Sergey Karjakin: "Carlsen now is stronger than Kasparov was in his prime"
© Sergei Savostyanov/TASS

Sergey Karjakin: "Carlsen now is stronger than Kasparov was in his prime"


Sergey Karjakin's big interview after the Chess Olympiad. Taken by Marina Makarycheva and her husband Sergey.



Marina Makarycheva: Hello dear friends, today our channel's guest is Sergey Karjakin. Serezha, you just came back after the Olympiad, tell us about your impression. We've all supported you, and are a bit... a small bit... unhappy with our national team's performance.

Sergey Karjakin: Hello Marina, good day to our dear friends. This Olympiad was very combative, and I think it was very strong. Its difference from the past Olympiads was that we weren't rating favourites anymore, and so there were no demands like "you finish first, or else". So, the result - shared 1st-3rd places, with a bit of bad luck with tie-breaks - is more or less normal. The other thing is, of course, that we started a bit sluggishly, played several weak matches in the beginning of the tournament, but then managed to regain form and played as well as we could.

Towards the end, it indeed seemed like you have risen like a phoenix. You were in the middle of the table, and then suddenly broke through, and it looked like you were just half a step from the championship. What stopped you from winning? You shared the first place, another half-step, and...

This is a team tournament. When one player's performance suffers, the whole team suffers. I sympathize with Dmitry Jakovenko, but he lost two games with White on fourth board, so it was hard to hope for a win in these matches. Towards the end, I think we really regained our form, won four team matches in a row. We played on a good level, could've won it with an even bigger margin, despite playing against strong teams - England, France - so you can't really blame us for not playing against the U.S. and China. It was them who didn't play us! (Laughs)

So cunning! (Laughs) Serezha, you say that Dmitry Jakovenko was in a bad form. I've played many team matches myself [Marina Makarycheva is a NM and once won the Soviet team championship playing for Moscow], then we've talked to the teams a lot, and it often turns out like that: the strongest players players suddenly... you know, how [Viktor] Chernomyrdin used to say, "It never happened, and now again..." (Laughs) You know, one player always underperforms, plays worse than they can, and so it's, of course, good when they're all in great form, everyone is winning, and then, of course, the first place is easily obtainable. But... were you ready that someone would be out of form?

Such things always come as nasty surprises. Of course we all understood that it's sport, that nobody can be guaranteed from a slump in form, but we were optimistic before the tournament because Dmitry was the most stable of us all, better than us all, his last results were as good as anyone else's... He played brilliantly in the Russian championship superfinal, only a miracle stopped him from winning it - he shared 1st-2nd, and then lost on tie break, but he really should've won it - and so, when he came to the Olympiad, we'd hoped that he would play equally brilliantly and bring us results at the fourth board. But he couldn't. I'm not blaming him for anything, this is sport, anyone could be in his spot, so what happened, happened. I think that everyone of us gave their 100 percent. I'd like to remark the superb sporting qualities of Ian Nepomniachtchi, who carried several matches, and Vladimir Kramnik, despite losing in the beginning...

Such an upsetting defeat. He even had a better position, but then blundered.

Yes, he blundered. Overestimated his position. But then he regained good form too, won four games, found his optimal play. My own playing was a bit sluggish at the start of the tournament, I made some unnecessary draws, but then upped my game too and managed to score some important wins.

Tell me, Serezha... There are a lot of questions, a lot of speculations, but online and among our friends, chess players from the entire world, even those whom we haven't ever met in real life... and everyone asked why there was such a lineup in the Russian team. We have three other very strong players - Alexander Grischuk, Peter Svidler, and the Russian champion Dmitry Andreikin. Of course, I heard that we couldn't get Andreikin because he won the championship after the team's lineup was determined, and you couldn't change anything, but still... It's the most important tournament. Perhaps we should've moved the Russian championship to an earlier date, for a player on the rise to be able to play for the national team?

Well, in theory, we could've held the Russian championship a bit earlier, to use the championship as the basis for the national team's formation, but the thing is, everyone's tournament schedules are pretty tight, and it's sometimes pretty hard to integrate a new tournament into their schedules. Yes, if the Russian championship was held earlier, Andreikin might have joined the national team, but I can't say that for sure. 

Russian champions aren't always included into the national team, are they?

Yes. Dmitry Jakovenko essentially shared the championship win with him, he only lost the rapid tie break, this has nothing to do with classical chess.

Still, a winner's a winner. But this is sport, you can't do anything about it. Also, I've heard... The team coach, Boris Naumovich Postovsky, whom we all respect and understand that he's a great psychologist, said that Alexander Grischuk often gets himself into time trouble. It's, as we say, "not a Newton's binome" [Russian phraseologism that means "something pretty obvious"]. Everyone knows this. We all like his playing, it's brilliant, and if he wasn't getting into time trouble so often, he would perhaps have even challenged Magnus Carlsen. But, on the other hand, if he wasn't thinking that hard, if he didn't pull himself together in time trouble, he wouldn't be playing as Alexander Grischuk? Still, I think if I was responsible for the team line-up, I would've included Grischuk.

Well, hindsight is always 20/20. Now it's easy to say that Dmitry Jakovenko was in bad form, but before the tournament, it was not obvious in any way. Concerning Grischuk... I like him, in the sense that I've played for the national team with him since 2010, for almost 8 years, at every team tournament... almost at every one, at least, at every Olympiad, and it was very comfortable playing with him. He often carried the team, always played at a good level, gave his all. Of course, he did lose games too, even key games, but, as I said, nobody can avoid that. I think that he's a brilliant fighter, and he should always be considered for the national team. In any case, I think that the national team head coach, Filatov, should always have the last word in team selection. It's his choice and his responsibility.

And Peter Svidler... we know that in some matches... remember your first outing for Russia, in Khanty-Mansiysk, where he lost a crucial game which precluded you, in indirect way of course, from finishing first? Of course, everyone can slip, but Peter is a strong player. Boris Naumovich Postovsky said, "Well, Petya, he'd been lying on the couch lately, reading..." Did you read that too? (Laughs) "...reading Shakespeare."

I think that he's more likely watching cricket!

Perhaps, but when I read that he's reading Shakespeare in the original English... My hat's off for him. I've always liked Petya's playing, I knew that he knew English, but here... I think that if he's reading Shakespeare, he just had to be in the national team. (Laughs)

Well, nobody's perfect, everyone has their own advantages and disadvantages, and, of course, Grischuk and Svidler are two of 5-10 players who should always be considered for any national team, however strong. But, on the other hand, I think that our national team has no irreplaceable players. Any player after a string of bad tournaments is at risk of losing his place in the team, be that Kramnik or me - I don't have any illusions...

Well, it's not that someone should be irreplaceable - of course, the lineups do change, and you should always pick those whose form is best now - but, well... Take that good player from St. Petersburg, Nikita Vityugov - I think he never scores a lot of points. Long ago, our CSKA team was quite strong, but still, we had a saying, "A strong team scares with its mouth, but strikes with its tail." The "tail" of the team should be combative, it shouldn't make many draws! It should do anything it can to win.

The problem is, when you initially don't play well, like in the second round, when we played against a team that wasn't particularly strong, I drew...

With Black?

No, with White. I drew Alexander Baburin... I had an advantage, but he defended very well. We still won very comfortably, but, due to the fact that we didn't win 4-0, we got a harder opponent in the next round. Harder opponents cause you to lose points, it just snowballed with each game. If you lack that "ease" from the beginning, if you don't make perfect scores...

"Ease"? At the Olympiad? (Laughs) Since when it was easy there?

Well, we do want to have it easy.

Yes, you do. Also... I don't remember what match that was, but I looked specifically. Your opponent's rating was 200 points lower than yours. You make a quick draw. Positionally, you were absolutely right, especially considering you had Black. But, as a player, you should've played for win, don't you think? Do you feel that if someone is 200 rating points lower, they'll make a mistake eventually?

Yes, I do agree that I perhaps should've been more aggressive. Still, I've tried, in several of my Black games I used different openings - for instance, in the first round, I played Caro-Kann for the second time in my whole life. This experience was successful, I won. The opponent was weak, of course, but I played well. Later, I've tried to play 1... e5, 1... c5, but... You know, in earlier times, the Najdorf was considered an aggressive opening, where you could always play for a win, but now it's been analyzed by everybody, and it's not a comfortable "combative" opening anymore. To play Najdorf successfully, you now have to constantly work on it and play only it, like Vachier-Lagrave. Yes, I drew that game, but my opponent, despite being 200 rating points down, played quite well. He made no mistakes with White, so the game was eventually drawn. Still, I think that when we play against weaker teams, we still have two White boards, and if we're stronger at all boards, someone's obviously bound to win. If I don't win in this team match, someone other will.

Sergey Makarychev: How was the board order determined? Everyone thought that Vladimir Kramnik should've played either 1st or 2nd board (if you played the 1st), but he played on the third board. Why was it so? Was it some kind of calculation, for instance, for a hypothetical match with the U.S.?

This, again, was the head coach's decision. I personally think that Kramnik didn't play too well in the beginning of the year, he finished at -2 in Dortmund before the Olympiad. So, if we put him on the first board after that, and he fails, everyone would ask, "Why did you put him on the first board, haven't you noticed his lack of form?" I think that the board line-up was good. Kramnik "cut up" [got wins at] his board, I held my board (sometimes won, sometimes drew, at least I didn't lose)...

But you could've won more. Kramnik once got a great position out of the opening with Black, then made a mistake and lost his advantage, and then even lost the game. Otherwise, he could've shown a fantastic result.

Yes, that loss was nothing short of tragedy. Still, he performed very well after that, the whole team performed much better towards the end of the tournament. Too bad that the tournament ended right after we shared the first place (laughs), but what's done is done.

By the way, did you count the tie-breaks? Did you know what would've happened if you defeated France 3-1, not 2.5-1.5? Could you reach second or even first place?

Well, our main goal was to simply win the match. France was one of the strongest teams at the Olympiad. So, we didn't think much about the exact score. I think that we all gave our 100 percent in this match. Ian Nepomniachtchi won the match for us, but I also had a comfortable position; still, I played Black, and my position wasn't clearly better. A comfortable draw at the most dangerous board is still valuable.

Yes, you played Vachier-Lagrave...

Psychologically, it wasn't too comfortable for them. They [France] were calculating their match-winning boards too, and when Vachier-Lagrave has White, they're hoping for him to win. After I quickly drew him, the other guys were probably somewhat upset. 

Did Andrei Vasilyevich [Filatov] make the decisions for team selection and board line-up all by himself?

No, I can't say that. Of course, he consulted with the other coaches - Alexander Motylev and Alexander Ryazantsev. Also we had Boris Naumovich Postovsky, who, by the way, had no official status in the team. As Filatov said, "He was our mascot." (Laughs) Of course, he gave a lot of advice too - he's a very experienced man who worked at many Olympiads.

And he had great successes in the 1990s and early 2000s, when the Olympiads weren't that simple to win, and the line-up wasn't always optimal.

Well, on one hand, it really wasn't that simple, but on the other hand, there were fewer strong teams - now, there are many more of them: United States, France, China, Ukraine, Armenia, Azerbaijan, India... Even 10, 12 years ago, half of those teams weren't nearly as strong as they are now.


Serezha, a new World Championship match is set to begin very soon, with Fabiano Caruana taking on your, I daresay, long-time rival. You've managed to withstand Magnus Carlsen's starting push, then had psychological advantage at one point and were very close to the victory. Just one game, one decision... and everything would've been great. How would you evaluate the chances of both players in this match? Can you see Caruana winning the chess crown?

I've always said, even before the start of my match, though nobody believed me much, that any match is a 50/50 affair, and the decisive factor is the players' current form. Who's better prepared - physically, psychologically, in pure chess aspects. But, on the other hand, we should take into account the fact that it's Carlsen's fourth World Championship match, and only first for Caruana, so objectively I consider Carlsen a favourite, though not an obvious favourite. Caruana's playing at the latest tournaments was nothing short of fantastic, he'd almost caught up with Carlsen's rating...

He's just 5 or 6 points behind, isn't he?

This is very important, because Carlsen has been world's number one for seven years straight now, even when he had comparatively bad tournaments - he still kept his rating up. So, the struggle is going to be very sharp, but I think Carlsen's match experience will help him win.

Before the match with you, Magnus Carlsen's rating advantage - even though it doesn't say everything, of course - was quite substantial. Now, their ratings are very similar. It was clear... I remember telling you how you should try to play against this strongest of all opponents, the World Champion, and I almost guessed right, though I think I wasn't alone in my advice here, and many people told you the same thing. Still, about Caruana... Should he come up with some fundamentally different strategy, or just play as he'd always played? Of course, you've always played as you've always played... So, will this match be very different from your own match against Carlsen?

I think it's going to be very different, because Caruana's style is different from mine, he's using more various openings, though against the strongest opposition, he usually plays Petroff or Berlin, but in any case, his playing is more variable than mine, and it's his advantage. But he has his minuses as well, I think he's not as good at defending as me, and in the games with Carlsen, that's quite important, because it's unlikely he'd manage to avoid bad positions against Carlsen. So, I don't know... Maybe I'll sound paradoxical here, but if we return to the beginning of the year, there was a tournament in Wijk an Zee, and Caruana played just awfully: scored -3, very lacklustre, without interesting ideas, blundered a lot, but then, literally 1.5 months later, he won the Candidates' Tournament in brilliant style, and won more tournaments afterwards. And I'm somewhat worried that he might have peaked before the match started, and there's a possibility that during the match, he'd go downhill. This worries me, because my results after the Candidates'... well, I was laying low, so to say, my playing was quite lacklustre during the year, but then, during the match, I played mostly very well.

A great match. A bit of luck, a bit of something else, and you could've taken the title.

And if you look at Anand's playing before his matches against Kramnik, against Topalov...

He finished last in the Grand Slam final! And then, he won the match against Kramnik.

So, if you're playing well in tournaments, this does not necessarily mean that you'd be in the same great form during the match.

I've got a further question. I thought that the fact that Caruana decided to play for United States at the Olympiad, because without him, the team was unlikely to compete for the gold, and with him, they were clear favourites and almost won the tournament... I thought that this might hurt Caruana's chances in the World Championship match. Do you agree with me? I think that he should have sat this Olympiad out.

The Olympiad is a team tournament, you're representing your country, and if you refuse a national call-up, this wouldn't look right. There are patriotic moments, you know. But in general, I think he made a mistake by playing basically everywhere, in all possible tournaments. He had too many practice, and he was even going to play at the Isle of Man tournament next week, back to back with the World Championship...

He was going to play, but then decided against it?

Yes, he withdrew literally at the last minute.


I think so too. (Laughs) Well, of course his playing is just fantastic now...

His Olympiad games were great too.

Yes, he defeated Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in a game that decided who's going to be second and third in the FIDE rating list. So, I think that the most important thing for him is not to lose form.

Here's another point to consider: Caruana has played much and very successfully lately, and his chances might seem higher than they actually are. In the public eyes, he's now very strong, an equal to Magnus Carlsen, and these higher expectations may cause a slump of form. Do you think it's possible, or Caruana will be able to keep his current form?

I think it is possible. It's one thing to play well in a tournament with different opponents, when you're always able to surprize them with preparation, and quite another thing to play against Carlsen, who'd been specifically preparing against you for months. Match is a completely different experience. There'll be different openings: Carlsen may play an offbeat opening in a tournament, but in the match, I think he'll play very solid setups with Black, and try to attack with White.

In other words, he'll be playing in his usual style, striving for a small advantage, torturing the opponent, getting the psychological (and purely positional) advantage.

Yes, he'll be like that. Recent encounters between Carlsen and Caruana were mostly in Carlsen's favour.

But is it that important? Caruana once defeated Carlsen - in St. Louis, at that famous tournament when he started with seven wins and increased his rating a lot. He could've won their second game as well, but drew. It seemed that Caruana was on a meteoric rise and would take the world by storm. But then it turned out that it wasn't that simple, and you, rather than him, won the Candidates' Tournament quite convincingly and then almost defeated Magnus. So, does the personal score play that much a role in matches?

I think that it's indeed not that important. It's a match, with absolutely different preparation against one specific opponent, and everything that was before... Of course, somewhere deep inside you remember the prior history, but you can do some mental work with a psychologist or your coach and get rid of bad memories. The match will be a completely new experience.


Before the Carlsen match, your results were improving. After the match, you played some great tournaments and some quite mediocre... What are your plans and feelings about that? Do you feel you can challenge for the World Championship again, and perhaps even win?

I think it's never too late. If I managed to do that once, then obviously I have the potential to do it again. I need to improve my playing, work on my mistakes... I think that the Olympiad, at least the ending part, was a good tournament for me, and I hope that my tournament results will improve again. I had good results in rapid and blitz, but I must admit that there are some problems with my classical chess. I hope to get better.

We saw great potential in you since you were 10 or 11, and would always encourage you to challenge for the World Championship. I think that you still have that potential, and your age still allows you to express that potential in full. I think that mental preparation is very important - you should concentrate on that idea, on the "super-goal", and then you can break through.

Yes, this is very important. You need to prepare well in all aspects - psychologically, physically, chess-wise... I'm already doing some work in this regard, and I think that I'm in a much better form than, say, a year ago. The other thing is, this better form still hasn't brought me better results, but I hope it will.

What are your next tournaments to show this improved form?

My next tournament will be Isle of Man. I thought I'd maybe play Caruana there, but now this isn't happening. (Laughs) Then I'm playing at Kolkata in November, with Anand, other leading Indian grandmasters and international stars.

Almost a supertournament? High-level?

Perhaps. But this will be a rapid and blitz tournament, not classical.

That's a bit sad. Still, blitz and rapid aren't exactly your weakest facets. But it's a pity that you had equal result against Magnus Carlsen in classical chess, but then lost to him in rapid.


Marina Makarycheva: I've announced our interview yesterday, and we received a lot of questions online. Here's the first one: "What do we need to change in Russian chess to keep our place among the strongest countries and win Olympiads at least occasionally?"

I think that my answer will upset somebody, but the changes are already happening, in no small part thanks to Andrey Vasilyevich Filatov. There are many positive changes in the federation, Russian chess players receive great support at any levels - from kids' tournaments to supergrandmasters, so the work is underway, but, of course, you should never stop, because competitors never sleep too: there are brilliant players in China, in the United States, in other countries, especially India - there's a lot of up-and-coming players there. In the beginning of this year, Aeroflot Open was held, and of 120 players, 80 - eighty - were from India. It's fantastic. This shows the level of support chess players receive in India from their state. We've got much to strive for, and I personally think that we need a chess TV program, similar to the one you hosted, and informational support. And, of course, we need more sponsors and more children studying chess.

Another question. There are two actually: "What are your impressions from the Olympiad?", and "Carlsen and Caruana: whom will you defeat next time?"

(Laughs) Well, I've already talked about Carlsen and Caruana at length...

But the question is different: whom will you defeat next? Who would be easier for you? Caruana is two years younger, but, on the other hand, you've almost beaten Carlsen once... Whom would you like to play?

I like the biggest challenges, so, since I think that Carlsen is stronger than Caruana, it would be more interesting for me to play Carlsen and defeat him. It's my dream of sorts. I don't know if I'd achieve it. What was the first question again?

What was the best impression from the Olympiad?

They say that Bermuda Party was very funny, but I missed it! (Laughs) I was told such stories that I'm too shy to retell them.

I heard that it was so noisy that Andrey Vasilyevich Filatov actually filed a protest because he couldn't sleep.

We couldn't sleep after the first day, the disco below was really mad. Thankfully, I've got a very good trait: I can fall asleep in any environment, I can sleep in planes, trains, cars, so I did manage to sleep. But other guys suffered much. During the tournament, they would turn the music on occasionally... And Bermuda Party was just madness.

Next question. User Nikolay Nikolaevich asks you to popularize chess and visit his school. I'll give you the school's web address, so that you might contact them. And you've already done a lot of work to popularize chess, we sometimes even think that you're doing too much, and you should devote more time to actual playing. (Laughs) Another question: "Your nickname is Minister of Defence. What are you doing to defend so well?"

I'm not doing anything for that. Moreover, I want to get rid of that! You see, if you get bad positions, this means that you made some prior mistakes, so the best thing is not to get such positions. I'd rather work on that than on improving defensive skills.

"How should you start studying chess in the childhood to become a supergrandmaster?"

I think that you should work on all aspects of the game in complex. You can't learn just one type of ending, pawn endings, for instance, and ignore Bishop endings completely. Pawn ending knowledge, of course, would be more beneficial: if you know pawn endings, you'll always know in other endings whether it's good to simplify into a pawn ending. In practice, the most common endings are Rook endings, so this should be basic knowledge too. The main thing in general is to work a lot and love chess.

Was there a particular book in your childhood or youth that influenced your outlook on chess?

I've said many times that there was such a book: Alexander Alekhine's books about the 1924 and 1927 New York supertournaments. We've spent hours with my dad studying these books, looking through almost all games, and I benefitted from that enormously. This doesn't mean, of course, that only this book helped me. I think that it's beneficial to study any games by world champions - it's history of chess. To look into the future, you sometimes have to turn back and see what was in the past. So, any chess classics are beneficial.

You say that your favourite book was written by Alekhine. When we first met, you were 12 years old, and you worked as Ponomariov's tactics coach. But now, your playing style is very strategic, positional... I'm even criticizing you mildly for that, because I want you to be more loose. How can that be - you loved Alekhine, but your playing is nothing like him?

Yeah, this is funny, but I think that now, it's much harder to play Alekhine-style brilliant combinations. Everyone sees them, everyone defends against them, and now it's much more important to play hard, a tempo, fight for initiative, and if the opponent lets you execute some combination down the road, I'm always ready (laughs), but usually, the games of strong players are decided in difficult positional struggle.

What if Kasparov's peak was now, when everyone trains with computers, and you can't just attack aggressively because they'll find a defence? Would he still be able to demolish his opponents so utterly?

I think there wouldn't be any utter demolition, because the overall level has grown too much. Opening preparation - almost everyone has identical computers now, someone's computer is superstrong, someone's just very strong, but the difference is very small. Any young player with a bit of support from parents or sponsors can afford a strong chess engine. And Kasparov was famous for his superb computer work, it was his strongest suit. Now, he would still be in the chess elite, play in all supertournaments... He would be in the top 5, but not the clear number one he was during his world champion years. I think that as a practical player, Carlsen now is stronger than Kasparov was then. He's a more universal player than Kasparov. Kasparov would get advantage out of the opening and then convert it with strong tactical play, but Carlsen can do everything.

Caruana is a very active player too. Can we say that his style is more spectator-friendly and interesting than Carlsen's?

More interesting for spectators - sure. Carlsen is ready to get a slightly better endgame and then torture you for seven hours, but Caruana, I think, consciously avoids such positions. I don't know why. (Laughs) In this match, we'll see two different approaches to chess.

Was that often the case in the past? Kasparov vs. Karpov, Kasparov vs. Kramnik - they were very different.

Yes, very different. Anyway, even with these difference, both Carlsen and Caruana are influenced by computers - in a good way, of course. Modern players are more universal. I think that this will be a serious match. Not totally mistake-free, of course, but very high-level. 

Last question. Can you win without luck? Not a World Championship, but some big tournament?

Completely without luck - I think you can't. But, on the other hand, we should make luck favour us - and for that, we should prepare well, enter the tournaments in optimal form. Luck favours those who deserve it the most.