Recensie: From London to ElistaReview: From London to Elista

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In my previous review I discussed last year's World Championship match between Vladimir Kramnik and Veselin Topalov according to the book On the Edge of Elista by the Bulgarians Topalov and Ginchev. About the same time as the review, From London to Elista by the Russians Bareev and Levitov, was published.

From London to Elista, however, is not only about the match in Elista, but also about the other two World Championship matches Kramnik has played: Kasparov-Kramnik, London 2000 and Kramnik-Leko, Brissago 2004. Evgeny Bareev was Kramnik's second in London and Brissago, and talked extensively with chess reporter Ilya Levitov about the match in Elista. In this review I will mainly talk about Bareev's account of the match Kramnik-Kasparov ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the best part of the book. I will also briefly discuss the match against Leko from 2004, and mention some of my points of criticism on the book.

But first, let's return again to Elista, last year. One of the crucial issues during the match was about releasing the videotapes of Kramnik's restroom. In On the Edge of Elista, Silvio Danailov put it as follows (p. 76):

?جø¬??I don't understand what they have to be afraid of, if there's fair play," the Manager said, spreading a thin layer of caviar on his bread. "We'll keep insisting."

Indeed ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú what were they afraid of? What did they have to hide? Now I know the answer. But to understand this, first we must know what happened in 2000 and 2004.

Rumble in the Jungle The part of From London to Elista about the match in London is, in my opinion, in the same league as the Oscar-winning documentary When We Were Kings by Leon Gast about the famous ?¢‚ǨÀúRumble in the Jungle' boxing match between George Foreman and Mohammad Ali from 1974. In this fight for the heavyweight championship of the world, Ali managed to completely outwit the favourite Foreman with brilliant psychological play. The documentary serves as a textbook example for the effectiveness of psychological pressure in sports duels and positive thinking in general.

One of the pleasant aspects of the book is the fact that the authors (the book is written as a dialogue between ?¢‚ǨÀúsidekick' Levitov and ?¢‚ǨÀúexpert' Bareev) frequently ask themselves critical questions. Why write yet again about the match Kasparov-Kramnik, when there are already some good books about it? The answer is not only that Bareev, as a member of Kramnik's team of seconds, can give a perfect inside view of the events. The authors are more ambitious than just allowing us a few looks in the kitchen: they want to give complete insight in the psychology of World Championship matches in general, and Kramnik's mind in particular. In the same way that one could not possibly understand the events between Ali and Foreman in Za?ɬØre in 1974 if you don't know what went on before that, the authors implicate that one can only understand the match in Elista if you know what happened in London and Brissago.

Of course, what made the match in London so dramatic for the spectator was not so much Kramnik's victory as Gary Kasparov's defeat. I was a spectator myself in London. In those days I was, like everybody else, a fan of Kasparov, and as with everybody else, Kramnik's Berlin Defence, and Kasparov's despairing handling of it, drove me totally nuts. Powerlessly we had to watch as Kasparov made one tactical mistake in the match after the other. Kramnik had absolute power over him. But why? After all, since 1984 Kasparov had been the ultimate match player, if not the best player of all time. What was going on? This was the mystery that was never sloved. Until now.

Bareev's account of the events is simply breathtaking. He describes how they prepared chess-wise, how the jobs were divided within the team, who had to study what opening, how the atmosphere was, and how Kramnik, to Bareev's own astonishment, had completely changed before the match: he had lost weight, had developed muscles, quit smoking, was full of ideas and creative thoughts, was full of self-confidence, and was as fit as a fiddle. He had only one goal: to prove he could be world champion. But most importantly: Kramnik read Kasparov like an open book. This becomes clear from the following Kramnik quote (p. 30):

I know that he respected me as a chess player and he understood perfectly well that I would be the toughest opponent for him at that particular moment. He was afraid to lose, of course, which is completely natural, but on the other hand, I was the last chess player of his generation over whom he hadn't demonstrated clear superiority: he'd won against Karpov, as well as Anand and Short, and he almost always destroyed Shirov. If he beat me in a match, his career would be complete. His ambitions and his desire to 'tie up loose ends' combined in him with the fear of facing me specifically.
The drama starts to unfold right from the start of the match. A superb example of insight into the way the seconds tried to dissect Kasparov's preparation and psychological state of mind, is Bareev's description of the course of the opening (Berlin Defence) of the first match game (p. 37):

During the game we noticed that Kasparov had looked at the full spectrum of theory on the Ruy Lopez, as he followed the main line, played the same way as a recent encounter (Shirov-Krasenkow, Polanica Zdroj 2000), and although he wasn't all that fantastically prepared for the nuances of the variation, he made sensible moves.

By reading the way Kasparov reacts to the Berlin Defence, they realise that he looked at the whole spectrum of the Ruy Lopez. And it gets even better when Kramnik reveals that he didn't dare to look at Kasparov directly when he had played his third move. Dealing a psychological blow was not even his most important goal (p. 39):

I offered the draw in Game 1, it was important for me to hold my own, to show that I'd come out for the first World Championship game of my life, calmly made a draw and got into the match.

Bareev is not only a fine analyst (his chess comments are accurate and objective, and he makes good use of existing references), but also an excellent storyteller who combines deep psychological (self-) knowledge with great chess-related observations. Particularly interesting and relevant, for instance, are the comparisons Bareev and Levitov make with other World Championship matches. That can lead to beautiful little pearls like the following about Petrosian:

Petrosian couldn't play against the isolated pawn, he just didn't understand these positions, and that was it. Today, when we look at how he treated them, it's simply funny. Petrosian put two knights in front of a pawn on d5! Now everybody realises that you have to destroy it, not just blockade it.

He looks so unimpressive! If it's one thing the report of the match makes clear, it is the fact that Kramnik constantly makes his own decisions, believes his own ideas, often to the despair of his seconds, for example after the third match game, when Kramnik has barely survived another Berlin Defence (p. 67):

Listening to Volodya after the game, we were extremely surprised, because he was very optimistic, he thought that everything had gone well. [...] We sincerely believed that the position was hopeless [...]. We weren't far from the truth [...] but he was right that although the position was dangerous, something would have to be drummed up in order to break through it...

And slowly, Kasparov is cracking. First, he refrains from his favourite Gr?ɬºnfeld Indian, then he switches to 1.c4 ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú at the very last moment, right before the game, as becomes clear from Kasparov's second Kharlov. It's clear: Kasparov is quickly running out of ideas. But again: why? "He looks so unimpressive!" Levitov exclaims at one point. Why, for instance, did Kasparov prepare the Berlin so poorly? I think Kramnik hits the nail on the head when he says (p. 91):

The fact that Kasparov hadn't expected the Berlin shows that his preparation was unintellectual [my emphasis], it was too narrow.

But why then, Levitov wonders, does Kasparov keep playing the Ruy Lopez? Why didn't he try something sharper, something crazy? Because, Bareev explains, objectively speaking White must be better in the Berlin. The Ruy Lopez is White's only principled opening after 1?¢‚Ǩ¬¶e5. Kasparov couldn't play anything else after 1.e4.

And so the restless, impulsive and unsteady Kasparov goes down against the self-condifent and apparently calm Kramnik ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú first mentally, then physically. Kasparov cannot ?¢‚ǨÀúread' him. He finds his only strong opening novelty in the middle of the night, after he went to bed. It is too little, too late.

In my opinion, the part about the match in London is one of the best match reports ever written. Most credit goes to Bareev, who gets more than enough room from Levitov to tell his story. Bareev tells it with a lot of nuance, very clearly and extensively. The psychological pressure was enormous: pressure on the seconds, the spectators, and the players. Just like with the documentary When We Were Kings, you constantly have the feeling you're there, live, while it's happening. Kramnik and Kasparov are more than two dry chess players ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú they're both complex personalities with their weak and strong sides, and in the end Kramnik prevailed. But he had to pay a price for it. After this match he would never be the same again.

Nightmare in Brissago The second part of the book is about the match Kramnik played in 2004 in Switzerland againt Peter Leko. In his book, Topalov calls this match 'one of the most boring chess matches ever'. This is a simplistic point of view to say the least, as becomes clear from this book. For Kramnik as well as for his seconds, this match was a complete disaster, 'a nightmare' as Bareev puts it. You get the impression that Kramnik really went all out for his match in 2000, and he was still suffering from it. He had become a completely different man. He hadn't done the same training program as he did against Kasparov, he had started smoking again, and had performed terribly in recent tournaments.

An abundance of drama for sure, but for the reader this drama never gets the same intensity as during the match with Kasparov. No doubt, this has to do with the fact that Leko isn't Kasparov, and that Kramnik wasn't fit before and during the match, which prevented him from playing optimally. A third factor was the high number of draws. I would like to propose a fourth reason for why the reader never feels so close as in the first part.

In my view, what made the stories of the London match so good to read was the fact that Bareev told them. Short questions by Levitov sufficed to do the storytelling, and this story was so incredibly interesting because Bareev knows both Kasparov and Kramnik through and through. I found that the big difference with the first part was the fact that Levitov is more prominent in part 2. He not only asks questions, but interrupts Bareev, wants to get his own observations across to the reader, and has his own theories about the course of the match. Contrary to 2000, Levitov was also personally present during this match. And although he is much more restrained than Ginchev is in On the Edge of Elista, Levitov, too, wants to express his own thoughts. And this distracts the reader from the real point: the psychological battle between Kramnik and Leko. Bareev, too, seems to talk with less passion about the match with Leko, especially in the beginning. And, perhaps, because the match was such a disaster for Kramnik, he also seems to lose his objectivity. We have to credit Levitov for keeping Bareev sharp from time to time, even though this leads to confusing dialogues, like the following fragment, where they discuss Leko's proverbial 'boring chess' (p. 287):

Bareev: the fans are expecting a beautiful game from the champion, but he can't show them anything. Levitov: But he didn't break any rules! Bareev: You have a better position and more time, as in Game 6 - play! Levitov: But why? Hang on, this is absolutely false logic. This is an emotional attitude. I don't know, perhaps his coach Arshak Petrosian was sitting there, carefully watching Kramnik and thinking, Volodya's burned out. And he said to Leko: 'Petya, at the slightest provocation - a draw immediately! Knock him out of the game.' Bareev: But he's losing the match. Levitov: So what? The idea is first to know him out of the game, and later to try and level the score.

It's clear that Bareev is still emotional when he thinks back upon the match. Although his description of it is still good, I found the level of the second part of the book less high than part one. Perhaps this is also because of the chapters in which Levitov makes an ?¢‚ǨÀúexcursion' to other aspetcs of the game of chess. By the way, he also does this in the first part, and here too I didn't see the relevance of reflections on ?¢‚ǨÀúChess and Kaballah', ?¢‚ǨÀúThe Iron Enemy' (chess computers) and ?¢‚ǨÀúChess and Literature'. More interesting are the ?¢‚ǨÀúPlatonic dialogues' between Bareev and Levitov about ?¢‚ǨÀúChess and Action' (what do spectators want, and should professional players take this into account?) and ?¢‚ǨÀúChess and Psychology'. But in fact, this last chapter adds nothing to Bareevs story of chess and psychology which he tells in the part about the London match. Here, too, one gets the impression that chess lover Levitov desperately wanted to incorportate his own ?¢‚ǨÀúphilosophies' on the game of chess in the book ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú and in granting this, the publisher wasn't very strict on relevance, in my opinion.

The importance of having a restroom The first part, about the match in Elsita, differs from the first two parts since Bareev wasn't a second in Elista. He has followed the match from up close, and made extensive analysis of the games. In From London to Elista, too, the ?¢‚ǨÀúToiletgate' scandal is discussed, and like in the Bulgarian book, a certain prejudice is present within the authors. Silvio Danailov is called a 'scandalous man' (p. 308), Topalov is a robot (p. 361) who has 'never been seen with a girl'. It's true that Bareev and Levitov take a much more critical approach than Topalov and Ginchev in On the Edge of Elista ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú also towards their ?¢‚ǨÀúown' Russia and the FIDE, and especially towards Kramnik's manager Carsten Hensel ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but this kind of language does harm the book's credibility. Maybe it's just too early to look at the events in Elista with a sober point of view.

Fortunately, Levitov and Bareev do make a couple of very good points about the match with Topalov. To illustrate this, I would like to ask you to read again Danailov's question at the beginning of this article. What does Kramnik have to hide? For anyone who has read Bareev and Levitov's book, the answer is clear: everything!

Let's hear it from the authors themselves:

Chess is a battle of people, not pieces. We've used up a lot of ink explaining how important it is to outplay your opponent psychologically, to strike at his personality. When a person is in the rest room, he's relaxing, he's stopped playing a role, he becomes himself. On stage he has to deceive his opponent, but when he's alone he can allow himself natural reactions to the events that are happening in the game. Passing these tapes to the opponent is a crime against the chess player who's playing a World Championship match.

People do have a lot to hide. Especially when they're playing the chess world championship. Is that a bad thing? If the book makes clear only a single point, it is the fact that having a private place during the game was an absolute necessity for Kramnik ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú it was his way of surviving the enormous pressure; something worth risking his title for. This, and nothing else, is the reason why he refused to play the fifth game.

From London to Elista shows Vladimir Kramnik as a master-strategist, a brilliant chess player with a fantastic psychological insight and an iron will ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but it also shows him in moments of doubt, vulnerability, uncertainty, anger and weakness. Whereas Topalov and the Bulgarians constantly consider themselves to be the victim of the circumstances, Bareev and Levitov show us a Kramnik who first and foremost struggles with and against himself.

It is the most sincere portrait of a world champion I have ever read.

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