Category : Personal

The Olympiad in Chennai

There is a first for everything and Chennai was a first for me in more than one way.

It was my first Olympiad where I wasn’t involved in the actual playing – in the past I was always either a player or a coach while this time I had a role that required completely different set of skills.

It was also my first Olympiad when I was “on the other side,” the side of the organisation, trying to make the event as smooth and problem-free for the participants.

These aspects mean that this post won’t have chess content, but it will offer a different view of a chess olympiad as seen from “inside,” plus a small glimpse of the India I saw.

My official role was Fair Play Officer and that meant that my main task was to prevent cheating. It quickly transpired that this will mean control of the entrance gates and players’ behaviour while the games were in progress.

I had a team of 10 (at the beginning – as the event progressed I was left with 7 as the others had to join the smaller, but busier hall 1) Fair Play Experts and a varying number of volunteers who I had to organise in order to handle the flood of approximately 1500 people entering hall 2 every single day.

Hall 2, with quite a few rows of boards behind the camera as well

After a few days the team got into a good routine and the work started to flow, as we were able to finish with the pre-game scanning before the start of the round, always a major success in any Olympiad!

During the rounds I was constantly summoned to solve various problems and situations, requiring me to exhibit quick thinking, common sense and the good will to make decisions that made the event memorable and enjoyable for the participants.

It was an extremely hard work, every day from 1.45pm until 9pm of continuous problem-solving, but I cannot say I didn’t like it. It was something new for me and, judging by the results, it seems I did quite a good job.

From the aspect of Fair Play the Olympiad went smoothly and here I will have to congratulate the whole Fair Play Team (hall 1 was a nightmare for a very long time and my colleagues Yuri and Klaus did a great job of handling the mess!). It is the nature of Fair Play that it works best when it is spoken of the least, but the old cliche of “without you, none of this would have been possible” is 100% applicable to the team’s efforts and accomplishments. So, well done ladies and gentlemen and thank you!

The Fair Play Team

Chennai was also my first visit to India. I wasn’t sure what to expect and often things work out for the best when there are no expectations.

Due to the demanding work I regret that I couldn’t see more of India outside the hotel, but what I saw was enough to mesmerise me. I made two trips, one to Chennai (the venue hotel where I was staying and where the Olympiad took place was some 50km away from the city) and one to the nearby Shore Temple and its surrounding.

I have been to many big cities in the world, but Chennai was something completely different. The contrast of lush vegetation, luxury hotels, delapidated houses and unattended litter was an attack on the senses.

So was the food, but this time in a very pleasing manner. The restaurant owner where we had lunch (the Maharaja Thali was excellent!) in Chennai turned out to be a classmate of Vishy Anand. And as classmates usually do, he rang him up and we had a video call with Anand himself during our lunch. I wonder what were the odds of that.

One of my “to do” tasks in India was to dip into the Indian Ocean. I managed to do just that at the Marina Beach.

I am smiling here, but in the next moment or two I was washed away by a big wave, the ocean making sure I got the full taste of it.

The visit to the Vishnu temple in Chennai made the deepest impression. I have always liked eastern philosophies and as it turned out we entered it while there was a procession in progress. No photos were allowed inside, so I can only share one from the entrance.

There were monks chanting mantras and a lot of people doing their rites.

What made the impression on me was the atmosphere inside. It was the feeling of peace and calm that overcame me, exactly the same one I have experienced in the churches I have visited elsewhere in the world. Some things in this world are universal and this is one of them.

India did a lot to promote the Olympiad and one of the starkest sights was the chess bridge.

An excellent spot to take a photo!

The visit to the Shore Temple and its surrounding was another type of visit.

The Shore Temple

An area where a lot of temples have been constructed (or cut in stone!) along the centuries gave the aura of the spiritual side of India.

For me, the most amazing feature was nature’s wonder called Krishna’s Butterball.

How could a 250-tonne boulder balance on a steep surface for centuries without rolling downwards was beyond me. There were people trying to push it, probably a common tradition that I didn’t dare follow. I had the strange sensation that I may be successful, thus bringing unnecessary reincarnations and devastation to everything that lay in its path.

Here’s the boulder from the other side:

The area around was full of temples carved in stones. Here’re a few:

I spent some time at the temple on top as it gave a stunning view of the surrounding.

With my back against it and looking towards the ocean one could sense the infinity of space.

I also saw the Five Rathas, one of the most popular tourist sites in India. I was already finishing the visit by that time as my time was running out – I had to be back for the game.

The organisers showered us with courtesy gifts and among them was a book on Tamil Nadu, the state where the Olympiad took place. There were more amazing temples in that book and at first I hoped I could visit some, but upon realising the distances from where I was I quickly abandoned the idea – India is huge!

Time flew fast and the Olympiad finished sooner than I realised. My flight was scheduled a day later than most of the participants, so I could walk around the venue the day after. The abandoned buildings could not yet take away the buzzing energy that was flowing around in the past weeks.

In the evening I left the hotel and soon enough I was on my way home.

Thank you India, it was a pleasure.

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The Candidates 2022 – A Preview

With Karjakin’s appeal to FIDE’s Ethics and Disciplinary Commission rejected, we now safely know the eight participants in the upcoming Candidates Tournament in Madrid.

I always like to think about what can happen and what can be expected of the participants, even though I fully realise I will be completely mistaken about some of my predictions. Nevertheless, here’s what I think.

The Experienced

Ding Liren and Fabiano Caruana have seen it all, having been world’s number two and three for many years now. Caruana convincingly won the Berlin Candidates in 2018 and only lost the World Championship match with Carlsen that same year on tie-break.
Ding Liren didn’t have a good first part in Yekaterinburg in 2020, but won the second leg of the ill-fated Candidates in 2021. He suffered the most due to the pandemic, but after a frantic run of games in April he is all set to have another go in normal conditions in Madrid.

Both of them are the natural favourites to win.

Caruana had a topsy-turvy period in the last few years. The most significant event was his separation from his long-time second Rustam Kasimdzhanov, which affected his results so that he even dropped from the standard top-3 on the rating list. But in 2022 his immense work to perform better on faster time controls is finally showing, with his results quite consistent in rapid and blitz, and his win at the American Cup (in classical) in April seems to suggest that he is hitting top form. But then, in the same topsy-turvy style, he was sub-par in the Superbet Chess Classic where he finished on 50%. He experimented with his openings, playing everything with White (1.e4, 1.d4, 1.c4) and quite a bit of mixture with Black (even playing the Sveshnikov!) so it’s quite clear that he is keeping his opponents guessing and keeping his best preparation for Madrid. At 29 he has the perfect mix of ambition and experience and coupled with his high class and powerful play he can easily win another Candidates Tournament. He only needs to be in good form and it will be difficult to stop him. The only thing that bothers me is the question: can he repeat Smyslov’s feat? I don’t quite see him on par with Smyslov, but I definitely rate his chances higher than Nepomniachtchi’s (see also the part where I discuss Nepomniachtchi below).

Ding Liren is a bit of an unknown at this point because he’s played the least from the rest. The recent events in China that he needed to play in order to comply with FIDE’s requirements are not exactly telling and they do leave a strange impression. We know that he is fully capable of winning events like the Candidates, but we don’t know much about his form and work leading to it. He is of the same age as Caruana and perhaps his motivation will be bigger to win the right to challenge the World Champion for the first time.

The New Wave

The new kids on the block are Alireza Firouzja, Richard Rapport and Jan-Krzysztof Duda. They represent the new wave, players that belong to a new generation debuting at this level.

All eyes will be on Firouzja. At 18, he is among the youngest in history to play a Candidates Tournament, putting him in the same category as Fischer at 16 in Bled/Zagreb/Belgrade in 1959 and Spassky at 19 in Amsterdam in 1956.

He had an amazing end of 2021 when he won the Grand Swiss, thus qualifying for the Candidates, and continued with excellent form at the European Team Championship. This run brought him above 2800 and made him a world number two. He stopped playing for several months, living his life and preparing for the Candidates, as he put it. The return to chess practice at the Superbet wasn’t great – he ended up on a minus score and lost rating points which saw him drop below 2800.

A notable details is that in Romania he was seen together with Ivan Cheparinov, Topalov’s long time second and the main generator of ideas for the Bulgarian champion. This indicates that he will be extremely well prepared in the openings, especially if this cooperation started months ago.

It’s difficult to predict his performance. In the past he’s been way too susceptible to pressure and cracking under it and the Candidates is a high-tension event from start to finish. Chess-wise he is not inferior to anybody, but psychology will be the key for the teenager in Madrid. My personal opinion is that while possible, I still think he is too raw to win it.

I observed Rapport (26) very closely during the Grand Prix in Berlin. I was impressed by his ability to find ideas and pose problems even in the driest positions, while his decision to risk and play for a win in the final game of the match with Andreikin in Belgrade won him the event and gained him qualification – the man has the courage of champions!

However, there are a couple of problems with his chances in Madrid. The first one is that he is a loner. He works alone and likes it like that. I am all for going at it alone, a-la Fischer, but in modern chess this has proven to be impossible. Therefore I really hope that he has managed to find somebody he can trust and work together with in the period after the Belgrade Grand Prix.

The second problem is that he didn’t believe he could qualify for the Candidates! With this in mind, he just accepted all invitations to events, thus clogging his calendar. Now he’s stuck with a lot of commitments and this prevents him from properly organising preparation and play. Playing in the Superbet saw him dip in form, finishing on -2 and losing 12 points. He also has the Norway Chess scheduled, a tournament that finishes six days (!) before Madrid. In a recent interview he said that he will just take the Candidates as another tournament, but this doesn’t bode well for his chances there – in order to win the Candidates, a player needs dedicated preparation and strong will to win, something that Rapport doesn’t seem to be able to provide for himself. And to think of it, the reason for all this was his lack of confidence before the start of the Grand Prix in Belgrade! As much as I like him personally, with the issues outlined above, it’s difficult to see him win.

Duda (24) won the World Cup in 2021 and this secured his spot in the Candidates. The only classical event he played this year was in Wijk aan Zee, where he finished on a minus score. Everything else was online and rapid, where he has no problems holding his own against the very best. Even more so, before Madrid he is scheduled to play only in two events in Poland, one rapid and one blitz, which are part of the Grand Chess Tour. So no classical before Madrid for him.

The lack of practice can mean only one thing – Duda is very serious about the Canddates and is preparing heavily for it. One glimpse from that preparation is that in the last event he played, the Olso Esports Cup, he introduced the Grunfeld and the Berlin in his black repertoire. Players usually like to test their new openings in real-life events against the best players, so we can expect to see Duda play these openings in Madrid.

Armed with heavy preparation, it remains to be seen how (and if) the lack of practice will affect the young Pole. If he manages to get comfortable in the event then he can be a major surprise.

The Unlikely

I consider the remaining three players Ian Nepomniachtchi, Hikaru Nakamura and Teimour Radjabov, with the least chances to win.

There has been only one player in history to win two Candidate Tournaments (and he did it in a row) and that is Vassily Smyslov – he managed this feat in Zurich 1953 and Amsterdam 1956. (note that I am talking about Candidate Tournaments, not a qualification cycle). Is Nepomniachtchi (31) of the same caliber?

With all due respect, I don’t think he is. I was happy to see him play well after the debacle in Dubai, even though it was mostly rapid and online events. He is using his match preparation and his results in these disciplines were rather good. However, returning to classical chess he immediately suffered a setback: in the last event he played in – the Superbet Classic, he ended on a minus score. He can take some consolation from that result because he won a psychologically important game with Black against Firouzja, but playing classical is perhaps not too kind on his nerves.

Nerves remain his main issue. Keeping and not succumbing to the tension for many hours for a duration of 14 rounds will not be an easy task. Note that he won in Yekaterinburg not in one go of 14 rounds, but rather in two, as the event was stopped after seven rounds and resumed one year later. He is wiser and more experienced now, he still has leftovers from his match preparation, but I don’t think he will overcome everybody else and reach the status of a Smyslov.

The streamer-turned-unexpected-Grand-Prix-winner Nakamura (34) showed that he is a very strong player. The main ingredient in his success was lack of nerves – his earnings do not depend on his results, so he can play without fear. I am certain he will continue with the same attitude in Madrid and this will be his main strength.

Nakamura has a well-established opening repertoire – the Berlin and the QGD with Black, with a hit-and-run approach with White (where he prepares in a very concrete manner against the given opponent), which demands constant influx of fresh ideas. I also expect him to continue with the same strategy, most likely refreshed with new ideas within those realms.

The problem I see with Nakamura is that he doesn’t really have the ambition to win the event. There is no perspective for him there – a match with Carlsen won’t mean much to him financially (he is comforably set for life and a million doesn’t make much of a difference) and it will require a lot of time and effort in preparation and traning. Not to mention that playing Carlsen (against whom he has an awful score in classical chess of 1 win and 14 losses) in a World Championship match is as gruesome as it gets and he won’t be able to stream it.

The wild card for the event is the player who qualified to play in Yekaterinburg, but declined to do so because of the pandemic. As some sort of compensation, FIDE seeded Radjabov (35) directly in the next Candidates.

Radjabov’s last Candidates Tournament was in 2013, when he finished last with the awful score of -6. He qualified for Yekaterinburg by winning the World Cup in 2019. The last event he played in was the European Team Championship in November last year.

This scarcity of active play, coupled with his propensity to draws (his last classical win was against Ding Liren in the final of the World Cup in 2019!) makes him the least likely player to win the event. I can see him repeat Giri’s record of 14 draws, but I cannot see him win many (if any!) games. The reason for this is that I can easily see him continue doing what he has been doing for many years now, basically playing for draw with both colours, and I cannot fathom a return to the exciting player of his youth who played the King’s Indian and the Sveshnikov and who beat Kasparov with Black when he was 15. I would be delighted (and would like) to be proven wrong, but this is how things look to me now.

Like Rapport, Radjabov is scheduled to play in Norway Chess. Unlike Rapport, I think this will be good for him – after a way too long absence of classical practice, he will get a chance to get into some shape before Madrid. If and how much this will help, we will see in about a month.

For me, the Candidates Tournament is a the tournament I cannot wait to follow. I cannot wait to see the opening ideas, the high-quality chess and the eventual result, where the winner indeed takes it all.

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Impressions from the Berlin Grand Prix

The recently finished Grand Prix in Berlin produced a lot of fighting chess. I was very lucky to be able to observe the players on the stage, literally sitting next to them, as I was serving as a Fair Play Officer (FPO) for the event.

Apart from my duties as FPO I also followed the games as a fan and player. It is very different when you follow the games at home, even without an engine, and on the stage with the players. When I was there on the stage, I could more easily “plug in” and feel the position and the players. I tried to calculate lines myself and I had much higher respect for the moves the players were coming up with.

This last issue needs special mention. Since I am guilty of it myself I assume others are too. When I follow the games with an engine at home, I am so easy to dismiss the moves that are played if they don’t follow one of the engine’s top choices. This habit takes over very quickly and I soon find myself thinking the players are not very good. Yes, I understand they are very strong, 2750 rating is nothing to smirk at, but I easily forget the hard mental work and the calculations they had to do in order to come up with the move that I am so quick to dismiss just because the engine doesn’t rate it in its top 3 (or 5, 6…) choices. In other words, if a strong player calculates and thinks for a while and then comes up with a move that isn’t a clear blunder, then certainly there must be good reasons and definite advantages for that move to be played. I need to be reminded of this aspect when I am at home!

I didn’t fall into this trap when I was in Berlin. Simply because I was alone there, no engine, just the players and the positions. There I got to admire and respect their decisions again.

What I found to be an interesting exercise was to imagine the scenario of the games. There were two exceptional players who posed problems to each other and tried to overcome them. And then there was an engine, rated several hundred rating points higher, which would easily solve those problems and pose unsolvable ones to them. I imagined that it must be the same when I play opposition at my level, at higher level and at lower level, when I would be considered the engine!

This exercise helped me understand the need for consistency. Every single move had to be precise. At their level a single mishap is fatal. Connected to this is their constant creation of problems. Every single move poses a problem. I found some players easier to follow in this respect, for example I found Rapport’s moves easier to understand when it came to constant problem-posing.

By trying to get into the players’ minds I tried to understand their decisions from a psychological point of view. I tried to understand their approaches. For example both finalists, Nakamura and Aronian, had similar serve-and-volley approach when playing with White: the serve was the targeted preparation, often by entering a forced variation, aimed at catching the opponents unprepared and gaining time on the clock; if successful the rest would be the volley – converting the advantage.

With Black they were also very similar. They play solid openings against both 1.e4 and 1.d4 and don’t fear preparation in their trusted defences. If they change something it is usually a sideline within their repertoire, not the whole opening.

The experience in Berlin helped me greatly understand chess and the best players in the world much better. Unfortunately, most likely it won’t make me a better chess player because better understanding doesn’t directly transfer to better decision-making at the board. The latter requires practice of decision-making and that type of work is the actual calculation of variations. I did some calculation in Berlin, but that was far from enough to make me better at it.

They usually say that with time our understanding of chess improves, but our practical strength declines. I will try to fight that process, but for how long that will work I don’t know. In any case, I am grateful for every opportunity that I get to understand this game even a little bit better. May there be many more.

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New Year, Old Everything?

The new year, popularly called 2020 too, arrived. For me the new arrival is usually filled with optimism and big plans for the year ahead, but this time it was different. No optimism, no excitement, no plans. For apparent reasons, I should add.

To give you an example, the FIDE Candidates tournament was announced for mid-June in Madrid and I was very excited about the news as I would like to go and visit the event. But how do I plan that when it’s not clear what will happen tomorrow or next week, let alone in six months?

Perhaps an even more extreme case is the Bangkok Open, already announced for December.

The main problem with today’s situation is that there is way too much contradictory and confusing information that is being constantly fed to the public via all possible channels. I won’t go into debate whether this is on purpose or because nobody really knows what is going on so everybody’s guessing. The problem with contradiction is that it is difficult to tolerate as with lack of clarity and stability the stress levels are impossible to control.

Strangely as it may sound, chess calms my mind when I am not competitively involved. I have written about this in my newsletter, that it helps me fall asleep as I go over various variations in my mind when I go to bed. Recently I ran into the following game of Ulf Andersson. He had a choice of going for one of the two versions of a rook endgame:

Version 1:

or Version 2:

One of them is winning for White, the other one is a draw.

Andersson wenr for Version 2 and that was the drawn one. But as so often happened in his games the opponent didn’t show the necessary technique and lost anyway. The winning version was the first one, the key to the position being the more active position of White’s rook, as it can go to a5 as opposed to a4 from the second diagram. Details always matter in chess.

I suppose that chess calms me down because it focuses my mind and isolates me from everything external. It’s a very cosy bubble to be in. I understand that having the opportunity to enter this bubble is a priviledge, but it is still the outside world that will have to make some order out of the current chaos. Bubbles are nice, but they cannot offer refuge forever.

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The Match in Dubai

When the World Championship match happens, then the place to be is there.

My first World Championship match visit was in 2018 in London and I fell in love with the experience. The whole atmosphere was magical, observing history in the making with the world’s two best players competing, in addition to discussing chess with luminaries in the VIP rooms and the media centres.

The main problem this year was the situation with the virus, as no long-term planning was possible, but I took the risk and arranged to go to Dubai for the games six to ten. It turned out I was spot on with my planning.

I arrived on the day of game six. You already know how that game ended and what it meant for the match. That day was also fenomenal for me personally as I managed to talk with the people I needed to talk to, I gave several interviews (for NBC and a couple for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo and the chess24 live transmission) and talked to Maurice Ashley and Alejandro Ramirez about a possible promotion of my book The Sinquefield Generation in the Saint Louis Chess Club. I ended up giving interviews every day, becoming a regular for the Norwegian media and the studio in Oslo.

From that first day onwards everything was adrenaline fueled. Most of my time was spent in taxis (the distances are huge! – they drive 100-120 km/h on the eight-lane wide motorways and you still need half an hour to get either to the Expo, where the match was played, or to downtown Dubai) but the positive energy of everybody I met there was lifting me up and keeping me there!

From a purely chess point of view, there is a massive difference experiencing the match there at the venue and from the comfort of your home. When at home I tend to be dimissive of the players’ decisions as I stare at the computer screen and the engine is too happy to criticise their moves. It’s too easy to side with the engine and forget the human aspect. At the venue, however, it is all about the human aspect.

During game six I remember how we (several GMs) were looking at the evaluation swings and even after seeing the moves of the engine we distinctly felt the difficulty of those decisions and were not really surprised when the players missed their opportunities. I felt more attuned to the players and felt more like a player than a spectator armed with an engine.

Since I spent all my time at the venue while the games were in progress I didn’t have much time to explore the Expo and in fact I only went to several pavillions. It was nevertheless an amazing experience, the best one was probably touching the moon (literally!) in the USA pavillion as they had a piece of the moon exhibited there that the visitors could touch.

Three more touristic activities I managed to do was to swim in the Indian Ocean, to go to the top of the Burj Khalifa and to go on a desert safari. I have to say that Dubai was great from a touristic aspect even though I got to experience very little of it.

Going back to the chess part, like in London I also got the chance to get on the big stage. This time I sat in the winner’s chair.

The winner was decided on that day when I arrived, but I didn’t know that back then. Now that the match is over I can say that it seemed to me that Nepomniachtchi tried to play like Karjakin and while the result was equal this worked, but when he lost a game he couldn’t readjust to his more natural aggressive instincts.

The confusion and the indecision how to continue the match resulted in lowering of his psychological defences and he reverted to faster play, which under the duress of the match led to horrendous blunders that ended the match prematurely.

I wrote a detailed account of the match with full analysis of games three to 11 for the January issue of British Chess Magazine (I analysed the first two games for the December issue). The main surprise of the match was how Black never had any problems in the openings even when just following the established theory and not inventing any new ideas. Black is so good that White has become desperate.

When I was a kid I thought I’d be one of the players playing on that stage. Life didn’t turn out that way, but I did end up on that stage, twice so far. I am definitely looking forward to more appearances in the future.

I will leave you with one fine sunset from the desert:

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My First Book

I was sure that I would never write a book. I always felt that it was too much work and not worth the effort. And yet here I am talking about my first book.

I have to blame some friends (Josip, Dusan, looking at you guys!) for tricking me into it. I have to admit I liked the idea to write something that nobody has written about. You know the old saying, write the book you’d like to read.

And I always liked to read about the psychology and the preferences of the players and how they translated to the moves on the board. Nobody seemed to provide the proof when they say something like “Anand plays well with knights”, fine, but do the work and find those examples and convince me! Also, don’t stop with the knights, how about a complete analysis of Anand’s (or any other player’s) style and preferences, corroborated with concrete examples that show the correctness of the statements?

Botvinnik did that. But we only learned about it when his secret notebooks were published. I was fascinated reading those “characteristics” about the players. He dissected their styles based on their games with concrete examples.

I have desperately looked for something similar ever since reading those notebooks. An occasional glimpse here or there was not enough to satisfy my curiosity. I wanted the full picture but nobody would provide it.

I also understood why. It’s hard work! Looking back, I still find it hard to believe why I accepted to do that type of hard work… Going over hundreds of games of the player, trying to understand him, looking for patterns and preferences, avoiding false ones, while picking up the correct ones to form a complete “portrait”. Not easy, I assure you.

And yet somehow I did it. I enjoyed the hard work in fact, as this type of work fulfills me and I only wish I didn’t have a million of other things to do while doing this work. I remember envying guys like Hemingway who only wrote and had fun when not.

Still, I wish players like Kramnik or Anand (or maybe Peter Heine Nielsen!) wrote something like that. I am sure they have done this type of work for their most important tournaments and matches, as they had to know their opponents inside out. But for now their work remains hidden though I am hopeful that one day we will get to see the secret notebooks (in electronic form this time) of these great players.

But before that, the world is stuck with my work on the brightest American talents. I feel honoured to continue Botvinnik’s tradition and to have done something that nobody has done before, to analyse players in such detail and publish that work. Whether I have done a good job it’s on the world to judge.

The Sinquefield Chess Generation is out now.

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Tribute to Sveshnikov

In the beginning I had problems with the Sveshnikov.

A few of my junior competitors used the variation extensively and after several painful losses I discovered the cure: 3.Bb5 instead of 3.d4 and I was never getting mated again! Many years later Anand discovered the same when Gelfand used the Sveshnikov Sicilian against him in the World Championship match in 2012. In fact not playing the Sveshnikov won the match for Anand.

I saw the man in many tournaments over the years, but I never spoke to him. I maintained respectable distance and just observed how he played and how he analysed. And of course, I read everything he wrote and said in interviews.

In 2011 I played the European Team Championship in Porto Carras. There I got to face Evgeny Sveshnikov with Black.

I remember that in the preparation process I decided that I didn’t want to play my usual Sicilian because I didn’t want to face his Alapin. In spite of my excellent results against the Alapin I thought it’s probably not the wisest choice to play it against someone who has played and analysed it all his life and was likely the world’s best expert on it.

I decided to play 1…e5 because his choices of the Scotch and the Italian seemed easier to deal with. I remember I was expecting the Scotch, but he played the Italian instead.

After the game we had a very pleasant post-mortem, the results of which you can see in the comments to the game above. Evgeny was friendly and I was honoured to analyse with such a legend.

Only two years later I met Evegeny and his son, Vladimir, in Bratto, Italy. The Bratto tournament turned out to be a successful one for me (I finished 2nd in the end) and not in the least because of the following game facing Vladimir Sveshnikov.

I already knew that I was facing the Sveshnikov opening lab. Both father and son paid extremely high attention to the opening preparation and I knew that I had to find a way to surprise them, just like I did with Evgeny in Porto Carras.

This time I decided to play the Sicilian. The reason for my decision was that I had already prepared a line that I had never played before, a line that at that time was becoming popular. I knew that they would have something against it, but I was hoping on the element of surprise.

We didn’t analyse the game after it finished, but I could sense that Sveshnikov Senior was looking at me with certain respect. After all, I managed to outfox them in their strongest point, opening preparation. And on top of that, I won the game with Black in mere 23 moves!

After Bratto I occassionally saw Evgeny at tournaments, always cordially saluting him. I continued to follow his ideas, books and interviews. I admire independent thinkers who openly say what they think and Evgeny was one of them.

It was a big shock to read that he passed away today. He always seemed so full of energy and I had the feeling he would live until 100 with that amount of life force. But it wasn’t meant to be.

Evgeny Sveshnikov was one of the rare legends I got to meet, play and analyse with. I am grateful for the opportunity and I only wish I had more of them.

Rest in Peace Evgeny Sveshnikov.

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Lag

The following post was sent out as part of my weekly newsletter, to which you can subscribe using the yellow box on the right.

As I already wrote on my blog, the hybrid event went fine for me, in spite of losing the match. I already complained in the previous posts of my head not working properly in the preparation process, but when I started playing it worked really well, so I can conclude that the preparation served its purpose.

What I noticed is that when my brain works well there is either no, or very little, lag. By lag I mean the time between seeing a position and the moment the brain starts coming up with moves.

So when the brain is slow and sluggish there is a lot of lag. It usually manifests as mere staring at a position in the same way I stare at a wall. Just staring, the brain is blank, there is no connection between what I see (the position) and the brain, no moves are being produced.

An ideal visual motivation for me is the sight of what happenes when I press Alt+F2 (start engine) in Chessbase. The engine immediately starts coming up with moves and changes them as it calculates the position more deeply. This is how I want my brain to work during a game, not to waste time staring but to continuously come up with moves and improve the quality of those moves.

I have noticed that the best players, apart from having no lag whatsoever, have another extremely important quality of their mental work. This quality is relevance.

I had the good fortune to comment online with players like Svidler and Harikrishna and I noticed how they immediately come up with moves the moment a move is made on the board, but more importantly they always come up with relevant moves. They never propose moves that are out of touch with the position.

I remember seeing a video of Nakamura and some IM when they both solve the same puzzles and then they share the thoughts they had while solving them. It was incredible how Nakamura was always, without a single exception, so much to the point while the IM was often meandering and “lagging” in his thought process. He would often see the same move like Nakamura but then would just “lag” instead of continuing to come up with moves. Nakamura, on the other hand, was like an engine switched on, relentlessly going forward with the moves, and coming to conclusions.

From my own experience, lag can be reduced significantly by constant practice. The key, as always, is in the word constant.

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Hybrid Isn’t That Bad

After some consideration I decided to participate in the European Qualifier for the World Cup. This event was the first big hybrid event and I was curious to see how it would work in practice.

An additional motivation for me to play was that I have never played a match in my life. Here I was guaranteed 2 games against a strong opponent and this spiked my curiousity to see how I can deal with a match situation.

I was paired to play against GM Ivan Salgado Lopez from Spain. I happen to know Ivan pretty well, he was a board member of the ACP for quite some time and we worked together well. When I analysed his games I saw that he is very gifted tactically, so I thought that my chances would be higher if I “dulled” the game somewhat. I also noticed that he prefers to attack, so taking the initiative was also a priority (you can notice how this affected my decisions in the second game).

I cannot say that my chess preparations went particularly well, due to other commitments, but I did what I could.

The venue in Skopje, where we played, was in one of the best schools in the city. It was comfortable and the internet connection was stable. I used a chess board to think and move my pieces on, which was a bit unnatural in the beginning, as I had to make the move on the laptop first and then on the board. This made it a bit difficult to concentrate at the start of the first game, but I was surprised how quickly I got used to it and soon enough my concentration was quite alright.

The only time I ditched the chess board was at the end of the first game, when I had several minutes left to finish the game, so I moved to my laptop to execute the moves directly. Unfortunately that was when I blundered.

Generally speaking, I was pleasantly surprised by the hybrid format. My main concern was the ability to concentrate under strange conditions, but with that out of the way everything was normal. In a way I felt more relaxed than usual, without having a physical opponent to see there was less tension.

The match was very exciting and I enjoyed it tremendously. I should have won the first game and in that case I would have played the second one differently, but both games were full-fledged fights and this is something I have missed for quite some time with lack of playing opportunities.

In the first game I was Black and in spite of all the preparation we left theory rather early.

It was a real pity not to win a game where, as he admitted after the match, I completely outplayed him. But there was no time to waste and this is what happened in the 2nd game.

All credit goes to my opponent who found two great moves to refute my rook sacrifice. Still, I enjoyed playing the game the way I did – I am not sure going for a draw and a tie-break would have increased my chances in view of my complete absence of practice when it comes to online games at quick time controls.

So I lost the match, but it was an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. It reminded me how much I miss playing chess and now I feel a bit sad going back to the “usual routine.”

As for hybrid chess, having experienced it personally, I am now more optimistic about its future than before. With proper technical preparation, like the one we had in Skopje, and a stable online platform I don’t see a reason why there shouldn’t be more tournaments like this.

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Interview with GM Oscar Panno

After 7 years of maintaining this blog I can now firmly say that all the good opportunities I had in this period were thanks to it. These include but are not limited to my work in ACP, Chessable, various coaching and writing opportunities.

The latest one isn’t an exception.

Some time ago I was contacted by Sergio Panno, the son of the legendary Argentinian Grandmaster Oscar Panno. He said that GM Robert Hungaski has informed him of my blog and that perhaps I would be interested in sharing a word about a book on his father. Sergio informed me about a translation to English of a biographical book about his father called Oscar Panno, The Southern Chess Grandmaster that Challenged the North.

The above link has quite a lot of free “look inside” pages that you can read, which I did and the book captivated me. I consider myself well-educated when it comes to chess history, but while reading those pages I realised that there was a chess world that existed in South America in the 1950s that I knew very little about.

As I kept reading I came to the idea to ask a few questions the great man himself. I asked Sergio and he said that his father wouldn’t mind. That is how the interview below came into existence.

For me, this was like getting in touch with history itself. A player who became a World Junior Champion in 1953 (ahead of Larsen, Ivkov, Olafsson), qualified from the Gothenburg Interzonal in 1955 for the Amsterdam Candidates in 1956 and who played against 7 World Champions. It was just a big unbelievable WOW for me.

The Grandmaster wrote back in Spanish and I translated his answers to English. This translation was approved by Sergio so I present you the interview fully in English.

You come from a country with rich chess tradition. How did the chess culture in Argentina help you to became a World Junior Champion at the age of 18?

Buenos Aires has always been very connected to Europe via France and England and chess was one of the favourite activities. From the beginning of the 20th century we were visited by great players who left their trace. The highest points were the match Capablanca-Alekhine in 1927 and the Olympiad in 1939. Due to World War II a lot of players remained in our country, Miguel Najdorf being the most famous example, who established himself and served as a great inspiration. The 1950s were the golden period of Argentine chess with 3 silver medals at the Olympiads in 1950, 1952 and 1954. This atmopshere helped me become a World Junior Champion at the age of 18. However, in the next period we suffered financial and sporting decline and this was notable in the next showings on the international arena.

You rose to prominence in the 1950s when study material was scarce. What type of chess work did you do in that period that made you one of the best players in the world? To be more precise, how did you work on the openings, middlegames, endgames, calculation, technique?

The chess information was very scarce and it reached us very late. For example, at the moment of boarding the plane to go to a tournament GM Julio Bolbochan gave us the Russian magazines Shakhmaty with exactly 1 year delay since their publication. For these reasons we were forced to compensate these problems with great personal efforts.

You have played 7 World Champions: Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Fischer, Karpov and Kasparov. Can you describe how it felt playing each of them?

Smyslov: a great player who deserves all my admiration because he had a great impact on the strategic development in many openings.

Tal: a unique genius, who unfortunately suffered from health problems.

Petrosian: “first among equals” (as described by Averbakh) in the 1960s who deservedly dethroned the veteran Botvinnik. I had good relationship with him in spite of the language barrier.

Spassky: a great tactician who managed to beat Petrosian. I had good results with him and also good personal relations because we also shared a passion for tennis.

Fischer: completely dedicated to chess who impressed his rivals with his confidence and eagerness to fight.

Karpov: a product of the Soviet school who deservedly dominated for many years and was a model for conversion of small advantages.

Kasparov: in my opinion, the greatest player in history (in his best years) who mastered all the styles and techniques.

How did you prepare for Candidates tournament in Amsterdam in 1956? Did you have any specific player-oriented preparation or was it a more general one?

It was not possible to prepare because I was in the military until 1 day before the trip.

In spite of becoming a World Junior Champion in 1953 and becoming a top 10 player you still decided to change your career and become an engineer. What were the reasons for abandoning the career of a chess professional?

I was never a professional player because in Argentina it cannot be a way of life. For this it was necessary to travel to Europe as various players did, like Pilnik, Quinteros and later many others. I chose to stay because of my family and then I discovered other passion in engineering, to which I dedicated many years.

Even after leaving professional chess you kept a very high level. How did you manage that?

Because of my work and family commitments I had to plan my vacations for dates when an important event took place. Meanwhile I participated in local tournaments to keep me active.

What do you think was your strongest feature that made you different from the best players in the world?

Possibly I had to compensate the absence of an absolute dedication with great effort.

The Variation with 6…Nc6 followed by …a6 and …Rb8 in the Fianchetto Line of the King’s Indian bears your name (the Panno Variation). How did you invent it?

Up until 6…Nc6 the idea originated from the Yugoslavs, inviting White to play d5. I asked myself, what happens if White doesn’t push d5? So I proposed to attack the centre with the flank pawns, which was completely compatible with the Yugoslav system.

At the age of 85 you are still very active in chess, giving lectures every week to young players. What is it that keeps you going and what is the advice you give to the young players of today?

Today’s chess is heavily impacted by computers and the only advice that seems valid to give is to study the games of the great players to understand and improve one’s technique.

What is in your opinion the best way to integrate the chess education of your time with today’s use of databases and engines?

It is of utmost importance to obtain the chess literacy of the youngest, for this having chess in schools is fundamental.Then every one can develop his or her abilities since computers and internet are available to all.

After the interview was concluded I received a link from Sergio about a talk between Oscar Panno and Levon Aronian that was published on Youtube. You may wish to have a look at it here. It’s curious to see an interaction between Grandmasters of different epochs!

To conclude, I wish Oscar remains vital and that he continues to be an active part of the chess life not only in Argentina, but thanks to modern technology also in the whole world.

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