Mihail Marin: A Passion for the Pirc

by Johannes Fischer
10/3/2014 – For Mihail Marin chess is passion, profession and hobby. No wonder the Romanian Grandmaster is one of the most prolific and renowned chess authors today. Recently he published two DVDs on the Pirc, a complete repertoire for black. In an extensive interview Marin talks about his approach to chess, inspiration, and why the Pirc is one of his favorite openings.

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Johannes Fischer: Dear Mihail Marin, you are a strong Grandmaster, you won the Romanian Championship several times, in 2001 you passed the 2600 Elo mark, and you are one of the most prolific and renowned authors. But please tell us a bit more about your background and your career.

Mihail Marin: Chess is my profession, my hobby, my passion. I owe this happy coincidence to my father who, after teaching me how to play around the age of four, "programmed" me for becoming a chess professional. On the way to that, I was not supposed to neglect my studies – I attended one of the three best colleges in Bucharest and graduated from the Polytechnic Institute. I felt that studying would help my chess in the same way in which a boxer would become better by lifting weights. And as a chess player, used to focusing deeply and analyzing, being good at school was more of a formality.

Mihail Marin with one of the classics

My main achievements as a player are three national titles, eleven starts at the Olympiad (twice I played on board one and once I won the bronze medal for my individual result), and two qualifications for the Interzonals. For years, I had been the highest rated Romanian player, and even now, when many consider me as retired, I oscillate between 2nd and 4th place on the Romanian ranking list.

In the late '90s, during my games I frequently commented the game silently while my opponent was thinking especially if I was happy about the way I had played. Looking back, I see that deep inside I was longing to become a chess writer. After 2001 (the last year when I was number one in Romania) I started to write more and more. I authored, co-authored or contributed to a good dozen of books. A number of them won awards (for instance the Book of the Year Award at Chesscafe.com, awards by the English Chess Federation, the ACP, Chesspublishing.com, and the Italian Federation).

Occasionally, I am working as a trainer for young players and I have helped a few of them on their way to become grandmasters. In 2005 I accompanied Judit Polgar as a second to three tournaments.

Having been involved with so many facets of our favourite game, I must say that while all of them make me happy, there is nothing like the thrill of winning a tournament, a game, or playing just one good move!

You are famous for your deep analyses and your portraits of famous players of the present and the past. How did you get interested in chess history, and what can we learn from the games of the past?

How many times have we heard old people (not necessarily chess players) talking nostalgically about "The good old times". And I believe that irrespective of the historical circumstances they are always right! In the old times they were young and nothing can replace that, not even if the new times are objectively ten times better.

I grew as a chess player by being enlightened (or rather dazzled) by a series of true giants. I used to play over their games again and again, but I was too young to understand the whole depth and essence of their play and their thinking. With my articles and books dedicated to players from that period I try to catch up a bit, although I sometimes feel a lifetime is not enough for that...

Grandmaster Marin doing his job, following his passion and enjoying his hobby

Leaving subjective feelings aside, I believe that the period of the '50s to the '70s led to a wealth of great and unique games. In their approach to chess as an art and a science, players from those times had a few advantages compared to those from today. The time control was very generous, allowing you to search for the truth over the board, the schedules of strong tournaments generally included many free days allowing you to regain energy and the games were adjourned allowing you to do thorough endgame analysis... At the same time, players were forced to stay fit mentally as a lot of tournaments lasted for several weeks and there were no computers to help with the analyses! And in the time before Elo grandmasters could play without the crippling rating obsession, sacrificing everything they wanted on Caissa's altar.

You wrote about so many players - do you have a favorite, a role-model, a player that deeply influenced your play and your style?

Almost every player I wrote about influenced my style, at least for the usually short period until I found another model! I am not sure what to make of this: do I lack personality, being some sort of a chess chameleon, or is this rather a sign of a high degree of adaptability, following the sun-flower's example, which is able to get the maximum of light throughout the day?!

Memory is subjective, but I believe writing about Mikhail Tal had the strongest impact on my play. His games freed my play from inhibitions and prejudices, and I felt to have tactical wings.

Mikhail Tal

For my more recent years as a player I would also add Kortschnoi to this list. For me, emulating Kortschnoi's personality in my games means playing according to the good old principles, established long before the era of the computers, being free of the need to prepare for hours and hours and remembering tons of lines. Sometimes this goes so far that I do not decide before the game what opening to play but wait with my choice till the clocks are ticking.

Tell us a bit about your working process: How do ideas come to you, how do you select the topics of your articles and how do you go about writing your articles and your books?

Except when asked to write on a specific theme, the circumstances generating the initial spark of inspiration are usually rather casual. Maybe I stumble on some intriguing detail when working on a variation, and this detail pursues me till late at night. This could be a certain structure, or a remarkable coincidence, a particular maneuver or a constellation similar to something I saw a long time ago and so on. Or I open an old book or magazine (their dusty pages have an irresistible magic) and I come across an interesting diagram or a name I had almost forgotten. It is mainly about falling in love with an idea – but there is no clear explanation of this wonderful feeling.

The first thing I do in such situations is to contact one of my publishers and suggest the theme for my next articles. My enthusiasm usually makes me quite convincing and I rarely get a "no" as an answer.

You do not only publish books, you also publish on DVDs. You regularly write for the ChessBase Magazine, you contributed to the ChessBase Masters Series about Fischer, Tal and Alekhine, you told ChessBase readers how to win against Grünfeld, introduced them to the intricacies of the Leningrad Dutch and published a volume on Power Strategy. What advantages does publishing on DVD have in contrast to publishing a book?

There are two perspectives from which this question can be approached. I will start by answering it from the author's point of view and then from the reader's.

I believe that from a purely intellectual point of view writing is the most demanding way of self-expression. Putting words together to faithfully convey the author's feelings and ideas is a subtle and difficult art.

But from an emotional point of view, it is far better to explain things by talking in front of the camera. You can change the tone of your voice, smile, and use gestures and facial expressions to show your ideas. Sometimes you feel there is nothing left unsaid, while in writing it is hard to get rid of the obsession of improving the text again and again. On the other hand, recording sessions are physically exhausting, especially when I alternate recordings in German and English.

Mihail Marin reveals the secrets of the Pirc.

For the reader or viewer the difference is similar to reading a book and watching its story on screen. If well-written and read carefully, the book may transmit the message at a deeper level, but a good movie would do almost the same much faster and with less effort from the viewer.

With a well done DVD you can grasp the essence of an opening in one or maybe two days. Doing the same with a book would require much more effort.

Your most recent DVDs give Black an opening recommendation: "Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster: Positional Lines" and "Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster: Attacking lines". Tell us something about your relationship to and your history with this opening. When did you discover your passion for the Pirc and how did things develop from there?

Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster, Vol 1: Positional Lines

My passion for the Pirc started a long time ago, but remained on a platonic level for 15 years! In 1981, at the age of 16, I received from my father Friedstein's book Zaschita Pirtsa-Ufimtseva from the Russian collection Teorija Debiutov. I had a dozen of books from the same collection, but none of them attracted me as much as this one. I have the book next to me and I try to understand whether it was the intense green of the cover, or the smell of the pages (my first contact with any new book has always been to smell its age!), or just my father's smile when he gave it to me, what attracted me to the book is hard to say.

But it had something to do with the book, not with the opening. But when I started to work with it I fell in love with the Pirc and filled a 48-page notebook with variations from the book and my own analysis. I was especially proud of a variation, in which I intended to sacrifice a knight on b2 and I showed it to my father. He liked it, too, but while explaining my analyses to him I discovered an irreparable bug! I was too ashamed to confess my failure to my father, but I was so depressed that I put my notebook to the bottom of a drawer and gave up the idea of playing the opening.

15 years later, I decided to spend five weeks preparing for the national championship. Most of my opponents were playing 1.e4 and in recent games I had experienced problems with my Dragon Sicilian. I was also worried of all kind of sidelines, the Alapin, the Rossolimo and so on. I confessed my problems to IM Valentin Stoica and he had a sudden inspiration: "You are playing well with pawns, why don't you take up the Pirc?"

All the old feelings came back, I remembered the smell of the pages of Friedstein's book and I accepted his suggestion instantly. I was also inspired by the fact that the structure was similar to that of the Dragon, and liked the idea that there are practically no side-lines, leading to different types of structure, as often happens in the Sicilian or the Ruy Lopez. If my opponent played 1.e4, we would have my opening, not his!

I have played the Pirc almost exclusively for more than ten years. I must confess that I lived with the constant fear that I would get mated, but this rarely happened. After one of my games Dieter Nisipeanu told me that the Pirc offers White a false feeling of security, making Black's latent counterplay very dangerous. Quite a deep remark!

Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster, Vol 2: Attacking lines...

I lost some painful games, but won many others, including some against higher rated players. After each game I analyzed and refined my variations, but as explained in the introduction to the DVDs this process never ends.

The Pirc has the reputation of a not altogether solid, but tricky opening, a way to avoid opening theory, while playing an opening that offers good counter-attacking opportunities. However, top players do not seem to play it regularly in top class events. Why?

Let me first answer your question and then try to prove that your basic assumption is not entirely justified.

The top players today seem to like to neutralize White's initiative with systems such as the Berlin Defense, the Marshall Attack or the Petroff Defence. But there were times, and there will surely come times, when top players will take more risks with black.

I would not call the Pirc unpopular at a high level, though. From the actual elite, Ivanchuk has the Pirc as one of his many weapons, while Kramnik resorts to it once in a while when desperately needing to win. Former World title challenger Jan Timman and World title Candidates Mikhail Gurevich, Aleksander Chernin and Predrag Nikolic have played the Pirc throughout their careers. Zurab Azmaiparashvili used to be one of the most fervent Pirc players ever, and he used it to defeat Karpov in a period when Karpov was considered to be almost invincible. By the way, Karpov's 1.e4 used to be deadly effective against most black openings in the late '70s, but he repeatedly failed to get anything against Timman's Pirc.

Zurab Azmaiparashvili - a life-long adherent of the Pirc

However, the most interesting case is Kortschnoi's. We can suppose that for the terrible Viktor, who firmly believed in classical values such as space and initiative, playing the Pirc would not make too much sense. And indeed, he played it only on eight occasions, but these include three games against (of course!) Anatoly Karpov, one win against Robert Fischer and one against the German legend Robert Hübner...

Viktor Kortschnoi

What makes the Pirc an attractive opening?

Apart from what I said about my personal relation with this opening, I would mention: the flexible structure, the wide choice of possible plans, the close yet subtle connection between tactics and strategy, the challenge to common sense and classical principles, the excitement when balancing with the opponent at the edge of the precipice...

What is your favorite game with the Pirc?

After so many years of Pirc-love, I find it almost impossible to name one favourite game. I will just let my memories flow and name three classical games which revealed to me some essential aspects of this opening.

In Dolmatov-Gipslis, USSR 1985, black sacrificed a rook to bounce back from what looked like a dead passive position. The game ended in a draw, but Black had a very powerful, maybe winning, attack at some point. Dolmatov's mistake was releasing the tension with 16.exd6. Many years later he improved with 16.Rd1 - against yours truly.


Sigurjonsson-Timman, Wijk aan Zee 1980, is a good example how black can undermine the white centre.


Jan Timman

The aforementioned game Karpov-Azmaiparashvili, Soviet championship 1983, shows how to defeat a giant with a daring experiment (10...b7-b5) and is a good example of simple technique in a static position.


I would also mention the modern game Caruana-Ivanchuk, Biel 2009, which I have annotated for CBM, as a fantastic tactical struggle. I have some doubts about Black's opening, though.


And what is your best game with the Pirc?

Same problem as with the previous question.

Many of my Pirc games are very dear to me, for a wide range of reasons. This might be the tournament situation or the strength of the opponent, or some unusual idea... And maybe this is the place to add that it is hard to find a perfect win with the Pirc. The resulting positions are too complex for that and my approach is best described in what I said about Kortschnoi's influence on my play (see above).

It is with great pain that I select only three games from my long list of favourites.

Andrei Sokolov-Marin, Bled (ol) 2002, is the one which comes closest to what I could call best play for Black. The game followed the typical pattern, Black seemed to be on the ropes, but then his counterplay was irresistible. And defeating a former Candidates' finalist was rather sweet...


Timman - Marin, ECC Neum 2000, was a spectacular struggle which ended prematurely... I was happy with my position and stood up for a walk. When I returned, Timman looked at me and offered a draw with a broad smile. His last move was c2-c4, aiming to block the position and build a fortress. Since I was not at the board when he made his move, I did not realize that I could take en passant and... win! Therefore I agreed and had a very enjoyable post mortem with the former World title challenger. The illusion lasted for many months; my comments for CBM are a proof of it, since I do not mention ...dxc3!!!


In the second game of my blitz match with Jakovenko, played at the European blitz championship over the Internet, I managed to play very coherently and deliver a thematic and correct combination. White's play was far from optimal, but I was satisfied that my instincts in this opening were so good.


Why should one play the Pirc?

I would sum up everything I have said on closely related questions with a motto glued on my son's bedroom's door: Why would you try to fit in (and play the Petroff...) when you are born to stand out?

And why should one buy your DVD?

I recorded these DVDs with care and love and I have put my passion and my knowledge accumulated over years of dreaming and playing into these DVDs. And I hope my feelings come across...

Thank you very much for this interview!

Video running time: 4 hours (English)
Interactive training including video feedback
Exclusive database with 46 essential games
Two Mihail Marin’s „Pirc“ articles published in ChessBase Magazine
Including CB 12 – Reader
€29.90 (€25.13 without VAT - for Customers outside the EU)
$31.77 (without VAT)

Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster, Vol 1 in the Shop...

Video running time: 4 hours 21 minutes (English)
Interactive training including video feedback
Exclusive database with 50 essential games
Two „Pirc“ articles published in ChessBase Magazine
Including CB 12 – Reader
€29.90 (€25.13 without VAT - for Customers outside the EU)
$31.77 (without VAT)

Play the Pirc like a Grandmaster, Vol 2 in the Shop...

Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".


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