Vladimir Kramnik: From Steinitz to Kasparov

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A 2005 interview of Vladimir Kramnik where he discusses all previous chess world champions of the time. The Russian original is here:


I got to know the legacy of chess classics relatively late. I was born in Tuapse, it's a Russian provincial town, and there were problems with chess literature: you could get only books about more modern players, like Karpov or Petrosian. Of course, later I made up for this, but still, it's easier for me to talk about those whom I played personally: Karpov, Kasparov.

Is it necessary for young players to study the chess classics now?

I think that if a player wants to achieve much, he should live through the entire history of chess in his thoughts. I can't explain it from a purely logical standpoint, but in my opinion, you have to experience the entire history.

Beginning from Gioacchino Greco?

Well, such ancient history is probably not as necessary, because it's only very basics of chess. But it would be good to know some Philidor's games, and it's necessary to know Anderssen and Morphy's playing. This helps you to perfect yourself.


Steinitz was the first to understand that chess, while a complex game, still conform to some universal principles. Before him, chess players understood only individual topics; for instance, Philidor championed his motto "Pawns are the soul of a chess game".

My impressions about Steinitz and other 19th century players are somewhat fragmentary, so I just want to share some thoughts that came to me after studying their games. I've studied Steinitz's matches against Chigorin and Lasker thoroughly...

Steinitz started to look at things globally, search for a common foundation for individual conclusions. Though, speaking frankly, there are lots of examples in his own games where he deviated from his principles. Steinitz was on the way to discover some ideas, but he was too far away from the essence of things.

I think that he was bad at dynamics, it was obviously his weak point. For instance, in his matches against Chigorin, he would consistently go for very difficult positions as Black. He would take the pawn in the Evans gambit, and then withdraw all his pieces to the 8th rank.

I'd rather resign in this position, but he would go for it three times - in games 1, 15 and 17 - and scored 1.5/3! He even won once, but this position is completely hopeless for Black.
Steinitz was a strong practician. He had deep thoughts and original ideas; for instance, he insisted that the King is a strong piece capable of defending itself on its own. Of course, this idea is original, sometimes it's even right, but still we cannot say that this idea is one of the game's classical foundations.
Before Steinitz, chess was just a game that was played, and he began to study it. But, as it often happens, the first effort was not too successful. With all due respect to the first world champion, I can't say that he was the founder of any school of chess thought. He was an experimentator, and he showed that chess do have some patterns that should be studied.

I think that Lasker is the discoverer of modern chess. When you look at Steinitz's games, they have a very 19th-century feel. And Lasker had many games that could be played by any modern player. Lasker is the first link in the chain of "global" chess, where different aspects of struggle are taken into consideration. Steinitz largely emphasized only one positional element. For instance, if he had a better pawn structure and an attack on the King, he thought that his advantage was decisive. And Lasker understood that there are different components of the position that balance each other. He discovered that there are various kinds of advantages, and they are interchangeable: tactical advantage can be transformed into strategical, and vice versa.

I think that Lasker was a much stronger chess player than Steinitz. It's telling that their 1894 World Championship match (let alone the return match) was completely one-sided.

It seemed that two players of different level were playing. By modern criteria, we could say that one player was 2700-strong, and the other one 2400. That's why Lasker won so convincingly, he destroyed his opponent. This match impressed me thoroughly. I knew that Steinitz was a great chess player, and then I saw the games - he was destroyed in them. This shocked me, to be honest; I've never seen such a big level discrepancy in a World Championship match - as though it was a simultaneous display, not a championship match! Perhaps Steinitz had already passed his peak at the moment, but not as much - he still had decent results in the tournaments.

Lasker is a grand figure, he understood many global things in chess. I've recently looked through his games again and was amazed: for his time, Lasker knew so incredibly much! He was the first to understand the importance of psychological aspects of the struggle and used them to his own advantage, also he was the first to vary his strategy and even his style depending on the partner. On the other hand, Steinitz used only one conception: he thought that some things were always right and others always wrong.

Lasker understood a very complex thing for the time: that chess as a game is so complex that it's completely unclear what's "right" and "wrong" way to play. You can play in very different manners. Lasker was very flexible and uncategorical, perhaps the first uncategorical player in history. He didn't think in categories, like, if you got the center, it's good, and if you didn't, it's bad. And that was a great step ahead in chess thought.

I think that in the moment when Lasker dethroned Steinitz, he was so ahead of everyone else, like no-one else in history ever was. Until a new generation arrived, and competitors, like Tarrasch, upped their game, Lasker was head and shoulders above all others.
It's hard to consider Tarrasch "new generation", given that he's 6 years older than Lasker.
I think Tarrasch became stronger later on; I wasn't particularly impressed by his playing in the years when Lasker played Steinitz for the title.
Tarrasch considered Lasker a young upstart, because Lasker was nobody when Tarrasch was already considered "Germany's teacher". Steinitz challenged Tarrasch for a match, but he declined.
Tarrasch didn't impress me as a particularly strong player. He had original ideas, but, like all other players of the time, he was too categorical. And Lasker wasn't - and it seems that he rose to prominence because of that.
Lasker became a champion in 1894, but the famous Hastings 1895 tournament was won by Pillsbury, Chigorin finished second, and Lasker only third. He did have some good competitors...
I won't argue. This is a very personal evaluation, but I think that depth, scope and strength of Lasker's playing in early 1890's were head and shoulders ahead of all others'. Yes, this period lasted for a very short time, just 2-3 years, and then others started to catch up - seemingly learning from him.
Nevertheless, Lasker is somewhat underrated. There are legends that Steinitz was a superb strategist, and Lasker was just a psychologicst... I'd like those legends to go away.
By the way, not everyone knows that Lasker disagreed when people ascribed his successes to "psychological" influence on the partner, saying, "My successes are based above all on understanding of the pieces' strength, not my opponent's character".
I think that being uncategorical helped him to understand chess deeper than everyone else at the time. He defied the dogmas, and everyone thought that he did that to annoy a particular opponent. But Lasker just knew that those dogmas aren't as indisputable as thought. Let's remember his famous f4-f5 move against Capablanca.
12. f5!?
Lasker understood that the e5 square could be weakened because it's hard to use. But everyone spoke about "psychological approach"! There's no psychology involved, Lasker unearthed a very deep conception that is now used automatically: give away the e5 square, but close off the c8 Bishop. He understood it earlier and deeper than the others. So there's no psychology involved, Lasker had a very deep positional understanding.
Of course, he also had worthy competitors. We shouldn't forget Rubinstein, an incredibly talented, fantastic player. It's a pity that he didn't become a world champion - he understood very many things in chess. Rubinstein would sometimes create true masterpieces, he was way ahead of his time - it's enough to look through his best games to see that. I can't understand why he never had a title shot. Perhaps he was too nervous, or not a good practition, but his talent was enormous.
Lasker was a World Champion for 27 years. He's a truly prominent figure in chess, however, not all worthy candidates could get a World Championship match back then, and sometimes the truly strongest candidates couldn't get a chance.
But Capablanca was a worthy candidate!
Capablanca is just a genius. He's an exception that doesn't fit any rule. I can't say that he truly moved chess forward... Such a player could appear in absolutely any era, like Morphy: in mid-20th century or in mid-19th. Capablanca had a very subtle understanding of the game's harmony. When I was a kid, I liked his book Capablanca Teaches Chess, because he formulated important rules very simply, clearly and concisely. (Though now I don't think that all his rules were correct.)
He had a natural talent that, sadly, wasn't cut for hard work. We could hypothetically say that if Capablanca worked on chess as hard as Alekhine or Lasker, he would have gone far ahead. But I think that those two things are mutually exclusive: hard work just doesn't work with this kind of talent. He didn't need that. Capablanca can be compared with Mozart, whose music as though composed itself. It sometimes seemed that Capablanca didn't even know why he made one move or the other, he just moved pieces with his hand. If he worked hard on his chess, his playing could have worsened because he'd begin thinking some things through. And Capablanca didn't need to think anything through, he just had to move pieces!
They say that he lost to Alekhine because he didn't work hard enough. No, he did the right thing by not working, because he'd lose a piece of his unique talent otherwise. Capablanca was special.
In 1921, he defeated Lasker. By the way, Lasker didn't play too bad in that match, he still retained big practical strength. I think it was the first World Championship match where both opponents played very strongly. This was a true World Championship match. Capablanca was younger, more energetic and a tad stronger. In the last game, Lasker blundered horribly, but before that, there was a very interesting equal struggle, tight, tenacious.
In Lasker's previous World Championhip matches, he either destroyed his opponents, or there was a lot of mistakes, like in the match against Schlechter. But in the Capablanca - Lasker match, there are few mistakes, the games were very serious. Lasker is great, and Capablanca is a natural genius. To be honest, it's incredible that Alekhine managed to beat him.
It's thought that Alekhine's diligence helped him.
And also his character and willpower... Of course, Alekhine had incredible talent as well.
And still, it's hard to say why he defeated Capablanca. Perhaps he was destined to do so. I agree with Kasparov: Capablanca couldn't withstand heavy pressure. Against Lasker, he attacked, and his opponent defended. Lasker did lash out time to time, but largely he defended. And Alekhine didn't just withstand, he thrived under pressure and even increased it. Most likely, Capablanca cracked under enormous tension. He was used to playing relaxedly in tournaments, drawing games, winning some because of his outstanding talent, resting, drinking some wine - life's good! And suddenly, there's enormous tension. The match was very long, the games were serious and combative. Alekhine was constantly trying to create some problems for the champion.
Is Alekhine really the first player who embraced modern opening preparation?
Alekhine is a tremendous worker. He had strategical talent, he was the first one who felt game dynamics very subtly. Lasker started to understand dynamics' importance, but his playing wasn't based on them - he just remembered about them and occasionally used them. And Alekhine used dynamics as his main tool, and in this regard, he was the pioneer. He showed that it's possible - if you still conform to certain positional principles, of course - to steer the game towards the dynamic path. Not seeking some long-term advantages, but creating a net of sorts from the very first moves, making threats with every move, attacking.
In late 1920s - early 1930s Alekhine also was way ahead of everyone else. Or not so ahead as Lasker in his time?
I think that there was an "empty time" of sorts. Capablanca didn't play too often; neither he nor Lasker played in the tournaments that ended with Alekhine's dominant wins. Botvinnik and Keres weren't strong enough yet, and the old masters passed their peak already. Of course, Alekhine was an outstanding world champion, but I think that his advantage was mainly due to that "empty time". I wouldn't say that in those tournaments he played any differently than in the Capablanca match. Of course, Alekhine did enrich his game a bit, he became more experienced, but I don't think he innovated much. Why didn't he get so much ahead before the Capablanca match, and then got ahead after? To be honest, I don't see any chess reasons for that. The Euwe matches showed that.
The Dutchman Max Euwe is the fifth World Champion. Some think that he didn't deserve the crown and won it almost accidentally.
Euwe is a very good player. They say that Botvinnik was the founder of the modern preparation system, but I'd say that Euwe was the first. He understood the importance of opening and prepared brilliantly. Also, he knew how to develop opening ideas. Alekhine did work very hard, but would often bluff and use very dubious openings, even, to my astonishment, in very important games. So he either didn't think that the opening was dubious or hoped to outplay his opponent anyway. Euwe's opening preparation was very solid and reasonable. He was very strong in the openings.
Also he was the first to invite other leading grandmasters, like Flohr, as his seconds...
Euwe's approach was very competent and professional. He was a versatile enough player. He didn't have a concrete playing style, so it's hard to evaluate him, and that's why he's underrated. He's very "slippery", it's hard to "grasp" him and study his style. Euwe was universal. I couldn't completely understand his style myself. Perhaps his main idea was to combine various components. Also, he had a good nervous system and a healthy approach to life. He was a very calm and balanced man. All those things led to him becoming the champion, and deservedly so. He won a normal match against Alekhine.
Yes, Alekhine was a bit out of shape. But it's not true that he was out of shape for the whole match. He fought furiously, and in the beginning of the match, his playing was brilliant. So we can't say that Alekhine prepared badly. But at some moment, Euwe started outplaying him, and something broke inside Alekhine, he began to drink a bit... There are some different reasons in play - psychology, perhaps, or something else. Bad form didn't play a role. In the openings, Euwe didn't "grip" him outright, but kept the tensions high. Capablanca would defend in the openings against Alekhine, who already had a reputation of a well-learned player. And Euwe fought him in the openings, and would often win those fights. Not even in some concrete variants - sometimes even conceptually. For instance, Euwe won the battle in the Slav defence, used by both with both colours.
I read a book about the 1937 return match - again, it was completely equal. Some think that Alekhine easily returned the crown. Like, he lost the first match due to drinking, then quit drinking and won. This is completely false. Between the two matches, Euwe had a plus score against Alekhine (+3-1) - he continued to win against him, even though Alekhine quit drinking very quickly. The return match was even, like the first one. In the first match, Alekhine suddenly "broke", and in the second, Euwe was the one to "break", losing several games in a row. What happened to him? Perhaps subconsciously, Euwe didn't want to remain the World Champion, the pressure from the title was too much for him. Still, I think that everything that happens happens for a reason, but nevertheless the myth of Alekhine easily winning the return match should be dispelled.
And so, we came to Mikhail Botvinnik - the first World Champion you knew personally.
Botvinnik, of course, was a herald of the new era in chess. I would call him the first true professional, the first man who understood that chess results don't depend on chess skill alone. He was the first to embrace complex preparation for the competitions: not only openings, but sleeping regime, physical exercises - he was obviously a pioneer in that regard.
It's funny for a modern player to read about the Alekhine - Euwe match, for instance: games were postponed, one player drank a glass of wine, the other had an important business meeting right before the game... Nothing of the sort could happen with Botvinnik.
It may sound strange, but I think that he was an unstable player. His best games were played on a very high level, but some games were just disastrous. I don't know why. I had an impression that he played with some difficulty, giving all he's got in every game. It seems that such colossal tension did take its toll time to time and led to disasters. Even though Botvinnik was called "iron"...
Did such disasters happen with Botvinnik in his youth, or only in a more advanced age, after big hiatuses?
I think that they always happened. Not tournament disasters (though such things happened as well), but disasters in individual games. Even in World Championship matches, he would just "fall apart" in a couple of games. I saw that, but I don't know the reason. I just wanted to accentuate the moment that often gets overlooked. Anyway, it's not that important, considering the number of truly outstanding games he played. Botvinnik unearthed many conceptual ideas in chess.
There was an opinion that Botvinnik won because of his character and willpower, while some of his opponents had greater pure chess talent.
I can agree with this to a degree. On the other hand, talent cannot exist without all other components. Talent is something elusive. There are chess players that don't achieve particularly good results, but people say that they're very talented. Such phenomenon does indeed exist. But I think that in chess, like in all other occupations, talent is only one of many necessary components. And perhaps it's not so much more important than, say, character. So, when you say something like "He's a talented man, but didn't achieve much because he had a weak personality", this actually doesn't mean much. Perhaps Botvinnik wasn't as talented as Capablanca, but he achieved great heights in other components - in willpower, in preparation, and it's not easier to achieve that. He was a genius in those components. So, all I've said doesn't diminish Botvinnik's legacy as a chess player: potential is one thing, but realizing this potential is something else entirely. Botvinnik's chess career is essentially a genius' career, even though I think he wasn't a genius.
Did Botvinnik make a step ahead from a purely chess point of view, compared to his predecessors?
He unearthed many conceptual things. But, as blasphemous as it sounds, I don't think that he really advanced chess, didn't innovate much in the game itself. However, his contribution to game preparation is enormous. Still, it depends on individual taste whether to consider preparation an element of game itself or not. I think that preparation is a part of the game. And if we compare Botvinnik to Capablanca - and Capablanca was much more talented, he was a chess genius - then Botvinnik's contribution to chess is much greater.
What impression did the Patriarch leave on the young Volodya Kramnik?
Very, very good. I know that he was a controversial figure, and his colleagues had legitimate reasons to dislike him. I heard various opinions, but I don't want to comment on them; I don't want to avoid the question at all, but I wasn't born in the times I was told about, and didn't see anything of that with my own eyes, so it's hard for me to give any kind of meaningful commentary. I knew Botvinnik only in his last years, and he left a very good impression on me.
I'd like to point out a moment that seemed quite strange to me: discrepancies between his beliefs and his nature. Botvinnik was a staunch Communist; it was obvious that he gave these matters much thought and honestly believed in communistic ideals. And yet, he was a very intelligent man, with manners of some old-time St. Petersburg professor that had nothing in common with the post-revolutionary Russia. How could he be an ardent Communist and a true intelligent at the sime time is puzzling for me. This discrepancy perplexed me. The Soviet intelligentsia, as a rule, paid their dues to the ideals of Communism only formally - those were the unwritten rules.
Of course, Botvinnik was very categorical. This was his strength, without a doubt; I think that with his personality, he just couldnt' help but be categorical. But in relationships, this was almost certainly detrimental, so Botvinnik had many fallouts with people.
How can you characterize the seventh World Champion - Vasily Vasilyevich Smyslov?
He is... how to say it better... the truth in chess! Smyslov is a player who plays very correctly, truthfully, with a very natural style. Why, by the way, isn't there any kind of mystic aura around him, like around Tal or Capablanca? Because Smyslov isn't a chess artist, his playing isn't bright or artistic. But I like his style very much. I'd recommend the children who want to learn chess to study Smyslov's games. Because he was playing like it was needed; his style is the closest to some virtual "chess truth". He was trying to play the strongest move in any position, and it's possible that by sheer amount of strongest moves, he's way ahead of many other World Champions. As a professional, I like him for that. I know that amateurs are more interested in mistakes, ups and downs. But from a purely professional point of view, I think that Smyslov is very underrated.
He got all components of his playing to a very high level. Smyslov was a brilliant endgame player, and his games sometimes looked like songs. When I look through his games, there's an impression of easiness, as though his hand made the moves by itself, and Smyslov didn't strain himself at all, drinking coffee or reading a newspaper! Almost a Mozart-like easiness! No strain, no tension, everything is simple, but brilliant. That's why I like Smyslov and his games.
Smyslov and Botvinnik played almost 100 games against each other, including three World Championship matches. Is the quality of those games still good by modern standards?
Yes, these games were of true quality. Of course, there were mistakes because the matches were long, but the overall playing level is very high. They did blunder occasionally, but I don't think that this should influence the overall evaluation. The average move strength was very high.
The opponents were worthy of each other?
Yes, the struggle was more or less even, even though their approaches to chess were different. It's a pity that Smyslov didn't remain a World Champion for long, because I think that he's a very outstanding player. He played a Candidates' Final at the age of 63! This alone shows that he was a player of the highest calibre. The energetic players can't keep up their performance levels at such an advanced age, so Smyslov's playing wasn't based on energy, pressure and character - he deeply understood chess. Botvinnik's playing, despite his exceptional skills, declined when he approached 60, though he did keep up performances for long. But Smyslov's phenomenon is just uncomparable.
Did Smyslov play like others before him?
No, he played different chess, his own. He was a master of positional games, a much stronger positional player than his predecessors. At openings and tactics, he was very good, but not better than that. Smyslov didn't have any incredible conceptual ideas, but he played with filigree precision. I think that he was the first "ultra-clean" player. Smyslov was, more or less, the founder of the style that was later developed by Karpov: gradual increasing of positional pressure, based on calculating short variants with great precision.
I didn't know Tal almost at all, but I was lucky to play a couple of games against him. In 1990, there was a strong open tournament in Moscow, where Tal played. I felt sorry for him because he looked terribly. We didn't play in the tournament proper, but in an off-day, the organizers held blitz and rapid (15 minutes) tournaments.
And how did you fare?
I drew him in blitz, and even won the rapid game: Tal sacrificed one piece, then another one without much compensation; he was just resting and having fun, so the result has no meaning here. Tal still played very strongly when he concentrated. And he performed very well in the blitz tournament - we shared second place. I was 15 at the time, didn't play particularly strong, but my head was thinking very quickly. And the blitz tournament was quite strong: 10 grandmasters, one international master and me, FIDE master.
I remember one moment from my game against Tal. In a complicated and roughly equal position we both had half a minute or so. I made my move and saw that now my opponent had a very subtle and non-obvious tactic. There's too little time, we're literally playing with our hands. And Tal immediately played that tactical move, and my position became hopeless! I wasn't amazed - still, it was Tal, even though a gravely ill Tal... A lesser player wouldn't find this tactic even in a classical game. Still, the flags were falling, and the game ended with a perpetual check.
Tal is a star, a true chess genius. As far as I understand, he had no ambitions at all. He played just for fun, enjoying himself and the game. This approach is completely unprofessional. But his talent was so incredible that even with this amateurish approach Tal became a World Champion.
As a kid, I didn't study too many of his games: as I said, there weren't that many chess books in our provincial town. When I grew up, I looked through his games, of course. And I can say that he is actually very strong positional player, even though everyone thinks of him as a tactician. Yes, he had superb tactical vision, but Tal, as any chess player of such level, had many facets. In late 1970's and early 1980's he had a second wave of successes, he played very strict positional chess and won many positional games.
It's said that he was influenced by working with Karpov.
I don't think so. Of course, working with Karpov did help Tal in a way, because it distracted Tal from, well, other, non-chess pleasures in life. He worked and studied chess instead. But still, I don't think that this collaboration is the only reason - Tal is just an outstanding and versatile chess player. Of course, his approach to chess did play a role. If he had Botvinnik's character, it would be just impossible to defeat him.
But perhaps one just cannot have both - only one or the other?
Yes, one cannot. This is another important moment worthy of discussion: there are no chess players without weaknesses. Their weaknesses are more or less born of their strengths. It's impossible to combine Tal's and Botvinnik's chess strengths, because they are more or less mutually exclusive. Tal's talent, his approach to game, ease, great creative energy - all this gave him enormous advantages, but this also led to his weaknesses. I think it's impossible to remain a World Champion for, say, 15 years with such an approach. This is a bright flash, a star that rose and fell, and it seems that there's no other way for such people. Metaphorically speaking, this star radiated so much energy that it couldn't keep it up for many years in a row, it just burned out.
It's hard to talk about Tal because he's unusual, very bright, he's a natural phenomenon. I'm absolutely sure that if he didn't take up chess, he would become great in something else. He was very sharp and bright. If he was a scientist, he'd probably win a Nobel Prize. Tal was out of this world. Many people that knew him personally said that he had nothing in common with homo sapiens. He was an alien! And his chess were alien as well. Discussing his chess is like discussing how God looks like.
The next World Champion is more terrestrial?
Yes, very terrestrial and down-to-earth. You have to study Petrosian's legacy very deeply to truly understand him. He is, how to say it better, very "hidden". We can say that Petrosian is the first Defender with a capital D. He was the first to demonstrate that it was possible to defend almost any position. Petrosian brought the defensive element to chess, the element that gains more and more prominence now. He showed that chess is the game with a lot of resources, including defensive resources.
Petrosian is a very deep and hard to understand player. I think that he's presented wrongly. He is one of the very few players that I couldn't get a clear impression about after studying his best games. Petrosian is somewhat enigmatic. He was a brilliant tactician and a brilliant strategist. But his positional playing wasn't on par with, say, Smyslov. However, it's thought for some reason that Petrosian is a master of positional game. Of course, his level was so high that he did everything excellently, but I don't think that positional playing was his strongest suit. The strongest aspects of his game was, of course, defence and a very clear tactical vision, which is, by the way, one of the reasons of his defensive strength. You can successfully defend only if you're a brilliant tactician and can see all tactical nuances and opportunities for your partner. I'd even say a seditious thing: attack needs more positional skill than defence. You can attack out of some general considerations, but you need to defend against concrete variants. Variant calculation and concrete specifics of the position are much more important for defence than for attack.
Also, we have to point out Petrosian's outstanding sense of danger. In a way, this quality is related to defensive skill. Petrosian could sense danger from far, far away. Also I think that he could be very spontaneous.
I think that he developed very slowly and reached his peak only after 30.
He seems to be a very "smooth" man: measured, calm, balanced, with good nervous system, very integral. That's how Petrosian developed: without breakdowns, systematically, approached his goal without rushing.
Here, I should agree with the "official" version: he's the first true modern universal player.
I like his broad, large-scale games. I think he's a large-scale man who doesn't pay attention to small things. Spassky's playing is similar to Keres', but Boris Vasilyevich was more inventive and had better fantasy. I think that Keres had some problems with fantasy.
Spassky is also a very correct player, he's similar to Smyslov in this regard. But Smyslov is a quiet player, and Spassky is an attacker. He absorbed best qualities from different players. He's like Alekhine because he values time highly. He's a very good strategist. Perhaps his tactical skills weren't that great, he'd miscalculate time to time. I think Spassky gave his all in every game, his chess mirrored his personality. Watching his games is satisfying: he's playing broadly, on the entire board. He's everywhere, capturing space, pressing here and there... I've studied the Fischer - Spassky match carefully, and I can say that Spassky didn't play worse than Fischer.
And what was worse?
In half of his lost games, he made some impossible one-move blunders. I couldn't understand what was happening with him. It seems that Fischer's energy and sheer force sweeped away everyone, even someone like Spassky. But if we disregard those blunders, the match was very even. However, some say that it was completely one-sided. It's one of the few World Championship matches where score doesn't show the real balance of power. In the second half, Spassky pressed, and Fischer ran away as fast as he could. Perhaps Spassky's inattention to smaller things contributed to his downfall against Fischer: in one game, he miscalculated a bit, in another, made a small mistake, in a won position just made a random move, thinking that he's winning anyway, and didn't count at all... So, his strength turned into his weakness. Perhaps, his laziness also played a role. I've heard that Spassky didn't study chess all that much. He lacked a bit of professionalism.
Spassky wasn't tough enough, didn't relentlessly pursue the result. I think that it didn't matter much to him whether he plays in a World Championship or in a Leningrad championship. And, of course, he was a bit unlucky: he played during the Fischer era. Very few World Champions could have held their own against him!
What impression did Spassky leave on you when you met him personally?
We have met fairly often, played for one club, I've even visited him at his home. He's a deeply honest man, sincere, clever and ingenuous. I like and value these qualities.
And his highest chess class is obvious. When we meet, we sometimes analyze positions; he's very quickly grasping their essence, his suggestions are always correct. Strangely, I can't say the same about Botvinnik. When I studied in his school, Botvinnik would, of course, offer very interesting ideas, but sometimes his suggestions were a bit "off". Very rarely, but it happened. With Spassky, however, such things never happened, he was always spot on. He may miscalculate some concrete variant, but he would grasp the game's direction in less than 15 seconds! There was also a very interesting episode recently. Three years ago we played in a tournament honouring Korchnoi's jubilee, and Spassky, who was well over 60, played a model game against Short. He completely outplayed the Englishman in a position type where Short was traditionally very strong!
Perhaps Spassky couldn't realize his talent fully for some reasons, but still, many games he played in his prime are very important.
So, Spassky was unlucky because he played in the Fischer era?
Some chess players were even more unlucky: they would have become World Champions if some genius contemporary didn't surpass them.
What to say about Fischer? There was an impression that this man was destined to become a World Champion, and nothing could stop him. It was predetermined. He started on his way very early, but it was clear to everyone already! I think that five years before he actually won the title, it was absolutely clear to everyone that he won. Such force!.. Spassky didn't know what hit him. I think any other champion would have also lost to Fischer. Not because they were so much weaker than him - Fischer was just destined to break through any defence.
Fischer was stronger than everyone else because of his force, or understanding?..
There was a moment when he had everything at once: energy, force, preparation, playing strength... As though all rays converged in one point! He just had no weaknesses - how to play against such a man?! All great chess players had that period when they are on top of every aspect of their game; I think that Fischer peaked during that Candidates' cycle and Spassky match.
It's thought - and Kasparov shared this point of view - that modern chess started with Fischer.
No, I think that Spassky's chess weren't any less modern than Fischer's. Fischer is the discoverer of modern opening preparation. Unlike Botvinnik, who just understood the importance of preparation in general, Fischer brought it to the modern level: he posed problems to the opponent at every move, with both colours, in any opening. Fischer immediately put pressure on anyone from the very first move! Those "high-pressure chess" were later modernized by Kasparov, who is Fischer's direct follower in a way. Fischer was the first player who created tensions from the first move to last, doesn't give any breathers at all. Whether in a positional or in a tactical game, he always posed as much trouble to the partner as he could. He played very "energetic" chess.
Did he burn out?
I don't know. It's sad that he quit playing, his match against Karpov would have been very interesting.
I want to share a thought. The more chess develop and the stronger the players became, the less clear their style looks, the fewer players there are with a clear-cut playing style. Everything is moving towards universalization. I can't say that Fischer had any kind of style - he was universal.
You can say that this is an aggregative style. In is prime, Fischer had Smyslov's clarity, Spassky's versatility, Alekhine's energy... His only comparative weakness - he was playing very rationally and wasn't particularly strong in unstable, irrational positions. Spassky was stronger than him there. Fischer prefered clear game plans. In this regard, Spassky's win in the 11th game of their match is very telling: he tore Fischer apart in the Poisoned Pawn variation. It wasn't a matter of opening preparation: such position just were too hard for Fischer to handle. Of course, these are subtlest of nuances, efforts to find a slightest weakness and show that he's still human. Fischer admitted this weakness himself. Most often, he would avoid such positions altogether.
His strength is the crystal clarity of his ideas. Fischer was a great Ruy Lopez player, a brilliant one. This is an opening where it's very hard to create chaos on the board.
We can argue until we're blue in the face on how would the Fischer - Karpov match end. Do you think Karpov had chances?
Yes. I think that Fischer's chances were better, but Karpov also had his own trump cards. Preparation was one of them - Fischer was a "lone wolf". He didn't have any serious seconds and played risky openings. Karpov's chances lay in creating opening troubles for Fischer.
By the way, I must note that Geller had a substantial plus score against Fischer. And Geller was the master of openings who worked on his schemes very deeply, and it wasn't simple for Fischer to play against him.
From the purely playing point of view, Fischer was most probably stronger than Karpov then. But if Karpov's opening advantage was substantial, the match would have been even.
Does Karpov continue the "universal line"?
Yes, of course. But his playing is also somewhat enigmatic: he could do things nobody else could. It's easier for me to discuss him than any other champions because my first chess book was a compilation of Karpov's games. I've studied it in my childhood, and later I would play many games with him. He was a universal player: good tactician, great variant calculator, very strong positionally, but he had a distinctive feature. I'd say it half-jokingly, but he refuted Steinitz's postulate: "If you have the advantage, you have to attack, or else you'll lose this advantage. And Karpov, after getting the advantage, just stood in one place, but his advantage only increased! I think nobody before or since could do that; I can't understand how it's possible. This aspect of his playing always astonished and amazed me. When it's time for the decisive attack, he just makes moves like a3, or h3, and the opponent's position just falls apart.
Karpov defeated me in Linares 1994, in the tournament where he scored 11/13. I got a worse endgame, but not hopeless. I made some normal moves and couldn't understand why my position suddenly became lost. And after the game, I still couldn't understand anything despite being a Top 10 player already. This is one of the few games of mine after which I had a feeling that I was a fool and understood nothing in chess! Such things very rarely happen with high-level players: you usually at least understand why exactly you lost. This moment is hard to describe, but there's something elusive in it, something exclusively Karpovian.
In all other regards, Karpov is just a very strong universal chess player, not too different from all others. But his know-how made him stand out.
Does he have strong playing qualities?
Yes, of course, he's a player. Also, I don't know anyone with stronger fighting qualities. When I started to play in supertournaments, I was amazed by his ability to readjust himself on the spot. Karpov would play a game, come under pressure, defend for six hours, fortifies - it's very hard to break through his defence, he brilliantly calculated the variants and so defended very stubbornly - and the position would become almost drawn. The opponent would relax for a bit, and the position would become completely equal. Any player would agree to a draw and be glad that this torture was over. But Karpov would immediately start playing for a win! He could very easily forget what happened on the board before, detach himself from position's history. Karpov wasn't prone to any kind of mood swings; it was always as though he just came, sat down and started playing. If he sees any chance, he always tries to exploit it.
Let's remember Karpov's win in the last Baguio game. Korchnoi started to outplay him towards the end of the match, I don't know why - perhaps Karpov just got tired. It was obvious that Korchnoi had the advantage. And Karpov suddenly plays a brilliant game! As though nothing happened, as though 5-2 didn't turn into 5-5, as though there was no gruelling play-off when he lost a slightly worse Rook ending - as though nothing happened at all, and this was the first game! In a state of tremendous tension, when his entire life depended on this match, he played as though it was a casual game in his kitchen: totally free, relaxed. He was a brilliant fighter!
To add some "humanity": what were Karpov's weaknesses, relatively speaking?
I think that he didn't pay much attention to strategy. As I said, he could easily forget what happened at the board before, and perhaps he lacked a deep strategical thread in his games. Karpov is a player who likes to do many short, 2-3 move long operations. Here we do a knight's tour, here we capture some space, here we weaken a pawn... I think he wasn't a natural strategist. And, like Fischer, he could become confused when chaos arose on the board. But all those "weakness" are only relative.
I think he was sometimes too sure of himself. He believed so much that he would always find a way to save the position that he would occasionally allow himself some "excesses". Karpov probably understood that his position weakened, but thought, "Still, I'll outplay him there!" And he had that feeling of impunity, and when he played Kasparov, it became a hindrance. In the first match, Karpov would often swindle out of dubious situations, but in each subsequent match, such swindles became rarer and rarer. I think that he lacked certain strictness in his play; perhaps because before Kasparov's arrival, he was much strongest than everyone else around. So at first, he didn't need to be so strict, and when the need arose, it was too late to change the attitude.
But Karpov did grow during his matches with Kasparov, as well?
Of course, Karpov did progress too - as any outstanding player, he constantly enriched his game. But his growth was still slower than Kasparov's, who developed at fantastic pace. In the 1984 and 1985 matches, there were two different Kasparovs. The 1985 Kasparov, figuratively speaking, could give pawn and move odds to the 1984 Kasparov. Learning ability was one of Kasparov's strongest sides. Karpov is also strong in this regard, but Kasparov surpassed him there.
Kasparov is a chess phenomenon. Can we say that?
Yes, of course. It's hard to discuss Kasparov. First, because partly it's my era as well, I played a lot of games with him, and second, because he is a player without any weaknesses. At least, I don't know what weaknesses did he have in his best years. You could write volumes about Kasparov.
Of course, he's an incredible worker, I think he worked even harder than Fischer. Kasparov is the result of a very favourable coincidence of circumstances: good coach in the childhood, great learning conditions, incredible willpower. I think that Kasparov rivals Botvinnik in willpower, but he far surpassed his teacher because he's much more flexible. As I already said, Botvinnik's categoricity was his strength, but it also had its weaknesses, and Kasparov is categorical too, but open for any kinds of change. He can change his chess outlook in half a year. Kasparov soaks in all changes like a sponge; he very effectively processes everything he sees and includes it in his arsenal. I think that's Kasparov's main difference from all other chess players.
Objectively speaking, he learned many things from Karpov. I think that before the first match, Kasparov didn't understand all Karpov's deep advantages, because you can only learn about them when you start playing him. Karpov taught Kasparov much during the 1984 match. As we can see by their subsequent matches, Kasparov became much stronger precisely in the areas where Karpov was strong.
Of course, Kasparov's talent is enormous. There isn't anything in chess that he cannot do. Many World Champions had some components that were obviously "not their cup of tea". You can't say the same about Kasparov: he can do everything. If he needs to be brilliant in a certain kind of positions, he will be playing it brilliantly soon enough. There's nothing impossible for him in chess.
But it's impossible to do everything brilliantly in the same time. At almost any given moment, Kasparov has some certain weaknesses because you cannot concentrate on everything at once. But those relative weaknesses aren't permanent for him, he can strengthen them in 2-3 months. But, obviously, some other weakness will come up. But which? You don't know. You have to immediately exploit those "transient" weaknesses because you won't get a chance later.
In 1984, obviously, Kasparov had some problems with defending, he was too impulsive and aggressive. But in 1985, he was already playing differently. Kasparov can assess his current weaknesses and organize his preparation to cover them. His learning ability is tremendous, nobody else has anything of the sort!
In 1995, when you were Kasparov's second during his match with Anand, who taught whom?
Both. I think that I have some learning ability too. Perhaps not a Kasparov-level one, but still. Well, we just worked together, Kasparov wanted to win the match, I helped him, and I didn't specifically intend to learn. But I think that we both benefitted from our collaboration.