Daniil Dubov: "I Sincerely Want to Fill Chess With Unexpected Ideas"
© Lennart Otes

Daniil Dubov: "I Sincerely Want to Fill Chess With Unexpected Ideas"

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Interview: Oleg Bogatov, R-Sport

Daniil Dubov, the world rapid champion, won a 12-grandmaster online tournament in June, defeating Hikaru Nakamura in the final.

Daniil, you haven't been playing too successfully at the group stage of the tournament. How did you manage to turn things around?

I won three games. (Smiles.) There were several factors at work. For instance, I played against the Chinese grandmasters in the first three rounds. And it's historically rather hard for me to play them. It was also my first such online tournament. I've been getting used to the conditions in the first day. And then I probably was more lucky.

Does this format suit me? I don't know, this was my first such tournament. I liked it, but when you win, you usually like everything. I haven't understood all the peculiarities yet, but it's not bad.

On your way to the final, you won the matches against Sergey Karjakin and Ding Liren. Which was more difficult?

With Sergey Karjakin, the match was more emotionally tense. And, as my close friend and mentor Boris Gelfand says, intra-species rivalry is stronger than the inter-species. Jokes aside, it was really a very emotional match. And the match against Ding Liren went much simpler than I expected.

Китайский шахматист Дин Лижэнь

Ding Liren. Photo © RIA Novosti / Vladimir Fedorenko

Why it's harder to play against the Chinese? Do they play different chess?

They have a strange style; in certain moments, they almost consciously avoid best moves. They don't make bad moves, but they aren't the strongest ones. And you put your guard down, but as soon as you make one wrong move, you're immediately punished. I'm far from solving the Chinese problem, even though I've been thinking much about it. I can probably even start writing a dissertation.

Can you call this one of your most important successes?

Of course, it can't be compared with the rapid world championship win. But, of course, it's very important for me because I've never won supertournaments. And, well, I haven't been getting invitations to them too often.

You and Carlsen made it to the final of a series of such tournaments. Whom else would you like to see in the final four?

I have no concrete preferences, but I like the style of Jan-Krzysztof Duda - bright, interesting, combative chess. We have a good relationship - if he makes it, I'll be glad. And I don't really care who else qualifies. My closest friends, unfortunately, don't play in these tournaments.

Can you name them?

Boris Gelfand, David Paravyan and Maxim Matlakov. And, of course, Sasha Riazantsev - my coach and a strong grandmaster.

Working with Carlsen made me stronger

You helped Carlsen to prepare for the world championship match against Fabiano Caruana. Does this help or hinder you in your games against him?

I think that this work gave me new experience, but it didn't change the power balance in a significant way. He was and is much stronger than me. I probably did become stronger because of our work. But I think that he did so, too. (Smiles.)

It was a mutually beneficial and pleasant work. And our games haven't changed much. He wins more often, but I bite back periodically, win some games.

Carlsen is number one. Clearly ahead of everyone

Is Magnus really so much ahead of everybody else?

He's the world number one, without a doubt. Clearly ahead of veryone. As for me, I think that when my head works clearly, I can play on equal terms with anyone. Except for Magnus when he's on top of his game, this is a special case. Even if I play good too. But if I'm not in my top form, many people can defeat me. On a bad day, probably at least 200 people can defeat me. You don't have to be Magnus to do that.

Даниил Дубов (справа) и Магнус Карлсен

Daniil Dubov (right) and Magnus Carlsen. Photo © by RIA Novosti / Vladimir Vyatkin

You can and should defeat Magnus. But for this, you need even more strength than against the top-5 or top-3 players.

I'm not hiding my novelties - I'll find new ones

The experts were surprised that you were so generously uncorking your opening ideas during the tournament. Couldn't you keep them for the serious tournaments?

I probably could, but I'm trying to do the maximum to win in every tournament. I know that many people support me and want to see interesting games - no matter if I win or lose. I sincerely want to fill chess with unexpected ideas. And if I'm in a state when I don't want to express my ideas or there are too few of them, I just decline the invitation. I prefer to prepare better and create enough new ideas.

But every tournament has a substantial prize fund?

In theory, it's true. But my philosophy is different - I'm not playing in tournaments for money, I want to play interesting games, make people happy and get good results. I never go to tournaments to just go through the motions, show zero new ideas, finish in mid-table and earn some money.

Perhaps I'm playing less tournaments than the others, but I manage to accumulate many ideas. And the more ideas you have, the less you care for each of them. And I assure the renowned experts: these ideas are not my last, I still have many more. I've got a great team of associates, Sasha Riazantsev first and foremost, and our work helps us to regularly find interesting ideas.

I play less and study more, that's why I'm getting such an effect. Why should i hide my ideas? In preparation for some tournament that would maybe take place half a year later? I'll come up with some new ideas in the meantime. Yes, it's a very difficult process, but this is the main strength of our team.

Даниил Дубов

Daniil Dubov. Photo © by RIA Novosti / Alexander Galperin

Aren't you worried by the financial side?

I don't have such problems in the foreseeable future. I want to believe that I'd always be able to provide for myself and my family with chess.

I don't think that rating is that important

The Russian Chess Federation vice president Alexander Zhukov told me, "Daniil has already made top 5 in rapid chess. Now, we're waiting for him to break into top 5 in classical chess." How close are you to this goal?

Chess is a somewhat strange sport: it has no clear and easy-to-understand metric. Even if we assume that I'm as strong as the top-5 players, which is not obvious, actually getting to top 5 is a difficult technical problem. To gain rating, you have to play in elite tournaments.

I don't think that rating is that important. For instance, Anish Giri, number five in the ratings, was the favourite of the first Grand Prix tournament. I defeated him in the first round in Moscow and had chances to get the second place until the last tournament. And he lost in the first round in all three tournaments. Then, I overtook him in Wijk an Zee by half a point. As a result, Giri dropped from 5th to 8th place, and I still remained on 40th place or so [Dubov is currently 38th in the FIDE rankings.]

The thing is not only that you have to play good - because of, should I say, historical determination, different people have different opportunities. And it's harder for a Russian player to get invitations to some tournaments than for a European player. And if you don't constantly play against top-10 or top-20 players, it's hard to significantly increase your rating.

In Wijk an Zee, I competed for the top three, finished ahead of Giri, Anand, other grandmasters. And then what? They said "thank you for interesting games", and then nothing. Perhaps there's some kind of quota for strong Russian players. Yes, I don't think I'm strong enough to be a top-10 player now, but I also don't think I'm only a top-40 level player.

And the top-20 players are a kind of "travelling circus", going from one tournament to the other. Of course, if you're playing fantastically, you'll manage to break through. But there's a phenomenon when they constantly play each other and create a certain vacuum. It's very hard to breach that vacoom. I'll do everything I can, but the chess factors aren't the only ones.

What's the sense of thinking about rating, anyway? I know that Carlsen plays stronger than me. Caruana as well. These two have gone far ahead of the field in the classical chess - both in rating and in playing strength. I'm trying to progress, and what's the real difference between being on 15th or 20th place in ratings? There's no such goal, we're hoping to achieve something greater.

I have no idols

Can you name three famous chess players whose playing style you're trying to imitate?

I can't. It's clear that Carlsen is the greatest chess player, the best in the game's history. I also rather like Mikhail Tal and Garry Kasparov. But there's the thing: the stronger you play, the deeper you understand the game, the harder it is to adore anyone. Of course, when I was younger, I would've named Tal, Kasparov and Boris Spassky.

But all famous chess players lived in different times and had access to different information. Now, even I can say that I understand chess better than Mikhail Botvinnik. Not because I play better than Botvinnik - it's just because chess changed, and I have more information than he had in his time. I read the books he couldn't read, I saw the games he couldn't see, etc.

And, of course, the average level has grown quite a lot. If we could transport the post-war Botvinnik into our time and give three years to adapt, he would've understood the game on a great level. But if we just transported him and got him playing, without explaining everything, he would've been an average grandmaster at best.

Чемпион мира по шахматам Михаил Ботвинник во время игры

World champion Mikhail Botvinnik at the board. Photo © by RIA Novosti / Dmitry Donskoy

Is that so?

Yes, I think Mikhail Tal would've suffered the same fate too. The time is just different.

What can you say about Paul Morphy, who played in the middle of 19th century?

By raw talent, I think that Morphy is top-three of all time. But I don't evaluate chess players by raw talent. The game has significantly developed since that time, and if you want to search for an ideal for the modern players, we probably should start with Robert Fischer. Fischer, Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov...

Can you name a football (soccer) player whose style is similar to you?

It's hard to draw direct parallels between chess and football, football is a team game. But if we try to search for a tennis analogy, then my favourite player is Stanislas Wawrinka. Our styles are quite similar. Wawrinka plays very aggressively, and if he can consistently hit the line with his crazy backhand, he defeats all the leaders. But if he can't hit it, he can lose not only to Roger Federer, but to 150 more guys as well.

The competition in chess isn't too great

Will Carlsen remain a world champion for long?

Magnus is a special phenomenon in chess. I think that if someone ever defeats him in a world championship match, that would be a shock for the chess world. I don't know when it happens. But I think that this wouldn't happen for at least two more championship cycles.

What's he like in life?

Interesting, clever, knowledgeable, very sporty. Magnus reads many books, he's interested in everything that happens in the world. And, of course, he's an incredibly gifted chess player. His other strong sides are willpower, strong nerves and sporting qualities.

But many people have these traits, however, only Magnus managed to achieve success.

I think that this line of thinking is incorrect. I even actually think that the competition in chess isn't too great. If you ask me how many people in the world are: a) work 4-6 hours a day in the long haul; b) keep in good physical shape; c) have a strong will, the desire to fight and win, I'll surprise you. There are maybe 5 or 6 people in the world who possess all those three qualities. And he's the best of them.

Do you think you're one of them?

I'm trying to join this list and meet the criteria.

One participant of a world championship match told me, "At a certain moment, I understood that I shouldn't compete for the world championship anymore." How much time do you give to yourself to become the best in the world?

As long as I feel that I'm progressing and I still have chances to be the best in the world. And when I feel that this is over, I won't be struggling anymore. I don't have a specific time horizon.

I'm just trying to play as well as I can, and then, after the coronavirus, we shall see what happens with the world championship qualification system. Of course, I would like to play in the Candidates' Tournament, but this is just an abstract goal for now. Winning the world championship is an abstract goal as well.

Норвежский гроссмейстер Магнус Карлсен

Magnus Carlsen. Photo © by RIA Novosti /Vladimir Vyatkin

What are Carlsen's weaknesses?

His main strength is that he has no great weaknesses. That's why he's able to play in any style, and there's a certain level he never falls below. You can keep up with him on short distance - for instance, when our brilliant player Sasha Grischuk is in his best form, and Magnus is in his best form too, then Sasha will give a fight, and their chances are equal. But when both are out of form, Sasha's chances are slim. It's the same with the others as well.

Carlsen is an absolutely universal chess player. He doesn't have any positions that he fears or plays badly, he fears absolutely nobody.

If we draw parallels with football, then Magnus is closer to Cristiano Ronaldo than to Messi, as strange as it sounds. He doesn't care what others think about him, he's just doing what he does. Also, Ronaldo is also able to do anything and score any kind of goal, like Magnis in chess. He's got a reputation of a genius, and this is true...

I feel like a veteran

You are 24 years old. Do you think that this is an optimal moment to break through to the top?

I read many sportsmen's autobiographies, and I think that inwardly, you feel different. I think that you can never know if you're really ready for the big break. You just have to work a lot, believe in yourself and not think too far ahead.

Do you think that your age is an age of breakthrough or making some key decisions?

I feel like a veteran. Of course, I'm exaggerating, but it's funny to hear when people in Russia call me or Vladislav Artemiev young players. Magnus was already a world champion in all versions at my age. It's strange for me that there's a tendency in Russia to call "young" some players that aren't considered young in Europe.

Objectively, I don't feel that I'm a young player. In my view, a "young" player is someone aged 13 to 16. And then the period of hopes ends, and everyone expects results from you.

What interests do you have outside chess?

There are many. I read books, play sports, watch sport programs, play various games.

What car do you drive? What movies do you prefer? What else do you do in your spare time?

Thankfully, I don't have a car and I'm not planning to obtain one. Books and movies - many, of very diverse genre. I also like street workout - exercises outside, on horizontal bar and balance beams. Some idiot wrote that I can do 40 one-handed pull-ups, but this is just humbug. Nobody in the world can do that. This is not just an error, this is complete nonsense.

I can do 2, maybe 3 one-handed pull-ups, not more. This is very difficult.

The street workout movement has a big community, people gather at the Vorobyevy Gory. There are always some experienced guys who are glad to meet new people and teach them something. I like that. You can spend quite a pleasant time there. It's also very beneficial for your health. I think it's much more beneficial than chess.

Российский шахматист Даниил Дубов

Daniil Dubov. Photo © by RIA Novosti / Alexander Galperin

Can you name five movies and three actors that you liked the most?

Actors - Anthony Hopkins, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. It's harder with the movies, there are a lot of good ones. I'll try: Rush, Gladiator, Youth. I also rather liked The Irishman. As for the fifth one... I'll name a non-obvious one here, Spotlight. A very strong and harsh movie, but a very strong one first and foremost.

If you weren't a chess player, what job would you have chosen?

It's hard to say. I think that my job would've been linked with mathematics. I studied in a physics/math school, so I know this subject pretty well. I'm still interested in mathematics, by the way.

Kasparov was ahead of his time, he's the Tyson of chess

Daniil, did you ever work with Garry Kasparov?

No, never. I do know him, but nothing more. Kasparov is a great chess player who was way ahead of his time. And we still reap the fruits of the revolution that started in the second period of his career - when computers came on stage.

I think that there was a period when Garry Kimovich was the only player who actively used computers in his preparation. This helped him to find a huge number of opening ideas. By the way, he didn't keep them to himself - he was using them actively.

And this accelerated the progress of chess substantially. If there was no Kasparov, there wouldn't be a neural-network chess program now, which opened our eyes on many things, even, I dare say, on some basic principles that we didn't know before.

Kasparov increased the quality of the game, first and foremost. I think he was the first hyperdynamic player. He started what now looks completely natural for us.

Гарри Каспаров

Garry Kasparov. Photo © by AFP 2020 / Bill Greenblatt

If we draw parallels with boxing, Kasparov is Mike Tyson. There were heavyweights before him, but then Tyson came and showed that you could box very differently. Kasparov showed that you could play much more aggressively and inspired many grandmasters, including me.

Everyone understood that you could play sharper lines and get better results. What was Tyson's risk? He wasn't afraid to get close to the opponent. He believed that his speed and technique would be sufficient. It's the same with Kasparov - he thoroughly analyzed everything at home and started playing lines that seemed risky. His approach was "do or die", and he usually did.

And then it became completely normal. The world's leading chess players now aren't beset by doubts whether this line is risky or not. We started to think less with general categories - this is dangerous, this is solid. This is all gone because of Kasparov.

I would also like to mention his chess books - I read all of them a lot of times and still re-reading them occasionally. For instance, his book series about world champion has formed at least a half of my chess repertoire.

If we compare chess with music, what composers are most similar to Carlsen, Kasparov or you?

I must admit that I don't know classical music all that well. Carlsen is something very cold, probably someone like Johann Sebastian Bach. Kasparov is probably closer to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. I like Sergei Prokofiev, so, there are probably some parallels between him and my playing. But you'd have to dig pretty deep to find them. (Smiles.)