'I am always happy to try new formats'

by ChessBase
7/8/2004 – While top GMs are playing for the FIDE world championship in Tripoli, the world's number two player Vishy Anand is watching the action as a spectator on the Internet. We asked him for his impression and got involved in a long and interesting discussion on the problems of draws and the future of chess. Something to think about...

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Interview with Vishy Anand

This interview was conducted by phone on July 6, 2004, during the first game of the FIDE world championship final between Rustam Kasimdzhanov and Michael Adams. The transcription sticks very close to the original recording, giving us a flavour of a chat with the world's number two player.

World number two player Viswanathan ("Vishy") Anand from India

Frederic Friedel: So Vishy, are you watching Tripoli?

Vishy Anand: Yeah, sure, I go take a look sometimes on the server. I tune in, and if something interesting is happening I keep watching, otherwise I tune out and come back later to see what’s happening.

Frederic: Why aren’t you there, playing in this championship?

Vishy: Well, basically I disagreed with the idea that Kasparov was seeded to the final and just decided it wasn’t worth playing, that it was no longer a real world championship and there was no reason to play.

Fred: You would have had a pretty good chance, though…

Vish: Maybe, maybe not. But I simply could not take part in the event. In principle once you take part you accept that Kasparov is rightly seeded above you and that you don’t have a problem with that. Obviously the organisers committed a lot of other mistakes, especially with regard to the Israeli players, but well before I knew whether the Israelis would be allowed to play, or even thought of that aspect yet, I had already made my decision.

F: What do you think of the quality of the games played so far?

V: The quality is like it always is when you have a huge mass of games. There were a fair amount of errors, for instance the way Almasi won against Modiahki [in round one], and how he lost to Kasim [Rustam Kasimdzhanov], with Vallejo in between – I suppose there were a lot of mistakes, but there are just too many games to comment on.

But in the end the top seeds, Topalov and Anand…

Wake up Fred, you’re dreaming…

…Topalov and Adams went all the way to the finals, or almost to the finals. That was pretty convincing.

Veselin Topalov at the FIDE world championship in Tripoli

Yes, Adams went very smoothly, and Topalov, well what can you say, the guy made nine and a half out of ten (although he should have lost the second game against Kharlov). He was going through the tournament like hot butter through a knife…

Like what…?

Okay, the other way around – but even he could trip up unexpectedly, which is one of the dangers of this format. Suddenly somebody is very solid, things are not so smooth, and then something like this happens. You simply forget how to overcome resistance.

But what I am saying is that the knockout system works to a certain degree, apparently.

Yes, I think that if your nerves are holding up it works, and I don’t see anything wrong per se in the knockout system. You remember Delhi/Teheran [FIDE world championship 2000]? There it was me, Adams, Shirov and Grischuk – I mean not a bad semi. Or take Groningen [FIDE Championship 1997-98] the four semi-finalists were Adams, me, Short and Gelfand, so it’s always been the case that in the end the top seeds have come up. You can also say this about events like Monaco and other events, where the chess looks pretty chaotic, but in the end somehow there are only familiar names at the top.

If it were left to you, how would you stage a world championship, would you continue in the same knockout style, or go back to classical chess, or what?

It’s a very tricky question. I think all systems have their advantages and disadvantages. The long matches have some attraction to them, but then again short draws become a big problem, especially now-a-days when everyone sits down with Fritzy and gets these long, forced lines. I mean in previous times at least you went to the board and were not completely sure, but now you can mathematically work some lines out and force a draw. I think the danger of these 12 or 16 game matches is that you can get an incredible amount of short draws.

And this is the fault of Fritz?

Anand working with the computer

Yeah, sometimes, definitely, if your preparation goes too well. You’ve seen the effect in Linares, that is the kind of thing I am thinking about. People are simply well prepared, they play topical lines, and in fact they even copy each other’s openings. Somebody who has never played the Sveshnikov will add it to his repertoire, someone who never plays the Marshall will have it in his repertoire, and they all play the same lines against each other, often with reversed colours as well. It is very difficult in those circumstances to get anything going. Now if that can happen with six players it can also happen with two. These sixteen-game matches can be very interesting, but they can also be very boring. And if something fizzles out on one day you don’t have a second or third game to watch. It becomes better to watch the games from home than to make a big trip and see a game finish early. And then there may be a rest day before the next game, and so on. Knockout matches on the other hand are so unpredictable, it is almost a pity that someone like Topalov gets kicked out, but one bad day and you are home.

You feel sorry for Topalov?

World championship finalist in Tripoli Rustam Kasimzdhanov

Well, you have to give it to Kasim, it’s not like he did it in just one day, he proved Topalov’s equal over four games. So I wouldn’t call it a fluke.

Okay, Vish, but let us say that one day you become FIDE president, or president of India or something, and you have to select a format for the world championship. What would you do?

[Thinks] At the moment I would have to say that just getting everybody to the world championship is half the job. It doesn’t matter which format you have, the tournament has lost some of its lustre if half the people are not playing. You have these knockouts, and Kasparov or Kramnik refuses, or you have some private events where basically everyone else refuses, and on and on. Let us assume that in a knockout everybody plays. Then the result at least is valid, even if not everybody is completely happy about the system. The old championships were not that fair in themselves – I mean the challenger had to work for three years while the champion just sat there waiting for him. So we can’t pretend we are coming from some Utopia and switching to the knockout system.

In the history of these knockout events top players have never played. At least two or three, sometimes even four didn’t play.

Hmmm… In Groningen it was Kramnik and Kasparov who didn’t play, Las Vegas was me and Kasparov, in 2000 [Delhi/Tehran] again Kramnik and Kasparov, in 2001 again the two of them. So basically it was the two guys who had a match going at that point, only in 1997 Kramnik took off on his own. But I really think that the main problem is what to do about short draws. You can have any format you want…

Okay, let's go into that a little more deeply. You are saying that people tend to prepare very carefully with Fritz and their seconds, and then go out there with the intention of playing a quick draw?

Not really. But it has become really tough to find a line you can play with white. I think Kramnik hinted at this after Linares. Unless you have some very fresh idea, if everyone knows the same lines it is very difficult to do anything with white. So you come there, make a feeble attempt, and then you go home.

So what do we do about this?

Well, one idea is simply to forbid draw offers until move 30…

But then people would simply shuffle around for a while.

Yeah, but at least maybe while you shuffle around you can make a mistake, if you have to make another ten or fifteen accurate moves. But of course it is hard to enforce, and I’ll admit it is quite artificial. The problem is that a draw is a natural part of the game, and there is only so much you can do to avoid them. Then again if you keep having tournaments like Linares this year you could have the sponsors running away as well.

Let’s assume you had to redesign Linares – what would you do about draws? Would you perhaps try to regulate it with the prize money?

That is one possibility, but in the end I can hardly imagine that losing is ever going to be more advantageous than a draw. Okay, you can take huge risks, but then your opponent might try to exploit that. It comes down to something fundamental. You have to actually redesign the way chess works. We have tinkered around with quite a lot of different formats. The knockout has at least that one virtue, that at the end of the day it produces a winner. I don’t know if a blitz game is any more elegant than a tie-break in tennis, or the penalties or the golden goal in soccer, but at least it works. Maybe we should take that from other sports, that at the end of the day somehow you need a winner, one way or the other, even if chess purists go nuts about the way it is done.

Speaking about soccer, how about taking their system of awarding three points for a win and one for a draw?

[Thinks] It’s possible that it would work, and maybe there would be an incentive to change your style a little bit and play more aggressively the whole time, so that over ten or fifteen games there are chances that you will score many more points. For an individual game, if your opponent is willing to play some really boring position, if he is going to be really solid, there is nothing really that you can do. But in the long run it may not be a bad idea.

So it might be a viable alternative?

I don’t know, I think you simply need to have some tests. We are shooting in the dark. When you tinker around with these things you will discover that all kinds of unexpected problems appear, so I think we need to have a few tournaments and try this out. Another thing would be just to mix the field much more. Tournaments with broad fields like Wijk aan Zee are always much more interesting than a much more narrow tournament like Linares.

But in Wijk you guys tend to draw against each other and crush the weaker opposition…

That is not completely true. If you look at this year, my game against Kramnik wasn’t a quick draw, we were actually playing a full game. My game against Leko was quite interesting, Kramnik tried hard against Leko, Adams beat Kramnik. And of course I don’t want to say that a tournament like Linares is always going to be boring. But quite often you have these very high draw percentages, which happens more when you have just six or four players of equal strength. The problem is also that the same players meet each other so often, they know each other very well, so it is very difficult to add something new. You take these old guys – I’m one of them – and bring in a bunch of Radjabov, Carlsen, people like that, and maybe you get a more interesting field. Mix that with an organiser who is there, watching and pressing…

Like Rentero… [the legendary organiser of Linares, who would yell at and threaten players who took quick draws, and pay out bonus sums in cash to those who played fighting games]

Anand vs Leko (in Dortmund 2003). Must such games necessarily end in a draw?

Yeah, some Rentero type of guy. I used to sometimes think he was overdoing it, but now I can see that he was onto something. I don’t want to say that Wijk is interesting and Linares not, but tournaments with a very small field and always the same players make it difficult to do something interesting. I think you need to mix the field a lot these days.

What about team championships, where people travel halfway round the world, meet someone they know well and play a quick draw? Isn’t that also counter-productive?

I guess you are referring to my game against Kramnik in France? I wouldn’t say this is something that is typical for team tournaments, it happens everywhere else. For example in France Kramnik played the Anti-Marshall, I found this move Ne3, which was an improvement on his game from the previous day, and actually it created interesting possibilities for White. But right the next move I made a mistake, and then the position completely fizzled out. It is in the nature of these openings, like the Sveshnikov or the Anti-Marshall, that you make just one inaccurate move and the position just fizzles out. We could have plodded on for a while, but essentially the game is dead. It’s something very fundamental in chess.

You said something very intriguing, that we cannot get rid of the problem of draws without tweaking the game itself. How could we do that?

[Thinks] Well, if we used your suggestion of counting three points for a win and one for a draw then maybe people would start playing riskier lines because in the long run it is more productive. That’s one possibility. Another idea is what Kramnik brought up, which is to predetermine the opening and give them to the players a couple of hours or a day before the game. That way you force them to play a much broader range of things. I think we simply have to try it. These proposals sound nice, but we simply have to see whether they work. In Buenos Aires I recall we had this Sicilian tournament – if you force everyone to play the Sicilian you should be guaranteed a fairly interesting tournament, but even there in some variations play became extremely interesting, in other variations it was quite boring, because people didn’t play the main line. So that even here people can get used to different openings.

Kramnik (left) has suggested predetermining openings in top tournaments

I must say that in the end there is some merit to knockout. The idea to have knockout events didn’t come out of a vacuum. It came because of this problem of short draws, which is not a problem that developed in the last four years – it just got a fresh leash of life recently.

If you close your eyes tightly and concentrate, can you imagine playing in Linares and the openings you have to play is given to you, on the evening before or in fact on the day of the game?

Yeah, I could get used to the idea. In general I’m always quite happy to try new formats.

But how would we choose the openings? Wouldn’t you be upset if I gave you the King’s Gambit to play, for example?

Yes, but you could give it to both players. Maybe every once in a while you come across a dud, but by the end of the tournament the duds should be evenly distributed.

Maybe there could be two rapid games on a day, where you play each side of a predetermined opening against the same player.

That may be an idea, or simply have an Internet vote on which openings must be played. The whole idea is to attract spectators, so you might as well have a vote on which opening people want to see. What you can’t have is theoretical experts deciding which lines are interesting. You need something more broad-based. You just have to accept the risk that there are going to be duds, and just hope that they are fairly distributed.

What about the idea of shuffling the pieces in the opening?

Shuffling the pieces – the future of chess? (GM Dautov playing "Chess960")

That has obviously arisen as a result of the same problem. But that is also quite random, sometimes you get very interesting games, but sometimes your pieces are quite illogically placed and there is absolutely nothing happening. We have to build up a lot of experience before we can decide which setups are the most interesting.

Okay, let's go back to Tripoli. What do you think of Kasimdzhanov? You know him quite well?

I think he has been very smart in this tournament. His record is the most impressive – I mean Ivanchuk, Grischuk, Almasi and Topalov. The way he beat Chucky, well that was perhaps a Chucky thing, but the way he did it against Grischuk in the rapids was quite impressive. And you notice that he generally wins in the first two rapid games. He seems to have very good nerves.

Actually he is known for NOT having good nerves…

Yeah, it’s a funny thing. In Tripoli he really seems to be in his groove. In fact I wouldn’t even consider Adams a huge favourite or anything. Adams hasn’t had a tiebreak so far, so if they go to a tiebreak Kasim will perhaps be more warmed-up.

Anand at the FIDE world championship In Groningen and Lausanne in 1997/98 (video stills from the multimedia report in ChessBase Magazine 68)

You know it’s funny, but when I played Mickey in Groningen [1997] he had been having to play a tiebreak in every round. He had a huge tiebreak against Van Wely, a tiebreak against Svidler, he played a tiebreak against Short, which went the entire distance. At the same time I had been going smoothly from round to round – I beat Shirov, Gelfand, Almasi and Nikolic without a tiebreak, and had just one tiebreak against Khalifman, which of course you will remember. But in general things had gone very smoothly, and I remember spending a very pleasant rest day over Christmas, on the day when Short and Adams were playing their long tiebreak. At some stage in the evening I got a phone call saying okay, it’s Adams. It would seem that I was fresh and relaxed, but right on the first day I had big problems, and after that I could have won each of the remaining games, but only for a brief moment, and when that moment passed it was gone. So it was a very tough match, and we went to the tiebreak, which went the whole distance. It was absolutely nerve-wracking. I missed chances in the regular games, he missed chances in most of the rapid games – quite often I though oh my god I’ve blown this – but somehow I’d get a draw, and only in the fifth game I prevailed. But the point I’m making is that it seemed to make no difference whatsoever that one side was fresh and the other tired.

So what is your tip for the final result in Tripoli?

Rustam Kasimdzhanov vs Michael Adams in Tripoli

It’s difficult to say. For instance today I think Kasim is equalising without any problems, and I’m assuming it will be a short draw [it was, half an hour later], and they will both settle in nicely. We’ll have to see how the match goes. I really can’t pick a favourite at this point.

So you don’t sit there watching these games and regretting that you are not part of it?

No, not at all. I watch because the games are interesting, with so many strong players. But I don’t feel I should be there. No.

So what are you doing instead?

Sort of getting ready for Dortmund and enjoying the break. Because I have a crowded second half of the year. I’m playing Dortmund, Mainz, then a rapid tournament in Brazil, then I’ll play in the Olympiad in Mallorca, then probably Corsica, and some Bundesliga matches as well.

So you are doing fine and enjoying life, even without Tripoli…

Oh yes, very much so. For me it is just a very interesting tournament to watch, I have no regrets about it.

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