Interview with Ivan Sokolov (1/2)

by Sagar Shah
1/8/2015 – Ivan Sokolov needs no introduction. He has been one of the elite players in the world for more than two decades now. In this exclusive interview for ChessBase Ivan reveals about his beginnings, his idols, his path breaking win against Garry Kasparov, Vishy Anand, the 2014 World Championship match, why Magnus is the best and why Fabiano Caruana won't be Carlsen's next opponent in 2016!

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As I waited in the restaurant of hotel Hili Rayhaan in Al Ain, I was getting a little anxious. I had only an hour left to leave from Al Ain to Dubai in order to catch my flight. The previous night I met Ivan Sokolov in the lobby of the hotel and had asked him for an exclusive interview for the ChessBase website. “10.30 tomorrow morning in the restaurant” was his instant reply. I was taken aback. The speed with which he made his decision was extremely impressive. Now as I waited for him in the restaurant with innumerable questions in my head, I was worried whether he remembered this little appointment that we had fixed! I went to the reception and asked them to connect to his room and sure enough he had it all covered. “I will be there in a minute”, he said. As soon as Ivan came to the breakfast table I told him about the flight I had to catch and my time crunch. “So let’s begin without wasting any more time,” he replied. As I asked him my first question I knew this was going to be an interview with no dilly dallying or diplomatic answers. It was going to be straight, direct and to the point just like how Ivan is.

Sagar Shah in conversation with Ivan Sokolov in Al Ain on 27th December 2014

Sagar Shah: How did you start playing chess?

Ivan Sokolov: I started to play chess in 1974 when I was six years old. I learnt the game from my father who was an amateur chess player. I joined the Chess Club Bosna where I remained a member for almost the next thirty years. As I improved at the game I participated in Junior tournaments, did well and this is more or less how it all began.

SS: Your first published rating was 2235 in 1984 and then you became an IM within two years in 1986 and then a GM in 1987. That was a real quick rise!

IS: At that point of time ratings below 2200 did not exist. So all the players who did not have a rating back then were treated as 2200. The title of FIDE Master (FM) was relatively important as not many people had it. To become a FM you needed to have a stipulated number of rated games and a rating of above 2300. In January 1985, I achieved the FM title. From then on my progress was pretty quick.

In 1986 I was already an IM and within a year I became a GM. By present day standards becoming a GM at the age of 19 is nothing special to talk about but at that time I was the youngest GM in the world. In the history of chess I was the fifth youngest grandmaster only to be overtaken by Spassky, Tal, Fischer and Kasparov.

SS: When you became a GM did you decide to pursue chess professionally or were you still studying?

IS: I was studying at the law university. I was awarded the grandmaster title at the Karpov-Kasparov match in Seville, 1987. After receiving the title, I quit studying and devoted myself to chess full time.

Sokolov at the Al Ain Classic in December 2014 (picture by Amruta Mokal)

SS: On your path to becoming a GM who was the player whom you idolized?

IS: At that time, I and my friends were frantically analysing all the games of Kasparov. Though he was the World Champion it was not clear that he was better than Karpov because all those matches were very closely contested. But let me put it is this way: he had a more appealing style to the young players than Karpov. Kasparov used to dictate the style of chess openings and the opening theory. I remember that in one of the of the World Championship matches, Kasparov was regularly opening the game with 1.c4 and everybody in the world started to play the English Opening! So, Kasparov had the biggest influence on me and I was studying his games very carefully. Apart from Kasparov, I liked the style of Spassky very much. I think he is underestimated as a World Champion and did not get in chess history the place he deserves. He was very versatile and strong, maybe one of the best World Champions. From the past, I also studied a lot of games of Alekhine.

SS: How would you get chess material back then?

IS: I try to explain to people how quickly time changes in one’s own personal lifetime. Regular source of information back then were newspaper articles. Daily newspapers would have a chess column in it. The games of the big tournaments were sent to the newspapers by telex. As soon as I would spot these games in the newspapers, I would pick up a pair of scissors, cut the game, and take it along with me because you can understand that if this opportunity was missed it could become quite complicated to get these games. At that time if someone was coming back from tournaments they would bring with them tournament bulletins in hard copy form. If that person gave you the bulletins it would be considered quite a huge favour (smiles). Information was very difficult to get and scarce. All of us had notebooks (stressing on the word notebooks) and you take a pen and write down the important games in it! I remember that once I studied the games of Soviet grandmasters because I was passing by a huge second hand book shop and I spotted some books called Soviet Championships in the 50’s. They were mainly tournament bulletins that had all the games in it. I bought all of them immediately so that I would have material to study at home. It is actually quite funny how much the game has changed now and how information is so freely available.

SS: Was studying of the classical games (games of past masters) your road to chess improvement?

IS: Yes, definitely. Nowadays young players do not take enough time to study the classics, but there is a plenty of information available and you have people who become grandmasters at a very young age. Information for them is simply much better available. At our time even if you were a genius it would be difficult to become a GM at such a young age because you could not get access to the information and even if you did, processing it was very difficult. You could see even super geniuses like Kasparov became a GM when he was 17 whereas nowadays you have GMs surfacing up at the age of 13 or 14 years. But I also think that players are reaching their peak pretty fast. This is the consequence of the information explosion.

Playing against the guy who became a GM at the age of 12 years and 7 months!

SS: Kasparov was your idol and then you started playing him in tournaments one on one. How did it feel?

IS: It was different. I crossed 2600 for the first time in 1992 and I have never dropped under 2600 in the single rating list till date. I was around 2630 in 1992 and at that time it was good enough to be number twelve in the world. When I first met Kasparov on the board in 1996 I was already quite experienced. I had played in super tournaments like Linares and also faced some other World Champions.

SS: Your game against Kasparov from 1999 is very famous. You supposedly outprepared him. Can you take us through that game?

[Event "Hoogovens"] [Site "Wijk aan Zee"] [Date "1999.01.26"] [Round "9"] [White "Sokolov, Ivan"] [Black "Kasparov, Garry"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E59"] [WhiteElo "2610"] [BlackElo "2812"] [Annotator "Ivan Sokolov"] [PlyCount "55"] [EventDate "1999.01.16"] [EventRounds "13"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "17"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "1999.04.01"] {The analysis to this game are extracts from Sokolov's book, "The Strategic Nimzo Indian."} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nc3 Bb4 4. e3 O-O 5. Bd3 d5 6. Nf3 c5 7. O-O Nc6 8. a3 Bxc3 9. bxc3 Qc7 10. Qc2 dxc4 11. Bxc4 e5 12. Bd3 Re8 13. e4 {A tricky move which has served yours truly very well. It leads to forced complications. Provided the black player is well prepared and remembers the right reaction over the board, he has nothing to worry about and White can actually easily become worse.} exd4 $1 14. cxd4 Bg4 15. e5 Bxf3 16. exf6 Nxd4 17. Bxh7+ Kh8 18. fxg7+ Kxg7 19. Bb2 Rad8 20. gxf3 Rh8 {Due to White's weak king, Black regains his piece and still has the better pawn structure. However, matters are far from simple.} 21. Kh1 {The immediate capture of the white bishop may look logical, but it keeps the black king under an unpleasant pin along tbe a1-h8 diagonal and is not to be recommended. However, it does look logical and this mistake can be committed by the world's very best.} Rxh7 22. Rg1+ Kh8 23. Rg3 Qe5 24. Rag1 Rh4 $6 (24... Qh5 25. R1g2 f6 {was a better defence.}) 25. Qc1 Kh7 $2 {This is not a position to lose tempi in, however Kasparov clearly did not like his position here and was far from his confident self.} 26. Qb1+ Kh8 27. Qf1 Qe6 28. Qg2 {White has tripled on the g-file and will deliver mate on the next move. That was one of the most beautiful moments in my chess career.} 1-0

IS: I was able to get Kasparov in an unpleasant psychological situation. How did I get him into this condition? Kasparov enjoys very much when people are scared of him and if you show him that you are not, he gets intimidated and is less self-assured. And by the line that I was chose I was very clearly showing that I was neither scared of him nor his preparation. He did not like it. And then he had to remember his preparation and for even a player with a fantastic memory like Kasparov it is not easy to recollect everything. He even recalled the right game but not the right move. Once he realised that he was unable to remember the correct game he quickly collapsed. From the slightly minus position that he was in, he lost the game in just a few moves. He made a horrible blunder Kh7 when the position was quite playable.

SS: When you saw that Kh7 was a mistake and that you could win the game now what went through your mind?

IS: It was kind of a funny moment because we both had plenty of time on the clock. I realised that after I triple on the g-file it was going to be mate. Kasparov was already prepared to resign and leave. He had his Rolex back on his hand, his chocolate was taken away from the board, his jacket was on. Basically he was saying- Come on make this move and get it over with! Then I said to myself - Hang on, when is the next time that I will have such a position against Kasparov from which I can demolish him in just one move! Perhaps never! How much time did I have on my clock? 40 minutes! Well let’s wait for a while then! Have a look at this beautiful position, look at miserable him (Garry really looks miserable when he is lost!), there is no reason to rush! So I took 10 minutes and then executed the move and he immediately resigned. (Smiles)

Robert Von Weizsacker’s team for ECU leadership in 2010.
Sokolov is seen here with Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov

SS: There was one more game of yours which I found extremely impressive. It was your battle against Judit Polgar from 2003?

[Event "Hoogeveen Essent Crown"] [Site "Hoogeveen"] [Date "2003.10.17"] [Round "5"] [White "Sokolov, Ivan"] [Black "Polgar, Judit"] [Result "1-0"] [ECO "E12"] [WhiteElo "2695"] [BlackElo "2722"] [Annotator "Ivan Sokolov"] [PlyCount "83"] [EventDate "2003.10.12"] [EventRounds "6"] [EventCountry "NED"] [EventCategory "18"] [Source "ChessBase"] [SourceDate "2004.02.03"] {The below analysis are extract from Sokolov's book of "Sacrifice and Initiative in chess".} 1. d4 Nf6 2. c4 e6 3. Nf3 b6 4. Nc3 Bb7 5. a3 d5 6. cxd5 Nxd5 7. Qc2 Nxc3 8. bxc3 Be7 9. e4 O-O 10. Bd3 c5 11. O-O Qc8 12. Qe2 Ba6 13. Rd1 Rd8 14. h4 cxd4 15. cxd4 Bxd3 16. Rxd3 Nd7 17. Bg5 f6 18. Bf4 Qb7 19. h5 Rac8 20. Rad1 Qa6 21. e5 f5 {White has to go for the obvious central break here.} 22. d5 $1 exd5 (22... Nc5 23. d6 $44) 23. Nd4 Rf8 24. Qf3 ({A good and safe alternative is} 24. Bh6 $1 {securing the pawn up advantage. I did not see this during the game.} Nc5 25. Rg3 Qxe2 26. Rxg7+ Kh8 27. Nxe2 $16) 24... Nc5 { The critical position has been reached.Black is consolidating and if White is to win, it will likely be in an attack on the castled king. I was worried, and with good reason, that if I played the logical Qxd5 my initiative might evaporate and the game might level out. White has an overwhelming advantage in the attackers vs defenders ratio on the kingside as the black queen on a6 is cut off right now. So, a violent action on the kingside looks quite logical. Based on the above-mentioned assumptions and judgements I played} 25. h6 $1 { As in a regular attack on the castled king, the attack is started by removing the pawn defences in front of the enemy king.} g5 $1 26. Bxg5 $1 Bxg5 27. Qh5 { This is the position I had to evaluate when I opted for the intuitive sacrifice started with h6! It was impossible for me to calculate everything, but I had a number of reasons to trust my intuition: A) the attackers vs defenders ratio is overwhelmingly on my side (Black's Qa6, Nc5, and Rc8 do not really participating in the defence of his king); B) Black's f5-pawn will also fall, so, apart from the h7-pawn, the pawn defences in front of Black's castled king have been removed, which is always a strong argument for the attacking side; C) White's h6-pawn, the Qh5 and the forthcoming Nf5, Rf3 (g3) combination will create a mating net around the black king ; • D) White's rook on d3 (which Black has no time to collect) is excellently placed and will enter the fray via either g3 or f3. So no, I could not calculate everything, but I had plenty of reasons to believe my intuition to be right.} Bf4 28. Rf3 Bxe5 29. Nxf5 Qb7 30. Rxd5 Rce8 31. Qg5+ Kh8 32. Rxe5 Rxe5 33. Ne7 $3 {As explained in the section on the castled king, a knight is usually needed for a mating net!} Re1+ 34. Kh2 Qb8+ 35. Rg3 Rxe7 (35... Ne6 36. Qg7+ Nxg7 37. hxg7#) 36. Qxe7 Ne6 37. Qxe6 Qf4 38. a4 a6 39. Qxb6 Rb8 40. Qe3 Qh4+ 41. Rh3 Qf6 42. Qc3 1-0

IS: I explained a lot about it in my book “Sacrifices and initiative in Chess” and also in “Winning Chess Middlegames”. In that I have explained the concept of intuitive sacrifices. I like this game very much but there are also a few others which are on par like the game against Vishy Anand from Wijk Aan Zee 1996 or the one against Topalov from the same year, and also my game against Kramnik.

Ivan and Judit in Georgia, March 2014 (picture by Fiona Steil-Antoni)

SS: You have already told us a lot about Garry. What is your opinion about his arch rival Anatoly Karpov?

IS: With most of the opponents you can feel how good or bad their position is through their body language but with Karpov you could never quite guess because mostly he would be very calm. In the post-game analysis he would always be confident on his ability to find the best moves in any given position. There is one very famous anecdote about Karpov: Once in a post-game analysis Karpov’s opponent said to him, “I am much better”. Karpov calmly said, “Yes, but in a few moves you would be slightly worse”. (Laughs)

SS: Vishy Anand has been your opponent on more than 15 occasions. What do you think is so special about him and how would you assess the 2014 World Championship match?

IS :Anand is extremely talented. In the beginning of his career he was famed for his speed but at that time in his quick play he would overlook many things. Later he matured as a player and he was able to balance the speed of his chess insights and the ability to restrain himself a bit in order to find the best possibilities. This combined with the years at the top, high level of preparation, having a good team around himself, sacrificing his life to the goal of remaining in world’s elite for so many years, has brought this ultimate result.

The last World Championship match was very interesting because Anand went into this match with a different mind-set compared to their first encounter. It is too blunt to put it this way but I think he went to the first match to lose and to the second one to fight. The way he was choosing his openings and from his middle game play, it was clear that his attitude towards the second match was completely different than the first one. And it’s a pity that he did not take his chance once Carlsen blundered. Not because I had any favourites in this match but from the chess player’s perspective it would have been very interesting to see how Carlsen performs under serious pressure and being behind in the match with not many games left. Frankly, till now Carlsen hasn’t performed so well under pressure. We could see this in the Candidates 2013. We also saw this in some of the games in Olympiad and also in his game against Anand, the one in which he made this ridiculous blunder. Once he got in the driver’s seat his level of play also improved. We will now have to wait for some other match and some other opponent to see how he is going to handle his pressure.

SS: You say that Carlsen does not handle pressure so well. In spite of this huge drawback he reached 2881. What is the reason for that?

IS: Carlsen is very versatile. Some people are underestimating his ability to play complicated positions. It’s a complete cliché that he is only good in technical positions and not in complex ones. Take for example his ninth game in the match against Anand in 2013, in the Nimzo-Indian that he won as black. Ninety per cent of the people would have been scared to death and got mated. He handled this position very well. When I was writing my book “Sacrifice and Initiative in chess” I found a number of good attacking games by Carlsen from the white side of Sicilian. Psychologically he feels more comfortable in technical positions. That’s a different story but if he is pushed to the wall, I think he can play complicated positions also very well. This versatility combined with talent is what is producing a great champion according to me.

Playing with the 14 year-old Magnus at the
Hoogeveen Essent in 2004 (the game ended in a draw)

SS: Who will be Carlsen’s opponent for the next World Championship match?

IS: It is not so easy to guess. People are saying Caruana but for me it’s very difficult to say Caruana mainly because he is playing chess which I simply don’t understand. I cannot find a clear line of play in his chess.

SS: Can you elaborate a bit on this? His moves are usually the top choices of the computer.

IS: Yes, that’s exactly why I can’t follow it! (laughs) Amongst others I think Aronian has passed his peak, Nakamura is less good than he thinks he is, Grischuk is in great form but he is not so young anymore. It remains to be seen whether somebody like Wesley So who has moved to United States is going to develop or Giri is going to continue on his upward path. We will find out pretty soon because these guys are pretty young and a massive progress in their games takes place in a year or two. Perhaps also Yu Yangyi from China. I played two games with him in 2012 & 2013 and wasn’t impressed by him. However, what he did in Qatar was extremely impressive. He gave a positional lesson to Giri with the black pieces. Kramnik seemed like to have blundered against him but he did beat him in the most crucial encounter of the tournament. He is a young guy and you never know. He may well be one of the candidates to play against Carlsen.

Sokolov is putting his money on the young brigade of Wesley So, Anish Giri and Yu Yangyi

Part II will follow soon

Topics Interview, Sokolov

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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initiative initiative 1/9/2015 05:12
Sokolov never said that Caruana wouldn't be the next challenger or one of Carlsen's biggest threats. He just said that he doesn't understand Caruana's chess. Click bait's fine, but the tease was an untruth.
Pionki Pionki 1/9/2015 09:02
Cool interview! Can we have more interviews like this? (If you can find chessplayers with the wits and experience that match those of Sokolov.)
Steven S Tam Steven S Tam 1/9/2015 06:45
Nice candid interview - interesting in the sense that it reveals the human weakness ~ always carrying a trace of emotions!?
If a world champion acts nervously during adverse positions, what/how good is that champion?
But, human is human, it will be hard to play like a machine / engine?
<Did we have the "chess machine" years ago? How about Capablanca? was he the closest ?>
algorithmy algorithmy 1/9/2015 04:54
What is with the big notes. Who r u ? Bill Oriely?!.. just kidding great interview Sagar.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 1/9/2015 04:16
interesting, logical prediction (giri, so, yu)....
snooper snooper 1/9/2015 04:11
Great interview!
GalacticKing GalacticKing 1/9/2015 03:19
Great interview. Sokolov is able to be very clear with his opinions without being rude. Very insightful. I really enjoyed his anecdote regarding Karpov!