Who Is Mr. Dubov? An interview with Daniil Dubov

Who Is Mr. Dubov? An interview with Daniil Dubov

Dec 31, 2016, 7:09 AM |

I've already translated one interview by Daniil Dubov, but now that he'd finished third in the World Blitz Championship, I feel that the English-speaking chess community deserves to know more about this young Russian grandmaster. So here's another, more biographical interview, conducted by Oleg Barantsev in the summer 2016.

P.S. There seems to be some glitch with photos. You can find them on the original page.

Daniil Dubov: "As a kid, I was extremely annoyed when everyone added 'Eduard Dubov's grandson' to my name"

Daniil Dubov, a young Russian grandmaster who won his title at the age of 14 (!), told our blog about his plans, about commenting the Candidates' tournament together with Sergey Shipov, about cheaters, money, the importance of physical fitness in chess, and many other things.

We've been preparing for this interview for two months. First, we got in touch through Facebook, then I had an opportunity to talk to him in person. I even got to play two games with him and film a video about various acrobatic tricks from Daniil's arsenal, including one-hand pull-ups. You'll see all that later.

Some questions became obsolete, or were reassessed, many questions were re-asked during the personal interview, and the answers were updated with new details. We began our conversation with a discussion of the Candidates' Tournament.

Kasparov, Shipov, and Everyone

Daniil, you've been commenting the Candidates' games together with Sergey Shipov. Did you like the experience?

I think that in the coming years, all Candidates' Tournaments will be compared with London 2013. The Moscow tournament was obviously worse in all regards: the broadcasting quality, the playing quality, the press coverage... On the other hand, it wasn't any worse than the previous Candidates' in Khanty-Mansiysk. There was intrigue, a Russian player with good winning chances - I think it was quite interesting for the Russians to watch.

Daniil Dubov, Sergey Shipov. Photo by whychess.com

My commenting experience only lasted for two days with Sergey Yurievich - nothing really stood out, standard working commentary. I was glad that there were spectators who actually asked questions - it was interesting for people, after all! It's a pity that the Russian broadcasting room was physically separated from the tournament hall; otherwise, I think, we'd have many more spectators. But here, the choice was quite strange: either you watch the players live, but can't watch the Russian broadcast, or you watch Shipov and see nothing else - I think that's why the majority decided to watch the online broadcast at hope. It's not bad either, but still a pity.

I like commenting work, but I wouldn't want to comment for more than three or four days - I'm trying to do play-by-play commentary, predicting the moves and explaining their meanings. After three or four days, it becomes quite hard to do, and there are many good color commentators who are much better at telling amusing stories than me. I'm not ready for a full-time commentator job: it's too hard.

That's why Sergey Shipov sometimes acted strange, like starting to explain the origins of the word "hooligan" or making mistakes in simple calculations?

Yes, and you shouldn't think that Shipov occasionally suffers from mental lapses. Imagine: you've got a monitor with 4 games, you have to input all moves manually...


The organization of the Candidates' Tournament was... strange, as I've already said. Usually, the commentator receives all the moves automatically on his monitor. But this time, Sergey had to look at another monitor, input the moves on his own computer, watch all games and give interesting commentary. Sometimes, when I saw that he was clearly out of strength, I would comment alone for several minutes.

Shipov was Kasparov's sparring partner, and he's still a very strong blitz player. When I play blitz with Shipov, our scores are roughly equal. So, his possible mistakes were caused by tiredness, rather than lack of chess ability.

Whom of the Candidates did you get to play against?

With roughly a half of them; of course, I've played most games against other Russians. It was nothing out of the ordinary; I've even managed to defeat Anand at the World Rapid and Blitz Championship in both games.

You gave live commentary for the 6th round game between Aronian and Nakamura, which ended in a scandal. Did anything similar happen in your practice?

In my practice, such things happened only at the blitz tournaments with prize funds around 3,000 Russian rubles. And I've obviously never played against Nakamura.

Who is Mr. Dubov?

Please tell us a bit about yourself.

I turned 20 in April. Parents got me into a chess school at age six, which is almost too late by modern standards: there are some 5 years-old children already rated. We have some chess traditions in the family: my grandfather is a renowned chess arbiter, and my father played in his childhood, he's a Candidate Master. Then my grandfather and grandmother decided that he'd be better off studying mathematics - and my father is still grateful to them for that. He still likes chess, sometimes he plays blitz online.

I think I've been watching a game between father and grandfather... and so, I started pestering my father, like, can you teach me? That's how I got into a chess school. I studied in the Orienta chess school, in Perovo [a district of Moscow]. Right now, sadly, the situation changed, but back then, it all ran on enthusiasm. My first coach was Mikhail Grigorievich Ryvkin, who taught me how to love the game, and then, when I was already a Candidate Master, I started to work with Vasily Vladimirovich Gagarin. He's my coach, friend and mentor - we're regularly talking about various subjects, he's often helping me at the tournaments. Particularly at the Tromso World Cup - I remember thinking that each of my wins made him more glad than me myself.

Photo by whychess.com

Our class was very strong: for instance, Masha Severina won many European girls' championships. Now, judging by my observations, it became somewhat worse: I can't see fire in the eyes of coaches and pupils anymore. Though, perhaps it's my own problem...

I grew gradually. For some time, I've studied in Dvorkovich's Parlour under Sergey Dolmatov, and, aged 14, I started to work with Sergey Shipov. The work was fruitful: I became a grandmaster before the age of 15, and qualified for the Russian Championship Superfinal at 16... and nothing much changed since these days. We're still in touch with Sergey Yurievich, but more as friends and colleagues. Of course, he deserves much credit for my successes.

Alexander Morozevich, Daniil Dubov and Vasily Gagarin. Photo courtesy by Daniil Dubov

For a long time, I've been in close contact with Alexander Morozevich - and now, looking back, I see that he also deserves much credit for my successes. Perhaps some of his ideas were too complex for me to comprehend at that point, and so, I rediscovered them myself later, after much work.

At the age of 14, I was happy to become a Candidate Master.

I think I just began earlier, though 6 years isn't really "early" by today's standards. But still, projecting on other lines of work, I don't think I've made the best possible choice, though I was lucky that my talent allowed me to get into the top 100.

As a child, I dreamed to become a world champion, but something went wrong...

Vallejo once said that a chess player's career consists of two parts: the part when he's dreaming to become a world champion, and the part when he understands that he'll never become a world champion. Thank God, I'm still in the first category.

By the way, as a kid, I was always extremely annoyed when everyone added "Eduard Dubov's grandson" to my name. I had dreamed that someone would someday refer to him as "Daniil Dubov's grandfather", and my dream came true when I was fifteen...

Eduard Dubov, Daniil Dubov, Yuri Dokhoyan, Mark Glukhovsky. Photo by ruchess.ru

To say the truth, I haven't achieved much in the last two years. There were some local successes, for instance, sharing first place in a very strong Aeroflot Open, and qualifying to the Russian Superfinal again, but, alas, everything is measured by rating now, and it doesn't change much. Perhaps that's because for each good tournament, there's a bad one.

However, since last summer, I've started to study chess more, and I tend to think (hope?) that this work will pay off. I had some local successes, but my main objective is to get rid of the frequent losses of motivation that often cost me 10-20 rating points.

Becoming a grandmaster at 14 - it's very cool. Karpov and Kasparov became grandmasters only at 19 and 17 respectively! Didn't chess officials come to you and say, like, "Daniil, how can we help you? What coach do you need? What tournament do you want to play?" You live in Moscow, after all...

Russia has an abundance of talent... I remember the time when I, Volodya Fedoseyev and Vanya Bukavshin (who had tragically died in January this year) pestered the officials to persuade them to allow us to play at the 2011 Aeroflot Open. We had ratings slightly higher than 2400, and the organizers thought that they were too small for the main tournament. Ultimately, we were allowed to play, I scored +1, Vanya and Volodya had an even score, we all have achieved the grandmaster norms. Last year, by the way, I've managed to share 1st at the Aeroflot Open.

In Europe, the 2600-rated youngsters are gushed over: they give them best conditions, pay for coaches, help them to get into tournaments, etc. Duda (Polish), Rapport (Hungarian), several Chinese guys... though the most shining example is Magnus Carlsen, who was supported practically since his infancy.

By the way, I'd often played blitz with him at the ICC five years ago, and I was very proud when I managed to beat him in a match. Though now I understand that he probably played in a relaxed manner, drinking tea or checking his phone.

Money talks

Chess isn't the most lucrative sport. Do you earn enough from chess, or you also have another job?

As of now, I'm earning enough. Chess pays off when you either quit early or get into the top 100. Obviously, there's a lot of people outside those two categories. Such chess players are either starving or travelling constantly. Thankfully, there are now lots of ways to earn money. If you don't have enough, you can work as a commentator, write books, become a coach or just play more.

In my case, it was funny. My father is a very rational man, he had a very sober outlook on chess, and he set some, should I say, checkpoints for me. If you haven't gotten a certain rating at a certain age - you quit. If you haven't become a master at a certain age - you quit.

Nobody forced me to do anything. So, I became a grandmaster at 14, and my father relaxed, thinking that was enough. And I've stopped in my development for almost 5 years.

It's actually like lottery. I periodically play poker, and people who also know both games sometimes tell me that in the long term, the factor of randomness in poker is much lower. I've seen a friend recently, he's a professional in all games of chance - card games, betting, casino, you name it. I was telling him, rather enthusiastically, about a new "plus strategy" I developed, and he remarked sadly that after 10 years, he came to a conclusion that the best strategy was not to play at all.

That's why I play only friendly games.

That's good for you. In chess, the best outcome is that you're slowly going insane, but earning money in the meantime. To earn more than the median income, you should get into top 100. If your rating is around 2650, you're a strong grandmaster. Hm, I'd like to correct myself: not "more", but rather "no less than" median income.

But there are many more than 100 chess professionals. There are more than 1,000 grandmasters in the world. There are also women who take up chess professionally, there are young players who invest much (or are being invested into). So, chess is a good choice for around 5% of chess players. Other 95% have to either look for non-chess sources of income, or to work non-stop - giving lessons every day, or travelling from one tournament to the other without ever getting home.

There was an interview with Igor Naumkin at chess-news.ru, which caused quite a stir in the chess world. Is it really so bad?

I think that he described a case way below the average, but there's nothing unrealistic in there. I think that the life of many grandmasters isn't much better. I feel that the distribution of money in chess looks like that: 80% for top 20, 10% for the other top 100 players, and 10% for everyone else.

Fight the cheaters

You and Vlad Tkachev once made an educational video about cheating. In February, you refused to play against a Chinese player in some open (you've told that story in your chess-news.ru interview). Did anyone use your "instruction", what do you think?

Not likely. Alas, we haven't reached our intended goal: we wanted to show the extent of the problem, and people thought that this video was something akin to a comedy show. Though if it got someone thinking, it's already a result.

Oleg Skvortsov, the organizer of Zurich tournament, recently gave an interview, in which he offered to test chess players on a lie detector. It's an interesting idea: if the probability of error is low, I don't see any downsides to it. Of course, the questions should be concerned only with the recent game, and after a suspicious result, you could allow the player to undergo the test for a second time. Of course, it's a harsh measure, but I can't see any "non-harsh" solutions, as of now.

What to do next?

What are your plans for the observable future? Five years, for instance?

In the nearest future, I'm playing the Russian High League, from which the top 5 qualify for the Superfinal, in the autumn, there's a European team championship, and in December, I'm playing in the Qatar Open. I usually don't play much in the second half of year.

My 5-year plan is quite simple: I'm hoping to qualify for one of the next World Championship cycles. For that, I need to get into the Grand Prix series, and for that, I need rating - that's my main obstacle. I have several years to obtain 100 or so rating points; I may be too optimistic, but I don't think that it's impossible.

Now I understand that I have to work a lot. When you become a grandmaster at 15 because you're just very talented, you think that you'll always have it easy. But to get through the ceiling, you have to beat into it until it breaks. You just have to keep a clear head. It's a pity that I've essentially wasted a few years, but I'm very optimistic and eager to work and achieve new heights.

In May, you played in a couple of tournaments - Russian Team Championship and European Championship, earning 22 rating points and achieving personal record of 2666. What's the next checkpoint for you?

I need to get to the rating that allows me to qualify for the Grand Prix series. Though I understand that it won't be easy: there are ten Russians in the "2700 club" alone.

But you did qualify to the 2017 World Cup from the European Championship.

The World Cup is good, but it's a lottery. Karjakin was on the verge of losing several times last year, but he was lucky; of course, he played great chess, and his fighting spirit was high. In 2013, I got to the third round of the World Cup, but you have to advance to the 7th round to qualify for the Candidates'... That's why I need to get into the Grand Prix: over a long distance, you don't lose everything after losing a couple of games.

O Sport, Tu Est La Paix!

Let's talk physical fitness. After reading a blog post about abs, you said that you were facing similar problems: it's hard to gain weight that you lose after tournaments. How do you keep yourself in form?

There are different ways. I can go to the gym for a couple of months, I have a horizontal bar at home, but it's hard to do some exercises there, and sometimes, I just work out at the street complex. During the tournament, it all depends on the hotel, but there's floor in any hotel room, so I can do 200 press-ups a day.

Daniil Dubov pulls up on one hand

When I was a kid, I could easily do splits - my mom is a ballet dancer, after all. I didn't even have to consciously learn that skill. I could do a split, then do nothing for half a year and then do it again. Now it's somewhat harder, I have to remember how to do that, and then stretch a bit. Of course, I also like soccer.

Photo courtesy of Daniil Dubov

The Kosovo tournament

The European championship in Kosovo was won by a Russian again, but it also made news after you complained about the living conditions on your Facebook page, and it was retranslated by chess-news.ru. You also had an unpleasant incident on your first day there...

Yes, on the first day, I went to a restaurant with Alexey Dreev and Pierre Basso from Italy (he works with Alexey occasionally, and he speaks Russian as good as me and you - his mom is from Minsk), and a 8-years old boy approached our table and showed us middle fingers and throat-slitting gestures. The grown-ups laughed approvingly. I'm from Vykhino [this Moscow district is quite tough], it's hard to surprise me, but this was over the top.

However, after that incident, nothing of the sort ever happened again, and the local people were mostly very helpful.

FIDE has a penchant for strange places. Of course, 23 top players from the European Championship qualify for the Tbilisi World Cup 2017, so people will come anyway, and if they do qualify, they'll likely forget many bad things. But still, I'd like to have at least some comfort. I once went to a shower, and the water was boiling hot, and I wondered if the water gets any colder in the next 10 minutes - otherwise, I may be late for my game.

Chess historian Olimpiu G. Urcan called your round 7 game against Merab Guganashvili "genuinely beautiful". 

I can also add that it gave me some personal aesthetic pleasure, because when I was a kid, I'd usually play Benoni with Black after 1. d4.

And Pavel Eljanov called the round 8 game against Ante Brkic a "masterpiece", comparing it to the famous Torre-Lasker game of 1925.

Of course, it's very flattering to see such favourable assessments, but I wouldn't even include my game against Brkic into my personal top ten. The combination wasn't that difficult, I could've found it even in a blitz game. The beauty in chess can be perceived in a variety of ways; for me, the harder the move is to find, the more beautiful it is. And such combinations, of course, look pretty, but they're also pretty easy. By the way, my combination against Gagunashvili was harder, and if I managed to win the game without losing much of my advantage, I could have been proud.

For modern chess

I actually like the modern chess. Several years ago, there were talks about "draw death" again, especially after several tournaments with a very few decisive games, and even the Sofia rules didn't help things, but now, there are much less talks about that. Look at all players who use very original openings to just play chess, not follow the computer analysis until the 30th move. Jobava, Kovalenko, Rapport - it's impossible to prepare for them. They're very aggressive, that's why more of their games end up decisively. Though I'm rather successful against such players.

But they aren't alone! Vlad Tkachev once told me: "Look how gracefully Kramnik ages in chess!" He's still hoping to win the World Championship again, but lately, he started to play more for fun, at least it seems so. He can also put his opponent off their preparation with, say, 1. Nf3 c3 2. e3.

Or take Karjakin - he played 1. Nf3 d5 2. e3 against Anand. Yes, White don't get any opening advantage, but you're playing with your own head from the very first moves. This game is similar to Chess 960. And it's much more interesting.

You also had a similar game at the European Championship.

Yes, in round 2, against Vitaly Sivuk of Ukraine. After my 4th move, the theory ended, and we got creative.

The game was quite interesting, I could have even lost.

So, I'm having much fun with chess now.

That's why you're eager to play even against amateurs?

Yes, why not. Sometimes I play bullet tournaments at chessplanet, after 10 p.m., if I have nothing more to do.

Sometimes I visit my old school in Perovo, and I offer the coaches to hold a simultaneous display with the kids, or to read a lecture - for free, of course, but they tell me "no, we don't need that". It's very strange for me.

Photo courtesy of Daniil Dubov

I heard that coaches there have a tradition of drinking together every week. Perhaps it was there even earlier, but a healthy dose of similar chess discipline wouldn't be bad too.

I played two games with Daniil. To equalize the chances a bit, he gave me a time advantage (1 minute against 3), though for a bullet specialist, it's not even odds, but rather a comfortable atmosphere. The rating difference of about 800 (Daniil's blitz rating is north of 2700) didn't leave me any chances.

My daughter supported me during the games with all means possible ("Daddy, I'm the arbiter, watch the impossible moves", "Daddy, watch your Queen", "You go Dad!"), but the conclusion was foregone. Still, I hope that on some day, I won't lose to Daniil.


What books would you recommend to the young chess players?

Kasparov's My Great Predecessors series. When the games of great champions are annotated by another great champion, it's a superb chess school. By reading these books, you can learn 90% of chess history. Also, by studying the games, you learn a lot about the openings: basic ideas and stages of theory development, told by Garry Kasparov - what can be better?

And to the grown-up chess fans?

Genna Sosonko's essays. Though his recent works aren't as interesting as his older ones: either there are no good topics and characters left, or Sosonko has lost his writer's drive. Still, he's done an enormous job: he helped the young generation to discover the older players. For instance, I wouldn't know anything about Tony Miles if not for Sosonko. An Englishman, eccentric, strong grandmaster. Defeated Karpov with Black after 1. e4 a6?! I didn't know anything else about him. And that's the case for most of his characters.