Kramnik on boxing, Fischer, Kasparov and Einstein

5/8/2005 – "Everything is relative," says the classical chess world champion in a long interview conducted with German chess journalist Dagobert Kohlmeyer. In high spirits during a preparation session for the Super-GM in Sofia Vladimir Kramnik speaks candidly about his many interests and the situation at the top of the chess world. Includes one historic game.

Everything is relative

Vladimir Kramnik on boxing, Bobby Fischer, Garry Kasparov and Albert Einstein

Von Dagobert Kohlmeyer

In the past weeks Vladimir Kramnik has disappeared from public view. The world champion went into a training camp somewhere in Germany, where he is currently working with a second to prepare for the next big tournament. In between he went to see a boxing match of his friend Vladimir Klitschko in the Dortmund Westfalenhalle. Chess author Dagobert Kohlmeyer from Berlin tracked him down for a candid interview. The discussions were conducted in Russian, and sections appeared in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung this Sunday. Amongst other things Kramnik spoke about Albert Einstein and the interesting question when he would end his chess career. ChessBase brings you the full text of the interview.

What attracts a chess world champion to the boxing ring?

I have enjoyed this sport since childhood. I mean not simply boxing, but matches at the highest professional level. This was the third fight of one of the Klitschko brothers which I have attended. Vladimir gave a very convincing performance in Dortmund and will now definitely return to the position in the world rankings which he previously occupied. I have very good personal relations with both the Klitschko brothers. When I am able I enjoy watching them fight. And I like it when they are rooting for me in a chess match.

1.d4 Nf6 2.c3!? – boxing champ Vitali Klitschko against Vladimir Kramnik

Garry Kasparov has retired from professional chess, and Bobby Fischer seems to have found a peaceful home in Iceland. What do you as the current chess king say to these events?

It is good that Fischer was freed, and I hope that he can live in peace in Reykjavik. We are all very indebted to him, after all that he did for professional chess. I have carefully studied Fischer’s games and in my opinion he is today already a classic player, just like Capablanca and other great chess personalities.

And Kasparov’s decision to leave the chess scene?

I believe that his retirement is not directly connected to chess. It is probably his political ambitions that led to this step. One must remember that if you want to work seriously in a new area then it is difficult to combine that with a chess career. It is obvious that professional chess requires a huge amount of time and energy. I think Kasparov simply decided that politics should now take centre stage for him.

In this area it will probably be more difficult for him to be as successful as he was in chess.

That is difficult to say. It is very difficult to achieve in any other area more than he did in chess. But human beings can develop and gain experience.

Kasparov is picking a public fight with President Putin. Isn’t that very dangerous?

Vladimir Kramnik talking to Dagobert Kohlmeyer

That is a Western view. I know the opinion that there is totalitarian rule in Russia. I don’t like it too much that Kasparov is now proclaiming that he wants more democracy in our country. Sure there are problems, without a doubt. But I live in this country and can see that things are handled in a more or less democratic fashion. There are lots of people who speak out against Putin, and nothing happens to them. A large part of the Russian press is oppositional, but they continue to exist and nobody does anything against them. It is clear that it is quite easy to find support for Kasparov’s position in the West. But I think he is not in any personal danger.

Well, recently an agitated visitor at a political meeting hit Kasparov over the head with a chessboard…

I heard about this matter. It was definitely an isolated case. We know that there are mentally disturbed individuals who do such things. It was clearly not an attack by the people in power against Kasparov. I will follow with interest which position he will take in and how he will progress in politics. But I do not agree with Kasparov’s view that Russia is a completely uncivilised country.

Back to chess. You call yourself the “Classical Chess World Champion”. Can you tell us who invented this title?

Neither me nor my management, as some people claim. We did not need to invent something new. This title exists practically since the days of Wilhelm Steinitz. He was the first official world chess champion, even if Morphy and Anderssen played earlier matches in an attempt to determine who was the strongest player in the world. Since Steinitz there is a classical line of champions, and I am standing at the other end of this line. Whether you call it the classical world championship or simply world championship doesn’t really make a difference. The exact name is secondary. The important thing is that a great tradition that has lasted for more than a century should be continued.

A smiling Kramnik defending his world championship title against Leko in Brissago

It is probably pointless to ask you to compare the value of your title with that of the FIDE world champion…

I consider my title to be more valuable. In this respect I am not alone. A vast majority of the public and most of the chess players agree with me. The knockout world championships of FIDE have experimental character. If I had the choice between the two titles I would not doubt for a second that it is right to win the chess crown in a one-to-one match against the reigning world champion. And even more so if, as in my case, the world champion was a player of Kasparov’s stature. I am very glad about these circumstances and will work hard to preserve the classical line of the world championship.

There are a lot of people who fear that with Kasparov’s departure the figurehead of chess will be missing.

For the chess world it is of course a pity that Kasparov is no longer there, that he will not be playing in tournaments any more. But it is a normal human decision and quite understandable, seeing that he has achieved everything there is in his chess career. Now he wants to prove his mettle in a different field. It is a result of his inner workings, and certainly also because he has become tired of chess. Just count the number of years that he has been a chess professional.

At some stage the name Kasparov will disappear from the FIDE rating list. Who do you consider at the current time to be the strongest chess player in the world?

The situation is very simple. There are certain titles that a sportsman or a team can achieve. Let us take soccer. Brazil is the world champion, that is clear. But which is currently the strongest team is a speculative question. Some prefer Brazil, others Argentina, and others think Italy is very strong. That is always a temporary snap-shot. This is exactly the same in chess.

Okay, but give us a few names.

Anand is currently the best rapid chess player in the world. There can be no doubt about that. But I cannot say that in classical chess, with normal time controls, he is superior to me or Leko or Topalov. Topalov has recently improved dramatically, but nobody knows whether this development will continue. Leko played extremely well in Brissago in the match against me, and he won this year’s Wijk aan Zee. I won Linares and Monaco in the previous year. If you consider all of this there are a number of candidates for number one in the world.

What is your general opinion on this kind of discussion?

Kramnik at his training camp

To be honest it is somewhat surprising. The question of who is the best chess player in the world actually came to the front only a few years ago, after I had beaten Kasparov in London. It would be much easier to simply ask, who is the reigning world champion. The answer to that question is clear and unambiguous.

You recently announced that you would not take part in the FIDE tournament with the eight best players in the world this autumn in Argentina. Why?

We have to go back to the year 2002 in Prague, where it all started. The agreements we signed there were not proposed by me but by FIDE. I was not opposed to them and accepted these agreements. And I fulfilled my part of the bargain by playing a match against Peter Leko and defending my title. So I cannot understand how the unsolved problems with the FIDE match should influence my situation. It is not logical.

How do you think FIDE should solve the impasse?

Only with fairness. Whatever they have tried in the past or are doing now to find a champion, whether it be a duel Kasparov-Ponomariov, Kasparov-Kasimdzhanov or in a new tournament, doesn’t make any difference to me. I am only concerned with one point: I am ready to play a reunification match for the title against the FIDE world champion. How they find my opponent is their problem. For this reason I do not understand why people are mixing everything up now. Why should I play in a tournament? In order to qualify? Why do the conditions for me have to change? I can see absolutely no reason to change the Prague agreement at this stage. Once again: I am willing to play against the winner of the tournament in Argentina (if it actually takes place).

What are your next plans?

At the beginning of May I am playing for my Paris chess club NAO in the finals of the French team championship. We won twice in succession and we have good chances to defend our title this year. After that I fly to Sofia to play in the Mobiltel Masters, where I will be up against Anand, Topalov and Judit Polgar, amongst others. In July I have the traditional Chess Meeting in Dortmund on my tournament schedule.

Kramnik with NAO chess club sponsor Mme Nahed Ojjeh

Judit Polgar is a very interesting and strong Hungarian chess player. She has collected the scalps of Karpov and Kasparov, but never yours...

That’s right. But there is always a problem with statistics. Every series will some day end. I am looking forward to the tournament in Bulgaria. It is going to be interesting. I will try to fight for the first place. It is great that a new venue and a new organisation has appeared on the chess map. We need powerful sponsors like Mobiltel. The tournament in Sofia shows that chess is not currently in a crisis, but that we are experiencing a positive development.

What is your opinion on the rule in this tournament that forbids quick draws?

I welcome that. I know that certain people accuse me of making too many draws. But that is not based on the facts. They should study my tournament statistics. But with regard to the draw rule in Sofia I think it is right that games should not end in a draw before move 30 or 35. Unless there is a perpetual check or the position is a theoretical draw. For instance in a rook ending where each side has three pawns facing each other. In such a case it would be nonsense to continue.

The Association of Chess Professionals (ACP) has been in action for over a year now. Some say it is a Kramnik fan club. How is it different from the Professional Chess Association (PCA) which Kasparov created a decade ago?

Those times, in the middle of the 90s, were not bad for us chess professionals. The idea of rapid chess events with big sponsors was okay and also initially very successful. But then I think Kasparov at some stage took a step backwards and the enterprise failed. I do not want to judge it at this time, I just want to stress that the ACP is a completely different organisation, because it has a completely different structure.

Explain it to us.

It is a kind of players’ union. All officers are democratically elected, and that is the reason why so many players trust me and trust these people. There are principle differences to the PCA or FIDE. It turned out that some of the officers and members of the ACP were good friends of mine. On the one hand that is a coincidence, on the other it does not need to be a drawback. On the contrary it has a positive effect on the work of the organisation, which does not have just two founding members – like Kasparov and Short with the PCA. There are many active members, and we are an efficient team that works on a democratic basis.

An ACP meeting in Wijk aan Zee 2004

If FIDE is doing such a terrible job then maybe the ACP is the only way out?

I wouldn’t generally say that FIDE is doing a terrible job. If they succeed in staging the world championship tournament in Argentina, that would not be a bad result. What disturbs me is that the world chess federation does not listen to the opinion of the players. This is not just my personal opinion, it is shared by many others who are involved. Our opinion must not be ignored. Here is where the ACP can intervene, here is where they can play a decisive role.

But that can take some time.

The organisation has to gain strength. I hope that the ACP will develop positively and become a strong union, like the ones we find in all developed countries. Like in France or Germany, where the unions defend the rights of the working classes. I can see how strong they are. It is not so easy to deal with them. The role of the ACP is in my opinion similar. Apart from its job of organising tournaments it must become a link between FIDE and the players. It must prevent bad relations between federations and chess professionals. We need mechanisms for normal relations with each other, like in all civilised countries.

That sounds great, but doesn’t everything depend on sponsors? Without them nothing is possible in the professional sports world today. And without Kasparov don’t you think it may become more difficult to find financial support for chess?

We cannot judge that at the moment. I think that if we want to find sponsors we must first straighten up the chess world. That is the most important step. Everything has to be clear, which means there should be only one world champion and no more conflicts. These things are a prerequisite if we want to attract sponsors. Everything else is a matter of details which can be solved one at a time. I am convinced that the sponsors will appear once the situation in the chess world improves.

Kasparov recently retired from professional chess at the age of 42. In June you turn 30. How long do you want to continue playing competitive chess?

Kramnik and Kohlmeyer

30 years is not an advanced age, but as a chess player I already feel a bit like a veteran. I am still interested in chess and will continue to play. Of course it is becoming progressively more difficult, especially since there are a lot of young talents knocking at the door. It’s the generation of Radjabov, Karjakin and Carlson. These guys are already strong grandmasters. As far as I am concerned I will not play competitive chess to the end of my days. Perhaps ten more years, definitely not longer. Let us say until I am 40. That is the maximum.

Wow! And what will come after that. Politics?

Hardly. I am more interested in art. We will see when the time comes. Unfortunately I missed the chance to learn to play the piano, and now it is too late for that. But anyway, I don’t like to look so far into the future. In five, seven or ten years my situation will probably have changed, and I will decide on something. Right now chess is quite engrossing for me, and I still want to achieve a few goals. I have never had personal problems with my rivals. If one of the boys beats me in a match in five years, then it is time to quit.

Chess world champions belong to the smartest people in the world. This is the Albert Einstein year. Do you understand the theory of relativity?

Let me answer that with one of our well-known sayings: What is the difference between chess and football? Everybody understands football, but nobody plays it. And everybody plays chess, but nobody understands it. Everything is relative (laughs).

Very nice. Einstein once said: “If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal.” Which goals does Vladimir Kramnik still have?

Well, everybody has some goal in life. At different times one has small goals. One of them I have achieved: I became world champion. I always have small goals and tackle them one at a time, step by step. The much bigger goal remains to become a happy individual and to have a family. That is a wonderful situation that one must strive for. And it doesn’t disturb your chess…

Thank you, Vladimir, for this interesting discussion.

P.S. for all Einstein fans

Yes he did. Against Robert Oppenheimer. We have the game.

The great intellectual was interested in chess, and for many years he was a friend of the German world champion Emanuel Lasker. But when the two met they would spend more time discussing mathematics and philosophy than chess. Occasionally Einstein would actually play a game, as the following game against the physicist Robert Oppenheimer (one of the “fathers” of the atomic bomb) documents. It is a wild encounter between two of the world’s leading scientists.

Einstein – Oppenheimer, Princeton 1940 (Ruy Lopez): 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bb5 a6 4.Ba4 b5 5.Bb3 Nf6 6.0-0 Nxe4 7.Re1 d5 8.a4 b4 9.d3 Nc5 10.Nxe5 Ne7 11.Qf3 f6 12.Qh5+ g6 13.Nxg6 hxg6 14.Qxh8 Nxb3 15.cxb3 Qd6 16.Bh6 Kd7 17.Bxf8 Bb7 18.Qg7 Re8 19.Nd2 c5 20.Rad1 a5 21.Nc4 dxc4 22.dxc4 Qxd1 23.Rxd1+ Kc8 24.Bxe7 1-0. [Click to replay]

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