Vladimir Kramnik: ‘Chess is so deep, I simply feel lost’

6/21/2004 – How has chess influenced his life? What does it mean to be world champion? How does he train? And what advice would he give to George W. Bush? Classical World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik, who is scheduled to defend his title against challenger Peter Leko at the end of September, spoke to the German news portal “Spiegel Online”.

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Der Spiegel, which was founded in 1947 as a Time/Newsweek style news magazine, has been Germany’s most influential weekly publication ever since. It’s circulation is 1.1 million (with a peak of 1.4 million in September 2001). Spiegel Online is the biggest news portals in Europe. Both the magazine and the web site have been covering chess vigorously in the past. Spiegel-Online carried the matches Kramnik vs Deep Fritz (2003), Kasparov vs Deep Junior and Kasparov vs X3D-Fritz (2003) live on their web site.

The following interview was conducted by Spiegel staff writer Alexander Schwabe. It took place during Kramnik's visit to Hamburg, where Centro Dannemann formally announced the staging of the "First Classical World Chess Championship after four years" between Vladimir Kramnik and Peter Leko.


Dannemann press conference in Hamburg

Spiegel-Online Interview with Vladimir Kramnik

World chess champion Vladimir Kramnik, 28, is facing a difficult title match against Hungarian challenger and number four in the world rankings Peter Leko, 25. Spiegel Online spoke to Kramnik about the intangible moments in the game, about the feeling of being a true master and about strategies for US President Bush.

Spiegel Online: Mr Kramnik, is there any subject, apart from chess, about which you would like to speak?

Kramnik: At this moment no.

Spiegel Online: Does chess improve your ability to cope with life?

Kramnik: Not really, but it influences my life very much. I have played chess since I was five, and it shapes my thinking. I am always very logical – sometimes too logical.

Spiegel Online: Can you give us an example?

Kramnik: I cannot think of one. I only know that I am always thinking, even in situations where it is not required.

Spiegel Online: Have you for this reason ever missed a chance with a woman because you thought too much or for too long?

Kramnik: Well, maybe… But I must say I have always been in good relationships. The problem is that my life is pretty hard – work, play, work, play. As a chess professional I do not have as much time for a relationship as me and my girlfriend would like.


Classical World Chess Champion Vladimir Kramnik

Spiegel Online: Is your approach with your family and friends dominated by strategy and tactics?

Kramnik: In my private life I am not Machiavellian. I am a normal human being and do not want to manipulate anyone. Maybe I have what it takes to be a Iago [personification of evil in Othello], but I would never use this ability.

Spiegel Online: Good chess players are often weird creatures and loners. How difficult is it for you to form friendships that you find interesting?

Kramnik: I have many friends. For instance in Hamburg I recently met the Klitschkos. We played a game of chess, but time flew bye. They were very disappointed that we could not end the game. I told them not to worry, I would keep the position in my mind to finish it later.

Spiegel Online: Did you get to box against the Klitschkos in return?

Kramnik: No, we had a pleasant time. They are very intelligent guys, and I like their straightforward, honest ways. Most of my friends are sports people or musicians. I prefer conversations where I do not have to talk about chess. But I have discovered that almost all musicians play chess. There is obviously a connection.


Boxing champions Vitaly and Vladimir Klitschko during Kramnik's computer match

Spiegel Online: Chess and music follow the laws of mathematics, both require creativity. How do necessity and freedom fit together?

Kramnik: Maybe it is better not to get too mystical here. I prefer the saying “do not try to understand things that are working perfectly”.

Spiegel Online: But you are considered someone who has the deep Russian soul.

Kramnik: I don’t know what that is supposed to mean.

Spiegel Online: Where does your intellectual modesty come from?

Kramnik: Because the more you penetrate into the things, the less you can understand them. Chess is a good example here. When you begin to understand a game of chess in its full depth, you find that certain rules become blurred. Suddenly you feel that one needs to create a little space here and attack there. But why it is like that, you don’t know. To play according to textbooks is fine, up to a certain level. Perhaps up to master level, but not to grandmasters. At this level you have to feel the game. It comes to you.

Spiegel Online: How does that feel?

Kramnik: At some stage you feel you are the master of a game. Sometimes you do not have to think that much. You ponder some of the details, but the greater strategy simply comes to you in certain situation. It is astonishing. I like things you cannot touch.

Spiegel Online: Does that compensate for the sacrifices you must make?

Kramnik: Easily. When you master a brilliant game, which will appear in chess books for hundreds of years and when your hand simply makes the next move intuitively….., that is a marvellous feeling.

Spiegel Online: Are you a genius?

Kramnik: I am pretty talented.

Spiegel Online: Once again so modest.

Kramnik: You know, sometimes I think I have understood a position, but after a couple of years I realize that I have understood nothing. That is what is so mysterious and fascinating about chess. You have a board with 64 squares, and it is so deep that not even ten Kramniks can know which is the best move. Sometimes you simply feel lost. You cannot feel the ground.

Spiegel Online: Are you afraid of the depth?

Kramnik: It is sometimes painful. You simply cannot reach the ground. This ground or call it final truth, if it exists at all, is not of humans.

Spiegel Online: Will a machine ever be in a position to light up the darkness?

Kramnik: I don’t think so. Not even the strongest computers even come close to the ground.

Spiegel Online: What does the machines lack?

Kramnik: The strongest computer, against which I played in October 2002, can examine four million positions per second. You can work out how many it plays through in six or seven minutes but they are too weak.


Playing against the computer Deep Fritz in Bahrain

Spiegel Online: But you still say that man are superior to the computer.

Kramnik: Because man has intuition. He has this untouchable moment within himself. We may call it understanding.

Spiegel Online: People say that women are the more intuitive beings. But why is it only Judit Polgar who is playing at the very highest level?

Kramnik: Chess is a fighting game. One needs the so-called male qualities. Women are in general softer, they have protective instincts rather than fighting spirit. Also more boys take up chess than girls. Later their career is very often more important than the family.

Spiegel Online: You have often played against Judit Polgar. Do you notice any differences from male opponents?

Kramnik: No, she plays chess like a man. She has already beaten Kasparov and Anand.

Spiegel Online: You yourself beat Kasparov four years ago und won the world championship title. How do you explain your subsequent crisis?

Kramnik: It was not really a crisis. Instead of always being first at tournaments for a while I was only second. Most chess players would be very happy about that.

Spiegel Online: Motivational problems?

Kramnik: Being world champion has changed my life completely. Suddenly I felt a heavy load on my shoulders. With the title the amount of work is growing: more interviews, more commissions, more chess. The sport develops with the visions of the world champion. And then you also want a bit of private life. Every minute counts. That affected me in the beginning. It used to be the same for Boris Spassky.

Spiegel Online: Spassky was world champion from 1969 until his loss to Bobby Fischer in 1972. Did you talk to him?

Kramnik: He told me that those were the unhappiest years of his life. About a year after winning the title there was a moment that he felt that he could have lost to a simple master. He was devastated. In my case it was not quite as bad.

Spiegel Online: Currently you are preparing for a world championship match against Peter Leko, which will take place from September 25 to October 18 in Brissago, Switzerland. How is your shape at the moment?

Kramnik: In the past months my game has become stronger.

Spiegel Online: You said that the world championship match is against the next generation. You will soon turn 29, and Leko is only four years younger...

Kramnik: ….it is not about for how many years one has lived, but through how many one has lived. In other words: It is the intensity of life that matters. For me a year is as densely packed as normally two are. Four weeks of a world championship match count as much as otherwise a couple of years. Thus I feel older than I really am.

Spiegel Online: How do you prepare for the upcoming world championship match? What does a chess player’s work look like?

Kramnik: I work at chess even when you do not see it. Don’t think I’m crazy, but I can give an interview and at the same time be thinking about a very complicated position. Sometimes when I go to bed in the evening I can still work.

Spiegel Online: So it is not a 40-hour week?

Kramnik: No, it is possible to work for 20 hours a day from time to time. But sometimes a walk is more creative than analysing for five hours on the board.

Spiegel Online: How do you work when you are in an uncreative phase?

Kramnik: Then I finish off the routine work. There are a lot of mechanical jobs. Every week between 1000 and 1500 new games are published, which I have to go through. I don’t need any inspiration for that.

Spiegel Online: What can you do to make the title match fall into a creative phase?

Kramnik: That is a complicated thing. Everything plays a role. Chess is an incredibly emotional game. If everything around you is harmonious, when you are feeling good, you are in a creative mood. If something is disturbing you and you are in a bad mood, then it is difficult to be creative. So you have to create the right atmosphere.


Relaxing on an outing during the Bahrain match

Spiegel Online: Do you use any psychological tricks to put yourself in a good mood?

Kramnik: Everyone has his own methods: a few exercises, some meditation can help. And I am generally an optimist.

Spiegel Online: What are the sources of your inspiration?

Kramnik: Actually it is more important to keep away negative influences than to be stimulated. But I appreciate good conversations.

Spiegel Online: You are very analytical in your thoughts. Would it not be possible to help humanity by giving heads of state like the US President George W. Bush a few helpful strategies, for instance to solve the problems in the Middle East?

Kramnik: They can do it on their own.

Spiegel Online: Perhaps you are more intelligent than many heads of state.

Kramnik: I must confess I find it strange that some people are so convinced of something even if they do not know all the facts. Even intelligent human beings can become enthused by a subject without really getting the whole picture. It is like trying to pass judgement on a position with 18 pieces on the board, but you only know where two of them stand.

Spiegel Online: Assuming you had enough information about Iraq, would you be able to give Bush some tactical advice?

Kramnik: In that case I would probably prefer to go to the mountains of Tibet and spend the rest of my life praying.


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