BOY FROM THE BLACK SEA
Vladimir Kramnik in
interview with John Henderson
Born in the quiet, sleepy town of Tuapse, one of the most
southerly towns in the Black Sea coast of the former Soviet Union,
Vladimir Kramnik, from the early age of four, showed great promise
at chess despite no one in his house able to teach him.
At the early age of five, he was already attending the town’s
House of Pioneers. By the age of seven, he had already won the adult
championship of his town and had become something of a local
celebrity. By the age of eleven, he had made it to the famous school
of Mikhail Botvinnik, where he stood by the demonstration board his
head already reached the eighth rank; his height, like his play was
He first burst onto the world stage at Manila in 1992 – at the
behest of the then world champion Garry Kasparov – when he displayed
maturity of play far beyond his early years, as he became the
youngest player to represent Russia in the Chess Olympiad. After
winning the gold medal for the overall board prize with a phenomenal
score of 8.5/9 on the day of his 17th birthday, Kramnik was tipped
to be the natural heir to Kasparov’s world crown. Now, as we
fast-forward some eight years, that early promise has been
fulfilled: he’s just beaten Kasparov to become the fourteenth world
Lord Rennell of Rodd
I arrive at his plush rented Thames side retreat in Chiswick some
24 hours after he won the title. Warmly greeted by his main second,
Miguel Illescas, I’m taken into the kitchen-cum reception area,
where I’m equally welcomed, and made to feel at home by his manager,
Lord Rennell of Rodd, a 65-year-old peer of the realm who not only
once played rugby for Scotland, but also used to be the rugby
correspondent for my newspaper, The Scotsman!
Miguel Illescas and his uncle Antonio who acted as cook during
It was explained to me that this was the first time since the
match started that anyone had been let near the house – not even
family, wives, girlfriends or close friends. It was part of their
grand plan for victory. The house was strictly off limits to anyone
other than “team Kramnik”: Kramnik; his main seconds, Miguel
Illescas, Joel Lautier and Evgeny Bareev; manager Lord Rennell;
Kramnik’s personal trainer, and his cook, Miguel’s uncle, Antonio.
The big joke within the camp was that the house sort of took on the
appearance and feel of the cult TV show Big Brother – they
were all stuck in it and did everything together. The big question
was: Who would Garry Kasparov liked to have voted out first! As I
sat enjoying their convivial hospitality (Incidentally, the first
time in seven weeks that alcohol had been allowed in the house), in
casually walked the man who now followed in a long and illustrious
line stretching back to Willhelm Steinitz in 1886 – Vladimir
Bareev and Lautier
Vladimir had only managed to get to bed at 9.00am that day after
winning the world crown from Kasparov. While some, anticipating this
as a night of drunken celebration after a historic victory, in
reality, the reason for getting to bed at such an hour couldn’t have
been further from the truth: He’d been up all night analysing the
final game all night with his seconds!
Still, he looked fresh despite that fact that he’d been doing the
“media shift” for most of the afternoon and early evening as the
world came to grips with his historic victory over Kasparov. Of
course, I couldn’t just arrive for an audience with the fourteenth
world champion without a gift, so I decided to offer my
congratulations in the traditional Scottish way with the gift of a
celebratory bottle of 12-year-old single Scottish Malt Whisky. “But
John,” he joked with such a straight face. “Don’t you know that I’ve
given up alcohol now that I’m the world champion!”
Kramnik with his prize
Escorted into the plush “War Room” where all the critical
decisions in the match were taken, he sat down on one of the comfy
sofas and casually drank a cup of lemon tea while eating a ham
sandwich. Kramnik had by now begun to relax and opened himself up
for questioning from your reporter.
First of all, Vladimir, congratulations on a superb match! At
what point in your mind did you think you could really become the
Believe me, it was always in my mind to be World Champion! But,
for sure, it had to be after game 10. That was the moment for
certain. Then I knew it must…it must happen. Certainly in the middle
of the match I knew there was a chance it may never happen, but in
reality [after Kasparov went 2-0 down] I couldn’t see how he could
At Wijk aan Zee you admitted you were tired and lacked energy.
When you came to London it was clear that you had lost a lot of
weight and looked much fitter. What did you do to achieve this? Did
you have a personal physical trainer?
Yes, I’m much fitter now than I have ever been! I gave up smoking
a few months back. For the last six months I’ve also been using the
services of a top sports trainer: Valeriy Krylov [who also used to
work with Anatoly Karpov], who in the past has been a trainer to the
Russian Basketball team. He has worked out an exercise regime for me
and has also looked at what and when I eat.
I did a lot of physical training along with Miguel [Illescas] in
Majorca in the weeks running up to arriving in London for the match
– swimming, weight training and volleyball. Here in London, before
the match started [Kramnik and his team have been in London
three-weeks before the match started], we played some tennis – but
not when the match started! That would have been just too much –
even for a super-fit me!
It made a big difference to my match stamina. I couldn’t imagine
I would have been so energetic during the match – it really gave me
a welcomed extra boost! There were some people around that couldn’t
work out how I could have played some of those tough games, yet
comeback looking lean and fit and ready for another game with
Kasparov. For them, even sitting in the audience looking at the
games, it was tiring. So it baffled them how I had so much energy.
Nobody else in the world can handle Kasparov like you – why do
you think Kasparov can’t play against you as he does against others?
Don’t get me wrong here – Kasparov is a great player, fantastic
player. But most of the players tend to be afraid of him when they
shouldn’t. I can see it in their eyes when they come to the board to
play him. They just want to make some moves and stop the clock. I
tell you, this isn’t the way play against Garry! He can literally
sense the fear. He “feels” it and this gives him additional powers
at the board.
So basically it’s very simple: to start with, if you want to win
the match, you shouldn’t be afraid of him. There are still many,
many things to do, but above all this is the most important: Don’t
be scared of him!
Many people feel that this was a match that Alexei Shirov
should have played rather than you, since he beat you to win through
to play Kasparov in 1997. What’s your view on this?
I personally don’t feel any guilt or any responsibility for the
situation that Shirov finds himself in. Remember, I was also a
victim of it. Also, many people forget that Kasparov was also a sad
victim of what happened in this incident with the World Chess
Council, Luis Rentero and the Andalusian government.
Now, two years have passed and the situation is completely
different: no one wants to organise this match. The moment has gone.
We cannot hold everything up for him so it can be organised. Yes,
it’s a pity for him what has happened, but it’s life. I don’t think
that his complaints are justified - especially after everything he
said: they were simply rude. Not rude to me, but rude to chess
because he was making all these statements that this match was going
to be pre-arranged and I was going to lose.
Okay, this isn’t bad for me but it’s definitely bad for chess –
He continues to write these statements in chess magazines across the
world and chess amateurs read them and the first thing they think is
“there’s trouble in the chess world, this top player say’s so.” He
should stop and stop now. He’s doing damage not only to himself by
what he says but also to the chess world at large.
You seem so calm at the board – much like the great Boris
Spassky. Are you nervous inside, as Spassky later admitted he
No – I’m quite calm inside during the game for most of the time -
not 100%, but generally very calm. I don’t like to show my emotions
at the board, not because they might give something away to an
opponent, but because that’s my style: I like to keep it to myself.
In this respect I suppose I’m the total opposite of Garry. With
his very emotive body language at the board he shows and displays
all his emotions. I don’t.
There’s been a lot of speculation that, now with you as world
champion, that behind the scenes Fide have already started work on a
possible unification match. Many chess fans would very much like to
see this happen. What’s your reaction? And would you talk to Kirsan
Iljumzhinov about such a possibility?
At the moment there’s nothing I can tell you about it. It is
something that may be considered but at the moment I have a contract
with Braingames. If they [Braingames] want to do something with Fide
– great! It will be very interesting and I would certainly consider
If Braingames don’t, they have fulfilled an obligation to me.
I’ll certainly make sure that I fulfil any obligation I have to
them. I don’t mind to talk to Kirsan, but I’ll not do anything that
would ever endanger my obligations to Braingames.
There’s been much talk in the past – and in particular in the
run-up to this match – about Kasparov teaching you at the legendary
Kasparov\Botvinnik Chess School in Russia. Did you really receive
much personal tuition from Kasparov, or did mostly other trainers do
It wasn’t personal. Not really. At the school we were in groups
of twelve – Garry would spend maybe three days at a time when he
would be giving lectures and doing simuls. This tale about him being
“my teacher” was simply a journalist’s story – Botvinnik himself
mainly did all of our training.
Garry would simply give what precious time he could to the school
as he could. You could say he was my teacher as he was Shirov’s and
Where he did help me though was in his insisting that I should be
included in the Russian squad for the Manila Olympiad in 1992. He
put his neck on the line here in this respect. He basically saw the
raw talent that I had and helped to nurture it along. He really
didn’t need to do this. It must have been obvious at the time to him
that he saw me as being a “threat” to his crown. But in all fairness
to him, despite this potential threat in the future, this never
stopped him from giving help.
Now this brings me neatly to another topic of interest with
your past workings with Kasparov. Do you think that it was a sort of
world championship suicide on his part to allow you to be his second
against Anand in 1995?
You know this is a question that can be looked at in two ways:
Not only did I get to know him better, but he also got to know me
better! Both of us could have taken an advantage from this from
seeing how each other worked.
But it was not basically to someone’s advantage – it was who
would make the better use of this information. I know I certainly
did! I basically got to know and understand him much, much better –
he didn’t with me. So yes, in a way, he contributed to his own
downfall. But not such a major contribution as a lot of people have
made it out to be.
How is your relationship with Kasparov now? And how did he
react to the defeat?
I feel that my relationship with Kasparov now is much the same as
it had been before the match – good. As for his reaction, we’ll it
can’t be nice to lose your title after so long, but he was very
generous. It was a very gentlemanly behaviour on his part. He
congratulated me on my victory and admitted that I should have won.
He accepted me as the new world champion. No one can have any
complaints about what must have been a sad moment for him – he
accepted his defeat with good grace.
Preparation appears to have won you this match. It seems that
your backroom team of Lautier, Illescas and Bareev were much better
than Kasparov’s. Do you think that this was a major reason for your
victory? And in comparison, why do you think that Kasparov’s own
team here were often criticised?
I don’t know anything about Kasparov’s team, but from what I know
they are a very serious and hard working group of players. I believe
they were doing their job – I’m sure they didn’t just sit around all
day drinking wine! But it’s clear that my team were definitely
working better – very clear!
I made a better decision in choosing my team. Sure, I had a
bigger choice of players to choose from – but I couldn’t have asked
for a harder working group of players who did an incredible job.
They had simply one aim: Helping me to become World Champion, which
I thank them for.
They are very hard workers in their own right and I’m more than
satisfied with what they did. Even if I hadn’t have won the match I
couldn’t have thanked them enough for what they did – especially
their efforts in the final week. Most of them hardly slept during
this period. It was work, work, work and more work. I think the only
rest they got was when I actually played the games!
After the match Garry Kasparov said that you had
“out-prepared” him and after game two all his opening preparation
went right out of the window. Is this true?
No, but this is very subjective…very subjective. We both had some
sort of strategy before the match - and mine won through. Of course
it was obvious for all to see that Kasparov had worked hard for this
match. But, because of my own strategy winning through, he couldn’t
realise his own. And, you know, this is crucial in match-play
Okay, we both had openings that we both had advantages from. But
take this Archangel ending from game 11. Yes, this ending favoured
White – I knew it favoured White. But the point was that I knew he
wouldn’t like this sort of position. I wanted to find a way to play
against him by finding some positions that he didn’t feel all that
confident with – and it was evident he didn’t feel comfortable with
How did you hit upon the idea of the Berlin Defence as a way
to neutralise Kasparov – was it your own idea to play it?
No! It was just one of the many candidates I looked at with my
team. Don’t think for one minute I arrived in London with this as my
only defence! Certainly I prepared it for the match – but it
certainly wasn’t the only thing I had prepared! But it simply went
well, as I suspiciously thought it would.
The Berlin Defence suited my strategy for the match. I had a
defensive strategy – Actually, I had in my pocket some other sharper
stuff to fall back on – but first I wanted to try the defensive
strategy with Black and it worked so well. This was all new to
Kasparov – he probably expected me to fight for equality with Black.
Okay, when you start to fight for equality, like Anand did in
1995, you could end up losing game 10, like he did, without putting
up any kind of fight. With the Berlin you get a “feel” for the
positions. I accepted that the endgame was better for White, but he
has to win over the board, not with his legendary home preparation –
With the Berlin I was able to set up a fortress that he could
come near but not breach. When others play against Kasparov they
want to keep him distant. I let him in close but I knew where the
limit was. I think this surprised him because normally when you
fight, you don’t want your opponent to have some advantage, but I
gave some advantage from the beginning. Close enough to touch my
wall, closer, closer, but not break it. Someone even compared it to
Ali’s “rope-a-dope” trick against George Foreman – this was a very
good analogy! Okay, I suffered a little, but with some defences
Black commits his forces leaving behind openings into his camp. But
with the Berlin, I was able to allow him to get near, but not quite
near enough, and I knew where to draw the line with the fortresses I
had set up.
At some point he seemed to lose all confidence trying to break
down the Berlin Wall. He was still fighting as only Kasparov can,
but I could see it in his eyes that he knew he wasn’t going to win
one of these games. For him it was always a case of “Better, better,
better…draw!” This is what broke him down psychologically. It was
all very difficult for him as he’s used to winning ever second
tournament game. This was my strategy and it worked very well.
Did it surprise you that Kasparov didn’t attempt a do-or-die
comeback towards the end with something like the Scotch, Evans
Gambit or even the King’s Gambit?
No. This didn’t cross my mind at all. For a start the match was
too short for this sort of policy. If it had been a 24-game match
then yes, he could have perhaps experimented earlier on to try and
probe for weaknesses – but not in a 16 game match.
He understood that I would be very well prepared for the Scotch
and things like the Evans. Once he had selected the path he was
going down he really had to stick with it in a 16 game match. He had
to try and hit in the one direction but unfortunately for him –
though fortunately for me! – he hit in the wrong direction.
After the match, Kasparov appeared to challenge you to a
rematch. He said that the new champion should follow his example and
defend the title against the strongest candidate. Will you play a
rematch with Kasparov?
Please, give me a chance; I’ve only just won the title! I haven’t
thought about it.
After such a tough match you need time to recuperate. You can’t
play such a match in the same year; you need at least a couple of
years. It’s nothing to do with me keeping my title – far from it.
It’s because it is so tough both physically and psychologically. A
rematch is a possibility, but I would say at the moment it is just
an idea of his [Kasparov’s]. It doesn’t mean that this is going to
Now that you’ve taken Kasparov’s crown, will you know also be
looking to replace him as the world number one?
Of course! You know, our ratings after this match will be very
close – I think I can also become the world number one in the not
too distant future. However, I’m sure that Garry will also have
something to say about this!
Will you now be taking a rest, or perhaps a holiday following
this match? And when will you be next playing?
Yes, for sure! I’ll probably be spending some time holidaying in
Europe for a period. No chess, just friends and some books! I think
after what I’ve been through in the last six months or so I deserve
this break from chess. As for my return, I’ll be playing Peter Leko
in early January in a speed chess match in Germany. After that, it
is, of course, the delights of Wijk aan Zee.
Thank you very much world champion Vladimir Kramnik! On behalf
of our readers, I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate
you on their behalf after winning the title, and to once again thank
you for this interview.