Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future – Part 1

3/31/2012 – "This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about," writes GM Vlad Tkachiev. However: "it’s not easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant – so impeccably polite, even aristocratic..." This long interview, conducted for the Russian news portal WhyChess, last year, starts with Vladimir Kramnik's take on chess and one of his main rivals in the game.

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Kramnik on Chess, Anand, Topalov and his future

By GM Vlad Tkachiev [Photos: Irina Stepaniuk]

This is an interview I’ve long dreamt about. As far back as the end of the 90s it seemed to me that Vladimir and I held positions that seldom coincided, and now finally I had the chance to clarify all the contradictions. Right from the outset the plan “sprung a leak” – firstly, because in the run-up to our conversation Kramnik had given a series of exhaustive interviews, and secondly… It’s not so easy to wear someone down with tricky, controversial questions when they’re so pleasant to talk to. Even during the process of agreeing a time and place for our conversation Vladimir turned out to be impeccably polite and at times even aristocratic in his manners. My fighting spirit slipped away, and I simply had the urge to talk about topics that interested me with a great chess player. Here’s what became of that…


Chess

Vlad Tkachiev: Vladimir, have you ever tried to determine you biorhythms when establishing your tournament schedule? For example, I always play badly in January.

Vladimir Kramnik: For me winter is a difficult period. For example, I always play in Wijk aan Zee, and it always goes badly, while correspondingly I play well in Dortmund. In winter I simply don’t get enough daylight. I go to sleep and get up very late, and at Wijk aan Zee I have the impression I don’t see daylight at all. So there are perfectly rational reasons to explain it.

V.T.: For an outside observer there’s been the impression in recent years that you’ve tried to sharpen your style. Is that true?

V.K.: No, I haven’t tried. My play always depends on how I’m feeling, and that simply changed when I lost the title. Perhaps I became more indifferent or liberated. Before a tournament I never decide what style I’m going to adopt, and although some changes do take place, they’re out of my control.

V.T.: Do you agree with the widespread view that while preparing for the match against Kasparov you changed your style so much that it later began to hold you back? Perhaps the seeds of your loss in the match against Anand were sown in your victory over Kasparov?

V.K.: Perhaps, but you always need to choose, as after all I don’t consider myself capable of playing brilliantly in any style. Yes, in order to beat Kasparov I had to make real changes, though that had already started to happen to my style before then. And afterwards I again tried to somehow transform myself by starting to play 1.e4, but for various reasons that didn’t work out. Above all, I was lacking a certain inner harmony. There was a lot of squabbling and political problems that I’d never enjoyed dealing with, but I considered myself obliged to do something as the situation was so difficult. Perhaps I was wrong and should have… Either way, those attempts to play sharply no longer corresponded to my inner state. My style is in any case more positional, and sharp play isn’t my thing. Of course, you’re partly right, but I don’t regret it. After all, I achieved a lot, becoming World Champion three times. I lost to Anand, but I could also have lost to him in my very best form.

V.T.: It seems to me that you’d already won the match against Kasparov before it started, as he wasn’t expecting to see such a Kramnik. And then Anand managed to do the same thing against you, undertaking a colossal amount of work to drag you into a concrete struggle from the first moves.

V.K.: In the match against Anand everything went wrong from the very beginning, just as it did for Kasparov in his match against me. I’m actually a fatalist to a degree, and feel that if that’s how something goes then that’s how it was fated to happen. Of course, Kasparov’s preparation couldn’t be compared to Anand’s – there’s no question Anand managed to do things much better, more intelligently and cunningly. Yes, he completely outthought me.

V.T.: Everything he did came as a surprise for you?

V.K.: Yes, my preparation period didn’t go well and I had practically nothing for white, although I’d worked a great deal, more than before the match against Kasparov. The things I’d put my emphasis on in preparation simply didn’t pay off. I had absolutely nothing against the Meran, although I’d spent months working on it, and I realised that I simply needed to make draws up until around the tenth game, but I couldn’t reconcile myself to such cynicism – after all, it was a World Championship match. So I was in two minds to a degree, although I realised that was my only chance.

V.T.: But you didn’t have an easy life with black either.

V.K.: No, with black everything was actually fine. I started to create some problems for myself when I had to win, for example in game six. It’s simply that Anand played better and would have won the match in any case, though I committed hari-kari.

V.T.: But don’t you think that in order to get into optimum form you need to use some potent remedies?

V.K.: I don’t use them anymore. That was back in the 90s…

V.T.: I’m not talking about that just now, but about the way you placed great restrictions on yourself: the Petroff, the Berlin, which, by the way, have started to unravel. After all, we can still remember the old Kramnik – the Sicilian Defence against anyone, trading blow for blow. Perhaps you made a mistake?

V.K.: Yes, but as the years pass, unfortunately, you don’t have any particular choice. Firstly, everyone limits themselves. Even Kasparov would always play the same thing. Moreover, your memory is no longer what it was at 20 years old, and you can’t do the same amount of work as before: family, a child. Of course, if you’re a fanatic and work 24 hours a day you can play all the openings, but that’s very hard to do if you want to spend time with your family and not forget about the pleasures of life.

V.T.: Especially if you live in Paris?

V.K. Perhaps. Over the years a new circle of acquaintances has emerged, certain social obligations, and so on. I’m no longer ready to sacrifice everything in order to get half a point more in each tournament. Therefore I make a choice and work with what I’ve got, and it turns out the way it turns out. Of course I understand such an approach has its drawbacks, but what can you do? Name me another option and I’ll think about it. I don’t see one.

V.T.: For the one and only time in this interview I’ll allow myself to pay you an open compliment.

V.K.: But of course you’ll then compensate for that with tricky questions (laughs)!

V.T.: I consider you to be one of the most productive chess players in terms of openings in the whole of history. Moreover, I think your positional understanding is also among the purest I’ve come across. Do you agree with that?

V.K.: I always worked a great deal and really did dig up a lot, more than others. I’m not sure it was more than Kasparov, but it was at a comparable level. But in any event, a very large part of that nevertheless goes to waste. Little gets used; in percentage terms perhaps it’s 5-10%. That’s a problem for chess players in general, which is why you also get people who are lazy. In football things are much simpler: you go to training and know that if you run around and work on shooting it’ll benefit you later. But in chess it might very well work out the opposite: it often happened that I did a great deal of work on some line or other, and then someone refuted it a move earlier, meaning it all gets thrown in the rubbish bin. That’s the real reason, in my view, why chess players work relatively little in comparison to other sportsmen.

As for the positional style, I don’t know how pure it is. That’s something for others to assess, although I do agree it’s my speciality. Positional play is a very complex matter. I’ve often noticed that it’s strung together from short-range calculation. When Karpov began to weaken it wasn’t that he’d stopped understanding, but simply that he’d begun to miscalculate short variations. When he’d make one move in one direction and then go off course on the next you might get the wrong impression. When I’m in bad form I also understand chess badly, while in good form everything seems to be fine. But overall, positional play is my strong point, as are playable endgames.

V.T.: I had the impression that you’ve deteriorated a little in that regard in recent years. I can recall a few won positions that you couldn’t…

V.K.: No, I’ve always played won endgames poorly and couldn’t even tell you why myself. Perhaps I relax too soon. It’s when the evaluation isn’t yet clear, += or =+, that I play well and turn those endings into won ones, which I then sometimes make a mess of, just as I did in my younger years. To be honest, I’ve never particularly stopped to think about the features of my own style, while I could give you a full breakdown on Anand.

V.T.: Let’s try that.

V.K.: I always considered him to be a colossal talent, one of the greatest in the whole history of chess. Each champion has had some sort of speciality, and his is creating counterplay in any position out of absolutely nowhere. He’s got an amazing ability to constantly stretch himself so that even in some kind of Exchange Slav he nevertheless manages to attack something and create something. He also plays absolutely brilliantly with knights, even better than Morozevich – if his knights start to jump around, particularly towards the king, then that’s that, it’s impossible to play against and they’ll just sweep away everything in their path. I noticed it’s better to get rid of them when you’re playing against him. In general, he’s improved a great deal in recent years, at some point after 2002. He’s a chess player of genius, but previously he didn’t work enough, by and large.

V.T.: But how has he managed to improve? Did marriage help?

V.K.: Perhaps. He’s matured, while previously he lacked the character to become World Champion. I remember in 1995 against Kasparov it was enough just to poke him a little and he simply fell apart. In the match against me things were completely different. Plus, he’s started to work a great deal and now his opening preparation is among the best, if not the best. At the given moment I don’t see who can compete with him when he’s on form. Perhaps only Carlsen in his very best condition, though probably not. I think he’ll only leave the stage when he weakens himself and ceases to maintain that extremely high level.

V.T.: His weaknesses?

V.K.: The trouble is there almost aren’t any…

V.T.: So nowadays it’s impossible to play the psychological card against him?

V.K.: Yes, though in any case I never wanted to do something on the level of slamming doors (it seems this is hinting at the well-known case of game ten of the Anand-Kasparov match in 1995, when Kasparov, or so many people claimed, slammed the door noisily on purpose in order to affect his opponent – V.T.) and so on. That’s something that in any case probably wouldn’t work now. His main weakness is that he’s no longer so young, and now he’s also got a child. I can’t imagine he’s still going to work his socks off as before. But at the given moment I think he’s the best in the world in terms of play, namely in terms of play.

V.T.: And the defence of passive positions?

V.K.: He’s doesn’t get passive positions, as they immediately become active.

V.T.: It seems to me he’s got a very big weakness, only it’s difficult to get at it – his play in blockaded positions. I could list half a dozen examples.

V.K.: He does have weaknesses. For example, he doesn’t sense some nuances or move orders very well. But the thing is that in modern chess you can arrange the whole play to suit your style – that’s the problem. So with a computer you can create your own little chess world and live in it. Ok, blockaded positions, but then he probably knows about that too. If you can tell me how to block everything in the Meran and still get an edge I’d be very grateful.

I think that namely in terms of play Anand is in no way weaker than Kasparov, but he’s simply a little lazy, relaxed and only focuses on matches. In the last 5-6 years he’s made a qualitative leap that’s made it possible to consider him one of the great chess players. Perhaps it doesn’t look like that to observers, but when you play against him you sense what a great range he has.

– Part two to follow –
If you cannot wait you can read the whole interview at WhyChess.org


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