The homecoming: Boris Gelfand is back (Part I)

by ChessBase
6/19/2011 – Winning the World Cup and now the Candidates Matches has made Gelfand a household name in Israel, and on his return from Kazan he was greeted at Ben-Gurion Airport by his family, fans and old friends – amongst them our colleague Shay Bushinsky, who later visited Boris at his home in Rishon Le-Zion. The two had a long discussion, which resulted in this must-read interview for ChessBase.

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Boris Gelfand is back – Part I

By Shay Bushinsky / photos by Shulamit Bushinsky


I met Boris twice over the past month. The first time it was at the airport for a hero’s welcome. A group of Israeli chess enthusiasts including Israel’s top grandmasters Ilya Smirin and Boris Alterman clapped when Boris paced through the Ben-Gurion Airport passenger arrival hall. It was quite an extraordinary sight. The flight arriving from London carried many well-known characters from Israeli society – famous businessmen, musicians and athletes. Their lightweight luggage indicated that they had all returned from the Barcelona-Manchester United Champions League final match. The same applied to Boris. The celebrities looked surprised when the small delegation and cameras were aimed not towards them but at a chess player… Although his winning of the World Cup has made Gelfand a household name in Israel, he is yet to receive mega celebrity status in this country. This might still happen should he become the World Chess Champion…

Arrival at Ben-Gurion: Shay Bushinsky, Yigal Lotan, CEO of the Israeli Chess
Federation Moshe Slav, Chess Federation member,
Boris Gelfand

Boris kisses his daughter Avital, who came to see her father
after he had been away from home for a long time

The Gelfands: Boris, Maya, Avital and baby Avner

A hug from his friend and fellow grandmaster Ilya Smirin...

... who gets to hold a the smiling Avner Gelfand

Boris and Ilya both hail from Minsk in Belarus and immigrated to Israel

Boris Power: GM Boris Alterman and Boris Gelfand, old friends and colleagues

An interview for ChessBase? Sure thing! Boris and Shay

Our second encounter was a couple of days afterwards, in Boris’ house in Rishon Le-Zion. Although a few days had passed, Boris complained that since he won the Candidates Tournament in Kazan he had had very little sleep. He looked overwhelmed, surrounded by Maya, his charming wife, Avital his young daughter and Avner, the two months old baby addition to his family whom he had barely seen. 

We sat on the porch to play a game of chess for the photo-op. Boris looked energetic as ever, telling me that Kazan helped him improve his piece flipping dexterity – to demonstrate, he quickly captured my knight and started flipping it at an amazing speed.

Amazing piece play – Anand will have to watch out for flying knights

World class knight juggler: Boris demonstrating his skills during the Candidates Matches in Kazan

I congratulated him for entering the exclusive “25 Club” – the elite group of 25 chess players only who have contended for the title in World Championship history. I also congratulated him on behalf of my generation. Just as chess is becoming like soccer, where players peak at their twenties and others are entering a second career as coaches at age 36, Boris proved that one can still reach the top at 43 in this game.  In fact, Boris spoiled the general trend of the reigning world champion facing a young challenger (e.g. Lasker challenging Steintz, Capablanca challenging Lasker, Fischer vs Spassky, Kasparov vs Karpov, Kramnik vs Kasparov). This time the challenger will be older than the title holder.

Boris Gelfand with his Kazan Candidates Matches trophy

Moreover, Gelfand will be the third oldest challenger ever, preceded only by Efim Boglyobov, who faced Alekhine at the age of 45, and Victor Korchnoi, who 50 years old when he played Karpov in Merano.

Our chess game quickly digressed into a fascinating interview:

Q: Boris, what were your impressions from the Barcelona-Man United game?

A:  it was a great game – I’m an avid Barcelona fan, so the result was pleasing. I had great seats, given to me by a friend as a reward for my Kazan win. A year ago I read about Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s coach. I couldn’t avoid noticing the story about his notebook, which contained what seemed like an answer to every aspect in soccer. You know that one can learn a lot from him – all the small details that make all the difference…

Barcelona as a team is incredible….

One can learn two things from them:

  1. Always remain humble 
  2. There is always room for improvement – you cannot be satisfied by your performance, even if you win.

    Do you see parallels between soccer and chess?

Perhaps there are. I can say that in soccer, like in chess, you constantly have to pose threats to your opponent.

But, Jose Moriniho managed to stop Barcelona last year by closing the game – perhaps this would be possible in chess as well?

No I don’t believe it’s possible to play this way in chess – no one can withstand constant pressure.

You obviously prepared well for Kazan…

Yes – first I played in the Russian league, which was held in Olginka, Krasnodar region [Gelfand played first board a total of four games only, yet his team HSM-64 won this strong championship S.B.]. Then I met my team, which included Israeli grandmasters Maxim Rodshtein and Alex Huzman (later to be joined by Pavel Elyanov) in a pine forest, 140 km from Kazan. It’s a place called Cheboksary, located on the Volga. Alexander Dumas used to stay there. The special atmosphere in the forest loaded our team with the energy required for the formidable World Championships Candidates matches.

Before that you were away from home, playing even when your son was born.

True, I was away from home since April 10th. I really tried to be around for Avner’s birth, but it didn’t work out. Just before the baby was born, Maya allowed me to travel to Monaco for the Melody Amber tournament. So I missed it by a day or two…

His birth was probably inspirational for you while playing…

 It was, of course, very significant – gave me a lot of motivation. Thanks to technology I saw him in Skype. Incidentally, Anand had his first child a few weeks later, so when I met Vishy in Monaco I gave him tips as a veteran father to a new one. It’s funny, twenty years ago our generation would talk only about chess. Now when we meet and socialize, we talk only about children…

You are in the cycle for a long time now. Did you actually believe you would reach this stage challenging the World Champion?

Yes, and I reached it! I had chances in the early nineties, when Kasparov thought that I was the favourite. But I didn’t succeed then. [Gelfand lost to Short in the quarter finals of 1993, and to Karpov in the semi-finals of 1996]. Then, for ten years, there was no proper cycle. When it reappeared I had two excellent results: I qualified for the World Championship in Mexico, and there I tied for second place. And now I reached the final. So I think I showed that in this system very few people can compete with these results. I must emphasize that unfortunately a lot of excellent players never reached this stage. Players like Keres, Geller, Polugaevsky and Larsen never made it. So I consider myself really fortunate to have managed to get this far. I see it as a privilege and I will do my best to seize the opportunity.

How do you explain your recent success, especially at these elite knockout tournaments?

Throughout my career I was in all possible situations – must win with black, must draw with black etc. You know that I’m pretty experienced, having participated in previous candidate cycles. It was probably in the early nineties when I managed somehow to store somewhere all these experiences, and apparently I can retrieve them now, when similar moments occur. It is all unconsciously stored in my brain.

Let’s talk about your age – do you feel its effect on your game?

No. The only thing I feel is that it takes me a little longer to recuperate between games, and perhaps it is a bit more difficult for me to achieve consistency, compared to past years. However, by no means do I feel any decline in my tactical ability. When I play I am in full concentration, a condition I attribute to the healthy life style I lead.

Still many make note that you’re not ranked even in the top ten at the moment. That your qualification is an accident or a system fault…

To my mind rating is overrated. I know that some grandmasters are willing to get themselves literally killed to gain two rating points. I simply don’t care, and never did. I like to play and not protect every rating point [Ivanchuk and Gelfand are exceptional in this area – S.B.]. There was a period when I was sixth in the world, and yet had no invitations to tournaments. Then, when I went down to twelfth, the invitations suddenly started flowing – thankfully people like me can rely on our name and not on our rating points. Perhaps others can’t.

Speaking about age, many would have preferred if Carlsen had played in Kazan, marking him the clear favourite.

Being young doesn’t give you better chances, certainly not over the players who participated in Kazan. Many young emerging talents tried to qualify, but didn’t succeed. Take Vachier Lagrave or Karjakin for example. True, Carlsen won a few tournaments, yet decided for his own reasons not play. I don’t think that he would have better chances to qualify over say Aronian. Originally, I was supposed to meet Aronian in the first round – due to Carlsen’s withdrawal the matches were rearranged.  In any case I think I would have had a 50-50 chance against any of these opponents, including Carlsen.

Still how do you explain that big names like Kramnik and Aronian failed to qualify?

Aronian and Kramnik had good chances in their respective matches – Kramnik was very close to winning against Grischuk. Nevertheless, the opposition had great experience, having won numerous tournaments. Note that matches have their special extra effect… And one couldn’t underestimate Grischuk for example, who already won super tournaments such as Linares.

Curiously, players with the white pieces had problems in the tournament. There was only one win with white in the entire tournament. Can you explain why?

I think that everybody invested a lot of preparation with the black pieces. Today’s computer chess engines can actually help Black better – they help finding refutations to all the main ideas that White has in the openings. Players with the white pieces are thus compelled to generate new ideas.

What about Kramnik’s comments that the system forced a risk-less and dull event, where players strove to reach decisions in blitz?

Kramnik is a good friend, but I strongly disagree with these comments. If you look at the results of Kazan, there were seven matches, and all except perhaps the Radjabov-Kramnik match were exciting.  Both Grischuk-Aronian and Kamsky-Topalov were excellent high-level entertainment. In my case, my opponents and I played “open chess”. I found ten out the fourteen games I played in Kazan very interesting – which is even above average compared to other tournaments.

Yet Kramnik exemplified his argument with the unusually high number of draws in the classical game part?

I think it is an invalid argument, because many of these games were defended superbly. Many extremely difficult positions were saved. Grischuk saved a number of difficult positions, I saved one against Kamsky and vice versa, Mamedyarov had an advantage in his first game against me while I had an advantage against him in the second game. So nothing was easy. One must realize that when eight top players play each other they will defend well.  To revisit soccer: the 3-1 between Barcelona and Machester is a maximal score; previous finals ended 2-0 and 1-0 because both were top level teams. High scores usually occur only when a weak team plays a top team. It happens in basketball as well: one sees that the better teams excel in defence. As the NBA saying goes: attack wins the season but, defence wins the playoffs.

However, as you are aware, there is a heated debate about the future candidates system – some would want to see three points for a win, others would want to see a double round robin tournament between the candidates. Where do you stand?

A: Three points doesn’t make sense, because it was born under the assumption that the players don’t want to take any risks, just make quick draws and take away decent money.  I know who invented this theory: Silvio Danailov, who doesn’t regard players very highly. He thinks that he’s the most important person in the chess world. But I happen to disagree with this….

Staging a tournament with a follow-up match sounds like a good system. However, it has two holes:

  • How to deal with the last rounds, where half of the players are already unmotivated?
  • How to factor games between players that come from the same federation or are just good friends. People could gossip or spread rumours that the games are fixed, causing unpleasant moments…

    What about longer matches then?

I understand that FIDE wants to hold all the candidate matches in one go. Holding it in two stages would mean having a system with two six-game matches and then holding a final match of eight games (“the 6-6-8 system”). This is a better system in which I don’t think one can effectively use the strategy of making draws and reaching rapid or blitz stages. Such matches allow the players to take more risks. Even if one loses a game it is not the end of the world – one still has a decent chance to bounce back.

The only reservation I have is that you need two events to cope with, and since one cannot know in advance which two would qualify, there is a problem in setting up the venue for the final stage. The end of the first stage would simply leave too short a time to get a sponsor for the second one.

I understand that there were four systems proposed…

Yes. One is the system that was played in Kazan, the second is the 6-6-8 matches, third is the double round robin tournament, and then another one popped up, suggesting twelve players subdivided into two tournament groups of six, each playing ten games, and then the two winners playing a match. I think that all four systems are decent.

Which system did you vote for?

I voted for the 6-6-8, although I didn’t have time to give any thought to the last proposal, which was introduced very late, just after my matches were over. As I mentioned, the 6-6-8 has organizational problems, so I’m not sure it will be adopted. Fortunately, we now have four systems – for a long time there were none. So whatever system will be employed, it will still provide very good chances that the stronger players will win and qualify.

– End of part one –

About the author

Shay Bushinsky is a computer scientist and the co-author of Deep Junior, 5 times world computer chess champion. He teaches Artificial Intelligence in Tel-Aviv and Haifa Universities Computer Science departments.

Until recently, Shay was the Chief Technology Officer of IST, a spin-off company of Logic LTD. developing AI applications in the field of Natural Language Processing. Shay is currently initiating a startup company based on new ideas in this field.

Interview and pictures:
copyright Bushinsky/ChessBase

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