The Spanish seconds of Kramnik and Topalov

by ChessBase
11/8/2006 – From the outset of their match in Elista Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov had very little in common. One had a psychologist, the other a parapsychologist as part of the team. But in one matter they were in unusual harmony: both had a Spanish second. Now Miguel Illescas and Francisco Vallejo have been talking to a Spanish newspaper about their experience in Elsita.

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A Russian King, Spanish Pawns

Grandmasters Miguel Illescas and Francisco Vallejo spoke to the Spanish newspaper ABC about their work as analysts for Topalov and Kramnik in the Elista World Championship, a job in which the words “trade union” do not exist. The discussion was conducted by Federico Marín Bellón (ABC Newspaper, Spain) and has been translated from Spanish for the Kramnik web site by IM Michael Rahal.

Spain doesn’t have a World Champion, but two of the best Spanish chess players worked side by side in the teams of the champions during the Elista match. Chess is an individual game, with no timeouts or substitutions, but the work of these assistants is much more important than one may think.

Miguel Illescas and Vladimir Kramnik on the plane to Elista

Miguel Illescas, who already helped Kramnik defeat Kasparov in 2000, defines himself as a mixture between an expert and a guru: “Apart from offering general advice, as a trainer and a friend, I try to advise on the opponent’s personality and the characteristics of the match, both on and off the board”.

Bulgarian Veselin Topalov’s put his hopes on Paco Vallejo from Menorca. Vallejo is a great openings expert, especially in the variations played in the last World Championship. Also, he has defeated his boss on several occasions. “As Kramnik hardly ever changes his openings, my job was to find new ideas in these lines. Topalov tried a very simple tactic: he changed openings a bit at the beginning, and only afterwards he decided where he could cause damage”. Paco was lucky: the two games that Topalov won were based on Vallejo’s openings advice.

Illescas’s job was slightly different: “Kramnik has his own ideas and his problem is the lack of time to verify if they are correct or not. He shows you the idea and asks you to make it work”. The Barcelona player confirms that hard work in the openings is "fundamental”. Vallejo boasts that his team was victorious in this stage of the game, as Topalov “was nearly always better in the opening”.

Paco Vallejo analysing with Veselin Topalov in Morelia earlier this year

Vallejo had won this game and impressed Topalov, who hired him as a second

Miguel doesn’t agree with this theory: “Drawing an analogy between chess and boxing, Kramnik was the stronger player, occupying the centre of the ring, and seeking a hand-to-hand fight, whereas Topalov was just jumping around him. They tried a strategy which consisted in surprising Kramnik with some dubious opening novelties, at what cost I don’t know”. Was Topalov bluffing? “I am completely sure of this. On some occasions he took this philosophy too far, to achieve a time advantage and psychological initiative. Kramnik is a much more classical player, and some moves just go against his principles”.

Vallejo and Illescas playing together for the Spanish
team at the 2006 Olympiad in Turin

The use of computers has become essential for a chess player, although with different shades of meanings. “The ideal working model is one computer and two trainers, one of them concentrated solely on contributing the creative element, and the other trainer consulting the computer, which in some positions can be very useful," says Illescas. "But the computer needs correct orientation to perform well.”

Vallejo adds that the computer would have been unable to find some of his “more subtle and deep” suggestions. “Sometimes the computer just doesn’t understand an idea and it’s practically impossible to demonstrate that the idea is correct. The analysis has to go practically to the final checkmate in order to demonstrate the validity of an idea”.

It’s quite easy to understand that the job of the assistants never ends. “The words trade union are not part of Kramnik’s vocabulary”, assures Illescas. “Even during the night, he would approach you and say: 'Would you mind looking into a small problem that I have found in a variation?'."

"Some days," confirms Vallejo, "we would be up until four o’clock in the morning. We would rest when the players started their game”. Illescas confirms that “the only moment in which we could breathe was during the games. You could be sure that they would not be around during at least three or four hours”.

Vallejo prefers to not confirm that there was a parapsychologist in Topalov’s team. Illescas mentions that “we had a very good cook and a physiotherapist in out team, much more useful in my opinion”.

Two opposite visions of the “Toiletgate”

Illescas doesn’t have any doubts about the toilet controversy that made Kramnik lose a game by forfeit. “Vladimir has been faithful to his principles. He has performed honestly and ethically. The conditions of the game were changed from the night to the morning, which is clearly insulting. If he isn’t cheating, why did they shut down his bathroom? The correct decision would have been to postpone the game”.

Vallejo considers that “the complaint was serious”, but in any case “Kramnik should have played the fifth game. Saying that he had been insulted doesn’t work. How many times are other sports players insulted? If Danailov’s complaint was mistaken, then the ethics commission, the courts of justice or whoever must take action. But if the Committee was unfair he should have said that before, not when they decide against him.”

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