Alexander Grischuk on the FIDE Candidates

When the FIDE Candidates Tournament resumes on Monday one of the highlights will be seeing Alexander Grischuk back in action. The Russian grandmaster is a dark horse to win the event and reach a match against Magnus Carlsen – he starts a point behind the two leaders after drawing all his games in the first half – but whatever happens he’s sure to entertain us, during and after the games. In one of his pre-tournament interviews he referred to the film In Bruges to sum up his career so far.

World no. 6 Alexander Grischuk resumes the Candidates Tournament when he plays Black against Kirill Alekseenko in Round 8 from 13:00 CEST on Monday.

Before he set off for Yekaterinburg he gave a number of interviews, including to Timur Ganeyev for Sport Express. Grischuk was one of the most vocal players about the decision to try and play the Candidates when a pandemic was stopping all other events, but this time he seems fine with the situation. As he explained:

There’s not going to be any “bubble”. You can leave the hotel, as you could last time, so the conditions are normal. I wouldn’t have played otherwise.    

He also felt the atmosphere won’t feel as “hostile” as he described it a year ago. This time the players are only required to have one negative PCR test before the event resumes.

Last time all the staff, which was about 50 people, went around in masks. That was the very start of the pandemic and it looked hostile. Plus, they tried to force us to have medical check-ups twice a day. Over the year I’ve already got used to the situation, so if it’ll be a similar story again I’ll be able to deal with it. The main thing is that I can play without a mask. 

Grischuk didn’t pull any punches. He described the situation with Teimour Radjabov being replaced in the 2020 Candidates Tournament after raising coronavirus concerns and then being promised a place in the next Candidates as an “idiotic story”. Asked about chess becoming a cyber sport he commented:

I see nothing bad about cyber sport. The only thing that’s a little strange is that a number of streamers who haven’t shown anything in chess have become very famous. But these are details.

Although he’s an undisputed post-game interview star, he felt the format should change.

To answer the question seriously, I’d make separate press conferences when a game ends decisively. First the loser appears, then the winner, like in tennis. That would be much better. As it is, it goes badly: one guy sits there and simply glows, while the other looks at the floor and bites his nails.

He was asked who’s the best chess-playing basketball player, with reference to a story he once shared about playing against Magnus.

I hope it’s me, although when it comes to endurance that’s not my thing. If we play for 10 minutes, then I think it’s me. If for two hours, then maybe it’s Magnus. If we’re choosing between top grandmasters.

Had he picked up any other hobbies during the pandemic?

I began to read all kinds of articles on the coronavirus. I discovered a whole series of scientific journals. Previously that wouldn’t even have entered my head. 

After studying the topic inside-out what do you think about the coronavirus? Is it a real worldwide problem or has it been overblown? 

Of course it’s overblown. The virus unquestionably exists, but it’s been exploited in order to promote certain things. That’s my opinion, and I in no way want to persuade anyone else.

One of the most interesting interviews was with Anna Kozina for Rossiyskaya Gazeta

Alexander, if we make an analogy with tennis, then even a 5-minute medical timeout can change the course of a match. You had a pause that lasted a year. How might that influence the state of play?

In tennis rain can also interrupt play. Sometimes you might have to wait days to go on court, while in chess such a strange situation is really happening for the first time. But it’s the same for all eight participants. I think that the break could have an influence, but it’s impossible to say in advance of what kind. I’m simply glad that the tournament is nevertheless taking place as at some point I’d started to think that it wouldn’t happen at all. You can see what’s going on in the world – the second wave, the third. The very fact that the tournament is resuming is already good news.

A limited number of spectators will be allowed in, and for the first five minutes of each round. Are fans important in chess?

Chess isn’t football with its 40,000-people stadiums. We usually have around five people in the hall, so five or zero isn’t much of a difference. I’m used to it. I realise that chess isn’t the most popular sport. It was different in the Soviet Union, but I wasn’t around to see that. So it’s not particular upsetting. I’ve got no illusions. 

I even got to understand the way it is after one occurrence. I love sport in general – football, hockey, handball, basketball, tennis – and various games, for instance card games. Once I was free and decided to watch the World Championship of the computer game Dota. I specially downloaded a coaching video. I talked for half an hour with Nepomniachtchi, because at one time he played Dota semi-professionally. I turned on the broadcast, chose the commentary for beginners and… for the three hours that the final lasted I still didn’t understand a thing. 

Instead I got an idea of how it is for people to watch chess. Of course, the computer can tell you who has a winning position, but it’s only really interesting for a few thousand people, who have a certain level of knowledge and skills.

By the way, on computers. How do you feel about online chess, which has developed due to the pandemic, compared to classical chess? You even suggested resuming the Candidates Tournament in that format? 

In itself the format is great. Sitting at the board opposite an opponent or a computer monitor – I didn’t feel any difference. True, my results were unsatisfactory. There were a lot of interesting tournaments, including those run by Magnus Carlsen, but I didn’t do well in any of them. I played badly.

Overall there’s one huge minus, which is difficult to fix. In online chess we all play against each other on good faith. If someone wants to cheat then it’s impossible to catch or stop them. There’s monitoring, but it’s not enough, like trying to catch a mosquito with a fishing net. 

One more juxtaposition: blitz and classical chess. You’re a 3-time World Blitz Champion. Why do you play better at shorter time controls? 

Usually when you like something you have better chances of being successful, and I’ve always liked blitz. But in general for blitz, rapid and classical chess you need the same qualities. The difference between classical and blitz is less than the difference between clay and grass in tennis. I remember that there was an Austrian Thomas Muster. He once won 50 matches on clay in a row, but at Wimbledon, the grass Grand Slam, he just couldn’t get past the first round. In chess, meanwhile, at all time controls the best players are the same. That’s Carlsen for now. The best blitzers are all World Champions in classical chess as well. It’s simply worked out that way that I’ve had more success in blitz. 

You’re also a very successful commentator. On the internet you can find a selection of your memorable quotes…

It’s not for me to judge, of course, but the main compliment I received as a commentator was a long time ago in Paris. A tournament was taking place there and there were a few broadcasts at the same time in different languages. I commentated in English, after which three Frenchmen came up to me and said that for my sake they’d listened to the English version. And you understand, after all, that forcing the French to speak or listen in English, if there’s an option of doing the same in their native language, is an almost impossible task. 

Do you recall the most interesting, enthralling game that you commentated on?

I can say what was the greatest chess intrigue I’ve witnessed personally. That was the 2013 Candidates Tournament in London. In the last round Magnus Carlsen and Vladimir Kramnik were fighting for first place. By that stage I was no longer a contender for anything and was somewhere mid-table, but I had an inside view of the whole round. Carlsen and Kramnik were playing two metres away from me. I made my move and then I went up to one board, then the other. It was a brutal denouement. In the end they both lost their games, but Magnus took first place on tiebreaks. Then he beat Vishy Anand and became World Champion.

You yourself were close to winning the Candidates Tournament in 2011 in Kazan. Back then the tournament was a knockout. 

Yes, those matches were memorable, particularly the quarterfinal against Levon Aronian. He was considered a huge favourite against me, but I managed to win. Besides, it was on May 9th, Victory Day. We finished the game, and half an hour later the fireworks began. Back then it was a match system, which I prefer: you play one-on-one and there’s no chance that at the end you’ll be beaten by an outsider and that will influence the outcome of the tournament. In general, I’m in favour of playoffs in all forms of sport. In the KHL I didn’t watch a single regular match over the whole season. In the Champions League even if Barcelona and Real Madrid meet I’m absolutely not interested until the knockout stages, apart from in the Russian teams.   

Your most treasured victory? 

The 2015 World Blitz Championship in Berlin.  

Grischuk beat a furious Carlsen on the way to his 3rd World Blitz Championship title

And an overriding goal? For Olympic athletes that’s Olympic gold, while for grandmasters it’s the chess crown? 

I’ve never had any overriding goals. I play a tournament and I try to play as well as possible. That’s all. An Olympic medal, the chess crown… I understand what you mean, but for me it’s different. I can’t imagine what it would be like to think a few years ahead and prepare for an event which only happens once every four years.

In 2016 Karjakin was on fire, now it’s Nepomniachtchi. You’ve had a smooth, stable career. Do you want to have your moment in the sun? 

Did you watch the film In Bruges? There’s a quote there that applies to me: “they weren’t really shit, but they weren’t all that great either, like Tottenham”. 

Do you ever get tired of chess? Although it seems that you have a lot of other interests, including sport. 

Recently I was absolutely amazed to watch a video interview with Anish Giri. They asked him why he writes so much on social networks and if that doesn’t distract him from chess? He said: “That’s the only thing that distracts me. Otherwise I spend all my time working and thinking about chess”. Is that really possible? I’ve never had such a problem.

When you beat the current World Champion Carlsen you entered a a symbolic club. Was there really some kind of symbolism in that for you?

I recall that I was glad to beat him in classical chess, because I’d beaten him many times in other time controls, but there was nothing out of this world. The game went well and in the endgame he could have survived, but I got lucky. 

If Alexander Grischuk could win the Candidates and earn a match against Magnus it would take things to a whole new level, but that’s going to be a mountain to climb in Yekaterinburg. Something similar was on Grischuk’s mind when he told the Tass news agency:

I haven’t played over-the-board chess for over a year, and I’m glad there’s now a big chance that the tournament will resume. Questions about how I prepared leave me struggling. I prepared, I studied openings… If someone thinks I climbed Everest in order to prepare better, then no.

Don’t miss the Candidates, with commentary from Magnus Carlsen alongside Tania Sachdev and David Howell, from 13:00 CEST this Monday April 19th exclusively here on chess24

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