Memories of Moscow

5/9/2002 – Peter Svidler is 25, one of the world's top GMs. He is also intelligent, funny and very eloquent. During a recent visit in Hamburg Peter spoke to us about the FIDE world championship, Ruslan Ponomariov, women's chess, books, music, movies, humour and more. The video interview is on ChessBase Magazine 87. You will find excerpts of it here.

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Peter Svidler – Memories of Moscow

Multimedia report on ChessBase Magazine 87
by Frederic Friedel

Peter Svidler, 25 years old, is one of the world's top grandmasters. Currently he is number 19 in the world rankings, with an Elo of 2688. He has been even higher in the past and is bound to go up again in the future. A good indicator for this is his success in the recent FIDE world championship in Moscow, where he went all the way to the semi-finals, succumbing only to the final winner, Ruslan Ponomariov.

Periodically Peter visits us in Hamburg and spends a few days working, chatting, eating and sleeping. And picking up goodies from the ChessBase office. We always have a great time with this interesting young man from St. Petersburg. His knowledge of a wide range of subjects is astounding, his humour delightful. He is an avid reader, a music and movie fan, a computer and Internet expert. Peter has often helped us with constructive suggestions on how we can improve our programs.

In March this year he dropped in somewhat unexpectedly, and once again there were long and interesting discussions, especially in the evening, when Peter reaches top form. On one of the days, considerably after midnight, we switched on our video camera to record some of what he was telling us for the chess world.

Excerpts from the CBM 87 interview with Peter Svidler

CBM: You played in the FIDE world championship in Moscow, it was very dramatic, you got very far. Can you describe what happened there?

Svidler: What happened to me, you mean? I played some decent chess, but then I grew extremely tired by the end of the tournament. I basically just collapsed for ten minutes in one game. It was not a good time to collapse.

CBM: Who were your first opponents?

Svidler: I played an Argentinian fellow called Alejandro Hoffman, who gave me a whole rook in the first game in a very unclear position, for some reason – I couldn't figure out why. He just went blank for a second, just as I did later on. In the second round I played Sarunas Sulskis, whom I have know for years and years. We were in Kasparov's school together. He beat me in the first game, so I had to win the second one. I managed to do that and won the rapids rather easily. Then I beat Vadim Milov 2-0 for some reason and then I played Mickey [Adams] as I always do. It was the usual fare, a completely equal match which is decided by a stroke of luck somewhere, or better nerves or something of that sort. All three encounters went that way, only the previous two didn't go my way. In this match I was almost lost in the first normal game, and I wasn't better in the second one, I was worse in the first rapid, never had anything with white in this particular match (the Marshall is just too good an opening!). Then I got a piece of advice, just before we were about to sit down for the sixth game, the second blitz. A friend of mine said "This is the game you want to try to win, because with white you are just useless." I thought maybe this is a useful bit of advice. I played aggressively, and I was worse at some point, but in the end it worked out, somehow.

CBM: What came next?

Svidler: Well, I played Boris, the famous game with the queen vs rook. It's wonderful, my life has acquired a new meaning now. Every time I meet a new chess person, they will always ask me "Have you heard that it is actually won?"

CBM: What is it like to play that ending?

Svidler: It's unpleasant, you know, with one minute on the clock. I'm not making excuses, but it is not that easy to win it in general, and with one minute on the clock and stakes that high... What was worse was that I could fork the rook at some point. I really am not making excuses, stuff happens. The second game, which I had to play five minutes after that, I almost lost. At this point I thought okay if I don't win this maybe it's time to just pack up and go home. Somehow I hung in there and in the blitz games I won the first and got very lucky in the second.

Ruslan Ponomariov

CBM: These were two tremendous players you eliminated, and then what happened?

Semifinal of the FIDE world championship Peter Svidler vs Ruslan Ponomariov

Svidler: The match against Ruslan was fairly interesting, up to the middle of the third game. In the first game I thought that I was at some point better, perhaps almost winning. But he replied in a very calm manner and, and then I realised that my position may actually even be worse. It was a very complex, strategic battle and ended in a draw. In the second one I was probably much worse after the opening, but he misplayed it somewhat, spent half an hour at a critical junction and decided to play for a win being a piece down in the endgame. I reacted in a very correct way and I was better, but not much better. Then he misplayed it some more and the position was most probably winning. But from some point on he made something like fifteen only moves in a row, and I failed to capitalise (is that a word? should be!). By this time I realised that I am seriously tired and can't really tell when I'm going to collapse in a heap. So I decided to go for the throat, which may not have been the wisest of all possible decisions. This was after the rest day, and I had looked at the first game and realised that my idea of how to deal with it was correct, but then I decided that it was not enough and I had to switch to 3.d4 instead of Nxc5, which is something I don't play any more and don't know too much about. Just go for a playable position and play it, because I could feel and still can feel that I am not really a worse player than him. Why not just play chess. And that is what we were doing up to a point, and then, you know, for ten minutes I just went blank and blundered a very important pawn in a position which did not allow it. Then I could probably hold after an inaccuracy of his, but I missed this point because the position looked hopeless and I felt that it should be hopeless, and I sort of resigned at this point. This is something I am really kicking myself for.

What was even more unpleasant was that there were some people sitting in the first row, five metres from me, and when I was getting my coat they actually told me how I could have made a draw, like five moves before I resigned. They weren't nice about it, and I got really pissed off with them. I couldn't believe it for some time because of the way they told me that. But when I cooled off a bit I realised that actually these two guys had understood the position much better than I did. That was unpleasant.

CBM: What was your impression of the young man?

Svidler: Favourable in general. He played very well, he plays very sensible, calculates well. We analysed a bit after each game. He sees a lot, he's a very good player, I think. He played much better in this leg, in the finals he was unrecognisable – he played really badly. Obviously the time controls and the format suit him. He is young, full of energy, he doesn't tire easily. He doesn't really blunder, which is one of the most important things in this format.

CBM: A lot of people compare him to Karpov...

Svidler: It's an obvious comparison, and I've heard it many times, so there must be some truth in it. But I really fail to see why people feel such an urge to compare somebody to somebody. For me the turning point in the evaluation of the young man was the game he won against Dreev in the final of the European Cup in 2000. He got a miniscule endgame edge after 15 moves against Alexei Dreev, whom I consider a really good player who understands the game really well. He really very, very slowly built it up and won the game, in 65 moves, in no hurry anywhere. This is not something you see very often. This was for me a kind of a turning point, it proved something to me. I never really doubted after that that he would play really well at some point. At his age you normally see people sacrificing, attacking. He can do that, no doubt about it, but this kind of mature understanding of small advantages and his ability to play for them, and the patience it requires, this is something I don't think I have. It impressed me. And it's still there, he keeps on doing it, getting a small edge and working with it, staying with it and not letting it go.

CBM: In the final against Ivanchuk he wasn't that impressive.

Peter Svidler after the semifinals

Svidler: They were both really below par. Basically he just collected whatever Vassily threw at him – which is also an achievement, but not something to be especially proud of. I think that this month they had was simply counterproductive, because it gave them time for the idea that they were playing for the title to settle in. They lost the rhythm and it weighed very heavily on them. The schedule was extremely demanding and difficult, but on the other hand you would get into some working rhythm, and there was absolutely no time to think about what was going on. Which in some ways is a good thing, because you don't really get a chance to reflect. I think it was very heavy on them, the understanding that whoever wins is going to be the new world champion, and the first Ukrainian world champion. It obviously weighed more heavily on Ivanchuk, as we could all see.

The new time controls

CBM: Did the time controls drain you?

Svidler: I can't really complain that much – this is my best world championship ever. But I still see absolutely no reason for it. People can adapt to absolutely anything, but why should they? What was the point of it? One of the new developments was the Aeroflot open event. It showed that one thing the new time control is perfectly well equipped for is holding tournaments with two games per day. If this had been the idea behind the world championship at least it would make some sense. But then they should have said that instead of something about television appeal, which I don't buy. There is no television appeal for a four-hour game whatsoever. Same as for a seven-hour game, so why ruin something that was working perfectly well? If the idea had been to hold a tournament with two games a day I can understand that it cuts down the cost and there is some sense in that – although that was a clincher for me, and this was why I did not play in the Aeroflot.

I don't think this is such a bright development. What was really, really difficult was playing the tie-break games on the same day. Time control you can live with. But playing with three different time controls on the same day, and then playing again on the next day, that is not something I would like to repeat. There was also absolutely no need for that. It is obvious that it shortens the tournament by three day max, four days if you are generous. It's a long tournament, and three, four days will not make a bit of difference in the overall costs. But it makes a world of difference for the players.

CBM: How would you design a world championship?

Svidler: I'm not answering that. There is no ideal system. As usual it is much easier to say what shouldn't be done than what should. This is not really productive, and my two pennies are not really better than anyone else's. As for this knockout form, one thing that really should not be repeated, ever again, is tiebreaks on the same day. This is just murder. The quality dropped so dramatically compared to let's say Vegas or Delhi [previous FIDE world championships]. There tiebreaks used to contain at least some games of value. This time there was one decent tiebreak game, which everybody mentions, which is Shirov-Topalov. This was sport, this was cutting down on art (if there ever was any). It is a direction chess can be taking, but it is not necessary to make it happen.

CBM: Would you like to go back to seven hour chess?

Svidler: Seven hours was healthier. But I mean would I like to go back to five hours and adjournments, or to whatever was before that? It's all possible, but the state of constant time trouble is simply unnecessary. There is nothing calling for it.

Here are Peter Svidler's games from the FIDE world championship semifinal.

Other sections of the CBM 87 interview

Video Svid05 (10 min 14 sec)
Women's chess. "It cost me the second game of the semi-final," he says, and explains how he became involved in Alexandra Kosteniuk's position, searching for a solution to her problems instead of concentrating on his own game. Peter tells us how he grew up with chess, how prestigious it was for young people in Russia and how this led to the number of talented players coming out of that country.

Video Svid06 (3 min 20 sec)
It is not easy for Peter to speak about his own playing strength, his often negative opinions of his chess abilities. "Statistics say I am stronger than 99.9999% of all chess players – it somehow doesn't make me feel any better."

Video Svid07 (6 min 28 sec)
Peter has a lot of interests apart from chess. "The main one is books – I burn all my free time reading." He gives us examples of what we should read these days. Martin Amis's "Money", Stephen Frey, William Gibson (Neuromancer), Neal Stephenson (e.g. Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon) are the essentials.

Video Svid08 (4 min 47 sec)
Music. Bob Dylan and Tom Waits spring to Peter's mind. Humour. This is dominated by John Cleese and the twelve Fawlty Towers episodes. Peter tells us about Russian humour and comedy. The Russian stand-up acts he finds "depressing" because today they are predictable and domesticated.

Video Svid09 (3 min 56 sec)
"We still haven't touched on billiards," Peter volunteers. He has a deep-rooted love for the game, the cushion and pocket variants, which he can watch "for days on end, with breaks for food". And the other great love is cricket, which of course leaves the lad completely isolated in St. Petersburg.

Video Svid10 (6 min 22 sec)
Movies. Peter is slightly embarrassed for having loved Harry Potter. He is also into Japanese and Oriental movies. Once again Russian movies don't get high marks. "They have become commercial in the worst possible sense of the word."

The full video interview with Peter Svidler is 56 minutes long. The CBM 87 CD also contains 25 minutes of video with John Nunn (here's a sample). ChessBase Magazine 87 costs € 19.95 (around US$19). You can order it in the ChessBase Shop.

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