Vassily Ivanchuk: "I can still become World Champion"

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Vassily Ivanchuk at the 2009 Univé Chess TournamentVassily Ivanchuk’s stunning win in Gibraltar reminded us all of his enormous chess talent, while his recent long interview with the Ukrainian addressed the missing piece of the jigsaw – why is it that a genius like Ivanchuk has failed to mount a serious World Championship challenge?

By Colin McGourty

Ivanchuk just won the strong Tradewise Gibraltar Chess Festival, conceding only two draws to finish on 9/10 with a 2968 performance. The win moves the brilliant but erratic Ukrainian grandmaster into 5th place on the live chess rating list.

Before the event began Ivanchuk was interviewed by Danilo Mokrik for, and gave a frank and charming insight into his chess career and life. Although we’ve always guessed, for instance, that Ivanchuk is fanatical about chess and struggles with nerves, it’s a thrill to hear his own take on the situation. He reveals his continuing ambitions, and… well, only Ivanchuk could answer a question about the computerisation of chess by revealing how he became addicted to on-line checkers! 

Vassily Ivanchuk: I can still become
World Champion in classical chess

For more than 20 years now you’ve been in the absolute elite of world chess. During that time many of the players from your generation – and even those younger than you – have lost their place and been overshadowed, but you’ve held on at the top. What’s the secret?

Maybe it’s the fact that I still retain a great interest in chess – an interest at the level of fanaticism. I still find it interesting to sit and examine games, learn new openings and endeavour better to understand the peculiarities of my opponents’ styles. I still have the desire to fight, and perhaps ambitions that haven’t quite been satisfied. So I still feel I have the motivation I need to get ready again and again for a serious struggle.

Despite the fact that you’re no longer among the youngest of chess players, you still play a lot – no less than many of your younger colleagues. Don’t you get tired?

To be honest I am a little tired, and at the moment I feel I should play a little less – so that I’ll have time to acquire a reserve of nervous energy. Otherwise you get situations where at a certain moment your head simply switches off and your hand starts to make moves quickly. For a professional that’s unacceptable, but when you get tired that is, unfortunately, what happens. 

So now you’re giving yourself a little more time to rest?

Yes, a little more, but that isn’t always beneficial. It matters what you do instead of playing. I feel the need for active recreation – I’ve even thought about buying myself skates and going ice-skating, and spending more time in the fresh air.  There are still lots of beautiful places in Western Ukraine that I haven’t been to, like Morshin and Bukovel. I want, somehow, to spend my time more actively.

So how do you maintain your physical shape? That’s also important for a chess player…

When it’s warmer I play tennis. Otherwise I exercise, and sometimes go to the gym, though unfortunately not that often. I’m going to try to do that more frequently. I feel it’s necessary.

And how much time do you find to spend on chess?

It’s hard to say, because chess, and the way you train for it, is quite unusual. For example, it’s not even obligatory to sit at a computer or a chessboard. I can also walk in the park and analyse some important position in my head. Moreover, it’s by no means certain that working using such a method will have any less effect than if I sit at a computer. It depends much more on getting into a mental state that allows you to discover new ideas.

How do you feel about the fact that many chess players and commentators call you a genius?

It’s hard to say how I feel… Sometimes, perhaps, it gives me an extra incentive to put in more work, but at other times, as they say, success goes to your head. Then you don’t always objectively accept defeats, but instead think, “How’s that possible? How could I make such bad moves?” and I’m not always able to recover quickly.

In fact it’s not only about the games themselves, but also the time between games. For me the big problem is the latter – waiting, getting butterflies in your stomach, expectation and nerves. For that reason, perhaps, it’s better for me to play in rapid chess tournaments which end after a day or two: you play 26 blitz games in one day, and that’s it – you can forget about it, like a nightmare, and start something else. But not all tournaments are arranged like that, and I also want to play classical chess – which means you have to prepare and withstand the tension between games. It’s particularly difficult when the tournament’s an important one, and it’s not going as well as you’d like.

In general, do you have any particular ways in which you warm up for events? For example, the Olympic Shooting Champion Oleksandr Petriv revealed in an interview that he warmed up for the Olympic events with the help of a CD of UPA songs. (Translator’s note: UPA is the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Petriv’s interview, in Ukrainian, is here at

Of course there are, but it all depends on my mood. There’s nothing I always do. When it comes to getting ready for a game an awful lot also depends on the personality of my opponent – you don’t just play, but you have an opponent facing you, and that’s a struggle. So I don’t think you can effectively get yourself ready for a game without taking that factor into account.

With shooting it’s a little different – you have to shoot, and while you’re doing that no-one interferes with you. Chess is nevertheless a struggle of personalities, so comparisons with shooting are probably not very appropriate. If you want to compare chess with other types of sport, then it should be with those where there’s a one-on-one struggle – like tennis, boxing or fencing. That’s where I’d look for an analogy of how to get ready for the struggle. I’d rather listen to those sportsmen – I think I’d be able to find something of use for myself.

Maybe you have some special ritual when preparing for a game, a superstition? They say, for example, that at the tournament in Linares, Spain you played in the kit of FC Real (Madrid), because you had good results in it.

Ivanchuk in his Real Madrid top with Stuart Conquest in Gibraltar

There’s nothing constant. Dress-codes, for example, don’t really worry me, but it’s better when there isn’t one. At times even without a dress-code I arrive for a game in a suit and tie. I think that should be a person’s free choice.

In Nanjing in 2008 we all had to play in outfits provided by the organisers – the funny thing was that they hadn’t got the sizes right. I appealed to them especially so that they’d allow me to wear my own trousers because theirs were simply too big for me. Trousers, unlike the jacket, are something that you don’t take off during the game. The organisers took it seriously and allowed me to come and play in my own trousers, though they clarified that they had to be a dark colour.

You talked about your unsatisfied ambitions. The main one is probably becoming World Champion in classical chess?

Not exactly becoming World Champion in classical chess… That’s only one tournament. Of course, I’d like to succeed in it, but somehow I feel that over the course of my chess career that desire itself has put some pressure on me, preventing me from concentrating on other tournaments, and causing anxiety.

I still think I can become World Champion, but only on the condition that I look at that championship and the qualifying for it as normal tournaments – nothing special. Then I’ll be able to prepare.

I know myself – if a tournament is very important, then that’s it, I can’t prepare for it – neither at the computer nor at the chessboard. When the tension drops a little then the desire to play chess returns and new ideas appear. Why is it like that? I don’t know.

In the last qualifying cycle for the World Championship you played in the 2009 World Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk and lost in the last-32 to the young and not-so-well-known Philippine player Wesley So. Was that also the result of emotional pressure?

Wesley So

Wesley So

Well, I was already really tired there. Before that I’d played in the Tal Memorial in Moscow and also in the blitz, so you could say I wasn’t as fresh as I could be. I really did feel under emotional pressure. But specifically during that match with So there were some non-chess goings on. As far as I recall, after 12-13 moves in the first game I liked the position and thought I had a certain advantage – but at that moment I suddenly became unwell. I had heartburn and went to the medical point, asking them to give me some sort of activated carbon to bring me back to my senses. It took about 15 minutes, and I returned and went for play where I wasn’t taking any risks – I had a draw and, it seems, there should also have been a win. But my opponent made some only moves to hold on, and found moves that you wouldn’t expect to be there, but they were.

I then had a choice – to go for a draw or to play more sharply. And I decided to take a risk, which I’d say was actually justified from a chess point of view, because objectively my chances of winning were in no way worse than my opponent’s. But I was already quite significantly behind on time at that point and, perhaps, given that the match consisted of only two games, I should have had the common sense to take a draw – especially with the less than ideal way I was feeling that day. I probably paid too little attention to my condition. 

As for the second game, it wasn’t entirely clear who was outplaying who. At first I was a little worse, but I converted that worse position into a big advantage and then – almost into a win. And I can’t understand why I didn’t win – there was time… By all logic I should have won, but I didn’t. The game ended in a draw, and that was the end of the match for me.

After that match you made an emotional declaration, that you later withdrew, that you were quitting chess…

You know how it is with journalists… I didn’t say that. Of course, they didn’t understand me correctly. I said something like I was tired and I wanted to rest. That was then highly embellished, and all of these “sensational news reports” appeared. Something like that had never even entered my head. I was just a little shocked.

But in general, over the course of your whole career, have you ever had a strong desire to quit chess and do something else?

There were times when I was very upset, I felt overwhelmed, or an enormous fatigue. But quitting completely… Even if I did do that, why would I want to shout about it to the whole world?

Well, Kasparov did…

That’s a matter for him. I think that if at some moment I seriously decided not to play, then I simply wouldn’t arrange to take part in any tournaments for a certain period of time – for example, half a year. After that time I’d consider what I wanted to do next. Why should I declare something that I’m going to do in 6 months, or a year, whether I’ll play or not?

As for Kasparov, there were elements of putting on a show. Personally I’m not planning on doing anything like that.

Some time ago your colleague in the world chess elite, Boris Gelfand, noted that it was as if the World Chess Federation (FIDE) deliberately excluded you from the World Championship cycle. For example, in 2005, when it put together the line-up for the tournament in San Luis, you weren’t included. In 2007 the Federation took into account the only three-year-old rating that wouldn’t allow you to take part. Did you notice such bias – and if so, did you try to fight it in any way? (Translator’s note: that was in Gelfand’s answers to reader questions at Crestbook. I translated sections of it here.)

It’s a philosophical question. I did have the feeling that I could have played in San Luis in that tournament which Topalov won. And, perhaps, I should have stood up for my rights. But back then I took part in lots of tournaments and performed so successfully that, it seems, I managed to win seven tournaments in a row. Moreover, I felt very good.

So I was playing in tournaments continually, getting good results, victories and a bunch of ideas. And on the one hand people would approach me and say, “Look, what is this, you have to do something, you need to be included in the World Championship!” But, on the other hand, I had the fear that if I began to deal with it then I’d lose that internal harmony which was the thing that was allowing me to win. That’s why I took the decision that I’d forget about it, let them do what they wanted. I had my own tournaments and I’d show what I was capable of. And it went perfectly, so I’m not going to regret it.

I can’t say that there’s any particular prejudice against me – at least at the moment, although such things do exist. For example, FIDE declared that if one of the participants in the current World Championship qualifying cycle withdraws then there are two reserve candidates – Dmitry Jakovenko and Wang Yue. That’s a little strange, as there are people higher up on the rating list, and not only me. Nakamura has a higher rating, as does Karjakin, and others. Wang Yue at that point was 13th on the world rating list, Jakovenko – 17th.

You can’t say that’s being done against me personally, but indirectly it’s against my interests. Obviously someone lobbied for the interests of other people in FIDE, that’s the only way I can explain it. They’re certainly very strong chess players – young and talented – but FIDE hasn’t provided any clear arguments as to why they should be the first candidates. And that’s something you see happening quite often.

Such institutions as managers and image-makers are currently in fashion. Of course, there are also people in FIDE who defend some people’s interests against the interests of other chess players. It’s no wonder – that’s the world in which we live. I try not to indulge in illusions and to calmly accept things the way they are.

In your opinion is it generally positive for chess that at the last FIDE Congress Kirsan Ilyumzhinov was again elected president, or would it have been better if they’d elected Anatoly Karpov?

It’s hard to say what would have happened if Karpov had been elected. Personally I supported Ilyumzhinov, and it strikes me that for now Ilyumzhinov is the best option.

But do you care about chess politics and politics in general?

I can’t say that those are topics that really interest me, but I also can’t say that I don’t follow it at all. If something’s written or said then I listen and draw conclusions for myself. But taking an active role in politics – no.

Has no-one tried to persuade you to get involved in politics? Sportsmen in public politics – it’s fashionable nowadays…

No, they haven’t tried, and they were right, because they realised that it wasn’t for me. I’m not even a member of any party.

So let’s return to your area – chess. In addition to the World Championship title there’s another summit that you haven’t climbed – first position on the official FIDE rating list. Have you set yourself such a goal?

Once, in 1991, I was second on the rating list to Kasparov. That means I need to get to the top, I need to work on it. I agree.

Are ratings important for you in principle?

Yes, they’re important – and not only for me, as they give you the chance to receive invitations to good tournaments. At the moment the first position is held by the young chess player Magnus Carlsen…

…who, incidentally, has recently started to lose more often than before.

But he also wins! A very important aspect of Carlsen’s success is his resilience after defeats. Of course, like any chess player he prefers winning, but if something like that happens then he quickly gets out of that “groggy” state, to use the boxing terminology. (Translator’s note: Ivanchuk uses the English word.) That doesn’t go so well for me.

Really? In your last tournament at Reggio Emilia you lost two games in a row, but then you won two immediately – so you were able to withstand the blow.

Somehow I held on, but I need to work on it. Believe me, it’s not my strong point. There’s progress, but it’s better not to lose at all. Last year, I played in the tournament in Nice and I managed not to lose a single game. That’s the ideal option.

Ivanchuk - Carlsen

Ivanchuk starts Amber 2010 with a 2:0 win over Carlsen | photo: tournament site

This year, by the way, we’re playing in Nice again. They say it’ll be the last such tournament. It’s been held each year, since 1992. I managed to win the first tournament when there wasn’t yet a blindfold competition, and then last year I shared first place with Carlsen. I think it’ll be necessary to prepare and end the cycle well. 

What do you think about the fact that for 90 years already people have been talking about the “draw death” of chess – saying that games between strong chess players most often end in a draws and that the game itself is essentially drawn?

The somewhat bewildering starting position in Capablanca Chess | source:

That’s where the idea of creating new forms of chess came from. There was “Capablanca Chess”, which changed the form of the board and added two new pieces – the chancellor, which moves like a knight and a rook, and the archbishop, which moves like a knight and a bishop. That’s essentially very similar to “Janus Chess” – where the Janus piece moves like a bishop and a knight. Robert Fischer also started to work on his own chess, “Fischer Chess”, as a substitute for classical chess, under the pretext that in classical chess the openings had already been studied too well to keep playing them. 

I played in two “Fischer Chess” tournaments, and it’s an interesting game. Under the influence of that I had the idea of creating my own form of chess. I thought that if Capablanca and Fischer were able to propose something, then why shouldn’t I? In particular, I thought up the term “ricochet” – a double attack on the king and queen that wins the game. I can tell you that I realised how difficult it is to think up a new game. In addition, I now clearly understand that although the ideas for the rules of that game were supposedly mine, I was really helped by a lot of people: they asked questions and I had to improve everything. (Translator’s note: Ivanchuk’s proposal was first published as a 2009 New Year’s “joke” in Russian at ChessPro, and then months later in English at Chessbase as an April Fool’s bluff.) 

But I don’t have any fixed idea that classical chess has exhausted itself. I believe that other types of chess are nevertheless just for fun. You can see that classical chess hasn’t exhausted itself even just by looking at the games from a super-tournament – you’ll find a huge number of mistakes are made by even the best chess players – never mind the rest… So that means the game is essentially difficult, and even more so as new discoveries appear constantly, particularly with help from computers. For example, no-one could previously have imagined that the queen ending with extra g and h pawns is, it turns out, a draw!  

Incidentally, what’s your opinion on the computerisation of chess and the fact that quite a long time ago machines surpassed the strength of human play?

It’s hard to give a clear answer, just as it’s also hard to talk about the role of computers in life in general. The computer helps a lot, but at the same time it creates a mass of temptations which are hard to combat. I’ve gone through a bunch of different computer addictions. The last one was playing checkers. I would simply go onto the site and play checkers for hours on end, until you no longer get up from your desk, and have square eyes (Translator’s note: literally – “a square head”). Just today, before coming to this interview, I went onto the site and played a game, lost and told myself: “That’s it! I won’t play checkers anymore! It’s over!” I sensed it was a good sign that I lost the game, and I’m grateful to my opponent for winning. But I don’t play chess on the internet. Obviously I treat chess as something more serious, and therefore I don’t play internet blitz. I know there are grandmasters who play there, but I think it would only do me harm.

Nevertheless, while walking in the park during the tournament in Sofia in 2009 you sat down at a bench to play with some amateurs…

It happens. If someone asks me to play a game then it’s not hard for me to give them that pleasure.
And what hobbies do you have?

I’ve studied various foreign languages. I know English, Spanish, Turkish – though I haven’t had any chance to speak Turkish recently. I understand Polish quite well, but it’s hard to speak it properly – for example, “Grzegorz” isn’t the easiest of things to pronounce.

Books stalls at the Fedorov monument in Lviv

I also read various interesting books, I go to the theatre and I simply go to interesting places. I really love visiting the book market at the Fedorov monument – I can spend hours there, marvelling at the books and meeting people. In general, I feel as though I don’t have enough contact with people because chess has made my way of life too closed off. In chess there’s constant competition and it’s important not to reveal your weaknesses, which has hurt me a little in life as I don’t talk enough with people. Recently I’ve being trying to remedy that situation.

The chess journalist Yury Vasiliev said that during one tournament you really got into a certain TV series…

That’s true. At first it was “Tatiana’s Day”, and then “A Woman Without a Past”. I was a fan of those. True, it’s silly, but you get enthusiasms like that, where something draws you in, and although you realise it’s rubbish and unnecessary – it pulls you in like a magnet.

Of course, in my childhood I developed a lot of similar fanaticisms. When I get interested in something, when I get drawn in – I do one thing and nothing else for hours on end. Now, when chess fatigue sets in, or the fatigue of stress during events, then on a subconscious level I look for some sort of substitute. To my cost, of course, I always find something, and then it takes me a huge amount of effort to stop – as with checkers.  
You talked about a lack of socialising with people. Don’t you have any friends among top chess players, people you phone even in breaks between tournaments?

No, unless there’s some sort of business. But as friends – no. There has to be a certain distance between competitors.
And are there chess players you find it unpleasant to play, who either at the board, or beyond it, allow themselves to behave incorrectly towards you?

There are some, but only isolated cases. I’ve had cases of particular people behaving in an ugly manner towards me, but I try to see the positive side of everyone, including those people. And fortunately there’s no-one who continually behaves uncouthly, unsportingly or unethically towards me. I try not to focus on it and, if something happens, I try to forgive them and get on with things. Currently I don’t have any problems with anyone.
You’ve played and continue to play in tournaments all around the world. Are there any places you particularly like to return to? Or, alternatively, perhaps you’ve visited places to take part in tournaments and realised that you’d never want to go back there?

I’ve never decided that there’s somewhere I wouldn’t want to return to at all. I really love going back to Havana, which gives me great pleasure. I love being in Linares and also Wijk-aan-Zee. It’s curious that I’ve also started to like Khanty-Mansiysk. In fact I always liked it, but until last year’s Chess Olympiad I hadn’t played very well there.

Cuban dancing at the Havana tournament last year

China’s interesting in its own way – I’ve been to various places there. In Beijing, for instance, there was no tournament, but I ended up staying quite a long time. Armenia is in general a chess country and I really like spending time there. Each time I arrive I feel a special inspiration – whether in Yerevan or in Jermuk. However, for some reason I haven’t played so well in Karabakh – they’ve had some conflicts there and maybe that influenced my game.

Are you planning on writing a book about your chess career? For now your first and only book is a collection of games from the super-tournament in Linares in 1991…

Then there was “Vassily Ivanchuk’s Chess Novelties”. That’s not entirely my book, but it wasn’t written without my participation. There’s actually more material about me there than in the book on Linares. But that’s just a tentative draft. In future I’m planning on attempting something more serious and fundamental, with a detailed analysis of games.

Of course, that requires a lot of time. I think you need to write such analysis without the help of a computer, leaving yourself the right to make mistakes. Now anyone can turn on a computer, but readers are interested in knowing the thoughts of the grandmaster himself, his feelings and how he hesitated during the games.
A year’s gone by since you said you were planning to open a chess school in Ternopil. At the moment that project, in your own words, “is dead”. What happened?

There were some purely organisational problems which need to be solved. Everything’s not ready yet, but I think it will happen in future. However, the main thing for me just now is competing in tournaments.

Source: Danilo Mokrik,

Postscript: Ivanchuk on TV

Ivanchuk at the market in Lviv

I originally heard about the interview translated above from a post entitled “One of Ivanchuk’s best interviews” at the Russian blog of Ukrainian GM and chess journalist, Mikhail Golubev. Not so long ago he also linked to a TV program on the Ukrainian TV station, Inter, which featured the victorious Ukrainian chess team after the Khanty-Mansiysk Olympiad. I mentioned that in a comment below the last Ivanchuk interview I translated, but I think it’s also worth including here. 

Of course the video isn’t in English, and in fact switches freely between Ukrainian (spoken by Ivanchuk and the presenter) and Russian (spoken by almost everyone else). Still, Ivanchuk fans will certainly find something to enjoy. A few points:

  • The studio guests include Ivanchuk’s teammates Pavel Eljanov and Alexander Moiseenko, and team captain, Leonid Tymoshenko. There are also clips of Eljanov’s wife, and Ruslan Ponomariov’s father being interviewed.
  • On the incident after the Wesley So match mentioned in the interview above – Ivanchuk says he couldn’t remember saying he wanted to quit chess. Tymoshenko, however, says that Ivanchuk did say that but that when he returned to Lviv, and saw his own chess set and familiar faces, “he returned to us again” – which got a round of applause from the studio audience!
  • Don’t miss Ivanchuk at 5:57 doing his shopping at a market in Lviv. At 40:23 he’s by a church talking about how many of his novelties were thought up while listening to prayers (and you can guess what he’s wondering when he gestures to the heavens!).    

This article was cross-posted with permission from Chess in Translation.
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