The life story of Vladimir Akopian (1/2)

by Sagar Shah
11/21/2019 – Success is quite relative. For many chess players winning the Olympiad three times, World Teams once, becoming the national champion twice and reaching the finals of the FIDE World Cup would surely represent a successful chess career. Yet, in the case of Vladimir Akopian this was not enough. This is because Akopian was considered by many to be one of the greatest talents that the chess world had ever seen. Why didn't this GM from Armenia fulfill his promise? Why didn't he become the absolute best in the world. What is his life story? IM Sagar Shah sat down for a candid chat with the Armenian grandmaster.

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Interview with GM Vladimir Akopian

He is 8 years younger than Garry Kasparov. When the Patriarch of chess Mikhail Botvinnik saw him and his play, he said, "If you worked like Kasparov, you would become the next world champion!"

Armenian Grandmaster Vladimir Akopian is a man of immense chess talent. Born in Baku (like Kasparov) in 1971, the first few years of his chess career convinced everyone that he was special. He won the World under-16 championships, then under-18 and also under-20. In 1995, playing for club "Yerevan", he became European Club Cup champion. Two-time champion of Armenia, four-time winner of Russian Team Championships. He also was part of the Armenian team that won the gold medal at three Olympiads — Turin 2006, Dresden 2008 and Istanbul 2012. His team won the gold at the World Team Championships in 2011. He very nearly became the FIDE World Champion in 1999 when he reached the finals but lost to Alexander Khalifman.

Vladimir Akopian in conversation with the author of these lines | Photo: Amruta Mokal

But why is it so that even with such great talent Akopian could only reach a career high rating of 2713, falling short of the "beast from Baku", Garry Kasparov? How did the chess career of this Armenian genius develop? I was curious to know and hence we sat down for an hour-long interview:


Sagar Shah (SS): Vladimir, Let’s start from the beginning. How did you start playing chess?

Vladimir Akopian (VA): My father taught me when I was five. Soon after this, I had enrolled into a chess school in Baku. The first school I went to wasn’t that strong. So, a year later, I went to one of the most famous chess schools in the city. They had strong coaches. My first coach, Alexander Aslanov was a very good coach.

Akopian (right) at the age of was 8 | Photo: Akopian's archives

By 1980, when I was eight years old, I had become a first category player. In the Soviet Union, back then, there were four categories. For an eight-year-old, it was some sort of a record to become a first category player. This already showed that I had some talent.

SS: When you say first category, what would that equate to in terms of FIDE rating?

VA: Maybe around 2000, maybe less. It’s difficult to compare but it does show that this wasn’t something ordinary. So, by the time I was 12, I had already qualified to play in Azerbaijan’s national championship and had taken the fourth place. Next year, I played again and shared second.

13-year-old Akopian (second from left sitting below), with the Azerbaijan team in 1984. Also in the picture is his first trainer Alexander Aslanov (fourth from right standing) | Photo: Akopian's archives

When I was 14, we moved to Yerevan, Armenia. My father had got a job there. Exactly around this time, I had qualified for the Under-16 World Championship in 1986 in Argentina, which I eventually won. This was the first time I had won a world championship. Later, I went on to win the world championship Under-18 in 1989 and Under-20 in 1991.

Akopian with the under-16 World Champion's trophy in 1986. The tournament was held in Rio Gallegos, Argentina | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: And you were one of the best in the world…

VA: Yeah, but there were many other extremely talented players in the Soviet Union that time. There were Shirov, Kamsky and I was also always competing with Mikhail Ulibin, who was considered very strong at the time. I had even played a six game match against Ulibin for qualifying for the World Under-16 championship in Odessa, Ukraine. I won that match with the slimmest possible margin of 3½:2½. The first five games were drawn and I had managed to win the sixth game and, with it, the match. It was a very complex game that lasted 105 moves and even the match overall was very interesting.

In those days, qualifying from the Soviet Union in the Under-16 category was considered to be much more difficult than winning the world championship itself. So, the player who qualified from the Soviet Union was considered the clear favourite to win the title. If you don’t take the first place, it would usually be considered unsuccessful in the Soviet Union. So, all players like Dreev, Bareev etc., would all go through these qualifiers and become the world champion. This was also the case with me.

Animal lover? This was back in 1988 when Akopian played the World Junior Championships in Australia | Photo: Akopian's Facebook

SS: Who was your coach when you were between 16 to 20 years of age?

VA: Altogether I had three coaches. The first one was Alexander Aslanov. He was the one who taught me for the first three years. Then I was taught by Alexander Morgulev, who was also from Baku. Morgulev was a master player and a very good coach. He inculcated good positional understanding in me.

Akopian (second from left) with his second trainer Alexander Morgulev (first from right) | Photo: Akopian's archives

When I moved to Yerevan, I worked with Oleg Dementiev. Actually, as a player, he was quite strong. He had beaten Karpov in a famous game in the Alekhine’s Defence. You can find this game in the database.

 

Dementiev was originally from Russia but he was invited a long time ago to work with some leading Armenian players like Rafael Vaganian, Arshak Petrosian and some other future grandmasters. So, he became my coach as well. I worked with him from ’86 to ’91.

Unfortunately, in ’91, he died rather young at 53 years of age. The last thing we did together was winning the 1991 World Under-20 championship in Mamaia, Romania. This was in August of 1991 and in October, he passed away. He was not living in Armenia at the time. The Soviet Union was falling apart and he had moved back to his native city of Kaliningrad.

Akopian working on the well-known Keres Attack in the Scheveningen with his trainer Oleg Dementiev | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: What was the profession of your parents?

VA: My father was a physicist. He was working at a very famous institute in Baku. My mother was a music teacher. I also learned at the same school where she taught in Baku. Only that she taught the piano and I was learning the guitar! (smiles) I didn’t learn the guitar for too long though. Actually, already when I was six, I had to choose between chess, swimming and music. Perhaps, because success had come more quickly to me in chess, I chose chess. Although, I still love playing the guitar and I also like swimming.

Vladimir with his father Eduard, mother Larisa and his dog Cherry in 1991 | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: After you moved to Armenia, did you ever think of going back to Baku? 

VA: No, because the Karabakh conflict [a disputed region between Armenia and Azerbaijan -Ed.] began just two years after I had moved to Armenia. It was already clear at this point that it will be impossible to move back to Baku. Of course, it was hard. I had gone to school in Baku, I have many friends there, my father had many friends there. If you remember, the Armenian team had not participated in the Olympiad a few years ago because it was held in Baku. Also, the Azerbaijan team had done the same when the World Team Championship was held in Armenia in 2015. The relation between these two countries is bad because of this conflict.

SS: What was your main strength as a player when you won these junior championships?

VA: It’s difficult to say. I always tried to play universally. I never tried to be a clearly positional or tactical player. Winning the world championship for the first time — in the Under-16 category — was crucial. I was a student of the Kasparov-Botvinnik school back then and I had very good relations with Botvinnik. Botvinnik was considered to be a strict man, the patriarch of chess. But with me, he was very friendly. Before going to the Under-16 World Championship, he invited me to his house in Moscow. The championship was in Argentina and I was required to go to Moscow where the authorities were to check my travel documents and everything.

Vladimir at the famous Botvinnik-Kasparov chess school in 1986 with Georgy Surkov, the famous Russian sports commentator | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: Did they want to ensure that you don’t go away?

VA: No, there were some meetings, I had to go to the embassy…I don’t remember the exact details. But what I do remember is that Botvinnik had asked me to find time to visit him in Moscow. I went there and I received an important advice. He told me that he had no doubt that I would win the tournament but he also advised me not to lose a single game. He said draws are OK but losing a game would not only lose me a point but it could also affect my psychology. It would have been more difficult to play the rest of the games after a loss. In short, don't lose, make draws and you will win the amount of games you need for the first place. As simple as that!

I did exactly as he suggested. I started off well with 3½/4 and then I made some draws with all of the strong title contenders. In this time, leaders were changing while I was always half-a-point behind. Towards the end, I won several games and by the penultimate round, I suddenly saw that I was leading by a full point. It was an 11-round tournament and I only needed a draw in the final round. I had the white pieces and it was easy to secure a draw and, with it, the World Under-16 title. In the tournament, I won six games and drew five. Botvinnik’s advice worked wonders for me.

I mention this particular tournament (under-16 World Championship) because this was my first major success. I went on to win in the Under-18 and Under-20 categories as well and they are pleasant memories, but the first success is always something different. And even though I was considered a favourite to win this Under-16 championship, there is always a big difference in being a favourite and winning the championship.

A prized possession for Vladimir. Letter from the Patriarch Mikhail Botvinnik. (Maybe some of our readers who understand Russian could translate this letter in the comments section below!) | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: You said there were Shirov and others who were your contemporaries. Were there any players from outside the Soviet Union who were strong?

VA: Not during these world championships. But later, perhaps even during the World Under-20 or later, I got to know about players like Adams, Piket or Lautier. Before the World Under-20, however, we didn’t know about anyone because there were already too many strong players to know in the Soviet Union. For example, there were Kamsky, Sakaev, Tiviakov playing these qualifying tournaments that I won. Kramnik came to the scene a little bit later but our generation mainly consisted of me, Shirov, Ulibin etc.

SS: Right now, you are training some of the biggest talents in Armenia. How would you compare your strength when you were playing these junior championships to the players of today? Do you see chess to have changed?

Some of the biggest talents of current Armenian chess have worked with Vladimir Akopian. (Clockwise from top left) - Aram Hakobyan, Shant Sargsyan, Artur Davtyan, Haik Martirosyan | Photo: Amruta Mokal 

VA: Chess has, of course, completely changed because of the computers. Also, information is easily available today. In those years, even getting a simple book about the rook endgames or the Chess Informant was quite difficult.

To compare the strengths of chess players, however, is very difficult. I can only compare chess character, perhaps. For example, I was normally an aggressive player. Now, there can be some other players who might be equally talented but not so aggressive. It’s just about approach. It didn’t matter to me whether I was playing white or black, I tried to play to win anyway. Normally if you are black, you are satisfied because a draw is always good with black. It was never like this for me, though. Lately, I am not playing much chess but if I play I fight. Maybe it’s because of how I was taught. I was taught that chess is a fight and you should play until the end.

SS: In 1991 you came close to GM strength. I think you became a GM in ’92…

VA: I became a GM in 1991. Actually, already before going for the Under-20 world championship, I was a GM. I was 19 at the time.

Akopian having won the world under-16, 18 and 20 titles and becoming a GM at the age of 19 was one of the brightest chess talents that the world had seen | Photo: Akopian's Facebook

SS: You must have been one of the youngest at the time, right? 

VA: Actually, at 17, I had fulfilled two norms. In those years, only two norms were required — two norms and twenty four games. These were the FIDE regulations. But in those days it was difficult to reach 24 games. Tournaments were usually 9 or 11 rounds long. I had fulfilled a norm at a very strong GM tournament in Moscow — it was a GMA tournament — and then I got another norm at the T. Petrosian Memorial in Yerevan. But in these two tournaments, I had only played 20 games. Sometimes, FIDE would grant the grandmaster title in such cases but it wasn’t the case with me. I had to complete four more games which meant that I had to complete another norm. But the problem was that there weren’t enough international tournaments in the Soviet Union back then. I needed to go abroad to fulfill the norm since I had to play three Grandmasters from different countries. The next tournament I got to play abroad came only after two years, in 1991 in Niksic. I shared first place with Ivan Sokolov there and completed my norm. So I could have considered myself to be a Grandmaster already at 17. But even at 19, completing the GM title was something special. It wasn’t like now, of course.

SS: In ’91 you got your Grandmaster title and then in ’99, you finished second at the FIDE World Cup. So in this eight-year period, you transformed from being a GM to a very strong GM — like 2700+. Can you tell us about this period and how you improved your game?

VA: It’s not like I remember this period very clearly. I was mostly playing in Open/Swiss tournaments in this time. But, somehow, I did not pay much attention to chess. You can say I was lazy to work on chess. I did not work on chess during those years like other chess players. And this was the problem with a lot of Armenian chess players, of course with the exception of Aronian. But with players from generation like Vaganian and other team-mates of mine from the Armenian Olympic team, I would do anything but practice chess. If we would play chess, we would only play blitz. We’d mostly spend time like this and never worked on chess seriously. You can be very talented but to progress without working is not possible. Comparing this to what I saw afterwards while working with Leko or Shirov, I realized that I did nothing to improve my chess.

Right since he was a young boy Akopian has loved music and playing the guitar! | Photo: Akopian's Facebook

SS: So you were working mainly on talent, no hardwork.

VA: Yeah. That was exactly the case. And while it might have been possible to do this a hundred years ago — maybe Capablanca was doing this — it certainly couldn’t have worked in my time. Also, Botvinnik, in my first or perhaps the second training session with him, said if I worked like Kasparov, I would become the next world champion. The important part was for me to work and that I never did.​

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SS: But you had examples of others there who were working very hard, like Kasparov for example. Why didn’t you get inspired to work?

VA: I don’t know. Maybe I did not have a strong will. In the circle of chess players I was with, nobody worked. If there were people or if I lived in some other place, I might have been inspired. But around me, I never found someone who was working for let’s say six or eight hours every day.

It was something very unusual for Armenian chess players. I was living in Armenia, I was playing for the Armenian chess team in Olympiads and everything, and somehow we were just spending good time together. We would spend time talking, playing cards, playing blitz, going for walks. Sometimes, we would also look at an interesting position for an hour or so but it was never anything close to systematic practice.

SS: Do you regret it?

VA: No, I don’t. Maybe, if I had worked, I could have achieved more success. But in doing this, I would have been deprived of other things. It’s possible to say now that I enjoyed life. I did only what I wanted to do. If I wanted to play the guitar, I would play the guitar; if I wanted to spend time with my family, I would do it. I never made a schedule for chess or adhered to it. If there was time for chess, it was fine; if there wasn’t any time for chess, I would still be satisfied.

SS: So, you took life as it came.

VA: Yes, exactly. And I have a very good family, I have very nice friends. I have three sons and having a family requires you to spend time with them. And chess takes a lot of time. So, at some point, you have to make a choice. I made my choice and I am very happy in my life.

Vladimir has always been a family man! With his wife Christine and sons Valeri, Eduard and Sergey in Barcelona 2015 | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: But how did you manage your finances?

VA: That was OK because, during this time, I was winning many open tournaments. There were years when I would win four to five Swiss tournaments a year. This was around the late 90s and the early 2000s. I have won many open tournaments. In those years, you might win $3000 or $4000 for winning an open tournament. It wasn’t much but it was still something.

SS: Would you analyze your games to see where you went wrong in your tournament games? Or you wouldn't even do that?

VA: No, I would analyze but again, not very systematically. I analyzed some games for the Chess Informant. But it wasn’t like studying an opening which you could play in your next tournament. I would analyze something like an interesting middle game or an endgame position. Studying openings takes a lot of time and effort. Openings are terrible and for me, even more so. I just could not understand what is interesting in an opening. I could understand if a middle game or an endgame was interesting. In fact, I especially liked studying endgames. But I never really fancied the idea of sitting in front of a dull position and finding ideas. I know that it is important, but still I don’t find it interesting.

SS: So, working as a second for Leko for his World Championship Match! That would have been a complete 180 degree change!

VA: We had several sessions before his match against Kramnik. Initially, of course, working like this was something terrible. But eventually I realized it could also be interesting, not to sit and find something but to destroy the ideas found by Peter and his father-in-law Arshak Petrosian. I would always try to destroy every idea they found. If I was unable to destroy the idea, it meant that the idea was good. But it was difficult for me to find some ideas because I would rather spend the time doing something more interesting.

SS: So was this your main role in the preparation, to destroy all the ideas that were found?

VA: Yes, surely. You can also ask Peter about this. Sometimes, I would be very happy for having destroyed seven out of ten ideas but there would be at least three that I would not be able to destroy. And if eventually I could not destroy those, we would conclude that it could be played.

SS: How did this association with Leko begin? How did you get into his team?

VA: I always had good relations with Peter. Also, he married Arshak’s daughter Sofi. When he qualified in Dortmund to play a match against Kramnik, I got the offer to work with him through Peter himself, or through Arshak, I believe. We had several sessions in Hungary after this in 2003 and 2004. Before the match, we thought it would be better to have one more chess player on board. So, I asked Vlad [Vladislav Tkachiev], my friend, who later also became a good friend of Peter. We had the last training session and then we went to Switzerland. Our team consisted of Peter, Sophia (Leko’s wife), Arshak, Vlad and me.

Akopian with Tkachiev — Team Leko during his match against Vladimir Kramnik. Tkachiev would come up with new opening ideas and Akopian would try to destroy them! | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: And you were quite successful, I must say. You almost won the world championship.

VA: Yeah, that is true. Although, the match wasn’t very interesting. There were too many draws but it was still a tense struggle. Everything actually was decided in the last game.

SS: Do you remember any preparation that you had done or an important role that you had played in the match?

VA: There were some interesting ideas that were played in this match. Now it’s difficult to remember exactly but there was this interesting pawn sacrifice in the Spanish that was played in the match which we had found together with Tkachiev. There were also a few other ideas that were interesting but it has already been a long time since the match. And we didn’t have very strong computers in those years so we had to find those ideas by ourselves.

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Of course, not all of the ideas that were discovered were played during the match. Leko played some of the ideas in his games after the match. In fact, Peter won a very strong tournament in Wijk Aan Zee immediately after this match and we were very happy. He used a lot of the ideas we had discovered for the match at this tournament. Even I used some ideas, Vlad used some. Back at that time, we felt that Peter had prepared very well.

SS: For you this was a new experience. Did it inspire you to work harder on your own chess?

VA: No, because by this time, I was already above 30. When I realized this is how hard I should have worked, it was a bit too late. But okay, I at least got to know how people work — the world’s top ten players. At the same time, I understood that although it is good that they work so hard, it is not for me to work like this. Not everyone can work this hard. It means your life only revolves around chess. To enjoy life and to work like this is surely impossible. Also the computers have completely changed the game.

SS: Hearing you talk, I feel, computers are something you would hate. What’s your take on it?

VA: I don’t hate computers but it changed everything. In my times, there were no computers in chess. The advent of computers in the game is progress and to be against this is wrong.

Thanks to computers, seemingly lost positions have become playable. I think computers help you broaden your horizon as chess players. Nowadays, I have seen that the computer just destroys everything. Everything is wrong. And it’s not wrong because I am missing something obvious but because I am missing some very complicated tactics. It means that the whole concept of the game has changed. You might have thought for a long time that a certain position was winning for one side but it turns out it is equal or even lost!

It’s more difficult now, perhaps, because you have to work much harder. But the computers, I think, just show that the game is much more complicated and rich than what we had imagined.

SS: I think we should talk about the biggest success of your chess career which is the ’99 world cup. How was it, the entire experience?

VA: This knock out championship is one of the most difficult ones. I had also played in Groningen 1997 where I had played pretty well. But you cannot hope to go very far in it. It is like lottery. You can lose in any round and go home. I played in the final against Khalifman at this event but if the event was played once again, I am sure the battle for the championship would be between completely different people. And this holds true for all the knock-out championships.

Treatment like a king! (From left to right): Vladimir's father Eduard, Levon Aronian, Akopian and Karen Asrian in Las Vegas, 1999 | Photo: Akopian's archives

Even in those days, it was clear that this championship was not very important from the chess perspective. We were playing but this wasn’t a world championship. Nowadays, the world cup is only a qualifying tournament, which is OK. But how is it possible to even consider that chess players were playing in this format to determine who was the best in the world! Yeah, they gave good money, in those years. The prize fund was much higher, almost three times of what it is now.

In the tournament, I had reached the finals without losing a single game. I played 19 games without a loss. I was indeed in a very good form. But even if I had won that championship, I would never have considered myself to be a world champion.

Victory against Michael Adams in the Semi-finals of the FIDE World Championships 1999 | Photo: Akopian's archives

I have won many strong open tournaments. For example, I have won Gibraltar 2007, I have also won Enghien-les-Bains category 17 tournament in France 2001 and back in 1991 in Los Angeles I became US Open champion. From a financial point of view, of course, the second place finish at the ’99 World Cup in Las Vegas was my best finish but what I see as much more important are my performances for the Armenian national team at the Olympiads. I have been a three time Olympic champion from the Armenian team. Also, I was a member of the Armenian team which won the World Team Championship in Ningbo. For me, these are my best successes.

In these four tournaments which cumulatively composes 42 games, I did not lose a single one. I had some very difficult positions in some of the games. But I am very happy I never lost. In terms of results, I scored +6 in Turin, +5 in Dresden, +5 in Istanbul and +3 in Ningbo.


Part II of this interview will soon follow. It deals with how and why Armenia does well at Team competitions, Akopian's opinion and duels with world class players like Aronian, Kramnik, Kasparov and other greats, how did it feel when Kasparov called him and a few other players tourists, meetings with greats like Petrosian, Fischer, Spassky and more.




Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He and is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.
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Pequod Pequod 11/28/2019 09:48
Such an interesting interview! Thank you, Sagar. And thanks to dadian as well for the translation
hairulov hairulov 11/28/2019 05:43
Wow! Karpov played The Alekhine Defense ?!
BKnight2003 BKnight2003 11/23/2019 05:36
How about Valery Salov? In early 90s he was number 3 in the world, and nobody ever talks about him. Does anyone know anything of this player?
peterfrost peterfrost 11/23/2019 12:12
Thoroughly absorbing interview. Bring on part 2 quickly...
JuventusLION JuventusLION 11/23/2019 01:10
Great interview! Thank you Sagar!
adbennet adbennet 11/22/2019 04:24
"And I have a very good family, I have very nice friends. I have three sons and having a family requires you to spend time with them."

Well said; these are very nice priorities. My only reservation is that in between the demonic work ethic of say Kasparov, and the self-professed lackadaisical approach of Akopian, there is a broad range of efforts to choose from, not all of them incompatible with family and friends.

Looking forward to part 2.
dadian dadian 11/22/2019 03:16
Greetings, Vova!

Igor Yulevich and I looked at your games from the tournament in Sochi and came away satisfied. It is good that you do not avoid the endgame -- and you do not play it badly at all. However, at times your striving for simplification was erroneous. Your endgame play was stronger than that of your opponents. But sometimes you began to play the endgame in routine fashion and let your advantage slip away. This leaves the impression that playing in such tournaments is unnecessary for you. It would be desirable to play against stronger opponents -- in that case your forward progress would be better. By July 15 this year, send Igor Yulevich an interim report on the completion of your exercises and let him know where you are intending to play.

Wishing you success,
M. Botvinnik
imdvb_8793 imdvb_8793 11/22/2019 02:29
Very nice one, indeed...
MJFitch MJFitch 11/21/2019 10:23
I went to a lecture "Akopian" gave at the open in Las Vegas in the mid 2000's... When it got around to Q&A i waited until it was mostly off-topic Question's and asked him "How do you feel about Kasparov saying that you and other's around the same rating were just "TOURIST"...???... Everyone in the room stared at me with the look of "How could you ask that question". BUT Akopian was polite and said something to the effect of "He likes to hear himself talk"...LOL...:-)
Lilloso Lilloso 11/21/2019 07:26
A very interesting interview, thank you ! V. Akopian is a great player. Nostalgic for the past in seeing the photo of young Vladimir with the azeri team. It would not be possible today. Azeri politician leaders have done their best to create a destructive antagonism beetween the two countries.
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