The big Dvoretsky interview, part 2

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The big Dvoretsky interview, part 2Today we present the second part of our big interview with Mark Dvoretsky, which we conducted during the Tal Memorial based on questions from visitors of this site. In this section we spoke about the young talents of today, the 'Russian/Soviet chess school' and about strong endgame players, before moving on to the big subject of chess improvement.

On November 11th, 2010 we interviewed Mark Dvoretsky in the press room of the Tal Memorial, in the GUM department store in Moscow. In total we spoke about two hours on the different subjects that were suggested by our readers.

The first part was mainly about Mr Dvoretsky himself, and about books. In the second part we spoke about the young talents of today, the 'Russian/Soviet chess school' and strong endgame players, before moving on to the big subject of chess improvement. Dvoretsky deals with the many concrete questions about how to improve, and gives general, pedagogical advice.

Please note that in the transcription we have taken the liberty to correct Mr Dvoretsky's English a bit here and there, but we tried to stick to his own words and sentences as much as possible.

The Dvoretsky interview, part 2

What do you think of Anish Giri? Do you think he has the potential to reach successes like Magnus Carlsen has had? Very possible, it depends on how he will work, who will help him, and so on. But why not, he is very talented and wants to become very strong. Not all great talents can develop themselves.

Do you see specific shortcomings he has right now? No, to say more about it I would have to study his games, but I didn't do this.

Players like Giri, but also for example Wesley So, have become very strong by using the computer, much more than working with a coach. Does this surprise you? No. I believe one reason is that there are only a few good coaches in the world, so the lack of a good coach. Who could be the coach for Wesley So? I remember a couple of years ago Campomanes wrote me that he wanted to arrange work for me with Wesley So but eventually he didn't do it – maybe there were some financial troubles, or with the organization. I believe it would be useful for them but the majority of the players just don't have such an opportunity.

NH Chess Tournament 2010

Wesley So at the 2010 NH Chess Tournament, playing against Peter Svidler - in the background Anish Giri and Hikaru Nakamura

But does it surprise you that somebody can become this strong without working with coach? I have a theory that working with a strong trainer is especially important for young players who don't have great intuition. Players with great talent and great intuition enable to absorb things around them themselves so they can improve better than players who have some serious drawbacks in the beginning and cannot overcome that because they cannot learn from games they are playing, from other games, and so on. So for some people this help is more essential than for others. But even great talents got some good support. Carlsen preferred to work by himself, is the general opinion, but when he was young he got great help from his coach grandmaster Simen Agdestein – a strong player and a very nice person – I believe that it was very helpful for Carlsen. Now he works with Peter Heine Nielsen and some other strong players, so you cannot say he works without trainers. Anand maybe didn't have strong trainers, in the past, but at some point he started to work with the former Russian grandmaster Mikhail Gurevich and it helped him a lot because Gurevich helped him to absorb some elements of Russian chess culture, which was useful for him. Then he worked with Elizbar Ubilava, which perhaps was helpful, and so on. So we cannot say all of them work absolutely by themselves.

Can you say what it is Western players might miss when they are not growing up in Russia? What is typical for Russian chess, for the Russian chess school, as described very often in books? You know, it's different for different players. In the past – I'm speaking about the previous century, the seventies, eighties, and so on – the majority of the strong, professional players lived in the Soviet Union. The majority of good books was published in the Soviet Union. So strong players were in contact with each other. So it was another level of chess knowledge, chess atmosphere. People were more educated, with more books, more contact, new opinions, different approaches, and so on. This was absent in the Western countries where there was just one single strong player. For these players it was more difficult.
Viswanathan Anand in Mexico City, 2007

Viswanathan Anand in Mexico City, 2007

So such contact, such work with Soviet trainers just enabled Western players, like Anand and some others, to get some ideas, devices, some typical approaches in different situations – chess approach, psychological approach, how to behave in certain situations, which was already tried and checked in the Soviet Union. Now the situation has changed, of course, because the best books are published in the West, and there are a lot of chess players everywhere, so now this situation just doesn't exist. So it's just a matter of a more professional atmosphere, the sum of knowledge and ideas.

Is it possible to say who masters the endgame best among the current top players? How do they compare to the great specialists of the past like Capablanca, Karpov? Of course there are some great endgame players now, like in the past. In the past, by the way, a great endgame player was Ulf Andersson, a fantastic endgame player. Unfortunately almost nobody studies his endgames currently. In a recent book of grandmaster Aagaard there are analysis of some examples from Andersson's games. Now of course there are many very strong players. Carlsen plays the endgame very well for example; grandmaster Jakovenko is strong in the endgame, but many players are very good. Grischuk is very good in the endgame, many players are good in endgames now. It's very difficult, almost impossible to be a top player with weak endgame technique.

Is it in any way possible to compare their level of the endgame with stars from the past? The strongest players had about the same level. Or, a modern player may be in some sense better just because general theory has advanced a little bit, but basically it's about the same. Endgame theory developed of course but endgame technique, endgame approach perhaps not too much.

If Emanuel Lasker were to be reborn and hire you to prepare him to rejoin the world's elite, what training plan would you recommend for him? How long do you guess he would need before he was ready? Actually it's very simple. I believe it's just an impossible situation, not because it's impossible to be reborn, but because Lasker was such a strong personality that he would never ask me to assist him, otherwise it wouldn't be Lasker!

OK, but if we take an average, strong player from the start of the twentieth century, it's obvious he needs a lot of new opening theory, but what else would he need to be able to compete with today's top players? You know, maybe besides opening theory and some strategical ideas which are connected to modern theory, he would also need a different approach to chess competition. In the past top players played a few long tournaments, had different schedules, and so on. So he should train himself to change his chess rhythm, his rhythm of life, and so on. This is important, and difficult, by the way.

Do you think they would also have problems because they simply missed seventy years of strategical development? Would the strongest players be able to cope with 'modern problems'? Sure, they could. It's possible for them but the problem is that a modern player started to absorb them from childhood. When you speak about the top players of the past, and you envision this situation we try to discuss, it means that they are already players at a certain age, and then they start to study a lot of modern theory, it's just more difficult just because of their age. They wouldn't have such motivation, they wouldn't have so much time, so such a situation is too artificial.

Mark Dvoretsky (l.) in the press room of the Tal Memorial together with participant Hikaru Nakamura

Mark Dvoretsky (l.) in the press room of the Tal Memorial together with participant Hikaru Nakamura

Now the interview moves to the big subject of chess improvement. Do you think there are different approaches for different levels? Somebody who wants to improve from 2000 to 2200, does he really need to do different things than, say, someone who is an IM and wants to become a GM, for example? Here I should say perhaps some general things which are connected with many questions. First, in some questions people ask to get some concrete recommendations – at this level what should I do, at this level what should I do, this or that. A young player, should he study games of Morphy, or a player of another level, should he or she study other players, and so on, or some concrete advice, what he should do if he has this level. Such advice is just impossible to give. People are very different and there are many ways to success. It's important to follow the right principle but there is no right way for a concrete player. I'll just tell you one story which I read in some Russian book from the twenties or thirties of the last century. In the Soviet Union there was some very good pedagogue, Anton Makarenko. He worked with difficult kids quite successfully. At some moment he wrote a book about his work and became very popular. His name became very famous in Russia and a lot of people started to write him, asking his advice. 'My son did this and that, some bad things, how should I react, what should I do in such a situation' He answered something like: 'OK, what I can say is: I don't know what the weather was at this moment.' So you see, concrete recommendations depend on so many concrete details that it is impossible to give such a general recommendation, what he should do, what he should study. All such concrete recommendations are absolutely silly. You can recommend this, you can recommend that, and many things can be correct. So all such questions have no answer. But generally, what to do, OK I tried this in all my books, how to improve the various sides of play. But a player should decide for himself where he is weaker, where he is stronger, what kind of drawbacks he should eliminate, which kind of play he should develop, which openings better suit him, according to his personality, his approach, his memory, and so on. Sometimes people ask questions like: what should I do, this or that? Should I play the main lines or some side lines, should I concentrate on tactics or on positional play, should I play more or study more, and so on. Again, there is no answer to such a question. The right answer is: you should do both in some proportion. But the main problem is proportion – this proportion depends on the personality of each person, so again there's no clear answer. It's a matter of the player himself, or his trainer to decide what is correct in this concrete case. To ask such a general question 'what is better, this or that' is just the wrong approach.

Some time ago I came across an interview with IGM Malakhov where he more or less said that for a +2700 player studying the endgame was a waste of time. Preparing novelties in the opening was much more effective. This was kind of shocking for me: up till now every trainer I had or read about said it was just the opposite. What's your opinion? Is their some truth in it? If so, does that only count for 2700+ players? For him perhaps studying endings is a waste of time, because he's a very good endgame player! But that doesn't mean that the opening is most important for him. Maybe he's not very good in sharp positions, with tactics and so on, so maybe he doesn't need to work on endgames but he has another direction of work besides the study of openings, like many other players.

Malakhov wins European Rapid Championship

Vladimir Malakhov after winning gold at the 2009 European Rapid Championship in Warsaw, Poland

So, first about openings. It's true that when a chess player becomes stronger and stronger, the time he spends on openings increases and increases. So for younger players, for not so strong players, it's much more important to work in other directions. When a chess player becomes very strong, openings become very important for him, it's true. On the other hand it doesn't mean openings are everything to him, even for a top player. Some top players have serious drawbacks which prevent them to demonstrate the highest possible result. I'll give a couple of examples. Bronstein didn't win his World Championship match against Botvinnik; it ended in a draw. Botvinnik hadn't played for three years, he was absolutely out of training and his openings were worse at this moment than Bronstein's openings, but still Bronstein didn't win. Both players won five games. So Bronstein lost five games; three of those five games he lost from equal, drawn endgames. So if he had been better in endgames he would have become World Champion. Three out of five games were drawn endgames; I believe that it is quite impressive. Recently, during the Chess Olympiad in Khanty-Mansiysk, grandmaster Lev Psakhis gave an interview, quite a smart interview. He told that in his opinion for 99% of the chess players the way to improve is to work on endgames, but they don't understand it. OK, maybe 99% is too much, and also not necessarily endgames, there are other problems, but still. OK, why did openings become more important? Just because studying endgames and working on some other areas are not endless. OK, if you study the endgame well, you don't need too much of it. If you study the endgame well, and develop endgame technique, studying the endgame more and more doesn't make much sense, because you know the most important things which will help you during the practical game. Just some knowledge which you will never use, and which will not help you develop your understanding, it's not so important, it's true. Openings are endless, of course. There's big space to improve here. On the other hand everybody works on openings; it's impossible not to work on openings. You prepare for the game and you analyze some openings. You played a game and you analyze what happened and how to improve your play. You watch games on the Internet or in some tournaments and a grandmaster plays some opening which is interesting for you, you check it and analyze yourself, and so on. Everybody works on openings, and it's not a question of whether you should do other work, not opening work, because you're doing opening work anyway. The problem is to do work which will help you to develop your other skills besides openings. OK, another example. In 1995 grandmaster Topalov was very weak in endgames. His manager Danailov told me that he doesn't feel confident in endgames and even avoided profitable endgames sometimes and so he would lose points in endgames, and so on. So we arranged a training session in Moscow; we worked just twelve days. After this session Topalov won the majority of tournaments which he played during the next year. He won, if I remember correctly, eighty rating points and took third place on the rating list. So, you see, he was a very strong grandmaster at this moment but even for such a level it was very important because it was his weak side.

What is the most important thing to make progress in chess, apart from hard work? You should follow some principle of rational work. I cannot mention all principles but a few of them I can mention just now. For example I very much like some sentence which I read in the book of a great pedagogue in mathematics, George Pólya. He wrote some great books, and one of them I like very much: Mathematical Discovery. He investigates the problem of development of creativity in mathematics but some of his ideas can be implemented for chess as well. Chess can be seen as a practical skill, an occupation like riding a bicycle, or playing the piano, or something like this. How to improve? Like in any other area. You should follow good patterns, so study good examples, good patterns, and train yourself. Very simple. Studying good patterns means studying good books, good articles, try to get the best out of it, this will help you to do best yourself. Train yourself, in any practical area. I do it in all my lessons, with all my students. It's a natural part of normal chess work: train yourself. Because chess is not just knowledge, it's also skills. But skills don't appear automatically if you don't study something. OK, I can maybe study everything about driving a car but if I will not train myself to drive, of course I would do it very badly. The same applies in any other area. Schoolboys solve a lot of mathematical examples, exercises. Football players train between games practically every day and they repeat the same exercises over and over, because they need to develop new skills or at least keep the skills which they have because without practice they'll become weaker. The same in chess: if you study something you should also do work to support the study. Besides knowledge for chess players practical skills are also very important, some basic skills for calculating lines, imagination, the skill to see some unexpected idea, quick evaluation, and so on. There are many skills which help you to play every game and if you're weak in some area it's very important to develop a training, how to develop your skills. So these are some very important, basic principles which are very important to follow for anyone who wants successful in chess.


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