Alexei Shirov: "Somewhere deep inside I felt that I could win the tournament"
Big, exclusive interview with the winner of the 2009 M-Tel Masters
Last Thursday night, Alexei Shirov was in Hamburg, Germany where he showed his games of the 2009 M-Tel Masters at the Hamburg Chess Club. ChessVibes was present, and we recorded a video about the club and the training, plus a lengthy, exclusive interview with the winner of the last Grand Slam tournament. Enjoy!
Today he started as the top seed in the Poikovsky tournament, but just eleven days ago, Alexei Shirov won what was arguably his best achievement in his career: the Latvian grandmaster clinched first prize at the M-Tel Masters in Sofia, Bulgaria.
Long before that tournament, he had been invited by HSK, the Hamburg Chess Club, to give a special training on Thursday, May 28th, where he could show some of his games. Naturally Shirov said yes to the club where he started his Bundesliga career in the year 1991, and after he won in Sofia, the training was going to be even more special...
Shirov always kept in touch with chairman Christian Zickelbein and his friend and famous endgame expert Karsten M?ºller. In the video below you can get to know the Hamburg Chess Club a bit more, and you can enjoy a couple minutes of the training/lecture Shirov gave (with M?ºller sitting next to him).
After the training, Shirov accepted to give an exclusive interview for ChessVibes. He speaks about his relationship with Hamburg, his success in Sofia, the ups and downs in his career, his second Manuel Perez Candelario, his sharp playing style and about the World Championship cycle. Below you can watch the full, un-cut interview (duration: 22 minutes and 31 seconds). We also provide a transcript if you prefer to read.
Can you explain your relation with the club [HSK] and how you ended up giving this training over here?
First of all I'm not a stranger in this club because my first Bundesliga season, it was from 1991 to 1992, was actually for Hamburg Chess Club. At the time I was a young and promising grandmaster but I wasn't one of the world's best players, so it was a very nice idea of Christian Zickelbein to invite me for the team of the club. I think I even played on the second board because Matthias Wahls considered himself a stronger player even though he had a lower rating.
That season was extremely succesful for me; I scored 9.5 out of 10! I didn't even manage to repeat this two years ago when scored only 9 out of 10 for Baden-Baden! Then I played one more season but less successfully, only scoring 5 out of 8.
On first board, I guess? ?
Yes, it was already on first board. OK, I already had a 2700 rating. So I lost a lot of rating by scoring 5 out of 8, but OK that season was a bit unfortunate, I lost two games, I think, one against Georg Seul, I don't remember for which team he played, for Koblenz I think, I lost stupidly as White, got under a very strong attack. So I cannot say that my first Bundersliga seasons were only the bright ones.
Of course I then became the elite grandmaster, I started to get better financial offers and this offer from Berlin club was much better and then I started playing for Berlin; I think I played three years for Berlin.
I was always friends with Karsten M?ºller, who always played for Hamburg Club, so we would meet sometimes in Bundesliga weekends. For example when I played for L?ºbeck club we were often partners of Hamburg club so I would still meet Karsten quite often and I would also sometimes spend a couple of days after the Bundesliga weekend in Hamburg so I still kept in touch with Christian Zickelbein and Karsen M?ºller.
GM Karsten M?ºller
Something also changed in my life two years ago when actually the mother of my daughter, she married the Hamburg guy, so in order to visit my daughter I started to visit Hamburg quite often. And then it was also the time when I got and offer from Chessbase to make DVDs. So in the beginning I was only coming to Hamburg to make DVDs and visit my daughter but then at some moment Karsten M?ºller got an idea that I could also do something for the club I played a long time ago, and of course I didn't mind. It thought it's a nice idea. Of course its's always a bit difficult to come here in the evening because it's like a complete working day: first you work at Chessbase, doing your DVDs, and then you come here. But OK, I like tough challenges.
So you actually worked over there today?
Yeah, I was working from‚Ä¶ I came to the office at 08.30 in the morning, which is not very usual for me! [Laughs.]
"Another day at the office!"
Yeah! And then Karsten also asked me to do some training for his lower groups, I was explaining the Sicilian to them, so it was basically three jobs in one day, a record in my life!
OK, and then this guy is asking you for an interview‚Ä¶
OK, yeah, we count it as a fourth job! [Laughs.]
Well, congratulations of course with a very good tournament, a big success in Sofia. I wrote before the tournament that maybe your last Super Tournament was the Tal Memorial where you ended last, not a good tournament‚Ä¶?
Yeah it wasn't a good tournament but OK in that tournament I lost the first three games, then I played reasonable chess, I scored three out of six, and it was nothin from the other world, but of course the tournament could no longer be saved. So I had mixed feelings about that tournament. I cannot say that after that tournament I felt that I cannot play such a tournament. In the last six rounds I played perfectly reasonable chess. But something happened at the start‚Ä¶ I don't want to talk too much about it. There were not only chess reasons there.
Shirov using a laptop (+ beamer) to show and analyze his games
But especially because this was your last result people were probably very curious how you would do here in Sofia and I think everybody was pleasantly surprised that you seem to be completely back and in very good shape and among the elite players‚Ä¶ I even think you have a live rating in the top ten; do you care about such things? ?
Well, not so much, because we are still more accustomed to the official ratings and before the next official list I still have one more tournament to go. So I can still improve it but I can also make it lower‚Ä¶
Which is that?
Poikovsky. It starts on the 3rd of June. So at the moment I should care more about playing a good next tournament. OK, with ratings, of course it now might matter for the qualification for the next Candidates Tournament but at the moment I already see that I have some chances but I don't think it should affect me really. I should just continue trying to play well and see if it works.
What I wanted to ask is: in a way, were you also surprised about your success or did you always have the feeling that you were still capable scoring like this?
Well, I thought I could do a good tournament, but I was not very confident I could win it because I still thought that Veselin and Magnus are in better shape. So basically until the last round more or less all these feelings were confirmed because Magnus already had half a point more and Veselin was also playing very good chess. While the Chinese player wasn't showing his best, one could suspect that Veselin could also win the last-round game. And I wasn't very confident about my game either. I understood that my only chance to beat Magnus is to create some big complications. But still, I was almost even disturbed by this thought that I have to go for these complications because I understood that these complications could also work against me. But still I took the chance.
So somewhere deep inside I felt that I could win the tournament; I had this thought somewhere. But when I tried to find the logical explanation before the tournament I couldn't find one, and probably after the tournament it wasn't so easy to make either!
But if we take into account that besides winning three games I also missed very good winning chances against Dominguez in the first circle and also a practically clear win against Carlsen in the first circle then we can say that maybe in a certain way my result is deserved because I even missed some chances myself, but OK. It was definitely my tournament; when I came to Sofia and I saw the mountains around and the quiet, green city, I thought: it's my place. So maybe this also influenced. And of course I have to say that a very big help was done by my second Manuel Perez. He's really focusing on the very critical lines and he does his job really very well.
Yes, I think I already saw you working with him in Linares last year‚Ä¶
Yes, first worked in Tal Memorial the year before I was second, then in Khanty-Mansiysk, where I also qualified for the final, then in Morelia, let's put it that way, where I also did very well, and then in Linares, where I collapsed. OK, there were also some reasons why I collapsed in Linares, not very nice to remember. But always there are things and you have to make you conclusions.
Shirov and his friend M?ºller, host of the training
What are his specific qualities, that he can help you so much?
Well, I believe he has a very good general chess understanding but also an extremely good understanding of complicated positions. He really feels dynamics of chess so he feels where you can go for your opponent's king, where you can make it as sharp as you can or the other way around, where you should just try to win the position by technical means. So he's both very good in analyzing some simple endgames and very messy positions like the last round. So I think when he sees a position he simply gets quickly to the point, that's his main virtue. So then in quite a short period of time you can see so many things with him that you already start understanding a lot about the position you didn't know anything about before, so basically that's his main quality. And also he's not afraid of entering any sharp stuff.
You've always been known as one of the sharpest players around, and maybe you "helped" this image with at least the title of your books, but it seems that it's gotten a bit less and you've become a bit more quiet than the really big‚Ä¶ the crazy stuff from your youth. Do you agree, and do you see a difference in your style right now and twenty years ago?
But what do you want more, I mean, I came back to playing Botvinnik Variation, isn't it enough? [Laughs.] In my first book there was a special chapter about Botvinnik Variation but then for some years I thought I would not play it again. No, I think, basically I'm ready to still play sharp positions but OK, of course I‚Ä¶ I also started understanding more about those sharp positions so I escape bad sharp positions, let's put it that way! I escape them more often than before so before I would often end up in some bad position but it was so sharp that then it would work my way. Now maybe I try to go for more correct complications than before, and that means I play less complicated games, but I still like sharp lines, complicated chess, because this is where you feel that your opponent might make the first mistake, and also the last. And sometimes it's the same thing! [Laughs.]
You were with Ivanchuk the oldest participants, and Vassily‚Ä¶ First, what is your opinion, he plays so many tournaments and now he really seems to be tired‚Ä¶
OK, now he's beating Navara in Prague so maybe he's not so tired after all‚Ä¶ He had this difficult period when first he was just doing extremely well, like winning almost every tournament, like Tal Memorial he won with plus three score, his rating was alomst 2800 and then he continued playing with his maximum ambitions and just at some moment started making more mistakes and his opponents were using it. Suddenly let's say from 2800 he turned to be 2750, like more normal, like today you win, tomorrow you lose, and maybe for him it was a bit difficult for him, that change, and also this tiredness accumulated to this‚Ä¶ he started feeling that maybe he should win more games to get back to where he was before, and then it started working against him. But now, for example in the end of Sofia tournament I just saw him completely OK about where he is now, so I'm sure that now he will simply start playing good chess again. OK, I don't know how much he will come back, but he will definitely improve his current position. I mean, he's definitely better than just 2700, there is no doubt about this. So I wouldn't drive too many conclusions about his poor play in Sofia. OK, he had this period when it was difficult for him to keep 2800 level but that doesn't mean that you have to be on 2700. These are two extremes. I don't think he feels in any way really affected so I'm sure next tournament he will just do his best.
The playing hall packed with club members at a very special club night
What do you think about yourself? OK, Vassily is a few years older than you and he was very successful last year; now you seem to be fully back as well‚Ä¶ What are your ambitions right now? Maybe qualifying for the Candidates Tournament‚Ä¶ how do you look at your own future?
My ambition is try to play well. At the moment it seems that my play has stabilized and I would like not to lose this stability. I don't think for example last year I played really worse than I play now because I think I had more interesting ideas both in the games and before the games, but somehow I was losing a little bit the control over the situation on the board. I don't know why, OK I have some explanations about this but‚Ä¶ somehow I was maybe thinking about my ideas too much and not seeing what was really going on. And then it happened that I was just losing many games in tournaments, for example last year in Foros I didn't have such a bad performance; I scored fifty percent. But it meant four wins and four losses, which can be called instability. [Smiles.]
So now it looks like I'm a bit more stable but‚Ä¶ OK I don't know what else to say. I think in general it feels like I can continue playing like this but my opponents in next tournaments will give me less chances, who knows.
Do you feel your personal life is getting a bit more stable and this might help you at tournaments as well?
Yeah, well, of course I started taking it easier at many things that maybe I was‚Ä¶ I got more affected before. So yeah, somehow probably I needed some more balance in life, in general, and I had to make maybe some steps for this. At some moment I saw that there are certain things that even if you want to pay a lot of attention to them and take them as important things then you just cannot get it, so the‚Ä¶ if something that you don't have you just forget and you concentrate on what you can get and you can do. But OK, that's maybe too simple philosophy‚Ä¶ But it's true that I had to deal with those questions too so maybe this helped, maybe.
I think everybody still regrets the fact, and not the least you yourself, that you never got a shot for a match for the world title, so we're very interested of course if you still have this drive to actually go for the highest prize there is in chess.
Well, first of all I strongly believe that there shouldn't be a match for world title. World title should be played in a tournament, of eight players, because when it's played between two players you almost always see that something is wrong.
For example when Kramnik played Topalov, Anand was not there. This was wrong. When Kramnik played Anand, Topalov was not there. This was also wrong. Of course, when you have let's say eight players, there's always ninth player, but at least if you compare who is ninth at that moment with who is number one at that moment, you can see OK, if you are nine, try to become eight next time. This at least can be said. At the same time, when you want to have the contest between two players, and these are not two of the best players, when Kramnik and Anand were clearly not two best players of the world, when Topalov was clearly better than both of them at that moment, then it's just totally ridiculous to decide the World Championship in a match. So in my opinion it has to be in tournament of eight players, like it was in Argentina and in Mexico.
It was a really bad political decision by FIDE to‚Ä¶ let's say‚Ä¶ well, basically to go under pressure from certain individuals. So the World Championship should be decided in an eight-player contest.
But what about the tradition, I mean the names Smyslov, Botvinnik, Karpov, Kasparov...
In those times basically there were less worthy challengers, but OK, I didn't live in those times. What can I say. For example for me it's very easy to compare times of Kasparov and Karpov with times that we have now. Kasparov and Karpov somehow managed to really be the strongest players in the world that time, they were really ahead of others. So somehow this became logical. But now it's not logical at all.
It's hard to say but also Botvinnik could also prepare for the world title match but was not showing his really world champion class in a tournament. The same happened with Petrosian; somehow something is really wrong about this. And then it happened more and more, for example Petrosian showed his class in his first match against Spassky so he was still World Champion although his tournament results were not as good and then he loses the second match against Spassky and then everybody also sees that he is not even number two. So in that sense, even in those times maybe it was wrong to decide it in matches.
'The World Championship should be decided in an eight-player tournament'
Well, traditions are traditions but chess should also be a sport and what's going on in the chess world in the last years cannot really be called a sport. How can we call it a sport the match Kramnik-Topalov? And even in a certain way the match Kramnik-Anand actually I had the feeling this is the first time Kramnik kind of deserved the World Championhip match, it was against Anand, because he shared second place in Mexico. But he was higher rated than Gelfand so whatever you say... you could say that maybe he deserved that match more than Gelfand. But only because he did well in Mexico, not because of anything else.
OK, we're coming back to the issue of my own possibilities to play the World Championship match... well I don't know, I would like to play the Candidates Tournament and of course if I play it I will try to win it. But probably I should think more about that step and about those steps I need to take to get to that Candidates Tournament, not about this World Championship match.
OK, well I think I speak on behalf of many fans that we sincerely hope you will qualify if only we will get to see a lot of very nice games at the top level again. Thank you very much for the interview.
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