3 January 2017

Alexander Riazantsev: Can Anything Be Achieved Without Setting Goals First?

The European Blitz Champion answered the questions of Dmitry Kryakvin.

– Congratulations on yet another one of your successes! How was the tournament unfolding for you? 

– This was a tough fight, and in rounds 4-5 it happened that I slowed down somewhat by making two draws. The first was against the Estonian grandmaster Kanep. I handled the opening in a very superficial and inaccurate manner so that when I made a first serious dive into the position I realized how iffy it was indeed. Nevertheless, I managed to hold my ground and bail out. The following game was also uneven, in which I met an old-timer Valery Loginov, who used to be a longtime player for Uzbekistan and nowadays coaches the young players of St.Petersburg. 

My steady performance throughout the game landed me into a winning position until at a certain moment I missed on my opponent's queen lunge to d4 to start drifting on the verge of going down. Even though I managed to bail out this time as well, it was not without a certain bit of luck. This section of my tournament distance being not the most pleasant one, I still succeeded in winning game six on that first day. 

– That means you started off to five out of six, right? For a Swiss tournament with this many players the result is unlikely to ring a bell, is it? 

– All in all, this is a good start, although not enough to grab a lead. The field was then topped by Alexei Shirov, who chopped six out of six, having outplayed Dmitry Andreikin in the closing round of day one! A certain number of contestants featured 5.5. This said, I had a clear understanding that either way it was to be settled during the closing rounds of day two. My previous year's experience reminded me that the then winner Ivan Popov had scored almost as many as 10 points, defeating Ilya Smirin in the final duel at that! Therefore, I believed that scoring 9.5 would likely lead to sharing first, although the  Shirov's start did not rule out the possibility of a champion scoring the equivalent amount of 10 points mentioned above. 

– However, the pack of pursuers at the top of the European Championship is very massive, isn't it? 

–  On the one hand, the competition is very solid, on the other hand with even 600 participants and so solid a lineup, the number of victories was nothing short of fantastic! On day two I took game one and then went on to gain the upper hand in the most crucial of duels against the Croatian grandmaster Saric. This is a very decent opponent who used to be near 2700 at a certain moment of his career, but I managed to deliver nonetheless. I followed it up by "knocking down" a solid Spanish player David Anton, which opened a way for me to contest a place on the pedestal. 

My next challenge was Peter Leko. This game followed a rather weird course. I was playing Black, and we handled the opening into a complex like of Caro-Kann, one of the most competitive ones. Immediately after the f5-f6 blow to undermine my king's defensive formations, Peter offered me a draw! 

– So, White offered a draw in the penultimate round while having a promising position, didn't he? 

– In my opinion the position was unclear, although Black's play was associated with more troubles since he was under offensive. I cannot say I was particularly inspired with my position. I finally accepted the offer since I would be White in the ultimate round and there would be enough time to study the situation, the balance of forces in the games of immediate pursuers. 

Leko being a half point behind me, I made nothing of my opponent's offer at all. It was clear that only a victory would give him any further chances to contest the medals. It goes without saying that a draw as Black was a pretty decent result for me. 

Peter Leko goes 17.f5-f6 and... offers a draw to the Russian all of a sudden!

 – Who was in the lead prior to the decisive battle? 

– It was Rauf Mamedov upon having defeated the Ukrainian Vladimir Onischuk with the white pieces. There was no other option for him in the ultimate round but to face me as Black.  Sharing second was also Alexei Shirov, who featured nearly better additional tiebreakers than any other tournament player, but he was to come to grips with Maxim Matlakov as Black. Matlakov is a top-quality, consistent and solid player. He is known not to be easily outplayed by a second player, which proved true after the game ended with White gaining the upper hand. 

As for my game against Mamedov, I managed to deliver a decent and consistent performance after my opponent opted for an extravaganza 1.d4 d6 2.e4 e5… 

An arbiter Vyacheslav Ivanov, Aleksandr Riazantsev, Rauf Mamedov and Alexei Shirov

– If I am not mistaken, Rauf posted the following on his Facebook account,  "My coach prohibited me to ever go into 1.d4 d6 2.e4 e5!» Did you have an in-depth knowledge of how to refute this line or was your victory owing to your general understanding of chess? 
– The following day, when we were talking with Rauf, Alexander Khalifman approached us and told him strictly, "I ban you from playing this. Forget about this opening. This is not an opening at all!" 

A close acquaintance of mine, IM from Chelyabinsk Alexey Yatsenko, is fond of similar arrangements. I myself essayed them against him more than once, and he showed me some games back in 2007-2008, when I used to assist him and Sergei Matsenko. It is true, however, that Alexey would usually have 2…Kf6 3.Kc3 thrown in.  The main drawback of the arising endgame for White is his c3-knight. Without those moves thrown in, the trade of queens can be followed by posting the knight on c4 without losing any tempi along the way. I arrayed my pieces against Mamedov to a typical plan: one of my knights arrived on d3 via g1-h3-f2-d3, the other one was planted on c4, the a-pawn was advanced on a4 so that there arose such a difficult position for Black that only two outcomes were possible. After I won the game, I did not wait for other games to finish but headed for a lunch instead. I was back to learn about having become a tournament winner! 

The decisive battle Riazantsev - Mamedov. The remote h6-passer is about to seal the fate of the game.

The talking company would soon be approach by the Azeri player's austere coach

– Was it hard for you to switch to rapid chess following the end of Superfinal? 

– Well, I did participate in several rapid events after the Superfinal! The Alexander Lastin Memorial in Stavropol did not go well for me at all as my inner resources abandoned me. The last leg of the Khanty-Mansiysk event had me qualified into the Rapid Grand Prix finals, whereas the Top 16 saw me performing quite confidently and taking third. 

– I cannot help asking same question that I addressed Dmitry Andreikin with. What does it take to make a great rapid player? 

– Rapid chess undoubtedly carries its own specifics. Earlier it would not work out so well for me. I believe it generally had to do with a lack of practical experience. You need to find your pace and adjust your opening repertoire accordingly. It also has to do with the specific format of the rapid. When talking about "25 minutes plus a 10-second increment per move" format we mean the rapid bordering on the modern format of classical chess. This is a more serious type of play when you mainly need to rely on your opening schemes rather than fall back on some dubious attempts at taking your opponent by surprise. 

However, with "15 minutes plus a 10-second increment per move" you are free to bluff and, which is no less important, you need to take intuitive decisions rather quickly. It was not infrequent for me before to play under such time control as if it were classical chess. When it came to critical moments, I would plunge into calculations for some five minutes. This is when I lost touch with my previous game tempo. It resulted in time shortages and subsequent blunders. You have to differentiate between positions that can be easily converted on a 10-second increment and those which remain unclear because of time pressure! 

– What would you say about blitz then? 

– The blitz repertoire has to be very specific as you are free to handle even dubious setups. Let your opponent's time melt down while he tries to find his way about the position that will anyway remain complex with a lot of material on the board. Rauf Mamedov, for one, employs the g6-type of formations to find himself in worse positions more often than not. However, his practical results are excellent. When his opponent's clock displays less than 30 seconds, the objective evaluation of the position matters no longer! As opposed to this, Rauf would be up a minute and aware of all typical strikes, tricks and maneuvers available to him, which hurt badly and hard to deal with with so little time. 

My belief is that the blitz repertoire has to be tailored individually and not without a certain amount of trap lines. It is likely to pay off down the road. The "lite" version of rapid tolerates certain risks, while my recommendation for a serious rapid with 25 minutes would be to play as if it were a classical game of chess. 

– By the way, which result did you finish with in a blitz tournament in Tallin? 

– I felt exhausted by day two. I played fairly well on day one, finishing it to "+9" out of 18 and having prospects for any of the prize places, but then my performance plummeted down and I failed to come near contesting anything. 

Having got a great deal of positive emotions a day earlier, I was low on my stamina. I would single out two players - Rauf Mamedov and Maxim Matlakov. Their performance was stable throughout both in rapid and blitz. Matlakov ended up second and fourth, whereas Mamedov took medals on both occasions. Those are high results indeed! 

Alongside with Alexander Riazantsev are Maxim Matlakov and Rauf Mamedov

– You have mentioned the notions of risk and reliability on several occasions, what do you gravitate towards in the decisive games?
– There is a lot that depends on a tournament situation and your opponent. Psychology plays an important role at that. If you know your opponent, sometimes you are justified to take risks and start playing fast in the opening, being aware that he will be hesitant and take long to make decisions. He would rather trust you without taking up the challenge and coming up with a tough refutation. A seasoned player knows to take all these factors into account. There is no universal recipe and you need to treat each situation individually. 

– When talking about rapid chess it is impossible to take no notice of the Carlsen  – Karjakin match with its tie-breaker games. Once we mentioned it, did you stay watching the match games overnight or would you rather look through them the following morning? 

– I kept a close eye on the match and analyzed each game played.  I was unable, of course, to follow each classical duel through till the very end, but I watched the tiebreak online from start to finish. 

I was left with the impression that Sergei had a great chance to win the match after Carlsen's failure to deliver games three and four and then following it up with some shaky play, overreaching and eventually going down. The first key moment arrived when the Russian failed to capture on f2 with his knight in game ten, which would have resulted in either a forced draw or Magnus's having to plunge into an objectively precarious position. 

Prior to the tiebreak the chances were objectively equal. Now that one knows how the match ended, statements of the Norwegian having won confidently can be made, but the reality seems to suggest that the world champion was way too nervous in the meanwhile. I was greatly surprised that in lieu of opting for offensive continuations in rapid game two, Carlsen transited into an ending "three versus three and two bishops versus a rook."  He was up considerable amount of time after all! Lack of confidence was obvious to see as he failed to cope with his nerves and preferred liquidating into something less challenging instead. However, the resulting setup is rife with drawish stances and it looks like Black should as well hold its own with the f6-g7-h6 formation of pawns either. 

– Critical moment two arrived in rapid game three, didn't it? 

– Given Magnus's actions in the last classical game, Sergey should have perhaps played it extremely safe as White, sidestepping at a certain moment the complex Spanish tabiya in which he was outplayed in the end. After Carlsen's failure to cope with the nervous tension prior to the last classical duel, it took him a few days to recover and restore his balance of nervous energy. It was necessary to put him up against this dilemma, that of the last decisive game at equal score, in which he was to play the white pieces. It was only two days earlier that Carlsen was unwilling to put his title at stake with one game to go yet in favor of playing as many as four. Should he have treated the rapid chess accordingly, it would have come to blitz then, which is a lottery, a chess series of penalty shots. It is not to be ruled out that in the final rapid game with the score 1.5:1.5, Magnus would have lunged forward and lost control by overdoing it. I believe that Sergey's chances would have been excellent in this case! 

– Have any of your students gone through such bone-rattling tie-breaks? 

– When I was assisting Grischuk in the Kazan-2011 Candidates Tournament, there occurred a couple of tie-breaks exactly like this one. Those were against Aronian and Kramnik. Then, too, it was decided on nerves and some minor nuances. 

– And how, in general, does the process of seconding looks like during such a lengthy  additional four-game contest? Is a player able to leave the playhall to secure his seconds' tips as to his further plan of actions? 

– As far as I recall, the breaks between games in Kazan were short. The first two games would have a short break in between, followed by a lengthier one afterwards. We could often exchange a couple of words. It is often the case that while the game is still in progress, you get down to analyzing the opening of game one. This line might well be repeated in game three and you should come up with a quick solution as to where things could have taken a better turn. 

– What was the strategy of that match? Drawing as Black and trying to win as White? 

– If my memory doesn't fail me, Grischuk's strategy was rather straightforward: to play well and try to win. 

– Do you feel more of a player or coach following this string of successes? 

– I have never though about that. Now that you asked this question I started wondering... It is hard to arrive at any definite conclusion. Playing in a tournament makes me a player. Assisting someone else makes me a coach. 

– You do cherish ambitious plans for individual competitions, don't you? 

– My playing chess of course means that I am still thirsty for victories! If you participate in a tournament and not try to win it, not try to show you best result and  good performance, it is just not worth the effort in the first place. When I toed the starting line of the Superfinal, I was at least aiming at demonstrating a high level of play since my latest participation the tournament of such rank happened about six years before that. I had a goal, and it was to play well. Lack of goals makes things very sad for you. Can one really occupy himself with any type of work without setting goals first? 

– It is impossible not to mention the famous phenomenon of the Russian women's national team coaches. What is the reason of the team's recent victories all-around? What stands behind it? 

– It looks like keeping the company of girls gets you an enormous amount of energy inflow. We should, perhaps, not limit ourselves to singling out women's coaches only as our men's team coach Alexander Motylev is also a successful player who won the European Championship only a couple of years ago. It should in general be mentioned that very decent players have been chosen as coaches right from the start! 

The truth is, when you teach something you tend to reevaluate and correct certain things. It goes without saying that all factors put together, coupled with the atmosphere in the women's team, play a beneficial role indeed! 

– Let us answer some of our readers' questions. Does it take long to get back to normal after an Olympiad or World Championship match? You are likely to feel like seeing no one at all, aren't you? 

– This is a good question. It depends. For example, following a very stressful event, such as an Olympiad, a lot depends on its outcome. As it takes two-three days to put yourself back together anyway, I usually do nothing. If possible, I prefer just staying home and taking rest, making up for the sleep lost. However, you recover better and faster when the team wins. Positive emotions stamp out everything else and all that remains is a pleasant fatigue that just melts away gradually. 

Otherwise, if the result is not the best one and you failed to have achieved the desired, that's a real disappointment! In this case the volume of inner resources spent is immense, whereas the amount of time required for their recovery is quite substantial. Our team's forth place in Baku has taken me longer to come back. 

– How do you usually go about regaining your strength? I recall you going for a parachute jump on a rest day of the Higher League in Kolomna prior to your headlong plunge into the upcoming decisive battles what would eventually land you into the Superfinal.  

– Safety first, as they say. As for me, I like situations with a reasonable level of risk. They include hiking and vehicle trips, motorcycle rides, as well as skydiving. In the light of the recent grievous events it is safety that is seen to be of paramount importance. Any such event needs careful thinking over! 

The principal goal of any such event for me is to take pleasure from it. However, safety comes first especially because you have to play a game afterwards. 

– Our audience is interested in how it feels like being such a young but already merited coach? Being on the threshold of title awarding, did there occur any such problems as putting spokes in your wheel in the corridors of ministries and departments of Sport, described in many books by the Soviet writers? 

– I am really grateful for being given this honorary title, I feel very pleased. The entire procedure was on a slight delay. The delay was associated with the submission of documents. However, once all documents were submitted and received and formalities settled, there happened no more problems afterwards. I took slightly longer than I initially expected when I started collecting my documents. However, it is the final result that matters. 

– What are the criteria that a merited coach of Russian is to meet? 

– It is specified in detail on the Ministry of Sports' website. If you are interested, you can refer to Order No.55. Your achievements are summed up into qualification points gained by your students or your team according to places taken in competitions. Your work experience is to be no less than 4 years. Roughly speaking, if you win an Olympiad and a World or European Championship, the total of points scored should suffice. That is, you have to be successful in more than one event. 

Besides, there is a number of qualifications. One of them, as I recall, being that the Minister of Sports of Russia is authorized to dispense with the established procedure and award the title for outstanding successes. Again, the order details everything and describes several options. 

– Let us now turn our attention to the upcoming individual World Championship in Iran. Do you think that having to use headwear is likely to be detrimental or beneficial to our girls' performance? 

– Since they know the regulations in advance, it will not catch them unawares. Therefore, the specific Iranian requirements should affect them neither negatively nor positively. If you read up on national traditions and tune yourself accordingly in advance, this aspect is supposed to have no say on the flow of events. 

Anyway, what’s to be done about it? This is the way things are run in that country. It has to be respected. 

– What about Valentina Gunina's result in a rapid supertournament in London? I do not recall even Judit Polgar scoring nine out of ten from strong male grandmasters! 

– Valentina is an extremely gifted player. She is a very bright talent and an incredibly powerful player at that! This is a fantastic result! I congratulate Valentina and in the meanwhile I also fail to recall any such victory by a female player. Her high level of performance, coupled with talent and preparedness at that moment  - what else is there to say? 

– What is the strongest point of the Russian player? 

– Self-confidence and lack of doubts! These are two crucial factors present in varying degrees in every major player. Valentina has it in abundance and, therefore, if she is in good shape, has no problems with calculation and everything falls into place in her game, there is simply no stopping her! 

– Exactly at this moment I have come across what seems to be not so much of a question, but rather a heartfelt cry from one of the Russian team fans. It reads as follows: "Alexander, when it comes to team tournaments it is clear that all team members feature brilliant theoretical preparation, whereas each Valya's game generates an impression of her either having had not enough time to prepare properly or her having completely forgotten everything! A position arising after some twenty moves would usually find her in bad shape, and then she would wriggle out of trouble thanks to her athletic qualities. What is the reason of it?" 

– There is more than one reason. Opening lines can be confused by all players, even by male grandmasters, not only by Valentina! Not only the volume of information is big nowadays, it is simply gigantic! This is especially true when you attempt to commit it all to memory shortly before the game. To forget is human. 

However, Valentina is such a bright and gifted person that she sometimes wants to enjoy creative chess! The majority of male and female players have everything prepared and home and then executed on the board. As for Valentina, she takes the liberty of coming up with something of her own as the game progresses. 

How does Alexander Riazantsev's other-than-chess life flows? Do you like reading, is there enough time for it? 

– At present I read a book by the famous modern Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh. The book is titled "The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins". This is a very specific book that was recommended to me by a friend of mine. The book is interesting, but I am not through yet. I have been recently attempting to reread the Russian classics, at the beginning of the year it was Dostoevsky. 

There are quite a number of players who enjoy reading during tournaments. As for me, however, reading does not really help me take my attention off chess. I am fond of reading when I am off on vacation or training sessions or when at home. When I am at competitions I rather like either taking walks or watching something to somehow redirect my focus. When I read a book, I keep going back to thinking about chess. 

Given the number of journeys and the amount of time dedicated to work, there are not many days left for reading. When I have this time, though, it is a pleasure to start on a new book. 

– There are probably certain hobbies waiting for you at home, aren't there? 

– I like reading about various types of equipment, be it related to aviation or motor vehicles. When a child, I was very fond of it, used to subscribe to magazines, and was even dreaming of entering the Moscow Aviation Institute one day. You might classify it as a lite version of hobby. 

I like going to the theater to watch a good action. I visit theaters in different cities. Even in the Novosibirsk Superfinal I managed to go on two occasions. Wherever I am, my program of spare time, if I have such, is sure to include going to the  philharmonics, operas or drama theaters. 

– What are your immediate plans, where will you welcome the New Year? 

– I will yet have to make it home for the New Year because the nearest tournament is in Qatar, the blitz and rapid World Championships. I am to get back December 31 at 10.00 pm. If there are no flight delays I do hope to make it home shortly in advance. 

Pictures taken from the official website