The life story of Vladimir Akopian (2/2)

by Sagar Shah
11/28/2019 – Vladimir Akopian had almost all the ingredients to become one of the best players in the world. He was fearless, he had phenomenal talent, he understood the game excellently. But he lacked one ingredient: the will to work hard. And that's what stopped him at the final hurdle. This is the story of the life of one of the finest grandmasters in the world. Welcome to Part 2 of the interview with Vladimir Akopian. | Photo: Amruta Mokal

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You may like to review Part 1 of this interview.

Interview with GM Vladimir Akopian Part II

SS: Tell me how this works. Armenia is never the top seed in such tournaments. They are usually seeded fourth or fifth. But they manage to win gold. What’s your secret?

VA: It’s difficult to say. Of course, the Armenian team wasn’t the strongest in these tournaments. I guess, it’s because we were always fighting for first place. Everybody who played in the team was trying to give his best and it worked. Also, I must mention that the President of our chess federation, Serzh Sargsyan, put a lot of faith in the team. He helped create a positive atmosphere. Somehow, he motivated us and kindled a winning spirit in the team.

Akopian receives the medal of honor in 2012 at the hands of Serzh Sargsyan, the 3rd President of Armenia from 2008-2018 | Photo: Akopian's archives

Winning for the first time is never easy but once we had won our first Olympiad, we had a feeling that we could do this. After that, we were a lot more confident. Of course, it’s not that this would always work. Luck also plays an important part. We had our share of luck in almost all of these tournaments. In our match against Germany from the Istanbul Olympiad, for example, we were totally losing and we should have lost that match but somehow we managed to win. And we already had this winning spirit in us after having won the Olympiad in Turin and this helped a lot.

I would still say it is difficult to tell how we won, though, because there were so many strong teams. We had decent players in the team, not top players — except maybe Aronian — but still strong players. And all of us scored decently well. So, perhaps, as individual players, we weren’t the strongest but as a team we were very tough. But again, it was only during those years that the team did so well. It wasn’t the case before the Turin Olympiad or after the Istanbul Olympiad.

The gold winning Armenian team at the Dresden Olympiad 2008 (from left to right): Arshak Petrosian, Minasian Artashes, Vladimir Akopian, Levon Aronian, Gabriel Sargissian and Tigran Petrosian | Photo: Akopian's Facebook

SS: What are your thoughts on Levon Aronian. He was your teammates; he is one of the best in the world today. How is it that he was the one who managed to go the distance?

VA: Of course, Aronian is a good player. But I feel that his chance to win the world championship title was in 2011. He should have won the Candidates’ Tournament in Kazan that year. I don’t know what happened. Maybe there was some psychological problem but he lost to Grischuk. This must have been a big blow. At the time, I thought whether Aronian or Kramnik might play Vishy for the title. And after this, I don’t think he ever had any real chances.

SS: You have played against Vishy many times. What’s your opinion of him?

VA: I haven’t played him many times. We’ve played only four times if you don’t count the blitz games. But playing against strong players like him is always pleasant. He is very talented and almost all of my games with Vishy were very interesting.

SS: Have you played against Carlsen?

VA: Yes, but it was a blitz game. I don’t think it’s really worth considering.

SS: You’ve even defeated Kramnik once, in Wijk Aan Zee? 

Akopian has beaten Kramnik when the latter was on the height of his powers in 2004 | Photo: Akopian's Facebook

VA: Yes, once I have beaten him and I have also lost to him one time and there were some draws. I’ve played some of these players, of course, and the games were always very interesting. It was a pleasure to play them. I’d get to play them when I was playing on the first board in the Olympiad or whenever I got rare invitations to strong tournaments. Mainly it was after this world championship in Las Vegas. But even then, I didn’t get many such invites. I was only invited twice. Once I played in Dortmund and another time in Wijk aan Zee when my rating was quite high.


SS: Would you say that the difference between you and all of these great players like Anand, Kramnik, Carlsen etc. is only of hard work? Would you say you would match them in terms of chess talent if the element of hard work was removed?

VA: By talent of course I could match them. And these are not my words; these are Mikhail Botvinnik’s words. And I believe there are many talented chess players. When I play, sometimes I see players who are very talented. And by talent, many players can be compared easily; it’s not something special. But hard work is very important. And not only hard work but also a player’s weakness in character or some psychological instability can make a difference. Chess is very complicated and all of this counts. Purely in terms of talent, I believe, not only me but many others even maybe surpass these top players. It's possible.

But when you consider all things together — not only talent but the willingness to work hard, to sacrifice everything else, to be psychologically strong — not many have it in them to make it to the very top. Everyone, of course, has some small weaknesses but there are many factors that need to be in place for a player to reach the world’s elite.

SS: When you had reached the semi-finals of the 1999 world cup, Kasparov had made a statement saying, ‘these are all tourists playing here’. Of course, this was not very pleasant but what was your feeling at that point — we will come to your game against him later — but at that point, what did you feel?

One of the biggest achievements for Akopian was to reach the finals of FIDE World Championship in 1999 against Alexander Khalifman | Photo: John Gurzinski/Getty Images

VA: In those years, Garry always came and said something like this. It wasn’t directed against me or someone in particular. He was just always making enemies. At this he was strong.

Also, from his point of view, he was right. He was always a very tough worker. And maybe seeing, for example, me — who wasn’t doing anything much in chess — coming and reaching the finals, he  thought that it was not logical. Kasparov referred to us as tourists not in the sense that we completely cannot play chess but the sense that we didn’t work so hard on chess. And when you don’t work on chess, automatically, from his point of view, you’re tourists; you are not professional chess players. This was his approach. Of course, one could argue if someone should say such things or not but this was what he meant.

SS: Were you not offended in any way because of this?

VA: When I was playing — not only me but also some others like Nisipeanu — did not take it very well. But now a lot of time has passed and I have understood exactly what he meant. He was comparing the world’s top 10 players who were working very hard on chess to us. He was surely expecting Adams or Kramnik to reach the finals and then he saw me and Khalifman. I had beaten Adams to reach the finals. Probably me reaching the finals was luck. Just winning six matches to reach the finals means that there was luck involved. And, indeed, I got lucky in the second round. I could have been knocked out  at the hands of talented Filipino player Antonio [Rogelio Antonio Jr.]. This match was the most difficult for me in the whole competition. Somehow, I won but I was on the verge of losing.

SS: So, when you played Kasparov in 2002, did this motivate you to beat him?

VA: It was a rapid game and, even before this, I had played three classical games against him. All of these ended in draws. I cannot say something like this motivates me. Also, I have always been taught in such a way that no matter who plays against me — be it someone as great as Kasparov or Karpov, or some average GM — I would play with the goal of winning in my mind. For me it absolutely didn’t matter whom I was playing. Okay, if I had black, maybe, at some point, I would consider making a draw. But if I was playing white, I would just play to win. 

Akopian versus Karpov. It didn't matter who Akopian would play against, his aim was always to win! | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: Would you say you had huge self-confidence?

VA: Probably, I am self-confident. But more than that it’s about how I was taught. My coach always told me that if I am playing — especially with the white pieces — I should play for a win. It’s better that I lose trying to win than playing for a draw from the start. At least I would know that I played and I wanted to beat but I failed. With the black pieces, perhaps against a very strong opponent or in a team competition, I might consider going for a draw.

SS: But were you proud to have managed to beat Kasparov in 25 moves in that game?

VA: There isn’t much to say about this game. We were both playing terribly in this tournament. I had lost both my games before this one. I was on 0/2 and I told my captain, Yasser Seirawan, that it is better that I don’t play. Our team — the world team — was playing very well against Russia and I, therefore, thought it would be better if I don’t play. But then I got a call from Yasser. He said I was the one in the team with the best personal score against Garry. I had a score of 1½-1½. All others had a minus score. So, he said if someone should be playing Garry, it should be me. He also told me that our coach, Victor Korchnoi, was ready to help me. So, I agreed and we began analyzing some positions before the game. He showed me some positions in the Gruenfeld for about 40 minutes. And then I thanked him and said I would rather play 1.e4. [laughs].

Akopian and Korchnoi fighting it out as opponent's in India in 2000 | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: That would have made him (Korchnoi) mad.

VA: Well, no. We had good relations in the team. We won this third round match with a score of 6-4.


Akopian versus Garry Kasparov. This was back in 1996! | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: So, coming to another subject about Armenia, chess players are considered super stars there. I remember seeing a video when you guys were coming down from an airplane and the people from the city were cheering for you. How is life for you in Armenia? Are you one of those people who get mobbed by crowds because you are a famous personality? Because, for the rest of the world, chess players never get so much importance.

VA: Yes, chess is very popular in Armenia. Especially in those years, it was all the more popular. It’s a very small country in a very difficult economic situation. For Armenia, this was great success. Everyone saw it as their success and was very proud. The very small Armenia had become the strongest in the chess world. About my life in Armenia, I can walk freely without being mobbed by fans. In those days, of course, people recognized me on the streets. Now, it doesn’t happen often but people do recognize. Perhaps, it’s not just about chess players. There aren’t many famous people in Armenia and it’s not a big country. Normally, people who like chess or are interested in chess, especially from the older generation, know us or recognize us. People of the younger generation who were born after our successes have, maybe, only heard of us.

SS: And how do you see your future now. Do you see yourself playing, coaching or doing something else?

VA: I play but I don’t play that much now. I play only when I want. Recently, I played the Dubai Open in the UAE. I had actually spent two years there before. I was training UAE best player Salem there.

SS: How was your training with him?

VA: It was very good. I had a two-year contract. The contract ended last year. Prior to that, I had worked in Qatar for some time. Most of the times, I go to train but if I like the place and organization and the overall atmosphere, I also play.

SS: Do you go with your family or do you travel alone?

VA: My sons are studying currently and it is difficult for them to travel with me. Normally, they would come along during summers. But with these contracts, sometimes, I could go out or play some tournament. Now I mostly coach and sometimes I also play but not very often.

Vladimir with his family in 2019: wife Christine, sons Valery, Eduard and Sergey | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: What about team competitions? Would you like to participate in them?

VA: In team competitions, I don’t play at all. Somehow, after the Istanbul Olympiad, I decided for myself that I would close the book on team competitions if we won. And we won the tournament.But even so after the Istanbul Olympiad, I still played the next Olympiad in Tromso. I did not like the experience, however. Despite being the three time champions, we never had any chance for fighting for the first three places in Tromso. I don’t know why it went like this. Actually, we didn’t even play that badly but we never played a really strong team. I knew in Tromso that the best years of the Armenian team had already passed. And then I decided it is time to stop. You know, for me after being three time champions, somehow is not very interesting to fight for the fifth place.

Also, with the coaching and everything it was getting difficult. For some people, it is a need to keep playing in tournaments. For me, I am very happy playing one or two tournaments per year.

Fighting it out against one of the greatest female players of all time Maia Chiburdanidze | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: What is your approach as a coach? You don’t believe too much in opening preparation. So, how do you work with these young players?

VA: Yeah, mostly, I analyze games of the chess players. I also rely on chess positions on endgame and the middlegame. I try to understand a player’s strong points like this. I mostly help them improve their playing strength. And I openly tell them that if they want to improve at openings, I am not their guy. I understand that it should be done but it is not interesting for me. Or I tell them I could analyze concrete positions that crop out of their openings. I would analyze these positions for some hours and tell them my thoughts about the position.

SS: So in many ways, your approach is like that of Dvoretsky.

VA: Yes, in this case, it is true. He also liked endgames very much. Only that everything has changed now and opening study has become very important. But what do I do, I just don’t find it interesting. I have tried my best but I always get bored studying openings.

SS: In that sense, do you like Chess960?

VA: Yes, I like it if you generally compare. But it’s not very popular. If this was popular, I would play it. It is interesting — chess without theory! I’ve always liked these different formats. I used to like blitz a lot but that was when I was young. Now I have just lost interest. Actually, I liked everything except opening theory unless it was over the board. Over the board, I would try to find ideas because it’s a game, it’s a continued story. This is something I might have taken from Boris Vasilievich Spassky. I have very good relations with him and I like him very much. He had come to my place in Armenia once and I once visited him in France. Like me, he was very lazy.  When we would talk he would tell me that he always worked hard over the board. And this was my approach as well. I work hard over the board. Boris Vasilievich is one of the greatest lazy chess players.

Spassky is Akopian's close friend and the two have quite a lot in common! | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: Did you ever meet Petrosian?

VA: Yes, but I never really had a relation with him. I met him in 1982 at the Interzonal tournament in Moscow, which Kasparov won. I was ten years old at the time and my father had taken me there to watch. I saw the atmosphere of a world class tournament for the first time. There were such grandmasters like Kasparov, Tal, Geller, Andersson, Gheorghiu. Petrosian was also playing there. When they would be out of a playing hall, I would go and take autographs from them. I also took an autograph from Petrosian and this was my only meeting with him.

SS: And you never met Fischer, right?

VA: Yeah, I never met Fischer. I had an opportunity to meet him once. In 1993 I had training session with the Polgar sisters in Budapest. They are very nice and I liked them. Normally I would work and play blitz with Judith and Susan. When we were talking about something one day they said that once you left Bobby immediately came in. It was probably possible to meet him because as I understood he was not against it but  somehow, I missed my opportunity.

Akopian with his best friend Karen Asrian in 2006. Two years later Karen passed away because of a heart attack. | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: If I were to ask you to name one favourite book of yours on chess, which one would it be?

VA: It’s difficult because there are many.

SS: So, which are your favourite books? Which ones do you like?

VA: I can tell you that I like books by Kasparov very much. He has written many books, but I especially like his books about his own games, the last three volumes are very interesting. His games are very interesting and instructive in general.

There are some other books as well. Fischer’s My sixty memorable games is very interesting and so is Larsen’s book. Also, there are some books of these great chess players that I respect a lot. I very much like Stein. He was a great chess player who was extremely talented but died very young.  And of course, Boris Vasilievich Spassky, he has played some incredible games. But he never wrote a book about his games. I also like the games of Alekhine very much. I would read all of the books that contained his games and analyze them myself.

SS: So you like players who play active chess.

VA: Yes, exactly. All of the players I like play dynamic chess.

SS: So, do you think these youngsters who are coming up can improve by studying these classic games? 

VA: I don’t know. With this computer generation, it is all different. They probably should do what suits them well. What suits them now probably is just working too much on the game itself. These are completely different times and to play like they did before is just impossible — to play like Larsen for example. They were very creative. Now, somehow, you will not find it. If you are creative, it means that you are creative at home. Before, there was more opportunity for being creative. Now you just follow computer analysis. Time is changing. Maybe one day, chess will be finished completely.

Akopian with one of the greatest players that chess has seen Svetozar Gligoric in 1986 | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: Chess will be completely finished. You think so?

VA: Well, even right now it’s a completely different game than what it used to be. Now, the game is too much dependent on memory or memorizing games. They used to memorize in the old days too but, now, if you forget one move, you could end up in completely lost position.

In our times, I would not play like this. If someone came and told me about an idea and show me some possibilities, I would play it over the board and do the rest by myself. The ideas would usually not be more than two or three moves. But now, if you have an idea, it must be polished. Everything should be several moves deep and must encompass all tactics. I don’t want to say it is good or bad. It is just completely different. But still, the game is interesting. I don’t know whether or not it will be finished in a few years but for me it is already half finished. From one side, it goes extremely deep into the opening. From the other, there are endgame tablebases with seven pieces already.

SS: You still have that middle game part where some fireworks can happen (laughs).

VA: Yeah, you just get to play that. But you can always gain pleasure by playing rapid or blitz games. There is always stuff that is interesting. But what I mean is that if you’ve worked hard and become a chess professional back in the days, then indeed, it becomes boring. For me, it became boring long ago.

I remember myself playing in the days without computers. I was one of those who was very late to adapt to the computers.

SS: But Anand and Gelfand and all these people did make the transition.

VA: Yes, they did. They are, in this sense, more talented than me. To me, the computer is still like an alien.

Back in 1985! White is Akopian. Can you recognize the player with the black pieces? | Photo: Akopian's archives

SS: Vladimir, thank you so much for your time. It was a big pleasure to talk to you. 

VA: It was a pleasure talking to you too, Sagar.

Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He and is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.