Boris Gelfand: "I was by no means inferior in this match" | Interview, part 1 of 2
Exactly one week after the end of the World Championship match in Moscow, challenger Boris Gelfand of Israel speaks out. In the first part of this interview, the Israeli tells us about his preparation, his choice of openings, and his view on chess and its the different types of audiences.
Photos by Alexey Yushenkov & Anastasia Karlovich
The interview was conducted via Skype, on Tuesday morning, June 5th, 2012. Gelfand was at this home in Rishon-le-Zion, sitting behind his computer, and many mouse clicks could be heard during the talk. Afterwards he would explain that during the interview he was also looking at some of the tiebreak games, the openings, middlegames, endings, the missed chances... It must have been difficult to get these games off his mind.
Part 1 of 2
Vishy said he felt 'relieved'. What was your biggest emotion after the last game? Were you disappointed, perhaps even angry at yourself?
I was remembering of course Barcelona-Chelsea. You had the advantage, then you didn't take your chances and then the opponent takes his chances. I think for me it's very similar. It's sport. You should accept it, but of course you know you could do much better.
If we look back, can we say that you lost the match in the third rapid game?
I wouldn't say so because also in the fourth rapid game I had all the chances.
How big was your advantage, now that you look back at it?
I didn't analyze it yet, but the problem is I didn't realize I had to exchange one pair of rooks and develop an initiative on both flanks, but technically it's not so easy to execute because you have to be very careful and I wasn't. But basically I think there are good winning chances. White played the opening very passively and the only thing he can hope for is a fortress. However, generally speaking, if White stays passive, I think the chances he gets a fortress are not very big. But of course you have to play extremely precisely and in rapid chess it's not so simple.
How do you explain this rook ending in the third tiebreak game – was it the pressure?
I didn't feel like I was under pressure, it was a hallucination. You know, I started studying rook endings at the age of nine. I'm sure that when I was nine, I would win this ending! I played a game against Tony Miles, and he was not familiar with an ending which I knew at the age of nine.
Were you afraid he would reach the Vancura position?
No, it was obvious that the Vancura was not possible. It was just a hallucination, and I think I had about twenty seconds left there.
Vishy started playing much faster in the tiebreak, but you spent quite some time in a lot of positions. Was this a mistake?
You've been in Monaco, so you know that I'm always playing like this. In most of the games I'm behind on the clock. This happened in most of my rapid tournaments and tiebreaks, it's like a style of play.
You don't think you could play at a higher level with a different time management?
Probably, but if you look at my results in rapid chess I don't think it could be higher, in all modesty. My results in rapid chess are probably even better than in classical chess. I won two Monaco's in rapid, I've beaten Aronian and Leko in matches, or the tiebreaks... If it's my style, I think I should stick to it even at critical moments. You have to feel good with yourself, to play the way you feel it's correct to play.
Probably, but if you look at my results in rapid chess I don't think it could be higher, in all modesty. My results in rapid chess are probably even better than in classical chess.
What went through your mind when Vishy played 5.e5 in the last rapid game? This is quite a well-known line, and you thought for about six minutes.
There are two moves, 5...cxd4 and 5...Qa5. Probably I was hesitating too much. But you know, somewhere in 1981 or 1982 I remember we analyzed this, my trainer [Albert] Kapengut and me and since then I didn't update my knowledge. However, I don't think the theory changed much. But OK, since then thirty years have passed, and I was trying to remember what we considered correct. Well, I didn't try to remember, I tried to make a decision between the two moves, because obviously I was afraid to fall into some forced draw. I kept double checking, because if I'd do something wrong I wouldn't have a chance. I chose correctly and got a chance. But yes, if I had only spent two or three minutes, it would have made a difference.
Let's go back in time. How do you explain your success in Kazan and Khanty. How is it possible that you manage to peak at all these important events?
I don't know. Basically, I am capable of playing really well, but I need to concentrate. Besides, for events like the World Championship and Kazan, I was preparing for months. I am an "aged" player, so I need to focus on something. It doesn't mean that I'm playing weaker but I do believe that I have to be very focused, I cannot play well if I play two or three tournaments in a row, I cannot keep consistency. But if I can focus on something, I think I can do probably even better than in the years when I was younger, because of experience. Towards Kazan and towards the World Championship match I really spent like six months to be in physical shape, to be in mental shape, to be ready chess-wise. If I have the time to prepare, I think my results shouldn't surprise anybody.
If I have the time to prepare, I think my results shouldn't surprise anybody.
Was your result in Wijk aan Zee below par because you were less focused, and in the middle of your preparation?
No, I don't think so. The difference is that my attitude is a bit different than with most of the players. If I'm in bad form I keep on playing as ambitiously as usual; I don't care if I lose some Elo points or win Elo points. For me it bears no value. So when the tournament didn't go well, I just thought that I should keep on trying my best, play as ambitious as possible, to try my best and to get a lesson.
You remember my game with Levon Aronian in the penultimate round? It was a sharp game. At first I was better, then it was complicated, then probably better again and then he was better but I could hold but in the sixth hour I made a mistake. Some other players would think: I'm in bad form, I'm playing the leader of the tournament, so I should play safe, make a draw and go home. But for me it's much more interesting and important to have a fight with a great player rather than calculate how many Elo points I would keep or lose. So I kept on playing too ambitiously and I didn't, how to say it, "minimize the damage". Besides, of course I couldn't devote half a year to preparing for Wijk aan Zee. I did my best; for me it is a very important event. But of course there's a difference if you can prepare for the event of your life or not.
To what extent were you "hiding your openings"? Maybe it was easier for you than for Anand, because you would not play the Grünfeld or the Sveshnikov, but instead you could play your regular openings!
Indeed, I wouldn't blame the openings, because I played the openings I was pretty familiar with, Najdorf, Petroff. And when there are three or four months before the event, normally you are not prepared yet. Most of the preparation happens in these final months, so you cannot say you have a "killing novelty" and you hide it.
You had about a year to prepare for the match. What did this year look like for you? How did you form your strategy and what kind of schedule did you follow?
I think it was a great year, I really enjoyed it. I started thinking about what I should do, and what strategy to adopt, already in the summer. I started thinking about different openings, with White and with Black...
And before the match you took your team to Austria.
Yes, we were in the Austrian Alps. We were getting energy there, it's a wonderful place, and we were working on chess intensively. We tried to combine both. We stayed there, then we went back to Israel, and then back to Austria again. Altogether we spent about one and a half month there.
Before that, in Israel my normal schedule would be to go for a training session for a couple of weeks, then go home to calm down, to rethink everything, to get new ideas and then go back for another training session and go deeper.
How and when did you decide on going for the Grünfeld and the Sveshnikov as your main weapons?
Last year already, I don't remember exactly but certainly before the Tal Memorial [which was in November 2011 - CV]. I looked at Vishy's games and I thought this was the opening that could cause him the most problems. The Grünfeld is... even if you play it with Black, it's not easy to play with White. Against each system Black has a big choice. If you play it with Black and you have a certain system against let's say the Bc4 variation, there are seven other systems which you can adopt. I thought if he would consider the main choice, it would be difficult for him during the match to learn the whole opening.
About the Sveshnikov, I played it like ten years ago and I thought that I had great results, and I abandoned it in 2003, 2004 for more for emotial reasons than for practical reasons. Maybe I lost a game, or something. You just play an opening, and then you go to another one, it happens. Viktor Kortchnoi was always saying: if you want to make progress, you have to learn new openings all the time. If such a person gives you such an advice, you should listen to it.
Viktor Kortchnoi was always saying: if you want to make progress, you have to learn new openings all the time. If such a person gives you such an advice, you should listen to it.
Of course there's nothing wrong with the Petroff or the Najdorf. Is the surprise effect more important than the opening itself?
Both are important. The difference is, some people think that any surprise is good but I think a good surprise is good! It's a different opinion and I'm not sure it's so obvious. Some people say: if you surprise your opponent, it's already good. But especially in such a match, when your opponent is preparing for so long, if you play a bad surprise, maybe it works for one game but in the next he would crush you.
How is it possible that in Kazan everyone played the QGD and that we didn't see it in this match?
Maybe Vishy was planning to play it but I played Nimzo-Indian. [By going for 3.Nc3 instead of 3.Nf3, White is allowing Black's main response 3...Bb4, the Nimzo - CV.] We don't know if he would play the Queen's Gambit, or Queen's Indian, or Benoni or Vienna after Nf3. Maybe in the next tournaments we'll see what Vishy had prepared if somebody would play Nf3 against him.
In Moscow I've seen Alexander Huzman, Evgeny Tomashevsky, Maxim Rodshtein and Pavel Eljanov. Who else did you work with? What is true about the rumour of you working with Levon Aronian?
Well, I wouldn't comment on rumours but Mikhail Roiz was helping us all the time.
You don't want to confirm or deny working with Levon?
Well, I wouldn't confirm. He's a good friend of mine and of course we often discuss different things, but to "work" is a different story.
But were you in contact with him during the match, for example?
I wouldn't comment on it. Let's say: I was not in more contact than usual, this I can say.
OK, on to the match. Although your colleagues were less sure, before the match the general public considered Vishy to be the big favorite. You always say you don't think about these things. Didn't you rate your chances at all?
Basically the opinion of my colleagues is always very different than the opinion of the public. They thought I could do it, and I knew I could do it... I knew it would be a tough match, and I was very focused on trying to be concentrated. I knew that if I'd manage to be concentrated and play my best chess, that my chances would not be inferior. And at the end anything could happen, so I was by no means inferior in this match.
I was by no means inferior in this match.
What exactly did you say about this, at the press conference after the tiebreak? Because I'm not sure the translation was accurate there.
In the rapid games I was dominating; I had the advantage in most of the games. Over the the whole match, well, my feeling I was at least slightly better. But of course the match was so even... He missed chances in game 3, I missed chances in game 9, et cetera. I think that... let's say, I had some pressure.
But indeed, the interpretor was not up to the task. Most of the times the translation had nothing to do with what I was saying and also the translation into Russian was also not what Vishy was saying exactly. I think it was the only drawback of the whole organization.
Did you and your team consider the first game a success?
Well, I got a certain advantage, and I was considering for long to play this ...Bd7 move, and I could force Vishy to play one or two more accurate moves. However, I miscalculated something. I really wanted to play on and when I didn't play ...Bd7 the position was really drawn. This was not bad, as I played this opening for the first time and he played a rare system which I was not very familiar with.
How much time does it take to pick up such an opening like the Grünfeld, and learn everything?
It takes quite a lot of time to get a feeling for the position, it's not only about learning the lines. You can learn the lines pretty quickly, but you need to get a feeling as well. Fortunately I had more than half a year to prepare so I spent this time on this. It's not like people think, that you press the button and that the computer tells you what are the best moves and you go and play them. On such a level it's different. You go much deeper than the theory says. You have to look for where your opponent may try to surprise you so you basically have to recheck all the theory of the opening, learn and then recheck everything.
Did you also play training games?
I played some but not as much as I wanted. In the end I didn't have enough time.
On to game 2; did you expect this Chebanenko/Semi-Slav from Vishy?
I thought it's possible but basically I didn't think it's so realistic because it's a normal opening but it's not so popular...
It wasn't considered to be a main line.
No, but of course you should consider everything; your opponent can play anything, you cannot get into his head. You don't use spies [laughs], you cannot know so you have to be ready for anything.
So most of the work you did on this Chebanenko stuff was done during the match?
Yes. Before, you just think: if he plays this, I'll play this in game 1, and you think of something for game 2 but of course you cannot prepare for four games against each opening.
In the third game you more or less escaped with a draw. Did this disturb your confidence?
No. Of course it's not nice that I didn't play this ...Nb6/...Rd5 which would equalize immediately, but before the match I knew that you cannot play the whole match without making a mistake. It's part of the game and you should be ready to through it. The fact that this mistake didn't cost me a point gave a better feeling. If you're not punished, and you escape, it's OK. Normally you're not going to make a lot of mistakes, so if one mistake goes unpunished, it's... how to say... you're "forgiven".
That "Caissa is on your side".
It seems that in some of the games a draw was agreed while one of the players could have played on...
I wouldn't say so.
...well, for example Nakamura has said that he liked a number of positions in which a draw was agreed.
Let me think, let me go back, because I don't want to speak in general terms. In game 1, in the final position it makes no sense to play on. OK, if I find ...Bd7 it makes sense, but after I took this double rook ending is just a draw.
Yes, this is also what Nigel Short said.
In game 2 it's the same; he built a fortress and I cannot attack even one pawn. I can continue with some senseless moves, but there is nothing to play for. Game 3 was a perpetual...
What about the bishop versus knight ending in game 4, you could try this Rc6?
Yes, it's true, but he's simply waiting. Of course it was my idea to continue playing as long as I have chances, but here I didn't see any chance. He puts his knight on f5 and he protects everything, and he checks on d4. I didn't see how I could pose a single threat.
Game 5 was this Sveshnikov, which is obviously a dead draw in the final position. Then, game 6, this rook ending is also a dead draw. Game 9 is a fortress. OK, in game 10 I could play a move or two but if he simply waits, it's also a fortress.
Alexander Morozevich told me that Vishy's a2-a3 was not a very good move to offer a draw with.
Exacty, I thought the same but I realized this is also a total fortress. If White puts his rook on the a-file, his knight on b3, play g3, Kg2, Kf1, it's simply a fortress. Of course a3 is not the best move to offer a draw, there Black can at least pretend his better but there Kg2, Kf1 is a pretty solid solution.
In game 12, probably Vishy could play on, you should ask him. Of course it's a drawn position but taken into consideration that I was short on time, probably he could try a bit.
Vladimir Kramnik was much surprised that Vishy offered a draw there. Were you?
I was a bit surprised but basically I saw how I would make a draw. I had invested some time on the previous move and I planned the whole defensive concept so I was confident that I was not in trouble. But of course, you never know, if the opponent keeps on making moves, how you would answer. By it's quite simple. you just exchange the a-pawn, keep your rook active...
Related to this is what you said at some point: "We're not here to entertain the public. We don't have to play out the moves; commentators can explain that." During the match once more there was this big debate between two groups, one that is saying that chess is fine like this, and one that wants changes, e.g. the Sofia rule, the football score, et cetera. What is your opinion?
It's a very good question. I also think there are two groups of people, who see chess differently. I think chess is not for everybody. Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game, and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would enjoy it. I think we have millions of people worldwide who enjoy chess games. Let's respect them and do the utmost for them. They follow, the respect the game, they respect the players.
I think chess is not for everybody. Chess is for people who want to make an intellectual effort, who have respect for the game, and we shouldn't make the game more simple so that more people would enjoy it.
But there are also a lot of people who think chess should be different. I read one comment, that chess was boring, that the Eurovision was much more interesting, that chess is dead. My message is: if you want to watch Eurovision, go watch Eurovision. If you want to see cheap shows on TV? Watch cheap shows on TV. But there are millions of people who enjoy the game of chess, so let them enjoy the game of chess.
It's like classical music and pop music. If you go to a concert of a great violin player or piano player, you don't tell him: "OK, but Lady Gaga is much more entertaining. We have millions watching Lady Gaga, and only thousands are watching you in this theater." I think these are different things.
Let's focus on the people who love chess. Let's go to the schools, and make sure the children will love chess. You have people who appreciate the game and people who love the game. If people are coming only to be entertained, I wouldn't mind if they would go and see Eurovision instead. These people don't respect the players, they undervalue the game, so I don't see why we should try to please them.
In Moscow the live commentary was excellent, so the best service was done to people who love chess. Journalists came from all over the world... If people can't make the intellectual effort, they will never appreciate chess. A game of chess by itself is a pretty complicated thing, and you cannot change it so that one can appreciate it without an intellectual effort. This is my point of view.
For [Silvio] Danailov chess in a museum is like a curse, while Toiletgate in a museum would be totally outrageous! For me, it's a blessing that chess is played in such a prestigous museum. Let's say, Lady Gaga would never be invited to play in the Tretyakov Gallery! We should have respect for our profession, and do everything for the people who love chess. I don't know how it was translated, but this was what I wanted to say with my comment.
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