21 May 2018

Semen Lomasov: Fascinated by the Vastness of Chess

The Russian junior champion and his coach Konstantin Mesropov answer Vladimir Barsky’s questions

– Please accept my congratulations on your victory! How was the tournament unfolding for you?

Lomasov – In the first place, I was fortunate with the drawing of lots, which proved a convenient combination of color and people I played against.

– Which means you had White against your main competitors, right?

Lomasov – Not exactly. I was Black when needed in terms of the opponents’ opening repertoire. And vice versa for the white color. Besides, the first three rounds pitted me against substantially lower-rated players. This is why I was in a mindset to have a good start, the task which I was fortunate to cope with, even if shedding some points along the way.  Then I needed to keep on the crest as being one of the leaders after round three. Despite going down in round six, I was still in the share of first. Then my rivals dropped some points, whereas I managed to retain my lead, which was not without some luck, however.

– We will later return to the subject of decisive games. Now, can you say more about which opponents are more convenient to be faced off as White and as Black respectively? What do you attribute it to?

Lomasov – It rather has to do with the opening repertoire. There are certain players practicing solid lines as Black, in which they are extremely well versed, and outplaying them as White is by no means easy. You will find it hard to win even if your opening preparation fires and you manage to get a good position because the opponent will demonstrate his overall knowledge and equalize easily.

– You are better off facing such players as Black, right?

Lomasov – I think so. Anyway, if you draw as Black the result is OK, but not so as White. 

– Konstantin, since you started preparing for this tournament against your future opponents in advance you must have done some work at home. It is so?

Mesropov – I asked Semen to give me some rough ideas as to what he was likely to be up against as White and as Black.

Even if we could not predict the drawing of lots, we had an idea about the lines to employ to save time during the tournament. It needs no saying that when the drawing of lots was over, we would start specific-oriented preparation for the upcoming game. This preparation was fine-tuned to Semen’s current state, but otherwise we are not short of openings to choose from. Frankly, Semen’s opening preparation for Loo never materialized on the board.

– It may come in handy later though?

Mesropov – This is what we hope for!

– Have you managed to run a sort of training session beforehand? Or, do school classes interfere with it?

Mesropov – Unfortunately, we have had no specific preparation for this event, Semen going to school and me being busy elsewhere as well. However, our collaboration has been going on for many years now. With one tournament after another, we are constantly working to improve something.

– Was this event a priority for you, or did you treat it as yet another step towards an overall improvement?

Lomasov – I cannot say I had a clear-cut goal set for myself going into a tournament. I rather try to play each game and each tournament as best I can. If you perform better than others you are going to take first anyway, and it seems to be the case with the Loo event.

Mesropov – I would like to add to this subject. If you take Semen's performance at the Russian championships since 2009 (his debut seems to have taken place at the age of 7), you will not be mistaken about the gradual progress. And last year, at the age of 15, he made his debut in this very prestigious in my opinion round-robin featuring the best juniors. He could have fired back then, if not for lack of experience. When the question came up whether to play this year or not, I thought it vital that he should. First of all, I believed him to have winning chances. Secondly, nowadays players are very seldom seen in round-robins other than in supertournament, whereas lower-rated players are practically devoid of that experience.

– Did you play in the Kirishi event?

Mesropov – Once, and afterwards we considered to have grown out of it pretty early. This is why I was of the opinion that such a strong round-robin should not be neglected after all. We knew that Lobanov, Paravyan, Sarana, and probably Esipenko were to be expected to show up - that is, we thought there would be some 5-6 strong competitors. A tournament like this carries a lot of benefits with it, making up for lack of experience associated with being a young player. As for the final result, be as it may! It has turned out well for us, and we are grateful to God for it!

– Let us talk about the tournament finish.

Lomasov – This is where I ran into a lucky streak.

– You were in the lead going into the last two rounds, were you not?

Lomasov – I was.

– Did you feel any pressure because of it?

Lomasov – I would not qualify it as pressure because it was not a case of having to win on demand. Going into the last two rounds a draw guaranteed me nothing. Well, I assessed it as a good result, but a victory was preferable anyway. Therefore, there was no such pressure associated with a specific result that I had to secure by all means.

The penultimate round had something very unpleasant in store for me as my opponent came up with a very strong novelty, a very rare move. I probably misevaluated the consequences. I thought it made sense going into a forced line with massive trades as giving me a more or less equal position, but it proved very unpleasant for me, coupled with lack of time. Instead of transposing into a rook and knight vs. rook ending, known to be a drawn one, I opted for an objectively drawn position but requiring precision, and an engine-like precision at that while allowing you nothing in terms of building fortresses. I could not keep my position together, but then the opponent’s fatigue came into play and it all ended in a draw.

– How did the coach feel while watching the game in front of the computer?

Mesropov – No words can describe that! I think Semen’s entire family was watching the developments in a half-conscious state as well. I was getting hot and cold in turns. Honestly, Semen and I have been collaborating for 10 years now, but I do not recall a tournament with such a dramatic finish, so full of emotions and metamorphoses. The lineup of the prize takers was unclear even as late as 10-15 minutes before the end of the ultimate round. However, even if the final round game position looked very dubious at some point, it was not worth getting discouraged as there could still be a tie-break ahead. While Semen was still in a hopeless situation, my preparations were already underway. Being so pressed for time as we were, I needed to somehow line him up for the upcoming game. It could have even been a tiebreak for three, and I absolutely needed to guide my trainee, advising him about the openings he should choose for both colors against specific opponents. 

It goes without saying that according to the drawing of lots we had only one color prepared for each opponent. I had to see about potential opening alternatives, as well as give recommendations for playing same opponent with a different color. Therefore, the ultimate round had me up and running also. We should not forget about the penultimate round game against Sarana, which lasted 144 moves.

– Is it a record?

Lomasov – This is my personal record.

Mesropov – At some point it seemed that Semen’s excellent defense bailed him out of a difficult position, and that a coveted draw was so close at hand when suddenly... Well, not suddenly - the position, in fact, remained very pleasant, but it rather felt like a draw. However, when the scales began to tip in the opponent's favor, I got discouraged, frankly speaking. But, thank God, everything ended well, and the last round was kind of a rehearsal of the previous one.

I will remember this tournament for Semen's turning into an excellent tournament fighter, that is, for coming up big with his fighting qualities. This aspect making so much difference at the home stretch has only added to the overall pleasure! It speaks volumes about Semen, who has grown up, matured and is prepared for more achievements.

– Let it be so! Semen, your opponent from the ultimate round Maxim Vavulin opened with 1.b3, sacrificing a pawn later. Did it come as something unexpected?

Lomasov – It did. On the other hand, Maxim is well known for his offbeat approach to chess. His academic studies give him hard time, and he is likely to just enjoy playing chess – more than anyone else at this tournament. Apparently, he decided to take me by surprise by opting for a complex position in an uncharted territory.

– Were you on the alert for this sacrifice?

Lomasov – I was not, and a completely new setup appeared on the board already three moves later. It seemed like a pawn sacrifice could have been accepted, but Maxim got compensation.

Was it enough?

Lomasov – Objectively insufficient, most likely, but the tension in the position persisted throughout the game, even when Black was up two pawns.

– Could Black force a draw somehow?

Lomasov – No.

Mesropov – He did try to find it…

Lomasov – I offered a pawn sacrifice just to trade queens off the board. I was thinking that I was unlikely to go down in this case as I was still up a pawn and with no weaknesses, while there was not so much material remaining on the board. However, Maxim’s bishop pair proved very strong and I needed to take care to equalize. Even if the position remained equal over a substantial period of time, I do not think Maxim would have agreed to a draw as we were both thinking that it were White trying to grind out a victory. On top of that, I added to my problems by committing a blunder shortly after.

Vavulin – Lomasov



– Is it a blunder?

Lomasov – Yes, and an obvious one at that. It had to do with the fact that with White’s rook on g1 I had no 43...Nd3 in view of 44.Kc4 Nxb4 45.Kc3, dropping a piece. This is how I came to the conclusion that if I deflect the rook, at the end of the line my rook would answer Kc3 by gaining a tempo against the white bishop by retreating to h2 or b1, giving me a fine position.  Taking the pawn came as a surprise to me, which Maxim did upon some 30-second’s thinking. Then we had same position, but without the g6-pawn on the board.

44.Rxg5 Nd3 45.Rg4 Kc7 46.Rd4 Ne5 47.Rd1

Lomasov – This position is likely to be lost already as his rook is now able to infiltrate my camp.

– You did not see how you were losing, did you?

Lomasov – I saw the line leading to the rook ending, most likely lost for Black.

47…f5 48.Rd6 Rb1

Now, in lieu of 49. Bg2 White could have opted for 49.Bc6! Nxc6 50. Rxc6+ Kd7 51. Rd6+.

However, I was not sure about the evaluation of this endgame position. Still, Maxim’s clock displayed only 10 minutes, not enough to figure everything out to the smallest detail. Rook endings are known to become suddenly drawn should an inaccuracy be committed.

But again, tension or fatigue took its toll and Maxim blundered, the fact which I was happy to take advantage of.

49...f4 50.Rxe6 f3 51.Bf1 Nd7 52.Rc6+ Kb7 53.Rd6 Nxc5 54.Bc4 f2 55.Kxc5 f1Q 56.Bxf1 Rxf1 57. Rd7+ Kc8 58. Rh7 Rf6 59. b5 Rg6 60. b6 Draw.

– So, it was a happy end! Semen, having won the Moscow Open back in January you voiced being unclear about future plans, saying that you need to finish school first and take it from there. Do you have any more clarity now that you have secured this victory, and a hefty one at that.

Lomasov – It has shifted towards chess to a certain degree, but there is no finite clarity just yet. Now that I enter 11th grade, I will probably have to take the decision this summer as it will no longer be possible to devote enough time to school and chess in equal measures. With no final decision yet, I gravitate towards chess.

Mesropov – The thing is, Semen is quite good at school as well. This said, the question of choice has never been an easy one.

– What do you like in chess and what do you find confusing being a young man as you are?

Lomasov – What I find fascinating is the vastness of this game. Even if you are an experienced player, you will still find yourself crossing the uncharted territory of so many positions absolutely unfamiliar to you. Without exaggeration, chess is an awesome development tool - you will never run short of opening and endgame positions to analyze, books to read... It cannot but appeal to you. The impression is such that a small board measuring eight by eight squares and numbering 32 pieces gives you a great choice of ideas to strive for!

– Do you mean room for creativity?

Lomasov – Indeed. Let us take today’s game with Maxim: my seemingly awkward moves resulted in a very interesting and unclear position anyway, which is another thing that makes me happy about chess.

As to what confuses me... Well, not that it confuses me, but it is just that I study well at school, and I like it, so that I do not feel like putting everything else aside for the sake of chess. 

- And what is a good alternative to chess?

Lomasov – I do not know one yet.

– If you choose to enter a strong university, is your major going to be connected to economics or mathematics?

Lomasov – Yes, it is going to do with engineering, economics or mathematics. One of the above. Economics, most likely. On the other hand, if I choose in favor of a strong university, I need to say good bye to chess for the whole period of studies. It should not be taken for granted that I will be able or willing to pick up chess afterwards. 

– This is a way popular in America. People play chess in school, then university as long as scholastic center administration supports them, saying afterwards,  “It has all been very nice, but...”

Mesropov – Indeed: “Here we have graduated from a university and need chess no longer. There is more interesting and profitable job awaiting us now.”

– Mid- and especially older generation players believe the advent of computers to render the game dry. It would, therefore, be interesting to hear from a player who has actually grown up alongside them.

Lomasov – In fact, I do not imagine chess without computers as I have probably never seen such. Nevertheless, I do not think it renders the game any drier if you know to use the computer. On the contrary, the engine only adds to the overall interest and opens new horizons. Even if it is true that the engines keep together almost any opening position, it is still possible to find tricky ideas that they will misevaluate initially. The engine gives us many attacking ideas. There are many interesting positions that would simply defy a computer-unassisted player, so it would be unthinkable to go for them in the first place.

I also like the precision which the engines deliver when analyzing positions. It is beyond me how one can analyze when absolutely unsure about is going on the board. You are likely to miscalculate or blunder, whereas the engine assures reliability in that you do not get an inferior setup. This is not only about the openings, but about the majority of endgame positions as well, such as the one I had against Alexey Sarana. I have no idea if a computer-unassisted evaluation is at all feasible for this setup. Thus, a draw is to be made with the only moves of the white queen going all the way to g1 via a7. It will be very hard to figure it out without the engine. Besides, there are many similar endgame positions.

– Do you make use of a wooden chess board and pieces?

Lomasov – I have.

– Have you ever used it here at the tournament?

Lomasov – A couple of times.

Mesropov – Actually, it was always around in our hotel room, but we used it less and less into the tournament.

– Are you usually eager to go over the game with your opponent in a post mortem?

Lomasov – No. I would like to know more about his train of thoughts during the game, but when you come home such questions as where you could have played better or where an error was made immediately get the better of you. I really want to clear my conscience, to find out where I played well and when I was outplayed. Or vice versa, arguing that I made a mistake here, but the position was complex and it is not such a big deal after all. This is a logical end to the game, and you may well start preparing for the upcoming one.

– Have you ever fallen victim to cheating, or suspected someone of it?

Lomasov – It happened on a couple of occasions. There were situations that put us on the alert.

Mesropov – Indeed, we even requested a couple of times that the broadcast be turned off, but ... We are unable to claim that those people were definitely involved in this in the first place. Besides, a couple of times out of a huge number of events is not that sore a subject for us.

– Do you mean this is not such a terrible problem?

Mesropov – Not yet. However, a couple of latest tournaments have kept the subject alive in my mind.

– Do you mean your or Semen’s tournaments?

Mesropov – Semen's, but I will refrain from giving any more details. Once a fairly serious cash prize was at stake, and I was asking myself if everything would be okay in the upcoming game. But then I checked the opponent’s games and made sure his level of play was adequate. On another occasion a player was demonstrating performance 500 points above his current rating, and his games looked suspicious to me. We simply asked the linesmen to pay him attention, and apparently nothing suspicious was found out; our suspicions might have been unjustified after all. I cannot say the subject is constantly on the agenda – it has just popped up a couple of times.

Lomasov – I think there is no difficulty figuring it out. A cheater may do his best to convince others in that his moves are human, but hiding it entirely is practically impossible. It will become known sooner or later anyway.

– How soon?

Lomasov – Pretty soon.

– Konstantin, when have you started coaching Semen?

Mesropov – In January 2009, when he was 6. I used to collaborate with the Petrosian club and gave lectures there from time to time, and it so happened that we started working together. I was immediately aware of the kid’s huge potential. And, probably, I was seized with an idea of coming back to chess in a new status, not as a player, of course, as it was no longer of interest to me.

It all came together and, as we started out work, success came very quickly - we took the Moscow Open in our age group. Mutual interest was unmistakable, and we have thus formed a very robust and creative tandem. It has been so for a number of years, and I think we are on a good track at the moment.

It seems very important to me that we understand and treat each with respect. He has grown up in the meanwhile, I should say! It is only natural that our mutual respect helped us navigate painlessly through all stages of Semen’s maturing - he is now outgrowing the stage of thoughts and desires peculiar to a youngster. I treat him with respect, understanding and patience, and he returns like for like. Therefore, we have good contact, and the chess component, too, seems to be getting on fabulously.

- What is the coach’s position towards choosing the life path – the most important question for the student?

Mesropov – I respect his and his parents’ choice. My opinion in this matter is of advisory nature only. Naturally, I am for Semen to remain and develop in chess, but at the same time I respect and understand his wish to be a fully developed individual and gain knowledge in other aspects of life. The situation is not such that I categorically state, "Do chess, and forget the rest, not to say that entering a high school is a monumental mistake in itself." It goes without saying that we give it a think - he has come of age to have this subject looked at from different angles now. We weigh pros and cons, but it takes a form of a dialog with Semen and his parents. I will respect whatever choice he makes, and will render my assistance as best I can. Basically, I would like to see chess turn into his way of life.

– Do you think his potential to be that big?

Mesropov – It is, and I give him some life examples during our conversations. The time taken away from chess will undoubtedly take away from the overall result he is otherwise capable of achieving. On the other hand, Semen told me that he would be happy anyway, whether or not his life is going to do with chess. I treat this with understanding: the main thing for a person is to have a feeling a fully developed personality and be happy with it. I'm also not obsessed with chess alone; I have other areas of activity as well. I will keep supporting Semen anyway, and the rest will become clear in a year from now.

– OK, let us wait and see. Semen, what other interests do you have besides chess?

Lomasov – Various dynamic types of sports.

– Such as?

Lomasov – Football, for one. I like table tennis, volleyball, and basketball.

– How serious are you about any of them?

Lomasov – It's nothing serious - we just play in the yard or at PE classes at school, but, in principle, I enjoy and play with pleasure.

– What about books, movies, cinema?

Lomasov – I like books, movies, cinema and TV film series.

–Are you into all of it?

Lomasov – In general, yes.

– Are you keen on watching the upcoming world football championship matches live?

Lomasov – I have no idea yet. Being enthusiastic, I still prefer playing myself, and I will probably watch the championship on TV.

– Thank you for the interview, and let me congratulate you on your championship victory once again!