Please introduce yourself...
I’ve been playing chess for a while now – five time Russian Champion, five time Olympic Champion, winner of some tournaments. The one I probably like the most is Dortmund 1998, and recently I won the Gibraltar Open. It’s been a long career.
In Gibraltar you played some cricket?
“Play” is an overstatement, but I did have some fun, though obviously I suck at it. Cricket by now is not a hobby, it is a full-time occupation – I keep stats, I’m a madman. You have to blame Nigel [Short] for that. If Nigel hadn’t shown the game to me I would probably be a perfectly sane person.
Do you do sports to keep in shape?
I am in better shape now than I used to be, but I don’t do that much sport. In my case I feel that if I stop myself from eating that much I’m doing okay. I’m sticking with that program for now.
You didn’t play in Corus or Linares – by choice?
It’s not about choice, it is a question of invitations. I would play in those tournaments in a flash if I were offered to, but with my current rating there are a lot of people ahead of me in the queue. I need to do something this year, maybe next year, to get reinvited to the really big events. Number twenty in the world at the age of 32, 33, you are not really so hot anymore in the eyes of the organisers.
What about your results in Mexico?
Mexico was important – actually immediately after Mexico I had some good results. For me Mexico was a huge disappointment because this was the first time, perhaps in my life, where I felt I was really, really well prepared. You could probably even see it from the games. I got myself into shape, I started working out, and I came there with about three new openings, and with ideas in practically every single critical line. But I just couldn’t play, which was very surprising for me. I just couldn’t understand it. I still don’t really know what happened. Somehow the one time I really felt I could actually do well I did incredibly badly. This led me to question some of the things I’ve been doing. I hope I am on the right track now, but you never know. I think I know what is wrong and I am trying to rectify it.
What is missing in your play?
I think that what is lacking is not even chess related. I think I was somewhat more mellow than is necessary to be really at the top. That was completely obvious in Mexico in the second half of the event. My problem was always not even offering draws, it was saying no to a draw offer. This was always a huge problem for me. For me the Corsica/Sofia rules are a godsend. People would not normally think of me as a fan, but I am a fan of the rules, because they give me no choice. If you force me to play I am a decent player. So it was not all about opening preparation. Of course there are places where I am not as well prepared as Anand, Topalov or Kramnik, but that applies to everybody else. There are three or four guy, if you include Ivanchuk, who know a lot more than everybody else. But I always felt that if I survive the opening I can play against anybody. It is more of a mental thing, and I am trying to adjust mentally to what is needed. And also I suppose it is an age thing. It seems mildly ridiculous to say this at 32, but I’m now constantly ending up second or third in everything I play, so it becomes obviously harder to compete with younger people. Still, I am not 65 and it is not that critical.
Do you still have motivation?
This is something that I have been trying to address, and I think that I am in a much better place now than I was two years ago. I really do want to do well and get back to the level in which I feel I belong. I think that I am a better player than my current results show.
What about the World Championship and the Grand Prix?
I played in Baku and Sochi and I’m playing in Nalchik and somewhere in December – big question where. But the cycle is so random these days, and it chances so fast without your doing anything to deserve it, for me getting into the top five is a bigger priority than aiming for the World Championship title, because I really don’t know what the cycle is. I am playing in one of the competitions that is feeding into the cycle, but somehow, with everything that has been going on around, it feels a bit ephemeral. The venue for the April Grand Prix was announced in March, or maybe late February; the venue for the December Grand Prix will be announced in October or November; so with all this going on it is very hard not to feel that this a very strong tournament in which I wish to do well, and it will be very useful to my career if I do very well in it. But in general you can’t help but feel that the World Championship is something that – like American politics – happens in a dark smoky room somewhere, and you have no access to this dark room. As long as this is going on I feel I just need to improve, get myself in proper mental shape, and then what happens happens. With regard to the changes in venue you can imagine what I think. I understand Mickey [Adams] and Magnus [Carlsen] say they want no part of it.
How would you like to see the qualification process?
In my situation the two Grand Prix in 2009 are perhaps the two good tournaments I will play in. As to the correct structure I am not a big fan of the World Cups, because it is a bit of, I don’t want to say lottery, because really random people don’t win these things. For me the big question is not really the format. The question is that the people should be asked, and now the ACP actually conducted a survey, and they have some opinions of the top players. There should be some kind of a survey done, some kind of common opinion should be found out, and taken into account, one format should be agreed on, and then we should STICK with it, no matter what the format is. I really don’t think it is so critical, whether it is an eight-person qualifier tournament and then the match against somebody, whether it’s a knockout or a series of candidate matches. Just take a decision and don’t change it! I think people will accept more or less any cycle as long as they have a guarantee that this is what the cycle will be. Now we have the situation where they take a decision, then they scratch their heads and say maybe we should do something else, and they change it in the middle of the cycle, which leads to complete disillusionment and anger, it leads to people dropping out – there is no upside and a lot of downsides.
About the Topalov-Kamsky match, which Topalov won quite convincingly…
It was actually a very close match. It was a bit surprising for me that Topalov beat Kamsky basically on confidence. We all expected Topalov, if he were to win, to crush Kamsky in the openings, and I personally felt that if Kamsky survives the opening phase then he is not really such an underdog. I respect him very much as a chess player. He is very tenacious, he can play long games – he doesn’t care about long games – which is important against Topalov, because Topalov likes and can handle long games himself, so in general stamina is important against him. I felt that if somehow openings were removed from the equation, I thought it would be a very even match.
But for whatever reason – and I have seen some snippets of interviews and remarks by [Kamsky’s second Emil] Sutovsky who felt that Gata was in terrible shape chesswise – it looked like Kamsky didn’t trust himself. He is always in time trouble, but if you get into time troubles like this in a world championship match it probably means that you are triple checking everything. You don’t trust your decisions, you feel you need to check and recheck and recheck everything. In game one when facing this novelty – and I was very surprised that this was a novelty for him, because this is a critical line and he should have checked everything – after running into something unpleasant he spent an hour at the board and he played a move which could possibly be the best move in the position – he even had winning chances – and I thought this is interesting!
And then game two happened, and game two you really cannot explain. The guy plays a rare line of the Spanish, and for me Topalov’s decision to play the Spanish against Kamsky to me looked like madness, because Topalov is a born Sicilian player, and Kamsky isn’t. If you have Sicilian as an option, why would you choose not to play the Sicilian against Kamsky? Especially for someone like Topalov, who has years of experience with the Sicilian, and who is now probably one of the best Sicilian players in the world, with both colours, why would he want to play closed positions against Kamsky, who is very good at closed positions, I will never know. But he plays the Spanish, and then instead of taking a break and reconsidering, he takes risks and loses badly. It looks like the match is over, because this is a huge loss. But then he does well in game three and he wins game four – Spanish again.
And then the time troubles return. Even after losing the fifth and drawing the sixth Kamsky was very close to winning the seventh, with black. But time management and – Sutovsky was probably correct in saying – terrible form is what decided the match. I think Topalov deserved to win it because he was the more confident player. Plus two in seven games looks like a rout, like a crushing victory, but it was basically a very even match with two games completely ruined by time trouble. We all thought Topalov was the favourite, but how he won was a bit surprising. I expected him to win most of his white games, which he didn’t. The two he did win, one he won in time trouble after two blunders in a row, and game seven he was lost. So he won them not because he was white but because he was more confident, less in time trouble and not the last one to blunder.
If there is a match Topalov-Anand who is the favourite? Anand did not do so well in Linares…
Well, he did not do well in Bilbao. Vishy’s tournament form is never any kind of indication of how he will play in a match. I think right now they are number one and two in the world, so how the match will end I can’t really say. I felt the match against Kramnik was completely unclear, and that proved to be incorrect. It will be a very interesting match, and I hope it will not be eight games. Matches of this magnitude should be a bit longer. So I wouldn’t want to pick a favourite in this.
What will be your next tournaments?
In April I will be playing 25 days out of thirty. I am going to the Russian Club Championship in Dagomis, and from there I am returning home for one day to see some opera with the kids, and the next day I am off to Nalchik to the Grand Prix.
Do your kids play chess?
Very occasionally, and I am very happy about this. If they really push for it I will not stand in their way. If at some stage they say I really want to do it, send me to a chess school, then it is their right. But we are not pushing them in this direction. I feel that one crazy person is enough in a family.
Copyright Europe Echecs, ChessBase