Alexander Chernin - coach to the stars

by Diana Mihajlova
6/5/2014 – There are coaches and there are coaches. Alexander Chernin is one whose pedigree of students elevated to stardom ranks him as one of the most successful in the world, and his students have included Fabiano Caruana, whom he mentored from IM to elite player, and now US stars such as Samuel Sevian and Jeffrey Xiong, both who just scored GM norms. A fascinating interview.

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Last November, two young Americans landed in Budapest with the  intention of advancing their already enviable chess careers. Europe beckons when it comes to serious FIDE rated tournaments, in contrast to the short, two-games per day, fastfood style tournaments that the USA abounds with.

IM Troff Kayden and IM Sevian Samuel played in Budapest in two tournaments in a row – the November ‘First Saturday’ and the ‘Great Hopes International GM-tournament’, 16 – 26 November 2013, organised by GM Gabor Kallai.

Great Hopes GM Tournament: (from left) GM Varga Zoltan  (HUN), IM Troff Kayden (USA),
GM Vajda Levente (ROU), FM Sevian Samuel (USA), GM Horvath Csaba, winner (HUN),
IM Zsolt Korpics (arbiter), GM Gabor Kallai (organiser) and GM Balog Imre (HUN)

Kayden Troff who just became a GM also just turned 16. He might be too old to impress by his age, but he is unique in another way: he is completely self-made as a chess player. He started playing chess as a four year old, after being briefly instructed by his father, but he worked largely on his own, with no coach, until, in the World Youth Championship in 2010, he won silver in the U-12 section.  The Kasparov Chess Foundation noticed his potential and provided him with a coach. Two years later, in the 2012 World Youth Championship, Kayden was a gold winner. The coach was GM Alexander Chernin.

Samuel Sevian had already three norms but still needed to reach the 2400 rating in order to be officially classified as an IM. In Budapest he did exactly that: he performed well enough to gain the coveted title. Soon afterwards, at the Foxwoods Open in the USA, he took clear second and made his first GM norm. Sam also became a Chernin student.


Americans in Budapest: Kayden Kroff and Samuel Sevian, November 2013

Sam and Kayden are both World Youth Champions crowned in Maribor 2012; Kayden in the section U-14, Sam in the section U-12. They are both protégées of the USA Kasparov Chess Foundation and its special branch ‘Young Stars-team USA’.  And they are both under the tutelage of one of the best coaches, appointed by the Kasparov Foundation: GM Alexander Chernin.

Alexander Chernin

Meeting and chatting with these delightful boys, Kayden and Sam, on a late autumn stroll through Budapest, I had an opportunity to get better acquainted with their somewhat reclusive but famed coach, a personality of noteworthy significance in the chess world.  

Mothers and sons and their coach: (from left) Kim and Kayden Troff, GM Alex Chernin,
Armine and Samuel Sevian in Budapest, November 2013

I knew that GM Alexander Chernin lived in Budapest and that one of the most prominent young players of today, Fabiano Caruana, was his student for many years. I was curious to find out more about Chernin, and to present him closer to the Chess Base readers. However, he is a globe-trotting chess trainer. Tokyo, Abu Dhabi, New York… he spends long intervals on invitational coaching sessions. It took some time before we managed to set up a meeting and a chat about his many activities: a former successful player, a chess writer and his most important career - a chess trainer.  

In 1991, just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chernin settled in Budapest.   For a while, he continued his career as a competitive chess player. But from about 2004 he is a full-time coach.

Some of his notable successes as a competitive chess player include: silver medallist at the 1979 World Junior Championship (behind Seirawan); Soviet co-champion in 1985 (with Gavrikov and Gurevich) when he also got his GM title; winner of Dortmund 1990 (ahead of Boris Gelfand); second in the Wijk aan Zee A-group in 1991 (behind John Nunn); winner of the closed 'Najdorf Tournament' organised by Miguel Najdorf in Buenos Aires, 1992; World Championship Candidate in 1985, and more. 

Chernin with Mrs and Mr Najdorf in Buenos Aires, 1992. (Photo: Chernin archive)

The Wikipedia entry about his famous student Fabiano Caruana states: ‘... in 2007 he moved to Budapest to train with Grandmaster Alexander Chernin…’ Considering Caruana’s stratospheric rise, it was natural that our conversation would be centered around their fruitful co-operation during the formative years of the young player. Chernin describes the beginnings: 

When we started to work together, the Caruana family had already been living in Europe for a couple of years. The parents had made this brave decision to move to Europe to advance their son’s chess career. Because until then Caruana, although having played already at many tournaments, had not achieved a notable success. They chose to stay in Hungary for three years. Hungary was a difficult place – a new language, social isolation. When we started to work together his rating was about 2490 and he was 14 and a half years old. I observed his way of thinking, which was quick but also impulsive and very chaotic. I felt that my first task was to create some order in this area. When we succeeded in this, his chess results started to improve. Within five months he made 3 GM norms in a row and within a year he won six important tournaments. This was before his 15th birthday. Once I felt I had managed to suppress his disorganised thinking, I followed up with a special educational program. 

You devised a specific program especially for him?

No, I had created a teaching program six years earlier. I first tried this program with the Hungarian National Team and later with a young, promising Hungarian player, Csaba Balogh. (GM Csaba Balogh, HU, 2649, Olympic team member). The amount of work I did with him was half of what I did with Caruana. But Balogh was very enthusiastic and he grew very fast, from 2400 to 2600 Elo in two years. Unfortunately, our work was interrupted when the Hungarian Chess Federation stopped sponsoring his training.

What is the framework of your teaching system?

It consists of two main parts focusing on positional and manoeuvring play and on calculation. As a background, I use ideas from Botvinnik’s books and from Jurij Razuvaev, a famous theoretician and coach, with whom we have been exchanging training solutions over many years. From both of them I took methodology ideas. For calculation in mid-games and end-games I rely on Dvoretsky’s methods. Dvoretsky was also my personal coach. Actually, in my chess formation, he was the only coach I ever had. Unfortunately, I was already 22 years old when we started working together, which is too late by chess standards. I also draw ideas from books by famous chess writers from where I have selected useful  material, and from practical chess positions, ranging from Steinitz to Carlsen. A large part of my work is drawn from some of Kasparov’s latest books. All this material and methodology represents the core of my system,  incorporated in my lectures and exercises. No room to talk about everything here, but my book Pirc Alert contains  more detailed explanations about my methodology. (‘Pirc Alert!’, co-written with Lev Alburt, 2001, Chess Information and Research Center).

To return to Caruana – how did your training program with him look like?  

In the frame of this system, over a period of three years, I had with Fabiano about thirty thematic, educational sessions related to various topics of chess play. At the same time, we worked intensively on calculations. I believe, in modern day chess, training in calculation is an absolute must for any chess professional.

Coaches complain about the negative role computers can have in the thinking process and formation of chess students. What is your view on this topic?

Well, I cannot say anything new but to repeat what has become a cliché, almost like saying 'smoking is bad for you'. Computers have undoubtedly some positive role, as in providing a quick search and databases, but the computer’s analysing programs have a negative side. The role of my teaching program is to train students to resist the computer’s negative influence and develop their own analysing abilities.

Chernin at work – by a computer!

Caruana is a young person. He would have had an obvious affinity towards using computers. Did this hinder in a way your work with him? 

He was seriously affected by both the positive and the negative side of computers. Like many young players, he was very proficient with computers. I felt he was dependent on computers and I needed to free him, which I managed to do as we progressed further in our program. Another danger that computers presented for him, quite typical for young players, were computer games. I had to enlist his parents’ help in order to solve this problem.

As promising players are usually very young, their parents ’ co-operation must play an important part in the educational and training process. What is your experience with your students’ parents?

Parents can be neutral, but they can also exercise quite some influence, which can be either negative or positive. My task is to encourage their positive influence or at least to put them in a neutral zone. Regarding Caruana’s parents, I should say that they followed scrupulously my prescriptions, which contributed to his success. This was very helpful for me, because during the three years of my engagement as his coach, I was practically his manager as well.

In this role, I organised a larger aspect in his professional development. His opening preparation needed to be fixed, and for this, I had invited other teachers to work with him, for one or two sessions, that I knew would be appropriate for his progress, like Razuvajev, Beliavsky, Ribli, Yakovich and Avrukh. I had invited Balogh and Gelfand as his sparring partners. This work rebuilt and changed significantly his repertoire, for instance he started to open with 1.d4 in addition to 1.e4, and to play the Spanish instead of the Sicilian. But, this was not of sole importance. My intention was to enable him to also work independently, which I succeeded within about a year. I believe that was the most important.

Fabiano Caruana at the São Paulo Grand Slam in 2012 (photo: Albert Silver)

You were also Caruana’s second for a number of years?

Yes, the last year and a half of our term, I worked as his second. This duty imposed itself as a necessity because in 2008 his results continued on the rise; after winning 2009 Wijk aan Zee B-group he was invited to the following, 2010 Wijk aan Zee A-group. We were together at thirteen tournaments during a year and a half, which  ended with Wijk aan Zee A-group, in the company of Carlsen, Anand, Kramnik, Karjakin, Nakamura, Ivanchuk, who, as we know became his standard competitive environment since.

While doing the usual second’s work – preparing new and checking old variations - I was careful not to neglect an important educational part - I taught him how to profile his opponents among whom there were world champions; how to handle his opening repertoire - how to hide weaknesses and holes. The latter was important because his repertoire was always in the state of rebuild.

Does your co-operation continue in some way today?

No. Our work finished when our program, the educational stage of his career, reached its final point and his playing strength was about 2700.

Caruana has been among the top players for quite awhile, however only recently, his performance has been particularly sparkling in elite tournaments. 

His progress was not a straight upward line because he exhibited some weaknesses – over-reaction after both success and failure, which proved detrimental for a steady upward progress. The magnitude was enormous – from elation and seeing himself a world champion after a significant win to wanting to quit chess completely after a disastrous tournament. His see-saw rating changes, once +20, then -20, affected very much his mood and undermined his progress. However, such changing moods are understandable at 17. With maturity, from the age of 20 onwards, his play has become steadier.

Chernin, a coach to the stars

Caruana was a huge episode in your coaching career. What about your current and future assignments?

Last two years my work has been mainly with the Kasparov Chess Foundation. My association with them dates back to 2004 when the Foundation sponsored the USA Olympic women team and I was appointed as their opening theory coach. We got silver, leaving behind the Russians - a first ever medal for the USA women. China was the winner, but we had won our match against them.

Nowadays, we have a new and ambitious goal: we take on students with lower rating, young American promising hopes and train them until they reach their full potential. A great number among them became world champions in their age categories.

The USA women team, Polgar, Krush, Zatonskih and Shahade receive their silver at the
2004 Olympiad in Calvia. (Chernin is second from right)

Founded by the 13th World Chess Champion, the Kasparov Chess Foundation started its operations in the USA in 2002. Today, its global expansion includes branches in Africa, Asia-Pacific and Europe. Its aim is ‘the most worthy of endeavours – the education of our children’. The promising young talents under its wing are placed in charge of best coaches and trainers. GM Alexander Chernin presently carries the Foundation’s  biggest load of work. He is in regular touch with Kasparov who carefully monitors the training and progress of the students. Garry himself teaches twice per year following the example and method of his own teacher, Botvinnik. 

Apart  from Kayden Troff and Sam Sevian, Chernin has been coaching two more recruits of the Kasparov Chess Foundation: FM Awonder Liang (USA, 2215), twice World Youth Champion, U-8 in 2011 and U-10  in 2013 and 13-year old Jeffery Xiong (USA 2412) , a World silver medalist in 2010 who has been granted recently his IM title; at the latest Chicago Open, Jeffery made his first GM norm.

These four youngsters have amassed among them four gold and two silver medals in World Championships over the last four years. With their talent and potential, under the guidance and rigorous training by their common coach, Chernin, they are truly chess stars in the making!

Awonder Liang with Kasparov and the Foundation’s president, Mr Michael Khodarkovsky 
(Photo: Awonder’s school blog)

A former university lecturer in Romance philology, she is currently a painter as well as a chess journalist, and reports regularly from the international tournament scene.


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