Bisik-Bisik with GM Alexander Khalifman
By Edwin Lam Choong Wai
Born on January 16th, 1966 in Leningrad, GM Alexander Khalifman is an International Grandmaster since the year 1990. Known to many by the nickname, “El Khalif”, he has long been recognized by his peers as an extraordinary talent with a positional style and venomous opening preparation. Many of us will surely remember his brilliant triumph against GM Leko’s Gruenfeld Defence in Linares, which was the result of an impressive opening concoction that was prepared back in the 1980s using notebooks of a different kind.
Individually, his biggest victory was achieved in the year 1999 at the age of 33. He defeated GM Akopian to become the 14th World Chess Champion at the FIDE World Chess Championship in Las Vegas. On the domestic front, he won the USSR Championships in 1984 and was again triumphant at the Russian Chess Championship in 1996.
El Khalif had also represented his country on numerous occasions of team competitions. He was on the first board of the successful Russian team’s Gold effort at the Chess Olympiad in the year 2000. In recent years, Khalifman is much less a competitor in tournaments. Instead, his energy is mainly spread between his career in writing as well as on the efforts of the St. Petersburg Chess School. His current FIDE Elo is at 2628.
Besides being a talented chess player, EL Khalif is also very vocal about matters arising in the chess world. His ideas are well thought out and views are frank. In this Bisik-Bisik column, let us sit back and read more about the man behind the “Openings for White According to Anand” chess books:
Edwin Lam (EL): El Khalif, at what age did you learn to play the game of chess?
Alexander Khalifman (AK): Long time ago. Most probably I was five years old at that time.
EL: Who had taught you the rules of chess in the very beginning?
AK: My father. He's just an amateur player but his skills were enough to attract my interest to chess.
EL: Subsequently, who was your formal coach in the game of chess?
AK: I don't know if "formal" is the correct word here. My first coach, who taught me a lot, was chess master Vassily Byvshev. By the way, he was quite a strong player back in the 1950s, with wins against Smyslov and Keres.
EL: In your youth, did you attend chess training sessions at the Pioneer Palace?
AK: Yes, of course. This is the first and main reason for everything I achieved later.
EL: Back then, how many hours did you spend in a day to train on chess? And, what was the chess training in the Pioneer Palace like?
AK: Well, it’s not so easy to remember the exact format of chess training in the Pioneer Palace. Most of the time, we analysed games, and these included games played by strong players as well as our own games. Lots of emphases were given to the middlegame and endgame stages of the game. Normally, we had two training sessions per week of three hours each. But of course, I worked a lot on chess at home as well, probably something like three hours or slightly more per day on average. All physical training took place during summer camps.
EL: Can you share with us the name of your first-ever chess book?
AK: OK, this is what I remember really well. My first chess book was “Journey to the chess kingdom” by Averbakh and Beilin. And, it was a very good one! Unfortunately I have no idea if it was ever translated into English. It certainly deserved to be.
EL: During your youth, who was your chess hero?
AK: As a matter of fact, I never had any special hero. Of course, there were many strong players whom I admired and that had some influence on my playing style. But, I can’t pinpoint just one name. Let there be some names: Capablanca, Keres, Tal, Larsen and Fischer.
EL: I read that your St. Petersburg Chess School follows the motto of “chess = intellect + character”. What exactly do you mean by that?
AK: As a matter of fact, in the Russian language, this phrase speaks for itself. So, there really is no need to explain it. Probably the English translation is not perfect, because “character” in English and the Russian «характер» have slightly different meanings. To explain it briefly, the St. Petersburg Chess School’s motto is supposed to mean that chess is a unique game that helps a person, especially in childhood, to develop harmoniously.
EL: You had written in an article back in February 2007 that Radjabov’s impressive performance in the 2007 Wijk ann Zee had proven many critics, including yourself, wrong. A little more than a year had passed since that time, and clearly, the past one year has seen the steep ascent of Magnus Carlsen to the pinnacle of the chess world. Who do you consider to be the three strongest young talents now?
AK: Right now it’s a bit strange to speak about Carlsen or Radjabov as “young talents”. Of course, they are both quite young. But, they have already proven themselves to be up there amongst the very top players in the chess world. The same can be said about Karjakin. In my opinion, the three brightest young talents who are still less known to the public are Nepomniaschy, Wang Hao and Caruana.
EL: You had also previously written that “…the strongest player in matches, defeating a player of his class and style, is a challenge that few could at present meet… the qualities needed to win a tournament would not apply to the requirements for winning a match”. Did you mean to say that the title of the world’s strongest player be decided only in matches alone?
AK: Not at all. What I intended to say was that the world’s strongest player can be defined in many different ways. And, I still have no certain opinion which way is the most objective of all.
EL: You have been actively writing chess books in the past few years. Moving on to the future, would you be able to shed a little light for our readers on your next chess book project? Maybe, give us a little hint on what will your next book, be about?
AK: For the longest time I’ve been planning to write a book about my own chess career. Despite always missing something to concentrate on this project, it will be my number one aim in 2009.
EL: In certain parts of the world, chess has been made a subject in universities. In some schools chess is part of the curriculum. Can chess help students become smarter? What is your opinion on this?
AK: The answer is definitely YES. As I had shared earlier, chess is a unique game that helps a person, especially in childhood, to develop harmoniously. In order to achieve this, however, chess must be taught properly.
EL: Lastly, besides chess, can you please tell our readers what are your other interests in life?
AK: I really don’t know how to answer this question. I have a lot of interests – books, movies, sports, computers etc.... The real problem is that I can’t find time for everything in life.
EL: Thank you, GM Khalifman. We wish you all the best in your endeavours and hope that your upcoming chess book on your own career will be a success that follows in the footsteps of the “Openings for White…” series.
Previous Bisik-Bisik articles
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10.01.2008 – Ni hao, pronounced second tone-third tone, is Chinese for Hello or Hi ("Ni hao ma?" means "how are you" and "Wo hun hao" means "I'm doing great"). After this short lesson in Chinese first encounters we bring you a portrait of the Chinese dream couple: GM Zhang Zhong, Elo 2634, and his wife WGM Li Ruofan, rated 2417. Bisik-Bisik (Malay for "whisperings") by Edwin Lam.
||Bisik-Bisik with Viktor Moskalenko|
15.12.2007 – Bisik-Bisik is a word from the Malay Archipelago, and means the act of “whispering” from one person to another. Starting with this inaugural article Edwin Lam will seek to “whisper” to all our readers out there the previously unknown other side of his interview partners. He kicks off with a conversation between Edwin and Ukrainian Viktor Moskalenko, grandmaster, teacher and chess author.