A lengthy interview with David Navara (part 1 of 2)

| 0 | Chess Event Coverage

David Navara finished 3rd at the Reykjavik Open two months ago in Iceland, during which he gave a long interview to Grandmaster Vasily Papin. The interview – where the Czech grandmaster talks, for instance, about his doubts about the life of a chess professional, Bobby Fischer and how he fell victim to Viktor Korchnoi’s legendary sharp tongue – gives a revealing insight into a grandmaster who stands out from the crowd.

Vasily Papin kindly allowed us to cross-post the interview here at ChessVibes. We give it in two parts and today we publish the first part. The interview was translated into English by Colin McGourty; the original in Russian can be found at the Rostov Chess website.

Hello dear chess players and fans!

Good evening, David! Is this your first time in Iceland?

No, my second, but in the time available I’ve managed to visit the main sites of Reykjavik and the country as a whole, including waterfalls, geysers and the former parliament. I’ve also been to Robert Fischer’s grave.

This time round you also did well at the Reykjavik Open 2012, finishing in third place. Our congratulations! In the chess world your tournament results and successes are well-known to chess fans. For the majority of those same fans, however, David Navara outside of chess is terra incognita. Sooner or later, though, everything will be revealed, and the unknown become known. Although that won’t happen in a single day I nevertheless hope that after reading this interview many will say: “So that’s what David Navara’s like. Respect!” 

The questions I’ve picked are routine, on the whole, like a form you fill in on travelling abroad. The answers, however, are individual, which is what makes them appealing. Therefore I’ll ask you routine questions, and you’ll respond to them with non-routine answers.

So then. David Navara. Who is he and what’s he like outside of chess?

I was born in Prague, in a normal Czech family. My father’s an academic. He teaches mathematics in a technical institute. My mother’s a doctor, a dentist. She treats children. I don’t have any sisters. I’ve got one brother who’s two years younger than I am and works as a programmer. Two years ago I graduated from university, but I never quit chess. Since I got into chess as a six-year-old it’s always been sport no. 1 for me.

And what are your sports №2, №3, №4…?

Almost none at all. (laughs)

Not even football, basketball or especially hockey, which people are crazy about in the Czech Republic?

No. None of that’s for me. I like to simply walk, particularly in the mountains. From time to time I go swimming, but rarely. Yes, it’s not always easy to get me going, but I always walk up the stairs to my floor. I’m not as lazy as I might seem. I did actually do some sport, although I achieved nothing due to a lack of talent. Even back when I was at school I regularly got the worst grade for physical education. True, over the course of a year and not for the final result.

At the 2008 Grand Prix in Sochi, Russia

And can you see yourself in the role of a fan sitting in the stands of a stadium or in front of a TV screen?

No. That interests me even less. My parents aren’t very interested in that either.

But do you still maintain your fitness? And if so, how?

I maintain it, but barely, as that involves physical loads, which I really don’t like. However, I enjoy walking and can walk for a long time without getting tired.

And what’s your attitude towards strong drinks and smoking?

I don’t smoke and I’ve never smoked. As for strong drinks, I didn’t drink alcohol at all until I was 23. Now I sometimes have a drink, but only as a matter of protocol, no more.

So it’s possible to conclude that you lead a healthy way of life?

As I do very little sport it’s impossible to say I lead a very healthy way of life. Perhaps I do very little in order to improve my health but, on the other hand, I do nothing to spoil it.

During a rapid match against Nigel Short in Prague in 2007

Daily routines are very important in life, including for sportsmen, both during events and in everyday life. What routine will you return to when you get back to Prague?

I usually wake up at 5am, but I get up at half five when I feel hunger approaching. After breakfast, having driven away hunger, I surf the internet and reply to e-mails. Then I get down to working on chess – not necessarily with engines, although lately I’ve been doing a lot of my preparation with them. I take a look at chess sites. The return of hunger sends me to the kitchen. As I’m usually alone at home I make my lunch from whatever’s available. That’s normal, simple food. For example, pasta and some kind of sandwiches.

Pasta really is divine, particularly Russian Navy style pasta. But do you have a favourite dish, even if it’s not something you have every day?

Probably. But no one thing in particular. Fish can compete with pasta. Particularly salmon and tuna, and in general all fish dishes. I also like fruit and vegetables, and therefore dishes containing those ingredients.

Having once more driven away hunger you go for a hike in the mountains?

No. I keep working. Sometimes I go into the city centre to shop, though more often I head for the library.

Last summer at the Greek Team Championship

Is visiting the library linked to looking for new books or a desire to exchange your domestic surroundings for a reading room? Now, when electronic libraries are available on mobile telephones, never mind computers, very few people feel the desire to visit libraries.

I’ve got only one reason for visiting library reading rooms: reading. Unfortunately I don’t read regularly, but I’m able to read up to two hundred pages or more, when I want. But more often than not I don’t want to. I always read when travelling, and a great deal in particular when I’m waiting in airports.

Do you prefer to read books in a modern, electronic format or those printed traditionally?

Printed books, as a rule. After hours of studying chess, which always takes place with a computer, your eyes get very tired. And if you’re also reading from a monitor screen then the load on your eyes will be excessive.

Which authors do you hold in high regard?

I like the Russian classics. I’ve read a couple of Dostoyevsky’s novels, for example. Some works of Leo Tolstoy. One of the things I read most recently, here in Reykjavik, was Goncharov’s Oblomov. I usually read in Czech, but from time to time in Russian. It’s not very difficult for me to read, though speaking is more difficult as I always try to choose the most precise words.

Are you visited by the Good Soldier Svejk?

Yes. Even in Russian. Ilya Beniaminovich Odessky, a fan of Schweik’s, gave me a copy of the book in Russian. I learned a few of Svejk’s soldier’s jokes, but somehow I never really want to use them myself, although on more than one occasion I’ve heard them from others. (laughs)

During the rapid match against Vassily Ivanchuk (left), organized by Pavel Matoch (right)

When the time comes you’ll use them. And which works by Czech writers would you recommend to our readers?

Above all I’d recommend books by the wonderful writer Karel Capek, who’s very popular in the Czech Republic. He wrote in all genres and on any topic. He had a very well-developed sense of language, which, however, created certain difficulties when it came to translating his books. Perhaps he didn’t write a single world-class novel, but on the eve of the Second World War he wrote a very good novel, War with the Newts.

Let’s move swiftly from literature to art, and of all the arts the most important for us is the cinema. Thus spoke the leader of the world proletariat [Vladimir Lenin - CV]. If you go to the library then you must also go to the cinema. Is that the case?

I very rarely go to the cinema. Perhaps I’m not a very cultured person, but if I’ve got a choice between the library or the cinema then the choice will always remain the library. I think it’s better to read than to watch.

And what about listening? In contrast to reading books and watching films you can also listen to music with your eyes closed. What music do you listen to?

Various. From Bach to Enya. Among classical music Mozart, Beethoven and Vivaldi. I’d like to correct what was written in an interview I gave, that classical music comes first for me. In a way that’s true, but in another way it’s not like that at all. I like pop music first and foremost. I consider classical music more harmonious and beautiful from some kind of higher point of view, but emotionally I still enjoy listening to pop music more. Particularly the Irish singer Enya and the group “ABBA”.  

While rock and heavy metal bother you?

No. They’re a strain. It’s too loud for me. During team events I’ve sometimes gone to the discos.

At the Olympiad that’s the Bermuda Party?

Exactly. I went there to meet people, as I like to talk, but when you can’t hear your own voice and you leave the disco deaf and blind it’s annoying. There’s no two ways about it.

Do you follow political life in Russia?

Not particularly. I read Czech magazines, and those also contain articles on Russian politics. That included a lot of stuff about the presidential candidates and about the winner, Vladimir Putin.

And do you take part in social and political life yourself, or do you limit yourself to the chess world?

I’m not a radical person, either in politics or in life. I can’t therefore imagine myself as a politician, as I’m too impractical a person for that. My participation in social and political life is limited to voting. I think you should take part in elections as that’s showing an interest in your country. And I think that’s quite enough for me.

Who had a hand in your development as a chess player?

A great number of people. For example, Grandmaster Pachman, International Master Josef Pribyl and Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. But also a lot of other people. I was lucky when it came to coaches. When I turned up at the Bohemians Chess Club in Prague there were very good children’s coaches running the chess club. There were seven of us beginners, and subsequently one became an international master, one has a rating of 2400 and I became a grandmaster.

Which coaches do you work with now, if it’s not a secret?

With Grandmaster Vlastimil Jansa. We don’t meet that often, but it’s not so rarely either. From time to time I invite him to important tournaments.

At the Dresden Olympiad in 2008

Which chess players are you friends with?

In general I’m friendly with a lot of Czech players, but I’m a somewhat shy person. I speak with a lot of people on friendly terms, but in actual fact I know very little about them. I’ve got friends outside of the Czech Republic. Those are Jan Markos and Mateusz Bartel from the Novoborsky Chess Club. The language there is very similar to Czech. Of course I speak English, but I’m not very well acquainted with people from further afield.

Can you say what chess is for you? Do you regret the path you chose of becoming a professional chess player?

At times I regret it, of course, but sometimes I’m very glad I’ve chosen this path. For me chess is creativity, as it allows you to compete with other people in an intellectual contest and show that you’re also capable of playing well, although that’s far from always true.

You said that sometimes you regret the path you chose. Why?

It simply seems to me that it isn’t a real profession. I’m not doing anything for humanity, and so on. But to be honest, I don’t know if I’d be able to find a useful profession in which I could accomplish something. I’ve got certain abilities, but my chess talent is much more pronounced that all the rest.

What do you think dominates modern chess – talent and creativity, or a good memory and the mechanical reproduction of computer knowledge obtained by a daily working routine?

I think both should be present but, in my view, the scales are now gradually tipping towards work. There’s more and more opening theory and you need to learn it, however reluctant you are. However, even that still requires talent, of course, as talented people remember variations more quickly and grasp unfamiliar positions more swiftly, more often than not. But I think that’s already a slightly different type of talent – simply a good memory – and I’m not particularly happy about that. Chess should be about creating something, and not painstakingly recalling it.

I want to play creatively, but I want to win even more, particularly in team events. And that means I’m prepared to play out 25 moves of theory mechanically in order to achieve the necessary result.

In your view, is classical chess exhaustible?

From the mathematical point of view it’s definitely exhaustible, but in the near future it’s inexhaustible. I can’t say anything else, as if I lose a few games in an upcoming tournament everyone will start laughing at me.

Do you enjoy learning 25-move variations, or is it a routine, a source of financial well-being?

It’s more a routine, but frankly it’s necessary. I’d prefer to play Fischer Chess, but in the absence of serious sponsors I don’t have a choice.

In 2011, finishing shared first in the B group of the Tata Steel tournament

In your view are Fischer Chess, rapid chess and blitz gradually going to replace classical chess, or do they exist in parallel worlds?

I think they should exist in parallel. I really love Fischer Chess as there’s no theory and it’s pure creativity, but it’s simply unrealistic for a professional player to play only Fischer Chess. I really like the game as you don’t need to prepare and you don’t need to study the opening, and if you do study something then it’s the endgame.

You enjoy playing Fischer Chess. What about rapid and blitz?

I also enjoy them. Perhaps I’m weaker at rapid chess, but not blitz. I was a very strong blitz player when I was a child, but now I’ve gradually started to think more slowly.


Yes. I no longer grasp things as quickly as before.

Greatness and genius. In your view are those concepts equivalent?

Not always, I think. It depends which point of view you take. It wasn’t always the greatest people who did the most for humanity. It depends on how you understand the word “great”.

From your point of view who was Robert Fischer?

A true genius. As a chess player he was wonderful. He did a great deal for the development of chess. In his childhood he had certain difficulties which left their imprint on him, but he always remained an honourable man, both at the chessboard and in life.

He was playing Unzicker once and inadvertently touched the h-pawn. He didn’t try to make excuses but took the pawn and started to twirl it around, considering what the forced move might lead to. Having thought about it Fischer put the pawn back in its place and moved it forward.

I wouldn’t have wanted to compete against him, however, as he didn’t only exert pressure by chess means.

You called Fischer a genius. And could he be called great?

“Great” – that depends on how you understand the word.

I wouldn’t call him “great” (Navara uses the English word here – CV), as that includes a positive meaning. Fischer did a lot for chess and chess players should be grateful to him for that, but on the other hand a lot of the things he said were far from unequivocal, including the last things he said.

Soon we'll publish the second and final part of this interview.

More from ChessVibes
A lengthy interview with David Navara (part 2 of 2)

A lengthy interview with David Navara (part 2 of 2)

Robots in a Moscow park... playing chess (VIDEO)

Robots in a Moscow park... playing chess (VIDEO)