Vladimir Kramnik on the World Championship Cycle

by ChessBase
1/5/2009 – With the chess world in upheaval, and the world championship cycle in doubt, FIDE President Ilyumzhinov chaired an Internet press conference with top players, on December 27th, to find out what they thought. One was missing: former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik. In a surprise call on December 28th he told us why he couldn't take part (and what he would have said). Be pleasantly surprised!

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Interview with Vladimir Kramnik – part one

The following conversation was carried out by phone on December 28th, late in the evening. After initial greetings and an exchange of news – we hadn't spoken since the World Championship in Bonn – we started recording and subsequently transcribed the text. We have tried to keep it as close to the original as possible, in order to retain the flavour of the original conversation.

Frederic Friedel: Vladimir, thanks for this surprise call. I was a bit worried when I saw that you did not take part in the Internet conference of the top players in Elista on December 27. Now I know the reason.

Vladimir Kramnik: Yes, I had more important things to do, since my wife Marie was about to give birth, which she finally did, on the night between the 27th and 28th of December – actually it was the 28th, early in the morning. She gave birth to a wonderful girl, whom we call Daria, Dasha for short.

Everything went well and smoothly?

Yes, she is in good health. She was in a slightly irritated mood immediately after the birth, but now she seems to be more positive about things. My wife also seems to be doing well, a bit tired, but that is to be expected.

So how do you feel about being a father?

Well, it is strange. I had heard that I would experience some very unusual feelings, and it turned out to be true. It is very difficult to describe in words – I guess everybody who has become a father, especially for the first time, will know what I am talking about. You know, all of a sudden you are three instead of two, and you are trying to figure out how it came about. And you see this very small creation, and know it is part of you. It is really difficult to describe in words, but it is an extraordinary feeling and I am very happy that I am experiencing it.

It is a feeling that was developed in millions of years of evolution.

Yes, but I thought it would affect the mother much more than the man.

It probably does, to an even greater extent. After all she did most of the work.

Vladimir and Marie-Laure Kramnik (at their wedding in Feb. 2007)

Yes, I must admit that my part was not the most difficult one. Sometimes I felt, well not pity, of course, but that we are very privileged as men that we do not have to go through all these things, like being pregnant, and have all the pain and difficulties and disabilities for such a long period of time.

It’s horribly, horribly unfair, isn’t it?

Yes, I find it quite unfair. In earlier times men were always off to war, and suffering there, getting killed. Then it was at least sort of “compensation”. But now in civilised countries we are not at war all the time, we men now have all the advantages and none of the minuses. So I really feel a great admiration for my wife. I thank her for going through all this and giving me such a beautiful child.

You have made an interesting philosophical point, that originally it was somehow balanced but in modern society has biased the whole process towards men. Anyway, tell me: if you hadn’t been otherwise occupied and had indeed taken part in the Internet conference, what would you have said?

Well, it is quite a long answer…

Go ahead, we have time.

First of all, between us, I think it is not the best way to solve problems. I would have taken part, but I think that it would be better to do an open questionnaire, on paper, and not just for the top five or six players, but for all of the participants of the Grand Prix, plus maybe the top twenty players. Not only about the ongoing cycle but also about future cycles, about how top chess players see all questions concerning time controls in world championship cycles, in other tournaments, the format of world championship cycles – knockout, matches –, candidate tournaments or no candidate tournaments. It is much more efficient to write down all these questions, and all players have to send in their answers. I was informed about the results of the telephone conference in Elista, and to be honest I still don’t have a clear idea what the opinion of the players was. I think it would be much better if it was all written down. And secondly then you are not able to take a move back. Or you will at least have to explain why all of a sudden you have changed your mind. Once it is official and on paper, and in the archives, everyone who wants can check what the person originally answered, and you have much more transparency, much less room for manoeuvre. Otherwise you tend to say one thing, and tomorrow another, and then you pretend you never said it.

So why don’t we do it? Why don’t we write the questionnaire?

I agree. If FIDE doesn’t want to do it, maybe ChessBase should. Of course it has to be well thought out, the questionnaire. We have to formulate the questions so that people will provide very clear answers.

Yes, let's do it. We can publish it and send it to all the top players.

That is the best solution, to publish everyones answers on ChessBase. You know, a few years ago there was a questionnaire on time control, conducted by FIDE. But it was not open and nobody knows who exactly supported what. I have heard that a majority of the players was for classical time controls, at least for the World Championship and for top tournaments. But I basically never saw any statistics and I never knew who was for what. I think that such a questionnaire loses half of its value if it is hidden and not open. I fully understand that there will be many different opinions, and it cannot be taken as the final truth, but at least it is open to all chess amateurs and of course to all chess officials.

So you will send me your ideas on the questionnaire?

Yes, sure, I’ll do it very soon. And of course I am ready to answer any such questions openly myself. I think it is a positive thing to do, in general, for history and for the future.  Of course people cannot be forced to answer, but even not answering would in my opinion be an answer.

Now before we publish the questionnaire, give me a rough estimate of what you think should be done for the next World Championship.

Okay, this is the continuation of my answer. What I would like to say about the entire situation that is currently happening in the world of chess, and causing a lot of noise and criticism, is that on the one hand I do not like the habit, let me put it this way, of FIDE to all the time change the rules during the game. I can fully understand people like Aronian or Carlsen, because I myself also think that if FIDE wants to be a serious organisation such things should not happen. So I can fully understand their frustration. From another point of view I think that actually a system which includes a candidates tournament is a better one. I am sure that chess lovers would welcome a tournament of top grandmasters, like Saint Luis or Mexico.

To be honest, I don’t even understand why it is so much against Carlsen or Aronian, this change of the system. Now if the decision is made, two players will qualify from the Grand Prix instead of one, which might be helpful also for these players. Okay, they have a tournament instead of a match, that is true. But it is not such a big difference; it is the final of the Candidates, just a different format. So I don’t think that the interests of any players who are currently participating in the Grand Prix are compromised. Of course I fully respect their opinion, but I would rather complain about the general habit of changing rules. We must admit that it has already become a tradition in FIDE to change the regulations during the cycle. And they should think twice before doing it again. Everybody is getting tired of it, and it does not add to the strength and respect of the organisation.

Do you have any idea why they are doing it?

I can only speculate. It is pretty clear that in the new system there are two people who are gaining a lot of advantages. They are Topalov and Kamsky. First of all there is this match between the two of them, which actually should never have happened – it was basically created out of nothing. Now the loser of this match is getting a chance to play, without qualification, in the final stage of the next world championship. That is quite a serious privilege. You can speculate yourself why this was done. I really don’t know.

The only thing which I can personally say – I mean it is concerning my personal position in the cycle – is that I am very unhappy, to put it mildly, with the situation that the loser of the Topalov-Kamsky match is inside the final stage of the qualification, and I, as the loser of my parallel match with Anand, am not. I believe that is totally unfair. I would like you not to misunderstand: I am not asking for any privileges. The only thing I am asking for and insisting on is that I must have exactly the same rights as the loser of that match. If the winners have the same rights I do not understand why one loser has much less rights than the other. This is something that has absolutely no logical explanation. The only thing I can understand is that there are certain powers inside FIDE who simply do not want to see me in the cycle. Unfortunately I have to draw this conclusion, because I do not have any other explanation.

So finally my decision is very simple: I am ready to start at ANY stage of the world championship, but I strongly believe that I have to start at exactly the same stage as the loser of Kamsky-Topalov,whether it is the Candidates tournament or the World Cup. If this will not be changed I will not play any qualification for this event, even if it would mean missing the cycle. For me it is pretty insulting to have to qualify for the honour of meeting the loser of Kamsky-Topalov. It is simply not fair. I am ready to qualify if this loser also has to qualify, but if not, then I am out. Okay, I still have chances to get into the final candidates tournament, as number one by rating, or as a nominee of the organiser, if the organiser chooses me. If not I will simply miss the cycle.

Let me get this absolutely straight: if the loser of Kamsky-Topalov does not receive special privileges, then you would be willing to start right at the bottom, perhaps in the first round of a 128-player knockout?

Yes. I would be ready to play in the Khanty-Mansiysk World Cup or anything. Just think: in the whole history of chess the loser of the final world championship match was always in the final of the world championship qualification – whether it was candidates tournaments or candidates matches, but I am not even getting this. So I am not asking for privileges, I am just asking for basic fairness.

One other thing I would like to explain very clearly: all this has nothing to do with Kamsky or Topalov personally. It is not about personal problems with them. It would be exactly the same if it was about any two other chess players.

So these are my views on all these matters and this is what I would have said if I had participated in the FIDE conference on December 27. I just wanted to let you and your readers know about this.

How will the baby affect your tournament plans?

Actually I have refused all tournaments before March, only because of this, and nothing else. I would gladly have played in Wijk aan Zee, and especially in Linares, because I haven’t played there for quite a long time. They invited me, and I really wanted to play there. But I just feel I need to help my wife, because it is our first child. It is not just to help physically, but also psychologically, I feel I need to be nearby her during the first two three month. For this reason with a heavy heart I finally refused Linares. It’s a pity because I would really love to play there. The last three times I played there I twice shared first place and once I was clear first. I hope next year I will have a chance, especially since it has been one of my best tournaments.

So for the next few months I would like to stay with my family, but starting from late spring I will start playing much more. I am planning an intense schedule in the second half of the year.

– End of part one –

© ChessBase GmbH, Hamburg, Germany

In the second part of this interview Vladimir Kramnik speaks about his match with Anand, his team, preparation and why he parted company with his long-year manager Carsten Hensel.

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