Person of day - 18 JANUARY 2021
Alexander Khalifman was born and lives in St Petersburg. During childhood, he was interested in chess and mathematics and attended one of the most prestigious maths sessions in the country (the famous Perelman studied in the same section). However, his love for chess outweighed everything: at the age of 16, Alexander became the USSR champion among juniors and repeated this feat at 18. One year later, he became the strongest player in the junior European Championship. This was a promising start and his debut in the Soviet adult competitions was successful. In the first league of the 54th Soviet championship he came second and the next year he split 2nd-3rd places in an analogous competition.
“I first saw Khalifman when he played at a tournament at the Pioneers Palace. We did not know each other back then. He was trained by the wonderful Vasiliy Byshev- a strong, competent master. But at one moment he became seriously ill and Khalifman was left without a mentor. At the Chigorin Club, where I worked, there was a young man who was registered as a Methodist- a suspicious man with a difficult biography- who though very highly of Alexander.
And it happened that he introduced us to Alexander. I remember the first meeting with Khalifman. He entered my office sullen, in a winter coat and hat and mumbled something unfriendly. This was in 1983. He returned to the USSR junior championship, in which he played badly because he was in the wrong spirits. A year before, in 1982, Alexander became the champion, but that did not happen this time. Furthermore, the time of his graduation from school was approaching.
I invited him to my house to talk about the future and see his debut repertoire. I remembered his half-joking claim that “I saw chairs for the first time here!” I replied “how do people sit in your home?” “We only have stools!” On his mother’s side, his roots stretched to Baltic nobility and naval officers- they’re all tall blonds. Do you know the statue with the mermaid, dedicated to the sunken ship that’s in Tallinn? On his father’s side was a more bohemian, Jewish family. His grandfather was the director of the Chaliapin Museum, a happy man. They were very different, these two halves of the family and the combination turned out to be very interesting. Alexander inherited both sides: the talent and the physical prowess, along with a strong nervous system”- remembers his long-time trainer and ally Gennady Nesis.
After school, Alexander enrolled in the mathematics faculty of Leningrad University, but he had to abandon this after three years- a big chess career awaited him. In 1990, still in the rank of master, Khalifman won an extraordinarily difficult New York Open. In the 1990s, he became one of the strongest chess players in Russia. In 1996, he became the national champion and, as a member of the Russian team, he became the Olympic champion three times (in 1992, 2000 and 2002) and won the team world championship in 1997.
His greatest individual success came in 1999 in Las Vegas - Khalifman won in the second FIDE world championship that was carried out according to the knockout system. In the final, he defeated the grandmaster from Yerevan, Vladimir Akopian. Overall, during his career, Khalifman won tens of competitions and perhaps has not said his final word in chess- he continues to play in tournaments and remains a dangerous opponent for any grandmaster.
“Khalifman’s victory at the world championship in Las Vegas was a pleasant surprise for me. The competition was unbelievably strong - almost all the greatest players were there, starting with Vladimir Kramnik. Khalifman’s had a difficult group of competitors - Gata Kamsky, Boris Gelfand, Judit Polgar. I booked the return tickets for the quarter-final- we thought that would be a respectable result. And suddenly, Alexander began to play- I had to change tickets. Until then, we lived in an ordinary hotel, but we moved to the exquisite Caesar Palace. The ceiling there was made in the shape of a blue sky from Italy, there were swimming pools, statues and other objects that were luxury in Ancient Rome
When Khalifman won the final match against Vladimir Akopian, he said that he wanted to be alone, left for his room, shut the door and remained there for a full day- he needed to realise what happened and what he achieved. I remember that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was very happy with the outcome of the tournament and whispered at the banquet: “You rid me of the problem of the two “Kas”. Khalifman should be the champion!” A man of fate and great talent, Alexander deserved his notable victory and entered chess history.” (G. Nesis)
Alexander Khalifman not only plays, but also trains. In his native St Petersburg, he has opened his own chess school. He worked as a trainer for the “Ugra” team, which he guided to medals at the European team championship in 2010 and he trained the Azerbaijan national team- his players won the European team championship in 2013 in Warsaw.
In the chess world, Alexander Khalifman is well-known as an erudite theoretician, an author of popular debut theories and a wonderful commentator.