Nikita Vitiugov: ‘Any Success in Chess Is Insignificant Compared to the Birth of My Son’
The Champion of Russia gave an interview to Eteri Kublashvili
- Nikita, congratulations on your victory. You had played in many Superfinals, had won several prizes and now finally became the Russian champion. What was different this time?
- Quite a lot. I can’t tell you everything while I am still active in the sport. The important changes took place in my preparation and I don’t think it’s right for me to talk about it in half-truths. I should either tell the whole story or not say anything at all. In a little while, I will write a book that details my path in sport and everyone will get a mention. *laughing*
- In a good way?
- In an honest way. Now I can reveal the most important news of all; a month ago, my son was born.
- Thank you. It means a lot to me. In fact, a lot of my victory was down to this, but it’s impossible to compare, since any sporting victory pales into insignificance when compared with his birth. Maybe it sounds simple, but the feeling of emotional happiness is far more important. During this tournament, I felt a lot more relaxed about my mistakes and perhaps I was a little luckier. I was just playing chess and didn’t over-reflect. The birth of my son took a certain weight off my shoulders. When sportsmen live their professions with every fibre of their being, all defeats and victories are felt very intensely.
- Can we say that you felt less stressed? Did you feel that you no longer felt that you had to prove something?
- Not quite. Life just became more varied. Some people feed off this stress and find it a source of motivation, but I’m not one of them. I don’t like the idea of “great solitude”- that you’re alone and fighting for the championship. I don’t understand the point of that.
- I think that people like that are decreasing in number.
- I’m talking about a wider context. Take Ronaldo, for example.
- But he has lots of children.
- Yes, that’s true, and I don’t know him personally. But looking at him from the outside, I feel that for him, Ballons D’Or are comparable to his children.
- Although it’s difficult to ask about chess after this, but is there a single game you can pick out of the ones you played in Ufa?
- All three victories stand out, though it’s often the case that draws end up being the decisive ones. It is sometimes very important to save a position and here, the match against Kirill stands out. I struggle to remember such a stroke of luck in my previous years.
Strangely enough, I had a good feeling before the tournament. During the game against Alekseenko, an optimistic inner voice spoke to me. Sometimes it tells me that everything is ok and then: “Well, that’s it”, but here it was spot on. During my game with Kirill, I looked at everything in a detached manner; I thought that if I got check-mated, then so be it. I set a trap…
On the other hand, I’ve lost points in similar situations many times before. Truth be told, Kirill has only himself to blame. It’s not wise to leave the game open with 30 seconds to go, especially in a much better position. If you do so, it can end just how it did here. If he had two minutes rather than 30 seconds, he would have figured things out and found a way to win. It’s a bitter lesson to learn, but I experienced it many times and struggled to accept it for a long time. You are winning but you have 30 seconds left, will you complete the victory? You can never be sure. I feel a lot more relaxed about this now.
- Overall, during the tournament, you and other players pointed out that many mistakes were made and connected that with constant playing online. Do you think there’s a connection between that and the decrease in practice players get in the OTB chess?
- I don’t play online. I have recently taken part in a Chinese online tournament, but that was just one episode. When it comes to me, the answer is no. In addition, I don’t think it’s just to over-estimate the level of chess players. We need to respect it, but we must recognise that chess is becoming very sporting, especially with the current time control. Previously, we played longer. The second time control is not quite a lottery, but it produces lots of illogical results. I learned to play “the 7-hour” chess with endgames and where a game was treated as a distinct whole. Now, if you haven’t finished your opponent before the first time control, or you don’t have an extra queen afterwards, then what does exactly happen? A game is being played, the time trouble comes, then players have to take a break to think about their next moves, while the contest has entered into its fifth hour. And suddenly you’re left with just ten minutes once again. What will happen? One unexpected move, and that’s it...So no, we should not be surprised by this. Chess has become fighting, the chess players are combative.
When it comes to playing online, I believe it has distorted chess as the rewards are distributed in a totally unjust way. There is “helicopter money” and then there is “online money” that’s being thrown around. I can’t really call that “chess”. It’s a redistribution of funds between ten or so people that take part in it. No super-finalists play there.
At the same time, so many blitz and bullet tournaments are being played. That is no longer chess and I am sad that it is being called that. I don’t mind it taking place, since there are far less logical events happening in the world right now. The games that last a minute or second have a right to exist, but let’s not distort definitions. For me, even the current time control is a necessary compromise, but that should be the final frontier as chess is, at its core, a seven-hour contest. But the younger generation feels differently.
- So do the spectators.
- And that’s their legitimate viewpoint. My viewpoint is that I grew up and learned to play chess that forces you to calculate possibilities until the very end, not to guesstimate what will happen. But the latter way is how it’s appropriate to play chess nowadays, since excessive calculations will mean you’ll run out of time. There is no right answer here, posterity will decide, but we are living in a different context.
- Everything is becoming faster now. It’s easier to watch a minute-long video than to read a book. Whether we like it or not, the process of condensation has also touched chess. I doubt we’ll return to longer time controls.
- Perhaps, but we don’t know that. I understand that people are already struggling to read a Tweet and would prefer to watch a TikTok video. They even consider 150 characters too long.
- Of course. And if you have to scroll, that makes it near-impossible.
- Naturally. Even that seems like a challenge. On the other hand, it’s often said that chess doesn’t attract wide interest and it’s important to understand that our sport has survived because of philanthropists, not sponsors. It would be good if someone can make a business sense of it, but no one is really doing that. I’ve already said it and I’ll take this opportunity to repeat that I really like the concept of “Chess in Museums” programme. It’s an analogy that reflects where we are. Paintings, classical music, opera- all of that is something that has no formal value. On a general level, the average viewer understands little about them- I doubt he understands the value of Raphael or El Greco. He only understands that they are exceptional masters but the reasons for that remain unknown. For me, chess fits into that paradigm because it is very difficult to understand. It is an activity for a select group of people and only the very well-prepared can comprehend it.
- In other words, can we talk about a certain level of elitism?
- Yes, but not on a material level, but on a spiritual and intellectual one, as pompous as that may sound. We can draw an analogy between chess and the opera, which is also tricky to comprehend. Chess is in a similar realm; a random viewer will struggle to understand what is going on. The same will happen in a museum. What exactly will a personunderstand?
- If one doesn’t read something beforehand or doesn’t take the audio-guide, then probably very little.
- Correct. I’ve been to many museums where I listened to audio-guides and I don’t think that I understand anything about it.
- Perhaps you’re just too self-critical.
- It’s just that it’s all very complicated. We can only guess what the artist felt when he or she was drawing or composing.
- This is particularly relevant to modern art, where it’s very hard to understand anything without an explanation and special preparation.
- Any composition, drawing, book or a chess game is something that can’t be understood fully. No one can really appreciate its value, but it’s clear that they have some. However, I don’t attach any value to the games on the Internet. This is the realm of cyber-sport which will always be far away from chess, because chess is too difficult for it. For chess to be successful in cyber-sport, rules will have to be simplified, but that would lead to a question of the relevance of chess. Take anything- the industry has a million ways to entertain, while chess is a detailed, complicated game. In this, I think, lies a huge mistake, to assume that chess can be successful in the cyber-world. They will lose their identity.
- This presents a dual situation. If chess isn’t successful, it will be short of funds. If that happens, there won’t be many tournaments.
- That’s a direction in which I don’t want to go in this conversation. My opinion is firm; chess must remain in its core form and I consider that vital, because that is relevant to the ongoing conversation. They cannot be allowed to transform into cyber-sport. To play for such sums of money online is a crime, in my view.
- Are you referring to the Champions Chess Tour?
- There are no other ones. First of all, I am not the only one who has doubts about the anti-cheating controls in all online tournaments. I can’t point to any concrete evidence, but I have major doubts. It’s a questionable practice to say that great grandmasters will not do something like that out of concern for their reputations. Chess is full of stories where celebrated champions committed something egregious. There is also the mechanism where, for example, a 2750-rated grandmaster can play well, while a player with a rating of 2600 is not supposed to have a superb game. Maybe there is a reason for that, but it seems ridiculous. Why don’t we just award one prize for the player with 2750 and another for the one that is slightly weaker? What would even be the point of playing?
- So some players are more equal than others, aren’t they?
- Absolutely, without a doubt.
- Let’s imagine a situation; you’re the current champion of Russia and you’re invited to play in the Magnus Carlsen’s Tour. Would you?
- No, I wouldn’t.
- Of course, not.
- That’s quite a standpoint!
- First of all, no one will invite me. Secondly, I chose this position in advance, because I don’t believe the format is beneficial to chess in its current form. It works very well for people who are immersed in it, but we should call things by their real name. When we say how much Carlsen did for chess, we should remember that he hasn’t disregarded his own interests. But he is a really great champion who has proven his superiority in all types of chess.
- But we should understand that this is a separate industry rather than one person called Magnus Carlsen. This is a huge business project.
- Of course. Magnus is an icon of chess.
- And his personal brand underlines a huge business cluster.
- Yes, I know all that. I am just saying it to show that people who are involved in this Tour and those who are not have different lives. For example, I don’t know whether my next scheduled tournament in Riga will take place (at the point of publishing, we know that the it’s underway - Ed). And then I will play somewhere else in six months’ time, more or less. And I’m happy with that, my life has been like this for the last decade. And there are lots of people like me. Meanwhile, the Tour’s stages continue without breaks and aside from the anti-cheating issues, there are lots of questions about the qualifications for these tournaments. The number of Russians in them can be counted on one hand. Daniil Dubov has played in them, I think, largely because of his friendship with Magnus and only remained because he was winning. Vladislas Artemiev has been noticed, but he played several fantastic tournaments.
- Yes, he qualified for the Final.
- It’s hard to ignore him. People who have qualified for the Tour are very content, so we can be happy for them. But for me, that’s not chess. It is a separate industry, a different world.
- Partly, it is a show.
- Yes, it is a show.
- But let’s get back to your career. For some reason, I think that you anticipated my next question: Ian Nepomniachtchi called you one of the seconds after the FIDE Candidates Tournament. Do you think your collective work helped you in the Superfinal?
- First of all, I hope it helped Ian. We all think about ourselves and in chess, people become hyper-egocentric. But if I am a second, I should think about the people I’m working with, not about myself. I have great affection for Ian and I would be delighted if I somehow contributed to his success.
Did it help me? Of course, a lot. Firstly, it was a chance to train with one of the leading sportsmen of the world. Ian is an extraordinary character and there is always something to learn from people like that. He is an exceptional person and my continued training with him enriched me.
Secondly, as Ian himself has said, we had a whole team that included Peter Leko. It was an enormous honour and privilege to interact with such a professional. It’s hard to express my respect for that man, but I would point out his exemplary commitment to chess. Now he is doing a lot of commentary, including online, but he doesn’t play on the Internet. Peter may have distanced himself from active competition, but people like that always pass on something after themselves. Of course, Peter’s job was not to work for me, but I took something from him.
- At the press conference before the Superfinal, you mentioned a book about chess in St Petersburg, which you co-authored. I have two questions. One, please tell us something about this book. Two, it happened that three prize-winners at the Superfinal represent St Petersburg, plus Evgenija Ovod, who came second in the women’s tournament. Could we say that the city’s chess school is on the upgrade?
- With the first question, I hope that this project will be completed and we will discuss it in greater detail. My role in it is modest and limited to chess. The book contains both historical and chess materials and I’m working on the latter. I have to prepare a number of games that were structured differently and were connected to the city, players from here and other world champions.
- Starting with Chigorin or earlier?
- Это вопрос сложный, структура книги ещё в рабочей стадии. В частности, очень интересно, что из чемпионов мира в Петербурге не был только один.
That is a difficult question since the structure of the book hasn’t been formed yet. It is interesting that only one of the world champions didn’t play in St Petersburg.
- Fischer, presumably.
- Yes, Fischer, naturally. The others also visited and played there, including the Soviet and Russian ones. Even Euwe played a tournament there. We welcomed Steinitz, Lasker and Capablanca. Magnus won the world blitz championship. Vishy took part in that one and also participated in the Alekhine Memorial. Only Fischer had never been here; he was truly a unique person. On one hand, St Petersburg is a city that feels like a capital but hasn’t been one for 100 years. I don’t know if there’s another city where all world champions played at some point, bar one.
- New York, probably.
- A large city, yes. But did all great chess players play there? I am saying that to show that St Petersburg has a large place in chess history.
As to the second question, I am not a trainer or an official, so I can only speak for myself. I think that a few years ago, the Russian national team was made up almost entirely of players from St Petersburg. This was before the emergence of Kirill Alekseenko at a very high level. There were Peter Svidler, me, Vladimir Fedoseev, Maxim Matlakov, and only Ian was not from St Petersburg.
- The Mednyi Vsadnik team has won the European Club Cup several times.
- Yes, and it happens because of our considerable advantage. The European Club Cup has shown that chess without Magnus Carlsen is vulnerable. The pandemic has affected everyone and sponsors are having problems. The European Cup can’t be called a mass tournament, it’s more of an elite competition. But our team is only made up from locals.
- Even with no international players.
- Only Andrey Esipenko plays for the team now.
- Yes, he does. I spoke to several mates about an idea that maybe it’s more logical to change current leagues, especially the Russian one, into a competition like the one back in the USSR, because currently, the Moscow team has players from Moscow, St Petersburg teams only have players from St Petersburg, Kazan from Kazan, and so on. Right now, clubs have no money left.
- It’s not very clear who else can play other than Moscow, St Petersburg, and Kazan.
- Is there someone else?
- That’s the issue.
- The teams play as well as they can and everything comes down to the match between Moscow and St Petersburg, which we win 5,5:0,5 *laughing*.
- That’s because none of Alexander Grischuk, Ian, or Sergey Karjakin for Moscow.
- I would be happy if they did. It would be fascinating to play in tournaments where teams have the same squads as I remember previously. I grew up when the Russian team championship was a major fixture in the calendar, and the European Cup was even more so. For example, I played against Veselin Topalov there. The players that competed were ones that you’d never see in the street, or even in a chess club. Today, the squads have deteriorated, considerably.
- Tell us a little about yourself. What do you do in your free time, as little as you have it?
- I actually have quite a lot of free time. I don’t like speaking about myself, but I should say something. I came here to comment on a game in Sergey Shipov’s studio, and saw the spectators writing that “the world’s most boring chess player, who never smiles, has shown up”.
- People can be unkind in online comments. They’re not happy with anyone really.
- That’s normal. However, the modern tendency to shout louder than everyone else isn’t my thing. I can do it, but it will be less effective than if it was done by someone who does it naturally. There are people who behave like that organically.
- Yes, there are people who know how to carry themselves high.
- Yes, and they are comfortable drawing attention to themselves. They can seem in control when discussing things, they know little about.
About myself: everyone knows that I am a big football fan, it’s the only sport I watch. Maxim Matlakov has drawn me into Fantasy Football, so many thanks to him.
- Andrey Esipenko is also keen on it, as far as I know.
- Andrey is a professional, he’s way ahead. I’m just a beginner but I enjoy playing as an amateur.
- Who is in your team?
- First of all, Ronaldo is not. There is Salah, of course, he should be in any team. We don’t know all these people personally, what they are like off the pitch, but he seems a lot more…
- More human?
- Nicer. Yes, more human.
- Mane is also very nice, as for me.
- Perhaps, but he is a little weaker, in my opinion. When it comes to Liverpool, Suarez is one of my few favourite players and I was delighted when he went to Atletico. There are two teams I support- Zenit and Atletico. Suarez is a very controversial player and the bites are not something that I approve. But if you saw how he cried last year after winning La Liga…
- That was touching, yes.
- We see that someone who has long ago become a millionaire gives his all on the pitch, where he is hated and whistled. He gets knocked around and he is not that young anymore. Age is a big factor even in chess, but in football, it’s far bigger. I remember reading sports newspapers when I was a child, where interviews would be published. There was Batistuta, who at one point asked his doctor to amputate his legs because they hurt so badly.
So, in general, football plays a large role in my life. In addition, I try to read and recently I’ve done more of that than previously. At a certain moment, I barely read. Now, I use the e-book that my wife gave to me and it’s a lot more convenient to carry around. I recently read stories by Kuprin and enjoyed them enormously. My favourite is Saltykov-Schedrin, naturally, and The Golovlyov Family. That is something I reread regularly. I also like Dostoevsky and, in general, I’m focusing on Russian classics. When it comes to foreign writers, there was a time I liked Somerset Maugham. He may seem simple, but his gift is writing in simple language about things that should be described that way.
After the tournaments finish, I will return to my family, my son and will just enjoy life.
- What about films and TV series?
- I am a series maniac. There hasn’t been any film that has stood out to me recently.
- TV series have taken a huge chunk of the market. I have to ask you about The Queen’s Gambit, have you watched it?
- I have, but I don’t get the reason for its popularity. Of course, I’ll watch that new film…
- The World Champion?
- Yes, the one with Khabensky. After watching the teaser, it became obvious that I do really understand the criticism of Going Vertical. To me, it just seems like a separate story. There is a match in Baguio and then there is this film, where the authors saw something on their own. It is a fictional movie- even the trailer makes it clear that a part of it is down to the imagination. I was astounded to see Karpov say in the teaser “Don’t turn chess into war.” That’s a head-to-toe reversal.
- Are there any TV series that you have recently enjoyed?
- Again, there are very few that stand out to me.
- That contrasts with my perception, I think there are quite a few good ones.
- Can you recommend something to me? I think I’ve watched most of Netflix by now. I liked the last one I watched- Caliphate. I can list the series that appeal to me: Breaking Bad, The Big Bang Theory, True Detective, Homeland, Narcos, and The Crown. Of the more recent ones, I’ve enjoyed The Bridge and it’s considered one of the highest-rated. It’s a brilliant series; Saga Noren and the Malmo police. Those who know will understand *laughing*.
There is another series that I can recommend. It is also very short; The Kominsky Method, with Michael Douglas. There is also the British After Life. Both exhibit excellent dark humour.
There is also The Good Doctor, about a genius surgeon with autism. There is nostalgic resemblance to Dr House as it raises contemporary issues- gender inequality, prejudice towards migrants, and other people who seem “unusual”.
- What about Game of Thrones?
- Everyone liked it, but it’s become a meme that “The last season of Game of Thrones means that I’m no longer the greatest disappointment in my parents’ lives.” The ending is awful, but the start was amazing. However, maybe the process itself is more important.
- The last season of House of Cards was also so-so…
- I couldn’t watch all of House of Cards. I watched the first season and stopped there. I find it difficult to watch a season where all the characters are repulsive.
The Russian Method is impressive. I even watched the second season, just for Khabensky. Swampland is original, but not to my taste.
- Good. Who do you maintain friendly relations with from the chess world?
- It’s well-known that Maxim Matlakov and I are friends. But that is a difficult question, because friendship is something individual for each person.
- Of course. But is there anyone with whom you can spend a while in conversation or who you exchange opinions with regularly?
- A surprising number of people congratulated me on winning the Russian Superfinal. I think they would make up the core of a little Swiss event.
- Are there people who you consider your confidants?
- No, there aren’t, of course. *laughing*. First, there are close friends. Furthermore, there are people who you exchange a few words with but feel close to without speaking much. You don’t burden the person and they don’t burden you.
I think I have good relations with most of the Russian national team, to the extent that’s possible. And our team has a very good spirit because we’re all decent people, in general. Yes, everyone is competitive, ambitious and with their own personalities, but that’s inevitable. We unite very well.
- By the way, let me ask you about national teams. Are you worried about development of Team USA thanks to integration of foreign players? Levon Aronian is about to join them, so will it be even more difficult to compete against them?
- That should worry Andrey Esipenko. I fully understand that I won’t be playing chess forever.
- Don’t you want to win an Olympic gold medal?
- I won’t lie, I want to win with the national team- I think all Russian players do. We want to be a part of the team as players, not as fans. What else can I say?
In terms of the US team, some people run the full course while some cut corners. But that isn’t necessarily the most effective method.
- But it works, doesn’t it?
- I don’t remember an instance where it worked. The 2018 Olympiad was won by China. America won in 2016, but we should remember that the USA is a special case when it comes to immigration. What do we mean by Native Americans? In Gangs of New York, a character said “I die a true American.” You know this better than I, but it’s said that a native Muscovite is one who is born in the third generation. What is a Native American? Is it someone who was born in the first or which generation?
- From the time of Jefferson? I kid.
- I have a negative attitude to this phenomenon. In football, you can play for one country. Mario Fernandes plays for Russia, but once. That is also questionable, but at least it’s understandable. But when Levon Aronian, who won three Olympiads with the Armenian team, transfers- that seems odd. It contradicts the sporting spirit. But Levon is yet to play in a tournament for his new team
- But he has laid out his reasons for doing so.
- I’m not judging him; I’m judging the possibility of someone doing that in principle. A sportsman should have just one sporting citizenship. He can represent a federation, but changing teams is a highly debatable matter.
- The World Chess Championship is about to start. What are your expectations?
- I expect drama, lots of it. Usually, during tournaments, chess players complain about everything- the food, accommodation, the reception, the fact that some have to play more games as Black, etc. But the scale of the World Championship Match- that has a touch of eternity. I remember when I walked into a chess club and saw the portraits hanging on the walls.
- A sacred moment?
- Yes, it is iconic. There is chess, and then there is the World Championship Match, which is something different. Even watching it gives you a feeling that’s hard to transcribe. You even live the occasion as a spectator, as it concentrates so much energy. It’s wonderful that we have it.
I sincerely hope the match will take place. And of course, I wish Ian luck and strength of endurance. Heaven will judge, but Ian must give everything he’s got.
- Do what you must and what will be will be?
- That’s not easy. It’s easier to say nice words so while sitting on a sofa. Here, even with advance preparation, a vital factor is the ability to cope with the tension, which is almost electric. I’ve never played in it, but others told me. He’ll have to cope with the strain throughout the match and try to turn it to his favour.
- Nikita, thank you for the interview. Good luck.
- Thank you.
Photos by Eteri Kublashvili