Has this never come in the way of something as technical as mergers and acquisitions and such other things?

JL: It definitely would have been a hindrance if I had remained in France. Because France is an old-fashioned country, and unless you have gone to the “right” school, nobody will want to take a risk and give you a chance. They might be impressed by your chess career, but that doesn’t mean they would give you a job, far from it. Modern Russia is a young country in that sense. There is a lot of energy here and people want to try new things. So I obviously had a much better shot at doing things here from scratch. I must say that the transition period was quite tough. 

I got a job offer from a Russian consulting firm called Strategy Partners, which is doing strategic consulting work like the Boston Consulting Group or McKinsey. I had an agreement with the founder of the firm, Alexander Idrisov, that he would put me on the fast track, if I proved my worth and did well. I was not particularly well versed with business at that time. I had just retired from chess, right? For about two years I had to work like crazy, far more than I had ever done before. Also the psychological part was not easy. I was 33 and I had to report to 25 year old guys who were more senior than me. But I have always been a quick learner so I managed my way around. And after about two years I was already in a position where I could do interesting things. Two and half years into the job I was handling mergers & acquisitions at the firm and we agreed with the partners that we should spin it off and have a separate company, which we called “RGG Capital”, because our slogan at the time was “Russia Goes Global”. The partners liked it and they let me be in charge. And it became successful. After a while I was so involved and they were so busy with their other business that we came to an agreement: I bought out their shares, and now I am the sole owner of my business. But I am very grateful to the firm’s partners, and to Alexander Idrisov in particular, for having given me that chance at the beginning of my new professional life.

SS: What an amazing journey! But, don't you miss chess?

JL: Well, I miss it but I miss it in a nice way. You have all these nice souvenirs from the trips that you have gone to. It's nice to remember those moments. But I like the work I am doing right now and I don't regret it even for a moment that I made the shift. Chess has been a fantastic experience and I am happy to know all the people I have known in chess and to have had that life, but I think it is perfectly fine to move on and do something new in life.

SS: Do you stay in touch with your chess friends?

JL: Yes I try to stay in touch with chess and my friends as much as I can. Of course, I do not visit tournaments any more, unless it is right here in Moscow. Through the years I have maintained contacts with a few players, but I am completely outdated on chess theory!

SS: And do you plan to come back to chess?

JL: Not in a big way, no! But I might play a tournament in a nice location on the beach, just for fun.

SS: So, no plans of restarting full-fledged chess?

JL: No, no way!

SS: Joel, tell us something about your personal life.

JL: My wife, Alissa, is Russian and she doesn't play chess at all. I met her in Moscow, a common friend introduced us. Actually I met her on my way to the World Cup in Khanty Mansiysk in 2005. And that's how it began. We married around a year and a half later, in 2007. Now we have a son and a daughter. Our daughter Naomi is almost five years old and our son David is just a little over one. He’s already a notorious prankster, which makes sense since he was born on the first of April!

Joel with his wife Alissa

Joel and Alissa with their little daughter Naomi

Naomi is now five years old

Alissa with little David, who is one year and four months old

SS: You are a GM, numerous tournament victories to your credit, ACP President and now a CEO of a company. One final achievement that we mustn’t forget is your FIDE Senior Trainer title. How did you achieve that?

JL: It's funny because, as I said earlier, I have indulged in every single profession attached to chess. [laughs] When I was 17, I was covering the 1990 Kasparov-Karpov Match as a journalist in New York. At that time we had something in France called Minitel which was the ancestor of Internet and there was a chess website which was covering events. And so I was sent there. I have been a chess commentator in the past. I was the captain of the French national team. And yes I was also given the certificate of the FIDE Senior Trainer. I think it was for helping Vladimir beat Garry. I can’t think of any other reason, because Vladimir is the only player I have ever helped as a personal coach! On that topic I was once asked by a journalist, right after Vladimir became World Champion, how one become a good trainer. I answered: “It’s very simple, choose the right player!”

Joel Lautier assisting the ChessBase team (Frederic Friedel and Mig Greengard) with the Internet commentary during Kasparov vs X3D Fritz in New York in 2004

SS: And finally, is there any advice or message that you would like to give to the youngsters and chess players out there.

JL: I think you have to be clear about what you want from the game. I think it is important to have this clarity as soon as possible. Either you are serious about it, in which case you should give it a real try and see how far you can go. Or it's just a fun hobby, a nice way of spending time but not really something that is leading you anywhere worthwhile. My advice would be not to just drift with the current but to be aware of where you are going.

SS: So you should always be aware whether you want to be a professional player or not?

JL: Even when you have decided to be a professional player you should reassess things on a regular basis. You should constantly keep asking yourself questions like: are you progressing, are you still enjoying it, etc.

SS: Many people just continue through inertia...

JL: Yes, exactly. That's what I am talking about. And inertia is bad. Because you wake up 20 years later and it is too late to change. Deep down you always know. Am I doing something I really want to be doing? Do I see myself doing the same thing for the rest of my life? As Steve Jobs famously said, if the answer to these questions is “no” for too many days in a row, then you know you need to change something.

SS: And is your mind saying yes about the work that you are currently doing?

JL: I am definitely going to remain in finance and business. But I might do something different. And even move to some other place! [laughs].

SS: Seeing the way things have gone in past we can say this is highly probable! Thanks a lot Joel for your time. It was a pleasure talking to you and I am sure readers all around the world will gain a lot from your insights.

Joel Lautier - A school drop-out, a world class GM and a successful CEO



Sagar Shah is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant and would like to become the first CA+GM of India. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder of the ChessBase India website.
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Krazykamsky Krazykamsky 9/4/2016 03:48
This two part interview was a breath of fresh air. Very narrative and story-telling, entertaining, illuminating, and honest. The stories about Lautier playing Kasparov were also gems. Sagar's work here should actually go into a bio-pic about the mind-set of a chess player into transition into family and high level work. Sagar is also a genius here.
genem genem 8/17/2016 06:39
J.L. said: "Through the years I have maintained contacts with a few players, but I am completely outdated on chess theory!" No doubt "outdated".
I wonder how many more middle-aged chess players would return to occasional active play if chess960 (Fisher Random Chess) was as prominent as is chess with the one traditional start setup.
geraldsky geraldsky 8/17/2016 03:26
....."He was one of the people instrumental in Kramnik winning the World Championships in 2000 against Kasparov by preparing the Berlin Wall."....It's too informal to write, " Berlin Wall" , why not just simply write the formal chess term ," Berlin Defense "?
delax001 delax001 8/17/2016 09:15
Interesting interview with an interesting personality. Please, keep the word "genius" true to its meaning, for the benefit of those few who deserve it; and the millions of us who admire them.
chessbibliophile chessbibliophile 8/17/2016 02:30
This interview offers much food for thought. The images are wonderful, especially, the baby. Lautier is a brilliant talent. But that word, “genius” is an exaggeration. It’s reserved for those legends starting from Morphy to Kasparov.
vladivaclav vladivaclav 8/17/2016 02:02
i wouldn't call joel "a role model", but he is definitely an interesting personality
Truffaut Truffaut 8/16/2016 10:55
Excellent interview series, thank you ChessBase!

This statement is somewhat misleading however, – “Reading this interview you will realize that it is absolutely no miracle that the man excels at everything he does. The reason is simple – he is a genius!”

Yes, it helps to be a genius (not sure if Joel is one or not, but that’s not important), but I’d put “genius” way down the list of personal characteristics that make Joel successful.

More important are – Family, childhood upbringing, emotional intelligence (this is where Joel really excels), ambition, focus on goals, drive (willing to work hard), passion (choosing the right profession/goals), character, etc.

I’m sure most people have already read OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell, but if not, I highly recommend reading it.

There are thousands of geniuses working for the Post Office and there is nothing wrong with that. But I’m sure many would be working somewhere else if they had most of the characteristics listed above.
yesenadam yesenadam 8/16/2016 10:48
"we do corporate finance advisory. We advise firms on mergers and acquisitions, on raising capital, doing joint ventures, disposal of assets and all these kinds of work." Well that sounds agonizingly boring huh. I must have missed the role model/motivational/renaissance man aspect to this. God knows where the firms he makes $ from make theirs. Oh well, anything beats months of Berlin I guess. Superior interview as always thanks SS.
ARK_ANGEL ARK_ANGEL 8/16/2016 07:42
Very impressive story. Or simple put it as a motivational story. It's not about chess. It's how life imitates chess. (Real life example). And as the article pointed out he is a renaissance man. Talk freely and openly expressing ideas with out holding back for any gain. A rare kind of interview. I enjoyed every bit of it. And learning more about Joel inadvertently inspired me. As Piri2016 pointed out we rarely read worth while article's these days.Tx chess base.
Camembert Camembert 8/16/2016 07:31
Quite a funny interview, I live in France since 50 years, and never heard of a "french beard" ! Sagar Shah forgot to mention that Joel Lautier's mother is ...Japanese, and his father is highly educated, from the best engeneering school in France Such kind of background helps.. Well, if ever she were Indian we would have heard a lot more funny things like "Oh, do you like Curry ? Did it gave you the "staying power" in chess or other fariboles. As it happens that I know Joel's step-brother Eric, his mother was often talking to Joel when he was still in her wombs saying "You will be a chess champion"...and no thanks to his mother ? Joel had also the chance to had several good coaches but no mention of them ? It's true that he is a very hard worker, and had always the nose in chess books when he was still playing as his step-brother told me. If you speak about his personal life, why no mention of Almira Skripchenko, his first wife ? Luckily for him, he left chess in order to make a decent living, so many GMs are just bumps. Less fairy tales Sagar Shah, and don't forget the title of the Polgar sisters father : "Geniuses are made, not born".
Piri2016 Piri2016 8/16/2016 05:48
I would call Joel "a role model man". He gives me hope about the future of mankind. As long as we know of people like him we have to believe in the future. Alas today's media do not highlight people of this kind
jamex jamex 8/13/2016 06:30
Very inspiring
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