Interview with Ivan Sokolov (2/2)

by Sagar Shah
1/9/2015 – In the second part of the interview with Ivan Sokolov, the Dutchman touches on all kinds of subjects, from the difficulties of writing chess books, to the state of affairs for professional chess players in the Netherlands, to his employment in the United Arab Emirates and even Kasparov's match against Deep Blue! A fitting conclusion for this interview of a very lively character.

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In the first part of the interview, Ivan Sokolov described his life as an active chess player and opinions about his contemporaries like Kasparov, Karpov and Anand. In the second part of his interview, Sokolov throws light on the process of writing a chess book, sad state of affairs in Dutch chess, job as a coach in UAE and the future of the game that he has been playing since 1974! 

Through the fifty minute conversation Sokolov only ate an omelette and orange juice.
His complete focus was on the interview!

SS: You have made a mark for yourself as a chess author. I especially loved your book “Winning Chess Middlegames”. What is the procedure of writing a book for you?

IS: Books are a process. I haven’t written that many (six in total I guess) but it all starts with an idea. An idea comes into your mind and then you start collecting material related to it. This is followed by a concept. For the book “Sacrifice and Initiative in chess” I had this idea for quite some time in my mind. I met the New in Chess team and I told them “I have the idea in my mind but I do not have the concept yet. I have to make a concept which is readable, understandable and find adequate examples related to it and I am having problems with it.” Then a year and half elapsed and I called them up again. This time I had the concept ready and told them that if they would like to publish it then I am ready to start working. The idea and concept is not enough, you need the ability to write in understandable, instructive manner, so that people can learn from it. All the time you are collecting different examples. You have a database in your laptop named “New book”. You come across some game from either twic or some recent tournament, and then you say hang on, this could be interesting and then you place it into the database. And this is how it goes. Once you are done with the concept and the material, you have to be ready to get the book out and to make it readable and also commercial because that is finally the reason why we are doing all this.

Two of Sokolov's most popular chess books

SS: How long does it take to write such a book?

IS: It takes quite some time and even if you exclude the period of the thought process which is difficult to measure because it differs from project to project, I would say one to one and a half month of work on the premise that you would give daily 8-10 hours on this work. To do this in a month and a half is nearly impossible, it gets stretched to something like a year because you have other priorities as well. But at some point you have to get focused on this in order to not lose the thread. And then you lock yourself in a room for about two weeks and start writing like mad, trying to get the job done.

SS: I have read almost all your works and I see that you give a great deal of importance to pawn structures. For example your book "Winning Chess Middlegames" exclusively deals with this topic.

IS: This is the way I think but it is important for two reasons: if you are looking at the position as a professional or a GM, the first thing we use to assess the position is through pawn structures. It goes through your mind like a pattern recognition process. You go something like this: this is weak, this is advanced, the centre is weak, less space, do we have some tactical possibilities to compensate for this or not? And I also think that if you are an amateur and you want to improve your game, understanding pawn structure is very important because then you have a grip on something, something on which you can build your knowledge later on. As a professional, knowledge of pawn structures helps you to assess positions faster and as an amateur it simply helps you to improve your game. I cannot see how you can make a beautiful window in your house when your house fundament is going to collapse.

One of Ivan’s wonderful work called “Sokolov explains” where he works with the pawn structures.
You can have a look at demo video over here

SS: You are now working as a coach of the UAE team. But before we come to that can you tell us, who was your coach when you were young?

IS: When I was young the only person who worked on structural basis with me was Velimirovic. That was a long time ago in the period of 87-88. This experience has been very valuable to me as I learnt from him the art of true sacrifice. Velimirovic was very open, ready to share his knowledge and I am fortunate to have been his student. Apart from him there were no real coaches for me. But I had the opportunity to work with some great players. Jan Timman when he played some of his matches he appointed me as his second. At that time Andersson was also in his team. It was not coaching but it doesn’t matter when you work with those kinds of players you learn a lot. You do some work for them but you also learn because of the exchange of ideas. For example, if someone is the second of Anand in the World Championship match he is working for him but he is also learning from this process.

Sokolov has worked with the Dutch legend Jan Timman as his second on some occasions

SS: What have been the best tournaments of your life?

IS: I was very happy when I won the super tournament in Sarajevo, Bosnia in 2003. I was elated when the Dutch team won the gold medal in the European Team Championship in 2005. In 1994 when the Bosnia team won a Silver, best individual performance in Warsaw, 2013. In 1998, I won the tournament in Hastings with a two point margin. Dutch Champion in 1995 and 1998 with 9.5/11 and 9/11 respectively. These are some of the results that I am quite proud of.

SS: You have beaten all the top players in the past. What stopped you from breaking in to the absolute elite or becoming a World Champion?

IS: (After some thought) Maybe discipline. I was never ready to sacrifice my life for chess. I wanted to do everything else and also excel at chess.

Junior Sokolovs: Brendan and Megan

SS: In 1992 you shifted to Netherlands. Why did you make this decision?

IS: It was more or less a forced decision. We had war at that time in Yugoslavia and Bosnia in particular. Then I travelled around the world and finally moved into Netherlands. At some time the war finished but I stayed back in Netherlands.

SS: And how do you find Netherlands as a country?

IS: I like Netherlands and we had a very good chess atmosphere in the country. In the past, we had more chess organisers, the chess federation was also functioning better. Recently things have deteriorated drastically and for active Dutch players the situation is quite bad. I think Netherlands is going to lose some of its professional players if it continues the way it is. The Dutch chess federation is refusing to recognise the problem. For my own sake I do not care so much in particular because my life has taken a different path. Amongst young players we have Robin Van Kampen and Benjamin Bok, both of them unclear whether they will continue chess professionally. From professional players point of view, Smeets is looking for a job. I am employed by the UAE chess federation. Van Wely became a tournament director of Hoogeven. Daniel Stellwagen has quit chess and chose a regular employment. Jeroen Piket quit already quiet a long time ago. L’Ami is the only true professional. It gives quite a clear picture of the present Dutch scenario.

The Dutch team at the World Team Championships, 2013 consisted of Anish Giri, Sergey Tiviakov, Vladimir Kramnik?!!, coach Vladimir Chuchelov, Erwin L’Ami, Loek Van Wely and Ivan Sokolov (picture by Tiviakov)

SS: How is your stint as a coach going on in UAE? Who are the talented players here?

IS: Well, I would not exactly call it a ‘stint’! (smiles) We have quite a specific situation over here. There is only one talented GM in the country who wants to achieve something and that is Salem Saleh. 2014 was a good year for him. He has climbed to 2600+. He had two excellent results. First one was the Asian individual from where he qualified to the World Cup 2015 and the second one was the Qatar Open. It’s not easy to qualify from the Asian Individual especially when the strong Chinese and Indian players are participating. Now Wijk Aan Zee B will be an interesting tournament. We are working together on this and I will travel with him. It will be a different experience because so far he has never played a Round Robin event. But at present he is the only player in UAE who has the ambition and also the ability to achieve something in world chess. The rest are amateurs and semi amateur players in whom we are trying to ignite some ambition and provide a structure so that the general level will improve. But there is a huge difference, Salem is 2600 and the second best player of UAE is 2360.

Sokolov with Salem at the Dubai World Rapid and Blitz in June 2014 (picture by Fiona Steil-Antoni)

SS: So your main focus is only on one player?

IS: It’s a pity we do not have many strong players here, but no, my focus is also on the other players to help them improve. It’s definitely not easy because they are not willing to put in enough efforts. Some of them are already having jobs. Some of them decide to prioritise university. If this is the case then as a coach there is not so much you can do. You can help them improve if they prioritise the game themselves but you are not there to take their life decisions. It is for them to decide on this.

SS: In the past 10 days in Al Ain, whenever I have seen you and Salem together you both are frantically analysing with each other. Is this the way you usually work with him?

Analysing with his protégé, Salem Saleh (picture by Amruta Mokal)

IS: Yes of course! It is my job to analyse to with him. I am not his History teacher! We analyse a lot and sometimes when we are travelling in flight we can spend a few hours playing blindfold blitz with each other.

SS: And coming to the end, what do you think is the main difference between chess in 1990’s and the present day and where do you see chess going from here? Do you think it will come to end?

IS: I don’t think so. Free-flow of information and computer engines has changed chess to the point of no return. I would not say chess engines are good for the game, I would have preferred that they would have never happened because now even a stupid amateur can sit at home and confidently mock the world champion by putting stupid comments or status on Facebook like, “look at how Anand has blundered on this move.” Come on, you smart ass, if you wouldn’t have had Houdini running in front of you, you would have seen nothing!

I lived through Karpov-Kasparov matches, I remember analyses room, Tal usually leading the analyses and I also remember that when some games were finished we would all sit and analyse for hours and then think why didn’t Karpov or Kasparov play this move and we would say, hang on, there should be something because such a genius would not miss it. Sometimes we were right, sometimes not. But now thanks to chess engines this is lost. So I don’t like engines. Chess World Champions were heavily promoting it with all these computer matches in order to make money for themselves, not stories like we want artificial intelligence in the sport which Kasparov was coming up when he played a match against IBM. He wanted to make money. There was nothing else. And then coming up with stories like he got cheated is a complete crap.

According to Sokolov, Kasparov’s stunt of playing IBM’s Deep Blue
was just to make money and nothing else

It doesn’t matter whether it’s good or bad, I like it or I don’t, the truth is that chess engines have changed the way we perceive the game, the way the game is played, and the way we analyse it. Once Leko said, “In modern times who cares if something looks ugly if it works!” (Laughs) and in the past some ugly looking moves were not even analysed. So the game has changed dramatically. The recent successes that countries like China, India and Iran have had in the Olympiads and Youth Olympiads are here to stay. The change in the balance of power is not going to come back because these countries have a lot of people with interest for chess and the general economic ability of a citizen in these countries makes it more attractive for them to become a professional chess player then say for a person in United States. However, the engines and mainly the internet broadcast have also brought something positive in chess and that is the increasing number of people following the game. The game has never been pursued by as many people in its history as it is being followed now. So far, with all those commercial projects and websites nobody has exactly figured out how to make money out of it but the moment will arrive soon, because the sheer volumes in chess are increasing.

SS: So you think chess will become as popular as football someday?

IS: Well, not exactly as popular as football but someday, someone is going to work out how to commercialise this ever increasing number of people that are watching this game online. And once this happens we will start progressing towards the positive. So I do not believe in the doom and gloom scenario envisaged by many. I simply think that it would be a different game. Even in the tournament here in Al Ain, I saw boys of the age 12 or 13 playing good games, some kind of games which were unthinkable 20 years back.

Will chess ever become as popular as football? (picture by Omar Oskarsson)

SS: Do you think chess 960 will become popular or current chess format will continue?

IS: I hope that chess 960 becomes popular. I would love to play chess 960. But what I would love to happen and what will actually happen are two different things. I truly hope that chess 960 is implemented because then the element of preparation is minimized and the true value of the player is going to come to the surface.

SS: Last question before I take your leave. What are your future plans as a player and as a coach?

IS: I would play occasionally for pleasure, it is also highly probable that in the future I am going to write more books. My contract in UAE has been extended, so I think I will stay in the coaching business for quite some time. Naturally I do not know what future might bring, but at the moment I am quite happy with my life in Dubai. I was helping Zurab in the European elections and I am going to stay involved in such kind of developments. I do not see myself back as a full time professional player. This phase of my life is finished. I am going to turn 47 this year. But I will still play a few tournaments per year because I enjoy the process of the game. I have a limited number of vacation days and I enjoy those playing chess. I don’t necessarily have to make a living out of playing chess anymore.

SS: Thank you so much Ivan for this wonderful conversation. It was a pleasure talking to you and I wish you the best in future.

IS: Thank you, very much!

A happy Ivan on 31st of December 2014!

A huge thanks to Amruta Mokal for helping me to transcribe the 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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