Ponomariov: 'I am on my way back!'

9/28/2005 – In 2002 the 18-year-old Ruslan Ponomariov won the FIDE World Championship to become the youngest title-holder in history. A year later he was scheduled to play a reunification match against Garry Kasparov. After venue changes and long negotiations the match was eventually cancelled. For the first time Ponomariov speaks about this traumatic time in an exclusive interview.

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Ponomariov: "I am on my way back"

By Olena Boytsun

During the Golden Blitz tournament in Moscow a number of journalists came to the winner, Ruslan Ponomariov, to congratulate him on his victory and to ask him some questions: "What do you think about the Argentina tournament? How do you feel about it?" Indeed, people are interested to know the reaction of the youngest world champion in the history of chess, who is not among the participants of this world championship.

In most cases the 21-year old Ukrainian refused politely to give any comments. I too asked him for details, but he said that the subject was still too delicate, too controversial. But it is important to discuss these things, I insisted? Ponomariov thought for a while, and than suddenly said: "Ok, let's do it, for the ChessBase news page. Go ahead, you can ask anything you want". So, I asked everything I wanted. Only one clear answer you will not find below – why precisely the Yalta match was cancelled in the end. But one can read between the lines. The most important thing is: Ruslan is playing chess again. Good chess.

I hope you find the following interview illuminating. If you have additional questions, you can ask Ruslan directly, using the Guestbook of the new Ponomariov.com web site (all links are given at the bottom of the page).

Interview with Ruslan Ponomariov

Question: Ruslan, we are talking with you in September 2005. The FIDE Championship in Argentina is going to start soon. A lot of chess players expressed their concern as to why Ponomariov wasn't invited to be part of the unification process. You haven't yet commented this event officially.

Ponomariov: To discuss the subject of the tournament in Argentina is not so easy for me. It was exactly in that country that the match between Ponomariov and Garry Kasparov was supposed to be held. After this experience I cannot be sure that the tournament will take place until I see the first games played there. On the other hand, as a chess player, I am deeply interested in the stabilization of the situation around the world championship title.

What are your feelings about the canceled match Ponomariov vs Kasparov today?

Life experience is the most valuable thing a person can get. Especially such an enlightening experience (smiles). I have thought a lot about everything and have come to some, as it seems to me, valid conclusions. Now I am looking forward to the future only. That is why I am reluctant to answer these questions. For the past three or four years I hardly had one interview without the question in the end: what do you say about your match with Kasparov? Why did you destroy all the unification plans?


The official photo of Ruslan Ponomariov (from Ponomariov.com)

It is true, such opinions do exist. Is it right, did Ponomariov play a leading role in the negotiation process that led to the end of the reunification plans?

Well, if that were the case I should be feeling great… (laughs). But seriously, if we review that situation one more time, we see that the main actors were: the very experienced Garry Kasparov, a number of high-level chess managers, and an 18-year-old grandmaster – me. Some people, I wonder why, would like to think that it was me who changed all the plans – cynically, carefully considering every step, tricking that illustrious group of adults. That it was me who upset the well advanced negotiation process, and kept the whole world in suspense while they waited with bated breath for my decision, whether the match would take place or not. If people really still believe this, it means they must think that I am some kind of a genius. I am grateful to them for showing such a very high estimation.

In the chess scene one can also hear the version that Ponomariov "was afraid to lose to Kasparov". How would you comment on this?

I heard these versions as well, in most cases expressed by grown-up experienced men. I was impressed by its illogicality. Don't they remember what it is like to be an 18-year-old? When you are drunk with your success, and want more and more? You want to show everyone, to prove something to the world. Are young people able to say "stop, it might be too hard"? That is more the characteristic of experienced adults. I am extremely ambitious now, four years later. At that time my level of adrenaline was much higher. Of course I wanted to play, I wanted to beat Kasparov.


Ruslan Ponomariov and Nigel Short, during preparations for the r
eunification match Ponomariov vs Kasparov in Yalta


... and playing sandglass blitz for the photographer three years later

What was your reaction to the FIDE World Championship in Tripoli in June 2004, which took place without world champion Ruslan Ponomariov?

If I had been a hardened and experienced schemer, I would have tried to make the situation as unclear and obscure as possible. I would have started an independent sponsor seeking process, I would have appointed a challenger, organized a union, etc. Instead I simply felt perplexity and irritation.

There is a real confusion, because of the fact that my title was not mentioned in any of the documents. Let me describe the situation that has arisen, for instance in Ukraine. I am giving a press conference. The questions are from journalists of popular mass media. They ask: "Are you the ex-World Champion?" That would appear to be true, I answer. The next question: "Who won the title from you?" And now I have no idea what should I answer. And then comes the next question: "So why you are ex-champion?" What should I answer? By the way, it still happens until now that in some official circles in Ukraine people come to me and ask: "Why shouldn't we organize a world championship here, in Ukraine? You are our champion, aren't you?"

And what do you answer on such suggestions?

Well, obviously no, we shouldn't. I am just Ruslan Ponomariov, not Niccolo Machiavelli. I do not want to bring additional confusion into the chess world, because I have great respect for this ancient and wise game.


In Moscow in 2002 Ponomariov became the
youngest World Champion in the history of chess

Let us go back to the situation with the match. What was your opinion about Kasparov that time?

I started to play chess when I was seven. Kasparov was 27. While I was growing up Kasparov was playing and winning great tournaments. For me he was from a different world, he had elements of something "untouchable". For example, in 2000 I gave an interview to Alex Baburin from Chess Today. We spoke about the problem of the devaluation of the grandmaster norm. I said: "I am a grandmaster and Kasparov is a grandmaster. But it is a big difference!" I found this interview while reviewing my archives for the web site Ponomariov.com.

So, there I was, turning 18. I had become a "big" grandmaster, and was the FIDE World Chess Champion. As World Champion (I emphasize the title) I had to play a reunification match against Kasparov, an ex-World Champion, number one in the world rankings, and someone whom many consider the strongest players of all time. Does anyone seriously think, for one moment, that any chess player in my position would say to anyone, even to himself: "I will not play this match"?! Just the line "World Champion Ponomariov plays Challenger Garry Kasparov" would have been enough for me to immediately agree. In addition I was in great fighting spirit at the time.


IM Michail Podagaets helping Ponomariov to prepare for the match against
Kasparov (in the background Ponomariov's second Veselin Topalov)

I also cannot understand these claims that I was afraid to play the match. Remember that I prepared for it for seven months. When you are 18-19 year old, seven months are like half a lifetime. So I had been preparing for the event for a half of my life. After that how could I decide to throw everything away and to withdraw?? I was sure that I should go through with the process, that I must play, without regard for the result.

Have you ever discussed the situation with Kasparov personally?

Once I took a decision and called him, in order to discuss all the aspects of the match. But Kasparov wasn't at home, I spoke with Klara Shagenovna only, the mother of Garry…

So you have regrets?

I can say that I regret that I wasn't able to play the match against Kasparov. Many people say he is still young, there will be many matches in the future. I am grateful for their moral support. However, I will not play Kasparov! At least, in the near future.


"Pono" and friends Sergey Karjakin and Veselin Topalov sarcastically
celebrating their loss to the computers last year in Bilbao.

The match was planned for Argentina, but then something changed and the match was moved to Ukraine, to Yalta. How would you evaluate the organization preparations there? More precisely, did the Ukrainian authorities take the process seriously?

Actually, by the time the match was suddenly and unexpectedly (at least for me) cancelled, the organization committee had worked on all the details already. For example, a special table was made for the match. Nobody was allowed to see it that time. Now it remains in Kiev, in the chess club "Avangard", and nobody has any idea what a gorgeous destiny the table could have had.

Also, for example, we realized that Kasparov had support from people who are close to the oil business in Russia. We started to collect the information, what hotels in Crimea their company owned, in order not to live somewhere close to them. We tried to get the best rooms in the house where we were going to play. My team even discussed what clothes would be more convenient to wear!


Loek van Wely, part of the Ponomariov's team. The above photo was made
during the preparations to the match in Crimea, near Yalta.

I must admit that planning my strategy for the Yalta match was much more pleasant than planning for Argentina. During my preparation for Buenos Aires I had to find a special chamber and to use it in order to simulate the climate of Latin America, to try to acclimatize. It was much more pleasant adapting to the climatic conditions of the match by sitting on my balcony near the Black Sea!


Ideal conditions: the seaside near Yalta in Ukraine (photo by Olena Boytsun)

When the match was cancelled, how did it affect you?

At the beginning I thought that the loss was financial only. However than I understood that far more important was the loss of morale. For a long time I couldn't recover as a chess player, I could not get back to my level of the game. I performed badly and had lost my motivation. Today I can feel that I am coming back. I have specific goals, and I am working to achieve them. My results during the last half of the year prove that, one can say, in my chess life there is the next "up" period.

How would you like people to see you?

I would like them not to associate my name only with the cancelled match against Kasparov. After all I have enough good games and results to show. I don't like it when someone only look at the past. I had the past, I have the present and will have the future, as any person does.

Will you root for any participant of the tournament in Argentina?

I will root for chess in general. For the stability. Actually, this is the main aim of the unification process, isn't it?


In September 2005 the youngest World Champion in the history of chess, Ruslan Ponomariov, opened his official website Ponomariov.com. The main aim of Ponomariov.com is to become an interactive resource that is interesting for chess fans all over the world. The visitors of the site can get information about games and the sporting results of this young chess player. They can read interviews and review photos from his private archives. One of the special features of the project is that it offers the chess public the opportunity to communicate with Ruslan Ponomariov directly, to ask any question and get an answer.


The "Interviews" section of Ponomariov.com

Ponomariov became the youngest FIDE World Champion, when he won the title in Moscow in 2002, at the age of 18. At the age of 21 the Ukrainian holds also the following titles: Olympic Champion (2004) and World Champion (2001) as a member of Ukrainian team, European vice-champion (2001).


A picture for the "Guestbook" section of the web site

Links


WIM Olena Boytsun is the manager of Ruslan Ponomariov. She lives in Dnipropetrovsk in Ukraine and works in the field of children's education and the benefits of the game of chess for disabled children, especially deaf children. Olena is a regular contributor of the ChessBase news page. Starting from September 2005 she has a column with chess stories in "Uchtishka", a popular Ukrainian magazine for children. Apart from chess management, Olena Boytsun is doing a PhD on "The influence of financial liberalization on economic growth" at the International Finance Department of Dnipropetrovsk National University (Ukraine). She also teaches courses on marketing, financial globalization, the history of economic theories and economic development at Dnipropetrovsk University. She is 22 years old.



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