Ian Nepomniachtchi: "I Tend to Solve the Problems As They Come"
© Donat Sorokin/TASS

Ian Nepomniachtchi: "I Tend to Solve the Problems As They Come"

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Interview by Andrei Kartashov, TASS

Tell us about your relationship with Magnus Carlsen. At the first sight, it seems warm and friendly.

Ten years ago, we had two or three training camps together. I even went together with him to one tournament, more out of curiosity. I can't say that we're close friends, but we're on friendly terms. Of course, this doesn't play much role now.

Are you afraid?

Should I be? I must prepare well and play well, do everything in my power. There was a good movie called Bridge of Spies, about exchanging Rudolf Abel for the American spy plane pilot. There was a scene where he's told, "You don't seem alarmed". He looks back and replies, "Would it help?" It's the same here.

Back in 2014, you were posing with Carlsen for photo ops. Did you know back then that you could win the Candidates' Tournaments and challenge for the world championship?

There was a training camp in Sochi, which coincided with the Tal Memorial blitz tournament. Back then, I was planning to perform well in the Russian Championship Superfinal in Kazan.

I tend to solve the problems as they come. Back then, I couldn't qualify for the Candidates' Tournament through the World Cup - I wasn't a good enough knockout player. And I couldn't qualify for the Grand Prix series because of my rating. This is a perennial problem for players from our country: even if you're in the world top 20, you can still remain fourth- or fifth-strongest player in Russia, and you don't qualify because there are others ahead of you. So, back then, I had more realistic plans: improve my rating, play more consistently, take part in more supertournaments, learn constantly, etc.

I never felt any deference before higher-rated players: ultimately, you just sit down and play, and it doesn't matter who's against you. The stronger the opponent, the more interesting it is for me.

Did you watch Karjakin's match against Carlsen? Did you support him?

Of course. In any sports, in 99% of all cases, I'm rooting for my flag, for my compatriots. Of course, I know Sergey better than Magnus, I talk to him more frequently. We didn't prepare for the match together, but sometimes I went to the same training camps as him, we just happened to meet. The major revelation for me wasn't the match itself - it obviously was very interesting - but the fact that you didn't have to be a clear favourite to win the Candidates' Tournament. Before that Candidates', [Anish] Giri had a very high rating, but he only got a 50% score, while Sergei, being one of the rating underdogs, finished on +3.

In the Candidates' Tournament, the one who plays better gets it all: the status of favourite helps some and hinders some, but in general, it's not the main consideration. This was the biggest lesson I learned. By the way, I also commentated the last two Candidates' Tournaments, in 2016 and 2018, and it was a useful experience chess-wise. I delved very deep into the nuances of the struggle, into opening preparation, all that.

And way the match itself went, Karjakin could have even won.

Indeed, he was in the lead three games before the end. We could speculate endlessly what could have been if someone had found this or that move or hadn't found one. But ultimately, what happened, happened. On the other hand, even qualifying for the world championship match is a great achievement. I think Sergey played very good, but, of course, it was upsetting [to see him lose]. I was in New York during the second half of the match, so I felt the atmosphere of the fight very well.

By the way, the popularity of chess soared back then. Did you feel that?

It was well-deserved and logical. Chess world championship is akin to the soccer World Cup, they are similar events. This is the only chess competition that attracts lots of attention from non-chess fans. Yes, we do have the Chess Olympiad, national championships, World Cups, other competitions, but the world championship match is an event that attracts a lot of attention from sport fans. This is a rare event, and there weren't many world champions in the history of the game.

How close and friendly are your relationships with other Russian grandmasters?

Concerning the relationships, they're always different between people: someone likes someone else more and someone else less. I don't know about other sports, but I think in chess, most relationships are even and loyal. I wouldn't say there are chess players who are openly hostile towards each other, even though, of course, everyone's history is different. Of course, [Vladimir] Kramnik and [Veselin] Topalov won't shake each other's hands. But, except for such overt conflicts, I don't think that the international chess society can be compared with a snake pit. Don't come looking for scandals and intrigues.

The Queen's Gambit portrayed the Russian chess players this way: friendly and helpful towards each other. Is that true?

At team events, this is indeed true. When chess players represent one team or one nation, you can always go to the team coach with any question instead of your own coach, or ask a teammate for help, even though he will become your rival again a week later. Today, he can share some idea with you or give advice how to play.

You should understand that chess is an individual sport, which helps to develop egoism and egocentrism, but team tournaments are an exception. Also, some players work together, so they prefer not to play against each other, forming some kind of coalition.

Do you have famous chess players among your best friends?

I won't answer this, because I don't want to offend anybody. Some friends would think that I chose the wrong chess players, some others would think I implied that they are not chess players, still others might decide they aren't my friends anymore. There's a lot of strong chess players among my friends, generally speaking.

You won the Candidates' Tournaments. Do you remember your thoughts and expectations at the start?

First of all, it was actually a miracle that it took place at all. I thought that it could have been stopped at any moment, because they forbade any kind of mass events first, and then started closing borders. The tournament was later stopped for the very same reason. The atmosphere was quite nervous. I was upset because I didn't have much time to prepare - the final qualifying tournament ended in late December, then I rested for two weeks in January, and I only had a month and a half to train. I was focused more on gaining energy and studied chess less. The training camp lasted for 4 or 5 weeks, it's too little time, of course.

How do the chess training camps go? It's kind of obvious for footballers: they run a lot, work on tactics. What about chess players?

Chess players run and work on tactics too. There's a chess component - opening theory study, solving tactics, and there's a sport component: physical form improvement. You go to training camp either to study something new or to get to your best form. It all depends on the goals. If there's an important tournament ahead, it's mostly about gaining best form, and if it's just a scheduled training camp, you can study various openings.

Back to the Candidates' Tournament: you said it was a miracle that it took place at all...

It was opened on 16th March 2020, and on the same day, all sporting events in Russia were cancelled. So we decided that we wouldn't play at all, but then we were told that the arrival day was on 15th March, and thus we have already started. There were some funny moments, yes. "Miracle" is probably too strong a word, but clearly we were all on edge. I, for instance, reacted with much curiosity when I learned that Radjabov was replaced by Vachier-Lagrave a week before the start.

But everyone was in equal conditions.

Some were more equal. I think that Vachier-Lagrave was the only one with a positive disposition. He essentially drew a winning lottery ticket, which almost got him a jackpot in the first half of the tournament. For me, the tournament stopped on a sour note, because I squandered a 1-point lead and lost to Vachier-Lagrave as well. This was an uncomfortable time period for me. I also got a bit ill, and, in retrospect, I wasn't in my optimal conditions, similar to many other participants. However, if I hadn't lost that game in the 7th round, I wouldn't have been as worried about stopping the tournament, because I would've had a comfortable lead. Still, even sharing first and second place wasn't that bad, especially because I had four games with White and three with Black in the secound leg. Still, it's a different status, so for the first two weeks after the stoppage, I beat myself up a lot. But then I stopped.

Ultimately, the tournament lasted for a whole year. How did you prepare between the first leg and the second?

The preparation was constant, because the restart was delayed further and further. It probably helped me, because at first, we were preparing for August or September. My team took a rest after the first leg, and then, in late May and early June, we started to work online a lot.

Then the second leg was delayed until September-October, then early November, and then until April 2021. Before November, we already organized several big training camps in addition to online work. So, there was a lot of time until April. In December 2020, I played in the Russian Championship Superfinal, getting good practice. I also actively played online. And after that, we had four or five more training camps.

I remember you getting a string of good results in online tournaments.

Yes, sometimes I played well, sometimes not so. I can't say I took online play super seriously. At first, I can't say that my playing was slapdash, but the attitude was far from "do or die". In online tournaments, the quality of play varies wildly: there are more mistakes and blunders, some other factors are at play too. Playing from home is different from being in a tournament hall; it's a completely different mindset, so to say. In general, I thought that online tournaments were a good opportunity to train. And since nothing but fame and money was at stake, these tournaments weren't qualifying for something important, I just played different openings. Looking back now, I can say that this was beneficial for me.

What's your first chess-related memory from your childhood?

Probably the U10 European championship I won in 2000. It was my first time abroad, and a lot of good memories remains. We played in Greece, in Chalkidiki. I won convincingly, with a 8.5/9 score.

Did you go alone?

No, with my mother and my first coach, Valentin Semyonovich Evdokimenko. I almost always went to tournaments with him in my childhood.

How did chess enter your life? As far as I understand, soccer was much more popular on the streets of your city when you were small.

Yes, the street games were popular - table tennis, badminton, soccer... In my family, my grandfather and uncle were avid chess players, so they taught me. Then they took me to a grammar school where they both worked - there was a chess circle there. They showed me to the coach, asked him if I should study chess seriously. He said I should. After that, they took me to the chess club that was five minutes away from our Bryansk home on foot. There, I was immediately sent to Valentin Semyonovich Edvokimenko's group, and I think I was lucky, because meeting such an empathetic coach is a rare occasion.

Was chess one of your hobbies, or did you decide early on that it would be a big part of your life?

I'd say that there's now a tendency for parents to sent their kids to as many extracurricular activities as possible: dancing, singing, figure skating, wrestling, soccer, so that they wouldn't have even a minute of free time. But my situation was different: I visited only the chess club. And after half a year, or a year, I found myself studying chess a lot more than the average kid of my age.

I think I liked playing video games more, but I didn't have a console of my own: friends occasionally lent me their NES or Sega. I liked video games more than going to chess club, but what could you ask of such a small kid? I had a Chessmaster cartridge, among other things.

When did you get your first computer?

A family we knew moved to Moscow and left their old PC to us. It was a 386. Then another acquaintance installed Windows 3.1 and ChessBase for us, which allowed me to study old games and analyzed them with a primitive chess engine, Fritz 5 or 6, I think. I got the first laptop that allowed me to study chess seriously and connect to the Internet in 2002, a gift from Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. Before that, I, like many other players, went to Sergey Moiseevich Yanovski to prepare during the youth European and world championships.

When did you start going to tournaments in earnest?

At an age of 8 or 9. Russian championships and qualifying tournaments, trying to promote to the Higher League, all that. Since the age 13, I started to play in opens, even though I couldn't travel a lot because it was all expensive, and I had no consistent support. But, generally speaking, I've been living on a some kind of schedule since childhood.

How did your coaching team change as you grew?

At first, in addition to Valentin Semyonovich Evdokimenko, Boris Moiseevich Eidlin worked with me - not for long, probably a year or so. Then, when I achieved some progress and became a candidate master, Valentin Semyonovich invited IM Valery Ideevich Zilberstein to work with me. It's actually a rare thing - one coach inviting another for further improvement of his pupil. By the way, I organize a memorial tournament for Valery Ideevich in Bryansk every year. He won the Russian SFSR championship twice, was a very strong chess player, but he was perhaps an even stronger card player - and it's hard to say what was more profitable in the 1970s and 1980s. I learned a lot from him, chess-wise.

Why would one need two coaches?

It's always good when you have someone who's ready to share their knowledge and skills. Two coaches aren't necessarily explain the same things to you. One of them can accompany you at tournaments, while another one studies with you at home, for instance. In today's world, one coach may give you assignments through Skype. I can't say that the more coaches you have, the better: as you know, too many cooks spoil the broth, but still, it's always useful to learn more things. When I won my first European championship in 2000, GM Sergey Moiseevich Yanovski, then the head coach of all Russian teams, took note of me. He gave me additional lessons and oversaw my chess growth for a long time: found open tournaments for me to play, organized training camps.

Evgeny Gleizerov also had a grandmaster school in Bryansk: a couple of times per year, he, together with the city's best coaches, invited talented kids, gave them simultaneous displays, read lectures, analyzed games - it was also very useful. In childhood, such things decide everything.

Afterwards, I got to work with a lot of people. In 2006 and 2007, I worked with Sergey Shipov for a year and a half or so...

He defeated Carlsen...

Quite a few people have defeated Carlsen... Since late 2007, Alexander Grigorievich Bakh offered me and Volodya Potkin to work together, and we're still together as a team after all those years, even though he occasionally left to work on other projects, so to say. I sporadically worked with Mark Izrailevich Dvoretsky as well, and I must say that I learned a lot from him, but, sadly, this work was, as I said, sporadic. We sometimes met at the same training camps, I sometimes came to his house, but, of course, this was much less that I would've liked.

Anatoly Evgenyevich Karpov also had a hand in your training?

I don't know much about that.

Karpov School, wasn't it?

The Karpov School, as I understand it, worked with RSSU for a while, maybe that's why he got such an impression. Also, when I was a small kid, I once played in the "Children of Chernobyl" tournament. Bryansk is a region in Western Russia, and it suffered a lot from the catastrophe's aftermath. I actually remember reading an interview where he said, "Ian received a scholarship from my school, my program." But, as they say, the rumours are somewhat exaggerated. At the very least, I don't remember any such thing.

When did you understand that you could reach the top level, ahead of most other players?

Hard to say. I always thought that there was a great potential to improve: study more things, learn more things, so even when my results weren't exactly the best, when my rating stagnated, I thought that this was a transient state. But the problem is, everyone gets a very limited time, and you should achieve good progress in as short a time period as possible.

You say that one has to improve quickly. Perhaps luck is at play when your results start skyrocketing? What role did luck play in your career?

It's hard to discuss the role of luck in one's career. In the last few years, I obviously started studying a lot more. I can't say that I feel the age pressure or something, because the process of improvement is endless, but you can't play on the highest level for your entire life.

Is chess getting younger?

Chess became more of a sport: higher workloads, more games, much more information to remember - obvious things, really.

When did you start to really earn your living with chess?

I received my first substantial sum of money when I was around 16. It was the Vladimir Dvorkovich Memorial with good prizes: our team won the first place, we won about 100,000 rubles [about $4000 in 2006] - it was a very serious sum for me, as I'd just finished school. Of course, later I started to earn more money.

Now I've got some sponsors. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank PhosAgro, SimaLand, Marathon Group, Nornikel and for help in preparation for the match.

When you were a schoolboy and won your first prize money, did your parents take them? Or did you get to spend them on your own?

They didn't. I think I already had a bank account somewhere. Until I was 16, our budget was always joint, and then I moved to Moscow. I still sent some money to my parents, and left some for myself. Life in Moscow is more expensive than in Bryansk, even for a teenager.

So, you lived independently since you were sixteen?

Yes, I've been living in Moscow on my own since the age of 16.

Where did you live after moving to Moscow?

In the same district as I do now, to be honest. Gruzinskaya street, Presnya street, Belorusskaya metro station - in that triangle.

Wikipedia article about you states that you're a fan of What? Where? When? Is that true?

Yes. I'm trying to watch the TV version while I can. I didn't have a chance to play the game myself in the last couple of years, because I simply wasn't in Moscow. There's also a sport version of What? Where? When?, we have a team there, and I even played there several times after the Candidates' Tournament. But I'm not the most active player now, obviously.

Our team played in the Russian Championship, it's a very strong tournament with difficult questions, and we, frankly, weren't at our best. We're amateurs, and most of the teams playing there are professionals.

Do you have any favourite movies or directors?

My favourite movie is The Reader. Director - Christopher Nolan.

What about music?

I listen to almost everything, depending on my mood. Russian bards, for instance - Vysotsky, Galich, Okudzhava, some Vizbor - some rap, Russian rock, alt rock. I'm omnivorous in this regard.

Whom do you follow in sports, in addition to Spartak Moscow?

In soccer, I also support Barcelona. I'm also rooting for the Russian national team and our teams in European competitions. In other sports, it all depends: if I turn on the TV and there's biathlon, I watch biathlon, and if there's skis, I watch skis. It's kind of background sound. When I was a kid, I liked watching ski jumping. Our ski jumpers weren't among the best, but the situation has improved somewhat. Ski jumping is beautiful.