10 February 2016

Vladimir Kramnik Interview, Part One

The first part of a big interview of Vladimir Kramnik to Sport-Express newspaper.

Vladimir Kramnik: It is not certain that Carlsen will go on dominating for many years

As a matter of fact, Vladimir Kramnik will not be there to fight for the chess crown for the first time since 1993. In an exclusive interview to Sport-Express he shared about why it happened, communicated his viewpoint on the United States’ sanctions against Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, looked back at the "toilet scandal" from his match against Veselin Topalov, and voiced his opinion on the present and the future of chess.

I feel comfortable about not challenging the title for now

For the first time in many years you are not taking part in contesting the world title. How do you feel in the new role of "passive observer"?

"I take it easy. It is a combination of circumstances that resulted in my failure to get into the Candidates Tournament. A period of time was taken into consideration when I was not eligible to qualify by rating. I have no complaints since this period was fixed in advance, but if you shift it forward or backward by two months, I would have qualified then. Perhaps it is a good idea to make selection of candidates based on their most recent ratings that would reflect the chess players’ strength for a given period of time rather than how it used to be a year ago...

"Nevertheless, it’s no big deal and there is nothing terribly wrong about it. I have other appealing tasks to take care of, such as improving on my play among other things, even though I would like, of course, to fight for the world title, especially since I am no longer a young player and the amount of time available to me is not unlimited after all. I’m a little bit disappointed to miss out on this cycle, but what to do about it? Over the years I have learnt to take things as they are.

"Everyone is subject to rating fluctuations, even Carlsen, although his performance is more stable than that of others. Nevertheless, he has also featured a substantial drop recently. The level of competition is high, whereas the rhythm of a tournament life is very tough. Anand, for one, has also become unstable: six months ago he used to be the world number two, while at the moment he has dropped even out of top ten. But perhaps he will return there again soon, because he is a highest class player."

Do you have any goals other than fighting for the world crown?

"Yes, quite a few of them indeed! I would like to win this year’s Olympad as a member of the Russian team. I just want to play decent chess, enjoying and creating good games. The most important thing is to keep up interest and motivation in the game. If both these components are missing, it is time to quit praxis. But so far, by good luck, I experience no problems of the kind."

Who is a Candidates Tournament favorite from your point of view?

"There is no any single favorite because all of them are about the same level of mastery. Everything hangs on how good is the shape of this or that particular player in which he approaches the tournament, coupled with a little bit of luck. Almost any participant is capable of winning, and it is not said to evade the question, but rather to highlight the current realities."

The Gibraltar Open witnessed Anand suffering two painful defeats. Do you think it will shake his self-confidence anyhow?

"Of course it will, but he has plenty of time to pull himself together. He won the latest Candidates Tournament in a very confident manner, and it is not improbable that he can win this time as well."

Do you believe that Caruana, Karjakin and Giri were deliberately obscure in Wijk-aan-Zee, refraining themselves from going all out?

"It is obvious that they were not at the top of their forms. Probably each of them considered this tournament as some sort of a training warm-up, although they did want to demonstrate a decent type of play. Caruana did better than other, but mainly due his fighting spirit. I expect all of them to gear up somewhat towards the Candidates Tournament, while some of them are likely to do so in quite substantial volumes."

Shortly prior to the Gibraltar there was an open tournament in Qatar, where both you and Carlsen participated. Is it some kind of a recent trend according to which the top grandmasters started taking part in the open tournaments?

"Yes, this is called democratization (smiling). Why not, indeed? It was in 2014 that I played in the open tournament in Qatar for the first time following a lengthy break, and I came to like it. It is essential that a tournament be strong, because open tournaments differ greatly from each other. Both in Gibraltar and in Qatar, with the exception of the first two rounds, you are faced off with very decent grandmasters and top players. It's quite interesting. At any age and at any stage of your career you want to gain fresh experience from a tournament, something to add to your bundle of knowledge. A weak open does not offer you anything but money. However, money is not the most important aspect. I talked to Magnus and he admitted that the Qatar tournament was to his liking as well."

Did you succeed in winning the open tournaments in your junior years? 

"I did, of course! It should be mentioned, nevertheless, that the last time I participated in such a tournament was perhaps in the year 1993. However, as practice has shown, best players are always in the leading tournament positions regardless of the format and lineup of its participants. A player’s class will inevitably take its toll in the long distance events. Previously, the word had it that if top grandmasters were to participate in open tournaments they would squander their ratings before long. As for me, I lifted my rating playing twice in Qatar, the same holds true for Carlsen and Nakamura."

Lift sanctions ot bring your case before a court!

In November last year the U.S. Treasury imposed sanctions against the FIDE President. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov followed up by his temporary resignation. Has an idea of eventually taking the helm of FIDE ever crossed your mind?

"Hypothetically, it might occur in future, but surely not now. I'm currently a professional player ranked #2 in the world, and besides, no one has invited me there. In addition, I hardly believe that Ilyumzhinov is going to resign anytime soon. As for his temporary resignation, it is a tactical sort of rearrangement, whereas the sanctions themselves represent a very sad reality of life.

"Whatever opinions people might have about Ilyumzhinov, I am sure that exactly those accusations are far-fetched. It looks more like a revenge for the 2014 FIDE elections which Kasparov lost to Ilyumzhinov by a wide margin. Kasparov had a colossal support by the USA during the elections, including the financial side of the matter. Perhaps the people who were backing him have good contacts in the U.S. Department of State. Thus, they decided to combine business with pleasure as they got their revenge for the failed elections and also attempted to hamper conclusion of a major contract..."

Which contract?

"This all began last November when FIDE was intending to conclude a major contract of the next World Championship match. A couple of months ago, I had a private conversation with a big American businessman who had been one of the initiators of this enterprise. He confirmed to me that the sponsors were ready to support the match - and perhaps even further major chess events in the USA. Then, the sanctions came just a few days before the conclusion. This is quite suspicious, isn't it? I'd like to emphasize that it's my personal opinion, and I understand that many people might see it as a kind of a conspiracy theory, but please believe me - I'm by far not the only one who thinks so.

"Besides, what do the accusations have to do with sanctions? If Ilyumzhinov was really involved in trading oil with ISIL, this is a crime. Kirsan Nikolaevich has claimed his readiness to defend himself in an American court, but no one has brought a lawsuit against him. I assume no criminal case will begin because that requires clear evidence. To summarize: if you have clear accusations then go to court, if you don't have it - there must be no sanctions."

The Zurich is a luxury event

This week the Zurich Chess Challenge Tournament kicks off of which not only have you been a many times participant but, moreover, stood at its origins - in fact it was inaugurated in 2012 with the Kramnik - Aronian match. What kind of mood are you in immediately prior to leaving for Zurich?

"It's so great that this tournament has made its way into the calendar thanks to Oleg Skvortsov! It was by chance that Oleg and I got to know each other five years ago when our paths crossed somewhere in Europe, he recognized and approached me. We passed a few words between us and exchanged business cards. Then he met in Moscow at the Tal Memorial and had lunch together. Oleg is a keen chess enthusiast and at the moment was very much taken with the idea of organizing a chess competition. I had good contacts in the Zurich Chess Club, the oldest in the world (in 2009 the 200th anniversary of its founding was celebrated on a grand scale) and put Skvortsov in touch with the club management.

"So, it makes five years in a row that the Luxury tournament has been well on track at the premises of the plush hotel "Savoy", one of the best out there in Zurich. Celebrities from different fields of culture are always invited as honored guests. Thus, one of the visitors was a famous Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, one of the best-sellers of whom "The Flanders Panel" is a thriller with a chess component. Among other visitors who used to come to perform there were Charles Aznavour and the world-famous musicians Boris Andrianov and Dmitry Illarionov. All in all, it is not only a chess competition that we run there, but rather a general cultural event.

"The tournament level is invariably very high and the lineup is made up of the world’s best players. The tournament has won its place in the calendar, and I do hope that it will have a good future. Everyone enjoys playing in Zurich: the conditions there are excellent and the visitors are many since the Switzerland enthusiasts are seen to be really hungry for big chess. The venue is always a full house!"

Since the previous tournaments were a great success, there even appeared a "Zurich formula" – a round of classical chess is succeeded by a round of rapid play. And now there is a new format that features two games per day with a time control of 40 minutes for the whole game plus 10 second increment per move. How do you feel about this innovation?

I think it has a future. At the moment, there is probably no need to introduce this format all over the place, but you can give it a try. Right now this is an experiment, but after some five years the format of "two games per day with a time control of one hour per player per game" might well establish itself as a norm. It might even be the case that the World Championship Match will be carried out to the same formula.

However, neither me nor my opponents have any experience playing to similar time control and it will take us some time to get accustomed. Still, this is not such a big deal – we will gradually get used to it. It will be very interesting to see how this format is going to influence a game’s quality. If a difference with the classical format is negligible, that is, the games are of high quality, then this new control will start to catch on.

Vladimir Kramnik and Oleg Skvortsov. Photo credit: Vladimir Barsky
To be continued