How to Get Better at Chess?

How to Get Better at Chess?


What does the title of this article have to do with the image? NOTHING! I just thought "let me put a catchy, trendy title like we see ALMOST EVERY DAY at, and combine it with a funny picture. The problem is, most of the readers might not be familiar with the traditional "Why did the chicken cross the road?" jokes, so the catchy title has to offset the outdated joke!

The oldest one is:

Q. "Why did the chicken cross the road?"

A. To get to the other side!

.......and there are many, many variations on the following philosophical variations on it:




Plato: For the greater good.

Karl Marx: It was an historical inevitability.

Thomas de Torquemada: Give me ten minutes with the chicken and I'll find out.

Timothy Leary: Because that's the only kind of trip the Establishment would let it take.

Douglas Adams: Forty-two.

Nietzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the Road, the Road gazes also across you.

Oliver North: National Security was at stake.

Carl Jung: The confluence of events in the cultural gestalt necessitated that individual chickens cross roads at this historical juncture, and therefore synchronicitously brought such occurrences into being.

Jean-Paul Sartre: In order to act in good faith and be true to itself, the chicken found it necessary to cross the road.

Ludwig Wittgenstein: The possibility of "crossing" was encoded into the objects "chicken" and "road," and circumstances came into being which caused the actualization of this potential occurrence.

Albert Einstein: Whether the chicken crossed the road or the road crossed the chicken depends upon your frame of reference.

Aristotle: To actualize its potential.

Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature.

Salvador Dali: The Fish.

Darwin: It was the logical next step after coming down from the trees.

Emily Dickinson: Because it could not stop for death. Epicurus: For fun.

Ralph Waldo Emerson: It didn't cross the road; it transcended it.

Johann Friedrich von Goethe: The eternal hen-principle made it do it.

Ernest Hemingway: To die. In the rain.

Werner Heisenberg: We are not sure which side of the road the chicken was on, but it was moving very fast.

David Hume: Out of custom and habit.

Saddam Hussein: This was an unprovoked act of rebellion and we were quite justified in dropping 50 tons of nerve gas on it.

Jack Nicholson: 'cause it (censored) wanted to. That's the (censored) reason.

Pyrrho the Skeptic: What road?

Ronald Reagan: I forget.

John Sununu: The Air Force was only too happy to provide the transportation, so quite understandably the chicken availed himself of the opportunity.

The Sphinx: You tell me.

Sappho: Due to the loveliness of the hen on the other side, more fair than all of Hellas' fine armies.

Henry David Thoreau: To live deliberately ... and suck all the marrow out of life.

Mark Twain: The news of its crossing has been greatly exaggerated.

Stephen Jay Gould: It is possible that there is a sociobiological explanation for it, but we have been deluged in recent years with sociobiological stories despite the fact that we have little direct evidence about the genetics of behavior, and we do not know how to obtain it for the specific behaviors that figure most prominently in sociobiological speculation.

Joseph Stalin: I don't care. Catch it. Crack its eggs to make my omlette.

Captain James T. Kirk: To boldly go where no chicken has gone before.

Machiavelli: So that its subjects will view it with admiration, as a chicken which has the daring and courage to boldly cross the road, but also with fear, for whom among them has the strength to contend with such a paragon of avian virtue? In such a manner is the princely chicken's dominion maintained.

Hippocrates: Because of an excess of pleghm in its pancreas.

Andersen Consultant: "Deregulation of the chicken's side of the road was threatening its dominant market position. The chicken was faced with significant challenges to create and develop the competencies required for the newly competitive market. Andersen Consulting, in a partnering relationship with the client, helped the chicken by rethinking its physical distribution strategy and implementation processes. Using the Poultry Integration Model (PIM) Andersen helped the chicken use its skills, methodologies, knowledge capital and experiences to align the chicken's people, processes and technology in support of its overall strategy within a Program Management framework. Andersen Consulting convened a diverse cross-spectrum of road analysts and best chickens along with Andersen consultants with deep skills in the transportation industry to engage in a two-day itinerary of meetings in order to leverage their personal knowledge capital, both tacit and explicit, and to enable them to synergize with each other in order to achieve the implicit goals of delivering and successfully architecting and implementing an enterprise-wide value framework across the continuum of poultry cross-median processes. The meeting was held in a park like setting enabling and creating an impactful environment which was strategically based, industry-focused, and built upon a consistent, clear, and unified market message and aligned with the chicken's mission, vision, and core values. This was conducive towards the creation of a total business integration solution. Andersen Consulting helped the chicken change to become more successful."

- by Kimberly Cowell


OK, the real purpose of this post is to share an example of how a great Master dominates. It was either Nimzowitsch or Tartakower who wrote that if you want to see the full extent of a Masters's deep strategical ideas, look at his games against weaker opponents, and not at games against his equals.

With the parity at the elite level that we see nowadays, this is easily understood. How many times do we have to see a draw between elite players?

In the following game, played in the Maehrisch-Ostrau (1923) tournament, Wolf plays a Closed Sicilian against Lasker. Even though this system of play was championed decades later by Smyslov, and then even later by Spassky in his Candidate's matches against Geller, it was played early in the 20th Century!

The problem with Wolf's approach is that he allowed Black the time and space to challenge for the initiative with a central advance. After that, Black kept improving the position of his pieces, getting ready to strike.

This game is a good example of how to play against a "solid" system; a passive system that seems solid, but in being too passive, eventually has to succumb to a superior strategy. So here we go! Let's cross the road!

So, to go back to the title of this article: How to get better at chess?
Answer: Looking at the games of the great Masters of the past.
.....and for those who think this is my idea, think twice.
Even Capablanca recommended this method, and Tartakower also.
Here is what Bronstein has to say about this method to self-improvement:

"You should not "read" a chess creation but you should move the pieces on the chessboard and make move by move exactly as the work of Chess Art was created for the very first time. On your own chessboard with your own chess pieces and in complete silence, to be able to follow closely the events as they unfold before your very eyes. The best way is to do this in three stages."


"First, play through the whole game without hesitating more than a couple of seconds at each move. If you have the urge to pause longer-don't! Take a piece of paper and make some notes if you wish, and continue to play the game to the end. Then get a cup of tea or coffee, relax and try your best to recall from memory the spectacle you have just seen. Try to establish the reasons why certain decisions were made."


"Second, play through the game again, somewhat slower this time,and make notes of everything that you did not see the first time."


"Third, now go straight to those pencil marks and give your imaginative and creative energy free reign. Try to play better than my partner and I. If you do not agree, look closely at each decision, either for White or for Black, with a critical eye. If you look at a game like this you will discover a lot of new and useful knowledge, which you can use for your own benefit."


"Write your findings in a notebook in order to look at them later when you are in a different mood, especially if you like the game. If, during stage one, you took no notes, don't look at this game again. Go on to the next one that, hopefully, will give you more pleasure and satisfaction. It just means that it did not appeal to you. Although I consider chess an Art, I will not blame you at all if you do not like a particular game. In a museum you cannot like every painting you see. As French gourmets say, taste is a very personal matter."


"When I was learning to play chess, I studied thousands and thousands of games played by the older generation in exactly the same way and gained a lot from them."

- David Bronstein


And here are some of Kramnik's thoughts on the World Champions.....

Kramnik – " I did not have the opportunity to study chess classics when I was a child. I was born in the Russian provincial town of Tuapse where chess literature was difficult to obtain; only books on modern players, such as Karpov, Petrosian, etc. were available. Of course, later I filled the gap in my education. However, it is much easier for me to talk about those who I met over the board, i.e. Karpov, Kasparov.

Interviewer – As you see it, should young chess players study the classics?

Kramnik – In my view, if you want to reach the heights, you should study the entire history of chess. I can’t give any clear logical explanation for it, but I think it is absolutely essential to soak up the whole of chess history.

Interviewer – Starting from Gioachino Greco?

Kramnik – I don’t think it is important to start with those ancient times because that is just the ABC of chess. However, Philidor’s games should be gone through, not to mention Anderssen and Morphy, whose games should be studied without fail. This knowledge will be a real help in self-improvement.


Kramnik – Steinitz was the first to realise that chess, despite being a complicated game, obeys some common principles. Up to his time chess players understood only individual themes. For instance, Philidor put forward and upheld the following opinion: ‘Pawns are the soul of chess’.

I have got patchy impressions of Steinitz and the other chess players of the 19th century. That’s why I would like to share my thoughts about their games. I carefully studied the matches played by Steinitz against Chigorin and Lasker …

Steinitz took a comprehensive approach to chess and started to form a common basis for individual conclusions. However, sometimes he made decisions that did not quite conform to his own rules. Steinitz was the first to discover certain ideas but was still far from getting down to the bedrock.

He did not seem to understand dynamics very well; dynamics was his weak spot. In his matches against Chigorin he regularly got into difficult positions with Black. For instance, he would capture the pawn in the Evans Gambit and then transfer all his pieces to the 8th rank ..

Although most players would feel like resigning in such a position, Steinitz defended it in his match two times, namely in games 15 and 17, and scored 1½ points. One game he even won. But the diagram position is absolutely hopeless for Black.

Steinitz was strong in practice. He had deep thoughts and imaginative ideas. For instance, he stated that the king was a strong piece, able to defend itself. This idea is really imaginative and even true in some cases but it is not a part of the classical basis of the game.

Up to his time people had just been playing chess, Steinitz began to study it. But as often happens the first time is just a try. With due respect to the first World Champion, I can’t say he was the founder of a chess theory. He was an experimenter and pointed out that chess obeys laws that should be considered.


Kramnik – In my view, Lasker was a pioneer of modern chess. When you look through Steinitz’s games you understand they were played in the century before last whereas Lasker had a lot of games that modern chess players could have had. Lasker is the first link in the chain of “global” chess where various fighting elements are taken into account. Steinitz mainly concentrated on individual positional elements. For instance, if he had a better pawn structure along with a promising attack on the enemy’s king, he thought his advantage was almost decisive. But Lasker understood that different positional components could offset each other. He realized that different types of advantage could be interchangeable: tactical edge could be converted into strategic advantage and vice versa.

I think that Lasker had a more extensive knowledge of chess than Steinitz. By the way, it is significant that the World Chess Championship in 1894 (not to mention the return) was a total mismatch.

My impression is that two completely different players in terms of insight met over the board. In present day Elo, we would say that a player with a rating of 2700 played against another rated 2400. That’s why Lasker’s victory was very convincing; he almost tore his opponent apart. I knew that Steinitz was a great player but in that match he was badly beaten, which came as a cultural shock to me. I have never seen such an enormous gap between the participants of a World Championship, as if it was more like a simultaneous exhibition than a match for the title. At that time Steinitz must have already been over the hill. But I could not have imagined he was that weak because he kept on getting decent results in tournaments.

Lasker was an impressive person. He managed to understand a lot in chess. I was looking through his games again some time ago and was astonished: his knowledge was incredibly extensive for his time! He was the first to understand the importance of psychological factors and started to pay attention to them. He began to adapt his strategy and, to a certain extent, his style to different opponents. Whereas Steinitz kept to one concept because he thought: this is correct and that is not.

Lasker comprehended an idea that was pretty difficult for a time when people saw chess only in black and white. Chess is a very complicated game and it can be absolutely unclear what is right or wrong. It is possible to act in different ways. Lasker was very flexible and undogmatic. He was the first undogmatic player in the history of chess. He did not think in terms of “this is good and this is bad”. For example, if you manage to occupy the centre, that’s good, if not, that’s bad”. That was a great step forward for chess development.

In my opinion, when Lasker was stripping Steinitz of his title, he was head and shoulders above all the others. Since that time chess history has not seen such a yawning gap. Lasker had surpassed everyone until a new generation grew up and his opponents, namely Tarrasch, got stronger.

Interviewer – We can hardly say that Tarrasch represented the new generation because he was six years older than Lasker …

Kramnik – I think that Tarrasch started playing stronger later. At the time Lasker was fighting for the title, Tarrasch’s play was not impressive.

Interviewer – Tarrasch regarded Lasker as an “upstart” because when Tarrasch was already “the Teacher of Germany”, Lasker was nobody. Steinitz challenged Tarrasch for a match, but the latter evaded it.

Kramnik – I was not impressed with Tarrasch’s play. He had imaginative ideas but like all players of that time he was prone to rigidity. And Lasker was not, that’s why he stood out.

Interviewer – Lasker became World Champion in 1894 while Pillsbury won the famous Hastings Tournament of 1895 where Chigorin was second and Lasker took only the third place. He did have worthy opponents …

Kramnik – I won’t argue. This is my personal view and I think that in the early 1890s Lasker was head and shoulders above the others in understanding, capacity and strength of play. That period did not last for long, two to three years, then the others started to catch up, having learned from him.

At the same time Lasker is to some extent an underrated figure. Legend has it that Steinitz was a super strategical player while Lasker was mainly a psychologist … I would like to dispel this myth.

Interviewer – By the way, not everyone knows that Lasker denied exerting “psychological influence” on his opponents by saying: “My success is primarily based on the understanding of the pieces’ strength, not on the opponent’s nature”.

Kramnik – I think that due to his flexibility he was able to have a deeper understanding of chess. He broke with dogmas and everyone thought he did it with regard to his opponent’s character. But Lasker started to call dogmas into question. Let’s remember his famous move f4-f5 against Capablanca.

Lasker realised that the e5-square could be weakened because it was difficult to exploit. And then they started talking about his psychological approach! It had nothing to do with psychology. Lasker grasped a deep concept, which is being automatically employed now: he gave up the e5-square and “fenced in” the c8-bishop. That’s why it was not a matter of psychology; Lasker had a very deep positional understanding.

Of course, he had worthy opponents. We should not forget Rubinstein, an incredibly talented and fantastic chess player. It is a pity that with his extensive knowledge of chess, he was not a World Champion. Sometimes he created true masterpieces and was way ahead of his time. To understand this, you should just go through the collection of his best games. Why didn’t he become a World Champion? That’s a mystery to me. His nerves might have played a role or he might not have been very good in practice. Anyway, he was a man of great talent.

Lasker had been holding the title for 27 years. He really was a great chess player. However, at that time not all worthy challengers had an opportunity to play for the title and those who participated in the World Championship were not always the strongest players.


Interviewer – But Capablanca did deserve to play the match!

Kramnik – Capablanca was a genius. He was an exception that did not obey any rule. I would not say he developed anything in chess … Such a person could be born at any time, just like Morphy: in the middle of the 20th or even 19th century. Capablanca had a conscious feel for harmonious play. When I was a child I very much liked his book Capablanca Teaches Chess because he explained certain principles in a very simple and accurate way, which was easy to understand. (Now, however, I don’t consider some of his statements to be correct).

He had a natural talent, which, regrettably, did not go hand in hand with hard work. Hypothetically, we could say that if Capablanca had spent as much time working on chess as Alekhine and Lasker did, he would have made better progress. However, in my view, these things were mutually exclusive: hard work did not accompany his talent. He did not need to work hard. We can compare Capablanca with Mozart, whose charming music appeared to have been a smooth flow. I get the impression that Capablanca did not even know why he preferred this or that move, he just moved the pieces with his hand. If he had worked a lot on chess, he might have played worse because he would have started to try to comprehend things. But Capablanca did not have to comprehend anything, he just had to move the pieces!

He is said to have lost to Alekhine due to his incomplete preparation. I don’t agree. He did what was right for him; otherwise, he would have undermined his unique talent. He stood out from everyone.

In 1921 Capablanca defeated Lasker. By the way, Lasker was not playing badly in that match; he retained great practical strength. In my opinion, this was the first match for the World Championship title where both opponents were very strong. Capablanca was younger, more active and a bit stronger. In the last game Lasker made a terrible blunder. However, the previous games saw an even and fascinating fight.

In the other matches where Lasker played we see either a good beating or a lot of flaws, as happened in his encounter against Schlechter. As for the Capablanca-Lasker match, there were few mistakes and the games were a real fight. Lasker was an impressive chess player, whereas Capablanca was a natural-born genius. Quite frankly it is incredible how Alekhine managed to defeat him.


Interviewer – Alekhine’s diligence was thought to have been a real help.

Kramnik – As well as his nature and strong will … Certainly, Alekhine also was a gifted player and had great talent. However, it is difficult to understand why he won against Capablanca. It just happened and that’s it. I agree with Kasparov that Capablanca failed to withstand the tension of the fight. In his match against Lasker, Capablanca was applying pressure while his opponent defended. Lasker was “answering back” from time to time but mainly defended. Alekhine managed to cope with that pressure and was even trying to increase the tension himself. Capablanca might not have been able to cope with that wild stress. He was used to taking tournaments easy, making draws and winning some games thanks to his talent, taking first or second place and then relaxing, sipping wine | he enjoyed life! … But there he had to face acute tension. The match was long; the games were serious and combative. Alekhine set difficult tasks for the World Champion in every game.

Interviewer – Was Alekhine really the first chess player to undertake a modern analysis of the opening?

Kramnik – Alekhine definitely was a workaholic. He had a strategic talent and was the first player who had a conscious feel for dynamics. Lasker began to realise that dynamics played an important role but it did not form the basis of his games, he just kept it in mind and sometimes used it. But Alekhine placed a bet on dynamics and truly discovered that area of chess. He proved that it was possible to take advantage of dynamics by following main positional principles: to start weaving a kind of net from the very first moves, threatening and attacking at every step without looking for a long-term advantage.

Interviewer – In the late 1920s and early 1930s Alekhine gave his rivals the slip. Or was he no match for Lasker’s dominance in his time?

Kramnik – I think it happened because of some sort of “troubled days”. Capablanca did not play much. Capablanca and Lasker did not participate in those tournaments where Alekhine triumphed. Botvinnik and Keres had not developed their strength yet, the older players were over the hill. Alekhine was definitely an outstanding World Champion, but the gap between him and the others can be explained rather by these reasons. I would not say he demonstrated anything different in those tournaments from his play before and during the match against Capablanca. He was playing at the same level. Of course, Alekhine enriched his play, became more experienced, but I would not say he was an innovator. Why did this gap not exist before the match and appear only after it? Quite frankly, I don’t think it had anything to do with chess. His match against Euwe proved this to some extent.


Interviewer – The Dutchman Max Euwe was the fifth World Champion. Some say he did not deserve to win the title, and that it was down to pure chance.

Kramnik – Euwe was a very good chess player. Botvinnik is said to have formed the basis of a comprehensive system of preparation but I think the credit belongs to Euwe. He realised how important the opening was and prepared it brilliantly. Moreover, he had a subtle feel for aspects of opening preparation. Despite working hard Alekhine often tried it on by employing obviously dubious openings. He was doing it even in very important games, which came as a surprise to me. It means that he either did not feel that the opening was dubious or hoped that it would work. Euwe prepared an opening fundamentally and rationally. Openings were always his strong point. He was always very good at openings.

Interviewer – Apart from this, he was the first to enlist the help of leading grandmasters. For instance, Flohr …

Kramnik – Euwe took a professional approach to chess. He was a versatile chess player that’s why he is difficult to describe and is underestimated. He was some sort of an “indefinable” player and his style is difficult to review. I have not grasped it to its full extent. It might have consisted of a combination of different elements plus nerves of steel, plus a healthy approach to life. He was a very sedate and well-balanced person. Those were the keys to his success and he fully deserved his World Championship title by defeating Alekhine.

Yes, Alekhine was a bit off form. But it is not true that he was in bad shape during the whole match. He was fighting fiercely, in the beginning he displayed brilliant play. So, we can’t say he was in bad shape when he started the match. At some point Euwe began to outplay Alekhine who then took to the bottle … Some other reasons prevailed: these might have been either psychological factors or something else. It was not a question of bad form. Euwe maintained the tension rather than “catching” his opponent in the openings. Capablanca primarily repelled Alekhine’s attacks in the openings. Alekhine was known as an encyclopaedic chess player whereas Euwe often succeeded in gaining an edge in the opening battles, both conceptually and in specific lines. For instance, it so happened that each of them engaged in the Slav Defence with both colours. Euwe won the battle.

I looked through the book written about their return match of 1937 and again saw an even encounter. Alekhine is considered to have easily regained the title. The rumour was that he lost the title because of his drinking habit, then gave up the booze and won, which actually has nothing to do with reality. First of all, Euwe had a positive score (3-1 in decisive games) against Alekhine in the period between their match and return-match. This means that although Alekhine broke his drinking habit almost immediately after the match, Euwe kept on beating him. The return also saw an even contest. In the first match it was Alekhine who collapsed while in the return the same thing happened to Euwe who lost several games in a row. Why did it happen? Euwe might not have wanted to remain World Champion, the title might have been a heavy psychological burden for him. Anyway, I think that it did not happen by pure chance. The return was not a piece of cake for Alekhine; this myth should be dispelled.


Interviewer – And now we have reached Botvinnik, the first World Champion you have actually met.

Kramnik – Botvinnik definitely represented a new era in chess. I would call him the first true professional. He was the first to realise that chess performance was not only dependent on chess skills. He developed comprehensive preparation for competitions which consisted of opening studies along with healthy sleep, daily routine and physical exercises. He was a pioneer in this field.

It is a bit funny for a modern chess player to read about the Alekhine-Euwe match: the games were being adjourned, one player had a drink, the other had a business meeting straight before the start of the game … Such things could not happen to Botvinnik.

Strange as it may seem, I think he was a pretty inconsistent chess player. His best games are of a very high level. However, sometimes he had failures. I don’t know what the reason was. I have the impression that he gave everything he had got in every game and was playing with all his strength. He seemed to have failed from time to time due to the colossal stress. Despite the fact that he was called an “iron-willed” man …

Interviewer – Did such failures also happen to Botvinnik in his youth or only in his mature age after long breaks in play?

Kramnik – I think such failures happened at any age. I am not referring to tournament breakdowns (however, they also took place) but to failures in individual games. And even when you look at his matches for the World Championship you see that in one-two, sometimes in three games, he collapsed. I have noticed it but have not found any explanation for it. I just wanted to draw your attention to this fact, which was somehow unnoticed by journalists. In any case, it is not that important in comparison with a huge number of outstanding games he played. Botvinnik grasped a lot of conceptual ideas in chess.

Interviewer – Did you ever hear the view that Botvinnik won games due to his character and strong will, although some of his opponents had greater chess talent?

Kramnik – I agree with this statement to some extent. On the other hand, talent can’t exist separately, without other elements. Talent is something barely perceptible. Some players don’t achieve outstanding results but they are considered to be talented. But I think that in chess like in any other activity, talent is just one of the components. It must not be more important than character. That’s why popular statements like “He is a gifted man but is not a success because of his sensitive nature” don’t work. I would agree that Capablanca had a greater purely chess talent than Botvinnik, while the latter managed to reach the heights in other elements, i.e. character, preparation, which is not so easy. He had genius in these areas. So, the above statements do not belittle Botvinnik’s merits and importance as a chess player because potential is one thing while its realization is quite another. In fact, Botvinnik’s chess career was the way of a genius, although he was not a genius, to my mind.

Interviewer – Did Botvinnik make a step forward in chess development compared to his predecessors?

Kramnik – He grasped a number of conceptual things. Criminal as it may sound, I don’t think he advanced chess, contributed anything absolutely new to the game. However, he made a great contribution to preparation. Again tastes differ: some people think preparation is a part of the game, others consider it a separate element. In my view, preparation is an integral part of the game. If we compare Botvinnik with Capablanca, Capablanca was a more gifted person, a magnificent chess player, whereas Botvinnik made a much greater contribution to chess.

Interviewer – What impression did personal meetings with Patriarch make on the young Vladimir Kramnik?

Kramnik – Very favourable. I understand that he was a controversial figure and his colleagues had a bone to pick with him. I have heard different opinions and don’t want to comment on them. I am not trying to avoid the subject but I did not live in his time and did not see these things with my own eyes. So, I can’t jump to any “profound” conclusions. I knew Botvinnik in his last years and he made a favourable impression on me.

I would like to mention one thing that seemed strange to me. I mean a certain discrepancy between his beliefs and his character. Botvinnik sincerely believed in Communist ideas. Moreover, it was clear that he spent much time thinking them over and believed in them. At the same time he was a very wise and intelligent person with the manners of a St. Petersburg Professor who had nothing to do with post-revolutionary Russia. It is a mystery to me how he managed to combine his Communist convictions with the nature of a true intellectual. This discrepancy impressed me. As a rule, such were the rules of the game that Soviet intellectuals took an opportunistic approach in paying tribute to the Communist ideas.

Of course, Botvinnik was very rigid. That was his strength. I think he must have been categorical by nature. But this quality must have been a disadvantage in his collaboration with other people, that’s why he often took issues with them.


Interviewer – How would you describe the seventh World Champion, Vasily Smyslov?

Kramnik – How can I express it in the right way? … He is truth in chess! Smyslov plays correctly, truthfully and has a natural style. By the way, why do you think he lacks that aura of mystique like Tal or Capablanca? Because Smyslov is not an actor in chess, his play is neither artistic nor fascinating. But I am fond of his style. I would recommend a study of Smyslov’s games to children who want to know how to play chess because he plays the game how it should be played: his style is the closest to some sort of ‘virtual truth’ in chess. He always tried to make the strongest move in each position. He has surpassed many other of the World Champions in the number of strongest moves made. As a professional, this skill impresses me. I know that spectators are more interested in flaws … ups and downs. But from the professional standpoint, Smyslov has been underestimated.

He mastered all elements of play. Smyslov was a brilliant endgame specialist, all in all his play resembled a smooth flow, like a song. When you look at his games, you have that light feeling as if his hand is making the moves all by itself while the man is making no effort at all – just like he was drinking coffee or reading a newspaper! This has the feel of Mozart’s light touch! No stress, no effort, everything is simple yet brilliant. I like this feature of Smyslov and I am fond of his games.

Interviewer – Smyslov and Botvinnik played almost a hundred games against each other, including three World Championships. Did they produce high quality games in terms of modern standards?

Kramnik – They did, there was real quality about their games. Of course, they made mistakes since the matches were very long but the average level of their games was very high. Sometimes they blundered but I would not say this had a strong impact on the general assessment of the play. At the same time the average strength of each move was very high.

Interviewer – Diamond cut diamond – they were worthy opponents, weren’t they?

Kramnik – Yes, they were. Although they differed in their approach to chess, on the whole there it was an even contest. I feel a bit sorry that Smyslov did not hold the title for a longer period because, in my view, he really is an outstanding chessplayer. He played in the Challengers Final when he was 63! This indicates the highest class. Chess players who adopt an intensive approach normally can’t maintain their position at the highest level at that age. Smyslov could, and it was not because of his energy, drive or character – he had a deep understanding of chess. Botvinnik was a great player but in his late 50s he started to play worse, although he did hang on in for a long time. However the Smyslov phenomenon is second to none. He might not have held the title for a long time because he did not have a burning desire to do so. I think it was not that important to him. Under certain circumstances Smyslov could have held on to the title for about 15 years.

Interviewer – Did Smyslov play chess like his predecessors?

Kramnik – No, he played differently, he had his own brand of chess. He was a master of positional play and surpassed his predecessors in this area. He was also good at opening preparation and tactics but no more than that. Smyslov did not have incredible conceptual ideas but he was very accurate and carried out his ideas ‘millimetre by millimetre’. Probably, he was the first chess player to reach the highest level of accuracy. To a certain extent, Smyslov was the pioneer of this style, which was later brilliantly developed by Karpov, i.e. the gradual mounting of positional pressure based on the most accurate calculation of short lines.


Kramnik – I hardly knew Tal but I was lucky to play a couple of games against him. In 1990 he took part in a strong open tournament in Moscow. I felt sorry for him because he looked awful. We did not meet over the board in the main tournament, but the organizers arranged for a blitz and 15-minute tournament on the day off.

Interviewer – And how did you get on?

Kramnik – We made a draw in the blitz. As for the 15-minute game I managed to win. Tal sacrificed a piece, then another one without any compensation; he enjoyed the game, played for fun and took it easy, that’s why the result did not have any significance. When he made an effort, Tal could still maintain a high level of play. Incidentally, he put in a good performance at blitz, we shared 2nd-3rd place. I was 15 at the time and not that strong but I had a quick mind. The blitz tournament had a pretty impressive pool: there were 12 players, including 10 grandmasters, one international master and myself – a FIDE master.

At one point in my game against Tal, my heart sank. In a difficult and approximately equal position we had about half a minute each. I made a move and realized that my opponent had a hidden tactical blow at his disposal. The flags were hanging and it was just our hands that were making the moves! And Tal immediately found that blow after which my position was hopeless. I can’t say I was impressed – I was aware that it was Tal, but a Tal who was suffering from a serious illness… Any other player would not have found this tactical blow even in a classical game. However, with the flags about to fall, the game ended in a draw by perpetual check.

Tal was a star, a real chess genius. As far as I am concerned he was not ambitious at all, he played primarily for fun and enjoyed the game. This attitude is totally unprofessional. But he was an incredibly gifted player and even with such an amateur approach, Tal managed to become a World Champion.

When I was a child I did not study a lot of his games. As I have already mentioned there were few chess books in the provincial town where I lived. When I grew up, I went through Tal’s games. I can say that he was a strong positional player. However, many people consider him just as a tactician. In fact, though he had an excellent tactical mind, at the same time he was a versatile chess player just like any professional of his strength. In the late 1970s – early 1980s he rode his second wave of success, playing in a disciplined and positional way, and won a lot of brilliant positional games.

Interviewer – That is considered to have been a result of his cooperation with Karpov.

Kramnik – I don’t think so. Of course, his cooperation with Karpov was helpful because it diverted his attention from all those other pleasures which he liked to indulge in besides chess. Instead, he was working on chess. But I don’t think his cooperation with Karpov was that crucial. Tal was quite simply an outstanding versatile chess player. Of course, his attitude to chess had an effect. If only he had had Botvinnik’s character, he would have been impossible to deal with…

Interviewer – However, a person can’t have it all – it’s one quality or another.

Kramnik – Yes, that’s right. There is one more point I would like to discuss: every chess player has his weak spots. A strong point somehow gives rise to a weak one. It is impossible to combine Botvinnik’s strongest points with Tal’s ones because they are mutually exclusive (in the chess sense). Tal’s talent, his approach to play, relaxed attitude and huge creative energy gave him a substantial advantage but also had its drawbacks. I think that such an attitude will not allow a person to hold the title for, let’s say, 15 years. It’s like a spectacular flash, a rising and falling star – such people may be incapable of living any another way. This kind of star is so brilliant that it is incapable of retaining its energy for a long time and will burn out.

It is difficult to talk about Tal because he was an unusual person as well as being a very fascinating player. Like a natural phenomenon. I am absolutely sure he would have been a success in any other field of endeavour. He had a quick and brilliant mind. If he had been an academic, he would have won a Nobel prize. He was an unworldly man. By the way, many people who knew him quite well said that he bore no relation to homo sapiens. He was like a man from another planet! That’s why he played “unidentifiable” chess. Analyzing his chess games is tantamount to discussing what God looks like.


Interviewer – Was the next World Champion a more down-to-earth man?

Kramnik – Yes, he was a down-to-earth person. Careful study of Petrosian’s games is required to form a clear impression of him. He was, so to speak, a very “secretive” player. We can call Petrosian the first defender with a capital D. He was the first person to demonstrate that it is possible to defend virtually every position. Petrosian contributed a defensive element to chess – an element that is being developed more and more today. He showed that chess contains an enormous number of resources, including defensive ones.

Petrosian was a very intensive chess player who was hard to understand. I don’t think he has been presented to the public in the correct way. He is one of the few chess players of whom I have failed to form a clear opinion after going through his games collection. There is something mysterious about Petrosian. He was a brilliant tactician and an excellent strategic player, although his positional understanding was not as good as Smyslov’s. However, many people consider him to have been a master of positional play. He was definitely a player who could cope with every kind of situation, but I don’t think that positional play was his cup of tea. Defence and a magnificent tactical vision were his strongest points – that’s why he was so good at defence. Only a brilliant tactician can succeed in defence, and he had perfect sight of all the tactical opportunities and nuances for his opponent. I would even say that attack, rather than defence, is a positional skill. You can attack mostly on the basis of general ideas, whereas in defence you have to be specific. Calculations of lines and verification of specific positional features are more important for defence than for attack.

Of course, I should mention Petrosian’s subtle sense of danger. To a certain extent, this skill goes hand in hand with proficiency at defence. Petrosian could feel danger. I also think he could be very unpredictable.

Interviewer – It looks like he didn’t made fast progress and reached his height when he was over 30.

Kramnik – As far as I understand he was a ‘smooth’ guy: steady, calm, well-balanced with a strong nervous system, a very sound disposition. And he progressed in that way: he achieved his goal without failures and without rushing.


Interviewer – And how would you describe Boris Spassky?

Kramnik – I would agree with the “official version”: he was the first really versatile player. I like his extensive and comprehensive play very much. I think he is a broad minded fellow who does not pay much attention to sundry odds and ends. Spassky’s play reminds me of Keres. But Spassky has more fantasy and imagination than Keres who, in my view, had some problems with fantasy.

Spassky is also a correct player, in this ‘classical’ aspect he is like Smyslov. But whereas Smyslov is a sedate player, Spassky has an attacking style. He combines the qualities of different chess players. Like Alekhine he values time. He is a very good strategic player. He might not have polished up his tactical proficiency and sometimes he miscalculated a bit but I think that Spassky spent a great deal of energy on every game and chess was a reflection of his character. His games are pleasant to watch: he uses the whole board. He manages to deal with everything, grabs space, turns on the pressure here and there… I have carefully studied the Fischer-Spassky match and can say that Spassky’s play was almost as good as Fischer’s.

Interviewer – What were his weak points then?

Kramnik – He made incredible one-move blunders in virtually every other lost game. I don’t understand what happened to him. It must have been Fischer’s energy and extreme pressure that was able to carry everything before it, even Spassky. But if we leave out those blunders the match would have been an even contest. Though it was considered almost a total mismatch it was in fact one of the few matches for the title where the score did not reflect the real situation. In the second half of the match Spassky was turning up the pressure while Fischer was running away in every game. In that match Spassky might have suffered from his negligence of those sundry odds and ends: he failed to calculate something, blundered somewhere, erred in a winning position or decided it was good enough anyway and gave up further calculations… And his strong point turned into a weak spot. Probably his laziness let him down. For instance, I have heard that Spassky did not spent much time on chess. He did not have too much professionalism.

Spassky was neither sufficiently disciplined nor ambitious. As far as he was concerned, I think there was not much difference between the World Championship and the Leningrad Championship. He took a similar approach to preparation. And he didn’t have much luck either because he found himself in the same era as Fischer, a man few World Champions could deal with!

Interviewer – What was your impression of Spassky when you met?

Kramnik – We talked a lot and even played for the same club. Once I stayed with him. He is a very decent, candid, wise and ingenuous man. I appreciate these traits very much. And his highest level of chess is obvious. When we meet we sometimes analyse different positions a little: he is very quick at understanding and always makes sensible proposals. Strange as it may seem I can’t say the same about Botvinnik. Such was my impression when I attended his school. Of course, Botvinnik’s suggestions were always very interesting but sometimes he offered something ‘dubious’. That certainly did not happen very often but it did happen. Spassky is something else, he is always to the point. Sometimes he does not calculate fully but he will grasp the correct direction of play in 15 seconds! Here is another remarkable episode. Three years ago we played in a tournament celebrating Korchnoi’s jubilee where Spassky, who was already over 60, defeated Short in a perfect game. Moreover, they had reached the kind of position that was Short’s forte and yet he was completely out of it!

Spassky might not have reached his full potential for a number of reasons. But, anyway, the games he played in his best years are of great importance.

Interviewer – So, Spassky was unlucky to be born in Fischer’s era!

Kramnik – Other players have suffered greater misfortune: they would have become World Champions if it were not for some genius who lived in their lifetime.


Kramnik – What can I say about Fischer? I feel this man had to be the World Champion and nothing would stop him. It was a foregone conclusion. His career took a rather roundabout course but everything was already mapped out! I think that five years before he became World Champion, everyone was aware that the inevitable would happen. He was a real driving force! And Spassky got run over by that ‘machine’. I think that any other player would have lost to Fischer too. They were not much weaker, it was the will of fate – Fischer would have broken through any cordon.

Interviewer – Did Fischer dominate because of his energy and understanding?

Kramnik – At a certain moment he had everything: energy, drive, preparation, strong play, etc. as if all the rays were gathered together at one point! He had no weak spots at all – how can you handle such a person?! This happens to every outstanding player when everything clicks. As I see it, Fischer reached his height during the Candidates cycle and his match against Spassky.

Interviewer – Kasparov is said to have stated that Fischer was a pioneer of modern chess.

Kramnik – I don’t think so. Spassky also played up-to-date chess. Fischer discovered modern preparation in the opening. Unlike Botvinnik who realised the importance of preparation, Fischer gave it a modern slant: he set tasks for his opponent at every move with either colour and in every opening. Fischer kept his opponent busy from the very beginning, he started setting problems from the very first move! Later Kasparov improved this ‘high-tension’ style; and followed Fischer to some extent. Fischer was the first chess player to mount tension from the first till the last move without giving his opponent even the slightest break. He had a similar precept for both positional and tactical games: he tried to set as many tasks for his opponent as he could. He played very ‘vigorous’ chess.

Interviewer – And what happened to him? Did he burn himself out?

Kramnik – I don’t know. It is a pity Fischer gave up playing chess, his match against Karpov would have been very interesting. There is a point I would like to make. With the development of chess and higher level of play, chess players lose their individual handwriting and there are fewer players with a clear style. We are moving to a versatile style. I can’t say that Fischer had clear handwriting – he was a versatile player. In fact I would rather call it a cumulative style. In his better days he combined Smyslov’s accuracy with Spassky’s universalism and Alekhine’s energy… His rationalism was his only weak spot, he was not that good at irrational and unsound positions. Here Spassky prevailed. Fischer had a clear blueprint for his play. Spassky’s victory over him in the 11th game of the match was remarkable. He virtually tore Fischer apart in the Poisoned Pawn variation. It was not a matter of opening preparation, this kind of chess was simply difficult for Fischer. Of course, these are nuances, an attempt to find a weak link and demonstrate what kind of person he was. But Fischer admitted this weak spot himself and was trying to avoid those positions.

Crystal clear ideas were his strength. Fischer was perfect at the Ruy Lopez. It is difficult to create chaos on the board in this opening.


Interviewer – We can have a long argument about the possible outcome of the Fischer-Karpov match. What do you think, did Karpov have a chance?

Kramnik – He did. I think that Fischer had the better chances but Karpov had his trump card too. I am referring to Karpov’s preparation because Fischer was a ‘lone sailor’. He did not have any serious assistants and played risky openings. Karpov had his chances by setting opening problems for Fischer. I would like to mention that Geller had a positive score against Fischer. Geller was proficient at openings and adopted an intensive approach to theory, which was not easy for Fischer. As for level of play Fischer would have been superior to Karpov. However, if Karpov could have gained a real edge in the opening, the match would have seen an even contest.

Interviewer – Has Karpov followed the versatile pattern?

Kramnik – Of course he has. Additionally, there is something mysterious about his play, no one else could cope with things like he did. It is easier for me to talk about Karpov because his collection of games was my first chess book. I studied his work when I was a child, later I played quite a few games against him. He is a versatile chess player, a good tactician who brilliantly calculates lines and positionally very strong. He also has a distinctive feature. Funnily enough, he has effectively denied Steinitz’s pronouncement: if you have an advantage you must attack, otherwise, you will lose it. When having an edge, Karpov often marked time and still gained the advantage! I don’t know anyone else who could do that, it’s incredible. I was always impressed and delighted by this skill. When it looked like it was high time to start a decisive attack, Karpov played a3, h3, and his opponent’s position collapsed.

Karpov defeated me in Linares-94 where he scored 11 out of 13. I got into an inferior endgame. However, it did not seem awful. Then I made some appropriate moves and could not understand how I had managed to get into a losing position. Although I was already in the world top ten, I failed to understand it even after the game. This was one of the few games after which I felt like a complete idiot with a total lack of chess understanding! Such things happen very rarely to top level players. Usually you realise why you have lost. This moment defies description – there is something almost imperceptible about it and so characteristic of Karpov.

As regards other things, Karpov is a very strong universal player who is not so very different from the rest. But the above ‘know-how’ distinguishes him from the other highly rated chess players.

Interviewer – Does he have strong playing skills?

Kramnik – Yes, he is definitely a great player. His fighting skills are second to none. When I started playing in super tournaments, I was impressed with his ability to adapt to changed circumstances in a split second. For instance, you watch Karpov playing a game, he is under pressure and has been defending for six hours by strengthening his position. Owing to his brilliant calculations he defends tenaciously and is very difficult to break through. He appears to be making a draw. His opponent takes it a bit easy and Karpov equals the position. Any other player would agree to a draw here and would be happy that the torture was over. While Karpov starts to play for a win! It was easy for him to forget what had happened on the board up to the present, he did not think about the recent past. Karpov did not suffer from mood swings, he made an impression of a person who had just started playing. If he sees a slight chance, he tries to take an advantage of it.

Let’s remember Karpov’s victory over Korchnoi in their last game of the match in Bagio. Korchnoi started to ouplay Karpov at the end of the match. I don’t know why that happened, Karpov must have got tired. When Korchnoi seized an advantage, Karpov demonstrated a brilliant play! As if nothing had happened and the score 5:2 had not turned into 5:5, and there were no hard play after adjournment where he lost in a bit worse rook ending, Karpov played as if it were the first game of the match! Despite wild pressure, when his future was dependant on the outcome of the match, he was playing as if he were training in his kitchen in a relaxed way. Of course, he was an incredible fighter!

Interviewer – To add some “human qualities”, what were Karpov’s weak points?

Kramnik – I think he did not pay attention to strategy. As I have already told, he easily forgot about the things that had happened on the board. Probably, he did not have a sufficiently deep strategic thread of the play. Karpov is a chess player of a great number of short, two to three move combinations: he transferred his knight, seized the space, weakened a pawn . In my view, he was not a strategic player by nature. And like Fischer he could get confused when he saw chaos on the board. However, all this weak spots are largely symbolic.

Sometimes he must have been too self-confident. He was so sure that he would find a way out, if necessary, that he took a good much liberty. Karpov must have understood that his position was getting worse but was likely to think: “I will outplay him anyway”. He had a feeling that he would always get away with it. When he met Kasparov he let down. In their first match he got away with dubious situations while with every following match it was more and more difficult for him to deal with them. Possibly, he lacked strict approach. It could explain his dominance before Kasparov’s appearance. At first he did not need strictness, later it was difficult to re-train.

Interviewer – But Karpov must have also improved in his matches vs Kasparov?

Kramnik – Of course, Karpov also made a progress like any outstanding chess player he enriched his play. But Kasparov was improving at fantastic speed. Kasparov in 1984 and in 1985 was like two different players, the latter could have given a pawn and take back to the former. Kasparov’s capability of study was always his strong point. Karpov must also possess this quality but Kasparov surpassed him.


Interviewer – Can we say that Kasparov is a phenomenon in chess?

Kramnik – Yes, sure. It is always difficult to talk about Kasparov. First of all, we are in the same era, I have played a lot of games against him. Secondly, he is a chess player who does not seem to have weak spots. At least, I don’t know which weak point he had in his better days. Many books can be written about him.

He is an incredible workaholic; he works even harder than Fischer. Kasparov is a combination of lucky circumstances: a good coach in his childhood, convenient conditions for studies, an incredibly strong will.

As for his strong will, Kasparov could be compared to Botvinnik but he surpasses his teacher because he is much more flexible. As I have already said, Botvinnik’s rigidity was his strong point. At the same time it had its drawbacks. Though rigid, Kasparov is open to any changes. He is able to change his outlook on chess in six months. Kasparov absorbs things like a sponge; he soaks up all changes, everything he sees he processes quickly and makes it part of his arsenal. I think this is the main quality that makes Kasparov different from the other chess players.

Objectively, Karpov taught him a lot. Before the match Kasparov could not have understood all of Karpov’s merits. You are able to fully appreciate them only when you start playing against him. Karpov taught Kasparov a lot in their match of 1984. As we see from his following encounters, Kasparov has improved those aspects of play which were traditionally Karpov’s strong points.

Kasparov definitely has a great talent. There is nothing in chess he has been unable to deal with. The other world champions had something ‘missing’. I can’t say the same about Kasparov: he can do everything. If he wishes to play some type of positions brilliantly, he will do it. Nothing is impossible for him in chess.

However, it is also impossible to be perfect at everything in the same period of time. Kasparov has had weak points at every step of his career because one cannot concentrate on everything. But he is able to cover his vulnerable spots in two to three months. After that another weak point comes to light but you don’t know which one. It is very important to take advantage of his ‘quickly disappearing’ weak spots because you won’t find them later.

It is clear that in 1984 Kasparov had some problems with defence, he was a bit too impulsive or proactive. But in 1985 he demonstrated a quite different style of play. Kasparov realises what is going wrong at a certain moment and is able to put right his weak points. His capacity for study is second to none!

Interviewer – In 1995 when you helped Kasparov to prepare for his match against Anand, who was teaching whom?

Kramnik – Both. I hope I also have some capacity for study. It might not be as good as Kasparov’s, but I do have it. In principle, we were just working. Kasparov wanted to win the match and I helped him without any second thoughts. I did not try to learn anything from him. I think both of us gained something from that cooperation."

Why did the chicken cross the road? To visit the village idiot. Knock knock. Who’s there? The chicken.

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Why did the chicken cross the road? To visit the village idiot. Knock knock. Who’s there? The chicken.

Source (don't copy without it):
Why did the chicken cross the road? To visit the village idiot. Knock knock. Who’s there? The chicken.

Source (don't copy without it):