Gert Devreese: Memorable Interviews

by Frederic Friedel
1/18/2023 – Can a massive volume of lengthy chess interviews, some dating back to over two decades, attract chess enthusiasts today. Can they be of interest to a heavily satiated chess audience? You bet they can. Frederic Friedel started reading the 476-page book – and was immediately hooked. He describes the reason for his fascination and tells us what is unique about this work.

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Last week an old friend sent me his latest book. It was heavy, almost 500 pages long. How was I going to read this massive work? This is the book:

Gert Devreese
My Most Memorable Interviews

35 Conversations with Chess Stars
ISBN 9789464201628 – 476 pages. 
First edition 2022 by Thinkers Publishing
Copyright © 2022 Gert Devreese

Well, I started to browse. The book contained interviews with famous chess personalities, 35 in all, with each being between six and sixteen pages long. At least the book is generously illustrated. And the interview partners were monumentally illustrious. 

Then I noticed that the interviews were not new. Some had been conducted in recent times, but many were quite old – reaching back to the turn of the century: he spoke with Karpov and Anand in 1999, with Korchnoi in 2001, Kramnik in the same year, Judit Polgar and Alexandra Kostiniuk in 2002. some were much newer, e.g. Jan Timman in December 2011, on his 60th birthday, and Anish Giri in 2017 – all the way to David Navara in 2021.

So was it worthwhile reading this "old stuff"? I started to do so, and was stuck! They are long and well-prepared interviews, the kind you seldom find these days. They are well-structured, the questions always relevant. The author had clearly done a lot of research before talking to the chess personalities – you can tell by the enthusiasm with which they answer his questions.

But the biggest fascination is that I get an insight into the frame of mind some of the greatest chess players were in two decades ago. How did Anand see the chess world, what were his chess ambitions, how did he live and prepare – 24 years ago, when he was thirty, and not yet World Champion. In the same year (1999) Gert Devreese talked with Anatoly Karpov, who was still FIDE world champion, who named Tal and Botvinnik as the greatest players in history, and revealed that he intended to go into politics. 

This is what makes the Devreese book so valuable. It gives us a vivid impression of what the most famous players thought and felt, decades ago, how they thought their careers and chess in general would develop in the future – and then compare this with the reality which everyone knows today. I even read with fascination how I had seen things in the interview Gert had conducted with me two decades ago  – how I thought the database and our programs Fritz 2 an 3 (!) would affect the way top players would learn and prepare, what exactly our chess engine was: "You should not have illusions," I said at the time. "No matter how strong Fritz seems, it is not really playing chess. It looks like chess, but it is not chess. Fritz is primarily a giant calculator. It seems that Fritz senses things, makes plans, but in fact it does something else. Artificial Intelligence has not yet reached the point where we can make computers that behave like humans."

Here are some quotes by famous players:

  • Viktor Kortchnoi: "In ’74 the Russians made it impossible for me to play chess normally against Karpov. It was a form of psychological warfare. I’m sure years later they did the same thing to Kasparov."
  • Anatoly Karpov: "If I had made it 6-0 in that first World Championship, we would never have heard anything about Kasparov again. That was the biggest mistake of my career."
  • Garry Kasparov: "If I had lost 6-0 to Karpov, I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you."
  • Veselin Topalov: "I am very happy with the Pearl of Wijk aan Zee. And it was also an honour to lose it to someone like Kasparov."
  • Vishy Anand: "I believe in God, but I'm not a particularly religious person. So I don't bother God about what I did wrong in any of my games."
  • Magnus Carlsen: "Of course I would be lying if I say I have less than a 50 percent chance of winning the World Championship match against Karjakin."
  • Fabiano Caruana: "As a kid I did achieve some decent results. But don't think to much of it. When I was twelve I had a rating of barely 2250 Elo."
  • Hikaru Nakamura: "At the top I see the others first and foremost as competitors. I want to be better than them and I want to beat them. I just have that American winner's mentality."
  • Judit Polgar: "It's true that after the ''horse incident' at Linares Garry and I didn't talk to each other for a few years. But the truth is that it was Kasparov who didn't want to talk to me. For about three years, Kasparov completely ignored me."
  • Peter Leko: "At the age of ten I had already the feeling that the future of Hungarian football did not look particularly fantastic. I therefore decided to choose chess. So I gave up my dream of one day playing in the Bayern Munich football team and in the Bayern Munich chess team at the same time."
  • Jennifer Shahade: "Sometimes I get hate reactions or hate mail. I get insults especially when I stream about chess. It is still a problem! It's not like occasional death threats are okay."
  • Anna-Maja Kazarian: "Anna Cramling jokes about her blunders in her stream on Twitch. A GM often thinks it’s really terrible when he loses a piece. With Anna and me, it’s very different: we’re not going to lie awake at night over a blunder."

Most of the interviews were conducted in Wijk aan Zee, were currently the Tata Tournament is having his 85th edition. Here are the people Gert Devreese interviewed in his book:

World Champions

Ch  1 –Viktor Kortchnoi: “I haven't discovered anything human in Karpov yet”
Ch  2 –Anatoly Karpov: “A roaring beast is better kept in its cage”
Ch  3 –Garry Kasparov: “Putin is no better than Mugabe”
Ch  4 –Vladimir Kramnik: “My first name is still Vladimir, not ‘world champion’”
Ch  5 –Veselin Topalov: “I can never match Kasparov”
Ch  6 –Vishy Anand: “In India chess is now exploding”
Ch  7 –Magnus Carlsen: “I can always win, against anyone”
Ch  8 –Judit Polgar: “My colleagues see me as a man”
Ch  9 –Alexandra Kosteniuk: “I am a chess star first, then a photo model”
Ch 10 –Hou Yifan: “I have a lot to learn from Polgar”

World Toppers 2010-Now

Ch 11 –Fabiano Caruana: “I have as much chance at the world title as the others”
Ch 12 –Hikaru Nakamura: “Chess in the US has to boom again as under Fischer”
Ch 13 –Levon Aronian: “I owe it to Armenia to become world champion”
Ch 14 –Anish Giri: “I’ve a chance at the world title for many years to come”
Ch 15 –Jan Timman: “Apart from Kasparov and Karpov, I was clearly the best”
Ch 16 –Yasser Seirawan: “After eight years, I wanted to play a real tournament”
Ch 17 –Michael Adams: “I am in a sombre period as far as chess is concerned”

World Toppers 1999-2010

Ch 18 –Peter Leko: “Fischer? Every chess player is a little crazy”
Ch 19 –Alexei Shirov: “Kasparov is a cheat, Kramnik an immoral cynic”
Ch 20 –Mikhail Gurevich: “I’ve done nothing but play chess all my life”
Ch 21 –Joël Lautier: “That wasn’t childish, that was war!”
Ch 22 –Boris Gelfand: “Kasparov wants to play Kramnik for the rest of his life”
Ch 23 –Peter Svidler: “Kasparov has long ceased to be a scary monster”
Ch 24 –Teimour Radjabov: “I want to perform like Fischer or Kasparov”
Ch 25 –Alexander Grischuk: “I’m actually middle-aged”
Ch 26 –Loek van Wely: “My time has not yet come”
Ch 27 –Sergei Tiviakov: “I’d rather enjoy my life than be in the 2700 club”
Ch 28 –Tea Lanchava: “Chess is about survival”
Ch 29 –Alex Yermolinsky: “I don’t play chess for money or fame, but for myself”

Science: Psychology, Computers And Composing

Ch 30 – Jana Krivec: “Just go back and fight”
Ch 31 – Frederic Friedel: “That one mistake in a series of moves, Fritz will see it”
Ch 32 –Yochanan Afek: “I feel rich inside”

Covid Times: Chess Dip And Boom

Ch 33 –David Navara: “I have not forgotten how to play chess”
Ch 34 –Anna-Maja Kazarian: “I often win on Twitch against IM’s and even GM’s”
Ch 35 – Jennifer Shahade: “The Queen’s Gambit has more impact on chess than Fischer”

About the Author

Gert Devreese (born 1962) is a well-known Belgian chess journalist and since 1989 national editor at the Belgian paper De Standaard.  Gert is a chess player himself and for many years has been fascinated by the intriguing personalities of famous chess players, their rivalries and friendships, the things that happen behind the curtains in the fascinating chess world, their interests outside chess. In the last three decades he has written countless articles and interviews about chess for his own paper De Standaard, and (until 2008) the former Dutch chess magazine Schaaknieuws.

From the year 2000 on, Gert became the regular interviewer of the magazine of the Dutch Chess Federation, Schaakmagazine. In that magazine he was given space to make large, in depth interviews with the best players in the world. They spoke with Gert candidly about their lives and their chess.

Gert thought it would be a great idea to make a compilation of the most memorable of his interviews. Out of the harvest of dozens of conversations with top players, 35 interviews made the final selection. It’s a nice and intriguing travel through the recent history of chess on the one hand, but Gert also treats hot chess topics like chess in Covid times, Twitch and online chess, and the recent successful series The Queen’s Gambit.

You can buy the book directly from the publisher, Thinkers Publishing for €40, from Amazon for $44, from ChessWare for €39.50, or a number of other outlets.

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.