Matthew Sadler, Tata GM group C: "It's a hobby!"

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Today we start 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 first interview we have Matthew Sadler, two-times British Champion and Olympiad Gold Medal winner. (Tomorrow we'll publish an interview with Jan Timman and on Friday we'll finish the series with Veselin Topalov.)

We know the story: more than a decade ago Sadler decided to end his professional career, he moved to The Netherlands and got a regular job. He continued playing in the Bundesliga for a few years, and was the book reviewer for New in Chess Magazine for a number of years, but then he more or less cut all the ties with the chess scene.

Then, in 2010 he decided to enter a rapid tournament in Wageningen and he duly won it with 7/7, ahead of strong players such as Jan Timman, Friso Nijboer and Daniel Fridman. He finished first and shared first at the Haarlem weekender in July 2010 and 2011, and then also won two open tournaments, 9-round Swisses, in Barcelona and Oslo.

At the Tata Steel chess tournament, which starts next Saturday in Wijk aan Zee, Sadler will be the top seed in the C group. You can find more info here.

To start, I must say that I was surprised to see that you never actually played in Wijk aan Zee!

No, that's true. I think when I was a professional I tended to play Hastings all the time. Back in the 90s it was quite a big tournament and I got invited to the Hastings Premier a number of times. That was a very nice tournament. It was one of the first really strong all-play-alls I've ever played, with I think Bareev, Polgar, Polugaevsky... a double round event. Somehow it just never came about.

Do you regret it that you never played it in those years?

Yeah. Actually I have a number of regrets from those times. I sort of think: I could have gone to a lot more nice places, really. I suppose when I was a professional I was always just focused on playing the tournament that was right at the time, and right for the plan I had for myself basically. I always thought that playing Hastings and Wijk aan Zee, one after the other, would be a bit too much. But it's a real shame; it's a great tournament so it's always nice to say that you played that one.

Indeed, during your professional career, it seems that you haven't played too many tournaments on other continents.

I always sort of wanted to play tournaments where I thought I'd play well, basically. Obviously the further afield you travel, the bigger the chances are of getting ill or something and playing badly. In those days I was really quite focused on making the most of my career basically. And especially in those days I was a really high energy player. I needed an awful lot of energy to play well, so I tried to play not too much and also in places where I thought I'd have maximum energy basically. Maybe if I'd have a much longer career I would have done a bit more sight seeing

Let's first return to the 90s, the chess career you had before you switched to the IT business. How good were you? I mean, the successes are known, two British Championships, a gold medal at the Olympiad... Do you know your highest position in the world rankings, for example?

I think that was around 15th. I think I was maybe equal first in England or something. I think I got 2665 or something and that was my peak basically, and this sort of coincided with a dip of Mickey and Nigel. I think I was either equal first or equal second and five points behind Mickey or something. This was in 1997 I think. I think I was sort of a top 20, to 25 player basically. Probably as a team player I was extremely strong. I think I was another 30 or 40 points stronger when I was for England.

You scored statistically better in team events?

I scored very heavily for England, with a very high proportion of blacks actually. I think when I got my gold medal in Yerevan, I had a huge number of blacks you know. You have players like that, for example Smbat Lputian was another good example, for the Armenian team. He was a very good grandmaster, but in tournament maybe nothing sort of super-super special, but in team competitions he was a monster.

How do you explain this for your own situation?

I don't know, I think it just inspired me. In a tough position you just fight that little bit harder because you can see how important it is for the team. The importance for the team means more to you than just the importance of the game for yourself. Some people got a bit nervous I think, playing for the team, the played a bit like shadows of themselves and some other players just got inspired and were able to play freely and aggressively and get good results.

How come you were so comfortable with Black? Did you do a lot of work on your black openings for example? I remember you were a strong Najdorf player.

I just had a good knack of finding resources in all sorts of positions basically, keeping the game alive. I'm not quite sure really, but I always seemed to be able to get quite interesting positions which gave quite good chances to play for the win. And obviously I worked very hard as well. I really did a lot of work on the Najdorf in that time and also all the Queen's Gambit Openings.

When chess fans, especially from the UK, here all this they would probably ask when you will be playing for England again. Would you be open for this?

Definitely. If I'm invited then I'll think very seriously about it. The only thing is that after a while I'm just spending all my holidays on chess. That wasn't really the idea actually, I was only sort of planning to play a bit for fun again. I suddenly had the urge to play again. Playing for the team, playing for another couple of weeks, that's all my holiday gone for the year basically. I'd definitely think about it seriously because playing for the British team meant an awful lot to me, but on the other hand I'm not a professional anymore so I have to make some choices.

It seems that 1998 was your peak year, when you were invited to the Amber tournament and also for example the Fontys tournament in Tilburg. Amber didn't go too well - what do you remember of this tournament?

Amber was terrible, it was awful. I really underestimated just how tough the blindfold was. I began really well in the rapid; I was probably in decent shape but the blindfold just killed me and after a while I just couldn't... I just wanted to crawl into a hole and die actually, by the way I was playing. But, in the last round I beat Ivanchuk which I think stopped him coming first.

And in Tilburg you scored +1 with draws against Anand, Kramnik, Topalov, Leko, Svidler, Kortchnoi, Piket, Zvjaginsev, Lautier... and a win against your only compatriot, Adams!

In a way it was a bit of a shame actually. I had just played the Elista Olympiad and that was a really tiring tournament, I have to say. I played a lot of games, and there were difficult conditions and everything, so in Tilburg I was sort of lacking a bit of energy for the tournament. You see that somehow in some of the draws. I look back on it now and I think: my goodness, why on earth did you take a draw there! It was my first really big tournament where I played against all those players and I think I was just a little bit hesitant of really just letting loose basically. For example if I'd really made the most of my chances against Anand, I would have been in a great position to really have a fantastic tournament. But yeah, somehow I got nervous and ruined what probably would have been one of the best games I've ever played actually. But that's how life goes. It was a nice tournament to play. Funnily enough it was also basically the tournament where I decided that I was going to stop as a professional.

Really? Why, and why there?

That's a very good question. I'd been wondering about it for a while; what was I'm going to do with things, how far would I go, et cetera. Basically it wasn't clear to me that I could really get higher than a top 20 player and in that case I wonder whether it was really worth carrying on another five or ten years. You'd have some good results, and maybe a few extra things that you could be really proud of, but at the end of the day nothing has really changed, and then it's time to start going downwards slowly. I sort of decided that I'd sort of had my fun basically. I had a great time as a professional but if I was ever going to switch to something else then now was the time. That was basically it. It was a real combination of all sorts of things, but that feeling of having had my fun and really wanting to try something else, completely different from scratch, I found it really attractive.

Did you have contacts already, a job, interests?

It was completely open. I just found a job myself, I just applied to all sorts of different companies and at the time Hewlett Packard was looking for people in Holland and so I thought: well, that's quite a nice country so we'll go for that. At that specific time I had a Dutch girlfriend so of course that was just meant to be. I applied for lots of jobs and pretty much took the most exciting thing that came along. I was really keen to do something that was completely outside chess, something that wasn't relying on me being a chess player or anything but just completely from scratch.

Why? Did you somehow want to really forget about chess, or did you feel you wanted to prove that you were capable of something else too?

No, just the feeling that there was a life outside chess as well. That there was lots of other things to do basically. What I really did not want, to be honest, was to be 35 and on my way down and not see a way out from chess. With the amount of energy I put into chess and the amount of work that I put in I couldn't really see myself like Kortchnoi for example, carrying on until he's 80, or until he's 100, I just couldn't see that happening. I really thought: if that was something that worried me then I should do something probably sooner rather than later. When you're 24, 25 you can start from the bottom and work your way up again, it's no problem. If you try that when you're 35 that's a lot more difficult I think.


Was it a good decision?

I'm so glad that I did it, to be honest. It was a great adventure, you know, moving to Holland, learning    Dutch, starting off in something about which I had pretty much no idea and building up something from scratch again. It was great, it's been really nice.

What was the reaction in the UK chess scene like?

I think it came quite suddenly. Pretty much for UK chess I was there one day and gone the next. For me of course the whole decision had been brewing for a very long time actually. I think it was quite a shock actually for British chess. But within a couple of weeks people just forget and move on basically. There are so many good players you know. I still played for a couple of years in the Bundesliga and it it's weird. You notice how quickly you become unimportant actually, you're not studying theory so you're not playing any novelties anymore. People aren't really looking at your games because they're not really that interesting. It's amazing, professional chess moves on so quickly. You're forgotten very quickly.

What do you think - you already mentioned Anand - your best game from this period?

I'm very nostalgic for the very last game I played as a professional and that was when I beat Morozevich in a team tournament in Iceland. It was the very last game I played before I stopped. It was a very nice Najdorf with all sorts of rooks climbing everywhere, all over the white position. It was a very nice way to finish off my professional career.

You knew this was going to be the last game, when you played it?

I had already signed a contract for a new job. I think I played something like the 25th of September and the 28th of September I started my job in Holland.

Did the fact that you were a strong grandmaster play a role for HP to hire you?

Not really. This was really starting at the bottom. I stopped school at 16 and after that I was a chess professional, so in terms of qualifications I didn't have that much. They were looking for native English and French speakers and I'm half French as well, my mom is French, so my French is also very good actually. So that was perfect and for the rest they said, well, a chess player, that's a bit funny, but you're probably quite intelligent so we'll give it a go.

Sadler giving a lecture last year in the Max Euwe Centre in Amsterdam

So you started as a translator.

It was the lowest of the lowest so to speak, it was a call centre job for HP. I have to say it was the best time of my life. It was really fantastic, it was still in the days that HP really wanted to deliver real quality support. I don't know if it is really possible with call centers, but there was still this idea of quality so they were putting huge amounts of money into it lots and lot of call centre agents from all over Europe... It was just like a chess tournament to be honest! I made a lot of friends there and I'm still in touch with a number of those people. It was a really great time and I was just in Holland as well, so the big adventure of learning Dutch, trying to get a grip on the language, and the first time I had really been together with my girlfriend for any long periods of time, so it was all fantastic, it was really great. And then from time to time escaping to the Bundesliga and playing a weekend of chess, that was also good fun.

Did you already play for Amersfoort back then?

No, I started playing for Hilversum. Worse and worse actually. I started playing for Amsterfoort in 2001, 2002 and then stopped completely when I stopped with chess and then picked it up again last year.

What kind of job do you have right now?

I'm an 'infrastructure consultant' for Sogeti, a software house. They send consultants all over the place, sometimes for projects, sometimes just to work for longer periods of time in companies. I've done all sorts of things; I've worked for example as an infrastructure architect the AMC in Amsterdam. Probably that's my all-time favourite job until now, working in one of the biggest hospitals in Holland, that was fantastic. At the moment I'm working for a big payments provider in Holland, in the infrastructure department, all sorts of operational stuff and projects.

Let's move on to more recent developments. What made you decide to participate in that Wageningen rapid tournament in May 2010 - basically when it all started?

A couple of things actually. First of all there was the fact that it was held on a free day [once in five years, the 5th of May is a national holiday in The Netherlands -CV] and besides, I got divorced that year and it's just amazing all of a sudden how much emptiness, how much time there is and how much room there is, all of a sudden. I wasn't really planning to start up with chess again but I was just sort of thinking, free day, what am I going to do with that and I saw the tournament and I thought we'll just have a go. I hadn't looked at chess for quite a while actually and I was a bit surprised when I saw how strong it was I have to say. But I just played and I had quite a bit of luck actually but still I played some quite decent games and after that of course when you've had that feeling of winning like that, you want to have a bit more really.

A couple of months later you played a weekend tournament in Haarlem, now 1.5 years ago, with some experimental opening play. You wrote about that in New in Chess Magazine. I guess it was partly because you didn't feel up to date with opening theory? Or were you in a creative mood, or...?

I just thought I needed to get myself going a little bit. I was very rusty; I hadn't looked at chess for ages. I thought, if I'm going to play these risky openings then I've got to concentrate from move one because it could all just go horribly wrong. So I thought that would be a good way to push myself to do my best and actually that worked out really well. I think it was a good way to really get going and of course I grew up with Basman playing all this stuff, so it's not completely unknown to me. I suffered on the black side against Basman with his g4s and a6-b5s as a 10-year-old junior in these quickplay tournaments in England. I know quite a bit about it as well; it's not completely crazy. There's some method in the madness.

The next tournament, was that Haarlem a year later or did you play anything in between?

I played some rapid tournaments here and there with mixed success actually. I played some tournaments not so well and another couple of tournaments I won. And I played a number of games for Amersfoort, the cup competition and all that, in which we did pretty well; we got to the finals weekend. The next tournament was Haarlem.

You finished shared first with Erik van den Doel, and I think there you didn't need the Basman method anymore! Or was it also that you studied some openings by then?

By playing games for Amersfoort I sort of vaguely developed some sort of repertoire. I looked at a few things and just put it together a bit more. So it was a little bit more normal, what I did, but I still ended up playing ...h6 and ...g5 a number of times!

Sadler co-winner with Van den Doel in Haarlem 2011

And then... a real, big tournament in Barcelona.

Some of my team mates in the cup competition said: would you fancy playing a tournament together? And I thought: are you sure you want to do this? Because as soon as I start playing, I'm bound to take it a bit seriously. But they were brave, they agreed, and it was fantastic, I have to say. They're insisting that they still had a nice time but I have to say I worked fairly hard during the tournament.

Somehow you got back into the rhythm of the old days?

It sort of all came back a little bit. But what was really nice, actually, was... I think if I'd gone on my own to the tournament, that first tournament, I think I would have been, I might have blown myself up. I got a bit too intense, a bit too serious about things but with my team mates it's absolutely impossible to get too serious about anything. They were absolutely fantastic for just having a great time.

And what did you think of your play?

I just seemed to play with a lot of freedom. I played some quite decent games actually. The last game against Smeets was good of course but even before that I played quite nicely. So it was actually the ideal thing really to sort of be able to have quite a relaxing time and still play well.

You won the tournament, and then also the one in Oslo, which was even stronger. Did it surprise you, that things went so well?

Yes and no. I had the feeling that through the Amersfoort season, I started thinking... I still had the rating when I stopped playing Bundesliga, around 2615 or something, and I suddenly started thinking around that time: well, I'm sort of vaguely worth that. It's not too flattering. Whereas before I really thought, well, it's a little bit over the top. So I sort of thought I was in quite good shape. And I'm the sort of player that if I get going, I just play better and better normally. But that it all went so well in two tournaments was quite unexpected. I was a little bit apprehensive for Oslo, because wasn't sure if I was able to keep it going again. But actually I just played well again, so let's hope that that can carry on.

Do you think that your best games come close to the top level you had in the 90s?

Not sure really. When you look at the games, and what I see and what I used to see, there's no comparison. I really saw such a lot in the old days, you just can't compare it really. But I'm a bit older, I'm calmer and that also seems to help a bit as well, I'm a lot less flustered about things. And it also means that little bit less to me, it just makes it easier to be a bit calmer, it's a bit swings and roundabouts really, but in terms of chess strength I was a lot stronger in the old days.

So when was it exactly that the organisers of the Tata Steel tournament contacted you?

That was... some time in the summer I think, probably after Haarlem.

So before Barcelona and Oslo - I guess this was the reason you were not invited for the B group?

Yeah, and the B group was already full as well.

What was your first reaction, when they asked you?

I thought: that could be interesting. I was sort of thinking: hmmm, you know, a couple of weeks holiday spending that in Wijk aan Zee in the winter...

In the rainy and cold winter.

...yeah, that was really, no disrespect but that was a bit of a downside. But on the other hand I never played Wijk aan Zee before, and I knew I was going to be quite busy for work around the new year so I thought: the C tournament is something that I can do without taking a week off and prepare like a lunatic. It sounded like a really nice offer so I said 'yes please'.

So this means you didn't spend too much time on preparing?

Yeah. It's a hobby, you know, chess. From time to time you've got a bit of time for your hobby and quite often you haven't. I've done a little bit of work, I've thought about things a little bit. But I'm a but hesitant to call, what I'm doing right now, 'working at chess'. I remember how I used to work in the old days and that was a quite different order. I was working ten hours a day and incredibly intensively. This is a little bit more relaxed.

I guess you must like the idea of the setup, where they have these groups and you will also be able to walk around and check the boards of the top players. Is that something you look forward to as well?

Yeah, I'm looking forward to it. Obviously I lost touch completely with top chess actually, I haven't seen that in ten, eleven years so it's going to be fun to see that again. In general it will be a wonderful atmosphere and I really want to enjoy it to the maximum.

So by now it's clear that we should not speak of a comeback. You have a nice hobby. You're not looking further ahead than this tournament?

Even after just winning Barcelona I got three or four lovely invitations, and then after Oslo again. It's terrible! You just think 'oh my God I'd love to play'. But I'm not looking further ahead at the moment, and with some family commitments this year I only have a few weeks of holidays left.

So what if you have used up all your holidays, and suddenly Malcolm [Pein - CV] invites you to the London Chess Classic? :-)

That tournament is much too late in the year! I can't hold out for that long. Yeah, I don't know, I'd have to think very seriously about playing a tournament of that strength to be honest because it's not something that I could do without preparing. I'd have to prepare very seriously and if I really was in top form I'd probably get a sort of vaguely decent result. We'd just have to see basically whether that's really contributing anything to world peace basically, making all that effort. Of course I'd love to do it, I'd love to do well in that sort of tournament but I just know I couldn't do that, couldn't even dream of doing that without some serious work.

You're not saying 'definitely not'.

No, no. Everything is just too tempting in chess, it really is!

Thanks a lot!

No problem, thanks very much indeed.

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