Better than an engine: Leonardo Ljubicic (2/2)

by Martin Fischer
3/1/2016 – In the second part of his interview with ChessBase, Leonardo Ljubicic, winner of the 28th World Championship in Correspondence Chess, speaks about time-trouble in correspondence chess, strong grandmasters in over-the-board chess who also excel in correspondence chess, the importance of opening preparation, and his chances against Magnus Carlsen in a correspondence match.

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Leonardo Ljubicic

Martin Fischer: You mentioned that time-trouble was your biggest problem in over-the-board chess. How do you manage your time in correspondence chess? And is there really such a thing as time-trouble in correspondence chess – when you have 50 days for every ten moves?

Leonardo Ljubicic: On average, from Monday to Friday I spend about two or three hours on correspondence chess, but on Saturday and Sunday five or six hours are the rule. You need silence and concentration and entering the world of chess has become a great anti-stress therapy for me. My family has been most understanding and I dedicate my title to them.

But yes, amazingly, there is time-trouble in correspondence chess! If you overdo it and start too many games at the same time, either your performance will suffer or you won’t have enough time. You should choose your battles carefully!

Recently, there has been a new trend in OTB-chess: Many top-players – most notably World Champion Magnus Carlsen – do rely less on opening preparation and do not try to outprepare their opponents. Instead, they are happy to reach a playable position from the opening and then try to outplay their opponents later. Does such an approach work in correspondence chess? And how important is opening preparation in general?

Well, occasionally I come across grumpy comments from some players who complain that “today everyone can play chess by memorising lines and analysing with engines”. But I think the process you describe is a natural response to the fact that the opening nowadays is explored better and better and that theory expands all the time. Because “better” players feel that they have more chances to outplay their opponents in “unexplored” territory they tend to steer away from theory.

However, opening preparation is – at least the way I practise and understand it – of utmost importance in correspondence chess. I do not prepare for a particular tournament, but for each and every single opponent of mine and this preparation begins long before the game. I first try to get hold of as many of his games as possible which I then sort according to openings by preparing two opening trees: myopponent_white.ctg and myopponent_black.ctg.

Then I look at the games in detail, while keeping in mind that most good CC-players get better with time. I try to find weak spots in their repertoire (which are rather rare today) and try to guess whether there is a realistic chance to exploit these weaknesses. Will they really play a particular opening or will they try to spring a surprise on me?

Such serious opening preparation was the basis of my wins against Papenin and Straka in the 28th World Championship. I annotated the game against Straka in the first part of the interview but here’s the game against Papenin:


In general, I try to play “healthy” openings – openings that have not been analysed to death and offer White realistic chances to get an advantage. With Black, I restrain myself to extremely safe lines that still offer winning chances should White go wrong. I do not understand how one can just play for a draw though I know that at the level of today’s correspondence chess you often have no other option with Black.

You play correspondence chess and you have a general interest in chess. Do you read chess books and do you follow top tournaments on the internet?

Correspondence chess, work and family hardly leave time to study chess in a more general way. But in my youth I enjoyed studying chess very much. Two books were particular favourites of mine: Modern Opening Theory by Drazen Marović (which I read in Croatian) and B.A. Zlotnik’s Types of Positions in Middlegame (which I read in Russian). I also regularly followed the British magazine Chess, the Russian magazine Skakhmatny, and our Croatian Šahovski Glasnik. And let us not forget the “Chess Informants”: for me, every issue was pure gold.

Today, I sometimes follow live-broadcasts on the internet, in particular if my brother-in-law is playing (my sister married GM Robert Zelčić). But if I follow these games with an engine running, I do get frustrated about the “erratic” play.

In an article published a few months ago correspondence chess GM Arno Nickel proposed new rules for correspondence chess to avoid the “draw-death” of the game. In the final of the 28th championship about 87.5 percent of the games ended in a draw. What do you think – are the many draws a threat to correspondence chess and does correspondence chess need new rules?

I read Arno’s proposal thoroughly. He is one of ICCF’s best and I have great respect for him, but I do not see his proposal as a solution to the problem of too many draws. He basically proposes to change certain scoring rules but this would mean to change some of the basic goals of the game. In my view this is not true chess. Perhaps an interesting variation, but not chess any more. Incidentally, I feel the same about Chess960.

I admit though that my position here is neither very constructive nor optimistic. I think we are indeed getting closer to the point when chess is solved (at least in today’s top correspondence chess). But this is what we correspondence players do – we try to solve chess by searching for the best moves and by expecting the greatest resistance from our opponents. This is different to over-the-board chess which is essentially mental wrestling. However, we reached our “goal” of solving chess much faster than expected. Now, we should face the truth and learn to accept it. And ask ourselves “what to do next?” (when chess is solved).

I checked the FIDE-ratings of the players who played in the 28th World Championship of Correspondence Chess. Seven players are unrated and the other ten players have an average rating of about 2120. Correspondence chess obviously requires different skills than over-the-board play. But do you benefit from Correspondence Chess in over-the-board chess?

It might be different for my colleagues, but my OTB-chess suffered when I got more and more involved in correspondence chess. In OTB-chess I was twice (1980, 1981) U15 county champion and in my twenties I became a Candidate Master. My FIDE-rating peaked at 2230 and I once defeated IM Branko Rogulj in the Open Croatian Championship in 1993 with black in 25 moves, probably the highlight of my over-the-board career.


So, while I was not exactly a rising star, I do have a decent chess foundation. However, intensive use of engines in correspondence chess did affect my abilities to conduct OTB-games. I overlooked simple tactics and in zeitnot I was weak and slow. My strategical abilities, on the other hand, got better and analysing with engines made me consider much more candidate moves. This process is very much like being handicapped in life: if your vision is hampered, other senses are sharpened. I stopped playing OTB-chess almost completely two decades ago. I do play a game or two per year for my club if they miss a player for league matches, but I lose almost every game “after achieving very promising positions”.

A number of great OTB-players also played Correspondence Chess, e.g. Paul Keres. And some of the Correspondence Chess World Champions have also been quite good in OTB-chess, e.g. O’Kelly, Ragozin, or Purdy. In recent years Swedish Grandmaster Ulf Andersson has been playing correspondence chess with some success. But do you know current top OTB-players (with a FIDE-rating of, let’s say, 2650 or more) which are good correspondence players?

Paul Keres

In fact, several strong OTB-players now play at the ICCF. I believe the most prominent is Indian GM Krishnan Sasikiran (2680+). However, I do not think there are many more who are that strong in OTB-chess. There are quite a few players with a rating of 2400 to 2550, though. Recently Croatian GM Bogdan Lalić joined the ICCF and started playing in the finals of the Croatian Championship.

You are trying to make correspondence chess more popular in Croatia. What goals do you have?

Two of my colleagues and I want to revitalize the CC scene in our country, as it suffered a serious crisis after our former CCA-President fell ill and had been inactive for several years. So far, we’ve been quite successful, gaining 20 odd new members, restarting a cycle of national championship tournaments, as well as beginners’ promo tournaments. All of our members are also very active in ICCF tournaments. And we have attracted strong OTB-players: apart from GM Lalić whom I have already mentioned above, IM Darko Feletar IM Nenad Dorić are also both very active, gaining ratings and experience fast.

I accepted to become ICCF National Delegate for Croatia and this puts additional pressure on my already tight schedule – my job is to handle contacts with the ICCF, to coordinate competitions and members, and to maintain our website ( Very demanding and time consuming. But luckily the ICCF officials are very motivated and always ready to help which makes my life much easier.

I hope that one day I will be able to let new and motivated members take over.

Do you believe that the abilities you need in Correspondence Chess are useful in everyday life?

Perhaps not in everyday life, but some of the abilities I gained playing CC have definitely helped me in my business career: seeing the big picture, project managing, sound logic, etc.

Chessplayers like to speculate how top players of the past would fare in today’s tournaments. However, I would like to know whether you think you would be a favourite if you played correspondence chess against Magnus Carlsen?

In a two-game match, I’d say the chances would be about equal but only if Magnus devoted a couple of hours to each of his moves. Anything less and I would be a strong favourite.

Thank you for your time, your insights, and the interview!

Martin Fischer, born 1962, is a ChessBase staffer who, among other things, organizes and holds seminars throughout Europe and helps administer


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