BOY FROM THE BLACK SEA
Vladimir Kramnik in
interview with John Henderson
Born in the quiet, sleepy town of Tuapse, one of the most
southerly towns in the Black Sea coast of the former Soviet Union, Vladimir
Kramnik, from the early age of four, showed great promise at chess despite no
one in his house able to teach him.
At the early age of five, he was already attending the
towns House of Pioneers. By the age of seven, he had already won the
adult championship of his town and had become something of a local celebrity.
By the age of eleven, he had made it to the famous school of Mikhail Botvinnik,
where he stood by the demonstration board his head already reached the eighth
rank; his height, like his play was becoming extraordinary
He first burst onto the world stage at Manila in 1992
at the behest of the then world champion Garry Kasparov when he
displayed maturity of play far beyond his early years, as he became the
youngest player to represent Russia in the Chess Olympiad. After winning the
gold medal for the overall board prize with a phenomenal score of 8.5/9 on the
day of his 17th birthday, Kramnik was tipped to be the natural heir to
Kasparovs world crown. Now, as we fast-forward some eight years, that
early promise has been fulfilled: hes just beaten Kasparov to become the
fourteenth world chess champion.
Lord Rennell of Rodd
I arrive at his plush rented Thames side retreat in Chiswick
some 24 hours after he won the title. Warmly greeted by his main second, Miguel
Illescas, Im taken into the kitchen-cum reception area, where Im
equally welcomed, and made to feel at home by his manager, Lord Rennell of
Rodd, a 65-year-old peer of the realm who not only once played rugby for
Scotland, but also used to be the rugby correspondent for my newspaper, The
Miguel Illescas and his uncle Antonio who acted as cook
during the match.
It was explained to me that this was the first time since
the match started that anyone had been let near the house not even
family, wives, girlfriends or close friends. It was part of their grand plan
for victory. The house was strictly off limits to anyone other than team
Kramnik: Kramnik; his main seconds, Miguel Illescas, Joel Lautier and
Evgeny Bareev; manager Lord Rennell; Kramniks personal trainer, and his
cook, Miguels uncle, Antonio. The big joke within the camp was that the
house sort of took on the appearance and feel of the cult TV show Big
Brother they were all stuck in it and did everything together. The
big question was: Who would Garry Kasparov liked to have voted out first! As I
sat enjoying their convivial hospitality (Incidentally, the first time in seven
weeks that alcohol had been allowed in the house), in casually walked the man
who now followed in a long and illustrious line stretching back to Willhelm
Steinitz in 1886 Vladimir Kramnik!
Bareev and Lautier
Vladimir had only managed to get to bed at 9.00am that day
after winning the world crown from Kasparov. While some, anticipating this as a
night of drunken celebration after a historic victory, in reality, the reason
for getting to bed at such an hour couldnt have been further from the
truth: Hed been up all night analysing the final game all night with his
Still, he looked fresh despite that fact that hed been
doing the media shift for most of the afternoon and early evening
as the world came to grips with his historic victory over Kasparov. Of course,
I couldnt just arrive for an audience with the fourteenth world champion
without a gift, so I decided to offer my congratulations in the traditional
Scottish way with the gift of a celebratory bottle of 12-year-old single
Scottish Malt Whisky. But John, he joked with such a straight face.
Dont you know that Ive given up alcohol now that Im the
Kramnik with his prize
Escorted into the plush War Room where all the
critical decisions in the match were taken, he sat down on one of the comfy
sofas and casually drank a cup of lemon tea while eating a ham sandwich.
Kramnik had by now begun to relax and opened himself up for questioning from
First of all, Vladimir, congratulations on a superb
match! At what point in your mind did you think you could really become the
Believe me, it was always in my mind to be World Champion!
But, for sure, it had to be after game 10. That was the moment for certain.
Then I knew it must
it must happen. Certainly in the middle of the match I
knew there was a chance it may never happen, but in reality [after Kasparov
went 2-0 down] I couldnt see how he could comeback.
At Wijk aan Zee you admitted you were tired and lacked
energy. When you came to London it was clear that you had lost a lot of weight
and looked much fitter. What did you do to achieve this? Did you have a
personal physical trainer?
Yes, Im much fitter now than I have ever been! I gave
up smoking a few months back. For the last six months Ive also been using
the services of a top sports trainer: Valeriy Krylov [who also used to work
with Anatoly Karpov], who in the past has been a trainer to the Russian
Basketball team. He has worked out an exercise regime for me and has also
looked at what and when I eat.
I did a lot of physical training along with Miguel
[Illescas] in Majorca in the weeks running up to arriving in London for the
match swimming, weight training and volleyball. Here in London, before
the match started [Kramnik and his team have been in London three-weeks before
the match started], we played some tennis but not when the match
started! That would have been just too much even for a super-fit me!
It made a big difference to my match stamina. I
couldnt imagine I would have been so energetic during the match it
really gave me a welcomed extra boost! There were some people around that
couldnt work out how I could have played some of those tough games, yet
comeback looking lean and fit and ready for another game with Kasparov. For
them, even sitting in the audience looking at the games, it was tiring. So it
baffled them how I had so much energy.
Nobody else in the world can handle Kasparov like you
why do you think Kasparov cant play against you as he does against
Dont get me wrong here Kasparov is a great
player, fantastic player. But most of the players tend to be afraid of him when
they shouldnt. I can see it in their eyes when they come to the board to
play him. They just want to make some moves and stop the clock. I tell you,
this isnt the way to play against Garry! He can literally sense the fear.
He feels it and this gives him additional powers at the board.
So basically its very simple: to start with, if you
want to win the match, you shouldnt be afraid of him. There are still
many, many things to do, but above all this is the most important: Dont
be scared of him!
Many people feel that this was a match that Alexei Shirov
should have played rather than you, since he beat you to win through to play
Kasparov in 1997. Whats your view on this?
I personally dont feel any guilt or any responsibility
for the situation that Shirov finds himself in. Remember, I was also a victim
of it. Also, many people forget that Kasparov was also a sad victim of what
happened in this incident with the World Chess Council, Luis Rentero and the
Now, two years have passed and the situation is completely
different: no one wants to organise this match. The moment has gone. We cannot
hold everything up for him so it can be organised. Yes, its a pity for
him what has happened, but its life. I dont think that his
complaints are justified - especially after everything he said: they were
simply rude. Not rude to me, but rude to chess because he was making all these
statements that this match was going to be pre-arranged and I was going to
Okay, this isnt bad for me but its definitely
bad for chess He continues to write these statements in chess magazines
across the world and chess amateurs read them and the first thing they think is
theres trouble in the chess world, this top player says
so. He should stop and stop now. Hes doing damage not only to
himself by what he says but also to the chess world at large.
You seem so calm at the board much like the great
Boris Spassky. Are you nervous inside, as Spassky later admitted he was?
No Im quite calm inside during the game for
most of the time - not 100%, but generally very calm. I dont like to show
my emotions at the board, not because they might give something away to an
opponent, but because thats my style: I like to keep it to myself.
In this respect I suppose Im the total opposite of
Garry. With his very emotive body language at the board he shows and displays
all his emotions. I dont.
Theres been a lot of speculation that, now with you
as world champion, that behind the scenes Fide have already started work on a
possible unification match. Many chess fans would very much like to see this
happen. Whats your reaction? And would you talk to Kirsan Iljumzhinov
about such a possibility?
At the moment theres nothing I can tell you about it.
It is something that may be considered but at the moment I have a contract with
Braingames. If they [Braingames] want to do something with Fide great!
It will be very interesting and I would certainly consider it.
If Braingames dont, they have fulfilled an obligation
to me. Ill certainly make sure that I fulfil any obligation I have to
them. I dont mind to talk to Kirsan, but Ill not do anything that
would ever endanger my obligations to Braingames.
Theres been much talk in the past and in
particular in the run-up to this match about Kasparov teaching you at
the legendary Kasparov\Botvinnik Chess School in Russia. Did you really receive
much personal tuition from Kasparov, or did mostly other trainers do it?
It wasnt personal. Not really. At the school we were
in groups of twelve Garry would spend maybe three days at a time when he
would be giving lectures and doing simuls. This tale about him being my
teacher was simply a journalists story Botvinnik himself
mainly did all of our training.
Garry would simply give what precious time he could to the
school as he could. You could say he was my teacher as he was Shirovs and
Where he did help me though was in his insisting that I
should be included in the Russian squad for the Manila Olympiad in 1992. He put
his neck on the line here in this respect. He basically saw the raw talent that
I had and helped to nurture it along. He really didnt need to do this. It
must have been obvious at the time to him that he saw me as being a
threat to his crown. But in all fairness to him, despite this
potential threat in the future, this never stopped him from giving help.
Now this brings me neatly to another topic of interest
with your past workings with Kasparov. Do you think that it was a sort of world
championship suicide on his part to allow you to be his second against Anand in
You know this is a question that can be looked at in two
ways: Not only did I get to know him better, but he also got to know me better!
Both of us could have taken an advantage from this from seeing how each other
But it was not basically to someones advantage
it was who would make the better use of this information. I know I certainly
did! I basically got to know and understand him much, much better he
didnt with me. So yes, in a way, he contributed to his own downfall. But
not such a major contribution as a lot of people have made it out to be.
How is your relationship with Kasparov now? And how did
he react to the defeat?
I feel that my relationship with Kasparov now is much the
same as it had been before the match good. As for his reaction, well it
cant be nice to lose your title after so long, but he was very generous.
It was a very gentlemanly behaviour on his part. He congratulated me on my
victory and admitted that I should have won. He accepted me as the new world
champion. No one can have any complaints about what must have been a sad moment
for him he accepted his defeat with good grace.
Preparation appears to have won you this match. It seems
that your backroom team of Lautier, Illescas and Bareev were much better than
Kasparovs. Do you think that this was a major reason for your victory?
And in comparison, why do you think that Kasparovs own team here were
I dont know anything about Kasparovs team, but
from what I know they are a very serious and hard working group of players. I
believe they were doing their job Im sure they didnt just
sit around all day drinking wine! But its clear that my team were
definitely working better very clear!
I made a better decision in choosing my team. Sure, I had a
bigger choice of players to choose from but I couldnt have asked
for a harder working group of players who did an incredible job. They had
simply one aim: Helping me to become World Champion, which I thank them for.
They are very hard workers in their own right and Im
more than satisfied with what they did. Even if I hadnt have won the
match I couldnt have thanked them enough for what they did
especially their efforts in the final week. Most of them hardly slept during
this period. It was work, work, work and more work. I think the only rest they
got was when I actually played the games!
After the match Garry Kasparov said that you had
out-prepared him and after game two all his opening preparation
went right out of the window. Is this true?
No, but this is very subjective
very subjective. We
both had some sort of strategy before the match - and mine won through. Of
course it was obvious for all to see that Kasparov had worked hard for this
match. But, because of my own strategy winning through, he couldnt
realise his own. And, you know, this is crucial in match-play situations.
Okay, we both had openings that we both had advantages from.
But take this Archangel ending from game 11. Yes, this ending favoured White
I knew it favoured White. But the point was that I knew he wouldnt
like this sort of position. I wanted to find a way to play against him by
finding some positions that he didnt feel all that confident with
and it was evident he didnt feel comfortable with this position.
How did you hit upon the idea of the Berlin Defence as a
way to neutralise Kasparov was it your own idea to play it?
No! It was just one of the many candidates I looked at with
my team. Dont think for one minute I arrived in London with this as my
only defence! Certainly I prepared it for the match but it certainly
wasnt the only thing I had prepared! But it simply went well, as I
suspiciously thought it would.
The Berlin Defence suited my strategy for the match. I had a
defensive strategy Actually, I had in my pocket some other sharper stuff
to fall back on but first I wanted to try the defensive strategy with
Black and it worked so well. This was all new to Kasparov he probably
expected me to fight for equality with Black.
Okay, when you start to fight for equality, like Anand did
in 1995, you could end up losing game 10, like he did, without putting up any
kind of fight. With the Berlin you get a feel for the positions. I
accepted that the endgame was better for White, but he has to win over the
board, not with his legendary home preparation thats crucial!
With the Berlin I was able to set up a fortress that he
could come near but not breach. When others play against Kasparov they want to
keep him distant. I let him in close but I knew where the limit was. I think
this surprised him because normally when you fight, you dont want your
opponent to have some advantage, but I gave some advantage from the beginning.
Close enough to touch my wall, closer, closer, but not break it. Someone even
compared it to Alis rope-a-dope trick against George Foreman
this was a very good analogy! Okay, I suffered a little, but with some
defences Black commits his forces leaving behind openings into his camp. But
with the Berlin, I was able to allow him to get near, but not quite near
enough, and I knew where to draw the line with the fortresses I had set up.
At some point he seemed to lose all confidence trying to
break down the Berlin Wall. He was still fighting as only Kasparov can, but I
could see it in his eyes that he knew he wasnt going to win one of these
games. For him it was always a case of Better, better,
draw! This is what broke him down psychologically. It was all
very difficult for him as hes used to winning ever second tournament
game. This was my strategy and it worked very well.
Did it surprise you that Kasparov didnt attempt a
do-or-die comeback towards the end with something like the Scotch, Evans Gambit
or even the Kings Gambit?
No. This didnt cross my mind at all. For a start the
match was too short for this sort of policy. If it had been a 24-game match
then yes, he could have perhaps experimented earlier on to try and probe for
weaknesses but not in a 16 game match.
He understood that I would be very well prepared for the
Scotch and things like the Evans. Once he had selected the path he was going
down he really had to stick with it in a 16 game match. He had to try and hit
in the one direction but unfortunately for him though fortunately for
me! he hit in the wrong direction.
After the match, Kasparov appeared to challenge you to a
rematch. He said that the new champion should follow his example and defend the
title against the strongest candidate. Will you play a rematch with
Please, give me a chance; Ive only just won the title!
I havent thought about it.
After such a tough match you need time to recuperate. You
cant play such a match in the same year; you need at least a couple of
years. Its nothing to do with me keeping my title far from it.
Its because it is so tough both physically and psychologically. A rematch
is a possibility, but I would say at the moment it is just an idea of his
[Kasparovs]. It doesnt mean that this is going to happen.
Now that youve taken Kasparovs crown, will
you know also be looking to replace him as the world number one?
Of course! You know, our ratings after this match will be
very close I think I can also become the world number one in the not too
distant future. However, Im sure that Garry will also have something to
say about this!
Will you now be taking a rest, or perhaps a holiday
following this match? And when will you be next playing?
Yes, for sure! Ill probably be spending some time
holidaying in Europe for a period. No chess, just friends and some books! I
think after what Ive been through in the last six months or so I deserve
this break from chess. As for my return, Ill be playing Peter Leko in
early January in a speed chess match in Germany. After that, it is, of course,
the delights of Wijk aan Zee.
Thank you very much world champion Vladimir Kramnik! On
behalf of our readers, Id like to take this opportunity to congratulate
you on their behalf after winning the title, and to once again thank you for