Indepth interview with Vladimir Kramnik

4/11/2013 – Immediately after the Candidates tournament in London Russian NTV journalist Marina Makarycheva did an extraordinarily substantial interviews with Vladimir Kramnik: how did the Candidates go, who has the better chances in the 2013 World Championship, and what the future has in store for him. The interview is in Russian, but has been faithfully transcribed by Peter Zhdanov.

Interview with Vladimir Kramnik

The interview with Vladimir Kramnik starts at 14:55, after some great impressions from the Candidates Tournament in London. "We have found it extremely interesting and translated it from Russian into English," writes Peter Zhdanov, who runs the site "Honestly, it was one of the best interviews I've seen in my life." Peter has kindly allowed us to use his transcription.

Why did Vladimir lose the final game at the Candidates? Does Kramnik consider Carlsen to be the best player in the world? How does he evaluate Vishy Anand's chances to keep the title? What should Magnus and Vishy work on to succeed? What does he think of Kasparov's opening preparation? Will the ex-World Chess Champion be competing in the next cycles of the World Chess Championship? All this and many other revelations can be found below.

Marina Makarycheva (MM): The tournament came to an end, and there is a certain disappointment in the air, because you showed the best performance … and then there was the dramatic final round. What happened?

Vladimir Kramnik (VK): Of course, I am tired and disappointed. I was so close. However, I believe that both I and Carlsen deserved to win this tournament, but there can be only one winner, so in this case we can maybe say that I was a little bit unlucky. In the final round, after Magnus fortuitously won his game in the pre-final round [against Radjabov], I was already in a difficult situation. In the case of a tie one of the tie-break scores was in my favor, while the other favored Magnus. Unfortunately, “his” tie-break score was more important according to the regulations of the event, although often the situation is the opposite. That’s the way it happened, it’s just a matter of chance. Basically, he was half a point ahead. We had an equal amount of points, but in reality he had half a point advantage over me going into the final round. I had Black, while he had White, so the situation was rather hard for me. I was forced to play very sharply for a win, this was my only chance. I still think I made the right decision, because it was the only opportunity to put Magnus off balance, make him nervous and force him into playing for a win too. This could have potentially led to his losing, which actually happened. Unfortunately, I myself went too far and couldn’t save the game at the stage when it became clear that Magnus was losing. I played all-in from the very beginning and couldn’t do anything. It’s a standard, normal situation. I took my chances during one or two moves I could have actually turned the tables. Maybe I was a little bit unlucky and didn’t make the most out of it. However, overall, up to that moment I already wasted many tournament opportunities…

MM (interrupting): Maybe if you had a chance to freeze the position for a few minutes…

VK: Yes, there was an interesting moment when the outcome of the event was decided within just five minutes. At that point I could have saved the game, but the move Ne6, which I obviously considered and would have made under normal conditions, didn’t offer me any chances to play for a win. At that point, alas, Carlsen's game wasn't going downhill, his position was absolutely normal, so I tried to bluff… Five minutes later it became clear that I should have played Ne6 anyway, but it was too late. There was no way back. The situation worsened: I took a risk, went all-in, but, alas, it wasn’t possible to save the game. Vassily, my opponent, played precisely in time trouble, he didn’t make any mistakes. I was bluffing and hoping for a time-trouble blunder from him, but after the time control Magnus was lost, while my position was also non-defendable. This is a normal sports situation. I am already an experienced chess player, and I have foreseen this possibility. I just didn’t have any other chances. I had to take risks.

MM: It seems that this tournament has revealed that Magnus also has nerves! It was widely considered that his strongest virtue is that he doesn’t make mistakes and always keeps his emotions under control. But here we could see him rushing to check your board each time – for example, when you were playing Gelfand and in the final game as well. So, he is also not invincible? Is it so?

VK: Magnus is an outstanding, remarkable player. Nonetheless, in my opinion, his hegemony in the chess world is overestimated. I believe that both Aronian and I can match his skills. Well, he has certain qualities: young age, lots of energy, a good nervous system, incredible motivation, killer instinct... But in the chess sense I don’t see why he should be a lot stronger, if at all, (than me or Levon).

MM: Is he a player?

Note: This goes back to debate in Soviet chess on practical players vs. those who do a lot of research. Botvinnik used to draw the distinction and regarded Karpov as the former, but himself and Kasparov as the latter. Needless to say, researchers were better and their successes were more long-lasting. So "player" is somone with the ability to find ways of winning games, such as Larsen or Lasker, rather than a "pure" type, who wins because he is ahead in his understanding of the game. [Thanks to Steve Giddins for this explanation].

VK: Yes, he is very practical and so on and so forth. He is undoubtedly a very strong chess player and an enormous talent. I am not trying to diminish his achievements. However, I believe that his rating advantage over everyone else is non-chess based. It is due to other qualities. In the chess sense I was absolutely confident that I can compete against him. This is what I always do. So far I have maintained a positive score against Carlsen. Also, I had an advantage in the mini-match at the Candidates, so he should be happy with the two draws that he earned. Everyone (including me) thought that he was pretty much invincible in terms of energy, nerves and the like. At this tournament he got into real trouble for the first time in his life. In an extremely important event everything was not going exactly as expected. Something went wrong after his game with Ivanchuk. All of a sudden, it turned out that he is quite vulnerable. When I was his age, I also used to twitch at decisive moments, glance at the other boards. Such moments were definitely not his cup of tea.

It is natural for a young player. I used to act the same way, but over the years I have become stronger in this respect. I can win or lose, but my loss in the final round was not caused by nervousness in any way. I felt calm and played quite decently.

MM: Are you saying you had everything under control and weren’t nervous at all?

VK: Just a little bit. It’s not even about being nervous or not, it’s about the ability to concentrate on the game and nothing else, to forget what everyone around you is saying or what the tournament situation is. To be fully focused on the game. This comes with experience.

MM: Does Magnus have chances, or, given how widely praised Magnus is, maybe I should word it in a different way: does Vishy Anand have a chance to retain the title?

VK: I believe that he definitely has his chances. It is absolutely realistic. The only problem that I think Anand is facing is that he – this is just my opinion – is somewhat intimidated by Carlsen. He is playing unconfidently against him – he's scared of him, I would say.

MM: Like he used to be afraid of Kasparov back in the old days…

VK: Yes. He was never seriously weaker than Kasparov, but just couldn’t play against him [Kasparov vs. Anand, classical chess: +16 -5 =31]. If Vishy is in his normal chess form…

MM (interrupting): But will he be able to gain that form? He is playing less well than he used to…

VK: You know, age is taking its toll, so he is playing a little worse than before, but he is still good enough. He loses very rarely, and it is extremely important for matches.

MM: He also wins quite few games…

VK: Well, one doesn’t have to win many games in a match (smiles). It is enough to win one game and to draw the rest. It is clear that he is now match-oriented and not wasting energy on regular tournaments. Maybe he won’t be in his top form. His match against me was probably the pinnacle of his career. He was playing brilliantly back then. Even if he gets back to his normal “good” form, he can still beat Carlsen, but only if he manages to solve his psychological problems. This is a must-do. He should relax and not be afraid of Magnus. One can face Carlsen and actually beat him. If Anand manages to prepare himself this way, then I think the chances will be equal. If not, then his chances will be very low. Psychology matters a lot in World Championship matches. This is probably the first plot of the match. I would say that if he manages to hold the pressure of Magnus for at least 6 games (i.e., tie at 3-3), then Anand will become a favorite in my eyes.

MM: Magnus Carlsen doesn’t have a puncher’s opening repertoire. Will he be able to play Anand using such unpretentious openings?

VK: It’s hard to say. In the opening Anand is clearly superior to Magnus. He is a very difficult match opponent, because he is extremely well-prepared. It is so hard to obtain a promising position against him even with white. During our match I had to take immense risks to somehow lure him out of his armor coat, but I didn’t succeed. On the other hand, Magnus has an edge in terms of having a phenomenal memory. We have been talking about what Anand needs to work on, and now we are getting to Carlsen. Here he obviously has problems. He was making statements earlier before the Candidates about hiring new coaches and preparing in a different way, but in the end he didn’t show anything impressive in the opening at the Candidates. Hence, it was hard for him to play here, and everything didn’t go smoothly. In a match against Anand, if you are constantly under pressure in the opening, it is very hard to play when your position is always slightly worse. He should ponder this over. In half a year he won’t be able to catch up. Maybe he should try to think of something cunning, come up with a concept which would allow him to mitigate the effects of opening preparation? Anyway, I am sure that Anand will have an advantage in the opening. The only question is: to what extent?

MM: Magnus Carlsen used to cooperate with Garry Kasparov, who was if not superior than everyone else in the opening (because you were also excellently prepared), then at least phenomenal. Could he have passed over his findings to Magnus?

VK: Chess openings are like science. It keeps evolving. Judging by the standards of the time when Garry was an active player, he indeed knew the opening extremely well. Now it is over, his preparation isn’t good anymore. It is part of the past. Chess is developing very rapidly – just like the Internet, gadgets. You know, no one cares about the first models of iPhones now. Without day-by-day opening studies it is not possible. You can’t just invent a bunch of ideas and then spend ten years capitalizing on them. In the 70s or 80s this might have been possible. Now, in the computer age, you have to keep finding more and more new ideas. This is a paramount amount of work. You can’t rely on the old databases. I can see that Anand and his team are constantly working on his openings and refreshing his repertoire. I mean not cosmetic changes, but entirely new approaches. This hard work builds up over the years and offers its own benefits. Hence, I think that it will be very hard for Magnus to catch up, because even if he starts working 24/7, then in just half a year he still won’t be able to build up as much opening muscles as Anand has established over the past decade. He might come up with something sly though. Remember, when I played a match against Kasparov, I realized that he will be prepared better in the opening than myself, but I managed to present a new word in opening theory and somehow level our chances in the opening.

MM: Forum kibitzers often say that Magnus’ style is Karpovian, that it reminds of Anatoly’s youth. He also didn’t have any fancy opening preparation, or we should rather say that the entire USSR was working to prepare openings for him, but not himself.

VK: Yes, he reminds Karpov a lot. He also has certain weaknesses, which everyone, even the greatest players, have. Karpovian weaknesses, yes. They are hidden and very few, yet they still exist. Their styles are very similar. I would say that Carlsen is an improved version of Karpov. I have heard people say that his style is too dry, too positional. It is partly the case. However, I believe that a person of his mastery can choose any style he likes. He must decide this for himself. With such a high rating and skill, you know, no one should be telling him what to do. He is indeed an outstanding player. Like we say in such cases, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch”. He can play whatever way he likes to.

MM: It is his soul playing…

VK: Yes, that’s the way he is. Cold-blooded, rather pragmatic, somewhat melancholic even. His chess is also swampy, laidback, choky/boa constrictor type. It doesn’t matter. For me personally mastery is most important. His skills are remarkable. This is great. I think it’s a bonus that all the players have unique styles. I have one style, Aronian has a completely different style. Carlsen has the third variety. It is good for the game. This is interesting.

MM: Your son is only two months old. When he is two years and three months old, you will regain the chess crown, right? And he will be able to understand it already: “Papa is a World Champion!”.

VK: He is three months old now. My daughter is four years old. She understands already (smiles).

MM: You should do it for your kids!

VK: And for myself too. Generally speaking, this tournament has stirred up a certain amount of optimism within me. I have the energy and the strength. My play is not that bad...

MM (smiling): You have everything covered in your daily life…

VK: Yes, everything is fine. I am content with everything. I will try the next cycle, and if I don’t succeed, maybe I will go for another one. I don’t think you can write me off in terms of chess strength. One can play all sorts of tournaments, but the Candidates is a pinnacle which everyone attends fully motivated and prepared. It’s some kind of an ultimate test of your chess level. Obviously, everyone was using all their novelties and other trumps. I managed to share first, which means that I still have reserves since I know that I could have done a few things better. I can still improve. It’s okay.

Transcription by courtesy of

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