Peter Svidler on the chess world

by ChessBase
2/2/2006 – Peter (or Pyotr) Svidler, 29 years old, from Leningrad, Russia, is currently the world's number four ranking player. He won four Russian championship titles, the first time at the age of 18. In 2001, he reached the semi-finals of the FIDE World Championship, in 2005 he shared second with Anand in the FIDE World Chess Championship. We bring you an indepth interview from the Chess Chronicle.

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Interview with GM Peter Svidler

By Abdul Karim, Chess Chronicle

GM Peter Svidler

Who doesn’t know about him? He is a great chess player, nice friend and, I’d say a very amiable personality. Chess Chronicle and I had the honor to do this phone interview, in which he expresses his views about his performance and his concern for the Russian Team, especially when this generation (the current Russian team) retires. He freely discusses the World championship cycle and comments on Kasparov, Kramnik and Shirov. The chess world doesn’t know that he is a great fan of cricket, particularly of the English team. Cricket is very popular in Australia, England, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the West Indies, Zimbabwe and some other countries including a few Arab countries. We exchanged views on cricket. The English team plays its next series against India, which is very competitive. We both were pleased to discuss cricket during the interview.

When did you start playing chess? What was the reaction of your family?

My dad taught me chess when I was six and it was something I obviously wanted to do, so they were happy to let me play chess

You won the highest chess title, grandmaster, as a youngster. What motivates you to play on?

Not exactly as a youngster. These days, if you are not GM by 13, your are nobody and I was 18, so it’s not a record. But, yes, being a GM is a good thing. Still, it was just a small step and, if you stop at that time then what was the point of beginning?

How do you manage to do the rest in between chess events? Is there a place that you visit to recharge yourself?

Oh, well, this is not a problem at all. I don’t manage to do any work but resting is easy. What I mostly want to do is to spend time with my family and that’s what I do.

Chess and computer: what is the interest other than the money?

You mean playing against the computer?


For me there is no particular interest. I never have been offered any serious matches, but, in general, I think playing against computers is not very exciting. Computers play so well these days that, to have a chance to win, you have to work very hard – and work hard at things that probably will be counter productive when you play against humans – so it probably will harm your chess a little.

If there is no financial incentive, I don’t see why there is any interest at all. You can try competing with computers at calculation, but this is not very wise, if you want to win. So, basically you have to train in playing closed positions, keeping it as simple and as non-tactical as possible. It is possible but there is not much fun in that. Playing the computer – I mean proper seven hour games – I never saw any attraction in that, apart from money. So I don’t really play against the computers. I use computers, as we all do, for help when analyzing, as a background check. You analyze and have the computer running in the background, to keep your analysis relatively blunder free. And that’s about it. 

What do you say about your performance in San Luis?

I was pretty satisfied with what I did there. The only regret I may have is that, after round five, I didn’t exactly pose a serious challenge for first place, but neither did anyone and it was very difficult to fight in such circumstances. But, apart from the fact that I was never really in the running after losing to Topalov in the fifth round, I can’t really fault myself too much because I felt that my concentration was good and I played reasonably well throughout the event. By my standards, I was very motivated, I suppose my level of motivation is basically relaxation for someone like Topalov, but, for me, I was very much motivated and I was serious about this event. In general, I think I played well and I think I should be happy with what I did there and how I did it.

So you think that the fifth round loss put you out of the race for the Championship?

More or less, because a point and a half is a lot. A point and a half with nine rounds to go is not too much, but I couldn’t really pick up immediately after that. I won one game in Round Seven, but, in general, I made a series of draws after that and Topalov kept on winning, at least for a while. So the gap was not closing and the number of rounds left kept decreasing. When there is less and less time and the gap is not diminishing, at some point, you have to come to the realization that, probably, the title race is over and you should concentrate on getting second. But, in general I think I played well.

Yes, you scored eight and a half points.

Oh yeah, I scored +3 and in a tournament like that, it should be considered a success.

Do you think that San Luis was a perfect example for the next World Championship or do we need some changes?

This is a difficult question. I understand when people say that they want the matches back. On the other hand, obviously, San Luis was a success. It received a great publicity in the media: everybody was following it.

I can understand the argument for both cases. I understand why FIDE is reluctant to change the format, because they saw the success they had in San Luis. They are quite sure that if they have two years to prepare (they propose to stage another one like that in 2007), they will be able to find sponsors, a nice place to hold it, with good conditions – and, most probably, they will. On the other hand, I grew up with the Karpov vs. Kasparov matches. Of course, they had enormous appeal for me when I was a child, because of the classic of two personalities clashing against each other, with all the excitement we got from that. But, in general, I think the formula we had in San Luis is not bad at all. I thought it was good.

Better than the knockout system?

I probably would prefer it to the knockout, even though I never was an out-and-out critic of the knockout. I just felt that knockouts, more than anything, have to be organized very, very precisely. With tournaments like San Luis, the number of free days for us and when these free days are held – after four rounds, five rounds or six rounds – doesn’t really matter that much. But, for a knockout, it is imperative that you have tie breaks on separate days and they didn’t have this until Khanty-Mansiysk. We were all playing tiebreaks on the same day and this is just not right. For a system that puts such emphasis on tiebreaks, this is very important because more than half of the games in the matches in the rounds end in tiebreaks.

The same thing happened at the World Cup. Actually most of the matches ended in tiebreaks.

Yeah, but, at least then the players could get some sleep and they could prepare. They were relatively fresh to play the tiebreaks. When you play tiebreaks two hours after the classical game it is almost impossible to readjust for a different time control, and, also you’re completely exhausted. I’m not a big fan of knockouts, but, if they’re organized properly, if the organizers don’t try to save time and make it as short as possible to save money on hotels and stuff, if they allocate time for rest days and tiebreaks on a separate day, then it’s a possible format. As I said, I’m not a big fan, but I’m not totally against it, if it is done properly. But I think both round robins and matches are better.

Do you think that fourth round loss to Kasimdzhanov put Anand out of the Championship race?

This is very difficult to say. Obviously, Vishy was very upset, He had started very well, better than I did. After three rounds he had two and a half out of three and was tied for first. He’d saved a bad position against Topalov, which was important, because you could see straight away that Topalov would be a contender, at least. So it was very important for Vishy not to lose that game and, though he was lost, he managed to save it. Then, he won a nice game against Mickey and, then, to lose a game against Kasimdzhanov the way he lost it, I mean almost without a fight… He just got caught in the opening and went down – a very uncharacteristic game for him. To lose a game like that, at that stage, obviously, was very disappointing for him. It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly when the race is over, but, in general, I think the race was more or less over after seven rounds. You can not really say after four or five rounds, but after seven rounds when a guy has 6.5 out of seven and the next best is two points behind, this is probably too much.

I mean we still could have a chance if Topalov collapsed, but you could see it was unlikely. He was really playing well and he obviously wanted to win. It was never likely that he would just forget how to play chess. In a tournament like this, where everybody was pretty much equal, with a two point lead and only seven rounds to go, at this point, as they say, “It was for him to lose not for us to win”.

Alex Baburin reported in Chess Today issue #1831cthat an "unknown participant in the World Chess Championship in San Luis" had accused Veselin Topalov of using outside help to win the title. Cheparinov used computer analysis of the game and then secretly signalled the future champion for the next move. Any comment?

Unless some sort of proof is provided (and I think it’s extremely unlikely), there is no point in this discussion. With a result like that there will always be some talk. (Conspiracy theories are very popular these days.) Obviously, you will not see something like this every day, a guy having 6.5 out of seven rounds in a category XXI field. This is clearly a very special result. But, we should not forget, he played well the whole year. I think we just have to accept that we were beaten. We should move on.

The World Team Championship miracle victory! The last round was a do or die situation. What was the team strategy?

That was great! I’ve been playing for Russia for 11 years but I don’t think I ever felt anything like that. We realized that we had to win. We could see that they must be getting very nervous and we felt that, if we kept the pressure on, we had a good chance. Rating-wise we were stronger on every board and we knew that, if we succeed in keeping up the pressure and just played on all boards – especially with the time control like this, when time trouble starts, it goes on almost indefinitely – we should always have a chance. But we definitely didn’t think we were the favourites before the round.

For me the problem was that I was forced to accept a draw offer after about two hours and then I had to watch – and this was horrible! I couldn’t really do much in my game. First of all, Bu is a really good player, the most solid of them all. Objectively, if I had continued playing in the position, I certainly would not have won and even probably would have lost. If you remember the game, there was a repetition in the end. I could sacrifice an exchange in the final position, but it was clear that I would be very lucky to survive after that. By that point, I also could see that, on the white boards, we were, at the least, much better and maybe winning, while Morozevich had a very playable position. He’s a great player and a fantastic team player. If you had to choose one guy in this situation to be playing black, he probably would be that guy. Still, watching for two and a half hours or however long it was, that was absolutely horrible. 

What about the overall Russian team performance? The performance was not good.

Well, I wouldn’t say that the performance wasn’t that good. We won all the matches, after all, so you can’t really say we were playing badly. But, somehow, we never really got going. It was very funny.Our coach Sergey Dolmatov, kept telling us throughout the tournament that this is the time we should win by 3.5-0.5. He kept saying that all tournament long and we never succeeded. I think we won two matches by 3-1 and five matches with 2.5-1.5 scores. Finally we won 3.5-0.5, at the moment when everybody had completely dismissed us. It was ironic, because Dolmatov kept on telling us, now would be a good time to win, 3.5 – 0.5 – against the women or against the other relatively weaker teams. There were matches that were easier on paper than the one in the last round and we still would win by only 2.5 – 1.5. Finally, the Russian Internet sources were saying, “Russia is second. What a complete disaster again.” People were writing us off before the last round, unnecessarily, because we still had a chance. And, then, to actually win was an absolutely amazing feeling. I was talking to Evgeny Bareev, who also played for Russia and he told me that he never felt anything like that. We were absolutely ecstatic, it was unbelievable.

The Chinese team has become one of the strongest in the world, with very young chess players. What do you think is the reason behind it?

Yeah! First of all, I think that China can be good in anything. Right now, a Chinese player is winning everything in snooker. With the size of their population, if they decide that they are interested in sports, they will always have enough talent out there. It is just a question of looking for the talented children and helping them develop. They are obviously very interested in chess right now, probably because of the women. Initially. Now, they have realized that it is not only their women who can do it, but also their men. There are lots of young players who are coming up. Also, they are incredibly motivated, I think, because it’s new for them. For somebody like me, in team competition, something really special must happen for me to feel really strongly about it – like it did this year. I always try to play as well as possible for Russia and tend to play well, I think. But in general, for me, there is a feeling of “been there done that.” There are no special feelings, like doing something for first time in your life. But for them, winning the World Team Championship would be an absolute miracle, something that would be talked about for as long as they lived – and that motivates them. I think they were the best motivated team in the championship. That’s why they did so well. I think they really shouldn’t be disappointed with second place. Of course, they are disappointed, because they were half a point away from winning. But in general, second place in the World Team Championship is a success. Before the start, I think people would have said that, if they finished in the top four. they should be happy, because there are Armenia, Ukraine and Israel. On paper, these teams were much stronger than China, yet not one of these teams even came close to them. So I think it’s a great result, but, of course, they will be unhappy, because they were so close to winning.

How do you see the Russian team without Kasparov, Karpov, and Kramnik?

We still have enough talent. I would say that the problem will come in, say, four to six years, maybe six. Of the team that played in Beer Sheba, Bareev is 40 I think, this year, Dreev is also around 40, I think, I’m 30, Morozevich is 29, Rublevsky is 30-odd years old, only Grischuk is really young, so, the thing is when we all forget how to play chess… This will happen at some point in the future, in, let’s say the next five or six years. Three or four Olympiads from now, there will be only Grischuk left from this team. The problem is, who will play with him, because, of the people who are 20-21 – and they are not too many, there is Yakovenko, who is tied with Morozevich right now in the Russian Championship; there is Inarkiev; there is Timofeev, who is ELO 2660. But they need to develop; they are not the finished article, yet. The challenge will be after my generation – the generation that is around 30 now, including Rublevsky, Malakhov and Zvjaginsev – is gone. So, when we are all 37-38, who will play for Russia, then? Right now something is being done about that, so I am hopeful. Finally, we realize that this is going to be a problem, and there have been some initiatives to create new schools, to nurture and develop new talent, so I think it will be OK. Obviously, with Kasparov on Board 1, the team always looked stronger, but I don’t think that we really need him to win team championships. There are still enough people out there to do it without him. So, it’s not felt too keenly right now but it will be some time later.

In the Russian Championship, you defeated Kramnik, in the very first round. Any comment? After that it seemed that Peter Svidler was done; he had accomplished his goal. Is that right?

It was a very strange tournament; I don’t really understand what happened. At some point, I made five draws in a row. All of them were perfectly understandable, from the chess point if view. It’s not that I didn’t want to play. I was getting nothing or even worse positions with White, for some reason, probably due to insufficient preparation for that particular event, while, in the Black games, my opponents kept offering draws after 12-15 moves, in absolutely equal positions. And this happened for a long time. Five rounds is a long time in a 11 round tournament.

You feel depressed. When you feel depressed, you start losing interest and then I lost to Bareev. That really finished the tournament for me. After that I was not in the fight for first place, even theoretically, and I just wanted to go home. I think, I should have done something different in the period from the fourth round to eight round. I should have done better in my White games. As it happened, I managed to equalize against Rublevsky. He had an improvement earlier than I did in a theoretical position and I was lucky to escape. I spent half an hour and managed to find a forced equality. I’m very proud of myself, but White should not be fighting for equality… Then, I was absolutely lost against Khalifman – just totally lost – and somehow managed to save the game. I was slightly better against Zvjaginsev but he defended very well and, in the end, I had absolutely nothing. I just had misplayed it at some point. These were three Whites in a row that could have gone better. But, as I say, I can’t blame myself for not trying. It just wasn’t working out. After eight rounds, you find yourself still on +2, with Rublevsky on +4. Then, Bareev beat me, so the tournament was more or less over for me. When I realized I was not fighting for first place, anymore, I couldn’t really motivate myself too much to fight for second. That was probably wrong, but I played a lot last year and when this tournament went wrong, I just couldn’t bring myself to do much about it. I just wanted to finish it and go home.

Is it more difficult to play in the Russian Championship or the World Championship nowadays?

The World Championship is more difficult, of course. It’s objectively stronger and, also, there is a lot more pressure. If you meant San Luis, yes, then, especially San Luis.

Whom do you consider the true World Champion? Topalov or Kramnik?

I would say both. Obviously, my position, as I said before, is not exactly objective, because I was in Brissago. I think Brissago was valid. The current form of Kramnik is, of course not the greatest and it is difficult to argue about it. Even he is not arguing about it. Of course, the way he is playing it’s very disappointing, but there are objective reasons for that. People will probably choose to disregard his recent statement and will think that he simply doesn’t want to play, but I have seen him in Moscow. He doesn’t feel well, he needs some time to sort out the physical problems. It has to be understood that there are objective reasons behind what is happening to him. I still think he is a great player. When he gets himself in good shape he will be a major player.

On the other hand, of course, Topalov won San Luis, which was the strongest tournament in many years. His performances in 2005 have been great and he is certainly a World Champion. I think we would benefit quite a lot if they agreed to play the match, but, at the moment, the situation is unclear at best

What happened to the Prague Agreement reunification match? It never took place.

The Prague Agreement: you know, all sides say it’s dead, when it suits them and, then, they say it’s OK, when it suits them, so I would forget about the Prague agreement. The reunification match now is not connected to Prague at all. There are two people who could play a match that could finish the argument once and for all – which I think would be beneficial for chess – but it is a matter for them and their managers to work out. Whether they will work it out or not, I can’t say.

Are you in favor of the reunification match?

I think it would be good.

The reunification match with Rustam, that never took place, Do you have any idea why? Way back, Shirov defeated Kramnik and won the right to a shot at the title, against Kasparov, but Kasparov refused to play. Do you think that that could be a reason why reunification never took place?

I don’t know what happened with the Kasimdzhanov match at all. But as for Shirov in 98-99, what you’re saying is not exactly true, as far as I know. You can’t exactly say that. Obviously, I am on the outside, so my information may not be exactly correct.

People always say that Kasparov did not want that match. On the other hand almost everyone of the sources who I have talked to about it, agrees that there was a relatively reasonable offer on the table, which Shirov was advised to turn down – and he did. Basically, he felt that the match should be worth more, so he said ‘no’ to this one. Once again. I have no idea whether the figures are correct or not, but I’ve heard this from enough sources to suspect that it must be pretty close to the truth.

Of course, from a moral point of view, Shirov should have played Kasparov in 1999, but it wasn’t a very easy sell and, if there really was an offer on the table, maybe, he was unwise in not taking it. Time goes on and it’s more and more difficult to find sponsors. You can say that when Kramnik played Kasparov, in 2000, he didn’t qualify, but he was the strongest challenger. It is an odd story and you really need to talk to all the participants to figure out what happened then. But it’s not so simple. I do not think it was just that Kasparov did not want to play. Perhaps, he wasn’t working very hard to find the sponsors for it, but I think he was ready to play, because from his point of view, I don’t see any problem with playing Shirov.

Any comment on Shirov’s performance, last event only one draw and he lost rest of the games?

I have no idea. My good mate, Vasily Yemelin, played there. I asked him and he said he couldn’t understand it

I love Shirov’s style and I was shocked when he lost like this.

Who doesn’t love his style? He’s a great player. Nobody knows. There was no obvious reason at all, but it was obvious that this was not the Alexei Shirov that we know. Alexei Shirov could not possibly score half a point at this event. It’s just impossible.

You have a comment on Kasparov’s retirement?

Obviously, what he wanted was to play a World Championship match again and, when he realized that this was not going to happen or not going to happen very soon, he just said to himself, “OK, how many more times can I win Linares and Wijk aan Zee?” He won all those tournaments so many times that, finally, he became unmotivated. One of the things that separated him from the rest of us was the fact that he was always motivated to win. I think, at some point, he just realized that he probably could do it again and again and again, at least for a while, but it was becoming more difficult, of course, because people learned how to play him. It wasn’t becoming any easier for him. Also, I think he had won everything it was possible for him to win and he just started to think, “The match is not coming. Maybe I should try doing something else”. Also, I think that he is very committed to the stuff he is doing now

He is now interested in Russian politics. Living in Russia, how do you see that?

Well, at the moment, what he is doing is marginal. I mean, it gets bigger play in chess sources, because, for us, he is Kasparov. We know who he is and it is important for us to know what he is doing, but, on the political landscape, he is very much a marginal player. People in the street probably have very little idea of what he is talking about.

So, do you think if he ever becomes the president of Russia …

This is very unlikely.

Yes, very unlikely, but let’s say it happens. Do you think he would be better than Putin?

It’s very difficult to say, because you can compare them as people, but you also have to realize that this is not an easy job. You do have to have qualifications and Kasparov is a professional chess player; he is not a professional public leader. So, there are different opinions of him as a person, but you also have to consider just how qualified he is for that office.

You are a World Champion of Chess960. How do you manage to switch from classical chess to Chess960?

I actually like the game and it is easy to switch. Last year, it came almost immediately after Dortmund, and you just felt that it was a break. It’s a chance to do something completely different for four days. I don’t prepare at all for it. I’ve been doing this for the last four years and I never prepared for it at all. I just tried to have a fresh head and enjoy it. For me, it is quite enjoyable, because I like creating stuff at the board; I like to think of myself as a creative, intuitive player. For me, it is a great chance to do something that you can’t always do in classical chess, because, when you compete with the opening preparations, sometimes the positions you get are boring. Other positions you get are drawn by force, so the game just doesn’t happen. For me, Chess960 is great fun and I enjoy and like it.

Are you satisfied with the FIDE President’s performance?

Not at the moment. Probably, not. We could talk about history. I think, in general, in the beginning, he was too harshly criticized. I don’t think he was ever really welcomed; people were against him from the beginning, which was probably not too fair. But, right now, I think FIDE needs change.

Bessel Kok is running for the FIDE Presidency. Do you think that it’s time for a change?

I think this is good news. I don’t know how much of a chance he’s got, because, in a general election, one country is one vote. If you were to ask the top 100 players, probably, Bessel would be President right now, but the General assembly is a different kind of vote. This requires different things, so I don’t know how this will go, but I think it would be a welcome change, yes.

FIDE and the ACP: which do you support more, as an active member of the ACP?

Active member is an overstatement, but I am a member, yeah.

Do you think the ACP should step into the current situation and try to solve some of the problems in the chess world?

Well I don’t know how much influence they will have. I think the idea is great but they need to actually do something real, for people to start taking them really seriously. At the moment, it’s not quite clear what exactly they are doing and what their place in the chess process is. I would welcome a situation in which the ACP would become a major influence, but, at the moment, I don’t think they can influence the chess world too much.

When discussing openings and variations with friends, do you refer to them by their given names, their ECO codes or both?

It depends, but mostly by given names.

Why you didn’t play the World Cup and why are you now not playing in Corus?

In the World Cup, because I didn’t have to. You will notice that all the people who had qualified for the matches already chose not to play, mostly because we had played quite a lot and it was time to take a break. As for Corus, I simply wasn’t invited. I did not do well there in the last two years.

If you could ask FIDE to grant you three wishes, what would they be?

Stop meddling with the time control; basically, keep their word; and some change of personnel would be welcome. There are certainly some people out there whom most of us would like to see changed.

Who is your favorite player from the past and the present?

I have always found this difficult because I find it hard to limit myself to one player; probably Tal. As for the present, it’s difficult to say. We all admire Shirov’s play. I do, as well as everybody else. But if you go from the other side … For me, personally, the player whom I always have the biggest problems against and the player who, I always felt, will probably outplay me in an equal position was always Kramnik – ahead of Kasparov or Anand. He may not be the most watchable, the most exciting, even though he can be, but, in general, he is much more technically accurate. People don’t really appreciate his chess all that much. But, from a professional point of view, I have always felt that he is seriously above me; stronger than I. The game I won against him in Moscow was actually the first good position I’ve had against him in my entire life. So it really depends on what you mean – strength or style?

Let’s say style.

I would have to say Shirov, Ivanchuk, at his best, Morozevich, at his best. They’re fabulous to watch.

Is there a book that you would recommend every chess player read?

Everybody says Zurich ’53. Probably, I would say that, as well. Of the books I have read, this is the one that gives the most literary enjoyment, while being actually very good.

Do you have a message for the chess world?

I’m not very good at messages, actually. Keep playing, Chess is great!

Previous Chess Chronicle interview with Nigel Short

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