Reports | June 25, 2011 19:07

Crestbook interview with Levon Aronian, part 1

Interviews with Levon AronianFrom his answer to the very first question on why people play chess, it was clear that Levon Aronian’s Q&A at Crestbook was going to be an entertaining read: “For pleasure, peace of mind and the moral torture of their neighbour”. Sharp and funny, the Armenian GM lifts the lid on life at the top of the chess pyramid.

By Colin McGourty

Aronian was responding to reader questions posed in English here at Chess in Translation and in Russian at the KasparovChess forum. My full translation can now be found at Crestbook (I’ll link again at the end of this short introduction – don’t miss the full version!):

KC-Conference with Levon Aronian

The questions, and most of the answers, were written before the Candidates Matches in Kazan, which of course makes it hard not to regret that Levon didn’t emerge as the challenger to Vishy Anand. Nevertheless, he mentions Boris Gelfand as one of his best grandmaster friends, and in the post-Candidates section at the end adds:

I think Boris deserved this win. He’s a man who treats chess with great reverence, and who works a lot… and is very, you might say, patient with it. You know, it’s easy to work when you can see an immediate return, but he’s had difficult periods, and still to believe in yourself and try to keep working despite that… I’m very, very glad for him, that his dedication and love for the game has borne fruit. This success shows that there’s chess longevity in his blood!

Aronian and Gelfand before the Candidates Matches | Photo © FIDE

One of the merits of these in-depth Crestbook interviews is that grandmasters have the chance to set the record straight. In Aronian’s case, for example, you might crudely summarise the preconception of him as being that he’s “an easy-going late-bloomer, who despite his great talent is lazy and tends to win by setting tactical traps for his opponents”. Let’s look at whether that’s true or not!


1. “A diabolically talented lazy guy”

This phrase comes from Sergey Shipov’s short introductory essay. When asked if he was offended, Aronian responded that it was definitely better than “a diabolically hard-working mediocre guy”. Is there any truth to the statement? The answer would appear to be yes…

As a talented player I always had a great talent for being lazy as well. If it wasn’t for my family (and particularly my mother) and my friends, who did the majority of the work for me, then it’s unlikely I’d have been able to achieve success.


- Can you comment on the widespread opinion that you don’t spend enough time studying chess?

The thing is, that claim used to be true, but in the last two or three years I’ve become more responsible in my approach to my favourite occupation, and started to study chess regularly.

Perhaps the most interesting picture to emerge, however, is that Aronian’s character is representative of a whole school of chess. His wonderful portrait of compatriot Sergei Movsesian includes:

Sergei Movsesian | Photo © David Llada

He’s a typical representative of the Caucasus school of chess, which is distinguished by terrifying fighting spirit, natural talent, an absolute ignorance of theory, optimism and incurable laziness. Some (see the best representatives of the school) decided to combat that laziness, while others, like Sergei, have decided to make an effort once every couple of years. Having had a quick glance at the chessboard a couple of years ago he docked in 2750 rating waters, and then decided to go on vacation. Given that recently we’ve been working together I don’t think there’ll be long to wait for a second coming.

Of course “the best representatives of the school” include World Champions Tigran Petrosian and Garry Kasparov.

Verdict: once a FACT, but now becoming a MYTH.

2. “A late developer”

It’s often noted that Levon Aronian is an example of a chess player who disproves the theory that if you haven’t made it to the top (or thereabouts) in chess by the age of 20, you don’t have a hope. He was “only” rated in the mid-2600s at age 21-22, before starting his meteoric rise. However, there was an explanation:

The fact that I was late to cross the 2700-barrier can be explained by the fact that living in Armenia I didn’t have the necessary opportunities for progress, as back then flights to Europe were very expensive, and it was rare at the end of the millennium for young chess players to receive help (in the mid-90s it was incomparably better when it came to sponsorship). If I’d grown up just now then of course I wouldn’t have had such problems, and in fact it might have been the opposite, as it would make sense to move to Armenia in order to develop as a chess player. But after moving to Germany at the end of 2001 I got the opportunity to play in European tournaments, and as a result I was finally able to get down to playing and discovering my potential. 

Verdict: FACT, but… as Aronian learned chess at age 9 and then a couple of years later won the Junior World Championship ahead of Bacrot, Ponomariov and Grischuk – it’s not really much comfort for us genuine “late developers”! 

3. “A cheap trickster”

One of the most persistent opinions about Levon Aronian is that he relies on tactical tricks far more than most of his elite colleagues. His response to a line of questioning on this “style of play” was amusing, but also suggested he’d heard the opinion expressed once too often!

It’s good to learn that in my play people see such varied techniques that I’ve never noticed myself. Is tricky play my style? If that was true, then I don’t think I’d ever have had the opportunity to tell people about it. The majority of players at the top level use the tactical motifs you call tricks in their play, but I’m sure that in the overwhelming percentage of cases it isn’t done to the detriment of their position.

- How often do you purposefully forgo the most precise move positionally in order to create a subtle trap?

As often as I did in my childhood – only in the inverse proportion.

- And, in your opinion, would such an approach be more or less advisable for players at lower rating levels?

It’s difficult to call that an approach, as against an attentive opponent it’s always doomed to failure. If you’re going to use such ideas when playing against an experienced player then I recommend you wear a colourful outfit and learn to juggle, so as to distract your opponent from your moves.

Now if only I could juggle... | Photo © Arman Kharakhanyan

Verdict: MYTH, although Aronian’s joking about himself being a trickster may have been the origin of the myth!

4. “Lacking in fighting spirit”

A Time Magazine article on Magnus Carlsen opened with a memorable description of Vladimir Kramnik:

Tall, handsome and expressionless, he looks exactly as a man who has mastered a game of nearly infinite variation should: like a high-end assassin. 

Whatever the accuracy of that description of the ex-World Champion, there’s sometimes a feeling that Aronian is too good-natured. However, that was something he was quick to deny:

I assure you I’ve got more than enough fighting spirit. Without that component I think it would be difficult to win in final rounds, but I’ve managed it on dozens of occasions. The fact that beyond the game I’m benevolent to my opponents disguises that.

I must confess, however, that I mainly added this section as an excuse to include the following quote. Levon is asked to explain the “bloodthirstiness” of his having the lowest draw percentage among elite chess players:

So I’ve been found out. Yes, that’s how I am, and there’s nothing that can be done about it. It’s hard to explain, but I’ll give it a go. I think the thing here is my diet. For 11 years now I haven’t eaten any mammals – although it’s well-known that I’m a person with a bloodthirsty nature. So then, sitting down to play a game and, metaphorically speaking, meeting an animal face-to-face, I experience nostalgia and try to get my fill of blood in those short moments. 

Verdict: MYTH is putting it mildly :)

Bloodlust? For more photos from Levon's private collection see the interview at Crestbook!

All that’s left to is to recommend clicking on the following link to read the full interview, which includes a biography, an essay by Sergey Shipov, selected games, and photos provided by Levon himself. Apart from answering questions on all the perennial topics – how computers have changed chess, ratings, the “problem” of draws and so on – surprises include a superb comparison between top chess players and jazz musicians. Unmissable!

KC-Conference with Levon Aronian: Part 1

This article was cross-posted with permission from Chess in Translation.

Coincidence or not, in roughly the same week ICC's Chess Talk published an interview in two parts with Aronian, conducted by Italian journalist Janis Nisii. There are two separate trial intros (part 1 here, part 2 here) which are free for everyone. The full shows require either a regular ICC account or a free trial one.


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Anonymous's picture
Author: Anonymous


ikalel's picture

What? No Diaz comic after the Medias tourney?

Al Hughes's picture

What a wonderful ambassador for chess Lev is - witty, urbane and ironic. The two-part interview with Janis Nisii on the ICC is well worth a listen. Thanks.

Septimus's picture

Very entertaining interview. Levon is a treat both on and off the board! Best wishes dude!

Chess Fan's picture

It is hard NOT to like someone like Aronian - very intelligent, funny, diplomatic, classy, and of course world champion caliber, all of them just like my hero Anand.
As one of the favorites to win the Candidates tournament to challenge Anand for the supreme crown, he has shown dignity in his loss and graciousness to the victory of Gelfand, another of my favorite players.
Nice to see such people, great people off the board and fierce warriors over the board. I always enjoy Aronian's intellect and sense of humour.
Chess Vibes, thank you for such interviews. Appreciate it.

realitycheck's picture

Has Gelfand thought about asking Aronian to be one of his seconds in the upcoming world championship match against Anand? What are odds of Aronian accepting such an offer?

Chess Fan's picture

Very interesting.
My odds are against Aronian (or Magnus!) accepting such an offer, but if this happens, it would shake things up!
I think that Gefland will stick to his time-tested, reliable, loyal, brilliant colleagues/friends from the Israeli national team along with a souped-up version of Deep Junior.

realitycheck's picture

@Chess Fan
Remembering the role of mentor Gelfand played for Aronian after the world championship tournament in Mexico City 2007 (which Anand handsomly won)
and having read both their interviews, led me to believe they would work well together, and just might team-up against Anand.
I can't even imagine Gelfand making such an offer to Carlsen.
You're probably right about Gelfand sticking with his old guns. One has only to look look at the results! Why change horses in mid stream?

mishanp's picture

In an old interview for an Azerbaijan website Aronian was asked about his chess idols:

"I have lots of them, too many to mention. I like looking at their games, admiring them. I really loved playing through the games of Larsen and Gligorich – very aggressive chess players, but then my taste changed a little, and I began to study the games of Petrosian. Among contemporaries there are also a lot of interesting, colourful players: Ivanchuk always impressed me, and Boris Gelfand – I’ve always thought we had a similar style."

I still can't see any top player acting as a second for one of his main rivals, though (except perhaps with the sort of occasional help Kramnik or Carlsen gave Anand before the Topalov match). I would, however, bet that Sutovsky will get involved in Gelfand's team now that Kamsky's out of contention!

Thomas's picture

Of course there were special circumstances for "occasional help Kramnik or [and] Carlsen gave Anand" - in Kramnik's case, actually _during_ the match: Topalov's personality. I don't think anyone dislikes or hates Anand, and I couldn't figure out why ... .

Is Kramnik the only one who actually had seconds that were/are also his rivals? One definition would be: playing many tournament games against them, with a roughly equal score. This applies to Leko (Kramnik's second while he was still a top10 player) and more recently to Karjakin (Kramnik's second in Kazan). Is Kramnik the only one
- willing to pay well enough?
- willing to share secrets with his rivals?
- ready to accept advice, including criticism from such strong players?

szoker's picture

Thats a MASSIVE interview !

I will have to donate some time in it

but I think it will be worth it ;)

Aronian is a great player and a nice man too

thanks for posting this

Zeblakob's picture

The last picture disturbed my concentration.

Septimus's picture

Looks photoshopped. :)

gg's picture

Aronian is a great player and great guy, it would have been nice to see a title match between him and Anand. Before the knockout blitz lotteries started this is how the serious qualification events (=many games of classical chess) finished, compare Aronian's results with for example Gelfand and Kamsky, and note that Aronian only played three tournaments:

kaboom's picture

It would be very interesting to see a 2800-tournament; - Anand, Carlsen and Aronian - 6 games in each pairing, a total number of 18 games.
Rather easy to find sponsors for such an event, I imagine.

S3's picture

Rather costly to organize as well, I imagine. Additionally a 3 player tournament would make it extra costly -so why use the somewhat useless 2800 boundary when one could include Kramnik who won last Bilbao tournament ahead of Anand and Carlsen?
Anyway, such a top-only tournament could easily end up in a massive draw festival although Bilbao's results give a little hope for more.

kaboom's picture

Compared with a match between any two of them, a tournament would probably result in more decisive games. With 6 games in each pairing, one would still measure the strength much like a match-play.
Extra costly? I can't see why.
I would rather think of extra income due to the extra interest such an event would likely raise.

S3's picture

An uneven tournament like the one you propose would be more expensive because the organizers would have to pay 1 player for doing nothing half the time.In a long tournament that adds up quickly (salary, hotel, expenses). In a time where top tournaments are struggling to survive I doubth that sponsors would like to pay for that. As for income, I think we have yet to see the first profitable tournament.
I agree that there would be fewer draws than in a match, but still it might be rather dull without some entertaining weakies.

Grasshooper's picture

Looks like anand is almost guaranteed another 3 years as world champ

Janis Nisii's picture

I have noticed that the news about my interview begins with a weird sentence: "Coincidence or not, in roughly the same week ICC’s Chess Talk published an interview in two parts with Aronian [...]"
Well, since someone could infer weird things from this wording, I'd like to clarify that *of course* this is a coincidence, and my interview has been recorded on May the 30th, that is 8 days before the crestbook interview has been published.

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