Pavel Matocha (1972, Prague) is a senior reporter and cofounder of the magazin “Weekly Euro” and organizer of several important chess events. At the same time, Pavel is the chairman of the Prague Chess Society, a civic association founded in 2004 aiming to aid developing chess life and chess culture in the Czech Republic.
The interview was published in the magazin “Weekly Euro”.
EURO: You won the match against the best Czech chessplayer, David Navara, convincingly with 5. 5- 2 .5 points. Your opponent managed to win only the last game. How would you characterize grandmaster Navara. How does he play chess?
KRAMNIK: David is a very strong grandmaster. In general he plays well – his strongest weapon is a very fast calculation of variations. I noticed already during our first game at the Wijk aan Zee tournament last January that he calculates incredibly quickly. Fast calculations are extremely important in rapid chess, there is no time for calmly contemplating a position. I had to bear in mind that last year he managed to win the very strong rapid chess tournament in Germany, Mainz.
It is interesting, David is normally very modest and shy, but at the chessboard he is a very confident and tough player. I think he only lacks experiences competing against the very top players. He needs to learn what is it like to play the real top grandmasters. I myself went through something similar when I played my first games against Kasparov and Karpov. It was at that time that I learnt the difference between competing against players from the top ten or twenty, and to compete against the world number one or two. Positions which I considered to be winning all of the sudden were not. They kept putting up resistance, they were able to find new resources to defend in those unfavourable positions.
You need to adapt to playing against the very top players – there is so much more tension and resistance. Maybe you think that the difference between me and some other grandmaster with an Elo rating of 2700 is not that great. However there is a difference, perhaps not dramatic , but a significant one. You need to adapt to that level, and I could see that David was adapting quickly. Each day he played better then the previous one. He needs to play more often with the very best players in the world.
EURO: How would you evaluate the match?
KRAMNIK: In general I was very satisfied, especially with the fact that in each game we fought to the very end. That was what I wanted. I wanted to play games, where there will be tension till the very end. It was a good training for me, which will help me during another chess match that is ahead of me this year. And I believe that it was a useful experience for David too. I hope he learnt something from it.
EURO: You mentioned your first games against Karpov and Kasparov and difficulties you had to face during those games. I remember photos of their mutual matches or of their other games with strong opponents. I was surprised that on those snapshots they would stare at their opponents intensively, right into their eyes. In nature this is considered to be clearly aggressive behaviour. If you, from a short distance, stare to the eyes of a dog, the animal will take it is as an attack. Among human beings staring is considered at least improper. Was this a typical weapon of Soviet chess players? Have you, too, experienced something similar with Karpov or Kasparov?
KRAMNIK: I can talk more about Kasparov, against whom I had played considerably more games. In his case I can confirm your theory. Sometimes he would stare into my eyes during a game, or make some grimaces. I sensed that he always tried to employ those sorts of methods, and his opponents usually felt very uncomfortable. However I never took much notice of it. Part of my preparation for the World Champion match against Kasparov was to be ready for his off- board tactics. I did not to react to them at all. Once you start thinking about these things during the game, even analysing them, you’re caught .
EURO: Sure it must affect some opponents, otherwise why would some grandmasters use it?
KRAMNIK: Yes, no doubt. Look at the catastrophic record Vishy Anand has against Garry Kasparov. Kasparov managed to beat him almost everywhere they played, even though Vishy Anand has belonged to the absolute top players in the world for fifteen years. This difference cannot be explained purely in chess terms, there must have been some psychology.
EURO: Have you ever used similar tricks against your opponents yourself? You’re going to compete against Vishy Anand this autumn for the world champion title…
KRAMNIK: No, never. When I play chess, then I play it exclusively on the board. I have nothing personal against my opponent. We only compete by making better moves with pieces on sixty-four squares. I do not try to look over-confident, make a severe face or to stare at my opponent. This sort of psychological intimidation is not for me.
EURO: Do you think that Karpov and Kasparov were educated for this kind of psychological intimidation by their trainers? Wasn’t it a part of the preparation at the famous Botvinnik school of chess?
KRAMNIK: Possibly. I know that Botvinnik really believed in that kind of stuff. He paid lot of attention to those small things, he believed that such psychological details can be a great help during games.
EURO: Is this kind of fight, psychological intimidation, still fair play?
KRAMNIK: I personally don’t like this behaviour, but I would not go as far as to call it unethical. For example many people put on an over- confident mask simply because in fact they lack confidence. If I see my opponent acting too confidently I can assume that inside he is not sure of himself, he is probably scared of something. If some chess players wish to use such methods, let them do it.
EURO: Is there a grandmaster among the current top players in the world who is using such methods?
KRAMNIK: I don’t know, I haven’t noticed anyone. But then I am not a very good respondent for such a question, as I do not pay attention to such things at all.
EURO: You reach arguable better results during matches then in tournaments. Traditionally, the World Champion title was to be won in matches. A challenger had to beat the reigning World Champion in the direct fight in order to become the new World Champion. The only historical exception was the situation just after the end of the Second World War, when Alexander Aljechin had died during his reign and so a tournament was played.
KRAMNIK: You can call me an old- fashion guy, but I still believe that the real chess championship is actually a match between the best players, not a tournament. So that is going to be the match which will take place between me and Vishy Anand this autumn in Bonn. The tournament in Mexico which you are asking me about was from my point of view a huge compromise.
The problem was that the situation around the World Champion title was still difficult even after my unification match against Topalov. There was a need to find an acceptable compromise. After the unification my aim was to come back to a final match contest for the world champion crown under the umbrella of FIDE. In all th e years after defeating Kasparov I felt this responsibility. Anything else would not have been in accordance with chess history, and also not with the desire of the overwhelming majority of chess fans all over the world.
It was always my goal to end the unhappy period when the World Chess Federation organised their ridiculous knock-out or round robin tournaments for the title. The problem was that the tournament in Mexico had already been agreed and I was informed that if I had refused to play there, the event would not have taken place at all. This would have ended in another impasse. So in order not to cause another split I, in the end, agreed to compromise and played the tournament, which FIDE called World Championship. The truth is I did not win in Mexico, the winner was Anand, and I will compete against him this year in the real contest for the chess crown. I attach ten times more attention to the coming match in Germany – consequently this event is ten times more important to me than the tournament in Mexico.
EURO: So do you consider Vishy Anand to be the World Champion or not?
KRAMNIK: It is not a question of simply yes or no. Anand won the tournament, which was called the World Championship Tournament, and I competed in that tournament as well. The I nternational C hess F ederation FIDE agreed to do it this way, so I have no right not to consider him the World Champion. A question is, however: what is the value of such a title?
Similary I considered Kasimdzhanov to be a FIDE Champion, after winning the knock-out tournament in Libya. However I did not consider him to be the real champion. He had won a tournament and by FIDE’s definition he was a FIDE World Champion. But the value of this title was lower compared to the classical title won in a one-to-one match by Champions like Lasker, Spassky, Kasparov or me. The winner of the match Kramnik -Anand won’t be World Champion only from a legal point of view, he will be considered to be the World Champion and best chess player by the entire public.
EURO: What are we to expect from Bonn match? Do you think that something similar to the “toilet affair” during your match against Veselin Topalov in Elista might repeat itself?
KRAMNIK: Not at all. I am convinced that in the world of chess currently there is only one person from whom we can expect such behaviour. Vishy Anand has never taken pleasure in scandals, and neither have I. From a chess point of view you can expect a very balanced and tough match. What kind of openings there will be, or whether there will be many winning games or a large number of draws, cannot be predicted. Moreover it is not my job to make such predictions. My task is to play the very best chess in Bonn and to win the match.
EURO: How long will you be preparing for that match.
KRAMNIK: I’ve already started my preparations. It is for sure the most important match of my carrier, since my match against Kasparov, and I have been approaching it that way.
EURO: Do you play blitz games with your friends?
KRAMNIK: Yes, sometimes. Although not as often as I used too. Perhaps because I am getting older. When I was younger I used to play blitz games even fifteen hours in the row. On many occasions I had played all night long . But nowadays I prefer to get a good night sleep.
EURO: It cannot be very interesting for you to play against your friends. Does your pulse also rise while playing chess for instance at a family gathering? To play a game against complete amateurs, who often do not even play in a club, or have not read a single chess book, that must be pretty boring for you, don’t you agree?
KRAMNIK: Of course I was not talking about amateurs. I was talking about blitz with some of my friends, most of them are grandmasters . The only amateur I sometimes play against is my wife, if she asks me to. This is a kind of duty, you know.
EURO: How about playing blindfold simuls at a family gathering?
KRAMNIK: It would be possible, yes, but you need to be very careful with blindfold chess. To play two or three games at the same time is surely nothing special, but to play more games might be dangerous, as it is very strenuous to your nervous system. At the beginning of the 20th century blindfold simul exhibitions were very popular and given by the best chess players. I read that, for instance, Aljechin often played them, and then he was not able to sleep for a couple of days. Garry Kasparov, for example, had always refused all blindfold games., He would not even play them one on one.
EURO: Let’s look again at this year’s chess climax. Are you happy that the match for the World Champion title is taking place at the same place where you played against computer programme Deep Fritz?
KRAMNIK: Yes, very pleased. First of all I am happy that the event is taking place in Germany, as according to statistics I achieve my best results there. This is a fact. Moreover I feel great support from the German audience, people there have been expressing their affection towards me. The match in Bonn against the computer program was organised perfectly, and the condition were ideal, everything was well prepared. I am sure that it will be also the case during my match against Anand.
EURO: Don’t you associate that place with the biggest chess blunder of your carrier? You over looked a mate in one …
KRAMNIK: I have learnt not to look back at those things and carry on with my life. I try not to have bad memories. I have made mistakes in my life, not only on the chessboard, but also in my personal life, probably as most other people have. You mustn’t dwell on them and become depressed . Such things happen, and then is time to look forward. By the way, during that game with Deep Fritz I had played very good chess. I simply cannot explain why I made that blunder. Usually such a blackout comes when you are feeling tired, or you have some sort of a problem, but at that time I felt great.
EURO: I would like to move from chess to politics. What do you think about the proclamations of Garry Kasparov, do you see the Russian political reality in a similar light?
KRAMNIK: I disagree with him. It seems to me that his political opinions are empty. Garry is too destructive for my liking. According to him, everything in Russia is wrong, Putin did everything wrong . B ut that is simply not true. I am convinced that if Kasparov wants to be in politics he needs to offer something positive too, something constructive. Even in the field of human rights protection in Russia there are a number of people doing a lot. Apart from criticising, they create something positive too, by helping some people. Garry’s approach to everything is just demagogic and destructive. I disagree with his opinion that the situation in Russia is as critical as he sees it. I go there often, my brother and my parents live there, so I think I have a pretty good insight. If you want to judge the current situation in Russia you must not take single aspects of it out of the general picture. It is the same as judging a position during a chess game – you need to bear in mind an entire chessboard.
Of course Russia is not a democracy on the same level as countries such as Germany or France, but you cannot judge today’s situation without taking in the historical context. Russia had never been a democratic country in the past, so that is why the transition is not easy. Nevertheless, nowadays eighty percent of the Russian population is not forced to fight for their existence, as they had to, some ten, fifteen years ago.
EURO: Eighty percent of people had difficulties to obtain food?
KRAMNIK: I don’t know exactly whether it was eighty, ninety or seventy, but an absolute majority of people was struggling to survive. The majority of people had to live with a maximum of fifty dollars a month, lots of them were starving as a result, lots of people were not able to obtain basic health care, they did not have enough money for medication, they were dying because of it.
EURO: Did you personally know somebody, who had to struggle to survive in the nineties?
KRAMNIK: Sure I did. For instance in my home town Tuapse, people were extremely poor. Even my own parents would not have been able to survive without my financial help. My father received pension of 50 dollars, and my mother a salary worth of 70 dollars. If I did not send money to them they would have had to live on bread and water. I value Jelzin’s courage to change the system completely and to adopt democracy. Unfortunately the society was not ready for it. Many people interpreted the changes as anarchy, where everything was allowed. Not only did poverty increase dramatically, but so did criminality – a number of murdered people a day in Moscow, that was the norm.
EURO: Do you think then that the situation in Russia in nineties was worse then during seventies or eighties?
KRAMNIK: Much worse. In seventies you couldn’t choose in shops exactly what you wanted, but everyone had enough money to obtain at least the basic needs. There was one kind of bread, two kinds of cheese, one kind of yogurt and two kinds of salami . But you had enough money to buy it. In the nineties, there were many varieties of everything available, but the vast majority of people could only afford bread and potatoes. If I have to choose between a totally open society, where most of the citizens live in total poverty, and the current system, which perhaps is not so open, but people are simply not dying like animals, then I prefer Putin’s Russia to the one of Jelzin.
EURO: And today?
KRAMNIK: Nowadays most of the people in Russia are better off than ever before. M aybe for the first time in several centuries the majority of the population in Russia lives as normal human beings, and they’re not afraid that they won’t have anything to give to their kids for supper. All sociological opinion polls agree that the Russian people see their situation more positively then before. I would not call the situation all rosy, but neither do I like the black and white division. I claim that in last ten years the situation in Russia has changed for the better, and that in general it is heading in the right direction.
We can name a number of problems, for instance that Russia lacks an independent television station, but it does not mean that there is the need to destroy everything. I believe that it is better to stay positive, to look for what can be made better, rather then destroying things. I understand that there are still problems in Russia, for instance corruption and a certain violation of human rights. This has to be solved. But for me the most important thing is the life quality of ordinary people.
Politics and politicians are not a priority to me. Instead of getting involved with their party arguments, questions concerning elections of governors or questions of presidential authority, the most important one is the everyday life of Russians and how the lives of ordinary people are developing. And ninety percent people have been better off for the last few years, which proves to me that things are not as bad as Garry presents them.
EURO: Is the improvement in the socio-economical situation the reason behind why so many people vote Putin?
KRAMNIK: Of course, this is the key to understanding the political situation in Russia. Western people don’t understand, they talk about democracy and about the competition of political parties. The fact is that the people in Russia support the President and the government. If the average income of USA households grew by three times in two years, believe me, a vast majority of Americans would wish Bush stays in office. So to me it is not a matter of democracy, it is a matter of how well you do your job as a President.
EURO: People abroad perceive Putin’s Russia with suspicion. Do you feel it as a Russian living in Paris (and previously in Germany)?
KRAMNIK: In general it can be said that people are afraid of a powerful Russia. I am convinced that it is an irrational fear, that Russia is no threat to anybody. I can guarantee you that Russians just want to lead a good quality life, and not to attack anybody. I am convinced that just as Germans have never tried to overrun the world after World War Two, Russians too do not want to rule the world any more. In the last twenty years Russia has never attacked another country, it has not been aggressive in international politics, there were no Russians planes and Russians soldiers bombarding another country, contrary to some other “democratic states”…
On the other hand, why shouldn’t Russia be one of the most powerful countries? It has huge mineral resources as well as intellectual capacity. I don’t wish Russia to rule the world, because I don’t want that any one country should dominate all others. The best thing would be if the power was balanced among a few strong players. And if one of them is Russia, that would not be bad for the world, in my opinion.
Special thanks to Mr. Carsten Hensel, Manager of Vladimir Kramnik, for sending me this interview.