Crestbook interview with Levon Aronian, part 1
From 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!):
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!
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!
FACT or MYTH?
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:
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.
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 :)
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!
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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