Vladimir Kramnik spoke to Marina and Sergey Makarychev for
over an hour on their Russian YouTube channel about his retirement from chess
and plans for the future. He explained how he felt the moment had come to
retire after the Berlin Candidates, when he noticed the outcome of games had ceased
to bother him as much as before. His plans now include writing books and the “moral
duty” to help develop a new generation of Russian chess talents in the same way
as Mikhail Botvinnik and others helped him, while he wouldn’t rule out a
rematch with Garry Kasparov.

If you know Russian you may want to watch the full interview with
Vladimir Kramnik here:

The following English transcript is based on the transcript published on ng.ru:

Vladimir. The news of
your retirement from chess has rocked the chess world. What’s behind that decision?
You’re only 43 years old, which in chess terms is not so much. Couldn’t you
still have kept playing and winning for a long time?

I never hid the fact that at some point after 40 I’d quit
playing. If you read my previous interviews [see e.g. Vladimir
Kramnik: “It turns out I’m 52, not 40!”
] you’ll see that on more than one
occasion I said that if I lose motivation, if I can’t play as interestingly and
freshly as before, then… In general, I had the clear feeling after the
Candidates Tournament that the moment had come. As early as by summer I’d taken
the decision to quit, and in the autumn I understood that my farewell
appearance would be the tournament in Wijk aan Zee. It was the last contract
I’d signed at that moment. I didn’t want to attract too much attention to
myself during the tournament, so I decided to announce my retirement
immediately after Wijk aan Zee.

On our YouTube
channel memes from your fans are circulating: #kramnikreturn,
#kramnikthegreatest. What’s the main reason for your retirement?

I felt I could no longer give my all. I still, as before,
have a real love for chess, but I suddenly began to feel that the result of a
game had stopped bothering me as much as it had until only very recently. And
with such an attitude, that comes from somewhere within, it’s hard to count on
good sporting results. It might seem like an attempt at self-justification, but
I arrived in Wijk aan Zee without any thought about the result. I simply wanted
to play bold, interesting chess. However, I was surprised to discover that our
subconscious has a very strong influence on our consciousness. Because I’d told
myself that the tournament would be my last, and the sporting result wasn’t too
important, I simply couldn’t manage to concentrate during the games! There was
a constant battle between my brain, which just didn’t want to switch on, and
the urge nevertheless to force it to strain itself.  

There were, however, also clear non-chess moments. So in the
last round, against Shankland, I could have forced a draw by making the most
natural of moves, after which we’d immediately have shaken each other’s hand
and gone our separate ways. It was clear at the time that by rejecting that
decision I was going to be forced to defend a difficult endgame, but I had the
totally irrational desire to extend (even at the cost of probable defeat) my
last game even if just by an hour. And I finally grasped that in a certain
sense I’d already stopped being a professional chess player, since I’d taken a
decision based on considerations that were very far from sport. I’d nevertheless
always played with total dedication.

By the way, something similar happened a few days before
that as well in the game against Anand. Vishy played the opening very well with
Black and, instead of simply bringing the struggle to an end and fixing a dull
draw, I made a totally crazy move while understanding perfectly well that after
it I’d have a bad position. 

I really wanted to play a truly bold and
interesting game against Vishy Anand, my historic opponent and friend. In a
certain sense, I managed…

Life after life… What
are you planning to do after retiring from chess? After all, it’s unlikely
you’ll be able to rest for long?

Yes, at first I wanted to rest, but somehow life doesn’t
allow it. I’m curious to see what comes of my projects, since I’ve been playing
chess since I was five. The life of a chess professional is very specific!
You’re always thinking about the game and you find yourself under constant
pressure: after all, a tournament’s always starting soon. You need to prepare
and get into good sporting form. I’ll probably miss the adrenaline you get from
playing, but I’m not afraid of this new stage. Of course I don’t know how it
will work out, and it’s unlikely it’ll be more successful than the chess one,
but I’m interested in trying it out.

I’ve got a lot of projects. After all, I’m a social person
and I’ve built up a lot of links with interesting people who I can implement
those projects with. One of them is a global children’s project. I suspect that
the world is going to change a great deal in 10-20 years, and we need to
prepare a new generation of children, to instill in them flexibility of thought
and the ability to apply your knowledge in various spheres of activity. After
all, we’ve got no idea what professions will remain and be suitable for our
children in the future, so the ability to react fast to changes in the
surrounding environment will become a trump card, the main competitive
advantage for young people. I’d like to develop those skills in the upcoming
generation through chess, but not only through chess.

I also have an idea about helping talented kids from 17 to
20 years old, who are at the age when they’re graduating from the chess section
of Sirius, and preparing them to be elite chess players. I feel that I could
work seriously on that: I’ve got vast experience and vast professional
knowledge. Yes, chess remains popular in our country, but objectively speaking
in the last ten years the only new elite chess players who have made it into
the Top 10 are Nepomniachtchi and Karjakin. You can’t help but be worried about

After all, our Russian team – Peter Svidler (he’s only a
year younger than me) and Sasha Grischuk – we’re no longer so young. I’d like to
prepare a new generation of top players. Spending time and energy on that is
something that interests me and is, as they say, my moral duty, but of course
for something to happen some kind of sponsorship will be essential. It’s not
the first year that I’ve been working in Sirius entirely for free, and working
constantly there should be a full workload. I’d like to do something like
Botvinnik, who quit chess and created a school that one way or another developed
both Karpov, and Kasparov, and I was at the school too, and almost the whole cream
of Russian chess. Perhaps I wouldn’t have become World Champion if their
experience hadn’t been passed on to me by Botvinnik, Tseshkovsky, Kasparov…

I have plans to train a top player, who in time could become
World Champion. I wouldn’t rule out such a possibility – it’s interesting and a
challenge. There are a few more projects not connected to chess so, as you can
see, I’m not going to be idle – that’s one thing you can be sure of.

Have you thought
about writing a chess book or memoirs?

Both of those are possible, but I’ll definitely write a
purely chess book. Many fans and even professionals have begged me to write one
or two chess books. Many like my commentary and how I talk about chess. I think
I’ll also work on that.

Vladimir, you’re the
only chess player to beat Garry Kasparov in a match…

That was a remarkable match and probably my most notable
achievement. I went into that match at the peak of my powers and managed to win
convincingly against the greatest of chess players. Before the start I didn’t
expect anything of the sort, or to be more precise, I didn’t think about it – I
simply wanted to play as well as possible. In the end it worked out very

Back then in 2000 the
chess world was eager to see a new match, a rematch against Garry Kasparov… Did
you ever regret that the match never took place?

Many people still don’t know about it, but the question
wasn’t only or so much whether I wanted or was ready to play a rematch against
Kasparov. I’d very gladly have played that match and, by the way, I did a lot for
it to take place, but when I became World Champion I considered it my duty to
establish a stable World Championship cycle, the lack of which was something
almost all the top players of the late 90s had suffered badly from.

Yes, I was very lucky personally that I managed to play
Garry Kasparov, but in the system that he himself developed (together with
Braingames), there was no point about a rematch! Besides, Garry himself
insisted on excluding such a point since rematches contradicted the whole
spirit of the system he established, according to which the loser of the London
match would start the next cycle in the Candidates Tournament. If you’re
talking personally about me, then in order to play a rematch I would have
unilaterally had to rip up the contract I’d signed. I conducted a lot of
consultations with the main organiser from Braingames, who was ready to tempt
Kasparov by significantly increasing the prize fund of the Candidates cycle
but, alas, Garry wanted to play against me bypassing any kind of qualification.
I’m convinced that he made a big mistake back then, since it’s almost certain
that Garry would not only have qualified for a match against me but would
thereby also have fully legitimised the new World Championship cycle.   

Looking back on those distant events I can say that I would
act exactly the same way now. After all, in the final analysis it was precisely
during my “reign” that we managed to restore a clear classical qualification
system and unite the chess world. If I’d ripped up my contract and agreed to
play a rematch in 2001, for which, by the way, there weren’t any sponsors at
the time (that’s another story), it’s possible that regardless of the result of
the match the chess world would still be divided now. In other words, despite
hugely regretting not getting to play against Garry Kasparov again, I’m
convinced that I did the right thing …

And is it possible
that now, having retired from chess, you can play a retro-match in (using his
terminology) “the World Champion retirees club”?

I’d happily play such a match, since I haven’t quit chess in
general but just professional chess. In other words, I wouldn’t reject playing
in some friendly exhibition matches – rapid or blitz matches that interest the
public. Playing against Garry – in any format and with any time control – would
be extremely interesting for me. After all, Kasparov is the greatest of chess
players, and if someone offers I’d be extremely happy to face him.

By the way, and off topic, I can say that in 2005 I almost
played a match… with Fischer. We held negotiations on a match in Fischer Random
chess – he proposed it himself. My friend Joël Lautier flew to Iceland and held
two days of talks with Fischer. As Joël told me on his return, Fischer would
agree and then again start to have doubts. In the end nothing came of it. A
huge pity!

You’ve never been
involved in politics, but a World Champion can’t get away from chess politics…

At the start of the 2000s, when I became World Champion, and
chess found itself at its lowest ebb, I was essentially alone against everyone.
FIDE really didn’t like that there was some champion independent of them, but
I’m very glad that I’ve made a contribution to the chess world in its current
state, with a clear World Championship cycle. After all, I lost my title to
Anand when things had already normalised. Vishy also made a big contribution to
raising respect for chess. He did it constantly with his decency, openness and
nobility. As a result chess rose to a new level, there were no more big scandals,
and there are incomparably more good tournaments around the world.

By the way, I really like what’s happening just now in the
chess world. There have been positive changes: Arkady Dvorkovich was elected
FIDE President. I can see how the whole chess world is rallying around him –
both the players and organisers. Chess forces are being consolidated. Anand,
and myself, and Judit Polgar. Carlsen has spoken very positively about FIDE. I
think that together we’ll work at raising chess to a new level.

Vladimir, how would
you evaluate the presidency of Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, that’s now come to an end?

Overall I evaluate it positively. Yes, there were mistakes,
yes, a lot of things could have been done a lot better, but in any case an
awful lot of good was done. As for his team, and Makropoulos in particular –
there I have serious questions. I respect what was done. From the outside it
might seem as though: become president and do what you want, but after all, you
constantly have to look for sponsors, find money, settle conflicts, iron
everything out, for example, during my reunification match against Topalov. I
think we should express gratitude for Ilyumzhinov, for all the pluses and
minuses. The man did what he could – and now we find ourselves at a relatively
decent level, especially if you compare it to 1995, when he came along. That’s
probably to his credit.

See also: