14th World Champion, VLADIMIR KRAMNIK, talks to VLADIMIR BARSKY, sharing his views on thirteen chess kings...
did not have the opportunity to study chess classics when I was a child. I was
born in the Russian provincial town of Tuapse where chess literature was difficult
to obtain; only books on modern players, such as Karpov, Petrosian, etc. were
available. Of course, later I filled the gap in my education. However, it is much
easier for me to talk about those who I met over the board, i.e. Karpov, Kasparov.
you see it, should young chess players study the classics?
- In my view, if you want to reach the heights,
you should study the entire history of chess. I can't
give any clear logical explanation for it, but I think it is absolutely essential
to soak up the whole of chess history.
from Gioachino Greco?
don't think it is important to start with those ancient times because that is
just the ABC of chess. However, Philidor's games should be gone through, not to
mention Anderssen and Morphy, whose games should be studied without fail. This
knowledge will be a real help in self-improvement.
was the first to realise that chess, despite being a complicated game, obeys some
common principles. Up to his time chess players understood only individual themes.
For instance, Philidor put forward and upheld the following opinion: 'Pawns are
the soul of chess'.
I have got patchy impressions of Steinitz
and the other chess players of the 19th century. That's why I would like to share
my thoughts about their games. I carefully studied the matches played by Steinitz
against Chigorin and Lasker ...
Steinitz took a comprehensive approach to
chess and started to form a common basis for individual conclusions. However,
sometimes he made decisions that did not quite conform to his own rules. Steinitz
was the first to discover certain ideas but was still far from getting down to
He did not seem to understand dynamics very
well; dynamics was his weak spot. In his matches against Chigorin he regularly
got into difficult positions with Black. For instance, he would capture the pawn
in the Evans Gambit and then transfer all his pieces to the 8th rank ...
M. Chigorin - W. Steinitz
Although most players would feel like resigning
in such a position, Steinitz defended it in his match two times, namely in games
15 and 17, and scored 1½ points. One game he even won. But the diagram position
is absolutely hopeless for Black.
Steinitz was strong in practice. He had deep
thoughts and imaginative ideas. For instance, he stated that the king was a strong
piece, able to defend itself. This idea is really imaginative and even true in
some cases but it is not a part of the classical basis of the game.
Up to his time people had just been playing
chess, Steinitz began to study it. But as often happens the first time is just
a try. With due respect to the first World Champion, I can't say he was the founder
of a chess theory. He was an experimenter and pointed out that chess obeys laws
that should be considered.
my view, Lasker was a pioneer of modern chess. When you look through Steinitz's
games you understand they were played in the century before last whereas Lasker
had a lot of games that modern chess players could have had. Lasker is the first
link in the chain of "global" chess where various fighting elements are taken
into account. Steinitz mainly concentrated on individual positional elements.
For instance, if he had a better pawn structure along with a promising attack
on the enemy's king, he thought his advantage was almost decisive. But Lasker
understood that different positional components could offset each other.
He realized that different types of advantage could be interchangeable:
tactical edge could be converted into strategic advantage and vice versa.
I think that Lasker had a more extensive knowledge
of chess than Steinitz. By the way, it is significant that the World Chess Championship
in 1894 (not to mention the return) was a total mismatch.
My impression is that two completely different
players in terms of insight met over the board. In present day Elo, we would say
that a player with a rating of 2700 played against another rated 2400. That's
why Lasker's victory was very convincing; he almost tore his opponent apart. I
knew that Steinitz was a great player but in that match he was badly beaten, which
came as a cultural shock to me. I have never seen such an enormous gap between
the participants of a World Championship, as if it was more like a simultaneous
exhibition than a match for the title. At that time Steinitz must have already
been over the hill. But I could not have imagined he was that weak because he
kept on getting decent results in tournaments.
Lasker was an impressive person. He managed
to understand a lot in chess. I was looking through his games again some time
ago and was astonished: his knowledge was incredibly extensive for his time! He
was the first to understand the importance of psychological factors and started
to pay attention to them. He began to adapt his strategy and, to a certain extent,
his style to different opponents. Whereas Steinitz kept to one concept because
he thought: this is correct and that is not.
Lasker comprehended an idea that was pretty
difficult for a time when people saw chess only in black and white. Chess is a
very complicated game and it can be absolutely unclear what is right or wrong.
It is possible to act in different ways. Lasker was very flexible and undogmatic.
He was the first undogmatic player in the history of chess. He did not think in
terms of "this is good and this is bad". For example, if you manage to occupy
the centre, that's good, if not, that's bad". That was a great step forward for
In my opinion, when Lasker was stripping Steinitz
of his title, he was head and shoulders above all the others. Since that time
chess history has not seen such a yawning gap. Lasker had surpassed everyone until
a new generation grew up and his opponents, namely Tarrasch, got stronger.
can hardly say that Tarrasch represented the new generation because he was six
years older than Lasker ...
think that Tarrasch started playing stronger later. At the time Lasker was fighting
for the title, Tarrasch's play was not impressive.
regarded Lasker as an "upstart" because when Tarrasch was already "the Teacher
of Germany", Lasker was nobody. Steinitz challenged Tarrasch for a match, but
the latter evaded it.
- I was not impressed with Tarrasch's play.
He had imaginative ideas but like all players of that time he was prone to rigidity.
And Lasker was not, that's why he stood out.
became World Champion in 1894 while Pillsbury won the famous Hastings Tournament
of 1895 where Chigorin was second and Lasker took only the third place. He did
have worthy opponents ...
won't argue. This is my personal view and I think that in the early 1890s Lasker
was head and shoulders above the others in understanding, capacity and strength
of play. That period did not last for long, two to three years, then the others
started to catch up, having learned from him.
At the same time Lasker is to some extent
an underrated figure. Legend has it that Steinitz was a super strategical player
while Lasker was mainly a psychologist ... I would like to dispel this myth.
the way, not everyone knows that Lasker denied exerting "psychological influence"
on his opponents by saying: "My success is primarily based on the understanding
of the pieces' strength, not on the opponent's nature".
think that due to his flexibility he was able to have a deeper understanding of
chess. He broke with dogmas and everyone thought he did it with regard to his
opponent's character. But Lasker started to call dogmas into question. Let's remember
his famous move f4-f5 against Capablanca.
Em. Lasker - J.R. Capablanca
Lasker realised that the e5-square could be
weakened because it was difficult to exploit. And then they started talking about
his psychological approach! It had nothing to do with psychology. Lasker grasped
a deep concept, which is being automatically employed now: he gave up the e5-square
and "fenced in" the c8-bishop. That's why it was not a matter of psychology; Lasker
had a very deep positional understanding.
Of course, he had worthy opponents. We should
not forget Rubinstein, an incredibly talented and fantastic chess player. It is
a pity that with his extensive knowledge of chess, he was not a World Champion.
Sometimes he created true masterpieces and was way ahead of his time. To understand
this, you should just go through the collection of his best games. Why didn't
he become a World Champion? That's a mystery to me. His nerves might have played
a role or he might not have been very good in practice. Anyway, he was a man of
Lasker had been holding the title for 27 years.
He really was a great chess player. However, at that time not all worthy challengers
had an opportunity to play for the title and those who participated in the World
Championship were not always the strongest players.
RAUL THE MAGNIFICIENT
Capablanca did deserve to play the match!
was a genius. He was an exception that did not obey any rule. I would not say
he developed anything in chess ... Such a person could be born at any time, just
like Morphy: in the middle of the 20th or even 19th century. Capablanca had a
conscious feel for harmonious play. When I was a child I very much liked his book
Capablanca Teaches Chess because he explained certain principles in a very simple
and accurate way, which was easy to understand. (Now, however, I don't consider
some of his statements to be correct).
He had a natural talent, which, regrettably,
did not go hand in hand with hard work. Hypothetically, we could say that if Capablanca
had spent as much time working on chess as Alekhine and Lasker did, he would have
made better progress. However, in my view, these things were mutually exclusive:
hard work did not accompany his talent. He did not need to work hard. We can compare
Capablanca with Mozart, whose charming music appeared to have been a smooth flow.
I get the impression that Capablanca did not even know why he preferred this or
that move, he just moved the pieces with his hand. If he had worked a lot on chess,
he might have played worse because he would have started to try to comprehend
things. But Capablanca did not have to comprehend anything, he just had to move
He is said to have lost to Alekhine due to
his incomplete preparation. I don't agree. He did what was right for him; otherwise,
he would have undermined his unique talent. He stood out from everyone.
In 1921 Capablanca defeated Lasker. By the
way, Lasker was not playing badly in that match; he retained great practical strength.
In my opinion, this was the first match for the World Championship title where
both opponents were very strong. Capablanca was younger, more active and a bit
stronger. In the last game Lasker made a terrible blunder. However, the previous
games saw an even and fascinating fight.
In the other matches where Lasker played we
see either a good beating or a lot of flaws, as happened in his encounter against
Schlechter. As for the Capablanca-Lasker match, there were few mistakes and the
games were a real fight. Lasker was an impressive chess player, whereas Capablanca
was a natural-born genius. Quite frankly it is incredible how Alekhine managed
to defeat him.
diligence was thought to have been a real help.
well as his nature and strong will ... Certainly, Alekhine also was a gifted player
and had great talent. However, it is difficult to understand why he won against
Capablanca. It just happened and that's it. I agree with Kasparov that Capablanca
failed to withstand the tension of the fight. In his match against Lasker, Capablanca
was applying pressure while his opponent defended. Lasker was "answering back"
from time to time but mainly defended. Alekhine managed to cope with that pressure
and was even trying to increase the tension himself. Capablanca might not have
been able to cope with that wild stress. He was used to taking tournaments easy,
making draws and winning some games thanks to his talent, taking first or second
place and then relaxing, sipping wine | he enjoyed life! ... But there he had
to face acute tension. The match was long;
the games were serious and combative. Alekhine set difficult tasks for the World
Champion in every game.
Alekhine really the first chess player to undertake a modern analysis of the opening?
- Alekhine definitely was a workaholic. He
had a strategic talent and was the first player who had a conscious feel for dynamics.
Lasker began to realise that dynamics played an important role but it did not
form the basis of his games, he just kept it in mind and sometimes used it. But
Alekhine placed a bet on dynamics and truly discovered that area of chess. He
proved that it was possible to take advantage of dynamics by following main positional
principles: to start weaving a kind of net from the very first moves, threatening
and attacking at every step without looking for a long-term advantage.
the late 1920s and early 1930s Alekhine gave his rivals the slip. Or was he no
match for Lasker's dominance in his time?
- I think it happened because of some sort
of "troubled days". Capablanca did not play much. Capablanca and Lasker did not
participate in those tournaments where Alekhine triumphed. Botvinnik and Keres
had not developed their strength yet, the older players were over the hill. Alekhine
was definitely an outstanding World Champion, but the gap between him and the
others can be explained rather by these reasons. I would not say he demonstrated
anything different in those tournaments from his play before and during the match
against Capablanca. He was playing at the same level. Of course, Alekhine enriched
his play, became more experienced, but I would not say he was an innovator. Why
did this gap not exist before the match and appear only after it? Quite frankly,
I don't think it had anything to do with chess. His match against Euwe proved
this to some extent.
Dutchman Max Euwe was the fifth World Champion. Some say he did not deserve to
win the title, and that it was down to pure chance.
- Euwe was a very good chess player. Botvinnik
is said to have formed the basis of a comprehensive system of preparation but
I think the credit belongs to Euwe. He realised how important the opening was
and prepared it brilliantly. Moreover, he had a subtle feel for aspects of opening
preparation. Despite working hard Alekhine often tried it on by employing obviously
dubious openings. He was doing it even in very important games, which came as
a surprise to me. It means that he either did not feel that the opening was dubious
or hoped that it would work. Euwe prepared an opening fundamentally and rationally.
Openings were always his strong point. He was always very good at openings.
from this, he was the first to enlist the help of leading grandmasters. For instance,
took a professional approach to chess. He was a versatile chess player that's
why he is difficult to describe and is underestimated. He was some sort of an
"indefinable" player and his style is difficult to review. I have not grasped
it to its full extent. It might have consisted of a combination of different elements
plus nerves of steel, plus a healthy approach to life. He was a very sedate and
well-balanced person. Those were the keys to his success and he fully deserved
his World Championship title by defeating Alekhine.
Yes, Alekhine was a bit off form. But it is
not true that he was in bad shape during the whole match. He was fighting fiercely,
in the beginning he displayed brilliant play. So, we can't say he was in bad shape
when he started the match. At some point Euwe began to outplay Alekhine who then
took to the bottle ... Some other reasons prevailed: these might have been either
psychological factors or something else. It was not a question of bad form. Euwe
maintained the tension rather than "catching" his opponent in the openings. Capablanca
primarily repelled Alekhine's attacks in the openings. Alekhine was known as an
encyclopaedic chess player whereas Euwe often succeeded in gaining an edge in
the opening battles, both conceptually and in specific lines. For instance, it
so happened that each of them engaged in the Slav Defence with both colours. Euwe
won the battle.
I looked through the book written about their
return match of 1937 and again saw an even encounter. Alekhine is considered to
have easily regained the title. The rumour was that he lost the title because
of his drinking habit, then gave up the booze and won, which actually has nothing
to do with reality. First of all, Euwe had a positive score (3-1 in decisive games)
against Alekhine in the period between their match and return-match. This means
that although Alekhine broke his drinking habit almost immediately after the match,
Euwe kept on beating him. The return also saw an even contest. In the first match
it was Alekhine who collapsed while in the return the same thing happened to Euwe
who lost several games in a row. Why did it happen? Euwe might not have wanted
to remain World Champion, the title might have been a heavy psychological burden
for him. Anyway, I think that it did not happen by pure chance. The return was
not a piece of cake for Alekhine; this myth should be dispelled.
- And now we have reached Botvinnik, the first
World Champion you have actually met.
definitely represented a new era in chess. I would call him the first true professional.
He was the first to realise that chess performance was not only dependent on chess
skills. He developed comprehensive preparation for competitions which consisted
of opening studies along with healthy sleep, daily routine and physical exercises.
He was a pioneer in this field.
It is a bit funny for a modern chess player
to read about the Alekhine-Euwe match: the games were being adjourned, one player
had a drink, the other had a business meeting straight before the start of the
game ... Such things could not happen to Botvinnik.
Strange as it may seem, I think he was a pretty
inconsistent chess player. His best games are of a very high level. However, sometimes
he had failures. I don't know what the reason was. I have the impression that
he gave everything he had got in every game and was playing with all his strength.
He seemed to have failed from time to time due to the colossal stress. Despite
the fact that he was called an "iron-willed" man ...
such failures also happen to Botvinnik in his youth or only in his mature age
after long breaks in play?
think such failures happened at any age. I am not referring to tournament breakdowns
(however, they also took place) but to failures in individual games. And even
when you look at his matches for the World Championship you see that in one-two,
sometimes in three games, he collapsed. I have noticed it but have not found any
explanation for it. I just wanted to draw your attention to this fact, which was
somehow unnoticed by journalists. In any case, it is not that important in comparison
with a huge number of outstanding games he played. Botvinnik grasped a lot of
conceptual ideas in chess.
you ever hear the view that Botvinnik won games due to his character and strong
will, although some of his opponents had greater chess talent?
agree with this statement to some extent. On the other hand, talent can't exist
separately, without other elements. Talent is something barely perceptible. Some
players don't achieve outstanding results but they are considered to be talented.
But I think that in chess like in any other activity, talent is just one of the
components. It must not be more important than character. That's why popular statements
like "He is a gifted man but is not a success because of his sensitive nature"
don't work. I would agree that Capablanca
had a greater purely chess talent than Botvinnik, while the latter managed to
reach the heights in other elements, i.e. character, preparation, which is not
so easy. He had genius in these areas. So, the above statements do not belittle
Botvinnik's merits and importance as a chess player because potential is one thing
while its realization is quite another. In fact, Botvinnik's chess career was
the way of a genius, although he was not a genius, to my mind.
Botvinnik make a step forward in chess development compared to his predecessors?
grasped a number of conceptual things. Criminal as it may sound, I don't think
he advanced chess, contributed anything absolutely new to the game. However, he
made a great contribution to preparation. Again tastes differ: some people think
preparation is a part of the game, others consider it a separate element. In my
view, preparation is an integral part of the game. If we compare Botvinnik with
Capablanca, Capablanca was a more gifted person, a magnificent chess player, whereas
Botvinnik made a much greater contribution to chess.
impression did personal meetings with Patriarch make on the young Vladimir Kramnik?
favourable. I understand that he was a controversial figure and his colleagues
had a bone to pick with him. I have heard different opinions and don't want to
comment on them. I am not trying to avoid the subject but I did not live in his
time and did not see these things with my own eyes. So, I can't jump to any "profound"
conclusions. I knew Botvinnik in his last years and he made a favourable impression
I would like to mention one thing that seemed
strange to me. I mean a certain discrepancy between his beliefs and his character.
Botvinnik sincerely believed in Communist ideas. Moreover, it was clear that he
spent much time thinking them over and believed in them. At the same time he was
a very wise and intelligent person with the manners of a St. Petersburg Professor
who had nothing to do with post-revolutionary Russia. It is a mystery to me how
he managed to combine his Communist convictions with the nature of a true intellectual.
This discrepancy impressed me. As a rule, such were the rules of the game that
Soviet intellectuals took an opportunistic approach in paying tribute to the Communist
Of course, Botvinnik was very rigid. That
was his strength. I think he must have been categorical by nature. But this quality
must have been a disadvantage in his collaboration with other people, that's why
he often took issues with them.
- How would you describe the seventh World
Champion, Vasily Smyslov?
- How can I express it in the right way? ...
He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style.
By the way, why do you think he lacks that aura of mystique like Tal or Capablanca?
Because Smyslov is not an actor in chess, his play is neither artistic nor fascinating.
But I am fond of his style. I would recommend a study of Smyslov's games to children
who want to know how to play chess because he plays the game how it should be
played: his style is the closest to some sort of 'virtual truth' in chess. He
always tried to make the strongest move in each position. He has surpassed many
other of the World Champions in the number of strongest moves made. As a professional,
this skill impresses me. I know that spectators are more interested in flaws ...
ups and downs. But from the professional standpoint, Smyslov has been underestimated.
He mastered all elements of play. Smyslov
was a brilliant endgame specialist, all in all his play resembled a smooth flow,
like a song. When you look at his games, you have that light feeling as if his
hand is making the moves all by itself while the man is making no effort at all
- just like he was drinking coffee or reading a newspaper! This has the feel of
Mozart's light touch! No stress, no effort, everything is simple yet brilliant.
I like this feature of Smyslov and I am fond of his games.
- Smyslov and Botvinnik played almost a hundred
games against each other, including three World Championships. Did they produce
high quality games in terms of modern standards?
- They did, there was real quality about their
games. Of course, they made mistakes since the matches were very long but the
average level of their games was very high. Sometimes they blundered but I would
not say this had a strong impact on the general assessment of the play. At the
same time the average strength of each move was very high.
- Diamond cut diamond - they were worthy opponents,
- Yes, they were. Although they differed in
their approach to chess, on the whole there it was an even contest. I feel a bit
sorry that Smyslov did not hold the title for a longer period because, in my view,
he really is an outstanding chessplayer. He played in the Challengers Final when
he was 63! This indicates the highest class. Chess players who adopt an intensive
approach normally can't maintain their position at the highest level at that age.
Smyslov could, and it was not because of his energy, drive or character - he had
a deep understanding of chess. Botvinnik was a great player but in his late 50s
he started to play worse, although he did hang on in for a long time. However
the Smyslov phenomenon is second to none. He might not have held the title for
a long time because he did not have a burning desire to do so. I think it was
not that important to him. Under certain circumstances Smyslov could have held
on to the title for about 15 years.
- Did Smyslov play chess like his predecessors?
- No, he played differently, he had his own
brand of chess. He was a master of positional play and surpassed his predecessors
in this area. He was also good at opening preparation and tactics but no more
than that. Smyslov did not have incredible conceptual ideas but he was very accurate
and carried out his ideas 'millimetre by millimetre'. Probably, he was the first
chess player to reach the highest level of accuracy. To a certain extent, Smyslov
was the pioneer of this style, which was later brilliantly developed by Karpov,
i.e. the gradual mounting of positional pressure based on the most accurate calculation
of short lines.
- I hardly knew Tal but I was lucky to play
a couple of games against him. In 1990 he took part in a strong open tournament
in Moscow. I felt sorry for him because he looked awful. We did not meet over
the board in the main tournament, but the organizers arranged for a blitz and
15-minute tournament on the day off.
- And how did you get on?
- We made a draw in the blitz. As for the
15-minute game I managed to win. Tal sacrificed a piece, then another one without
any compensation; he enjoyed the game, played for fun and took it easy, that's
why the result did not have any significance. When he made an effort, Tal could
still maintain a high level of play. Incidentally, he put in a good performance
at blitz, we shared 2nd-3rd place. I was 15 at the time and not that strong but
I had a quick mind. The blitz tournament had a pretty impressive pool: there were
12 players, including 10 grandmasters, one international master and myself - a
At one point in my game against Tal, my heart
sank. In a difficult and approximately equal position we had about half a minute
each. I made a move and realized that my opponent had a hidden tactical blow at
his disposal. The flags were hanging and it was just our hands that were making
the moves! And Tal immediately found that blow after which my position was hopeless.
I can't say I was impressed - I was aware that it was Tal, but a Tal who was suffering
from a serious illness... Any other player would not have found this tactical
blow even in a classical game. However, with the flags about to fall, the game
ended in a draw by perpetual check.
Tal was a star, a real chess genius. As far
as I am concerned he was not ambitious at all, he played primarily for fun and
enjoyed the game. This attitude is totally unprofessional. But he was an incredibly
gifted player and even with such an amateur approach, Tal managed to become a
When I was a child I did not study a lot of
his games. As I have already mentioned there were few chess books in the provincial
town where I lived. When I grew up, I went through Tal's games. I can say that
he was a strong positional player. However, many people consider him just as a
tactician. In fact, though he had an excellent tactical mind, at the same time
he was a versatile chess player just like any professional of his strength. In
the late 1970s - early 1980s he rode his second wave of success, playing in a
disciplined and positional way, and won a lot of brilliant positional games.
- That is considered to have been a result
of his cooperation with Karpov.
- I don't think so. Of course, his cooperation
with Karpov was helpful because it diverted his attention from all those other
pleasures which he liked to indulge in besides chess. Instead, he was working
on chess. But I don't think his cooperation with Karpov was that crucial. Tal
was quite simply an outstanding versatile chess player. Of course, his attitude
to chess had an effect. If only he had had Botvinnik's character, he would have
been impossible to deal with...
- However, a person can't have it all - it's
one quality or another.
- Yes, that's right. There is one more point
I would like to discuss: every chess player has his weak spots. A strong point
somehow gives rise to a weak one. It is impossible to combine Botvinnik's strongest
points with Tal's ones because they are mutually exclusive (in the chess sense).
Tal's talent, his approach to play, relaxed attitude and huge creative energy
gave him a substantial advantage but also had its drawbacks. I think that such
an attitude will not allow a person to hold the title for, let's say, 15 years.
It's like a spectacular flash, a rising and falling star - such people may be
incapable of living any another way. This kind of star is so brilliant that it
is incapable of retaining its energy for a long time and will burn out.
It is difficult to talk about Tal because
he was an unusual person as well as being a very fascinating player. Like a natural
phenomenon. I am absolutely sure he would have been a success in any other field
of endeavour. He had a quick and brilliant mind. If he had been an academic, he
would have won a Nobel prize. He was an unworldly man. By the way, many people
who knew him quite well said that he bore no relation to homo sapiens. He was
like a man from another planet! That's why he played "unidentifiable" chess.
Analyzing his chess games is tantamount to discussing what God looks like.
- Was the next World Champion a more down-to-earth
- Yes, he was a down-to-earth person. Careful
study of Petrosian's games is required to form a clear impression of him. He was,
so to speak, a very "secretive" player. We can call Petrosian the first defender
with a capital D. He was the first person to demonstrate that it is possible to
defend virtually every position. Petrosian contributed a defensive element to
chess - an element that is being developed more and more today. He showed that
chess contains an enormous number of resources, including defensive ones.
Petrosian was a very intensive chess player
who was hard to understand. I don't think he has been presented to the public
in the correct way. He is one of the few chess players of whom I have failed to
form a clear opinion after going through his games collection. There is something mysterious about Petrosian.
He was a brilliant tactician and an excellent strategic player, although his positional
understanding was not as good as Smyslov's. However, many people consider him
to have been a master of positional play. He was definitely a player who could
cope with every kind of situation, but I don't think that positional play was
his cup of tea. Defence and a magnificent tactical vision were his strongest points
- that's why he was so good at defence. Only a brilliant tactician can succeed
in defence, and he had perfect sight of all the tactical opportunities and nuances
for his opponent. I would even say that attack, rather than defence, is a positional
skill. You can attack mostly on the basis of general ideas, whereas in defence
you have to be specific. Calculations of lines and verification of specific positional
features are more important for defence than for attack.
Of course, I should mention Petrosian's subtle
sense of danger. To a certain extent, this skill goes hand in hand with proficiency
at defence. Petrosian could feel danger. I also think he could be very unpredictable.
- It looks like he didn't made fast progress
and reached his height when he was over 30.
- As far as I understand he was a 'smooth'
guy: steady, calm, well-balanced with a strong nervous system, a very sound disposition.
And he progressed in that way: he achieved his goal without failures and without
- And how would you describe Boris Spassky?
- I would agree with the "official version":
he was the first really versatile player. I like his extensive and comprehensive
play very much. I think he is a broad minded fellow who does not pay much attention
to sundry odds and ends. Spassky's play reminds me of Keres. But Spassky has more
fantasy and imagination than Keres who, in my view, had some problems with fantasy.
Spassky is also a correct player, in this
'classical' aspect he is like Smyslov. But whereas Smyslov is a sedate player,
Spassky has an attacking style. He combines the qualities of different chess players.
Like Alekhine he values time. He is a very good strategic player. He might not
have polished up his tactical proficiency and sometimes he miscalculated a bit
but I think that Spassky spent a great deal of energy on every game and chess
was a reflection of his character. His games are pleasant to watch: he uses the
whole board. He manages to deal with everything, grabs space, turns on the pressure
here and there... I have carefully studied the Fischer-Spassky match and can say
that Spassky's play was almost as good as Fischer's.
- What were his weak points then?
- He made incredible one-move blunders in
virtually every other lost game. I don't understand what happened to him. It must
have been Fischer's energy and extreme pressure that was able to carry everything
before it, even Spassky. But if we leave out those blunders the match would have
been an even contest. Though it was considered almost a total mismatch it was
in fact one of the few matches for the title where the score did not reflect the
real situation. In the second half of the match Spassky was turning up the pressure
while Fischer was running away in every game. In that match Spassky might have
suffered from his negligence of those sundry odds and ends: he failed to calculate
something, blundered somewhere, erred in a winning position or decided it was
good enough anyway and gave up further calculations... And his strong point turned
into a weak spot. Probably his laziness let him down. For instance, I have heard
that Spassky did not spent much time on chess. He did not have too much professionalism.
Spassky was neither sufficiently disciplined
nor ambitious. As far as he was concerned, I think there was not much difference
between the World Championship and the Leningrad Championship. He took a similar
approach to preparation. And he didn't have much luck either because he found
himself in the same era as Fischer, a man few World Champions could deal with!
- What was your impression of Spassky when
- We talked a lot and even played for the
same club. Once I stayed with him. He is a very decent, candid, wise and ingenuous
man. I appreciate these traits very much. And his highest level of chess is obvious.
When we meet we sometimes analyse different positions a little: he is very quick
at understanding and always makes sensible proposals. Strange as it may seem I
can't say the same about Botvinnik. Such was my impression when I attended his
school. Of course, Botvinnik's suggestions were always very interesting but sometimes
he offered something 'dubious'. That certainly did not happen very often but it
did happen. Spassky is something else, he is always to the point. Sometimes he
does not calculate fully but he will grasp the correct direction of play in 15
seconds! Here is another remarkable episode. Three years ago we played in a tournament
celebrating Korchnoi's jubilee where Spassky, who was already over 60, defeated
Short in a perfect game. Moreover, they had reached the kind of position that
was Short's forte and yet he was completely out of it!
Spassky might not have reached his full potential
for a number of reasons. But, anyway, the games he played in his best years are
of great importance.
- So, Spassky was unlucky to be born in Fischer's
- Other players have suffered greater misfortune:
they would have become World Champions if it were not for some genius who lived
in their lifetime.
- What can I say about Fischer? I feel this
man had to be the World Champion and nothing would stop him. It was a foregone
conclusion. His career took a rather roundabout course but everything was already
mapped out! I think that five years before he became World Champion, everyone
was aware that the inevitable would happen. He was a real driving force! And Spassky
got run over by that 'machine'. I think that any other player would have lost
to Fischer too. They were not much weaker, it was the will of fate - Fischer would
have broken through any cordon.
- Did Fischer dominate because of his energy
- At a certain moment he had everything: energy,
drive, preparation, strong play, etc. as if all the rays were gathered together
at one point! He had no weak spots at all - how can you handle such a person?!
This happens to every outstanding player when everything clicks. As I see it,
Fischer reached his height during the Candidates cycle and his match against Spassky.
- Kasparov is said to have stated that Fischer
was a pioneer of modern chess.
- I don't think so. Spassky also played up-to-date
chess. Fischer discovered modern preparation in the opening. Unlike Botvinnik
who realised the importance of preparation, Fischer gave it a modern slant: he
set tasks for his opponent at every move with either colour and in every opening.
Fischer kept his opponent busy from the very beginning, he started setting problems
from the very first move! Later Kasparov improved this 'high-tension' style; and
followed Fischer to some extent. Fischer was the first chess player to mount tension
from the first till the last move without giving his opponent even the slightest
break. He had a similar precept for both positional and tactical games: he tried
to set as many tasks for his opponent as he could. He played very 'vigorous' chess.
- And what happened to him? Did he burn himself
- I don't know. It is a pity Fischer gave
up playing chess, his match against Karpov would have been very interesting. There
is a point I would like to make. With the development of chess and higher level
of play, chess players lose their individual handwriting and there are fewer players
with a clear style. We are moving to a versatile style. I can't say that Fischer
had clear handwriting - he was a versatile player. In fact I would rather call
it a cumulative style. In his better days he combined Smyslov's accuracy with
Spassky's universalism and Alekhine's energy... His rationalism was his only weak
spot, he was not that good at irrational and unsound positions. Here Spassky prevailed.
Fischer had a clear blueprint for his play. Spassky's victory over him in the
11th game of the match was remarkable. He virtually tore Fischer apart in the
Poisoned Pawn variation. It was not a matter of opening preparation, this kind
of chess was simply difficult for Fischer. Of course, these are nuances, an attempt
to find a weak link and demonstrate what kind of person he was. But Fischer admitted
this weak spot himself and was trying to avoid those positions.
Crystal clear ideas were his strength. Fischer
was perfect at the Ruy Lopez. It is difficult to create chaos on the board in
- We can have a long argument about the possible
outcome of the Fischer-Karpov match. What do you think, did Karpov have a chance?
- He did. I think that Fischer had the better
chances but Karpov had his trump card too. I am referring to Karpov's preparation
because Fischer was a 'lone sailor'. He did not have any serious assistants and
played risky openings. Karpov had his chances by setting opening problems for
Fischer. I would like to mention that Geller had a positive score against Fischer.
Geller was proficient at openings and adopted an intensive approach to theory,
which was not easy for Fischer. As for level of play Fischer would have been superior
to Karpov. However, if Karpov could have gained a real edge in the opening, the
match would have seen an even contest.
- Has Karpov followed the versatile pattern?
- Of course he has. Additionally, there is
something mysterious about his play, no one else could cope with things like he
did. It is easier for me to talk about Karpov because his collection of games
was my first chess book. I studied his work when I was a child, later I played
quite a few games against him. He is a versatile chess player, a good tactician
who brilliantly calculates lines and positionally very strong. He also has a distinctive
feature. Funnily enough, he has effectively denied Steinitz's pronouncement: if
you have an advantage you must attack, otherwise, you will lose it. When having
an edge, Karpov often marked time and still gained the advantage! I don't know
anyone else who could do that, it's incredible. I was always impressed and delighted
by this skill. When it looked like it was high time to start a decisive attack,
Karpov played a3, h3, and his opponent's position collapsed.
Karpov defeated me in Linares-94 where he
scored 11 out of 13. I got into an inferior endgame. However, it did not seem
awful. Then I made some appropriate moves and could not understand how I had managed
to get into a losing position. Although I was already in the world top ten, I failed to understand it even
after the game. This was one of the few games after which I felt like a complete
idiot with a total lack of chess understanding! Such things happen very rarely
to top level players. Usually you realise why you have lost. This moment defies
description - there is something almost imperceptible about it and so characteristic
A. Karpov - V. Kramnik
22 h3 Ef8 23 g4 h6 24 f4 Ef3 25 Gd2 Ec6 26 g5 hxg5
27 fxg5 Cd7 28 Cxf8 Cxf8 29 Gd6 b4 30 Ce4 Ee8 31 Cg3 Gd8 32 Cf5 Gxd6 33 Cxd6 Eg6 34 Exg6 Cxg6 35 Cxc4 Gd8 36 Ge4 b3 37 axb3
Gd3 38 Kg2 Gxb3 39 h4 Cf8 40 Ge8 Black resigned
As regards other things, Karpov is a very
strong universal player who is not so very different from the rest. But the above
'know-how' distinguishes him from the other highly rated chess players.
- Does he have strong playing skills?
- Yes, he is definitely a great player. His fighting
skills are second to none. When I started playing in super tournaments, I was
impressed with his ability to adapt to changed circumstances in a split second.
For instance, you watch Karpov playing a game, he is under pressure and has
been defending for six hours by strengthening his position. Owing to his brilliant
calculations he defends tenaciously and is very difficult to break through. He
appears to be making a draw. His opponent takes it a bit easy and Karpov equals
the position. Any other player would agree to a draw here and would be happy that
the torture was over. While Karpov starts to play for a win! It was easy for him
to forget what had happened on the board up to the present, he did not think about
the recent past. Karpov did not suffer from mood swings, he made an impression
of a person who had just started playing. If he sees a slight chance, he tries
to take an advantage of it.
Let's remember Karpov's
victory over Korchnoi in their last game of the match in Bagio. Korchnoi started
to ouplay Karpov at the end of the match. I don't know why that happened, Karpov
must have got tired. When Korchnoi seized an advantage, Karpov demonstrated a
brilliant play! As if nothing had happened and the score 5:2 had not turned into
5:5, and there were no hard play after adjournment where he lost in a bit worse
rook ending, Karpov played as if it were the first game of the match! Despite
wild pressure, when his future was dependant on the outcome of the match, he was
playing as if he were training in his kitchen in a relaxed way. Of course, he
was an incredible fighter!
- To add some "human qualities", what were Karpov's weak
- I think he did not
pay attention to strategy. As I have already told, he easily forgot about the
things that had happened on the board. Probably, he did not have a sufficiently
deep strategic thread of the play. Karpov is a chess player of a great number
of short, two to three move combinations: he transferred his knight, seized the
space, weakened a pawn . In my view, he was not a strategic player by nature.
And like Fisher he could get confused when he saw chaos on the board. However,
all this weak spots are largerly symbolic.
Sometimes he must
have been too self-confident. He was so sure that he would find a way out, if
necessary, that he took a good much liberty. Karpov must have understood that
his position was getting worse but was likely to think: "I will outplay him anyway".
He had a feeling that he would always get away with it. When he met Kasparov he
let down. In their first match he got away with dubious situations while with
every following match it was more and more difficult for him to deal with them.
Possibly, he lacked strict approach. It could explain his dominance before Kasparov's
appearance. At first he did not need strictness, later it was difficult to re-train.
- But Karpov must have also improved in his matches vs
- Of course, Karpov
also made a progress like any outstanding chess player he enriched his play. But
Kasparov was improving at fantastic speed. Kasparov in 1984 and in 1985 was like
two different players, the latter could have given a pawn and take back to the
former. Kasparov's capability of study was always his strong point. Karpov must
also possess this quality but Kasparov surpassed him.
- Can we say that Kasparov is a phenomenon in chess?
- Yes, sure. It is
always difficult to talk about Kasparov. First of all, we are in the same era,
I have played a lot of games against him. Secondly, he is a chess player who does
not seem to have weak spots. At least, I don't know which weak point he had in
his better days. Many books can be written about him.
He is an incredible
workaholic; he works even harder than Fischer. Kasparov is a combination of lucky
circumstances: a good coach in his childhood, convenient conditions for studies,
an incredibly strong will.
As for his strong will, Kasparov could be
compared to Botvinnik but he surpasses his teacher because he is much more flexible.
As I have already said, Botvinnik's rigidity was his strong point. At the same
time it had its drawbacks. Though rigid, Kasparov is open to any changes. He is
able to change his outlook on chess in six months. Kasparov absorbs things like
a sponge; he soaks up all changes, everything he sees he processes quickly and
makes it part of his arsenal. I think this is the main quality that makes Kasparov
different from the other chess players.
Objectively, Karpov taught him a lot. Before
the match Kasparov could not have understood all of Karpov's merits. You are able
to fully appreciate them only when you start playing against him. Karpov taught
Kasparov a lot in their match of 1984. As we see from his following encounters,
Kasparov has improved those aspects of play which were traditionally Karpov's
Kasparov definitely has a great talent. There
is nothing in chess he has been unable to deal with. The other world champions
had something 'missing'. I can't say the same about Kasparov: he can do everything.
If he wishes to play some type of positions brilliantly, he will do it. Nothing
is impossible for him in chess.
However, it is also impossible to be perfect
at everything in the same period of time. Kasparov has had weak points at every
step of his career because one cannot concentrate on everything. But he is able
to cover his vulnerable spots in two to three months. After that another weak
point comes to light but you don't know which one. It is very important to take
advantage of his 'quickly disappearing' weak spots because you won't find them
It is clear that in 1984 Kasparov had some
problems with defence, he was a bit too impulsive or proactive. But in 1985 he
demonstrated a quite different style of play. Kasparov realises what is going
wrong at a certain moment and is able to put right his weak points. His capacity
for study is second to none!
- In 1995 when you helped Kasparov to prepare
for his match against Anand, who was teaching whom?
- Both. I hope I also have some capacity for
study. It might not be as good as Kasparov's, but I do have it. In principle,
we were just working. Kasparov wanted to win the match and I helped him without
any second thoughts. I did not try to learn anything from him. I think both of
us gained something from that cooperation.