Everything you wanted to know about Vladimir Kramnik

8/27/2003 – He has been accused of being aloof and secretive. Recently Vladimir Kramnik spoke out in a very frank interview with the Ukrainian newspaper "Facti". In a remarkably personal conversation he talks about food, money, sex, Swiss watches and English hoodlums. This is Vlady Kramnik as you have never seen him before.

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A Personal Interview
with Vladimir Kramnik

This interview, conducted by Ukrainian GM Dmitry Komarov, appeared in Russian language on the Facti web site. The translation was supplied by Andrei Granik.

Komarov: Vladimir, we are all getting very tired of the current division in the world of chess, when there are two different world champions. The situation with the matches Ponomariov-Kasparov and Kramnik-Leko, planned in the spring of 2002 in Prague, still remains very unclear. When will the unification happen? We all have been awaiting it for so long.

Kramnik: I've been accused of almost sabotaging the entire process. At the same time, the cornerstone of the last year's agreement was creation of a professional structure which, given the license of FIDE and attracting big sponsors, would organize World Championship cycles. As long as chess bureaucrats remain aloof to the opinion of professional players, real unification will be very unlikely.

Komarov: Recently we met in Holland, today we are in France, we communicated a few times by e-mail. Your cell phone number is not Russian. Where do you live on a regular basis?

Kramnik: Sometimes in Germany, sometimes in France. I either live in hotels or rent apartments from friends. But most of the time I am in Moscow, where a couple of years ago I bought a small 2-bedroom apartment for $80,000. I still don't have Moscow registration (registration is required to live and own property in Moscow, and although this is against the Russian constitution, this practice is very widely used by Moscow authorities – AG), which often causes various problems for me. A few times I even was taken to the police department with some homeless people. I never objected though, simply paid fines and left.

Komarov: You claim to love Ukrainian food (Kramnik's mother is Ukrainian – AG), yet we are dining at a Chinese restaurant.

Kramnik: Well, I would not turn down something exquisite and exotic either. Today I just felt like eating some Beijing soup. But in general I am very flexible when it comes to food. And I drink pretty much anything as well.

Komarov: I don't see any alcoholic beverages on our table …

Kramnik: I enjoy having some good red wine when I go to bars with my friends. But before the game it's absolutely out of question. They say that the great Alekhine would often come to the game drunk. In modern chess it's silly to give such advantage to your opponent: your thinking loses its flexibility, and you react much more slowly to changes that happen on the board.

Komarov: How do you relax after games?

Kramnik: In the past I used to visit casinos and play Blackjack, simply to take the pressure off. Now it does not attract me as much. There is enough gambling in chess itself. Many grandmasters relax by playing cards, and I am no exception. Also, I play tennis in the summer and ski in the winter. I don't like to run so much, but when I can't find a tennis court or a football field, I force myself to run for about 20 minutes.

Sometimes some quite unpredictable things happen to me. For instance, once, after a game, my fitness coach and I were coming home along the empty bank of the Thames river. Suddenly six drunk youngsters appeared in front of us and tried to provoke a fight. We were already prepared to defend ourselves, but, fortunately, that was where it all ended.

Komarov: I know your parents have taught you many games, but somehow you chose chess.

Kramnik: Both of my parents are of the artistic background. My father, Boris Petrovich, is a painter and a sculptor (my older brother Evgeny followed that path as well). My mother, Irina Fedorovna, teaches piano in a music school. My father taught me chess simply to entertain me – just like others teach their kids cards and domino. But I became really interested in chess and joined a local chess club. That club was headed by a grandmaster who loved the game and was able to give this passion to us, his students. In my early school years I won the championship of my native city Tuapse and became a local celebrity. By then I knew very well that I would become a good player.

Komarov: What did you feel when you were invited to the famous school of Mikhail Botvinnik?

Kramnik: I felt very intimidated and feared that I would fit in that very high profile crowd. I turned out I was somewhere in the middle. When Kasparov was giving lessons, I would forget about all my fears. As for Botvinnik himself, he really liked me as his student.

Komarov: Thirteen years later you met Kasparov in the match for the crown of the world champion. Were you not a little afraid?

Kramnik: Kasparov is a genius player, but like all other people, he does make mistakes. Without denying his great skills, a lot of his wins are due to the fact that he somehow mentally crushes his opponents. I often see fear and the feeling of being doomed in their eyes. With me it never happens, and maybe that's why Kasparov feels less comfortable when he has to play me. When I play him, I promise myself to never look at his face because he is a very talented actor. I was preparing very seriously for our London match in 2000. I lost ten kilos and temporarily quit smoking. Against Kasparov, I decided to use the most uncomfortable strategy for him. He often said himself that he has ten computers somewhere in his basement, working 24 hours a day. I guess, this way he tried to intimidate me. As for myself, I chose the strategy that reduced to the minimum the role of the machine, and that really threw Kasparov off. He was unable to win any of the 15 games.

By the way, I find it interesting that for the first time in the history of chess neither of the two participants of the championship match played under his real name, so to speak. It is well known that before he reached the age of 11, Kasparov had carried the last name of his father – Weinstein. My story is different. My grandfather perished fighting in the [second world] war, his last name was Sokolov. My grandmother married for the second time, and my father took the last name of his stepfather and became Kramnik.

Komarov: Nowadays, do you talk to Kasparov?

Kramnik: Yes, we still remain on the same terms as during my years in the Botvinnik school. Kasparov and I are very different in terms of our character. He is more authoritarian than I am and loses his temper much faster

Komarov: And how do you get along with the other great "K" – Anatoly Karpov?

Kramnik: With Anatoly Evgenyevich we often get together to play cards. It is interesting that the age difference between Karpov and Kasparov is 12 years – exactly the same one as between Kasparov and myself.

Komarov: How much time do you spend studying chess every day?

Kramnik: It all depends on the circumstances. Sometimes I may spend one month without practicing seriously. For me, concentration is very important. I can't study if my phone rings every half hour or some thoughts distract me. I need to be completely alone, which rarely happens. Other than that, I do some small things on a daily basis – flip through my books, magazines, or some position would suddenly come to my mind.

Komarov: Is there any time left for other activities?

Kramnik: I tried to receive higher education, but it was too difficult for me to combine chess with serious studies. Curiously enough, I dropped out of college right after becoming world champion. In 1996 I entered the university in Novgorod, where I first studied foreign languages and later transferred to the department of Philosophy, but never got my diploma. I have a clip from a local student newspaper: "Dear students, please don't follow the path of Vladimir Kramnik. Our country does need champions, but even more so it needs philosophers and foreign language specialists".

Komarov: It is known that from your matches with Kasparov and Deep Fritz you made two million dollars.

Kramnik: To obtain financial guarantees for my match with Kasparov, I received help from experienced Western lawyers, who "froze" the prize fund in a special account. As for my match with the computer, I am grateful for the intervention of the Russian ambassador in Bahrain. I turned out that a local sheikh was not very eager to fulfill his financial duties. Either way, these days you can't do without well-paid assistants.

In my case, I need money for the sole reason – not to depend on it. I am not attracted to luxury. I don't have a car. In Europe I ride taxis, in Moscow I call my driver. I always strive to look neat and rely on my own taste. Before the match in London I purchased a few expensive suits, shirts and ties, but purely to maintain my image and fit the historic moment, so to speak. I have a Swiss watch, "Blancpain". I've done some commercials for them, and the company offered me to choose a model from their catalogue. It contained some models priced as high as $100,000, but I selected a comfortable and practical model for $7,000.

Komarov: You are known to be a famous bachelor. Would you care to talk about your first sexual experience?

Kramnik: I lost my innocence at the age of 15, at one of the tournaments. Don't really remember anything special. Actually, everything was rather banal. By the way, it was then that I also started smoking, and still can't get rid of this habit.

Komarov: People say you had a long relationship with the Slovak player Eva Repkova.

Kramnik: Yes, we used to go together to tournaments, but I still don't have a strong desire to have a family. Eva wanted some stability, and we had to end our relationship. Recently she got divorced from a Lebanese businessman and returned home. Right now I have a girlfriend, but I really would not like to make my private life known to the rest of the world. In general, I think it's silly to spend your own life only on chess. Chess for me is just a small part of human activity.


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