Kramnik: Reflections on the Candidates Matches

5/31/2011 – He called to congratulate us on our 25th anniversary, but we used the opportunity to discuss the results of the Candidates matches in Kazan with Vladimir Kramnik. Two resident GMs analysed critical games with him, after which Frederic Friedel interviewed the former World Champion on the more general subject of the format of the event itself. Kramnik insists it must be changed.

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Last Thursday was party-day for ChessBase. We celebrated our 25th anniversary with our staff, friends and journalists, enjoying a fine grill and a jazz band, showing old films and pictures from the beginnings of the company, playing video greetings from friends – we will share some of those with you, dear readers, in the coming weeks.

One of the friends who called in was Vladimir Kramnik, and since we had two resident GMs present in the office, we hooked him up with them to discuss the Candidates matches and the games he had played there.

GMs Rainer Knaak and Karsten Müller analysing with Kramnik in our recording studio

Vladimir Kramnik was in Paris and our GMs in Hamburg, but with Playchess, Skype and the ChessBase Media system the three were able to analyse for almost an hour. You can expect to see the results of their discussions in the next issue of ChessBase Magazine.

Frederic Friedel and Karsten Müller talking to Vladimir in part two of the interview

After the chess analysis was over Frederic Friedel took over and spent 25 minutes discussing the Kazan event in more general terms with Kramnik, who had been knocked out by Alexander Grischuk ten days earlier. Their four regular games had been drawn, mainly due to Grischuk's clear opening strategy: draw with white, and hold with black until the Blitz. He drew every white game quickly – in fact in the Rapid tiebreak games offered draws after fourteen and just eight moves. His strategy worked, and after eight draws, he scored his first win in the initial blitz game, drawing the second to knock the former World Champion out of the Candidates. Here's what it looked like on the scoreboard:

Vladimir Kramnik
Alexander Grischuk

In spite of this rather bitter disappointment Vladimir was in good sprits during the interview, and concentrated on the format of the Candidates, which he feels – as do most of his colleagues – urgently need to be changed. Here is the interview in full, with pictures of Kramnik during the event in Kazan.

Frederic Friedel: Hello Vladimir, safely back from Kazan? How did you like the Candidates Matches?

Vladimir Kramnik: Thanks, I got back fine. About the tournament: first of all I would like to say that from an organizational point of view it was a nice event and they were very good to all the chess players, the playing conditions were very fine. So absolutely no complaints: from this respect it was a well-organized tournament. However, otherwise, everyone had mixed feelings about it – to put it mildly.

Naturally there was a lot of tension. All the tie breaks were, I suppose, very exciting and emotional for spectators, and definitely for the players as well, I can assure you. But I can only agree with the critics who said that the system is not suitable for today’s classical World Championship candidates. It has become totally obvious now.

So you would have preferred a tournament? Weren’t you in favour of matches?

I personally have always preferred the tournament format, which became clear two or three years ago in a questionnaire [] which was made by ChessBase. It was originally planned to have a round robin tournament, but then somehow FIDE for some reason, which I do not know, changed it into a match format. Well, not really a match format – I would rather call it a kind of knockout, because four games are not a real match. It seems that it was not a great idea for different reasons.

What were the problems in your opinion?

Well, first of all, let’s admit that the Kazan tournament was not very interesting from a chess point of view. Although there were of course some interesting games, unfortunately this format provokes players to play very safe, and even to just try to survive until the rapid or blitz, and then to take their chances there – especially the ones who are known to be better at rapid time controls. This is a very effective strategy when you have a limited amount of classical games, and you cannot blame the players for doing this – after all it is for the World Championship. For many players it is the dream of their life to play at least once a world championship match, so you cannot blame them for trying to use every means to maximize their chances, and for some this meant trying to “skip” the first four games and take their opponents into the shorter time controls. It is rather depressing to see this kind of chess.

Isn’t that the fault of the players themselves?

I do not think it is a problem of the chess players, since we are playing according to a system, according to a certain format and rules. And there is too much at stake, which is why I do not want to blame anyone. It just clearly shows that you need to change the system – in two ways. First of all there must be much more accent on classical chess. I cannot say that [Kazan] was a classical chess tournament, it was partly classical, partly rapid and partly blitz, which is okay for a random tournament. But if it is a classical chess Candidates tournament I think we should be playing mainly classical chess. Of course in case of a tie it is unavoidable from time to time to have a rapid match to find the winner. But it should be the exceptional case and not happen all the time.

So this is a serious problem: I think there must be much more classical chess in a new format, and that can be done with a round robin tournament. If two players share first place they can play a rapid match to decide who is the winner. But that would be just four rapid games vs very many more classical games. For example, In the Kazan tournament I personally played more rapid or blitz games than classical, which is kind of strange.

And secondly…

Secondly you have to find a format where players would be obliged to play aggressively, to take some risks to win games. You should not be able to go through by simply making draws. This is a very important point nowadays, especially since the level of preparation and the level of play is very high. If somebody wants to just make draws it is very difficult in short matches to do something about it. So I guess you need, maybe by artificial means, to force players to play for a win. That would totally change the issue. There would still be more draws than decisive games – at such a high level it will be the case anyway. But if we are talking about a round robin tournament of say seven or eight players, double round, then in order to win it you need to make plus four at least, so you need to win four games – or more, actually, because you cannot be sure you will not lose one.

So if you understand before the tournament that you need to win five or six games it is clear that you are going to play much more risky chess, for instance you are going to play much more complicated openings with both colours. That will make the tournament very interesting, because a draw is not good for anyone. Well, maybe for the player who is in the lead, but then his opponent who is one point behind will be fighting for a win. So the tournament system would be much more interesting, and much more logical, since you need to be better in classical chess, not rapid or blitz, in order to become a challenger. In addition I think it is not more difficult to find money for such an event than for these matches. So I don’t see any problem with this format.

So you are saying we should abandon matches in the Candidates all together?

Not necessarily. The same as in Kazan, but with a larger number of games in each match – say six or eight – is also completely fine, because in a longer distance this “catenaccio” strategy is not so effective anymore, and most of the matches would be decided without tie breaks. The only, but may be serious, drawback might be finding sponsorship for such a cycle. It would definitely require more prize money. But if this issue will be solved, I think that this would also be a good format.


That’s a football expression, a tactical system with a heavy defence that is designed for one purpose only: to prevent goals. You are not a football fan?

Not really, not anymore. So how would you expect to fare in a modified system?

I want to stress that this discussion has absolutely nothing to do with my own performance and my result in Kazan. I did not make it – I was not good enough or not lucky enough – but I have nobody to blame but myself. I think that the winner, Boris Gelfand, is a totally legitimate challenger. Maybe he was a bit lucky with the pairings, but that is not his fault. Everything that was in his hands he did perfectly, and I am very glad for him and look forward to see his match against Anand.

A worthy winner and World Championship Challenger: Israeli GM Boris Gelfand

It is a very rare case that at his age – he will be 43 when he plays his match against Anand – a player for the first time in his life becomes a challenger in a world championship match. And I know that for him it is very important. He is a very serious player with a classical approach to chess, and has tried so many times in his career, for twenty years now, to make it. And now, when nobody was probably expecting it, he succeeded, and I am humanly very glad for him. I think it will not be so easy for Anand, who is still the favourite. But nobody should underestimate Boris, who was equal second with me at the World Championship in Mexico, and won the World Cup. He has the unique ability to play his very best at the most important moments.

Okay, so stick to the current cycle, but change the next?

From the very beginning this was not a very fortunate cycle – with all the changes, people withdrawing. There were experiments that were not very successful. But now we need to finish it, and the match should be played between Anand and Gelfand. For the next cycle, however, we should think carefully in advance, and not make changes during the cycle. I think we need to ask the players. I would be very interested to see their opinions, which I haven’t done yet. I know that there will be a FIDE commission soon which will decide on the next cycle, and they sent questions to all the players who participated. I personally answered them and sent my letter to all players involved as well, but I don’t know their opinions, and I would be very, very interested to know. If ChessBase would collect the opinions of all the players and publish them I would be very happy. It is also very interesting to know the opinion of the general public, but it is FIDE that needs to make a decision now.

What if they don’t do that?

 Naturally we cannot force them – if they decide to stick with the current cycle we are all going to participate – we would simply have to train a bit more in blitz, to play a lot of blitz tournaments during the two years in between [laughs]. But in general I would much rather play more classical games, and I guess many other people also. Before the finals three matches out of six were decided in blitz. That is just not right, conceptually.

Fateful: Vladimir Kramnik loses his first blitz game against Alexander Grischuk

What about the draws? Of the thirty classical games in Kazan 27 ended in draws. Kamsky won one game, and Gelfand two. Many chess fans were quite frustrated. What should be done about that?

I think that the system I am proposing is already a good way to fight against the problem. There would be no point in playing for a draw from the beginning. But in addition it is perfectly okay to have additional anti-draw rules – it makes sense, as long as we are not forcing players to play rook ending two against two, which would be stupid. We could limit it to thirty or even forty moves and not allow players to agree to a draw before then. I would even implement that in world championship matches, where there are just two players, and people sometimes are coming from far away to see it. So in general I would welcome measures against short draws, although there is nothing wrong with a fighting draw, we should understand that.

You yourself drew all your classical games, some in very few moves…

I was not very happy to make short draws, but I was kind of forced to. My white games were all pretty complicated, tense and full of fight. I am responsible for my white games, and I was always trying to find a way to fight with white, even if I did not get an advantage. But with black it is very difficult and incredibly risky to start avoiding drawish lines from the very beginning, because it can easily just cost you a point in a very stupid way – get a bad position, lose the game, lose the match and feel like an idiot? I didn’t do it, but maybe at some point I should have. It is a difficult decision which can easily backfire at this level.

So in general I think something needs to be done. It is funny that Silvio Danailov seems to have similar views. He wrote an open letter, answering the questions on this subject instead of Topalov, as usual. Although Silvio probably did it out of his political ambitions, nevertheless it is a historical occasion when Danailov and I have the same views on a subject [laughs]. We need to savour this moment. But seriously, there is total consensus that we need to do something. I cannot speak for the other players, I can only express my own understanding. I believe it is just a matter of common sense. It became so obvious in Kazan that we simply cannot ignore it anymore.


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