Jan Timman, Tata GM group B: "I don't have illusions"

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We continue our series of three interviews, with players from the Tata Steel A, B and C groups, who all make some sort of comeback. In the second interview we have Dutch chess legend Jan Timman, one of the world's leading players for two decades. At the peak of his career he was considered to be the best non-Soviet player and was known as "The Best of the West". Timman has won the Dutch Championship nine times and has been a Candidate for the World Championship several times. He recently turned 60.

At the Tata Steel chess tournament, which starts next Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, Timman will be playing in the B group. You can find more info here.

In the latest issue of New in Chess Magazine, on one of the first spreads there is a big photo taken at the Immopar tournament in Paris, 1991. You're being interviewed, after winning the final, while your opponent Garry Kasparov looks disappointed. In a recent radio program you didn't mention this as one of your biggest successes. Was this because it was a rapid tournament?

Yes. Of course, without a doubt this was my biggest achievement but it wasn't, let's say, a long-running achievement. It's not the same as when you're playing a tournament that lasts for weeks and where you manage to stay in good shape. On top of that, it wasn't calculated for the rating list. But on the other hand, if you just take the result by itsef, it should be considered my best result. I beat the strongest players in the world convincingly in short matches and besides, I could have beaten both Karpov and Kasparov with 2-0. I would certainly have won that second game against Kasparov if I hadn't offered a draw. I had a winning position and I had more time on the clock. But at that moment I thought: you never know what can happen, and a draw is enough.

Related to this: how do you see the development of rapid chess and blitz becoming more and more important. Since January 1st, tournaments can be calculated for separate rapid and blitz ratings and it's a known fact that FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov has tried to cut down the rate of play considerably. Do you see this as a negative trend, or do you also see positive sides, perhaps for popularizing the game?

Let me start by saying that I think it's a good idea to introduce separate ratings, especially for rapid tournaments. Rapid tournaments have clearly become more important. When we were active with the GMA [Grandmaster's Association - CV], we didn't like it but in the mean time rapid has become more important, for example for tie-breaks. That's why in my opinion separate ratings are certainly justified. I'm not so sure if it's a good idea to set up a separate rating system for blitz tournaments. But the importance of these tournaments should not be overrated. For example, the tournament in Reggio Emilia has made clear that also at top level enough games are decided. It just depends on who is playing the tournament. In Reggio only thirty percent of the games ended in a draw, a very low number, if you compare this with the past. So this is not a reason to hold less classical chess tournaments. And that's what it's all about, to make chess more popular, I can imagine you'd want to make rapid tournaments more important, but even then you have to be careful. You cannot just say, look, we have this idea for a TV show, 25 minutes for each player, and then you can produce an hour of TV. That's a very old idea which we already discussed in the GMA, but first you need to know if a show can really be succesful like this. Or rather, you first need to know if rapid chess can really make chess significantly more popular. There are not enough signals that point in this direction. 

This needs more research, and testing?

Yes, it's really not clear whether rapid makes chess more popular. And the classical tournaments are still enjoying a lot of popularity. There's a huge number of people who can follow these tournaments online. For a TV camera it doesn't matter that much whether it's showing rapid games or classical games because in both cases it takes a lot of time. If you'd really like to turn chess into a successful TV product,  I think you should think of the way I did it with Jop Pannekoek. [In 1997 the two created the series 'Chess with Jan Timman' for Dutch television, which included interviews with Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Vishy Anand and Judit Polgar - CV.] That's the most interesting for most people. And the way the BBC did it, that you let people play games and afterwards ask them to explain what they were thinking. These are interesting ideas. I think chess can be on TV successfully, whether it's classical or rapid, as long as you have good ideas.


One shouldn't dismiss classical chess. I mean, it's also clear that the ending is being treated worse and worse as a result of the quicker time control. This is a pity, because it's a beautiful part of the game. But current top players are making elementary mistakes, for example the mistake Morozevich made against Vitiugov in the final round in Reggio.

You mean when he let the dark-squared bishops to be exchanged?

Yes, unbelievable. I cannot understand that he liquidated to an ending that's completely lost. This is because there's not enough time, and therefore not enough focus. But I have to say that there is still enough time for the middlegame and the opening and this guarantees a certain level, and I think this level should be preserved for chess.

There have been some discussions recently about whether former top players were better in the endgame than modern players. But in the old days the grandmasters had more time...

Yes, more time, and therefore more attention, and so they had a better understanding. Of course they had more time, this is all related. These days you hardly see a player with such interest in the endgame.

You recently finished a new book about this subject: The Art of the Endgame. How long have you been working on this?

The plan existed for many years, but I was never sure how to do it exactly. But at the end of 2010 it was more concrete, and I found the title. I checked if it didn't exist already, but to my surprise it had never been used before. So I've been working on this since a bit more than a year ago, and I wanted to finish it before I turned 60. Well, in fact before I was going to play in Antwerpen in September. So for about 7-8 months I have worked quite hard and conscientiously on it, and I think the result is quite good.

You have always been interested in the endgame, and in endgame studies. Why this fascination? In your recent biography, Yochanan Afek describes it as a way to "pursue perfection", a perfection that's not attainable in normal games. What do you think of this?

This is a reasonable and logical position, to want this. Wanting to achieve something that's normally not possible. You want to search for the scientific and artistic aspect of chess, and that's also related to perfection, yes. In a practical game, perfection can be important but it's not always the case. The most important thing is to score the full point. I find this interesting too.

Maybe in a game this can lead to a dilemma, every now and then.

Yes. I think I am a good fighter, but I'm also fascinated by perfection.

Maybe related is the quote from your biography that you have always 'played against the board more than against the person'. And, Hans Bouwmeester and Max Euwe both felt that you had a strong talent for analysing games, already at a young age. Does this mean that you've always been more like a researcher, a lover of the game, than a competitive sportsman?

I don't know, I think I also loved games, I also liked Monopoly for example. Some people are not competitive, but I think I am, and have always been. And I think that's also clear from my results. But yes, that love for research, wanting to know how things are, it's a kind of curiosity, this also plays a role, yes.

Jan Timman receiving the first copy of his recent biography from the author John Kuipers (photo René Olthof)

Did this ever work against you, did it ever had a negative effect on your results? I mean, I remember that you weren't satisfied about your first win against Karpov in 1978, because you could have won prettier.

No, it wasn't that bad. Sure, it was a pity that I didn't find this winning line, but still I was very happy with the game. But in that case I had a prettier move which was also a better one. OK, maybe a chess player sometimes plays a pretty move while there is a stronger one, but I don't think I have done that very often. I'm also a practical person, who keeps the result in mind. But I can add that, especially against Karpov, I often sort of panicked as soon as I had reached a winning position. This sometimes happened, when I reached a competely different phase of the game - not just against Karpov. It's often the case that a game has reached a more or less equal position, or one of the sides is slightly better, and you have to look for a move. Sometimes there is just one move, sometimes there are two or three possibilities, but you know that the evaluation is somewhere between equal and slighly better. And then, at some point, you realize that you're winning. It's a very different situation, and sometimes it's difficult to switch. Suddenly, in this position, you have numerous good options and all of them look attractive. In such a situation you can pick the wrong one, sometimes just because you're not used to the new situation yet. And if you're playing against someone like Karpov, this can lead to panic.

Maybe then you're suddenly playing more against the player, instead of against the board?

No, no. It's just that the position suddenly offers good opportunities, it's a kind of wealth, it's a luxury problem. But OK, it does play a role that when you play against someone like Karpov, that it's extra important to win such a game.

You have often stated that, in terms of strategy and understanding, your level wasn't much lower than Karpov's level. On the other hand, in several crucial situations he scored better. To what extent can you separate these things, I mean, aren't things like coolness or cold-bloodedness just part of chess, and don't they also make you a better chess player?

Well, I can say that for a long time I failed, which is a bit strange. I mean, in general I don't suffer from performance anxiety but it's strange that in decisive moments I made mistakes, and Karpov didn't. It took a long time before I mastered that, this aspect of cold-bloodedness.

When had you mastered this?

When I reached my thirties, I think. Still sometimes things went wrong, but it went better and better, until I was about forty. I mean, this Immpopar was a great success, but I was still playing quite well in general, because only half a year later I won this match against Jussupow.

In a recent interview in Schaakmagazine [the Dutch Federation's magazine - CV] you stated that you have learned a lot from Kasparov and Karpov. Can you elaborate on that?

Well, it's just that I saw how they were playing certain positions, how they were treating certain openings. In general, to me this was fascinating. I grew up with players like Botvinnik, Smyslov, Fischer, Spassky... They were also very good of course. But Kasparov and Karpov added new elements to, let's say, what I had learned before and this was fascinating to see. It was very instructive for me to closely follow their games. That's why I don't think it would have been self-evident, even though I was ranked third behind them, that without Karpov and Kasparov I would have become World Champion. I really benefitted from these two players.

Do you feel that you got the most out of your career?

I think so. OK, there are always moments when you think... For example against Nigel Short, it was painful that this match went wrong, really because of just one game. I was White, I got a very good position but I lost. The score was equal, I had prepared something very interesting and I was close to winning. I lost that game, while otherwise I could have played against Kasparov. Well, if I had won that game, and stayed cool afterwards. OK, that's one moment. And there were also moments where luck was on my side, for example against Portisch in Antwerp 1989. I can't complain, I was very successful in the World Championship cycle, I reached high positions in the world rankings... it's fine. I think I got all, or almost all there was to get out of my career.

Last Friday, on the Dutch radio, you said that when everything goes well, when you sleep well and feel well, and you play a good game, that this game isn't worse than the games you played in your best years.

No, certainly not worse. The games I win these days, for example against [Romain] Edouard last year in Antwerp, I certainly would have been proud of such a game also in my best years. So I'm still hopeful that I can play many more of those games.

You also said: 'If I had been 18 today, I would not have become a professional player.' Why not? What are the biggest differences, and can remember how you were looking at the chess world when you were 18 and you had to make that choice?

Certainly. The thing is, back then you didn't have this transfer of information, this influence of computers and databases. This meant that everything you needed to pick up, you needed to pick up from what happened around you, what happened at tournaments, what the strongest players were doing. You could rely on your talent. It was a fantastic time. You didn't need to learn a lot, you didn't need to prepare a lot; it was all natural. That's why I liked it so much. If I, like in today's world, needed to know an awful lot about a certain variation, that would be different. That's just hard work, and in those days I didn't fancy hard work. And if I was 18 again, I probably wouldn't fancy it either.

So although the computer has taken over a lot of work, one also needs to work more due to computers.

Yes, it's clear that these days top players have to work much harder. And I'm not against computers or something, I really enjoy their presence, and they're very useful for example when I'm working at endgame studies, so no complaints in that respect.

And what is true of the story that you don't use the computer, or very little, to prepare your openings?

That's a misconception. I prepare my openings carefully and with the computer - unlike what is written in the biography. I use it quite intensely, for endgame studies but also for preparation.


We already spoke about Reggio Emilia. Of course this was a great success for Anish Giri, the 'new Dutch hope'. What do you think of Anish? Do you recognize anything from yourself in him?

Well, he's much better than me at that age. Much better, no comparison. As far as Reggio is concerned, I must say that a number of players at some point just collapsed. Ivanchuk was a clear example. The game with Black against Giri was at a much lower level than his real strength, actually lower than any grandmaster. Therefore any strong grandmaster could have won this game with white but still, Giri did it in a very systematic and nice way, I should add. But that wasn't his best game; his best achievements were against Vitiugov and Nakamura. He played these games very well, going for the initiative, very precise. It was a bit like Fischer used to play, this 'superior play' which everyone likes to see. 

And what, in your opinion, can still be improved in Giri's play?

For this one needs to look at the start of the tournament. One has to look at his two losses, and one can conclude that in certain positions, positions which are hard to understand, which are not purely strategic and with clear tactical features, that he plays a bit worse there sometimes. But he can improve this. I was a bit surprised that at some point he went down against Morozevich, that he took a piece which was clearly poisoned, it wasn't even a matter of calculation... Kortchnoi had this sometimes as well, going for material gain too easily. 

You mentioned Ivanchuk. He's a good example of the type of player with fluctuating form, and in the biography you're quoted as saying that 'form', or 'shape', has always been a bit of a mystery to you. Do you still feel this way? 

Yes, I still think so. There's not much to say about this. It's just like these sleeping problems I have sometimes; every now and then I have problems sleeping well, because there's too much tension, or not, and I can only conclude that I don't understand this either. I only know that when I have sleeping problems, my mind is restless. But why my mind is restless, I don't know. These are mysterious things. It's the same with form; you can only note when it's there, or that it's suddenly gone, but why... Why is it that sometimes you can calculate certain variations very well and the next time you're struggling behind the board? Well, everyone has this, almost everyone, and I never met anyone who had a good explanation.

And then Nakamura; it seems that in the Schaakmagazine interview you said something similar as his remark about Kasparov during the London Chess Classic. You agreed with the American grandmaster when he said that Kasparov was superior in openings. What did you think of Nakamura when he said: 'You look at middlegames or endgames and I’m quite convinced there are other players who were better than he'?

Well, in the match against Kramnik in 2000, it turned out that Kramnik was better in certain types of position, yes. Before that it was always only Karpov who may have been better in certain types if positions. Nakamura seemed to imply that other top players were not worse than Kasparov after the opening, but I don't believe that. That's just not true. The only two players who could sometimes play better were Karpov and Kramnik.

What about you?

I believe that in certain positions, where it was all about manoeuvring, I might have been a bit better than Kasparov but the thing was: you almost never got these positions on the board. Against him, with his opening repertoire he made sure that he would always get a dynamic position in the middlegame and in that dynamic position he was superior, better than other players. Otherwise he wouldn't have achieved these successes. I mean, there have been more players in the past who were specialized in the opening, and who were very good in this phase, for example Portisch, Polugaevsky... but they weren't any better in the middlegame than other top grandmasters. Kasparov was. Sure, when you had survived the opening it was sort of a relief, but it didn't mean that all danger was gone.

Timman with his good friend Hans Böhm

You have played many matches, and you have described it as the 'purest form of a chess fight'. What do you think of the 'Basque system', with two games at the same time?

No, I don't like this. It's a bit confusing.

The advantage is that nobody starts with white, or black.

A double round robin, where you play an even number of games, is the most honest form of a tournament. I agree with Kramnik that in a tournament with seven rounds, the difference between three and four is quite big, this can make a difference of half a point. What they did in London this year is a better solution, but unfortunately the standings are always a bit unclear. A double round robin like in Reggio is very nice in this respect. And in Wijk aan Zee, with thirteen rounds, it's not such a big difference between six and seven.

Speaking of which... In Wijk aan Zee you'll be playing in the B group. Are you looking forward to it?

Absolutely. I haven't played such a tournament in years, thirteen rounds is quite long, these tournaments don't really exist anymore. The longest tournament I played in recent years was the European Championship in 2009, which was eleven rounds. So it will be interesting, yes. The playing field is not too tough, compared with the A group and also with last year's B group. They have chosen to create a slightly weaker B group. 

How do you think you will do? And with which result would you be satisfied?

Well, in the first place I'm playing the tournament because I find it interesting to see what I'm capable of. I think I can be satisfied if I reach a plus score, and obviously I'm hoping for more than that. In other words: I hope to win the tournament. But I have no idea how it will go. As I said, you need to know if you will sleep well, whether you will be well rested. Sometimes these games can take quite long, and Wijk aan Zee has a schedule where a game can last for many hours. This can be tiring for me. But in general I'm optimistic because normally I play quite well and my openings are good. It's clear that I need to work hard during the tournament.

What do you think of the 30 seconds increment that's used in Wijk aan Zee?

Yes, they also use this Fischer clock... I don't like this; it's a regrettable development. In this respect I fully agree with Silvio Danailov, but for different reasons. He thinks the increment should be abolished because the time trouble phase is very interesting. The best reason to abolish it, in my opinion, is that everyone should deal with his time in the best way; there is no good reason why you should get half a minute extra with each move, except that it's a bit easier for the arbiter.

Basically what you're saying is: if you get into timetrouble, that's your own fault.

Yes, to start, it's your own fault, so the players who always get into timetrouble are helped this way for no reason. Furthermore, if I look at the clock I'd like to be able to see how much time I have for the remaining moves. With this increment you always need to calculate, you know, x times half a minute... This is not convenient. It's not necessary, so it's a pity that they started doing this in Wijk aan Zee as well. I hope what one day, worldwide this increment will be abolished.

To what extent is it difficult for you to play in the B group instead of the main group, where you have played so many times?

41 years ago I participated in Wijk aan Zee for the first time, and this was also in the B group. OK, now it's a different kind of B group. Well, my rating is simply not high enough to be eligible for the A group, and I wouldn't aspire to that. I would first need more experience at top level again, and I should be playing well, and then perhaps I could play in the A group again. The past few years, however, I haven't received invitations to play interesting tournaments. The only closed tournament where I was invited to, was Antwerpen. This is already quite some time ago, and before that there wasn't anything for quite a while. It's clear that this was an interesting challenge for me! You know, I should be realistic. Nigel Short played a match for the World Championship and at some point he also played in the B group. That's it, you can't deny the truth. If I needed to fight against all these 2750-2800 top guns, I wouldn't be ready for that. I don't have illusions. But OK, if I won this group, I would think: hey, I'm playing well, so I can handle that too. It would be a natural development back to the top. But I don't know if this will happen; I hope so but I don't know if I'm too optimistic about it.

Does your participation mean that all the issues between you and the organizers in Wijk aan Zee have been resolved?

We're talking about seven years ago and I don't see any reason to rake that up again. Unfortunately it's discussed extensively in the biography while it was really just a futile, short-lived problem. Besides, in the book the facts are wrong. I will mention one thing that bothered me, something that's suggested more than once: that I would get angry if a tournament organizer wouldn't invite me. This is just not true. That's the only thing I want to say about it.

I'd like to emphasize that I have always had a good relation with the organizers in Wijk aan Zee. In the past I've done a number of things with no strings attached. For example at the Elista Olympiad in 1998, FIDE had planned an important qualification tournament in January, a bit on purpose. I went to a number of top players and collected their signatures, to avoid this. Eventually I offered this to Makropoulos and he said: OK, we will respect this, thank you, we will reschedule the tournament. It's an example, one of the things I've done. It was disappointing that there was a conflict and I don't think it's in anyone's interest to dive into it again. It's unfortunate that the issue was discussed so widely in the book; this wasn't necessary.

You're playing in the second league of the Dutch team championship; what do you think of your recent games?

I must say the ambition is still there, to, let's say, perform at a higher level than I'm currently performing. My games in the competition are against people I don't really know and who have, on average, about 2400. I should win all these games, whether I'm White or Black, and a lot of these opponents are happy with a draw, so that's not easy.

What will the coming years look like. Ivan Sokolov said that he didn't see you becoming a coach in the near future. Will you keep on playing chess for, say, another ten years?

I will play until I feel that I don't play well anymore. Of course I will sometimes play a bad game, this will happen for sure. If you're getting older, you'll have bad days more and more. But as long as I can play good games, I will certainly enjoy doing this. As far as coaching is concerned, you need a certain motivation and stimulation for this, to coach someone you think is really special. For example Garry Kasparov who was coaching Magnus Carlsen. This was special because for him it was much more interesting to coach Carlsen than Nakamura. Then there is some kind of interaction of two players who can learn from each other. In such a setup I would see possibilities.

Is there anyone in The Netherlands or outside with whom you could see yourself working with?

I don't know, we'll have to wait and see. One could imagine... OK, besides Giri, who is already very strong, I don't know if I could teach him something... but there are also players like Robin van Kampen, Benjamin Bok, they're quite strong already as well, above 2500, at a young age. Their attitude is ambitious and healthy so if they'd be a bit further ahead, it could be interesting, yes.

When you'll be playing in the B group, as always the playing hall will be packed with chess fans, who are either playing their own game or watching. And especially in Wijk aan Zee, there will be many fans who have been following you throughout your career. Does this inspire you?

The atmosphere in Wijk aan Zee is very good, yes. Many fans being present, well, it can be an inspiring factor but it's not constantly on my mind or something. What I like very much is that I will be able to follow players like Magnus Carlsen and Levon Aronian closely. Otherwise I have to follow the games online but it's much better to see them from a close distance, and I think this might be an even more inspiring factor than all those fans.

You're curious about how they sit behind the board, that kind of thing?

It gives more insight in how things go exactly. How they sit behind the board, how they walk around, it's more about atmosphere than about moves. If I was giving commentary for the spectators in Wijk aan Zee, I would not be able to follow it as well as when I was at home, behind the computer, and with a drink (if the clock allows one!) but behind the board next to them, it's even better.

But don't forget about your own position on the board...

I won't. [Laughs.]

Well, thanks a lot and good luck!

Thank you.

Jan Timman also shared with us that he recently finished another book, which will be published in Dutch in March 2012. It's called 'Portraits of chess players' (Portretten van schakers) and has ten essays, portraying Alekhine, Botvinnik, Larsen, Tal, Spassky, Fischer, Andersson, Kasparov, Judit Polgar and Magnus Carlsen. Doesn't that sound like a book that should be available in English at some point as well.

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