1 July 2019

Konstantin Landa: Succeeding on the Fly

A coach and second of the FIDE Women's Candidates Tournament's winner Aleksandra Goryachkina is interviewed by Vladimir Barsky

– Konstantin, my congrats on a confident and spectacular victory! When and how you and Aleksandra have started collaborating? How did you manage to pull off such a great tournament in the first place? 

– First of all, thanks for the congratulations. Such congratulations would not have been inappropriate earlier with several rounds to go as everything was clear back then. Honestly, this result came unexpectedly not only to outsiders but even to Aleksandra herself. She managed to cover an entire distance and shake off her very experienced opponents in an event featuring an absolutely equal lineup. In my opinion, the young chess player deserved this success through her hard work and consistency over the chess board. She has demonstrated quite a few qualities in this event that a strong player is bound to possess. I would even dare claim them qualities of a champion.

Our collaboration started on a positive note. My team won the club championship of the Czech Republic, and Evgeniy Najer and I were riding back home in the same car. It was a lengthy but pleasant journey because Evgeny is a good company and a long-standing friend. We had plenty of time to talk, and he said that the Russian Chess Federation was looking for an assistant to Aleksandra Goryachkina for the upcoming Candidates tournament.

Photo credit: K. Landa

– It was in April, right?

– That’s right. I had plans of my own, but this competition fit into my schedule perfectly. I was on my way to the French league, and before that, I flew to Moscow, where Aleksandra and I spent a week at the Central Chess Club. I returned to Moscow from the French League, and I met Aleksandra again in Kazan. Meanwhile, when flying back and forth, I had my baggage lost by Air France. However, I need to give credit to this airline: not only did they reimburse everything I bought while waiting for my bags, they even (although I didn’t ask them for it) gave me a voucher for the next flight.

– It means you and Goryachkina had very little time spent together.

– Exactly.

– And it was enough to find common ground?

– Love for chess was there to help us, perhaps. Aleksandra is fanatically devoted to chess, not to mention that she is a very hard-working person with an uncompromising attitude to studying chess. Having collaborated with young Indian chess players, members of the national team, I noted an increased capability for work as one of their main positive traits, and I can confidently claim that Goryachkina has even more of that. In Russia, I have yet to meet the likes of Aleksandra, capable of working so long and so hard, and then returning home to resume where she left off.

– You say that she is capable of studying chess on her own, right?

– Indeed, she is capable of working well and productively all alone.

– A rare trait for female players, isn't it?

– It rarely occurs even with male players, let alone with female ones. She can focus exclusively on chess. She has such a mindset that one needs to prepare, that one should always try to win and play as far as it goes.

– That is, not only does she spend time learning lines offered by the coach, but also asks questions, and finds ideas by herself, right?

– She does ask serious and to the point questions. Sometimes not to the point, of course, but in general, she is well-versed in the modern theory since she works a lot and knows what is going on in the world of chess.

– Is she good at analyzing?

– She is, and she is also good at positional chess. It seemed to me that of all chess players who came to Kazan (with the only reservation that this impression is based on this one particular tournament only), her insight into the game and the level of performance were at the highest. It allowed her to gain the edge in certain games.

– Besides being a hard-working and determined to fight person, what are her most potent traits of purely chess nature?

– She, of course, is a very stubborn defensive player, capable of defending such positions that most people would be ready to resign. She can work a lot and patch up holes in the openings that she employs on a regular basis. Her strongest aspect, however, is an endgame technique as she can go on grinding out a small advantage, and, in most cases, her lengthy efforts pay off. Suffice it to recall her encounters with Lagno and Tan Zhongyi. She followed in the footsteps of Carlsen to squeeze water out of stones. 

Photo credit: E. Kublashvili

– Does Aleksandra have strong nerves?

– She does. She is ready to play on and on if she enjoys her position. It seems to me that people simply fail to such pressures, getting tired of having to defend over long periods of time.

– The first impression was that Goryachkina's tournament was an easy walk in the park as tournament's part one was barely over when she, in fact, had an overall victory in her pocket. Was it really so?

– There was no flagging of tension until the very end. During the tournament, no one was pondering such things as someone having already achieved anything as we were simply getting ready for each subsequent encounter. We were touching upon the just finished game only very briefly in a belief that reliving the associated emotions is not the way to go. An athlete has to press forward and be determined to fight. We were preparing seriously enough for the last two games even though the athletic objective was already achieved and the motivation was not very high for that reason.

Why did it happen that way? Other chess players are likely to have been better prepared in the opening and have had more extensive training preparation; at least, these sessions of theirs are likely to have been more extensive. I think almost all opponents were assisted by entire analytical teams. It was, needless to say, a big plus for them. On the other hand, they did not manage to profit from their trump cards, whereas Aleksandra managed to get positions, which she was particularly strong at, and to use her chances to the utmost. Suffice it to recall her encounter with Tan Zhongyi, mentioned earlier. It was a dead draw ending that men would usually never play on. Of course, Tan could have transposed into a drawn ending down a pawn more than once but remained undecided on it. The Chinese players are in general known to prefer making a draw based on calculation rather than relying on knowledge. Although Tan did her best to keep a pawn, she failed to do so, and the game transposed into three vs. two, which is tenable but calls for a certain amount of precise play. As a result of having to defend long in a passive position, the Chinese player ended up overlooking White’s winning idea.

By building up her position on small pluses and pressing home her opportunities that others somehow could not, Aleksandra managed to accumulate a rather substantial point gap of a point and a half after the end of tournament’s part one. It was a serious claim, but no less important was that she didn’t stop at that. I consider her round six game as Black vs. Nana Dzagnidze as a crucial one. Goryachkina was in a dire straight, and I thought she was highly unlikely to bail out of it. However, the Georgian player failed to come up with precise moves, and Aleksandra managed to go further than just bailing out. This victory of hers gave me an impression of excellent chances to win the tournament. 

Photo credit: S. Shaydullin

– We had it all playing smoothly into our hands! Was it a blow to her opponents’ confidence when seeing Aleksandra’s power play?

– I think everyone was performing as best they could at the moment. Committing blunders undermines your confidence, whereas Aleksandra’s was only increasing with each subsequent round. Not giving up in lost positions, looking for the slightest opportunity to bail out and not losing your presence of mind makes such a big difference.

– There has been quite a while since the latest Women's Candidates tournament. Does the event’s format appeal to you? It is clear that winners are usually happy about everything, but what if you try to abstract yourself from your trainee’s success?

– Women seem to aim at equality in every walk of life. This is how it was decided that their qualification cycle should match that of men's. Fewer rounds would have resulted in such outcries as why not have as many rounds as men have. The current competition's format mirrored the men’s with all associated pros and cons. Going into the tournament, Alexandra Kosteniuk seemed a favorite as she is a very athletic person and is capable of performing very well professionally as well. The Muzychuk sisters are also known to have a profound level of preparation. My next favorite would be Kateryna Lagno. Apart from having many coaches, she is supported by her husband, Alexander Grischuk. I found it hard to evaluate our chances because of very little time spent with Goryachkina. Needless to say, I had a clear picture of her strengths and weaknesses. Special thanks for this go to my friends and coaches, who helped draw her chess portrait before the event. Making a big difference over a lengthy 14-round distance was Aleksandra's young age. Taking evening strolls proved of significant help either. Despite a substantial amount of preparation for each game, she had enough firepower for the entire distance.

– Without any emotional slumps?

– The successful outcome of her games proved extremely important for that matter. It will always inspire you even when you feel almost completely exhausted. 

Photo credit: Facebook page of K. Landa

– Did you like the way the Kazan tournament was being managed?

– Kazan is a gorgeous city in the first place! The city's center and the riverbank is a feast to your eye! We never missed our strolls despite being very pressed for time. The churches are magnificent, a pedestrian street is spectacular, not to mention “horses” running in suits, same as at Moscow’s Arbat. I was pleased to learn about a commemorative plaque dedicated to Nezhmetdinov, which is very close to the tournament venue. It seems the only one in the world dedicated to the international master. It is a pleasure to see that they love chess in Kazan. 

There were many sight-seeing tours at the rest day, but I, needless to say, would not go to any for a truckload of more important things to take care of, and I was sitting in my room, working. I wish we had more time to prepare and fine-tune some opening lines for this tournament. We had to patch up some holes on the go. Having spent so little time working together, Aleksandra would not always take my proposals. Nevertheless, we would ever succeed in finding common ground in the end, and in some cases we managed to complete the preparation, coming up with unique ideas “on the fly”. 

Photo credit: Facebook page of K. Landa 

– Did she also have more important things to take care of instead of going on the sight-seeing tours of the rest day?

– Rest days saw us working to better prepare for the upcoming game even more than on usual days.

– In store for you now is a world championship match. Konstantin, besides having a very tight coaching schedule, you continue to play in tournaments from time to time, as well as commenting on ChessPro, working in the FIDE and RCF anti-cheating commissions... How does this new collaboration fit into your already tense business life?

– You have to set priorities constantly, but once set, all other things go into the background. Again, I always had to juggle my responsibilities. In the 1990s, I worked in a bank as a system administrator for three years, making two GM norms in the meanwhile. You always feel the pressure, but it never allows you to take life too easy. On the other hand, switching between activities is a sort of rest. You may be deep in chess, and then some anti-cheating issues come your way, which you need to go into and give an objective answer to. 

– Many chess players are unhappy with the current state of affairs, thinking it next to impossible to voice out suspicions of dishonest play. Is it so?

– There exists a procedure of claim application. However, you need to start by familiarizing yourself with some regulations, which amount to some twenty plus pages. There is a famous book by Dale Carnegie How to stop worrying and start living. It is high time that the anti-cheating committee published a booklet called How to stop worrying and start playing chess. Dear chess players and colleagues! I encourage you to read through the regulations! There exists an official application form that you are entitled to submit, and there is not a thing to be said against it. These regulations have been in place for many years now.

The real problem is that there is still no system to punish organizers and arbiters for non-compliance with anti-cheating regulations. Everyone seems to grasp the importance of anti-cheating control at tournaments, but not much is done to put it in practice. Apparently, we will have to take tough measures in the near future, otherwise, the anti-cheating rules will remain, basically, on paper only and will never make it into the usual opens.

The next meeting of the FIDE Fair Play Commission is scheduled on June 28-30 in Bologna. Arkady Dvorkovich's presence is expected to give it an additional impulse. Needless to say, the FIDE President is well aware of the significance of anti-cheating actions. The No.1 priority is to launch Screening Tools of Ken Regan’s program, checking games online and providing statistics on how well a person’s moves match the computer ones.

Part of the agenda is also supposed to discuss measures, rules, and penalties to be introduced against organizers ignoring the anti-cheating measures. We want to put a certain system in place. The commission is convening for the first time, i.e. half a year after its election. We have a bunch of new people on the commission, but we are yet to see how capable they are. Hopefully, there will be no slack in the commission's performance. I expect to see my proposal pass in that in the event of a player’s unexcused refusal to show a phone for inspection, he/she will automatically get a ban and quite a hefty one at that. 

– And what is the current situation?

– It has been more than once that a player caught with a phone would refuse to switch it on. His game would be forfeited without recognizing him as a cheater. We have yet to decide on the deadlines, but I think that refusing to show the phone will result in a ban for at least two or three years, and should the program confirm the moves as matching computer hints, there will be a ban for about five years. I am not sure if my proposal is going to pass, but it will be part of the agenda. 

We will need the assistance of lawyers, of course. Once they commit this rule to paper in a professional manner, it is going to be a potent hurdle for the cheaters. Right now the situation is such that a player may refuse to show the phone or runs away with his phone or switches it off in plain view of an arbiter, which leads to his/her game being forfeited, and this is the end of the story. Alternatively, he/she may be expelled from the event – a decision left at the discretion of an arbiter. Nevertheless, the task of proving the help of a computer is aggravated. We will close this loophole eventually.

– We know about some much spoken about cases of dishonest players caught red-handed only to get away with about six months of disqualification. Will there be any changes to it? 

– If we are talking about the Morgunov case, it is up to the lawyers to look into it. In fact, it was the Austrian Chess Federation that almost immediately decided on such a short-term disqualification. They just informed the FIDE commission about their ruling. The situation is such that sentencing a person twice for the same breach of regulation is far from easy. This issue belongs to the legal domain.

– I see. Is it going to be stipulated clearly in a document to be issued? 

– It is. One of the most critical topics is the interface between the FIDE Fair Play Commission and the national federations. We need to delineate authorities and appoint persons taking responsibility. Shall we delegate to national federations the right to investigate any specific cases taking place on their territory, or shall we take all matters entirely under our responsibility? Which incidents should be reported and which not? To get the system up and running is no small challenge. It takes time, especially so with various types of people across many federations. Not everyone is for our proposals, but it is certainly a topic for discussion. It is true, though, that we have only two and a half days at our disposal, which is very little for a commission with such a wide variety of issues to deal with, but this is something to start with. Again, we are to get along with new people and listen to everyone’s opinion.

By and large, our commission needs to spend more time together to take decisions, especially so with the ever increasing amount of cases and issues coming our way. This cheating vs. anti-cheating struggle is like a tug of war. We have to address problems virtually in real time, whereas the budget allows us to get together one and a half times a year, figuratively speaking. Not that I am complaining about the budget, but this is where we stand at the moment. The rest has to be discussed via Skype, but getting business people together even via Skype at the same time is quite a challenge either.

– Is something similar happening the anti-cheating commission of RCF?

– It is a lot easier with the RCF. I know its members very well: Daniil Dubov, Vladimir Potkin, and Sergey Grigoryants. Sergey Slupsky of Vladivostok is the one providing legal support. This young fellow is also concerned with cheating issues. He is quite experienced in legal affairs.

– I now recall the headline-making case of Fraiman. He is found not guilty, isn't he?

– He is not guilty – this is the verdict returned by the ethics commission. I think they could have arrived at another, more logical conclusion, but they ruled otherwise. Some lawyers believe that dismissing a charge from Fraiman was correct, and others that incorrect. When you go beyond the universal logic and enter the world of lawyers, you see them reason differently because the laws are written accordingly. That is, you enter the world where trees grow upside down, so to speak.

What is the lawyer's primary line of reasoning? Can you prove it - this is the question? If the answer is yes, we take on the case. Case hearing is way easier when there is a precedent. Once punished for witchunting makes it easier to work with a precedent for everybody else. The task of having cheating in chess proved is a lot more demanding as you need to abide by all sorts of procedures. It is way more difficult to build a corpus of precedents because to prove cheating is a tough nut to crack. The most straightforward case would be to catch a person red-handed. Anything else would be way more difficult in the way of proving. There may be an overwhelming number of moves matching those suggested by the computer, but if a chess player is not caught red-handed, the lawyers prefer not taking on a case like this. With different lawyers hired by FIDE now, things may be different, but no precedents have been created so far. Should they manage to prove a case or two, this will definitely be a turning point in the anti-cheating practice. 

Photo credit: V. Barsky

– Running in parallel with the Women’s Candidates tournament were another two major competitions, innovative ones in many ways. First of all, it is Stavanger, in which each game was played until a decisive result, and Armageddon was used to determine the winner. Meanwhile, the second tournament, also titled Armageddon, was broadcast live on Match TV. Did you have time to pay any attention to them?

– I saw how Grischuk dropped the flag to Aronian and got the basic idea of what was going on there. The audience seems to like the pieces flying around the chess board and even the most celebrated players making moves with a tremor in hands. It is likely to create an uproar, but I'm not sure this is a good idea. 

I liked the Armageddon project more, which was running on the Match TV channel because you immediately got an idea of what was going on. The format is clear from the word go, whereas in Stavanger they first play a classical game, followed immediately by an Armageddon. This transition of formats had no particular appeal to me. That is, it seems a weird fusion of classical and rapid chess. As opposed to this, the Armageddon project on Match TV seems a perfect idea for TV.

– Was it of any interest to professional players? As far as I see, the amateur players are thrilled beyond any measure!

– They are indeed. This is definitely a project carrying much appeal to amateur players. There is a direct relation between the number of amateur players taking an interest in chess and the number of children taking up chess. There is no shortage of the latter anyway because chess is a type of sport not requiring much in the way of financial investments. Once a child starts studying chess, he/she is growing mentally, is busy doing something useful and not just passing the time in computer games; nevertheless, there will be even more people playing chess. I think this is a proper format.

– Will this format eventually displace long tournaments? 

– I don't think any displacement is likely. This format will probably catch on with TV shows because it is impossible to show classical games on TV - only the Norwegians seem capable of watching them for hours straight. It's cold there, and Carlsen is their national hero. As it is, this project has taken off from the word go. There, of course, many improvements are possible; in addition to taking readings from the wristbands, people have already offered that computer evaluations be put on the screen for everyone to see. For example, four lines win, and one loses; it means the probability of winning is 80%, and if only one line wins, while the others fail, then the likelihood of winning is less than 50%. Then it depends on the player, on how well prepared he is and whether he can come up with this only winning move, and not with four losing ones. It is up to mathematicians to calculate, which is not such a big deal after all.

It seems to have a certain shade of profanity, isn’t it? When chess players are forced to blitz out their moves, they blunder all the time; people see a massive number of blunders, and the halo of chess as the wisest game dies out. After all, chess players used to look like professors ... Do you have any such feeling? 

– I don't think people take up chess nowadays because they want to look like professors. When looking at first lines given by the computer, they feel like capable of playing like a world champion, or even better. They come home and check their games, “Gosh! I could have won in this line.”

The word profanation seems to suit perfectly here. Of course, one needs to work more as a way of self-improvement. The Armageddon project is a huge asset in terms of promoting chess. It is a mass project. It will include 500, rather than 100 people. Among them, there will likely be those to take up chess seriously. They will then decide approach coaches to learn how to develop the pieces, which plans to carry out and so on, and not just to look into first lines generated by the engine.

– In general, does chess relish good prospects, including women's chess?

– I think it does. The number of chess events is on the increase. It is true that the rapid and blitz events is on the rise, but not at the expense of the classical format. This is a busy schedule the women players enjoy nowadays! Some ten years ago they had no tournaments at all, and now they are taking place all over the world.

– Are you a fan of various formats in chess?

– I am. However, I am not a big fan of rapid and blitz because I am too aged for it. On the other hand, I like to see other people play.

– You have recently taken part in a chess compositions competition. Is it your first such experience?

– It is.

– Do you like this genre of chess? 

– Everything was organized at a fantastic level! It amazed me. There was nothing to find fault with even from the viewpoint of anti-cheating. The tournament was held in Fujairah, one of the Emirates. It lacks oil but is rich in construction materials. They cut down entire mountains to get them. Besides, there is a traffic of tankers passing not through the Persian Gulf, but across the ocean. This is where the tanker was attacked by pirates. The town is small, and everything is close by; you will find quite an adequate standard of living here. As opposed to Sharjah and Dubai, it seemed somewhat dirty to me. They do not clean the beaches out there. All in all, taking swims in the Persian Gulf is a better idea than in the ocean.

The tournament was accommodated in a huge playing hall. Emirates are famous for excellent hotels. It was a huge playing hall and many people participating. They brought in literally everyone capable of solving at least something and seated them at tables. Sitting to the left of me was the world chess composition championship Piotr Murdzia. We are long-standing friends. On entering the hall, I looked around and spotted our solving masters Andrey Selivanov, Oleg Pervakov, and some others of younger age. Frankly speaking, my purpose for taking part in this competition was just to try my hand. I had some experience as a youngster solving quite a number of studies. I have never solved any problems at all, but quite many studies. Going into the competition, I decided to do some two- and threemovers, but it never came to helpmates, of course ... I ended up with four out of twenty points for four positions the section names of which I do not even recall now. On the other hand, I succeeded in solving studies and different types of positions.

By the way, going into the solving contest, I earnestly believed that positions should be solved in your mind and answers written on a piece of paper afterward. As it happens, you may bring chess sets with you. It allows you to set different positions on different boards without having to clear the board and set it all up again. If you fail to solve a position, you leave it as is for the time being and turn your attention to another one. That is, the folks demonstrated a professional approach, while the world champion showed real class by bringing as many as three boards with him! I was lucky to have Andrey Selivanov and Oleg Pervakov explain some rules before the event, and I thank them a lot for that. They gave me a crash course, so to say.

– Was your performance successful?

– I did surprisingly well and ended up taking fifth place. With so many solvers, coaches working in the Emirates and many others I thought I was in the group ranked 11-20th. Thus, one of the participants was Eltaj Safarli. 

– This is a separate world, isn’t it?

– It is. The paths of this world are not well-trodden because of meager financing. However, the tables are gradually turning now. With reasonable prizes appearing and some sponsors showing up, this occupation is becoming very popular in the Emirates. They would even resort to financial incentives to roll in more people, which resulted in many children participating in the event.

– Are coaches in high demand nowadays?

– Indeed, there is a great shortage of coaches in many countries. Many Russians are struggling with the English language. People lack command of the language to give lessons, but otherwise demand for coaches is on the rise. 

– Do you mean that learning English is enough to land a good job without delay? 

– Well, it may take some time and not be that fast. You may first need to build some experience to have some relevant records in your CV. They will not welcome any man or will take him on probation at best. Our coaches’ pool of knowledge is clearly of higher quality than that of their Western counterparts. However, the vocabulary should be sufficient to communicate freely. Chess vocabulary should also be adequate.