Interviews from Al Ain

by Prathamesh Mokal
1/13/2016 – The Al Ain Classic took place from 22nd to 31st December and was one of the strongest open tournaments of the year. The Chinese grandmaster Wang Hao finished clear first ahead of "Fire on board" chess legend Alexei Shirov. Prathamesh Mokal talked with Wang, Shirov, and the organiser of the tournament about chess, the Al Ain Classic and life in general.

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Interviews from Al Ain

Unless specified otherwise all pictures below are by WGM Emkhtuul Altan Ulzii

Interview with Wang Hao

Twenty-six year old Chinese Grandmaster Wang Hao dominated the Al Ain Chess Classic 2015, in which more than 50 Grandmasters took part. Wang Hao won the tournament with one round to spare and gained 21 Elo-points, once again proving how much talent he has. Like Garry Kasparov, Vladimir Kramnik and Boris Gelfand, Wang Hao became a grandmaster without becoming an International Master. It was a pleasure to interview this modest master. We talked about his schedule, his games and his hobbies.

Q: How do you view the tournament in hindsight?

A: I think, I somehow managed to play really well. It was a surprise for me to finish at the top. I was not expecting this, because before this tournament I had played quite badly in the National League, losing two games there.

Chinese grandmaster Wang Hao surprised himself by winning the tournament

Q: How has 2015 been for you?

A: Well, I have not played very much in 2015. But somehow I found time at the end of the year and decided to play in Al Ain - which turned out to be a highlight.

Q: What made you choose the Al Ain Classic?

A: I got good conditions and I felt welcome. That was the main reason. Also, I have not been in good form recently so I did not wish to play in a tough tournament such as the Qatar Open.

Q: Which was your best game in the Al Ain Classic?

A: I am not sure. My games in round four against Vladimir Onischuk, and in round five against Lalith Babu were both quite good. If I had to choose, I think, I would opt for the game against Onischuk.



Q: Which was your best game in 2015. Any special game you remember?

A: It's hard to say. I do not think I played a game that is good enough to call it my best game of the year, but I remember that I had a nice win against GM Jan Gustafsson in Thailand in April 2015.

Q: Why did you play so few games in 2015?

A: Well, it is not just 2015, I think I neither played much in 2014. I wanted to focus on my studies and have more time for other hobbies.

Q: Tell us something about your studies and hobbies.

A: I am doing my Masters in Communication and I am going to finish the course in about six months. As far as my hobbies are concerned, there are many, but first of all I like to watch movies and I read a lot. I like Anime as well. And I enjoy reading Japanese Mangas. I also like to watch TV serials because I like drama and different narratives. That's why I read a lot - even during this tournament I was reading books.

Q: How did you spend a typical tournament day here in Al Ain? Did you follow a particular schedule?

A: Somehow during this tournament I prepared much more for each round than I had done in any other tournament this year. I don’t know why, but during this event I prepared for about two hours for every game. Normally, I spend about 20 minutes on my preparation! It is not because this tournament was very important for me, but I was forgetting a lot of my analysis. So I had to spend a lot of time going over my work to remember my lines during the game.

On a normal day during the tournament I usually woke up around 8 a.m. Then I got ready and had breakfast. After that I usually went for a 40-minute walk. Then I would try to prepare for an hour or so, after which I would go for lunch. Coming back, I would prepare for an hour again, then take a rest or read books. After the round I had a flexible schedule. Sometimes I spent time working out in the gym. Sometimes I just had dinner and went for a walk. After the 7th round I simply did not have the strength to go to the gym - chess was taking away a lot of energy. So it was more of walking then. When I am home I go to the gym at least thrice a week. I like to keep fit and I think it is very important to keep fit.

Q: And what is your daily schedule when you are not playing a tournament? How much time do you spend on chess?

A: You might be surprised but nowadays I spend very little time on chess. If I give even one full day to studying chess it would be a miracle. Even before this tournament, I was spending more time on my hobbies and on video games than on chess. These days video games are so well made that they become addictive. Sometimes I was playing for eight hours a day (smiles)! I even started suggesting to everyone to try out Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. It’s one of the the best games of the year.

The computer game that often distracts Wang Hao from chess and studies
is Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. (Picture from, more information on imdb)

Q: How is the chess situation in China? Is the Government very supportive?

A: No, not very much. I mean, chess got more attention when the Chinese Team won the Olympiad (2014) and the World Team Championships (2015) but chess still does not get enough support because it is not an Olympic discipline.

Q: Do you work with other Chinese players or do you train on your own?

A: I train by myself. I do not know any top level players in China who train with other top level players. Earlier we used to train together, but these times are long gone.

Q: Who would you give credit to for helping you to reach your high level? Did you have a trainer?

A: Well, I mainly trained and worked for myself. However, for quite some time I got help from my second, Lou Yiping, who is an opening expert. But now I work on my own. We are still good friends, but he is studying in Shanghai now. We do meet sometimes, but mainly because we share similar hobbies, and not because we study much chess together.

Q: What are you looking forward to in 2016? Any plans?

A: Oh, that's a big question (smiles). I have to finish my final paper. I will have to abstain from the video games for a while. What a pity! After finishing my studies I want to move to some other city because I don’t want to stay in Beijing any more. There is too much pollution. It is not just bad for health, it is also very bad for your mood. I cannot go out, I have to stay indoors all the time and that quite often is depressing. I think, I will probably move to Shenzhen. That city is actually one the top class cities in the World - without the pollution.

Shenzhen: The Central Business District looking southwest, with the Sham Chun River
and Hong Kong's Frontier Closed Area in the background (Source: Wikipedia)

As far as tournaments are concerned, I do not have any serious plans, but I am sure I will play somewhere at the end of February because I like to travel. That are basically all plans I have thought of for now!

Thank you and good luck!

Interview with Alexei Shirov

Latvian genius Alexei Shirov’s participation in the Al Ain Chess Classic excited many of his fans (including me). Unfortunately Shirov, as he himself admitted, did not have a great tournament in terms of creativity, although finishing second is not a bad thing. He was visibly disappointed with his play and I was glad that he still graciously accepted to have a quick chat.

Q: Are you satisfied with your performance in Al Ain?

A: I think the result was good but I did not like my games. They could have been much better.

Alexei Shirov was a bit disappointed…not with the result
(he won silver and gained eleven rating points), but with his games.

Q: Did you follow a particular schedule during the tournament?

A: I was preparing for my games, playing and analysing. I did not do much else.

Q: What made you choose this tournament in Al Ain?

A: Actually, I have been to this country before but only once, in 2002, and I thought it would be interesting to visit again. So when I got an invitation, I thought to myself, “Why not?”

Q: Are you happy with the tournament conditions and the way the tournament was organised?

A: Yes, in general the conditions were pretty good and there is nothing to complain about. But I am not very happy with my play.

Q: How do you rate your performance in 2015?

A: Well, there have been good events and bad events, so let us say, it was a balanced year. I now have the same rating I had at the end of 2014, so there was not much change. My personal highlights of the year were my victory in Riga in August and my victory over Vladimir Kramnik in the Russian league. But there were also some bad tournaments such as Poikovsky and the European Team Championship. It was not the best year of my career but maybe neither the worst.

Q: And what are you looking forward to in 2016?

A: I do not think so much in these terms any more. I will continue to play in various leagues such as the Czech league, the Bundesliga, and hopefully also in the Russian League. Then there are some tournaments to look forward to, like Zurich in February, and so on.

Q: What was your best game of 2015?

A: (Pauses) That's a difficult question. But well, probably my win against Dennis Wagner in the Bundesliga in September.


Alexei Shirov has recorded many DVDs for ChessBase and I recommend the readers to watch any DVD that suits their opening or their taste. I guarantee that if you are not yet a fan, you will become one!

Browse through the excellent Shirov DVDs...

Interview with Tarek Al Taher

The International Organiser and Tournament Director of the Al Ain Chess Classic, Tarek Al Taher, has established a nice rapport with many strong Grandmasters who remain loyal to the Al Ain Chess Classic. As a participant in the latest event, I was really moved by one major incident. In the 2014 edition of the Classic the first round was delayed because the chief guests for some reason could not arrive on time for the opening ceremony. The players had to wait for long and the games dragged on late into the night. In the 2015 edition Tarek Al Taher postponed the opening ceremony and the guests (and the performers of the cultural programme) had to wait until the end of the round.  A rare concern for the welfare of the players. I definitely wanted to know more about him.

Board member and technical director of the Al Ain Chess Club – Tarek Al Taher

Q: How did you experience this year's Al Ain Classic? What went right and what went wrong?

A: In terms of organisation I think, we tried hard. We got more entries than we expected. In the end we had to split the tournament in two groups, Amateur and Main Classic. If we had kept it as one event, it would have been a mess and we would have had too many players for a nine round event.

Our decision to play in two groups ff course increased our costs as we wanted to give good prizes to the amateurs. This year, we had more grandmasters in the tournament than last year - although the date of the Al Ain clashed with the date of another major Open.

Last year, all players played in one hall, this year, the top 35 boards played in a separate hall to keep it more quiet and professional. As far as the result of the tournament is concerned, it was pretty logical. Wang Hao, the second seed, has a lot of experience and has played in many strong events, won the tournament, and Alexei Shirov, a well-known star, finished second. This is much better than what happened last year. (Here Tarek al Taher refers to the victory of Gaoiz Nigalidze who was recently banned for three years after he was caught cheating at the Dubai Open).

We are glad that we got a positive feedback from most of the players. They are happy with the tournament. I think we can improve a bit on the conduction of the closing ceremony, where we ran into a bit of time-trouble this year. I myself was busy with so many things that I had no chance to take a serious look at the plans for the proceedings at the end. I think there are some things we would like to take care of in a better way next time, for example the distribution of prizes in cash, and so on.

Q: Any other changes you are looking forward to for next year, for instance in regard to double rounds or a rest day?

A: Yes, actually some players told me that they lost because of the double round and this annoyed me a lot. I felt bad because of this. I am not sure if a rest day will be possible but at least we will try to avoid a double round. Some players suggested to play the double round with a time-control of 90 minutes for the whole game, without the 40 move rule, but some Grandmasters do not like this time-control. So we will try to balance things out. We have taken a survey and asked for feedback and suggestions. We will study these suggestions and then decide what we can do.

Q: Last year there was a rapid tournament before the main event, this year there wasn’t. Will we have it next year?

A: Yes, we plan to have a rapid event next year, before the main tournament. It will be good practice for players who arrive early, and it will also help us to assess our preparations.

Q: Many players, titled and untitled, are actually interested in playing in Al Ain and Qatar. Do you have plans to hold them one after the other?

A: Yes, I am aware that it would be ideal to have the tournaments in succession as Al Ain and Doha are close to each other. Actually, this year we tried to have the tournaments in succession. The chief organiser of Qatar contacted me to ask if we could change our dates to accommodate their tournament, which was scheduled for the end of December. But for the last three years our tournament has been played at the end of December whereas the Qatar Open last year was played end of November/beginning of December. They modified their dates.

I told him that we would have exams in the 2nd week of December in the U.A.E, the date Qatar was proposing for the Al Ain Classic. I know, last year a number of grandmasters played both the tournaments and we would be happy to allow players to do so. But the dates are a problem and the end of December is the only time that suits us. After the exams there are school holidays here in U.A.E. so most of the players have time and can benefit from the chance to play in a strong open with strong grandmasters. After all, that is our main intention: we want to give our players the chance to play against good players. And the Al Al Classic ends on 30th December to give the participants the chance to go to Dubai or any other place to celebrate New Year’s eve. The organisers in Qatar organisers also have issues with dates. As they invite a lot of top players, they have to schedule according to other tournaments such as the London Chess Classic. Thus I am not sure whether the ideal situation will come into being but we will definitely try again next year.

The Al Ain Chess Club, of which Tarek Al Taher is the technical director
was the first in the U.A.E to come up with the idea of having
a chess dress which its players should wear at local, national and international events 

Q: Can you tell us something about yourself? How did you come into chess organizing?

A: It all started when I joined the Al Ain chess club in May 2011 and became head of the technical committee and the coaches. Part of my work was to organize weekly, monthly and quarterly open tournaments with rapid-, blitz-, and classical time-controls). In December 2012, I helped the organization committee of the World Cities Chess Championships in addition to looking after the first edition of the Al Ain Chess Classic that year.

The year after I organized the same competition, which was played parallel to the World Youth Chess Championships in Al Ain. After this experience I decided to learn the intricacies and the theory of organizing and took FIDE's online course of tournament organization, conducted by world class instructor Theodorus from Greece. Since then I have organized various events in Al Ain, for example  the Al Ain Classic, the Al Ain Youth Championships, the Al Ain Women Championships, the Asian Club Championships, the Asian Individual Championships, and more. That is the journey so far and it will continue...

Thank you and best wishes!

Prathamesh Mokal is an International Master and FIDE Trainer from India. He won bronze in the Commonwealth Junior Championships 2003 and was joint Asian Junior Champion in the same year. He got his first Grandmaster norm in 2009 and scored an unprecedented 100% in the FIDE Trainer’s exam in 2012. He is a renowned coach based in Pune, India and he is also a Martial Arts enthusiast with a Black Belt 1st Dan in Isshinryu Karate as well as Matayoshi Kobudo.


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