7 November 2016

Alexander Riazantsev: I've Been Missing Serious Tournaments

Vladimir Barsky, the Russian Chess Federation website's editor-in-chief, interviews the 2016 Russian champion.

Vladimir Barsky: Alexander, congratulations on your great victory! What preceded the Superfinal, why did the local young players root for you so much? 
Alexander Riazantsev: Before the tournament, the RCF Siberian Grandmaster Center held a session in Novosibirsk, it was its fourth session this year. The schedule had been set in advance, it couldn't be changed. The session began six days before the Superfinal and overlapped it during a few days so that the children could see how the country's strongest players performed. The coaches' team was very strong: Sergei Rublevsky, Anton Shomoev, Pavel Maletin, Andrey Shariyazdanov, Andrei Belozerov, Ivan Smikovski. Those great experts gave classes, read lectures, and shared their views on chess. I hope this will be helpful for the kids. I also worked with the pupils for five days, so my stay in Novosibirsk lasted as long as three weeks.

So you trained the children after all? Or the Center's chief, for the Superfinal? 
Judging by the final result, it's not clear who trained whom (laughs). But in general, of course, we trained the children for the World Championship in Batumi. Volodar Murzin and Grigori Ponomarev, who are our trainees, played there.

Was it the Center's students who, at the Superfinal's opening, pulled out the poster: "Riazantsev Is the Champion"?  
Yes. I was really touched by this, I'm so grateful to them for this! It was very pleasant, I had never had such support before!

At the Superfinal opening ceremony
Did the children and their parents approach you and root for you during the tournament?
The session was over a few days after the tournament started, the children went back to their homes. But those who live in Novosibirsk came and rooted for me. I would also like to thank my family, my close ones, and my friends who supported me every day.

Let's talk about the tournament itself. How did it go for you?
In the first round, I faced Bocharov. I have to say that Dmitry is a very special opponent for me. I had had a major advantage in many games against him, but I had never been able to beat him in a single game with classical time controls. So defeating him at the start gave me a lot of joy. I decided to play the opening without extra ambitions, solidly, and see how it goes: it was just the beginning of the tournament after all. Dmitry played inaccurately in the opening and allowed me to develop an initiative, which finally transformed into a strong attack. Everything ended with a tactical strike on f7 that determined the outcome of the game.  

Riazantsev – Bocharov

25.Rxf7+! Kxf7 26.Qg6+ Kf8 27.Qxe6 Bf6 28.Bg6 Black resigns.

Then there was a series of draws. All the games with Black were very tense: against Oparin, against Svidler. I was worse against Evgeny Tomashevsky, he had the initiative. At some point I almost equalized, as it seemed, but just before the 40th control move I made a blunder.

Tomashevsky – Riazantsev

Evgeny saw the possibility 41.h4!, but it was a double-edged move. White had been playing without risk, but here it was worth taking a risk. Evgeny failed to calculate a few lines to the end and declined this continuation. Had he gone for it, my position would have been very precarious. But as it happened, our game ended in a draw soon. 

And, of course, my last game as Black versus Dmitry Jakovenko was also very complex.

We'll talk about it separately, and now I would like to ask you the following. The number of wins was quite low at the Superfinal, and on some days all the games ended in a draw. Did you expect that it would be so dense?
This is different for each tournament. I can say that everyone fought in Novosibirsk, even on those days when there was only a single resultative game or even all the draws. In most games, there were tense, complex positions: some players held the initiative, but the game still ended in a draw. For instance, Bocharov had an absolutely won position versus Svidler, but Black saved the game. This was a fairly dense tournament, plus the status of the Russian Championship adds to the responsibility, concentration, and a serious attitude. On the whole, the guys played very reliably.     

And there were no obvious outsiders to score some points against?
That's right. Only at the end Bocharov, apparently, failed to withstand the tension and keep his nerves in check. Maybe the game against Peter Svidler, where he was unable to hit an empty goal from three meters' distance, shattered him, and I think his last two losses were due to that. And on the whole, I repeat, the tournament was very dense, no one exposed himself, everyone played very carefully. That's why there were so many draws.  

Which is more important now: the depth of opening preparation or the surprise effect?
Actually, I had a pretty amusing situation in Novosibirsk: three of my opponents, Fedoseev, Inarkiev, and Kokarev, all chose openings against me that they had been playing for the second or third time in their life. Thus, Fedoseev, playing Svidler in round two, opted for 1.d4 Nf6 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 а6!?

To be honest, I thought this had been prepared specifically for Peter, so I didn't study the move a6. And Fedoseev played exactly the same move against me!

Yes, this move doesn't appear to be a solid one!
But in actual fact, if we look into it, the move is conceptual, it reduces greatly the opportunities for White. I had prepared a line after a6, this was a move I had once reviewed, but I hadn't studied it as seriously as needed. I followed my analyses, but I hadn't studied the plan with g5 and Nh5 at all. So, for various reasons, I decided not to ask for trouble but repeated the moves.

The same happened in the game against Ernesto Inarkiev. I had been preparing quite a lot, I had studied all kinds of openings. Only in one game, against Tomashevsky in Novosibirsk, had Inarkiev used the Ragozin Defense ― and lost. Frankly, I thought again that this was a line chosen for a particular opponent, I never expected these guys to have prepared so seriously. They had prepared an absolutely new opening that had never occurred in their practice. In my opinion, this is still a pretty risky approach because one has no experience of playing that, and the openings are all very complex.  

Again, I had an idea for the Ragozin Defense, it was actually the reason why I opted for the line with Bg5 and an exchange on f6, but I hadn't analyzed deeply the early move 7...c5. Indeed, the move is interesting, Ernesto equalized easily and we had a draw.

The last game, which followed the same scenario, was against Dmitry Kokarev. But this time I considered the possible surprises a bit more seriously. Even though I still expected that by 70 or 80 per cent it would be the King's Indian, which Dmitry plays constantly. But in Novosibirsk he once used the Grunfeld Defense against Vitiugov. I had once analyzed the move 5.h4 a long time ago and I thought that, since the Grunfeld Defense was a new opening for Dmitry, he wouldn't pay particular attention to this rare continuation. It is still a pretty risky move that leads to a position with mutual chances. And it turned out that Dmitry was prepared better than me! We had a position in which, as I thought, White had the initiative. Dmitry knew more than I did, but my evaluation of the position apparently was correct.

Did his lack of experience manifest itself, or was Kokarev's feeling of the position imperfect?
It's possible ― I don't know, you'll have to ask him ― it's possible that he had looked at the computer's estimate, which is zero at some point, and decided not to check it further. Or maybe he failed to study something. But on the whole his preparation proved to be superficial, although the position is very dangerous for Black from the practical point of view. White hardly risks anything, and he has a strong initiative for the sacrificed pawn. Even if the initiative fizzles out, he will probably attain a draw with his powerful bishop on h6. And if Black makes a mistake, he can easily be checkmated. And that was what actually happened in the game. 

After that win, you managed to have a +2 score. And in the next round you had an edge against Goganov, but it was a draw. Did you decide to play more solidly with Grischuk?
I decided not to go for complicated classical systems against the King's Indian, but check my opponent's knowledge in the exchange variation. Alexander proved to be very well prepared, so we had a quick draw.

The standings before the last round were as follows: you and Fedoseev were leading, and almost half of the participants could catch up with you. What was your mood before the ultimate round, where you had to play with Black against Jakovenko?
The mood was to play exceptionally by the position. I understood that the move e4 was very likely to follow but spent the least time preparing for it. As for the variation that actually happened, I decided to play it half an hour before leaving the hotel, but hardly revised anything. First I wanted to choose one line, than another. This was a spontaneous decision before the game.

Of course, the moves 1.d4, 1.c4 and 1.Nf3 with various closed systems were quite probable, but I understood that Dmitry was likely to choose 1.e4. And if I play the Caro-Kann, there would be a very complicated position with a space advantage for White. Also importantly, Svidler had played this with me in the tournament, and I had defended for the entire game; naturally, Dmitry had seen this game and knew the direction where I was going. Furthermore, Fedoseev had defeated Vitiugov and Bocharov in this system in Novosibirsk. So the variation had a +2 in the Superfinal, so the ball was in Black's court. I prepared for a complicated battle typical of the variation with h6 and g5, but my plan was to play by position.      

Weren't you concerned about your competitors' games? Or did you peek at what was happening there?
During the first hour, I managed to take a few peeks. And then, when the position became tense, I spent quite a lot of time in the opening and had half an hour less than my opponent, which was already very risky. I think it was 22 minutes versus 52, something like that. So I hardly stood up, I worked the entire game at the board. I only saw Grischuk, who sat behind my back, quickly defeat Kokarev. As for the other games, I only learned later how they finished.

The ultimate game
Why such long thinking in the opening? Did you try to get to the bottom and find the best move? 
The position was actually very complex. Maybe I should have taken decisions more easily and quickly, but then they might have been different. The price of a move was too great, so I tried to look ahead the best I could. I don't know whether I succeeded or not. But during the game I was surprised at how slowly White was changing his structure: he moved the bishop to e3, the queen to d2... I expected Dmitry to exchange on c4 at some point and play Nc2, sacrificing the a4 pawn. That would have been much more aggressive. To be honest, I was a bit concerned about Black's position. But when I replaced the b5 bishop it was clear that my position was already somewhat more pleasant. So I tried to build on that initiative later on.

During time trouble, when I had two minutes left against five, I spiced up the position: I played h6-h5 at one point, offered a sacrifice on g5. This has to be checked, but Black seemed to have a dangerous attack everywhere, maybe a decisive one. Dmitry made a final mistake on move 39, when he captured on e6 with his queen.

All of Riazantsev's games in Novosibirsk 2016

Alexandra Kosteniuk admitted that she was really motivated by the main prize, the car. How about you?
I will tell you honestly that I was motivated by the tournament itself. I played my last round-robin event in 2010 in Poikovsky. And now, six years later, it's the first serious and strong round-robin tournament where I qualified. I only played two classical tournaments this year, the Higher League and the Superfinal. And it seems I won't play anymore. This is why the crucial thing for me was to show a good level and enjoy the game and the outcome. This was the main task.

And why did you stop playing actively over the past 5 or 6 years? A young promising grandmaster with a rating well above 2700 ― and you focused on coaching instead?
That was a stroke of fate. In 2010, Evgeny Bareev offered me to coach women's second national team at the Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk. I accepted that offer. The team included Natalija Pogonina and Olga Girya, who were later upgraded to the first team. In principle, I like coaching as well, I enjoy it. Even though I believe that it is hard and responsible work, and any work needs to be performed to one's utmost.

So when I started to combine playing and coaching, the playing aspect started to, let's say, shrink, I started to play less. There has been too much coaching recently, so for about eighteen months I stopped participating in classical tournaments. I do try to play rapid chess regularly to stay in a good form: in stages of Russia's Rapid Grand Prix, in the European and World championships.

So you've been missing classical chess?
I've been missing serious tournaments like this. I've played in two Superfinals and Poikovsky, that is only in three tournaments. 

And does working with the team and individual top grandmasters help you develop as a chess player?
Of course, particularly working with leading male grandmasters. But there's the reverse side of the coin. You often process too much opening information that you might never need in your own games and your repertoire. For example, you study a separate line from a system you don't play, and you can't use the entire system because you know just a line or two.   

Do you have to work in a narrow area?
It can be different. As a women's team coach, you prepare the entire repertoire. But you generally show what you know. Undoubtedly, coaching enriches your views of chess. But the energy you spend... To sum up, there are both pros and cons.

You worked with Grischuk and Kramnik. Who else?
For three years, with Alexandra Kosteniuk. In 2008-2009, I helped Anatoly Karpov. All of these people have a unique personality. It's very interesting to work with them, this enriches you as a person as well.

I know that you are a man of many interests and, among other things, you are a keen traveler. What have your most interesting journeys been?
I believe that life is multifaceted, and it's important not only to focus on chess, learning and work, but also to try to make new friends or get some new impressions. In principle, my friends and I plan some journeys every year. About a year and a half ago, for example, my friends and I went to Ulan-Ude and the Shumak mountain: it's a place of great energy. We planned that we would travel for a week, but stayed there for two weeks. During a few days, we walked for about 60 or 70 kilometers, and then, for various reasons, we had to stay an extra week and returned by helicopter in the end. So this turned out to be a big journey with great adventures. I like this extreme travelling and the risks involved. 

Were there any other interesting trips?
Very different ones! For example, we drove from Moscow to Chita by car; on the way there and back we actually stopped in Novosibirsk. We also did some parachuting. On the whole, I like healthy extreme sports. But everything should be well considered, and safety should be the top priority. 

And you also defended a PhD thesis! In what area? 
In psychophysiology. In 2006, I went to Chelyabinsk and started postgraduate studies at the South Ural State University. I was very lucky that my research advisor was Professor Yevgeny Bykov, a doctor of medicine. We are great friends with him now. He is a prominent scientist and a remarkable individual. I am very grateful to him, for me he is much more than just a research advisor. He has encouraged me to do research work.    

In 2009, we had quite unique research: we studied how mental workloads affect the development of primary school children. We carried out a major research project, and you can find its results in the summary or the thesis in the Internet. It seems we have arrived at fairly important conclusions.  

Then other PhD candidates continued my research in Bykov's group. We were able to gather and summarize a great number of cases of how mental workloads influence primary school children. If a child has been doing chess for two or three years, this greatly improves his or her stress resistance, among other things.

Are we talking about playing chess for the sake of general development?
Of course. Any professional sport has its minuses. But I believe that chess is very good for general development. As everyone knows, it's also good for a child's upbringing: chess teaches to think in schemes, take responsibility for one's deeds, etc. And we studied the influence of chess from the point of view of physiology and psychophysiology.

But you've probably stopped this research now, haven't you? It's impossible to find the time for everything! 
After defending this thesis, I continued to do this for another couple of years, but since 2011 I switched to coaching work. And then I started working with the national team.

And do you live in Chelyabinsk or in Moscow now?
In both. My wife and child are now living in Chelyabinsk, and I spend most of the time there, of course, but I go to Moscow very often. Say, 70-30 or 60-40 is the ratio between Chelyabinsk and Moscow. 

The last question. After such a huge win will your priorities change somehow? Will you play in tournaments more by yourself?
I haven't thought about it yet, honestly! The last three and a half months have been so tense, I only spent two weeks of that period at home, and I've been working all the rest of the time. During six weeks, I came home for about seven or ten days, and then I spent another six weeks at work again. Now I just want to relax and stop thinking about anything, just enjoy the great result that I've been able to achieve. No other thoughts for now.

Renault for the champion!