Sergei Karjakin: "Chess Is Way Cooler Than Cybersport"

Oct 14, 2016, 11:05 AM |

Interview with the Izvestia newspaper.

The high-performing grandmaster talks about his impending match against Magnus Carlsen, his most angry reaction after a loss, his love for beach volleyball and dangers of virtual space.

For the first time in eight years, a Russian chess player will play in a World Championship match. In March 2016, GM Sergei Karjakin, 26, won the Candidates' tournament in Moscow and will now face the Norwegian wonderkid Magnus Carlsen, the 16th chess world champion.

Karjakin is heading to the U.S. on October 18th. He'll fly to Miami and then will go to New York at the beginning of November; his match with Carlsen is taking place on 11th - 30th November. The career-defining match begins in a month, and the Izvestia reporter Timur Ganeev catches up with Karjakin.

"Carlsen is the current world champion, he's number one in Elo ratings, you need no more introductions than that", Karjakin said. "He's a universal player, one of the strongest, if not the strongest player in chess history. He's considered a favourite in our match, like Team Canada is always considered a favourite at any major hockey event, but I'm not going to give up beforehand. If we remember the World Championship history, there were many cases of obvious favourites losing. The undefeatable Jose Capablanca was dethroned by Alekhine, then Alekhin, a true chess genius, lost to Max Euwe; Garry Kasparov lost to Vladimir Kramnik... Only a few people believed in those results before the matches began. After the Olympiad, I had exactly two months until the match. This is optimal time to gain the best form and show my strongest game in New York. I'm determined to put up a serious fight, I believe in myself and my coaches.

After winning the Moscow Candidates', you said that your relationship with Carlsen was good, you even often called each other on Skype. Did you stop talking after your win?

We surely talk much less often. We haven't been on Skype for at least six months. We are very seriously preparing for each other, so for some time we have to forget our ten-year long friendship. After our game at the Bilbao supertournament, we spoke a bit before and after the press conference. If this had happened before my Candidates' win, we would have surely gone to a disco or a restaurant. I hope that this match would be gentlemanly and not harm our friendship.

You recently watched a documentary about Carlsen and said you liked it. What is your favourite chess movie?

I like watching the movie Grandmaster (1971). It's a dramatic film with actual chess positions playing out. And two of our legendary grandmasters, Viktor Korchnoi and Mikhail Tal, are starring. I'd recommend all chess players to watch this movie.

Viktor Korchnoi, after losing a game, could hurl his King through the tournament hall. What was your most angry reaction after a loss?

When I was little, I remember kicking a girl under the table because I didn't want to lose to her. She was much older than me, so this probably makes me a little less guilty! (Laughs)

Viktor Lvovich had recently died. Did this loss hit you hard?

Yes, very hard. We would often play and just chat on various topics. This is a huge loss both for me personally and for the whole chess world. A whole era had died with Korchnoi.

What's your favourite World Championship match?

The 1927 match between Alekhine and Capablanca. The Russian grandmaster was an underdog, but he played brilliantly and defeated the seemingly undefeatable Cuban. Alekhine is my favourite chess player. I like his character and powerful will to win.

How do you rest from chess training? Do you go to the gym? Which sports do you prefer?

Of course, a chess player should be in a good physical form. You should be able to sit at the board for seven hours and retain maximum concentration. It's very hard. So, physical and psychological preparation has a special place in overall training: you should be prepared for a very strong pressure in every game. Everyone will be watching me and Magnus. Concerning sports - I prefer game sports, such as beach volley; it's my favourite sport.

The 2016 World Championship will be translated in a 360-degree format. Do you think that new technologies in chess help attract new fans?

I think that it's a great idea. Just for $15, you can buy the entire online stream of all games and watch all the players' emotions. It's a breakthrough for our sport.

The popularity of cybersport is on the rise. Even in Russia, open cybersport tournaments gather full stadiums, major businessmen invest money into teams. Do you consider cybersport a real sport? Or perhaps you even thought about investing in this industry?

Unlike my friends, I'm not interested in cybersports. Ian Nepomniachtchi, for instance, plays almost every day and takes great interest in the industry. I personally think that cybersport is harmful and is not a real sport. It tries to become a substitute for real life. Chess is way cooler than cybersport, it's also more beneficial and interesting. If I were a businessman, I wouldn't invest in cybersport. Though it's probably very lucrative.

The prize fund for your match is 1 million Euro - you'd probably agree that it's way smaller than what top football, hockey or basketball players earn...

The overall prize fund was not declared yet, the organizers will declare it two weeks before the first game. But even 1 million Euro is a lot of money. Of course, game sport champions earn much more money, but I don't envy them. Chess players' life is way quieter. I can go to a restaurant or just walk in a park. The footballers, on the other hand, are stalked constantly. I wouldn't want to be in their shoes.

I earn good money, but I had to walk quite a long road to those money. Major wins only came after 20 years of hard training. I also spend quite a lot of money on my training. So you have to understand that without the support of my sponsors and the Russian Chess Federation, my life would've been quite hard.

Do people often recognize you on the street?

After winning the Candidates', it now happens much often. I was at the VDNKh the other day, some man approached me and asked me for a photo. It's nice. Also, in 2016, Russian TV started to interview me and our other leading players more often. Russian president Vladimir Putin visits chess tournaments. This is a good thing too.

What was the strangest place you played chess at?

In Stavanger, one round was played on a small island where rich Norwegians have their countryhouses. There's a beautiful playing hall on that island. A building made entirely of glass, just 50 meters away from the sea.

And now, a short blitz quiz. The most persistent myth about chess players?

People often think that all chess players are slouching nerds who can't do anything with their hands other than push pieces. But if you talk to chess players, you'd see that they are just like normal folks - they do drink and smoke, and they can fix pretty much anything in their home. So, chess-playing guys are no different from normal guys.

How do you relax?

I like walking, 3-4 hours a day.

You favourite book?

I love Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. From the modern literature, I'd gladly read the eighth Harry Potter book.

Name one thing that could make your life better.

Not having to shave every other day.

The most expensive thing you've ever bought (excluding property)?

I don't like to throw money around. It's hard to answer. I buy expensive phones, can pay a huge bill in a restaurant if there's an occasion.

The worst work you've had to do in your life?

There was no "worst work". I had a happy childhood and adolescence.

What superpower would you like to gain?

The ability to fly seems like a good thing.

What keeps you from sleeping?

I've got a good nervous system, I'm always able to sleep, even after the most difficult games. I can remember only one exception. After a crazy game against Fabiano Caruana which allowed me to win the Candidates', I couldn't sleep at night.

What's the most important lesson life gave you?

Whoever you are, you should always be yourself, in any situation. You shouldn't think of yourself as a star, or else life will quickly pull you down to earth. I'll always be myself. Whether I beat Carlsen or not, I'll still remain a regular guy. You can always interview me or just call to chat.