Kramnik And Kasparov: The End Of An Era
Vladimir Kramnik at the 2018 Paris Grand Chess Tour. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

Kramnik And Kasparov: The End Of An Era

| 53 | Chess Players

Vladimir Kramnik's decision to quit professional chess shook the chess world. Many people even sense deja vu. Indeed, there is an uncanny resemblance to 14 years ago when Garry Kasparov quit chess.

Oddly enough, both great players lost their last professional games in the same suicidal way:

Of course there is still a big difference between these two events. When Kasparov announced his decision to quit chess, he won his last tournament and was still world number-one, which is totally different to Kramnik's case.

Besides, Kasparov's announcement came completely out of the blue, while for the last 5-6 years Kramnik was clearly hinting that he was about to quit professional chess. Even though Kramnik prepared us for a long time that the day would come, it is still a big loss for chess.

Garry Kasparov
Garry Kasparov. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

There are countless books and articles about Kramnik, so I am not going to repeat well-known facts like when Vladimir was born or when he got his GM title. Instead I want to tell you about Kramnik's influence on my chess and why his decision to quit professional chess is truly the end of an era.

The first time I noticed his name was when I saw the following game. I was looking for a weapon against 1.d4 that would give Black an attacking position and unlike some openings, like the King's Indian defense, wouldn't require too much theory to memorize. The Budapest gambit was one of the candidates I was considering. That's how I noticed a game published in one of the Soviet chess magazines.

Black's idea to lift a rook was relatively new and the whole game made a strong impression on me. Also I noticed the name of the future world champion.

"The kid can play chess!" I thought about 12-year-old Kramnik.

Fast forward two years and I had a chance to play Kramnik over the board. It was a qualification tournament for the European junior chess championship. I gave away only two draws and won the tournament easily. 

In fact, the biggest problem was to get into this tournament, since the head of the Soviet junior chess, Anatoly Bykhovsky, used his usual tactic and tried to exclude me from the tournament saying that "Serper is not a good chess player," even though I tied for first in the World Junior Championship one year before.

You can read about this unique personality, who ruled Soviet junior chess for over 40 years, in this article. Probably I shouldn't complain much about Bykhovsky's behavior though, since whenever he called me a weak chess player it gave me extra motivation and I had a major breakthrough. This time after winning the qualification tournament I easily won European Junior championship 1.5 points ahead of a field that included Topalov, Van Wely, Dreev and other future chess stars. 

One of two draws that I made in the qualification tournament was against Kramnik. I was Black and played the Dragon Sicilian. Despite his young age, Vladimir played a quiet positional line where White castles kingside, and after some maneuvering a draw was agreed. Unfortunately I cannot find this game in a database, but I vividly remember that I was impressed by Vladimir's very mature play. During our postmortem, Kramnik impressed me even more. The way he thought about his moves and the position left little doubt that I was talking to a mega-talent.

Vladimir Kramnik.
Vladimir Kramnik. | Photo: Maria Emelianova/

We played another game two years later and again I was Black. It was the Soviet championship for young masters under 26 years old. It was a weird game, as it lasted just 16 moves and there were two draw offers! First it was Kramnik who offered me a draw around move 12, which I rejected, but very soon I came to my senses and realized that my position wasn't as good as I thought, so I offered a draw that was accepted. Here is the game:

This tournament was Kramnik's first major success. He tied for first place and played a number of remarkable games. Here is my favorite Kramnik game, which was so interesting that it really distracted me from my own game!

During a free day Kramnik showed me one interesting concept in the English Opening. It wasn't a new move or variation, just a general concept of playing a certain type of a position. At that point I had already played the English opening for three years and studied a whole bunch of books on this opening. Yet, what Kramnik showed me in barely 10 minutes was a real eye-opener. Many years later his ability to create new opening concepts became Kramnik's trademark. For starters he turned the first move 1.Nf3 into a formidable opening weapon and then he created the Berlin Wall. 

The Berlin variation of the Ruy Lopez was known for more than 100 years, so Kramnik didn't invent this line, of course. Just like with the variation of the English opening that he showed me, Kramnik's Berlin wasn't any particular line, it was more like a completely new concept. 

I was lucky enough to use Kramnik's lesson in the English opening in the same tournament:

Later I won many games in this variation, including the one that helped me to get my first GM norm! 

For his success in this tournament, Kramnik was invited to play for the Soviet team in the 1991 World Student Team Championship, even though Vladimir was just a schoolboy. According to the book  Прорыв (The Breakthrough) written by Kramnik and Damsky in 2000, the problem was solved pretty easily. The government simply issued a fake student ID for Kramnik. According to the book, Kramnik wasn't alone playing in that tournament with a fake ID and that was probably one of the reasons why this tournament, which was very popular from the 1960s to the 1980s, simply disappeared. 

Meanwhile Kramnik started playing open tournaments in Europe. These tournaments were very lucrative for chess players from the former Soviet Union. After the collapse of the giant empire, the economy was in such a state that even if you had a few dozen dollars in your pocket you could live like Rockefeller there! With an outrageous exchange rate of the falling ruble, everything was extremely cheap if you paid in hard currency.

I remember that Kramnik asked me if I was going to play an open tournament in Gausdal. I answered that even though I really liked this tournament where I scored my second GM norm a year ago, unfortunately I had to pass this time since I already had something planned.

"And what about you?" I asked Kramnik.

"Are you kidding me?" was his answer. "Round-trip airfare from Moscow to Oslo is just six dollars!"

In this tournament, Kramnik produced a very cute miniature:

In the next part of this article, we'll see how a young 17-year-old master turned into a real chess monster!

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