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Braingames World Chess Championships

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 becoming extraordinary…

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 chess champion.

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 the match.

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 Kramnik!

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 World Champion?

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 comeback.

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 was?

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 it.

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?

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 Akopian’s.

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 situations.

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 this position.

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 – that’s crucial!

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 happen.

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.

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