Improve your chess with Boris Gelfand (2/2)

by Sagar Shah
5/1/2016 – In the first part of the interview with Boris Gelfand we spoke about the opening, middlegame, endgame, books he loved, focusing on chess. In the second part Boris tells us about his World Championship Match, how his family supports him, and when a player should think about going professional. He has extremely useful advice for parents of chess kids, and by the end of the article you will learn how to make beetroot salad with prunes and walnuts!

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Improve your chess with Boris Gelfand (2/2)

Interview by Sagar Shah

Here's the link to the first part of the interview, in case you have missed it.

Sagar Shah interviews Boris Gelfand in the press room of the Candidates 2016

Sagar Shah: You played in the World Championship 2012 with Vishy Anand. A lot has been written and said about it. I wouldn’t go deep into the subject. In one of the interviews you said that you were under pressure, but still enjoyed every moment and woke up fresh each day. How can these two contrasting feelings of pressure and enjoyment co-exist?

Boris Gelfand: It’s a good question. This has lot to do with one’s attitude and mindset. I remember that when I was young I had a lot of friends around me who wanted to become a master or a grandmaster or even a World Champion. But I never had such aims. I always wanted to enjoy chess. That kept me motivated and ambitious for my whole career. When I reached the World Championship Match, which is the peak in anyone’s chess career, I said to myself that I should enjoy it. It was easily possible that I wouldn’t have got there. When I played the World Cup and then the Candidates there were moments when one right move by my opponent would have sent me home. But I survived and I got the Match, so it was natural that I should enjoy it.

You do your best, you do your utmost to win this Match but you shouldn’t feel stressed. I took quite huge measures to isolate myself from the world during these 20 days. My assistants and seconds kept monitoring what was written in the newspapers and social media, sometimes there were some ideas which could have proved to be useful, but I didn’t read them myself. We decided to stay in a small hotel, not in the official one. We wanted to be by ourselves, not wanting to be disturbed. After every game I went to the press conference, then back to the hotel and after checking my game, prepared for the next battle.

Boris with his son Avner at the airport, on returning from his 2012 World Championship Match with Vishy Anand

SS: You basically enjoyed this entire atmosphere of working hard and being in the zone?

BG: Yes, absolutely! Also the month before the Match, when I worked with my seconds, was amazing. We were locked in some place in the Alps and every morning my seconds would be analyzing and kept changing my partners – analyze with one guy, then another and so on. You think about only one thing, you have only one aim. You are very inspired and in a creative mood. Many of the ideas which we invented back then, could still be used. From time to time they pop up and I make use of those analysis.

SS: Boris, coming to an issue that affects almost everyone who plays chess, right from upcoming talents to seasoned 2650 grandmasters: when do you decide that you would like to choose chess as a career, or when can one decide to be a chess professional?

BG: It is a very good question and at the same time a very difficult one. It’s a tough choice. From one point of view if you get to this level you must be talented and you enjoy chess. From the other point of view, it is not a stable life and you do not know how long you can sustain your career. I can even tell you that Henrik Carlsen, father of Magnus Carlsen, asked my advice whether Magnus should become a professional. At that time Magnus was just 15 or 16 years old. I told to them that they should do what they think is appropriate. But I think Magnus was very lucky with the support he received from his family, this amazing family. It’s one of the cornerstones of his success. Such great attitude and so much love – it was really great to see this.

According to Boris Gelfand, Magnus' family is one of the main reasons why he is at the top right now
[picture by David Llada at the Qatar Masters Open 2015]

I had to make the decision after high school about what I wanted to do. My family supported me but they were not sure because chess is not a stable profession. It was the period of Iron curtain back then and I couldn’t travel abroad. So it was a risky decision, but my motivation was so high that I decided to go for it.

SS: So, according to you, love for the game is necessary to pursue it as a career?

BG: Well, I think if you are in doubt you shouldn’t pursue it. It is only for people who are completely devoted. Of course, if you enjoy it, you can always stay connected to chess through writing or training or other such side activities. The good part about chess is that it is a highly creative field. It is not easy to find another profession which is so creative. If you pursue your academics and get a job, there is high possibility that you would be working in the office day after day. Whether to pursue a career in chess or not depends on personal feeling. It is a very difficult choice to make and everyone has to decide for himself. But to become a chess professional requires huge amount of discipline and devotion to the game.

SS: Were there any days or periods in your chess career where you felt tired of the game and wanted to quit or just get away from the chess board?

BG: I have always loved chess. You want to play, but you do not have tournaments where you can compete against players of your level. I played the Aeroflot Open but I don’t see any tournament coming up in April, May or June. Maybe I am spoilt with playing tournaments only on the absolute top level. So when I don’t have it, I don’t feel well. I am still highly motivated and work a lot. When you work for days and you cannot show on the board what you have worked and learnt, it’s a little frustrating. But I have always enjoyed analyzing and whenever there are good tournaments happening I login and follow the games.

SS: Isn’t it sometimes boring to keep playing the same opponents in these super tournaments?

BG: I have played quite a bit at the highest level, but objectively speaking not as much as some of the other guys. When you play against the best players, say someone like Kramnik, in 2013 I played six games against him, almost each game was just so amazing. Our battles had big fights lasting nearly seven hours. Isn’t that the reason why you play chess? To play the top players and try to show your best.

Boris Gelfand and Vladimir Kramnik present an elephant as a gift to Andor Lilienthal and his wife Olga, on the former's 90th birthday [Picture by Boris Dolmatovsky]

Nowadays there is a general rise in the level of play. The world is more open and there are more than five players with whom it is interesting to play. I played the Aeroflot Open and in each game I faced a tough challenge. There were no easy points. There was one young opponent that I faced [Haik Martirosyan] and it was clear that he is amazingly talented and just lacks experience. I felt his strength during the game and he confirmed this with his performance in the tournament. There were so many such young and talented kids at the Aeroflot Open! I saw many Indian boys and there was this Russian lad, Andrey Esipenko, who made a GM norm. There was also the 14-year-old current Iranian Champion Alireza Firouzja. Even the Chinese players were very strong.

SS: China is really making huge strides when it comes to having top level players.

BG: Yes, China is doing well but I am not so sure about their structure. At the top we see strong players like Ding Liren, Li Chao, Wei Yi, Wang Yue and others. Around eight players who are 2700+. But if you go below you do not find a solid bank of players in the 2500 to 2700 zone. The proportion is completely distorted. One of the reasons is that they do not play much abroad and they are under-rated. But still to have nearly eight players in the top of world chess, and to win Olympiad and World Team and such strong events is really an impressive feat.

SS: A normal scenario that you see in many tournaments is a lot of parental pressure on kids who are on their way to becoming strong players. You are a parent and a few decades ago you were also a prodigious player. So you are a perfect person to ask this question: what would be your advice to such parents who put a lot of pressure on their children?

Boris with his wife Maya and two cute little kids Avital and Avner 

BG: I think this is the worst thing that someone can do to your kid. As we just discussed, you can take the example of Magnus who was encouraged but not pressed by his family. It was the case with me as well. And it really helps when you feel the support of your parents, that they love you no matter what you do.

I was told by many players and I have witnessed the nervous atmosphere of World Youth and Junior Championships where the parents are putting pressure on their children. Young players should enjoy playing chess. First of all it’s a great game and one should have fun playing it. If you enjoy, you can achieve a lot of things. It’s not only in chess but also in any other form of sport or art, that pressure-free kids are able to excel. Very often I see that the parents want to make the career of their children at the expense of the little ones. It makes me very unhappy. When I was young there were only World U-16 and World U-20 championships. But now there are also U-8 championships. Such event should be like a festival. But actually there is so much tension. A child winning the world title at the age of eight is nothing. Maybe by the age of twelve he would stop playing chess. Someone else is not as talented and progresses step by step and he can go much ahead.

The fuss that is created when someone wins the World title like U-8 or U-10 is just unbelievable. Let me put it this way: such victories do not help your chess career. You might find some local support, get some money, hire experienced trainers and things like that, but this success on its own does not mean much according to me. Lastly I would like to add that it is of course necessary to maintain balance. Sometimes kids go to tournaments as if it was a vacation. In such cases parent's intervention would be appropriate.

SS: Can you tell us how your family supported you in your chess career?

Two-year-old Boris with his parents Abram and Nella Gelfand in 1970!

BG: My parents supported me completely for my chess career. You might have seen the movie Album 61 [check out the 69-minute documentary at the end of this article]. It shows the positive involvement that my father had in my chess life. Last year, at the age of 101 years, my grandmother passed away. She was taking me to the chess school when I was six, and until her last days she supported me.

Boris with his grandmother Sonya in 2010

When I go to tournaments these days my children do something special for me, like draw a picture or try to call me and cheer me up. Even at the Aeroflot Open I tried to be in touch with them through Skype. My wife also supports me a lot. She wrote a book about me entitled How to feed a Champion. It is about the stories of my career supported by food recipes on what she would feed me.  It currently exists in Hebrew and Russian. I don’t know if there is someone who is interested in publishing it in English.

[Ed - Here's an excerpt from this amazing book which we translated from Russian using Google Translate]

Shortly after my unforgettable birthday, I met with Boris. Back then I worked at a local television station as an assistant editor and in parallel studied my first year of university. At that time I lived with the feeling that things are going great. I did what I like, I earned a living, met famous people in the studio (such as Shimon Peres!) And I even appeared on television once somewhere between a laughing and anxious public operator.

Boris was once invited to the studio as a guest. Charming, smart, calm. What else you need to fall in love?
I studied, worked, but could not stop thinking about him. I understood that I had no chance. How can I dream of such a famous person? Boris was already one of the brightest stars in the chess world.

But for some reason he took my phone number. Will he call me? And I laughed at myself for this dream. He probably already has a girlfriend. Or even a wife. Anyway, I don't even think he remembers me?

Months passed, I had almost forgotten about the fleeting meeting.

And then he called.

Lunch for the first date: beetroot salad with prunes and walnuts


  • Beetroot - 1 piece
  • Prunes pitted - 100g
  • Clove of garlic - 1 piece
  • Walnuts - 50 grams
  • Mayonnaise - 30 g (tablespoon)
  • Salt, sugar - to taste

Cooking method:

  • Cook beets with peel in sweetened water.
  • Cool, peel and cut into cubes.
  • Chop finely garlic and walnuts, mix with beets.
  • Prunes cut into thin strips.
  • Mix all ingredients. Add salt and season with mayonnaise

SS: A hypothetical question, Boris: if you were not a chess player what would you be?

BG: [In an animated tone] Why would I be doing anything else! I enjoy being a chess player! [After some thought] I would love to learn the piano. I have never tried, but it’s my dream to learn it. I enjoy music and it helps me develop love for other things. Also it would be interesting to be the manager of the football club Barcelona. Football gives me inspiration. I like to watch games of Barcelona, EPL, German league, basically a good game between two teams. And I like to read books. I read many books when I can focus and am not stressed by chess.

SS: Do you read general books during the tournament?

BG: I try. Here I started, but after long games I couldn’t focus so I will finish it on my way back home. I am reading right now a book by Alice Munro, a Canadian writer. I read her first book, liked it, and got the second one. It’s based on short stories.

SS: What’s your opinion about Chess 960?

BG: I do not see anything wrong with the current board position. There are always talks about death of chess by draws, but it has been going on right from the time of Capablanca. Chess has proved that it can survive. Chess 960 is possible for exhibition matches or something like that. For the moment there is no need to make such drastic change I believe. Initial position on the board is extremely harmonious, while if one looks at Chess 960 some of the positions are fine, but many of them lack harmony and one spends first 10 to 15 moves to get a normal position on the board. [Smiles.]

SS: The final question: one quality of yours that is extremely impressive is your humility. How did you develop such a humble nature?

BG: It comes from my family. It was the way I was brought up, the way my parents taught me. You should always keep your human side and your two feet on the ground, and that’s what I enjoy. I don’t like to be a celebrity or a superstar. I enjoy being a normal person. It’s nice when people recognize your achievements. In Israel many times people come to me and say that you have made the country proud. That really makes you feel good. But I don’t think that fame is the most important thing.

SS: Boris, it was wonderful interviewing you. Thanks a lot for your time and these amazing insights. I am sure many devoted players of the game will benefit from your words of advice.

Boris Abramovich Gelfand: A thorough gentleman and a great ambassador for the game of chess!  

Watch the 69-minute documentary Album 61 based on the life of Boris Gelfand

A huge thanks to my wife Amruta Mokal for
helping me in transcribing this interview 

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, the biggest chess news portal in the country. His YouTube channel has over a million subscribers, and to date close to a billion views. ChessBase India is the sole distributor of ChessBase products in India and seven adjoining countries, where the software is available at a 60% discount. compared to International prices.


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