Vladimir Kramnik Interview: 'I'm Not Afraid To Lose'
Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Vladimir Kramnik Interview: 'I'm Not Afraid To Lose'

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The 14th world chess champion Vladimir Kramnik reflects on his remarkable career, telling David Cox about his championship battles with Garry Kasparov, Peter Leko, Veselin Topalov and Vishy Anand, and why Kramnik finally ran out of motivation for the game.

After more than two decades at the top, Vladimir Kramnik shocked the chess world earlier this year by announcing his retirement at the age of 43.  A prodigy, and former student of Mikhail Botvinnik’s chess school, Kramnik went on to hold the world championship title for eight years after sensationally ending Kasparov’s 15-year reign in 2000.

The son of an artist and a music teacher, Kramnik’s approach to the game has always been different than most. He describes himself as not especially competitive, a mindset he believes gave him a psychological advantage over many of his greatest rivals, since he was never afraid of losing.

At his best, Kramnik was renowned as arguably the most difficult player in the world to beat, but his achievements are even more remarkable considering he faced more than his fair share of adversity. These included the chronic health issues that left him unable to eat for months on end, and the turbulent world of chess politics that formed the backdrop to much of his reign as world champion.  

The interview was conducted via phone, and text may have been edited for clarity or length.

Chess.com: Much has been written about the legendary Soviet chess schools. You attended the Botvinnik school in the 1980s. What was it like?

Vladimir Kramnik: People always have a bit of an exaggerated picture of the Soviet chess schools, this idea that there were these concentration camps for kids, working 25 hours a day on chess. No, it was just a two-week session, held twice a year, and even during these two weeks, it was not so terribly intense.

The main asset of the Soviet chess school was actually the high standard of trainers throughout the country. In a world without internet and little exchange of information, this knowledge was hidden away behind the iron curtain. The reason the balance of power started to change after the iron curtain came down was because many of these Russian trainers emigrated, allowing western players and Chinese players to learn from them and get closer to the Russians.

But chess was also immensely popular in the Soviet Union. When I was a kid, the most difficult challenge was simply qualifying for the world championships in your age category. Actually winning it was not a big deal. That was normal. But winning the Soviet championships to qualify, that was much more difficult.

You were 14 when the cold war ended and the Soviet Union began to collapse. How did that affect you?

Of course there were some issues, but I was just a kid at the time, so it didn’t make that big an impact on me. I think it was a much more difficult time for the older generations. For me, there were plusses and minuses. The plusses were that I could finally start going abroad to play tournaments, of my own will. The minuses were that all the state support for chess started to disappear.

The years 1990-1992 were a very difficult time financially in Russia, and many talented players of my generation didn’t manage to improve quickly enough. They ran out of money for trainers, and they ended up stuck at the same level. I was quite lucky in that I benefited from the state support of young talents when I was small, and then I reached the top of the game very quickly. But initially, money was not always easy.

I remember there was a big open tournament in London at the start of 1992, just before my big rise. I was then rated around 2600, and I was offered an appearance fee of £1,500, which was good money for a 16-year-old. But I had to get to London to collect it, and I didn’t have £500 for the plane ticket. So in order to play, my father had to go to a business friend, and ask to borrow the money, with the promise that he would get £800 in two weeks. I had a couple of experiences like this.

1991 coup attempt1

Tanks in Red Square, Moscow, 1991. Photo: Almog, public domain. 

Tell us more about the greater freedoms you had as a chess player.

After the Soviet Union, simply being a good chess player was enough to be able to play all the tournaments—while under the Soviet Union, you not only had to be good, but you had to obey certain rules, which knowing my character, could have been a problem. I’m very stubborn, and for me, making compromises on certain basic beliefs is quite difficult.

It wasn’t to the extent of total obedience. For example, it’s a little bit of a myth that you had to be a member of the communist party. This is not true. Spassky, Tal, Bronstein—they were never members of the communist party, and there were many others. But there were definitely limitations, especially in terms of expressing what you really think.

There was a joke at the time, which went, "I have my point of view, but I don’t agree with it." That was more or less the way to live.

Tell us about your approach to chess, because it’s very different from other players. Most are extremely competitive, with Bobby Fischer describing his attempts to "crush the opponent’s mind." I believe you see chess in a very different light.

My case is quite strange. For most players, winning is by far the main goal. But since my childhood, I have not been competitive at all. Even now, if I play tennis or football, I don’t care about losing. I enjoy the process, and it doesn’t make any difference if I win or lose.

Instead, I just have this permanent will to become better and improve, and I think that this actually leads to a greater motivation than if I were fixated on the results. If you really like what you do and you enjoy the process, then that gives you a driving force to keep working at it, even when things are stressful.

Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.
Vladimir Kramnik. Photo: Maria Emelianova / Chess.com.

Do you think this mindset helped you during your career?

I think so, because with my approach to chess, I was never intimidated or felt afraid of anyone. I think this particularly helped against Garry, whenever we played. I could clearly see that whenever other players faced him, there was a fear, up to the point of panic. For me this was always quite strange. Of course Garry was a special player, and I’ve always had deep respect for his chess, but when you play any opponent, you’re just playing a game. You can lose, but so what?

In any relationship between two people, it’s always the case that if you don’t get intimidated, nobody can intimidate you. There’s nothing the second person can do, if you don’t feel like this. For me, playing Garry was always more of an exciting and interesting challenge. I was happy to play him because it was a chance to show my best against such a great player. For me this was only a positive feeling. Throughout my career, I always loved to play the most difficult opponents. The challenge brought meaning for me.

That’s interesting, because as well as winning the 2000 world championship match against Kasparov, you were one of the few players to hold a positive record against him in classical chess.

Besides his incredible chess strength, a signature part of Garry’s victories was this kind of psychological domination of the opponent. With almost every player, there was this feeling from the first move: "We must understand who the better player is here. Let’s prove it."

But somehow with me, it was not the case, perhaps because I was not afraid to lose. For me it was just a game, an experience, and when you’re not afraid to lose, you don’t fear your opponent. Those two things are very connected, especially when you play a world championship match as there is a very strong psychological exchange between the two of you. I think Garry always had a very strong sense of this, and it was maybe why I was quite a difficult opponent for him throughout his career. I think it was a very strange experience for him, just because he was so used to smelling the fear of the person sitting in front of him.

Much has been written about your match with Kasparov, but one of the most dramatic world championship matches you played was actually against Hungary’s Peter Leko in 2004. You had to win the final game to hold onto your title. Why was that such a tough match for you?

Leko was an extremely difficult opponent. To be honest, at that time I thought he was equal to Kasparov as an opponent in a world championship match. He rarely won tournaments but he was the best defensive player in the world without a doubt. He would lose one, maximum two games a year, and this is exactly the style that is extremely unpleasant to face in a world championship match.

In a tournament, you usually need to make plus-five and win a lot of games, but in a match you only need to win one more game than your opponent. So defensive abilities become even more valuable. It’s what Kasparov found against me in 2000. Before we played, I hadn’t lost in 82 games, and I was experiencing the same against Leko.

It was a miracle that I managed to keep my title, as I was not only facing a difficult opponent, but going through a really tough period of my life. I had certain health issues. It was a difficult period psychologically because there were a lot of chess politics happening about the battle to unify the titles and they were not always gentlemanly. So I was not in the best shape physically, mentally, and basically I was lost at some point during the match. I had no weapon, I was not feeling good, and I didn’t know what to do. I had nothing else to rely on other than character, will and inner strength, and somehow I managed to hold on.

You were diagnosed with the autoimmune condition ankylosing spondylitis (a form of arthritis) in 2005. How did that affect you during your career?

In the second half of the match with Leko, I was already not feeling well, and then I had this arthritis crisis in 2005, which changed me and my attitude towards chess quite a lot. It’s a genetic disease; my brother also has it, and my mother. It leads to a lot of pain in your joints. You’re in permanent discomfort, and I was taking painkillers four times a day because it was so sharp. I had inflamed feet, knees, even my jaw. I lost 15 kilos over the space of a few months, because I was living on liquid. I couldn’t chew anything, even bread, because the pain in my jaw was so strong, even with painkillers. So I was living off puree and fruit juice.

I was given a medication that is sometimes used to treat cancer. It really kicks the immune system, but it had a lot of side effects. I had to go to this laboratory weekly to have my blood tested to make sure it wasn’t affecting my organs, and after a few months they knew me like a best friend. I had to take the medication weekly, and that day I would feel like I’d been hit by a hammer. I’d be in bed all day, because I’d be too weak and tired to even function. But after six months of treatment, the pain subsided.

After six months of permanent pain, just waking up and finding that nothing aches makes you so happy to live. Once you go through something like this, it changes your perspectives completely. Subconsciously, you understand that chess is not the most important thing in life. I was just enjoying eating bread, eating salad, because I could finally chew again. Since then, it’s not completely gone. The doctors feel it could come back any time, and sometimes I have little pains here and there, but I have not had a strong outbreak since 2005.

Having gone through that experience, you then faced Veselin Topalov in 2006, one of the most controversial world championship matches in recent memory. [Despite no evidence to back up his claims, Topalov’s manager suggested that Kramnik was receiving outside assistance while using the toilet. The two players have never shaken hands since.] How do you feel looking back at this match?

We still don’t shake hands. What he did, he damaged himself terribly, in a historical sense, an image sense, and he lost a lot of respect in the world of chess. For me, I know I have done absolutely nothing wrong—not legally, not morally. But his behavior was awful.

OK, it was mainly done by his manager, but if you are more than 10 years old, you have to take responsibility for what your team is doing. It would be possible to improve our relations if he would apologize, at least once. All these accusations were absurd. If he says, "Ok, I didn’t behave well, I am sorry, I will not do it again," then no problem, but it seems he is happy with the way he behaved.  Fortunately it didn’t work, and I won the match.

I don’t have anything personal against him, it’s just difficult to respect someone who is ready to do such things to achieve his goal, so frankly, I don’t have respect for him as a human being. He’s a fantastic chess player, I just don’t respect him.

Kramnik vs Topalov. Photo: Kramnik.com. 

Your reign as champion ended with the 2008 defeat to Vishy Anand. What went wrong in that match for you?

He was just better in everything! I was too slow. I had sensed that chess was changing, but I didn’t adjust. He used incredible, high-level computer preparation, certain tools I didn’t use. I didn’t think it was so important, and by the middle of the match, I realized it was basically over.

He’s an absolutely great player, and in fantastic shape, so even if I had been better prepared, I’m not sure I would beat him. It was just a bit of a pity because it was a fantastically organized match, a lot of interest, and somehow I didn’t manage to put up a real fight. The sporting element was more or less over after six games, and I felt a bit like I’d betrayed the sponsors and the public.

Everyone was expecting a tough, exciting match between two equals and it was quite one-sided. But you have to lose one day. I don’t consider myself some kind of genius, so frankly, even being world champion three times is more than I thought I would achieve. I had to lose it sooner or later, and Vishy was probably the best opponent to lose to.

You reign as world champion was one of the most turbulent periods in chess history, with the fight to try and unify the world titles. Looking back on that, do you feel any frustration?

It was a difficult period! I was not very prepared for it. I was too young, but looking back I’m happy it was like this. I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I think it’s part of my achievement that we have the situation now, with a solid world championship cycle, no conflicts.

I don’t want to blame anyone, but since the beginning of the 1990s, we had a mess. There were only four top tournaments a year. The world championship cycle had collapsed, and my goal, as long as I was world champion, was to bring order into the world of chess. But it wasn’t easy. I had so much dirt thrown into my face from all sides in the process, that nothing can touch me anymore. But it was also a good experience, because now, even if 10 newspapers tomorrow write that I’m an idiot, I really don’t care. I feel like I have an antidote in my blood against any kind of unjustified criticism.

How do you feel about the state of chess now? Next year, Magnus Carlsen will defend his title again. There’s been criticism that there are too many draws in world championship matches. Do you think anything needs to be changed? Should the match be even longer—18, 20 games?

Nowadays it’s not so easy to have a longer match because the amount of preparation involved is really, really intense. It is totally different to previous generations. Back then, there were no computers, not much theory. During my first Linares tournament, engines had yet to be developed, and my game preparation would be one or two hours. Now during world championship matches, you work 12-14 hours a day. So if we had a 20-game match, I think both players would end up in the hospital.

I’m a bit concerned that due to these powerful engines, the game of chess—especially the opening—has become too much about preparation. Because the amount of knowledge is so huge, the game is reduced to short moments, basically one or two moves here and there, where you can make a difference.   

But one idea for making the world championship match more interesting could be to put the tiebreak at the beginning of the match, with the tiebreak champion winning the match in the event of a draw in the classical games. It’s a very simple idea, and it will definitely increase the tension, because there will not be a single time in the match when a draw is OK for both players.

So somebody has to try and take risks. I think FIDE was considering this for the next match but for some reason decided against it.

Did the amounts of preparation play a role in your decision to quit?

No, there were different factors. I think I gave all of my remaining motivation and concentration in the last candidates' tournament. I didn’t win but I played really fighting chess, some brave moves, a couple of bad mistakes, and it was very emotional. It’s difficult to explain but after this, I felt like I had nothing left to give from myself to chess. And from then onwards, I started to feel that I didn’t care anymore. It’s a strange feeling, which I never had before.

I always said that I will quit chess when I stop enjoying it, and at the age of 43, I know it is unlikely I will become world champion again, so there is nothing to achieve results-wise for me. Just playing for the money, that was never my way.

So, time to move on.

What’s next for you?

I always wanted to quit chess while I still had time and energy for doing something else in my life. Not at the age of 60, when you want to rest. So I’m now searching for a new way of life, new emotions, new challenges, which will be as interesting and meaningful for me as chess.

During my career, I made a lot of contacts, and so now I have many potential projects, ideas—some connected with chess, some not. I actually have a much more busy schedule now than when I was a chess player.

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