Former world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik surprised followers the world over by announcing retirement last month. A giant of the game during his time and among the all-time greats, the Russian was famous for his association with the legendary Garry Kasparov, who he helped during his reign as world champion and beat in a championship match.
In an exclusive interview with The New Indian Express, Kramnik says he has lost the hunger to compete. He treasures his friendship with Viswanathan Anand, follows Indian chess and believes the country is a powerhouse of talented players. He foresees another Indian world champion in the near future. The 43-year-old adds that he is spiritually inclined towards India and wants to interact with talented players here.
Announcement of retirement came as a surprise. Can you explain?
I always wanted to try something else than professional chess one day, and since lately my motivation and joy of playing chess decreased, I decided that it is the right moment to start something new, having still enough energy for new projects.
Are you satisfied with your career on the whole?
I never expected to achieve that much, still wondering how I managed to do it. So definitely yes. It (career) was satisfying.
You are the only player to beat Garry Kasparov in a match. Can you tell us how you achieved it?
No idea, I simply wanted to give my best in the match against the greatest possible opponent at that time, and see what happens. Did not expect that my best (performance) would be enough to win. So after that match I realised that we all are capable of more that what we can really imagine.
Kasparov always found you a tough opponent. What was the reason for that?
He (Kasparov) has been rating me (too) highly since my younger days. I believe that we should not underestimate the power of our subconscious mind. Kasparov saw the spark of a quality player in me when I was just 17 and publicly said that I had the potential to be a world champion. Another reason may be was that possibly, I was not such a bad chess player in 2000.
What are your recollections of the stunning show (8.5/9) on debut at the 1992 Olympiad in Manila?
As most of good performances, I had in my career, I could not believe and understand how I managed it. At times, I used to ponder why opponents are playing as if they forgot everything they had learned in their childhood about chess. The thought that maybe I was already quite strong at that moment came years after.
Classical head-to-head score between Kramnik and Anand remains equal after 93 games: 11 wins, 11 losses & 71 draws. What are your memories of that intense rivalry?
The sharpest memory is of course that our first one in Moscow in 1989 ended in a draw. That fast playing Indian was already very impressive by then, much more than the boy in shorts in front of him! Pity no one took a photo of us playing that day. I would have given a lot to look at it 30 years after...
Friendships are rare at the top level of sport. Despite losing the world title to Anand in 2008, you remained his good friend. How was that possible?
I have always divided situations and seen to it that chess concurrence and human relations are two different things. For me, competing on the chess board was never personal, it’s just a game after all. I did not believe in being negative towards an opponent who wants to beat you since you also want exactly the same thing. And I have always appreciated Vishy’s human qualities apart from his unique chess talent. And since you have to lose your championship title one day, he (Anand) was the best player and person to pass it to. That was the way I felt back than and I still do.
While growing up, which chess player influenced you the most?
Probably (Anatoly) Karpov first, just because in my rather provincial native town, his best games book was the only one available when I started to play chess. Then there were many other players, but as the famous adage goes, first love is always first love...
Who are the coaches who made a big impact in your chess career?
I didn’t have a permanent coach for many years. Liked working with different people and tried to understand their way of thinking and enriched my understanding of the game that way. So quite a few of them made an impact.
On winning the crunch game against Peter Leko to retain World Championship title in 2004?
Just wanted to give it a try without worrying about outcome. Again managed, don’t know how and why. As my good old friend and second Miguel Illescas put it minutes after that game had finished in our private conversation, “Volodya, this is just karma!” I tend to agree with him, this seems to me like the most sensible explanation.
Magnus Carlsen has been dominating chess from 2011. What are the qualities which make him special?
Great talent, nerve system and 100% focus on chess. Very competitive by nature and with flush of youth. So more or less, he has everything you need to be a good chess player.
Levon Aronian has won most of the big tournaments. How do you explain his capitulation time and again at the Candidates?
I think he can explain it better himself if he would wish to one day. My guess is that he is a multifaceted personality and has too many interests. Nowadays, one has to be very intelligent to be a world champion. To achieve that (become a world champion) you need to sleep, think, live chess and only chess.
There is a perception that chess engines have robbed chess of its romance. What is your take on that?
I try to take things as they are. It has pluses and minuses. For professionals more minuses, for chess lovers more pluses, that is my opinion.
How do you rate compatriots Danil Dubov and Vladislav Artemiev?
Talented, but concurrence is high nowadays, many other qualities needed to be on top. Hope they will manage.
Which is your favourite chess book?
The one I am planning to write in near future! Seriously speaking, there are not many good books in percentage, but still enough in amount.
What are your plans post-retirement?
To live happily, the rest will follow.
The competition is really hot now with youngsters from the world over making a mark. What does Anand need to do to have another crack at the world title?
I am totally convinced Vishy knows better (what to do) than anyone else, so wouldn’t dare to give my advice. He doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. He is already one of the best chess players in history. Hope he continues to enjoy chess, that is the most important thing.
How do you rate R Praggnanandhaa, a young and promising Grandmaster from India. Your advice for him to go up the ladder?
You have a golden generation in India now, with several highly talented kids. All of them can become in the near future one of or the best in the world. I know them all by their names and saw their games too. I sincerely believe India will become a chess superpower in a few years. I have no doubt about it.