Karjakin: ‘The competition is now much greater’
31-year-old Sergey Karjakin currently finds himself 16th on the world rankings and in a recent interview for RIA Novosti would only commit to playing on until the age of 35. The Russian former World Chess Championship Challenger explained that getting into or remaining in the world’s Top 10 is much more difficult than it was a few years ago, though it remains one of his goals. He also talks about the upcoming Candidates Tournament and how the year’s break has changed the dynamic of the event.
Sergey Karjakin led Magnus Carlsen in the 2016 World Chess Championship in New York with just four games to go, but eventually lost a rapid tiebreak. He’s struggled to regain those heights since, though he won the World Blitz Championship shortly after the match and came close in the 2018 Candidates Tournament.
He missed out on qualifying for the 2020 Candidates, which is finally set to resume in under two weeks’ time on April 19th. Sergey talked to Oleg Bogatov for RIA Novosti about the event. We’ve translated the interview from Russian below:
Sergey, who do you feel is most likely to win the Candidates Tournament in Yekaterinburg?
I’m not revealing any secrets if I say that Ian Nepomniachtchi and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, because they’re sharing first place, and each of them has very good chances. Ian has over the course of the whole year demonstrated strong and confident play in other events, and therefore, if he comes into the event in the same form as before the first half, and as he’s shown over the last year, he’ll have very high chances. Maxime’s play has been less consistent, but on the other hand, this is an absolutely new tournament. It’s as if everything is starting again, so he has very decent chances of achieving success.
You also shouldn’t rule out Alexander Grischuk, or Fabiano Caruana, or Anish Giri. They’re on 50%, which in case of one or two wins will put them right up there with the leaders. Therefore the person who wins will be the one who’s better prepared than the rest, and also, I’d say, has a little luck.
Are you not surprised by the progress Giri has made recently, performing confidently in major tournaments?
No, because Anish is one of those chess players who, figuratively speaking, works 24 hours a day. He’s devoted to chess, spends all his time looking at something new, analysing many games and, in that sense, you have to say, he’s doing great! And these achievements have been the result of all the work he’s put in.
Nepomniachtchi and Vachier-Lagrave have +2. Given your great experience in Candidates Tournaments, what result would guarantee first place?
It’s hard to say. It happens that you need to score +4, but, for example, in the 2016 Moscow Candidates Tournament I scored +3, and that was clear first place. A lot depends on how closely packed the players are: if no-one loses a lot of games, falls apart, then +3 should be enough to share first place. But again, it all depends on the playing form of the participants.
You’ve shown good examples of successfully performing in the second half of Candidates Tournaments. It’s clear that the current event is particular, it’s taking place a year on, but perhaps you could explain how you managed? And, perhaps, you could recommend something to Ian?
It’s hard for me to advise something, because it’s impossible to draw any direct parallels. I think I was helped by my good physical preparation. I prepared for the tournament for a long time and spent a lot of time on sport. And when you play for such a long distance as 14 rounds then of course you start to get tired in the second half. That’s when my advantage, based on being better physically prepared, came to the fore. But when the tournament is in fact composed of one half, then that factor no longer matters. I don’t think there will any big differences in that regard. The player who wins will again be the one who’s better prepared and has a little bit of luck.
In your view, which World Championship match is the chess public most anticipating: Carlsen-Nepomniachtchi, Carlsen-MVL, Carlsen-Caruana, Carlsen-Grischuk or Carlsen-Giri?
A match between Magnus Carlsen and Ian Nepomniachtchi would undoubtedly be very interesting. In general, any grandmaster who wins the tournament will have a chance of beating Magnus, because recently we’ve seen that Carlsen isn’t demonstrating his best play overall. Any winner in Yekaterinburg will have chances.
I’d also add that in this event we’re missing the American Wesley So, who has recently been displaying very convincing play. But, one way or another, there are eight places in the tournament and it’s impossible to include all the top players. I’d be happy to watch a World Championship match between Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen. It would be very interesting.
And how, hypothetically, would you rate Ian’s chances?
I’m not inclined to go too far. After all, Carlsen is the World Champion, and he’ll be the favourite in any match, regardless of whether he plays Nepomniachtchi or any other grandmaster. But on the other hand, there are chances, and you need to prepare well and exploit the fact that Magnus isn’t in his best form.
Last year you said you thought the ideal way to hold the World Championship match was not over 12 but 14 games. Later the International Chess Federation took that decision. With such regulations, will the challenger have more chances to beat Carlsen, or it doesn’t change anything?
I think the longer the match, the greater chances for Carlsen. Firstly, because he’s in good physical condition and can calmly play for even two months in a row. And secondly, when the stronger chess player plays against a player of slightly lower class, then the longer the match, the greater the likelihood that the stronger grandmaster will win. But those are strictly statistical calculations and I don’t want to offend anyone.
For you the main tournament of the year will probably be the World Cup. Do you think that taking part in the Candidates Tournament will be an advantage for the grandmasters before the summer event?
Of course, since the Candidates Tournament, as well as being an excellent chance to qualify for a match against the World Champion, is also a wonderful training session. You sit at the board and recall how you need to play face-to-face against the world’s best chess players. That will be some kind of advantage, and moreover a good training tournament.
But, on the other hand, I played in the Russian Championship Superfinal in December that took place over-the-board, and I played in major online events. Of course they can’t replace playing over the board, but nevertheless, they force you to keep yourself in playing shape.
For you, no doubt, the Russian Team Championship planned for May will help?
To be honest, I don’t yet know if I’ll play or not. In any case, I’m working on the basis that the main thing for me is to prepare for the World Cup, whether that will be by taking part in some tournament and then coaching sessions, or just preparation sessions. Yes, I planned to play in that event, but I’m no longer sure, because I’m not sure that from the point of view of preparing for the World Cup it will be right to play there. Perhaps it makes sense first to rest and then to hold a full training camp.
Do you still work with the same specialists as before?
My coaching team has remained roughly the same. I work a lot with Denis Khismatullin, and I’ve also held training camps with one of the best Russian grandmasters, but I’m not sure if he’d allow me to publish his surname (smiles). At least he’s definitely in the Top 5 or Top 10 in Russia. So some work is in progress.
Do you still train with Yury Dokhoian and Alexander Motylev?
As part of preparation for the Russian team we cooperate, but in individual terms they’ve recently been working with Andrey Esipenko, as far as I know. I don’t see anything criminal in that as we’d worked together for over a decade already, and sometimes you simply need to feel some kind of fresh blood, to start, for example, to work with someone who’ll bring you some kind of new ideas from working with them. There’s nothing wrong with that.
It’s one thing, when you have training sessions with coaches who are fine analysts and specialists, but play weaker than you do. And it’s something else entirely when you play against a player roughly your equal. You work together with him, you play training games, you compete, and in that case you have completely different motivation. For example, before my match against Carlsen in 2016 I prepared with Shakhriyar Mamedyarov. For example, you sit down at the board a little relaxed, but when he wins one or two games you become focused. You think, wait a second, I shouldn’t be losing, I want to win (smiles). And that’s a good motivation for both of us. Also myself and a grandmaster, whose name I won’t mention, worked together before, and played a match. It was very interesting.
Do you and he have a similar way of playing or, on the contrary, is it very different?
No, it’s the complete opposite.
You’re looking for what you lack?
In some sense, yes. I’m trying to take the best from different people.
Sergey, if you compare, for example, 2015 and now, then how much more difficult has it become for you to retain a place in the world elite?
It’s much tougher now, but it’s not a case of whether age is beginning to tell or not. It seems to me that the main problem is that the level of competition has risen a lot, and previously, to be honest, I didn’t really need to strain myself in order to remain in the Top 10 in the world rankings, which happened almost automatically. And now it needs maximum focus of all your energy in order to stay at the top, particularly in the Top 10. The competition is now much greater.
Is one of your goals this year to return to the Top 10?
Yes, of course. That’s what I’m talking about: to return to the Top 10 is very tough now.
On the one hand, chess is getting much younger, above all due to the progress of players from Asian countries. And on the other hand, many well-known grandmasters, who previously achieved serious success, are gradually starting to quit chess as they grow older. Have you thought about how many years you give yourself as an active player?
I can solemnly promise chess fans that in the near future, let’s say until I’m 35 years old, I’m not going anywhere. What will happen then, I can’t say. But I give my word that for four more years I’m going to work seriously on chess and try to show all I’m capable of.
Why to 35 and not, for example, to 40?
It’s a kind of midway point, I’d say, after reaching which you can again think and then extend the contract with your fans (laughs).
Sergey, and how do you see yourself in around 15-20 years?
I don’t want at some point to start having a decline in results, because I know chess players who were in the world Top 10, and then they kept on playing, and now they’re out of the Top 100. That’s something I definitely don’t want for myself. If I understand that objectively I can no longer keep up in that race, then I’ll say that I’m just going to play in rapid and blitz tournaments. And, perhaps, train children. But for now, I feel I have a lot of energy left to fight and certain chances of occupying top places, and therefore I want to fight on.
And do you feel you have what it takes for coaching work?
No, I don’t feel that – because it’s a completely different area and a different type of activity. If we’re talking about who to coach, then for me, more likely than not, it would be interesting to work with the world’s top players. And actually, maybe not to train children. For example, my wife Galia really likes to work with children, but that’s not for everyone, and she has pedagogical talent.
Are your children, 5-year-old Alexey and 3-year-old Mikhail, interested in chess?
Yes, but they prefer to play on their tablet against a computer than at the board. But they can also play against real-life opponents – against their mother and me. At least I see they have an interest in chess, and that’s already a lot. They can spend at little of their previous time on chess (smiles).
And what other sports do they do, or is it still early?
They go to the “School of Heroes” and have started to play hockey. The youngest, Mikhail, is more drawn to active sports, while the elder, Alexey, is less inclined and prefers to spend more time at home.
In 2016 you played a World Championship match against Carlsen. Do you feel that the heightened attention to yourself in society that there was back then has been stayed at the same level, or it’s declined?
It’s declined, but there’s nothing criminal about that, because you play a World Championship match and, naturally, you have all the attention on you. Then time passes, and if you don’t qualify for another World Championship match, then of course the level of attention drops. But, on the other hand, I feel as though I’ve left some trace in Russian chess and the popularisation of chess as a sport overall. And it’s still very pleasant that people to this day recognise me on the street, and at times in the most unexpected places (smiles).
Where for example?
For example, in the government offices when I was issued with a passport. I was recognised by a school teacher and she invited me to meet with the children. And that’s just one of many cases. I’m regularly recognised, and that’s really very pleasant.