Sokolov: “Abdusattorov has a lot of similarities to Magnus Carlsen”

by Sagar Shah
8/23/2022 – GM Ivan Sokolov is well-known for taking on challenging projects as a trainer. This year he turned his attention to the Uzbekistan team, a team that, like Iran (which Sokolov trained before), was very young. How did it so happen that the team surpassed all expectations and clinched the gold in the Chennai chess Olympiad? What was the role of Ivan Sokolov? How much time did he spend with the team? What were his training techniques? All of this and much more in this hour-long interview by IM Sagar Shah. | Photo: Lennart Ootes

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When experience meets motivation


You can replay the video interview (at the end of the article) or read the full transcript below.


IM Sagar Shah (SS): Ivan, first of all, huge congratulations on Team Uzbekistan winning the gold medal! 

GM Ivan Sokolov: Thank you Sagar, it’s good. Time is now passing by! It’s time to analyse everything and focus on some new endeavours. This is what usually the life of a sportsman is about.

SS: So, you are right now in UAE, yes?

Sokolov: Yes.

SS: So, have you already moved on to the next endeavour, or you’re still thinking about it?

Sokolov: I did think about it in the past event, and analysed it a bit in my mind. I realized that this is something magnificent because many times it could have gone wrong due to different reasons, and it finished right actually.

Tomorrow I’m flying to Tashkent. They called me for a meeting. I think the idea is to discuss future cooperation. I will stay there for two nights, and then I’m flying back to Amsterdam. After that, I will have a hybrid flight to Zagreb to conduct a trainer seminar. When I’m done with this, I will have another trainer seminar in Mamaia during the World Youth 2022.

By the end of the year, I plan to finish one of my books, which is either Winning chess middlegames for e4 structures or the second book on Magnus. I was actually supposed to have done both of those works by the end of this year. But that is not exactly going to happen because when I was making these arrangements I did not expect this assignment with Uzbekistan.

This assignment included me being almost three weeks in Tashkent, and during the Olympiad, I was busy with team preparation. This is not exactly the same as when you’re a commentator, and you don’t prepare for anything — you enter the studio, follow the games, start talking, and when the games are finished you close the studio. In the morning, you can do whatever you like! So this kind of assignment meant that I cannot finish both of the projects by the end of the year, but I will finish one of them.

Chess Olympiad 2022

Adhiban watches the game Praggnanandhaa vs Sindarov in the crucial India 2 versus Uzbekistan match. | Photo: Stev Bonhage

SS: It’s a very busy period for you. Coming back to the stint with the Uzbekistan team, how did it all begin? Who was the one who reached out to you for it? 

Sokolov: Well, it actually started relatively recently. It started during the Sharjah Masters. Except for Jakhongir Vakhidov, the other four players of the team played in that event. Their head of delegation and deputy chief arbiter of the event, Husan Turdialiev, reached out to me there. He asked me if I have any assignments at the Olympiad, and I told him that I sort of do because I was finalizing my agreement with the media team to be a commentator at the Olympiad.

For me, as a chess professional, it is more challenging to coach a team like Uzbekistan than to be a commentator. When this offer came, I called Vishal Sareen and I told him that some things have changed. I told him, “I’m sure you’ll be able to find some other commentators, but on the other hand, this is for me professionally much more interesting”. He understood this, so this was not an issue, and this is more or less how it started.

So then after the Sharjah Masters, I started to look up the games of these players, and then we fixed a training session in Tashkent. Then I just came back home for a few days to change the suitcases, and it was destination Chennai!

SS: So, practically, you can say that three weeks with the team and then two weeks at the event, that's how long it was your stint with them? 

Sokolov: Sort of, but it was a little bit longer because I didn’t come to Tashkent with empty hands. When I was coming there, I had already analysed the games of the players, and I had formed some sort of starting opinion. Obviously, to analyse the games in ChessBase and to actually analyse with the person and to interact opinions is not the same thing. You learn much more about the person when you are interacting with them over the board. But based on my analysis of their games on ChessBase, I already had some kind of idea of how they play, what are the spots to improve on, and those sorts of ideas when I was flying to Tashkent.

SS: Because you are not someone who minces with his words, I can ask you about each and every player on the team. We can start with who you think is the most talented out of all five of them. 

Sokolov: It is difficult to judge. I always used to say that people have many talents and somebody is more talented than somebody else in one area, but not in the other. I think that Abdusattorov has many similarities to Magnus Carlsen in terms of his style.

Sindarov is very tactical, but he needs to improve his knowledge about many types of positions coming from different kinds of openings, which he doesn’t have at this particular moment, in order to improve further. But he’s obviously an extremely talented player, and he will achieve a lot.

Our board two, Yakubboev, is very universal. He's reasonably rounded in most areas of the game. Shamsiddin Vokhidov is still not much known to people out of Uzbekistan because he’s young, and he played very few events, which are outside. He has played many online events, but many people are playing online events. You normally don’t get noticed by playing online events. Jakhongir was one of the heroes, or maybe the hero of the Olympiad for the Uzbekistan team. He’s the only one that’s considerably older than the rest of them.

Most people probably would be very surprised that, with Abdusattorov’s excellent results, he’s still only 17. It’s a very young team with definitely a lot of potential. Let’s put it this way- I have no idea whether this team is going to win the Olympiad two years from now, but I know that the team will be stronger two years from now. 

Nodirbek Abdusattorov

Nodirbek Abdusattorov — World Rapid Champion, Olympiad gold medallist, nearing 2700, all at only 17 years old | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: When you took on this job, and when you took on the task of training them, did you have an aim for the Olympiad?

Sokolov: I had an aim, and I was getting constantly asked while in Tashkent, “Do we have a chance to win a medal?” Obviously, I was not crazy. I didn’t want to pick up any kind of psychological burden. I told them that this is simply not realistic because I said, look, let’s analyse team by team. We are number 14. I said, look, now after almost three weeks and analysing the games, I’m sure the team is underrated. But how much underrated? This is very difficult to say, how underrated, but let’s say, okay, we are underrated. We are not supposed to be number 14, We are supposed to be number 9.

Let’s analyse the top 8 boards. Where are we better and on which board? It’s easy to come to the conclusion that finishing in the top 5 would be a fantastic achievement. 

In the Olympiad itself, I did not expect USA to perform to its full capability. Why? Because they simply do not look like a team. But I thought, they are so much more experienced and so much better than the rest of the teams, that pure difference in class is supposed to do the job. That’s why I was thinking that USA will simply win by the pure difference in class.

I got very optimistic when I saw that Gukesh is not in India 1. That made me very happy because I told my players, this is very good news because instead of putting an undisputed huge talent, they're putting a guy who is just a little bit younger than me. 

But there were plenty of other teams! I told my players, “I don’t know if those teams are better than us, but they’re also not worse. Let’s say we have a decent chance, but they also have at least a fifty-percent chance”. So yeah, it is kind of a massive result. I was hoping for something, but at the start of it, I think I was quite fair when I told the people from the Uzbek federation that finishing top five would be fantastic. 

SS: What do you think went the way of Uzbekistan and went your way during the event? Because to finish with the gold medal is simply a tremendous performance.

Sokolov: Well, sometime around the rest day, I started to actually get optimistic that the team can win a medal, and maybe this medal can be even higher than bronze. By that time, after six rounds had passed, it was very obvious that something is really wrong with the USA. It was a big question mark if they would win the medal at all, any kind of medal. The rest of the teams were performing kind of okay, but we were also performing very well.

There were a number of teams who were very clearly out of the radar for any meaningful result. For example, Ukrainians were having very big problems. They already had a number of matches that went wrong. Korobov was not in great form, and when you have a team that doesn’t have a leader, already something is wrong. Norway had a great leader, but Magnus could not play a simul! If he could play a simul, probably Norway would do better as a team.

Speaking of pre-tournament potential, maybe Norway was also a potential dark horse because if the world champion plays according to expectation (and he did), since the rest is quite a decent team. But a lot of things were wrong with them because the only thing which was good with them is that Magnus was winning all those games.

Poland was also having problems. They were potential candidates for medals in my mind before the Olympiad. They had Duda, this young super talent who was on board one, and the rest of the team was pretty good. They also had Wojtaszek with all his knowledge and experience. I thought that Poland on a good day can also be a contender.

There were a number of potential contenders already dropping off halfway through the Olympiad because their tie-break was starting to look pretty grim. By that time, I was actually getting optimistic that we can get a medal. And what was good for us is that our tie-breaks were extremely good from the very start, so any kind of tie would’ve been okay for us.

Chess Olympiad 2022

Ivan Sokolov keeping a sharp eye on the ongoing games | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: Before the event began, you said you worked with these players and you went through their games. How was your role before the event, and during the event?

Sokolov: Well, my role before the event was actually to improve the level of play by putting different kinds of positions, which are coming from different kinds of middlegames and openings, and to try to improve their knowledge. I also gave them many test positions based on the decision-making process, which could be on different things. It was sometimes about finding the right plan or finding the right trade, or just pure calculation. I keep on working on my databases all the time and try to adjust them to modern games, and you have to take a decision in a limited amount of time. It improves your playing skills, and also it is improving your knowledge about different kinds of positions.

When I’m giving these examples to players to try to improve their knowledge in the decision-making process, I give them examples from calculations, right trades, pawn breaks, etc. But I never systemized them to a player, like we are now going to be busy with this and busy with that. Why? Because during the game, nobody would say, “Hey, do the right trade!” or “Yes, the endgame is good for you”. No. Let’s say you have a position, and it is move 28 in the game. Is it fair to say that not much time is left on the clock? Yes. Is it fair to say that you should take a decision in between 12 and 15 minutes because you don’t have oceans of time to play? Yes. Well, your time starts now! 

I also had many opening ideas with me, which I had on my own. Normally, I would say, don’t expect me to run cloud on some sort of crazy depth because I don't like it. I was not doing this when I was an active player myself, and I’m not going to do it for you. But I have some kind of ideas, which I think 8/10 times the computer is going to refute. But maybe those 2/10 times, it would be very good. I gave them the ideas, and they would run cloud and let me know what they found.

SS: You're not against them running the cloud. You just don't want yourself to do it, yes? 

Sokolov: Correct. In modern chess, you need to do it, you cannot avoid this. Thank God, I didn’t have to do it in my time! During the tournament, you have to pick the right opening versus the right player. I was not preparing them novelties before the game, I was not doing this with Iran either.

Ten minutes past 10, you would know the exact opponents every morning. What I would do is, I would give them the timings when every single one of them should either come to my room or call me. I would say, send me a message. What do you want to play today? What are you expecting? Then I will open up my database, the regular ChessBase tree.  Then I’ll see whether I expect the same thing as what my player is expecting, whether I expect the same reaction, and whether I think what my player wants to do is a smart thing to do versus that kind of opponent.

Just to give you an example, I did not predict that Wesley So would play 3.h4 in the Grünfeld against Sindarov. Sindarov was somehow the last in the line of my questionaries with the players that day. He gave me some lines against 1.e4 and started to discuss it. I said, “Look, firstly, I don’t think Wesley will play e4, he will probably play 1.Nf3 because you're not doing so well against Anti-Grünfeld”. He told me he can always play 1…c5, to which I replied, “Yes you can, but he can then get you into the Sicilian, which you’re not planning to play today”.

Suddenly he understood that it can be a problem. There were a number of situations like this, where we had to decide what we are trying to get and what we are trying to avoid.

 

For example, when we played India 2, I was very unhappy about the position that Sindarov got against Praggnanandhaa out of the opening. Not because White had some tremendous advantage, but this was a typical kind of position that Pragg is very happy about. Technically White is very safe, there is no mating attack sort of stuff. Black is also playing very well, probably Black is going to equalize at some stage and make a draw, but it is very easy to slip. The position they got on the board was exactly the kind of position I didn’t want them to get.

 

For example, my player number two, Nodirbek Yakubboev, I advised him to play that ending which he got against Nihal Sarin. At first, he was against it. He said, “But Nihal Sarin is very good in endings”. I replied, “Yes, Nihal is excellent in endings, when he’s better; when he’s worse, he’s slightly less good”.

 

I was doing this kind of work also with Iran in the past. I would not stay awake overnight, let my cloud run, and try to give them some kind of crushing novelty. And I told them at the start, this is not what I’m going to do.

But what I will do is, I can help you with my experience as a player and as a coach to choose the right opening and right decision versus the right guy, and I would compare my own anticipation with your anticipation as to what is likely to appear on the board. 

SS: Why didn't you choose this approach where you and your player would sit together and anticipate? Why would you ask them to first anticipate on their own and then check it? Was it like trying to make them more independent? 

Sokolov: First of all, this. Secondly, I told the players, “Every one of you on your own can spend more time on preparation than I can spend because I have four of you”. When I was working with Salem Saleh, it was different. But now I have four players! We decided that in order for our preparation to be efficient, they have to come to me with some sort of idea of what is going to happen. Then I will have a look and come back with my vision, and after that, the player will have a little bit of time to work more on this. If you come to me like first in the morning, you will have more time, maybe 1-1½ hours. If you are number four in this line, you would have a little bit less time, but then you have more time to work on this in the morning.

When you have a team of four players, how much time can you allocate per player? 45 minutes maximum. Right? You cannot allocate more unless you plan not to sleep at night — in that case, they will need somebody else, not me. The player should have some idea of what he wants to achieve on the board because then I have 20-25 minutes to make my own analysis in a quick database tree, to kind of understand whether this is an objective expectation, then another 20-25 minute are there to discuss with the player about the right choice.

On a number of occasions, I told them, “Look, I think this is good stuff to try, and I think I have a decent idea of it. I’m going to send you my file, and you can run your cloud on this file”. 

It could be that I'm blundering something — I don’t use the cloud, but I use regular Stockfish, on a depth of let’s say 31-32. This is not perfection, but it’s already pretty strong. This is stronger than any human, including the world champion. Sometimes the player would say, “Okay, I’ll follow the file”. At other times, the player would say, “I find it too complicated to prepare it in a short period of time. But thank you for the file, l will use it on some other occasion”.

SS: These files, which you would prepare for openings, as well as for decision-making, is a yearlong process. Even when you are not training, you are collecting them. You are building things up for projects like this. You are working on this all the time! 

Sokolov: But it’s normal. If you are a practical player, when you are working and some tournament took place, what do you do after the tournament? You normally go to either TWIC or Online ChessBase, or some other website, and you update the games.

SS: But they’re professional players. You are no longer a professional player, yet you keep yourself updated!

Sokolov:  Well, because I’m a professional coach. For example, what Sindarov played in his two games against Armenia and Netherlands, the Bd3 lines in the Najdorf, only started a year/year and a half ago.  I’m obviously not an expert there, but I have a pretty good idea about those games played in this line, and what kind of positions may appear on the board.

Najdorf ChessBase

6.Bd3 in the Najdorf is slowly gaining popularity — many top-level GMs like Nepomniachtchi, Fedoseev, Niemann have been playing it

That’s why I told Sindarov before our match versus the Netherlands to repeat the same line. He was concerned that now the opponent would be prepared. I said, okay, he can prepare. And what would he exactly prepare? Because at the current point in time, the exact answer for Black is not established. It is not like people have found one straight line that is eliminating into equality. At the moment, Black players are trying different lines and the engine is giving White +0.2 in all those lines. You don't have an exact direct line of play, like in some other Najdorfs. Also, if somebody played it only once, why would somebody anticipate it will be played again?

For a person who likes to sit and take his time, like Benjamin Bok, it’s a perfect choice. Okay, Sindarov did not win the game, but he was very close to winning. This is more or less the type of work that I try to do. I try to help those players using the advantages of my strong points. I’m 54 and I have massive experience. But I don’t think that my forte, my strongest point, is in searching for some novelty on move 22, or move 18, or whatever. I’m trying to help them by the advantages which working with me brings, and letting them do some other part of work by themselves.

SS: What would you say about the team spirit of the entire team? Were they all very close to each other? You have also trained the Iranian team before. Do you find similarities between the two? 

Sokolov: Yes. There are definite similarities because you have very young people that are willing to achieve a massive result. Let’s put it this way: they are still too young for elements like envy, jealousy, and so on to become an obstacle to the team’s success. So, yes, in both cases, I would say that very strong team spirit and a good relationship added a sizeable amount of Elo points to the teams’ performance. The team gained a total of 80 Elo points, which is a massive gain.

SS: Did you have any trouble with the language barriers while speaking with them? Because not all of the players are very fluent in English. 

Sokolov: No, I did not have any problems because I was speaking to them in a combination of English and Russian. It was basically working, and I have two players who speak excellent English. There’s Jakhongir Vakhidov who has studied in the UK, and Abdusattorov also speaks very good English. So sometimes if they couldn’t follow my English fully, and my Russian was not good enough to express myself, then they would jump as translators. 

SS: Last time, when we interviewed you, you mentioned Firouzja. He was 2580 at the time, and you said he reminds you of a young Vishy Anand. Within a couple of years, in spite of the pandemic, he reached 2800 and was playing in the candidates. This time you said Abdusattorov reminds you of Magnus. Do you see a similar trend for this boy as well? 

Sokolov: I think he certainly has a lot of similarities to Magnus, like excellent calculation. On the other hand, just like Magnus, he doesn’t want to enter some crazy Tal-like position or Shirov-like position, sacrificing your house. This is not what he wants.

He’s an active player, with a predominantly active positional style. He plays actively, but on a sound basis. He’s got very good technique, a technique even Magnus felt himself, losing that technical position against him in the World Rapid. Not many people on this planet can beat Magnus in such a technical way. If you didn’t know the players’ names, you might have thought it was the other way around. He’s an absolutely massive talent and a talent in development, and he’s still only 17.



Then you have Sindarov with a different kind of talent, very tactical. I think that if he can improve on some other areas of chess or if he can, as I told him, work more and be less lazy, I think that he can achieve a lot. But it is up to him because you have many talents and abilities to maybe play some technical positions strongly or play tactical positions strongly. These strengths are part of the talent. What are you going to do with the rest of this? Well, that’s up to you.

SS: The player on board two, Nodirbek Yakubboev, not much is known about him. Because when Sindarov became a GM, he was around 12 years and a few months old, so he became well known because of that. Abdusattorov is very well-known after becoming the World Rapid champion. But Yakubboev was very solid on board two, he was unbeaten. What would you say are his strengths?

Sokolov: Yeah, he’s a little bit less known indeed than those players because he’s slightly older than them. But he’s still a very young player and a rather universal player.

He works a lot. He also works a lot in the kind of areas where many young players are not working. He’s just trying to improve his chess, and not only interested in the most promising opening variation. I see a great future for him as well. 

The other young player, Shamsiddin Vokhidov, I think he’ll need to play more, also to play more outside of Uzbekistan. That way, he will become more known, and he’ll gain more experience and knowledge. He’s a dynamic player with sound positional fundamentals. You can see this in his game against Sasikiran — he brought us a very important victory.

For a long time, it was a balanced game. Then at some stage, he got the advantage, and he handled this advantage very well. He never let it go. It was obvious that if he wants to win the game, he needs to push …f5. But his timing was great because he didn’t want to push f5 very soon after the time control. He made the pawn break at the exact moment when Sasikiran was in severe time pressure — he had only two minutes or something like that for the rest of the game. This was a very important win for us in the tournament.

 

This was another example when experience proved useful. His initial idea was to play 1…e5. I advised him to play the Sicilian. Because I said, “If you want to play …e5, you are playing some plus-equals Spanish with the black pieces, something which Sasikiran has played all his life. I’m not saying that you cannot outplay him. Of course, you can outplay him, but it is fair to say that he probably knows much more than you about these positions, which doesn't need to manifest in this game, but why look for trouble there?”

I told him that it’ll be a much better idea to play the Sicilian, which will put him in a different situation. Number one is that he would need to remember a lot of lines. Secondly, it’s not very obvious what he does versus the Najdorf as white, even though he loves to play it sometimes with black. Yes, he can play the anti-Sicilian, but then he has given you a small psychological advantage. I compared this to the famous game I won against Kasparov. The moment he played 2…e6, I was already a little bit happy because at that time he was playing only Grünfeld. He gave me a very small psychological head start.


Ivan Sokolov’s legendary win over Garry Kasparov

 

SS: I saw you at the event, you were very emotional. Especially in the India 2 game, when Nodirbek saved that game against Gukesh, you went to him and hugged him, sort of patted him on the back. I think you are totally a hundred percent involved, yes? 

Sokolov: I simply don’t understand coaches who are reading books during the games. This is really difficult for me to understand because, first of all, you are involved with your team.

Secondly, around your team, you have some other games which are taking place. It is not very likely that you will find the time, when the games are over, to go to the tournament website and download all the games and go through them. But if you’re walking around, you would maybe spot 5-6 interesting games that you would say, okay, I’m going to download this and tomorrow have a brief look just to figure out if there are some novelties or if something special is going on. The match versus India 2 was actually a special match in a way because it was played at a very late stage of the tournament.

At some moment, I had absolutely zero doubt the score would be 3-1. I even told the President of the Uzbek Chess Federation that nobody resigned, but I do not see any other result apart from 3-1 — these two positions are so hopeless! Then I actually started to get a glimmer of hope when Pragg was having some problems converting his advantage. It was very clear that, okay, he’s a very strong player and he’s maybe going to win this over the board, but on the other hand, it was also clear that he doesn’t know this position by heart because he was spending time and dropping on time.

By the moment he dropped to something like four minutes, I thought, if he drops another two or three minutes, who knows, maybe he’s going to let it slip. When you have dropped to such a low time, even when you are extremely strong, and you have to win this technical position over the board, it can go wrong. 

Around that time, Abdusattorov was no longer completely lost, he was just worse. The moment that …g6 and …Bf5 were played in their game, I was very hopeful. Why? Because the position looked about equal to me. The body language clearly showed that Gukesh still thought he was maybe no longer winning, but definitely better, or definitely not running a risk trying to win this position. Once the pawn on g2 fell, I was very optimistic that Black would win this game.

Ramesh, Ivan Sokolov

The raw emotions of the coaches during the nerve-wracking match between India 2 and Uzbekistan | Photo: Lennart Ootes

SS: Abdusattorov showed his Carlsen-like skills there, yeah?

Sokolov: Yes! Because at that time, probably Black is already better, or if somebody’s better, it is Black. I didn’t check what the computer thinks. Also, Gukesh was actually getting into severe time pressure. In such a crazy position where you need to calculate many checks, and both the kings are open, you need time to handle this position. This was, let’s say, the crucial moment.

After we went back and had a team meeting, I told them, “Look, don’t worry. I don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow, but I know that we will win gold. They asked me, how are you so sure? I said, look, if you save such a match, this is a sign coming from above. If you save such a hopeless match, it is clearly a sign that this is your Olympiad”.

SS: Absolutely. What do you have to say about the support that they received from the government? When Abdusattorov won, he got a house. This time, I think they were all given cash awards of 53,000 euros. You yourself received I think an award of 26,500 euros. How do you feel about the involvement of the government?

Sokolov: The government involvement is fantastic. The players have indeed received this money, and I should receive this money as well.

I’m flying tomorrow to Tashkent, I think probably they will present me with this reward, or make a money transfer, I don’t know what they will do. But regardless of this massive award, in every team meeting, I was repeating at least ten times, “Being promised a lot of money does not help you make better moves”.

The best way to get to this money is to win games, and you don’t win games by thinking about money, you win them by thinking about the position! The involvement of the government is fantastic. 

I think that you have a little bit of a strange situation. On the one hand, you have a very economically developed country, like, for example, the Netherlands. When we became European champions in 2005, which was a massive result, we were not rated number 1. We were maybe rated number 5 or 6. Russia played, Azerbaijan played, Romania, Ukraine, all those countries played. When we won this gold, we got flowers. That’s it, nothing else — you know, they pat you on the shoulder, saying “very well done”.

I would not say you feel like an idiot, you don’t feel like an idiot. But in the current world in which we live, appreciation of success is connected to remuneration. In business life, or in cultural life, anywhere. Let’s say a person pats you on the shoulder for the gold and says, oh yes, well done, and gives you a bunch of flowers. The same person is, let’s say, working for a multinational company and fighting very hard for his/her bonus because they will otherwise think that their work is not valued enough. But then, suddenly, they value your work in different terms.

Uzbekistan is obviously not a rich country because the average GDP is considerably lower. But I think that they would love to have sporting heroes. These sporting heroes have been an example to the youth, and it certainly helps that all these people are very young. I think that they’re willing to afford it for two reasons. Firstly, they really feel that this is a historical success, which should be rewarded. Also, Abdusattorov at the age of 17 winning the World Rapid is absolutely a historical success, which should be rewarded. Secondly, they want to send a message to the rest of the population: do the same, and you will be rewarded!

I think this is a good thing. Regardless of the low GDP of the country and the award those players got from the government, how many people in the country have achieved such massive success in any kind of sport? Not so many. You don’t have it almost in any country, including the biggest ones. You do not have 100 people who won Olympic gold that year. This reward given to them is not changing anything in the big picture for the rest of the population. It only serves as stimulants for the younger generation of other sports professionals. Try to do the same, and you will be equally rewarded. It is not easy, but try to do it! 

Uzbekistan Chess

The prizes included a pot of 600 million Uzbek sum ($53,000), Chevrolet Equinox SUVs, and state-issued Iftikhori medals of honor for all the team members | Source: Eurasianet

SS: Do you think that in Uzbekistan, all these talents sprouting out are happening independently, or do you think there is a structured way, and this will continue in the future as well?

Sokolov: I think it is a structured way, and it'll probably continue. When I went there, I was very impressed by their chess academy.

It is a massive building, which has many training rooms. It has a gym, and it has some sleeping rooms on the rooftop. I was staying in a hotel, but Sergey Tiviakov, who was working with the ladies’ team, was staying in one of those rooms. They also have a huge park on the premises, which belongs to the Academy.

It is simply a huge building. Somebody told me that they are now planning to build a sports hotel somewhere near the premises. So yes, there is a structure, there is an obvious structure. There is appreciation, for example, when we won the gold medal and came back to the hotel, the Federation President picked up the phone and called the President of the country. The President picked up the call and spoke to a number of Uzbek players. There are not so many countries where you achieve success, and you pick up a phone and call the President of the country. It is not so easy, normally you get maybe some minister at the very best.

I don’t know how many talents they have who are now 12-13, and what is their level. Because I honestly didn’t investigate their results on World Youth or Asian Youth. I was just focused on these five players which I got, but I assume that some younger talents are coming. Though I didn’t investigate, I’m almost sure.

Uzbekistan Chess Academy

The fantastic premises of the Uzbekistan International Chess Academy

SS: You have transformed the Iranian team as well, but would you call this your biggest professional success as a trainer? 

Sokolov: It is similar. It is difficult to say because this is my biggest success as a trainer and the result is absolutely sensational. But on the other hand, in Iran, I had a situation where when I came, I had one seasoned Grandmaster, who was Ehsan Ghaem Maghami. Then I had a number of kids, who were rated 2400. When I left two years later, all those kids were 2600+, and this was also a massive success.

It was not the gold medal, but we won the Asian teams, which was at that time massive because India and China played. You may argue that maybe China and India did not play with the best teams, which is true, but they played with formidable players, and these young kids managed to win those categories. My success as a trainer with Salem Saleh when he won the Asian individual, is also something that I’m proud of. Because when I came to the UAE, he was a young Grandmaster, maybe 2550-2560. When I left, he was the Asian champion. And to win the Asian Championship is tough!

You may also argue that in that tournament, not all the best Asian players played. But many very good ones played! I think Vidit played, Sasikiran played, Adhiban played, also a couple of very strong Chinese players played.

SS: Would you say that you like to take on these challenges as a trainer? Let’s say now you have these strong players, and you want to build them further. Would that be more interesting for you, or would you like to go to another country, which has these budding talents, and then grow that?

Sokolov: I think that it is always important to have a challenge. For me, it was a very good situation because based on the analysis of some games, I knew that team was underrated. I knew that general expectation was not very high because a number of very strong players said, “Well, to win a medal is zero chance”. But I knew there is a chance, and I knew that there was that there could be potential for a great surprise, which then puts you in a very good position working on it.

Those players are very young players and if it is up to me, if the work relationship with the Uzbekistan Chess Federation goes very well, I would like to try to defend the Olympic champions title two years from now. Because, on one hand, the team should be stronger because these are young players, but obviously the task will be tougher because defending the title will be a little more difficult than winning it. Then, who knows, two years in human life is a long time. By the way, since I have you now online, and I didn’t check it myself, is the Asian Teams happening next year? 

SS: I’m not sure, but I’ll check and I’ll let you know. 

Sokolov: Okay. Because this is probably going to be another interesting event for this team because if all the nations come with the strongest teams, it’ll be difficult to win that event. Maybe China will come with its strongest team, and India will be stronger because it'll come with only one team, unless it is in India. Then maybe there’ll be 2-3 teams.

SS: As of now, the Asian Individual is going to be in India later this year. I think all these youngsters will travel to India, perhaps.

Sokolov: Yes, All of them will travel. They told me when they were getting a visa that they were happy to get multi-entry — they don’t have to do it again.

SS: Absolutely. And lastly, I want to get your thoughts on the young Indian team as well. You have been there, you must have got a bit of an idea about these players like Gukesh, Arjun, Pragg, Nihal, and Raunak. What are your feelings about them? 

Sokolov: I think that Gukesh has the most potential. Not because he had this crazy performance, but because Praggnanandhaa and Nihal Sarin, for my taste, are way too technical for their age. But, okay, this is my personal opinion. 

Dommaraju Gukesh

According to Ivan Sokolov, Gukesh is the brightest of the batch | Photo: Stev Bonhage

SS: What do you mean by technical? Like, are they sort of too positional players?

Sokolov: They like to have a game, if possible, fully under control all the time. This is sometimes not exactly possible. I’m under the impression that they don't venture into many positions because they like to have this feeling of control. I think that they are technically unbelievably strong for somebody of their age, but on the other hand, being focused on that kind of style, though bringing steady success and improvement of rating, can stand in the way of achieving something very, very high.

Raunak is still very young to give a personal opinion. I know Raunak very well. I even had a few sessions with him, but I think that he’s still very young. We have to see how he will develop. I think Erigaisi is very good. He is unbelievably good at taking advantage of his opponent’s mistakes. I think that this is his strongest point.

My opinion is that Gukesh can come the furthest from this group. Not only because of those games here, but, obviously, I was looking at their games before from different tournaments. I could be wrong, but this is my opinion. All of them are basically very strong, so this is not an easy question, but this is what I think. 

SS: I appreciate your insights here. This was an amazing interview with so many valuable points. I want to deeply congratulate you on your contribution to the Uzbek Team. I think you were the glue which helped them raise their game and get the gold medal. So, huge congratulations!

Sokolov: Thanks a lot, Sagar. Cheers!


Full video interview


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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 is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.
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