In Focus: 'Mr. Rapid,' Oleg Skvortsov

In Focus: 'Mr. Rapid,' Oleg Skvortsov

| 51 | Chess Event Coverage

The recently-concluded 2016 Zurich Chess Challenge was notable for it's experimental time control of 40+10. The idea was largely birthed by tournament's sponsor, Oleg Skvortsov and Zurich Chess Club President Christen Issler. GM Hikaru Nakamura won the event. sat down with Skvortsov for a lengthy discussion where he discussed players' reactions to the format, his efforts to get a faster classical time control accepted by FIDE, and why GM Magnus Carlsen wasn't invited. The interview took place after the rapid games had concluded and just before the blitz tournament commenced.

MK: So Oleg we are done with this experimental time control -- the five rounds. What are your impressions about how things went now that it’s over?

Skvortsov: So first of all, we need to collect the opinions of the players again after the tournament. It will take a few days, I think, because we [are] in contact with all of them directly. I know most of them directly without managers or without any intermediate persons. Because as I told you, I actually, for a few years, played more than two hundred games with top grandmasters. Most of them I know personally.

So we will collect this opinion, but I have first impressions from a few top players like Anand and Kramnik. Kramnik I spoke [with] today before the round.

MK: And what did he say?

Skvortsov: He said, [the] first day was quite unusual, but [the] second day, I was in the perfect shape. So, he won a beautiful game against Giri. And he said that [the] second day I was quite in good tempo for this control. It was for him, more convenient.

He believes the future of chess is going to one hour something time control. Maybe not this year, maybe not in two years, but in a few years. Inevitably.

So his opinion is positive. The opinion of Anand is also what I feel now is more positive than negative. Nakamura was very happy to receive [an] invitation. He’s a creative player, and what we heard from him a few months before: “It’s an interesting experiment; I want to play.” I think he’s not going to change his mind afterwards because he is in the leading group, even before the blitz.

Aronian [was] in bad shape. I am shocked by his performance here. I think that he thought it will be, maybe easy going, but it was not easy. It’s a bloodshed here. He lost many games.

Giri is also in bad shape. And Shirov is fighting with his past we can say. He’s trying to come back.

Oleg Skvortsov and his wife Natalia.

From my point of view, [the] experiment was not bad. We cannot say that it’s bad, because we saw dramatic games, and from many spectators with whom I spoke for three days, most of them, they are middle- or low-level chess fans. For them, it’s important to understand the game, to have time to look at the moves, to understand the moves, because blitz it’s too fast or rapid it’s too fast. Yes, twenty minutes or fifteen minutes. But forty minutes or one hour, because I explained to you why technically we cannot make one hour, because in this case it will be not rapid, and it will be not classical chess. Now it’s calculated like rapid, but we want to pay attention to the problem in chess, to make classical control shorter. That’s our signal for the chess community.

So, most of [the] spectators appreciate this. We can ask Dr. Issler (Zurich Chess Club President and Zurich Chess Challenge organizer) because we received a lot of thanks from average people who came to the hall. They said we cannot sit for six, seven hours. There is no progress in the games. We discussed this one year ago, two years ago during the tournament.

Skvortsov (center) analyzing with GM Vladimir Kramnik (left) and GM Anatoly Karpov (right).

MK: So would you agree that losing a little bit of the purity, which seems to be the major objection against it, is worth it from a sporting sense?

Skvortsov: Absolutely! Absolutely! Purists exist in any field of human activities, in science, in chess, in other kinds of activities, but purism or what we are calling absolutely truth does not exist because the moment we have good computers - deeper and deeper - killing the chess, like Stockfish, Rybka, Komodo, what else? What’s the name Deep Fritz? It’s going to be stronger and stronger. They don’t have positional understanding, but they have a processing energy. They are killing chess, and a pure chess game, it’s a draw. Like, White’s slightly better, but Black is defending successfully. Draw!

How to consider the performance of some… I don’t know…for instance, in Saint Louis, the games by Caruana, yes, seven wins or six wins.

MK: Yes, seven in a row, right (at the 2014 Sinquefield Cup).

Skvortsov: Most of the games are under computer analysis, and the influence of the computer is so high that it’s killing the purity of chess. The purity of chess is not the computer line when your opponent is sitting at home. For instance, Anand’s victory over Aronian -- twenty, thirty years ago, it was a perfect example of classical chess. One mistake and you are punished in three moves by mate.

But the games of Morphy or Tal or Alekhine, if you are analyzing by computer, it’s showing, of course, all the blunders. And when you will check the games you will see how in it’s the red color, right?

MK: The red color. Yes.

Skvortsov: You will see a lot of red color or, you know, pink color moves, but anyway it’s a masterpiece. You will not say that it’s not. So purism is killing the chess from my point of view.

MK: I believe I interviewed Carlsen in beating Caruana in round one of the Sinquefield Cup this year. There was no time addition in the first time control. There was a bit of a scramble with lots of imperfect moves and Carlsen came out, and he smiled and he said today was more sport than science. It sounds like what you’re trying to do is add some sport to the game even if it means taking away a little bit of the science.

Skvortsov: We want, a little bit, to decrease the computer influence to the game. Because chess without this… I think it’s dying.

MK: And so what will you do besides this one tournament? I think you have some involvement in the Nutcracker Tournament. Is that true?

Skvortsov: Yes, that’s true.

MK: So are there more events, or how can you really push this time control?

Skvortsov: We will see for the direction of FIDE for our proposal. The moment they will accept, I hope, minimum time control for classical chess, we will make our tournaments with new time control. It will be one hour plus 30 seconds or plus 40 seconds. So the players will have more time than now (in Zurich), and they will have more time to think, but anyway computer analysis will have less impact for chess than now. Because now, what is this, they can make 25 moves by theory, or 30 moves. It’s interesting for you? or not?

From my point of view, in this tournament [there] was more human being chess and purists they don’t like this. OK, but purists in chess, how much? A few thousand? A few dozen thousand?

MK: Would you say the purists are the vocal ones that are commenting online?

Skvortsov: Purists, I mean, some people they have ranks of master or less or they are involved in chess, it’s some chess circle. Some journalists, some former grandmasters. Usually they are criticizing, sitting at home, and doing nothing. They not putting in even a dollar to support your site or any event, but they are ready to criticize.

Skvortsov (left) chatting with deposed former FIFA President Sepp Blatter. The two did not know each other, but Blatter was staying in the same hotel and came to watch the tournament.

MK: Perhaps, you don’t want to say names, but are there players that you invited that when they saw the time control they said, “Oleg, I don’t think that’s for me.”

Skvortsov: No, this time we have a big choice of players. Why Gelfand playing only two days, one day? Because today he had an important event where the President of Russian Chess Federation Andrey Filatov presented a big painting for Holocaust Museum in Israel. That’s why he cannot play more. For instance, in other circumstances, he will be in the main tournament. And the hall is not so big that we are doubting to have eight players, but for us it’s not a problem to invite eight players or even 10. We have a list of candidates, at least seven, 10 players more than we can accept. It’s not a joke. It’s the truth.

The post mortem of Gelfand-Skvortsov (1-0), which opened the event in Zurich. Looking on (left to right) are GM Viswanathan Anand, Mark Glukhovsky, and GM Anatoly Karpov. (Photo: David Llada for Zurich Chess Challenge.)

MK: I’ve seen some of your comments about the Grand Chess Tour. Do you ever think a tour just based on this time control could exist, or are tours just not really something that you are willing to entertain?

Skvortsov: You mean on the new time controls?

MK: Right, could you see a tour around the world just with this time control.

Skvortsov: In the future, if FIDE accepts this time control, one hour something, it means two games in a day. A little bit more time than now, and I think it will be interesting. It will be spread in some way.

MK: What kind of time frame do you think FIDE could act on that?

Skvortsov: I think we’re still one hour plus 30 seconds increment so that they can write on the score sheet.

MK: I mean what kind of time frame until FIDE accepts that proposal, do you think?

Skvortsov: In March, they have some council what I have from my information. They will consider this proposal in March. (Some recent movement from FIDE must have occurred since in December Skvortsov gave this interview where he said FIDE "had no response." -- MK) So I don’t know what will be the result, but I hope that they will understand that they need to give more space for chess because I will remind you that Ilyumzhinov’s new time control, 15 years ago, right, or 20 years ago…

MK: 90 plus 30?

Skvortsov: Yea, was also some kind of revolution, and I remember people criticizing him very heavily for this if I’m not mistaken.

MK: I believe you’re right. How much does getting this tournament on mainstream television matter to you?

Skvortsov: I will tell you first time in Russian history television, by the way, I forgot to tell you, we have MACH TV, it’s a new sports channel in Russia with a huge audience. They are giving news every day about this tournament.

MK: Do you think it’s helpful to sell the rights to a broadcast, this is the big idea of Ilya Merenzon (owner of Agon, who has the rights to the world championship).

Skvortsov: From my point of view, in the future, it will help. Because the first time in history, we signed the contract with Norway TV for Zurich 2014. It was first time in history, because I will tell you why, because before it was rights for the world championship matches, but not for the private tournament, and when people commenting that it’s not true, they do not understand the difference between selling TV rights for world championship. But the first tournament who signed the contract with the biggest Norway television was Zurich 2014 with TV 2.

MK: I’ve read a lot about Magnus not coming last year. Was he invited this year?

Skvortsov: No, no we [did] not invite him. Because just, we invite once, and we have a long story with postponing the answer. First of all he said, “Yes, I will come,” then, “Maybe I will come, maybe not.” I do not like this game. When it’s a few months, when you said 99 percent I’m coming, then 90 percent I’m coming, then 60 percent I’m coming, 50 percent, so finally we finish in August 2015 about this issue.

Maybe in the future, we will invite, maybe not, I don’t know. Never say never, but for that moment, we have a lot of players that want to come.

MK: And you believe this time control can still exist with classical time controls? There’s room for both in the modern chess world?

Skvortsov: Yes, yes, but I think that six, seven hours time control will die soon. Because, I know many sponsors, I don’t want to mention the name. One of the big sponsors... I’m sure that for instance… I don’t want to say something wrong, but OK, what we can see -- Wijk Aan Zee is three or four weeks? How much?

MK: Basically, three weeks.

Skvortsov: How much we can follow this? I’m losing my interest in a few days. World Cup -- It’s how much? It’s one month? You can follow one month something?

Skvortsov, approximately 2300, in the middle of his game with Gelfand. (Photo: David Llada for Zurich Chess Challenge.)

MK: You were telling me earlier that this is not just for the spectators, but you were telling me that some top players don’t like that time control so you were saying that this is a revolution from the players perspective and the specators?

Skvortsov: Some players, some players they don’t like six, seven hours time control, but they don’t want to publish it because they are afraid of criticizing, but we are not afraid.

MK: And these players, I know you’re not going to say their names, but they are 2700+? The ones you’re talking about?

Skvortsov: I can say from top 100 I know at least 10, 15 players. It’s quite a [significant] amount. They like the idea to make short time controls. Some of them, they prefer longer, but they said, we bring more humanity to chess, giving less time control. And again, in the past, in the 19th century, there is no clocks, so people sitting in some restaurant and push each other to make a move. You can remember the times of Morphy or Anderssen or Staunton. There is no clocks.

MK: Some games would last 10 hours, 15 hours.

Skvortsov: More than 10 hours. They can play for a week. Cricket is the best example. You know, cricket went from five days [per] game to one day [per] game, and we need to save chess. It’s nothing else. This is the intention. You agree?

MK: Let me just close by asking your first impression. Do you think you will have this exact same time control next year? I know that you have to revisit with your players and everything.

Skvortsov: We will wait for FIDE reaction because if FIDE accepts new time control with a little bit more time than now, we will definitely make the event classical chess with a minimum border of time. Not two hours, plus one hour, plus 15 minutes.

MK: I did want to ask you, the Grand Chess Tour just added some rapid events in Paris and Brussels.

Skvortsov: It’s showing by the way, they are following us.

MK: How come they’re not coming to Zurich though?

Skvortsov: Because they have two, three classical events. Now one disappeared. By the way, typical Norway style to give the word we are participating and two months later, took [their] word back. Right?

MK: I can tell you are displeased with the Norwegians.

Skvortsov: So you can write this... It’s typical to gave the word and [take it] back. I'm not right? It was correct or not?

MK: It’s not my place to say when I’m trying to get your opinion, but I understand what your viewpoint is.

Skvortsov: Because they cheated Mr. Sinquefield (sponsor of the Sinquefield Cup). They promise we will be next Grand Chess Tour, but not now, not now.

MK: Have you and Rex ever talked?

Skvortsov: Never, but I don’t think it’s any problem to talk. He’s making a big effort for chess. He is nice gentleman, and nothing wrong about him. But about time control, it’s the most important thing now.

Rex Sinquefield (eft) and his son Randy have some fun after the 2015 Sinquefield Cup.

MK: But there was no thought of you bringing a Grand Chess Tour event to Zurich this year? That was never something that you entertained?

Skvortsov: They never came to us.

MK: Ah, I see. Well there’s your answer.

Skvortsov: Yea, yea, yea. They doing their own, but you see they lost classical, and they make rapid and blitz.

MK: That’s why I’m surprised. You’re a lover of rapid; they needed an event, and yet they had a rapid event, but not here in Switzerland. I thought maybe it was a natural connection.

Skvortsov: I don’t know…

MK: Nobody picked up the phone?

Skvortsov: Because we made the strongest chess tournament 2014, and then Sinquefield, on purpose, made 0.75 points more.

MK: Yes.

Skvortsov: It was funny, and then they proclaimed, our tournament is the strongest. Witness the history.

The 2014 Zurich Chess Challenge was briefly the highest-rated tournament in history, until it was narrowly passed later that same year by the 2014 Sinquefield Cup.

MK: Would you like to get that claim back?

Skvortsov: It’s not possible. The ratings dropped for all the players. Not even Sinquefield can get at this, because all of them lost their Elo points.

MK: But should that ever become mathematically possible, would you attempt to once again break the record? Would that be important to you?

Skvortsov: I think it’s not important, because we, together with Zurich Chess Club, we made the 23rd category first time in history, and who did second doesn’t matter. Our tournament was the first one. And if somebody crossing by 0.75 points, not even one point of Elo. It’s funny, it’s not running like Carl Lewis, or I don’t know, Ben Johnson. You remember these names?

MK: Well, yes, those were my very first Olympics (that I watched on television), and of course, as an American, we were a little happy when Ben Johnson got caught (using steroids), but that’s a different story.

Skvortsov: Right, so I think that this time control has future. We will see the reaction of FIDE.

MK: Thank you. Any final thoughts?

Skvortsov: We need fighting chess. This is important, and we need more human moves, because some new generation chess players, they too much computer analyzed, and it’s killing chess.

MK: Well, I think as we await the blitz, we are going to see a lot of human moves in about one hour.

Skvortsov: So it’s not bad. Spectators are happy because when chess players will play only for chess players finally they will come to watch. They will need to pay by themselves to play against each other. So they will be not only chess players, they need to sponsor the events. You got my point?

MK: I understand completely.

Skvortsov: So maybe I said it sharply, but it’s my conclusion. They need to give money to each other to play, because we will not give money for [playing like a] boring computer.

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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