Carsten Hensel, from London to Bonn and beyond

by André Schulz
2/6/2018 – Carsten Hensel was manager of Peter Leko and Vladimir Kramnik and was directly involved in the most important chess events during a very tumultuous time for chess. Now he wrote a book about the life of Vladmir Kramnik which will appear soon. In an interview Hensel talks about the book, his work with Kramnik and various World Championship matches. | Photo: Vladimir Kramnik on the cover of the book

My Path to the Top My Path to the Top

On this DVD Vladimir Kramnik retraces his career from talented schoolboy to World Champion in 2006. With humour and charm he describes his first successes, what it meant to be part of the Russian Gold Medal team at the Olympiad, and how he undertook the Herculean task of beating his former mentor and teacher Garry Kasparov.


Interview with Carsten Hensel

Dear Carsten Hensel, for many years you were manager of Vladimir Kramnik and now you wrote a biography about him that will be published shortly. As you are not a top player I would think it is it safe to assume that you will focus less on the games and more on the life of Kramnik. Is that so? And when will the book appear?

Well, I am chess player enough to write the story of Vladimir's life, and to have an opinion about certain chess moments in the big matches. But sure, of course I am not a top player. That's why I asked the German International Master Olaf Heinzel for help. Later, during the editing process, Peter Köhler, who is the author of several chess books, also helped. But most important was the cooperation with Kramnik. At the end of each chapter he annotates crucial games of his career.

Let's focus on your career first. How did you enter the world of chess and when did you become manager of Peter Leko?

I discovered chess in 1991. I was asked to help to develop the "Schachtage Dortmund", now every year an important and big tournament. Back then the tournament was played in a dancing school, with almost no spectators or media representatives. I then went to the computer fair CEBIT in Hannover, Germany, to meet with Andrew Page — at that time manager of Kasparov.

Signing Garry was the international breakthrough for the tournament in Dortmund. In 1992, 10,800 spectators and 158 media representatives from all over the world came to the tournament. It was a first proof that chess could be marketed in Germany as a media sport. 1992 was also the year I met Leko. He was only 12 years old and in the following years he was often a guest of my family. He was obviously very talented but at a certain of time he needed support to make it to the very top. In 1998 I started to manage his career professionally.

And when did you start to manage Kramnik's career, too? How did that come about?

Vlad and I also met in the early 1990s, in Dortmund, of course. This turned into a friendship that still lasts today. On this basis I occasionally helped him with certain issues. For instance, in organising a training camp before his World Championship against Kasparov in London 2000. After winning against Garry things were just too much for Kramnik. He had no organisational structures at all. And this during the most conflictual time in professional chess. In 2002, I became Kramnik's manager. I first asked Peter for permission. He immediately agreed.

As manager of Kramnik you took part in a number of important events.

Yes, much more than I can list here. Of course, there were his World Champion matches, the duels against the machine or his ten wins in Dortmund. But a lot of other events were also important. The Candidates Tournament 2002 comes to mind, or Linares 2003, where Kramnik and I were under a lot of pressure. Leko was challenger and everybody asked us where and when the World Championship match would be played. At this time our holder of rights, the Einstein group, went through a time of economic turmoil. But Kramnik shook all pressure off and won the tournament together with his challenger Leko, ahead of Kasparov and Anand.

How did the man-vs-machine fight, Deep Fritz against Kramnik, Bahrain 2002, come about? How did Kramnik feel about playing against a machine? How did he prepare?

The agreement between Braingames, at that time the holder of rights, and the Kingdom of Bahrain, was already made before the World Championship match between Kramnik and Kasparov took place. But because of 9/11 the match was deferred twice. At least, this was the official reason. We had basically abandoned the whole issue when I met Yousuf Al-Shirawi at the airport in Düsseldorf. After that things worked out after all.

ChessBase has never rceived the prize money that had been promised for the match. Did Kramnik get his money?

The 800,000 US-Dollars came with delay but they came.

In 2004, at the World Championship match in Brissago, you were manager of both players, of Kramnik and of Leko. Wasn't that rather diffcult, much more so because Kramnik fell ill during the match?

The greatest difficulty was to organise the match at all, to provide equal conditions, and to give the public, which likes to focus on scandals, no reason for speculation. With Christian Burger, the boss of Dannemann, who unfortunately died much too early, I managed to handle these issues well. But believe me, this was the most difficult melange of my career. And the reports about Kramnik's problems during the match in particular and his chronic illness in general have only been superficial and sometimes even wrong. Such a book is a good opportunity to reappraise these things.

In 2006, Kramnik suffered a bitter defeat in the man-vs-machine rematch against Deep Fritz. In one game he overlooked a mate in one. How did Kramnik feel? What can you report about this match?

After the scandalous events in the World Championship match against Topalov in Elista 2006, Kramnik was simply worn out. After the match against Topalov there was hardly any time for anything. The match against Fritz in 2002 showed that he was still stronger than the machine, and in 2006 he perhaps might have still been able to draw all games. But he simply lacked the necessary energy and optimal preparation. He was tired and could only spend two weeks in training camp.

Press conference during the match Kramnik vs Fritz 2006 | Photo: André Schulz

How did the reunification of the two World Championship systems (Classical World Championship and FIDE World Championship) happen? What part did Kramnik have in that?

As far as FIDE is concerned, I would describe the system in the years from 1993 to 2005 rather as a mess and less as a World Championship. Basically, everyone knew that Kramnik, who had defeated Kasparov, was the World Champion to beat in a match. Even inside the FIDE some people thought so. I would even say, the majority! But there were also pronounced personal interests of powerful members of the board, to put it carefully. With regard to the unification of the chess world nothing would have worked without Kramnik, even though some top officials and the Topalov-party tried to ignore that back then. But from a present-day perspective things more and more clarify.

Carsten Hensel

Carsten Hensel | Photo: André Schulz

The reunification match 2006 against Topalov was marred by a number of ugly events. What happened in Elista?

Read the book! I think the whole story is clearly presented in it. 

In 2008, Kramnik lost his World Championship match against Anand in Bonn. Team Anand seemed to be much more professional, and better prepared personell-wise and from a technical perspective. Is this impression correct?

"Professional" is the wrong word. Kramnik has never before been as professional as he was in this match. But it is true, as far as opening preparation is concerned, Anand and his team got the better of us. And deservedly won!

When did the cooperation with Kramnik end? And the cooperation with Leko?

In 2009, in both cases. After that I became consultant of the UEP. We had founded this event agency in 2005 and achieved incredible things. I still believe that the match between Kramnik and Anand was the best organized World Championship of all time. Incidentally, after 74 years we also managed to bring a World Championship to Germany again. UEP was very close to reaching an agreement with FIDE to also organise and market future World Championship cycles. The contracts were ready to be signed. But in the last minute the president backpedaled. It was close but after this deal fell through I did not see any sense at all to continue my commitment in professional chess. I had seen everything and I had achieved everything which you can see and achieve as chess manager. I decided to focus on other things and that was the right decision. 

How long did you work on the book? 

A couple of months. It was quite a lot of work and took time. But I wanted to make a good book, no rush job. 

Did you work entirely on your own or did you cooperate with Kramnik? 

First, I asked Vladimir for permission. He provided pictures, answered questions, and annotated the most important games he had played in crucial moments of his career. On top of that he also gave me complete freedom to describe and evaluate events and himself as a person. 

At that time, between about 1998 and 2009, a lot of ugly things happened in chess politics. You experienced some of them directly. Do you call a spade a spade in your book or did legal reasons sometimes force you to silence?

I have been silent for many years, and just took note of wrong statements and even lies in a number of publications. Claims by people who sometimes had not even been present at the events. But of course you have to keep personal rights in mind. My publisher is very professional and took good care of me. But within this framework it was important for me to be as clear as possible. After reading the book and evaluating the events, circumstances and facts, you will be able to reach a clear verdict about the most conflictual time in the history of chess.

Do you still have a connection to chess today?

Yes, my heart is always in it. I still have many friends all over the world from that time and that is most marvellous. I just came back from visiting Wijk aan Zee together with Stefan Koth, the tournament director of Dortmund. On the way to Wijk we visited Albert Vasse (DGT, World Championship arbiter) on his farm in Holland, and during the event we had fantastic talks, not only with Vladimir Kramnik. With him, I am permanently in touch. He is in top shape now, physically as well, and I am keenly looking forward to the Candidates. My heart is in it again and I keep my fingers crossed. A World Championship match between Magnus and Vladimir, the 16th and the 14th World Champion, would be another of these incredible stories only chess can write.

Book cover

Translation from German: Johannes Fischer

Carsten Hensel: Wladimir Kramnik — Aus dem Leben eines Schachgenies

  • 304 pages
  • 13,9 x 21,2 cm
  • Hardcover
  • Photos
  • Annotations by Vladimir Kramnik

ISBN: 978-3-7307-0389-2
Prize: 24.90€  


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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