Ruslan Ponomariov: “Probably I became world champion too early”
On 11 October, the first, and so far only Ukrainian world champion, turned 25. Here we bring you excerpts of an interview with GM Dmitry Komarov for the magazine "Sobytiya".
When I lost to my father, I almost used to feel like punching him
"Probably I became world champion too early", recollects Ruslan Ponomariov, sitting in a café where we met, near his home of Poznyak, Kiev. “People expected too much from me, and I did my best to live up to this new status. But it was not so simple. Today, chess does not have a single dominant player, even if he is world champion, as was the case in the days of Karpov or Kasparov. Even the slightest details are important, and if something goes wrong, your rivals will pounce on it. Yes, nowadays, I am in the shadow a bit, but chess is my profession. I still work a lot at it. After all, you know yourself that if you don’t train and stay at your best, you can't achieve anything.
Q: And how did it come about that you became a champion?
A: I started off playing with my father, when I was not even seven years old. At first, I used to lose all the time, and used to get terribly upset. I almost felt like punching my father. When he saw this, he started offering me draws, and then later, I started being able to beat him. It became less interesting. But then a trainer came to our school, and a chess group was started. I began going along and gradually started to study theory. This was followed by trips to neighbouring regions to play competitions, and then to other cities as well. By then, I wanted to become a chess professional.
Q: I know that in the period of six years, since you won the championship, you have managed to obtain two higher education degrees.
A: Ever since the Soviet era, there has been a prejudice in our society, that one must necessarily have a university education. So I chose the Institute of Law, which was not far from my home in Kramatorsk, and meant that I could study without disrupting other aspects of life. My thesis "Challenges and prospects for improved legislation in international sporting competitions" was devoted to the analysis of the contract for my abandoned match with Garry Kasparov. My sporting higher education was obtained more accidentally. After a long interval, the Kiev State University of Physical Education launched a chess specialization, and I decided not only to support my friends, by winning over new students by a personal example, but also to develop my own knowledge. This summer I defended my thesis on analysis of chess software. I was invited to stay in graduate school, but I didn't want to. We already have enough professors.
Q: How lucrative is your profession?
A: Chess is not a sport where you can earn a lot, particularly in comparison with football, tennis or golf. The fact that chess is not included in the Olympics has an effect on its prestige and popularity. Incidentally, I recently received a call from the tax authorities. Apparently, they had read in the press that I earned lots of money [the victory at the World Championship earned Ruslan about $380,000, after tax. - D.K.]. I had to explain that the newspapers do not always publish accurate information. Besides, I paid out of my own pocket for all the training sessions. And sometimes it even turned against me. I hired Veselin Topalov to be my coach when preparing for the match with Kasparov, and paid him a substantial amount. But as it turned out, he gained more from this cooperation. He is now first on the FIDE list, and I am 22nd.
Sergey Karjakin, Ruslan Ponomariov and Veselin Topalov in Bilbao 2005
Q: Do you receive a state salary?
A: The salary for a member of the Ukrainian national team is two thousand hryvnia [around US $350] per month. But I refused to take it. I want chess to be respected and rewarded appropriately. At some point a sportsman's career ends. Four years ago I wrote straightforwardly in "Facts" that the winners of the World Chess Olympiad [the state paid ten thousand hryvnia for this success] should be given a reward equal to the gold medallists from the Olympic Games. Since then nothing has changed, and therefore I haven’t played for the national team in the last three years. Earlier, when I was a kid, it was interesting to play for the team. I was left out at one point, due to various intrigues. But in 1998 we won the bronze medal, and I scored the decisive point. Then I took golds at both the World Championship and the Olympiad. So I proved my professionalism, now it is up to the officials to do the same.
Q: Why did you refuse to play in a traditional supertournament in Foros?
A: As far as I know, some of the participants, including the foreign ones, were paid starting fees on the top of the prize fund. The first time I played for free, but now I insist that conditions should be on the level of major international tournaments. Why should Ukrainians, and not only chess players, earn less for their work than the citizens of European countries?
Q: Did you ever think about the issue of why money matters?
A: Financial independence means freedom of choice. One can accept some proposals, and turn down others. For example, if the Ukraine were richer, we would be able to pursue different political policies, but as it is, other countries try to determine the fate of Ukrainians for us.
Q: And how would you prefer to spend your hard-earned cash?
A: I have a dream – to travel around the Mongolian steppes on horseback. One of my friends at the institute of physical culture travelled in the Antarctic and brought me back a souvenir coin. Listening to his stories of the ice and penguins, I also yearned to see the Antarctic. I have already found out that this pleasure would cost me about 10,000 Euros.
Q: You would not be frightened of freezing to death out there?
A: Cold is nothing to be frightened of. Last December, I got some frostbite on my ear. The doctor said I would have to rest for a month and take antibiotics. But just then I went to a Christening and some friends persuaded me to go down an ice-hole with them.
Q: No! What happened?
A: Up to then, I had never tried swimming in winter. Of course, I was a bit nervous. But when the priest blessed this ice-hole, in the shape of a cross, I got into the water with the others. It was great, and the next day, my ear had recovered completely. A month later, I was in Spain. Of course, there it is much warmer than in Kiev, but even so, it was quite cold, but I did not deprive myself of the pleasure of bathing in the Atlantic Ocean.
Q: And how do you keep fit?
A: Ten years ago I took up football, but I soon decided that it was too violent – I broke my leg, so that was the end of that. Jogging has always struck me as boring, so I bought a bike. But after going round all the districts of Kiev, I got bored with that too. Besides, our capital is not very cyclist-friendly, in the way other European cities are – there are no dedicated cycle lanes, so you have to spend your whole time trying to avoid ending up beneath the wheels of a car. Therefore, nowadays I go to the gym and swimming pool, and do exercises with 5 kg weights every day.
Q: A lot of celebrities not only visit gyms, but also go to beauticians and hairdressers, etc. What about you?
A: Just after I became world champion, I decided that I should start looking the part. I went to a Moscow salon called “Dolores”, the female proprietor of which is a “world champion hairdresser”. I paid about 100 dollars just for an ordinary haircut. Then I went back to my hotel, went to bed, and next morning, it all needed doing again – my hair was all over the place. Ever since, I have stuck to an ordinary barber.
Q: Do you often go to the countryside?
A: I love to have training camps in one of the country areas of the Ukraine. I particularly like carp fishing in the lakes. Admittedly, once I and some chessplayers went to a lake with our fishing-rods, but the place was partitioned off by traps, and we couldn’t catch anything. Then the owner of the tourist center, where we were staying, took us to see an old man. He proved to be a very cordial chap. Not only did he let us catch fish in his own private waters, but he also produced some rabbit liver and illegal homemade hooch from his secret reserve, and shared it with us!
Q: Did you end up having a sing-song?
A: Actually, I love singing. It is another matter that I have no musical talent, unlike my sister – she is just finishing music college in the violin, and is preparing to go to the conservatoire. I remember than in Lausanne, I went to a karaoke bar for the first time, and was amazed by how well the customers could sing. They didn’t have any Russian songs available, but even so, I got up and had a go, and even got some applause. I would like to find a similar place in Kiev.
Ruslan with his sister Ludmilla, who wants to become a professional violinist
Q: What are your other most memorable things from overseas trips?
A: Once I was invited to a dacha in Barvikha, near the famous Rublevo-Uspenscom Shosse, where all the Russian millionaires live. My friend had a relatively modest, two-room wooden house there, but even that cost about three million roubles. I came out to get a breath of air one morning, and saw some kind of luxurious sanatorium place, and next to it, a church. I thought, how nice – after a relaxing treatment, one can go to pray. I mentioned this to my friend, who laughed his head off – it turned out that this was not a sanatorium, but the dacha of one of the new Russians!
And last year, I went to the Czech Republic for the first time, to the tournament at Karlovy Vary. I thought I would be able to familiarise myself with Czech culture, and meet some of the locals. But it turned out that the local language there is Russian, and almost everybody there is Russian or Ukrainian.
At last year’s “tournament of champions” in the Basque country, the grandmaster met 21-year-old Ines, a philology student. Ruslan did not share details of his relationship with his girlfriend, but then Ines published photos of their holiday together, on her webblog. This year, Ruslan has visited her several times, and in June, Ines made a return visit to Kiev.
A: No, I have no plans to marry. Thanks to the amount of travel, and, it must be said, our rather egotistical natures, chess players have a very high divorce rate.
Q: Indeed, your colleague Alexey Shirov was recently divorced for the third time. Do you feel sorry for him?
A: Why feel sorry for him? Maybe, one should be pleased for him (laughs). Once a relationship has broken down, why prolong it? One should always look for the positive side of things and move on. The main thing is that he should be able to earn a decent living and support his four children. Seriously, the key is to solve the problems of everyday life, avoid conflict with one’s nearest and dearest, and to concentrate on the main thing. And the main thing for me right now is chess.
Russian language interview GM Dmitry Komarov for magazine "Sobytiya"
Translation by Steve Giddins