Kramnik: “I don't consider myself a genius”

Kramnik: “I don't consider myself a genius”

| 34 | Chess Event Coverage

An interesting video interview with Vladimir Kramnik has appeared online, conducted by the independent Brazilian film maker Clara Cavour. She spoke with the 14th World Champion in a conference room of a Paris hotel, shortly after the Candidates’ Tournament. “Speaking as fast as he calculates moves, the Russian gave me a good afternoon chatting about art, beauty, life and chess,” writes Cavour on her personal website.

Below is the video interview followed by a transcript.

Do you consider yourself an artist?

Yes, I do. It might sound strange for people because chess is... people say it's a game, it's mathematics. But in fact it's too complicated a game to calculate it out. So finally, strangely enough maybe for people far from chess, in chess there are also styles. For example I can tell you that every top player has his own style, like a painter for instance. 

You see a painting and say, OK, this is Modigliani, because you cannot confuse him with anyone else, or Raphael. But the same with chess players, which means it is also an art. All top player are playing slightly different and have their own clear way of seeing chess, and then you can see it when you play their games.

I am from an artistic family: my father he is a painter, my mother she is a musician. For me chess is... especially at that time, when I was playing chess, it was in the Soviet Union, chess was very popular. It was one of the most elitist, let's say artist professions in fact. Even more than classical music or painting. Chess was really a top and very respectable thing to do. Maybe that was one of the reasons why I started to play chess, and I continue this way. Otherwise I would probably be in art anyway, but another kind of art, probably painting or music, although I am quite ungifted in both areas so I don't know if I would be a good one [smiles].

I don't consider myself a genius. Seriously, and I am sincere with you, I don't think I am a genius. Of course I am gifted at chess; maybe I have quite good analytical possibilities, probably certain things where I am better than the average person. But I don't think I'm a genius. And you don't need to be a genius to be a top chess player, I think so. You need to have a lot of qualities basically. It's like in every sport, it's about many other qualities. It's also about strength of your character, about psychology. Talking about genius it's going a little bit too far. If you're talking about the definition of big talent, in my opinion, I was just thinking about it and finally I can only define it as the ability to learn. Basically talent is the ability to learn.

When you are learning very quickly in certain areas it means you've got a talent. As for genius, let others speak, I don't care actually if they call me genius, I don't care at all. But the ability of learning is what I notice in common with all top players. But not only top players, also top musicians and different people of art. It's all the same.   In their area they learn just in a second, and this is what can be called talent.

A beautiful game of chess for me personally is a game where everything was very logical, very well built and performed, from the beginning till the end. For me this is the kind of highest definition of mastery in chess.  When you see a game, it's like millimetre to millimetre everything is perfect, just perfect. So for me it is more perfection. I like this. But for many other players it's more imagination, sometimes strange and even wrong decisions, something absurd, abstract, like in art. I would say I am more a classicist in chess, like also in art, I like classical art of the 17th century. The same in chess: I like the beauty, the purity of the game.

Compared to life chess is very strict, in a way. In life you can be lucky, you can be born in a very rich family, you can do crazy things but still get out of it. In chess you cannot, you are going to lose. In chess you have to be very disciplined in your thinking. There are a lot of things in chess which are very typical to life: you have to understand that sometimes you have to sacrifice a little bit of something to get other advantages, you have concentrate sometimes on one part of board and to sacrifice another one, you have to see the whole board, whole picture, otherwise you will never be a good chess player. In a way in life it is also like this. Decision making... every move you make it's very complicated and very difficult to explain how it happens. But there are a lot of ideas which come to mind and finally you make a decision. 

My daughter, she is five now and I already started to teach her chess. My son is only one year old, a bit too young yet but I will do definitely. In my opinion, parents are teaching their kids, most often around the age of five, seven, they give their kids to whatever, swimming, football, to develop their body, to develop their physical ability. But in my opinion mental ability in life is even more important, because in physical you can catch up later, even if something goes wrong, but mental, especially in this period between five and ten, twelve, when your brain, your patterns of thinking are building, it is very important to work on it. Chess is not the only thing which can do this, but it is one of the very good tools to develop the intellect of your child.

Actually chess is like any other sport. At some point it becomes already quite difficult to perform. After forty it usually is becoming quite difficult, strangely enough. Although it looks like cards, you can play it till ninety, but not anymore. Because chess is very energy consuming. I can just give you a simple example: if anyone tries to solve some not very complicated mathematical tasks for four hours in a row, I can assure you that after four hours you will be exhausted like you were in a fitness [room]. It's really tiring. Mental activity is also tiring and it takes energy. I don't even [mention] physiological things; it takes a lot of sugar. It's a different type of activity; a different type of energy you need for it, but still you need a lot of energy.

I remember when I played my World Championship match in 2000 against Garry Kasparov. During the match, which took around three weeks – we played sixteen games, every second day, so almost a month – I think I lost ten kilos during the match, without having any diet or anything. It is very energy consuming. Stress, and when you play a very long game, you lose weight also. 

That is why getting older is not a plus for a chess player, because simply physically, well, you have less energy when you are forty than when you are twenty. That's why it is an issue when you are playing young opponents. I am 38, I'm a kind of veteran in chess now, and I know when playing young opponents I am giving them a certain handicap in a physical shape, as absurd and strange as it might sound for a person who doesn't know about chess, but it's try. But from another point of view, I also have experience, which of course is helpful, and other things, maybe a little bit stronger character when you're becoming forty. You're holding better in the most critical moments, so you're trying to compensate it.

I am interested in many things, in many fields, so I am sure I will find my way around life without chess. But for the moment I still enjoy chess, I still like it. In a different waym of course. As you said, now I have a family and less time for chess. When you have two small kids, it's not that easy, especially compared to my young opponents who are usually not married, who are twenty, twenty-five. Most of my top opponents are of this age. Of course you give a certain handycap but it's OK. Anyway chess is not the most important thing in life. Private life, private relations, family, kids, it's much more important. I am happy the way it is, but I fully understand that one day will come when I will probably not be able to compete with the best players in the world on equal terms.

I am very strange, I am not a typical chess player, not a typical sportsman – in fact I am quite surprised that I managed to achieve quite a lot in chess, because I am not a sportsman inside. I don't care si much about competing, I don't care about being the best. For me it is never personal, the game of chess. Even when I play other sports. Most of them, like Magnus, or Garry, Karpov – they were crazy about winning in anything they were doing, even if they play cards or whatever, you could see they really badly wanted to win. I really never cared so much. I like tennis or football, but when I play I don't care so much if I win or not, I just enjoy playing. In a way it's the same in chess. Of course in chess I care about winning, but it is not a goal, it's not a complete must. I was never fixated on the result. That is very unusual for chess. Most of the players are very determined to win. I was not; I don't know how it works. I'm really an artist in my attitude. I guess My main motivation is to do my best, to jump over my head in a way, to do something which is on the edge of my limits.

That is why meeting with all the top opponents... when I got a chance to play with Kasparov for the World Championship match, that was probably the peak of my career because I played the best chess. For me it was a challenge, the highest possible challenge. He was not only the best player at the time, but he was also on top of his rating, really at the complete top of his career. That was for me a challenge, and that I managed to win was of course in a way partly unexpected for me. I knew I could do it but I was not sure about it, but this is probably why I managed to do it, because it forced me to give everything. For me it's not really about winning so much, but rather a challenge. In this sense I'm intravert, not extravert. For me what is important for me is my inside challenge. That is my way of living, of playing chess, and probably it will stay with me forever, I guess.

I have to play a lot of tournaments, and pretty often I am [away from] home. That is a problem, also for me, because I have small kids and they are miss me. My daughter is small so quite often she is crying when I'm leaving and is very happy when I come back. Actually I just saw her today after one month of travelling, and it was a big moment for us. Actually we are going for a walk because I promised her. So that is a problem, I guess, but what can you do? I am trying to explain her that if you are together with a person who is doing something at a high level, whatever it is – chess, business, art, whatever – usually most of the time these people are travelling a lot and they are not a hundred per cent there with you, sometimes. What can you do. It is your choice, always. But I think also it is quite interesting probably to be with such a person, not to be very modest [smiles], but I guess it is also interesting.

But all in all, we have a very happy family. Now we have two kids, so we are very happy.

Usually when they grow up they forget about you, but that's OK, I don't mind about it. I take things as they are. With kids, you give them education, but I don't expect anything in return. OK, when I'm old maybe they give me something in return, if not, not. It's also my pleasure, you know, I don't want to make them obliged. But we will see how it will be.

Because they will be proud of you.

Yes, they are already, but not because I'm a chess player...

...because you're their dad.

Yes, exactly.

More information about Clara Cavour can be found on her website and her Facebook page.

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