Although Vladimir Kramnik retired from classical chess in January he returned to action in rapid chess this summer to play the likes of Vishy Anand, Peter Svidler and Anish Giri in the Levitov Chess Week in Amsterdam. Boris Gelfand also played, and his wife Maya conducted an unusual interview with Kramnik during the event. Vladimir talks about his place in chess history, what the World Championship title meant to him and also his fears for a major war or similar cataclysm in the near future.
Maya Gelfand, the author of a cook book, “How to Feed a Champion”, interviewed Vladimir Kramnik over dinner at the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam in August, with her husband Boris also there – as you’ll see, he joins at times during the interview. The interview was published in Russian on the Channel 9 website and we’ve translated most of it below:
Maya: Vladimir, how is retirement?
Vladimir: It’s not retirement, but more a change of activity. Previously as well I had no doubt that I wouldn’t play until I was 80 years old, but recently that decision grew and ripened all by itself. At the very least, I don’t regret it. I’ve cut away chess – for me that’s already the past.
But how can you forget the almost 40 years spent on chess?
There’s no need to forget it, but life goes on. There’s the chance to try something new, and I don’t want to let it slip.
You got bored of chess?
No, I can’t say that, although I had of course lost some
freshness of perception and motivation. I closed my eyes and dived into a world
completely unknown to me. I’m still young enough to learn a new profession. I
don’t know if it’ll work out or not.
So you want to start a new career from scratch?
I want to try.
And in what sphere?
For now I’m looking. There are a few projects that interest me, connected to artificial intelligence and new technologies – something in the field of education.
The uncertainty doesn’t scare you?
No. It’s a difficult period, of course. You have to start almost from scratch, but that’s also what makes it inspiring.
But you can allow yourself to take such decisions.
Yes, of course. Luckily I have the option of choosing, I don’t need to go to work from 8 to 6 in order to feed my family. I’m used to doing what I feel like. In principle in any field of activity we’re above all looking for emotion – positive, of course – and when that emotion has gone it becomes boring.
So the drive had gone?
Yes, and when it’s gone the question arises: so why go on?
But what can give you that adrenaline you got from chess?
There are different games. Some likes politics, others business. For now I’m looking for something that will give me the same emotions I got from chess.
Maya turns the conversation to Vladimir Kramnik’s greatest achievement – beating Garry Kasparov:
Well yes, someone was going to manage eventually, but…
…I don’t think I can compete with Kasparov in terms of achievements. His results and the scale of his play were superior, but any champion, even a great one, loses sooner or later.
So you think that the World Championship title is a question of fate?
In part. There are a lot of people worthy of it.
And one of them is sitting here with us.
Boris: I actually got to the situation where it was a question of fate. That question was decided in a single game. Pure roulette. (Boris Gelfand’s World Championship match against Vishy Anand was decided in tiebreaks in Moscow in 2012. Vishy won a drawn ending in the 2nd game while Boris drew a winning ending in the next)
In the history of chess there were quite a small number of people for whom you could say it was obvious that they would become champions: Fischer, Kasparov, Carlsen. I don’t think I belong among them. I think that I could perfectly well not have become champion.
So for you it happened by chance?
Not entirely. Simply I can’t say that it was destined by fate. But, to be honest, I didn’t even dream about it.
If I hadn’t become champion I wouldn’t have been an unhappy person. I took being champion as a bonus – not as recognition of my merits but as a nice bonus.
For me the most important thing was always competing with myself.
There’s a widely held view that Kasparov helped you get to the top, but you became his grave digger.
Well, without any false modesty, I think that I wouldn’t have sunk without a trace without him. Perhaps, thanks to him, it happened a little faster.
What do you think – did he see a potential rival in you?
He said so. I couldn’t imagine such a thing, of course, but in the end it turned out that he was right.
Winning is pleasant, but how did you handle defeats?
It differed, though overall I handled them quite steadily.
I don’t, to use a boxing term, have a “glass jaw”. And otherwise it doesn’t work – if you can’t withstand a blow you won’t become a major sportsman.
And what other personal qualities played a role in your career?
First, there was no fear of opponents – each game with a great chess player is, after all, a gift. Besides that, quite a stable nervous system and, most importantly, a balanced ego. I was always able to adequately assess myself, and that’s a colossal plus, in my view – to honestly admit your weaknesses to yourself, to try to grasp how to change or at least hide them.
I never considered myself a genius, but I also never underestimated myself.
When you became champion chess fans couldn’t forgive you two things: that you played a match without qualifying, and that you didn’t agree to play a rematch.
Boris: Can I take this?
Boris: It’s as Guberman puts it: “Jews find themselves blamed for everything. | For liveliness. For intelligence. For slouching. | That a Jew shot at the leader. | That she missed.” (Igor Guberman is the Jewish Russian writer Levon Aronian recently quoted after his World Cup defeat. The leader is Vladimir Lenin, who survived an assassination attempt by Fanny Kaplan in 1918)
Vladimir: I would respond like this: for me the criterion was always inner comfort and being at one with myself. What people said really didn’t bother me. It was no fault of mine that I played a match without qualifying. Circumstances worked out that way and I took advantage – there was an opportunity and I took it.
And refusing to play a rematch?
The thing was that we signed a contract where it was clearly stated that the match loser would play in the Candidates Tournament. It was not merely that Kasparov signed it, he drafted it himself.
So he was sure that it wasn’t going to apply to him?
I don’t know if he was sure of anything but, after losing, a wave of accusations began that I was actually following the conditions of his contract. It was totally absurd, but that’s how the media works.
So all of his campaign against you was exclusively PR?
Of course. Love and hate are very easily bought.
Maya notes that reunifying the chess world so there was only one World Championship title proved almost as difficult as winning the match.
In general I didn’t realise how tough a task it would be – to revive the system and end the chaos. And, despite all the blows that I had to parry from various sides, I managed. I think, above all, because I firmly kept to my position. It was obvious that if I gave an inch the mess would go on.
Boris: Can I say something? There would have been two possibilities. The first: Volodya wins. Then he and Kasparov play matches regularly to the end of their lives. The second: Volodya loses. Then there would be no more matches and Kasparov would be declared a lifelong champion.
Vladimir: Yes, it could have been a repeat of the endless Karpov-Kasparov matches. I could have gone down that path, but I was against it on principle. It shouldn’t be like that.
Is it tough to be World Champion?
It’s nevertheless easier than working in a factory.
Did it weigh on you?
What weighed on me was that I took my principled position, which the majority of influential people in the chess world at that moment didn’t like. And my every mistake or unsuccessful result was used in a war against me.
Did you have the impression that you constantly had to prove to those around you that you were the “real” champion?
Yes, of course. I understood that I was guaranteed nothing. By that I mean that formally I was the World Champion, but they might not allow me to play the next match against the challenger. They could declare a new cycle in which I wouldn’t take part. Historically it had never been the case that the champion had to prove that he was the champion. I was obliged to be the best in the world in order to get the right to the next match. That was tough, of course. I had no right to make a mistake.
Maya mentions that Vladimir needed to take a break from chess for a few months because of health problems.
Yes, it was a difficult period. I’m not sure if there have been such periods in the history of chess when so much pressure has been applied to the champion from different sides, but I developed an immunity to attacks and my character was toughened. Now, looking back, I’m grateful that it happened that way.
When you lost the title did it get easier?
I never had a fanatical devotion to the title, and when I lost to Vishy Anand, a great chess player, it was more that I was annoyed with myself. I frankly collapsed in that match. Therefore, to some extent, I was freed from that burden.
So it wasn’t the tragedy of your life for you?
No, not at all! That’s probably why I lost.
I had the feeling that I’d fulfilled my task: I’d reunited the chess world and built a system that had begun to work.
If I hadn’t managed to achieve that I’d probably feel some disappointment, but as it was – I’d done my job.
Maya tells an anecdote about how Kramnik and Gelfand, at the time the world numbers 3 and 6, discussed a game at a greengrocer’s stall in Israel. The greengrocer eventually asked what they were talking about, and learning it was chess, commented, “But guys, what do you do for a living?”
How do those around you see you? Do people ask: what do you actually do?
In general people are very surprised that you can earn money even from chess, if you play well, but the way the modern world is built what won’t people pay money for? There are no longer any clear guidelines: what to pay for or not to pay for. Perhaps someone starts a blog, writes nonsense and earns millions, while a brilliant physicist works in an institute for cents. The world is so chaotic. Why, for example, should a volleyball player get many times less money than a footballer? There’s no logical explanation.
Do you envy anyone?
No, I’m satisfied with my life and my earnings. It’s enough for me.
Chess is an elite form of activity. Do you feel as though you’re part of the world intellectual elite?
No. For me chess is not so much a sport as a cultural and intellectual phenomenon, even in part scientific. It’s hard for me to fit myself into some framework. In general, I don’t like any restrictions.
And who are you? A sportsman? An intellectual? An artist?
I’m a person living his life. I see the world with a huge number of nuances. I always stand for common sense. That, by the way, also applies to politics. I’m neither left-wing nor right-wing. I stand for adequacy.
And, by the way, on politics: you have a French wife and French children, but a few years ago you took the decision to leave France, where you lived for many years, for neighbouring Switzerland. Why?
I can’t say there was any one concrete reason. It was more that the general situation stopped appealing to me. My feeling was that the future of France is not so promising. It seems to me that the general situation will only get worse. I don’t see any ways in which it could suddenly sharply improve.
That’s your feeling?
It’s an analysis of the facts, an analysis of the general picture. I came to that conclusion. Perhaps it’s wrong, but at the end of the day, any conclusion is subjective.
You don’t have that feeling in Switzerland?
No. In Switzerland, of course, both society and the political structures are much saner, although nowadays it’s impossible to be sure of anything, even Swiss stability.
And in the world in general, how do you assess the situation?
Not very good. It seems to me that degradation has undoubtedly occurred. It seems to me that the world is moving in the wrong direction. In my opinion that will lead to some point of great tension.
You mean it could explode?
I think the likelihood of a major war or some major social cataclysm has risen sharply in the last 10-15 years. It seems to me we’re approaching a point of no return, after which something very big and unpleasant will occur. That “something” will hurt, of course, everyone and all spheres of life. But then, from the ruins, something new will arise.
In general politics has now turned so much into show business that it simply doesn’t make sense to take it seriously. I have the feeling that the actions of politicians lack any kind of content. What they provide us doesn’t carry any weight of meaning, so we’re left to discuss some tweets, some outfits, some nonsense. It’s show business.
It seems to you that the situation is getting out of control?
It seems to me that the majority of politicians don’t understand what’s happening in the world today – how people live, how technology is developing, where we’re heading at all. They can’t keep up with the changes that are taking place. Those people are out of date. Given the speed of the changes that are taking place, on the one hand, and the slow pace of society and power on the other, it’s inevitably going to lead to some kind of explosion. Nowadays there’s no concept of long-term planning. Everyone thinks in short-term categories: to win the election, to survive to the next election, then again to go to the election. No-one has a strategy of development. And that really worries me.
You’ve painted such an apocalyptic picture! You’re not Jewish, by any chance?
Many people are concerned by that topic. I wouldn’t have anything against being Jewish, but my father is Russian and my mother is Ukrainian, and not only by passport but in reality.