Veselin Topalov, Tata GM group A: "I don't really know about my state"
Today we finish our series of three interviews, with players from the Tata Steel A, B and C groups, who all make some sort of comeback. In the third interview we have Veselin Topalov, winner of the San Luis FIDE World Championship in 2005 and challenger of Vishy Anand in the 2010 World Championship. The Bulgarian grandmaster won the 2005 Chess Oscar and was ranked number one in the world from April 2006 to January 2007, and from October 2008 till January 2010. Topalov is known for his aggressive playing style and his positional exchange sacrifices.
At the Tata Steel chess tournament, which starts next Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, Topalov is 4th seed, behind Magnus Carlsen, Levon Aronian and Teimour Radjabov. You can find more info here.
The interview was conducted via Skype last week, during the penultimate round of Reggio Emilia. We started just around the time when the eventual winner, Anish Giri, was getting an advantage in his Petroff against Hikaru Nakamura. Veselin was at home in Salamanca, in front of his computer.
Were you following Reggio Emilia?
I'm looking at the games now, yes. I'm kind of following the games, but not especially... analyzing or something.
What do you think of Anish?
How many points does he have?
He's on 12 now.
What does it mean, plus one, minus fifty, or what?
Basically it means that if he wins he's equal with Hikaru.
Aha, I see. Well, in any case he's better, Black is comfortably better. A safe position. Well, at least, you know, they are playing. Many decisive games.
Yes, it's a great tournament. And what's interesting is that in Reggio they are not using the Sofia rule. Can you comment on this? Does this tournament prove that maybe we don't need it and organizers should just focus on getting fighting players?
The point is that even with interesting players like Ivanchuk, you cannot really count or depend on his mood. This is the problem. For example Morozevich-Giri was a quick draw, a threefold repetition. So if you don't have the Sofia rule, you simply depend on the mood of the players. It's unpredictable; you can have 100% but statistically of course, with the Sofia rule at least it guarantees that if the game is a draw, then at least you know why it is a draw. Sometimes without the rule it's completely unclear why the game ended in a draw. For example in Moscow this year they used some kind of rule, I don't know exactly which rule, but still the tournament wasn't really fun.
And what do you think of the Basque system of two games simultaneously?
I like it, I like it somehow. I don't think it will be developed by FIDE or something, but it looks fair. Of course it's kind of a show, but it's interesting that you have to keep control of two games, so it has a lot of strategic things. I also follow it and it's funny!
You haven't played much since the match with Vishy. Was this loss the main reason? Or did your marriage play a role too?
I can tell you that it was something I was planning: no matter what the result was, I wanted to play less. But my idea was not to play so little, because in general I was planning to participate in Linares, if I was getting invited, or Nanjing, but simply these tournaments did not happen. So I was kind of 'obliged' not to play.
But still, the plan was to play a bit less. Why?
Well, it's a World Championship match. It's like the peak of career, no matter if you win or lose. It's some kind of period which started from... let's say after FIDE changed this rule, so I knew in 2007 I was going to play the winner of the World Cup, and then it was May 2010. It was like three years, like a period when you think: if you win against Kamsky - and it happened - , then you have a new shot. So it was a lot of time. It was something I was planning to do. In fact I wanted to have a break and travel a little bit, but it didn't happen, I couldn't find time somehow, to go to South America, or... We did go to China, me my wife and brother. But for example I declined Wijk last year because I was planning to have the honeymoon in January, so I went to Dubai and Istanbul.
So you did enjoy your time!
Yes, when I don't play, I think I'm enjoying even more, because not always... OK, let's say Monaco, there you have really fantastic conditions but sometimes I'd rather prefer to stay in Salamanca or go to Sofia rather than to play. If I compare the quality of life which I have here or in Sofia or when I travel, it's better than during the tournaments.
To what extent have you been working on your chess in recent months?
Since 2010 there were periods when I did nothing, of course, especially in the summer. But some periods I was working quite hard. In fact I still had quite a lot of ideas, and I think I even had very good novelties, like in the past but for some reason the results were not so good. I was lacking concentration, like for example what happened with Kamsky, that I forgot the second move of the line, things like that. I started to make these kind of mistakes, maybe because of the age, I don't know. [Laughs.]
And what about this super computer you were using for your preparation against Anand. How much of that is true and are you still using 'big hardware' for your work?
I can tell you that it was partly an idea of Jan Smeets. When we saw this commercial of Vishy with AMD, Jan told me that for sure they did something exceptional, that they built some super computer for him. I was just trying not to be behind in my preparation. Of course I don't think it was true, this AMD stuff, but somehow...
But you did use something like that yourself.
Yes, yes. But of course it's a computer that normally... I don't think the best usage of this computer is for chess. It's something that belongs to the Bulgarian government, but with completely different purposes. I think they bought it from IBM in 2008 and I didn't even know it existed. In fact I have never seen it. It was really powerful two years ago, but now I don't know.
How tough was the loss against Anand for you? I remember the next day in the lobby you said: 'No chess for me for a while!' How long did it take to more or less accept it?
Of course it's the typical loss of missed possibilities. I had the feeling I had many options. Every game was very tough but I was probably too confident, simply. Especially the last game I could have repeated, it would lead to a tie-break. Game 2, for example, I got a good position, but I was too optimistic. I think I was like a pawn up and he had some kind of compensation, and I tried to win and finally I blundered. It was like, after winning game 1, what I had to do is probably calm down and play for a draw even, not to try to go for 2-0 but to make a draw, or just to play normally, things like that. Even in game 11 I had some possibilities. But honestly I haven't analyzed the games very deeply.
Is that because it's still difficult to return to them?
No, no. It's simply because, how to say... After I had already made this decision to do some kind of a break, then it was already some months later, and then I thought OK, who cares. [Laughs.]
In a recent interview with Evgeny Surov, Silvio said that you felt yourself to be the stronger player in Sofia. Do you still think so? And in what areas?
I was very confident, I can tell you, but the impression was that Anand was very predictable. Basically what he did was that he copied the openings of my previous opponents: Kamsky played the Grünfeld, so what Anand did was he simply repeated the same line in game 1 and then he played the Catalan and I think he prepared brilliantly with Black against 1.e4. And also this ending in the Slav... So basically he was predictable, he kind of simply copied the openings. So it was quite easy for me to know what was going to happen. We even expected Lasker, what happened in the last game. We expected this, but much earlier. I thought it was a good choice but even earlier, for example after losing game 1. So for me, I was very well prepared but I pushed too hard in these games. Game 2 of course, the last one...
So you felt you were doing better in terms of preparation, but over the board you made more mistakes.
He also blundered in games 8, 9... The point is that you have to win the match, in order to become World Champion. I had to win. I couldn't make a draw. My problem is that in rapid chess I lost almost all my tie-breaks, even to players that were clearly weaker than Anand. So, again, I could repeat [moves] in the last game and then it would be 6-6 but even if I make 6-6 and lose the tiebreak, for me it would not really matter. You still don't have the title. The point was to win the match, not to make a draw. I think I also missed my chances in game 10, or 11, but not in game 12. Somehow we believed White was slightly better, but it was too little, maybe.
If you would be playing against Vishy again, in Moscow, this year, would you feel the chances would be fifty-fifty?
Why not. But in Gelfand's case, the point is that people underestimate him. When it comes to really important things, like World Championship matches, he plays much better than in tournaments.
So how do you rate his chances?
Of course he's not the favourite, but I think he will do much better than what people think. Probably people think he has no chances but probably he was also the last favourite in Kazan, and won convincingly. I think he has chances, but of course his chances are less than 50%.
About those periods in the summer when you did nothing... What are your interests besides chess? What kind of books, music, films do you like?
For music I'm kind of normal. Normally what I do is listen to the radio. [Laughs.] Pop, rock... For books, you know, I'm just waiting for the new one by Arturo Perez. [Currently the most popular author in Spain, Perez often uses chess in his work. - CV] A couple of weeks ago he wrote an article about chess in El Pais Semanal, this weekly magazine. It was very nice, and he said he was writing a book about chess so of course I'm waiting for it. Movies I like, but for books I don't really have some special preferences.
Are you more the Hollywood type or the arthouse type?
I like all kinds of stuff. But I don't like action movies anymore. I like movies which make sense, which have some idea.
Back to chess... What kind of physical preparation do you do before or during a tournament?
Well, you know, this morning I had the idea to go to the swimming pool with my wife but it was finally cancelled so... I'm doing less than I used to. Basically I'm eating now! [Laughs.] I'm having these dinners...
Are you on a diet?
No. I'm trying to eat healthy but it's not so easy! Well, before these important matches for the World Championship cycle I was trying to keep some kind of a diet and trying to control, but now... You know, Christmas, family dinners... It's not easy. In December I went to San Sebastian...
You went to one of the Michelin star restaurants?
One with two stars. It was great. We went for a lunch, and it was quite good. I kind of calculated that already I've eaten like 16 stars in total! [Laughs.]
You're getting a bit older (like everyone) and you got married about one and a half years ago. Did your ambitions change? For example, you can only qualify for the next Candidates tournament by rating.
Well, I lost rating points. Probably I have to become forty in order to get back to the cycle. For the next Candidates it's more or less clear who will play, if FIDE keeps the same rules. The loser of the match, then some guys via rating, then Grischuk, Svidler and Ivanchuk.
In your last tournament, the European Team Championship, except for the last round perhaps, you seemed to be playing quite well.
For the first time since the match I didn't lose rating points, but I don't think I played so well. In the previous events, after the match, I was losing 10-15 points per event on average. And there I didn't lose points. I was not so happy with my play but it was, let's say, an average performance. Around my rating, but not special.
Do you think you managed to keep your basic level in this period of playing only a few tournaments?
I was working, but still I need some practice. But there is no real recipe. For example when there's a match for the World Championship I don't mind having a break and preparing because this is different compared to tournaments. But for example now, we have Wijk and then for some months there will be another break. I don't think there will be some very big event in February, March, I don't see anything coming.
You don't have any other tournaments planned, after Wijk aan Zee?
No. But it's sort of understandable. I'm not going to play opens, so I'm kind of waiting. So it's like, when you prepare the idea is to find ideas because you will need them for during these events but now you only have one event, in my case.
Does this mean you can use a lot, you don't have to 'save novelties' for the next tournament?
I'm not actually 'saving'. It also depends on the opponents, and since now everybody plays more or less the same, it's not so easy, of course. We became a little bit like clones.
Is the Queen's Gambit Declined giving you nightmares?
A little bit, yes. I really hope that in this match in May there won't be twelve Queen's Gambits! But you cannot avoid it. Either you switch to Fischerrandom, or you keep it like this. This is the way it is, somehow.
You never played the Chess960 tournament in Mainz, did you?
It's an open tournament, isn't it?
But you never wanted to try it?
Well, I don't think it's a bad idea but what would happen is that professional chess players would adapt to it, but it will be quite disgusting for chess fans. Especially the club player, he studies, he has some books, about the French Defence, the Sicilian, Spanish... He likes to go to the club and play his openings. But if you switch to the Fischerrandom, I mean, what will the guy do? He cannot play the French anymore. I think for club players it will really make a difference; for us it's the same. We'll study, we'll invent some tricks, some variations for professional play, but for club players it will be a disaster.
Something else. Silvio [Danailov] is now involved with Garry Kasparov in getting chess into European schools. Are you, in one way or another, involved in these plans? Do you see yourself as a coach, or in some way bringing your knowledge to younger generations?
I'm not involved. I wish I could help but it's some different level, you know. It's kind of political stuff. The European Parliament should accept it. But if my information is correct, it would not affect the chess players. The school teachers would be the ones to give chess lessons, so for chess players it would be more or less the same. But in my case, as a teacher... I'm not planning to have an academy because in order to teach children chess, somehow you don't need to be so strong. It's better for someone who is prepared to work with children, and I don't think that's the case with me. What I can do is, for example, when Ruslan Ponomariov played against Vassily Ivanchuk in 2002, he wanted me as a second. This is different because you can help someone of a very high level to jump a bit further, with some very small details and help. When a grandmaster wants to go from 2650 to 2700 or something, then I can help but I am no better than anyone else to teach children the rules, it makes no sense for me.
Let's focus on Wijk aan Zee. How do you feel about returning there? Does this tournament mean anything special to you?
Yes, lots of memories. Now it's like the only tournament remaining in the old style, with many, many players, like it used to be in the past. All these evens with six players, double round, this is typical now. Of course for organizers, it's simply cheaper. You have the same number of rounds but you pay less, you pay to only six guys. It's also logical. But this is what I like about Wijk, that it's the old style. And I have, of course, memories of this game against Kasparov in 1999...
Yes, this is known as maybe the most famous tournament game by Garry. But how do you look back at it? Can you also, somehow, feel positive about it because you were part of something very unique, something beautiful?
You know, many people say that Kasparov had some kind of power to hypnotize his opponents and things like that... I've played him many times and I can say... There was one situaton when he sacrificed his rook and I had a very good position, and I saw I could not take the rook. He took on d4 and I had some very simple move which would lead to a good position. Well, maybe not better for me, but equal. But somehow I saw that if I take the rook my king was really going up and I liked so much the situation that I took, without even calculating. I wasted like 10 or 15 minutes just looking at the position but somehow I knew I was going to take it. Of course I also saw it was probably not the correct decision. It was maybe the only moment that I can say that Kasparov kind of hypnotized me. But in general I played him many times and I don't think he had anything special. Simply, all these guys from these countries like Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, they look this way, they have these kind of eyes. But simply because it was Kasparov I think they created this legend about him, that he had some kind of power.
What else do you remember from Wijk aan Zee?
Well, my first tournament was in 1996 and I was playing with Black in the last round against Chuky. At some point I was clearly better and if I had won then I would be the winner of the tournament. I blundered and lost, it was some kind of timetrouble and for some reason I remember this, but I have pleasant memories in general. Even when I lose!
So, let's have a look at the A group. I'm wondering what do you think are the biggest qualities of what might be your main rivals there: Carlsen, Aronian and Nakamura?
Well, compared to me they are all younger, that's clear. But to start with Carlsen, he is the top favourite, I think. He's won so many tournaments in recent years.
What makes him stronger than others at the moment?
He is quite young and he really has a lot of energy, simply. And he's ambitious; he's pushing in every game. When I was playing, let's say, better than now, I realized that if you push in every game, normally at one point your opponent collapses. So it's not so easy to keep rhythm against someone who is playing quickly, who is well prepared and who is young.
Aronian is simply always there. He's really solid and already getting a lot of experience. They are all talented. You cannot compare talent so much. Sometimes it's also the momentum. This is what makes the difference. He's always there. He's also young. And I think he gets lots of ideas of all these Armenian guys. And of course he's competitive, already used to winning. These kind of people are the most dangerous. They are confident, well prepared, and full of energy.
For Nakamura it looks like he is not as stable as Carlsen and Aronian. They almost never finish on minus scores, they lose less games, things like that...
Suddenly Topalov remembers that Nakamura is actually playing a game as we speak.
By the way, are they still playing in Reggio? Let me see. Aha, Caruana is winning... [against Vitiugov - CV.] No, obviously he's very talented and original. Well, let me see, now it looks like he's lost, against Giri. But this is, you know, when you are creative, and original, it happens. If you see Shirov, and Ivanchuk, it happens to these kind of guys all the time. They are trying to create something in every game, so it works when they are in good shape but when they are not in good shape, of course it's the other way around and the effect is the opposite. They can lose four games in a row, these results.
What are your ambitions this year? Normally you're the kind of player that is playing for first place. Is this also the case this year, or would you be satisfied with less? How do you think you will do?
I don't really know about my state. Of course I realize I'm not among the top favourites but I hope I can win the tournament. I don't think it's impossible but I'm not the top favourite of course. If I'm in the top three I would be more or less happy. It's a long and tough tournament. But more or less everybody can do it, probably half of the field can win this tournament.
OK, well thanks a lot and good luck.
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