John Watson Book Review (89)
Getting to Know Kramnik and Anand
IM John Watson - Tuesday 14th October 2008
Anand and Kramnik DVDs
It seems as though ChessBase's production of DVDs is accelerating every year. They have put out numerous opening DVDs of late, as well as various ones on theory and training Lengthy interviews of chess personalities has been the province of ChessBase Magazine, whose praises I have sung elsewhere. Now ChessBase has created autobiographical DVDs about the two greatest players of the last 15 years apart from Kasparov: Vladimir Kramnik and Vishwanathan Anand. These DVDs are in themselves a great contribution to chess history, and of additional interest because of the players' forthcoming match.
In fact, the match will probably be underway by the time this column appears. In spite of one poor recent individual result by each contestant, undoubtedly coloured by the impending event, I feel that they will be in top form. At any rate, we will be seeing a match between the two leading players of the last 10-15 years, excepting of course the retired Kasparov, so this will be of extreme importance in historical terms. The only, and serious, drawback in my mind is that the match is so short - 12 games is not near enough to determine a true champion. Kramnik's Leko and Topalov matches should make that clear.
The DVD Vladimir Kramnik, My Path to the Top lasts over six hours; it consists of 4 interviews and 14 segments in which Kramnik recounts aspects of his career while showing games or parts of games. In fact, he begins 10 games in positions past the 20th move and one at move 17 - this is not a DVD for learning openings! Only two games begin at move 1. However two others begin at early positions from the Berlin Defence.
The interviews strike me as relatively mundane; some of them have appeared in ChessBase Magazine, but it's unlikely that most fans have seen them before. They cover a variety of topics such as his health. To me, the more interesting moments include his opinions about the World Championship tournament in Mexico (before it occurred), and a lengthy discussion of the cheating allegations and events in the Topalov match in Elista.
After the interviews begins the bulk of the DVD, a tour of Kramnik's career. The first segment is a chronicle of Kramnik's early life. The details of his birth and childhood aren't exactly gripping; indeed, it would have been nice to find out more about his parents instead. But he soon turns to chess, which he says he learned at age 5. Kramnik portrays himself as working virtually alone, out of books, until age 9, with only limited help from a local teacher. He is an outsider and unknown in the Soviet chess world up to age 12, when he is fortuitously admitted to the 'Kasparov-Botvinnik' school. In Kramnik and Damsky's biography from several years ago, the basic plot is the same, but less romantically presented. In that book, the help that he receives as a young player is not so amateurish; in fact, it includes teaching by Averkin, the well known master who served as Polugayesky's second. Regardless, Kramnik convincingly attributes his improvement to his own study. His first book, acquired fairly soon after he began to play, was Karpov's best games, which he read over and over again. Kramnik says that it influenced him tremendously, and that to this day his style is as close to Karpov's as to anybody's. He also studied Nimzowitsch. Interestingly, he believes that, had he first studied Tal or Kasparov, he probably would have adopted their style and would play more like them!
As a 12-year old, Kramnik placed 5th in the Soviet Under-18 Championship behind Kamsky and Shirov, a remarkable feat given his age. Then in the World Under-14 he scored hugely but finished second to Topalov, who was on fire and finished with something like 10 of 11. Later, Kramnik won the World Under 18 Championship. At age 16, he played in the 1992 Olympiad in Manila, and seems to remember this as fondly as any event in his entire career. Kasparov had insisted that Kramnik be elevated to the team in spite of the fact that so many nominally stronger and more experienced players were ahead of him. Instead of feeling the pressure, Kramnik said that he was so thrilled and happy to be on the team that he played extremely well, in fact winning a board prize (and overall best score) with an amazing 8.5 of 9 points. His nostalgia for the event, however, is also due to his introduction to late night drinking and card playing with the rest of the team. Not surprisingly, Kasparov disapproved of these activities, but was unable to object too strenuously in view of the overwhelming results that the team kept posting.
In Linares 1993, his first supertournament, Kramnik finishes with a more-than-respectable +2. He says that he learned what it was to play at this level, and is astounded by Karpov's brilliant defence against him in a totally lost position (eventually producing a draw). Kramnik thinks that this quality of resistance separates the super-GMs from the 'ordinary' ones; interestingly, Kasparov has made precisely the same point. In the mid-to-late 1990s, Kramnik works with Sergei Dolmatov, whose strengths are classical play, defence, and the endgame, areas in which Kramnik improves his play. In turn, this leads to some modification of his style.
The famous Kasparov match is of course covered at some length, with 4 games/game segments, including 3 draws and 1 win. Before that, Kramnik takes a long time describing match preparation, including the way that he chose his team of seconds: Lautier, Illescas, and Bareev. One entire segment is purely verbal and devoted to his decision to play the Berlin Defence against Kasparov. This is followed by two segments with Berlin Defence games, with a close description of the characteristics of the so-called 'Berlin Wall'. That makes up a tutorial that encompasses the main ideas of the opening in some detail and could be used as a basis for playing it (although early White deviations from the Berlin Wall are not discussed; they are fairly easy to learn on your own). Not surprisingly, Kramnik views the line as something where memorization and computer analysis are largely irrelevant. More surprisingly, he says that when surveying openings for the match and coming upon the Berlin, he immediately decided to play it and didn't seriously prepare anything else!
Kramnik shows one game from his Leko match, the final one, in which he needed a win to retain the title. He talked about his preparation for 4 minutes, thinking about 'how good it would be not to be Word Champion'! Basically, he pretended that he had lost the match and therefore put himself in a 'win-win' situation. The game itself takes over 34 minutes to analyse. He begins with the first move this time and in fact takes an unusual amount of time discussing the opening (prepared by Bareev). Kramnik faults Leko for avoiding complications in the search of a needed draw. He compares this to Karpov's passive play as Black versus Kasparov in the final game of Seville 1987, where Karpov only needed to draw and similarly, played too cautiously.
Kramnik presents four games from the Topalov match, all of them in positions beginning after move 20, and therefore not including the opening. They are treated at length, even though the variations are generally limited in depth. His commentary is mostly matter of fact, rattling off variations, but he occasionally interrupts with a comment about the psychology of the situation or even descriptions of his sudden excitement and joy at the points during games where his opponent blundered and he knew he was about to win the game. One gap is his failure to show games from or even mention his 1998 match with Shirov. Losing this qualification match for the championship was surely the biggest disappointment of his career, although he had previously lost matches to Gelfand and Kamsky in his other World Championship cycles, also not mentioned. It would have been interesting to hear him comment upon the Shirov match and find out how he reacted to it and recovered his bearings.
The last section out of 20 is a two-minute talk about his situation at the time of the taping (before Mexico City, where Anand won the Championship) and his hopes for the future of his career and of chess as a sport.
One complaint: I'm not sure why ChessBase didn't include a database of Kramnik's games. What's more, even the mini-base of the 14 games that he analyses on the DVD are given with no verbal notes, only the analysis as shown on the DVD. With the Anand DVDs, by contrast, ChessBase not only gives us over 2000 of his games, but on each disc several hundred are annotated by GMs, and over 150 by Anand. To be clear: only Anand's annotations to the games that he specifically shows on the DVDs are new, but they are verbal as well as analytical, and they match the discussion on the DVDs. The rest of the games were previously annotated, usually for ChessBase Magazine and often superficially; nevertheless, many players and fans won't already have them, so they'll provide a real bonus. It would have been very simple and used up hardly any space on the DVD to have done the same for Kramnik's games.
In spite of some drawbacks, I would still recommend Vladimir Kramnik, My Path to the Top, if only because anything done by a World Champion is of interest, and there are enough interesting moments to keep one's attention. On the DVD, we see a relaxed and self-possessed player discussing his career and giving us some personal insights. He is not very animated, and we largely miss out on descriptions of his life outside of chess; however, his thoughts about chess and the games themselves are worthwhile for anyone trying to understand what top-flight chess is all about. For me, there aren't enough games, and I'd rather have more than only two complete ones; but he presents the games with a number of insights relating to strategy and ways of thinking that you might not find elsewhere. I believe that most players, assuming that they understand that this product is not designed to improve their chess, will find it enjoyable and worth the price.
Vishwanathan Anand: My Career is a still more ambitious project. Between the two DVDs, we get over 8 hours of video, without interviews. The first DVD has 23 video segments, covering a large number of complete games, and the second 24 segments. Anand has in many ways had a more interesting life, and growing up in more than one locality and living in rather chess-starved milieus by comparison with Kramnik. As a player starting out (he learned the moves from his mother, which is a bit unusual), Anand was a club player for a good while, and at one point suddenly broke through; as it turned out, permanently. Perhaps regular 10-hour sessions at the chess club made a difference! To some extent this reminds me of Fischer's own progress.
The first DVD covers his career through 1999 (the first game coming from 1984). That time period includes winning the World Junior Championship, in 1987, his matches with Karpov (1991) and Kasparov (1995, for the World Championship), with descriptions of his other matches, particularly his two Candidate matches versus Kamsky.
For the first part of the first DVD, Anand presents the games with an emphasis on individual positions from the middlegame or endgame, much as Kramnik above, skipping over the opening and early middlegame entirely, or with a brief comment. This can be a bit strange, especially as he calls 'the moves 'not very important' or says 'the game itself is not that remarkable', or simply 'you can play it over.' At another point he says: 'A fun game but I'll just take you to the ending'. In my judgment these games would be quite interesting for the average player: They are double-edged and strategically rich.
Fortunately, once this shaky start is past, he goes on to provide more and more detail, livening up the discussion with numerous positional lessons as the DVD continues. His first victory over a GM is a nice Dragon (on the White side) versus Mestel; Anand admits that he played this complex game in 25 minutes, and not because he knew the opening! Sometimes he gets excited about an idea that might at first not seem to have much to do with the game, for example, when he shows how he came up with a queen trap idea in the Sicilian which he recognised from having studied the Catalan.
While describing his odyssey through the international tournament circuit, Anand shows critical losses, for example, a depressing loss in which Kaidanov plays a simple but pretty 2-move tactic that Anand had missed. Periodically he comments that he played a whole game in 20 minutes or that he 'blitzed the whole game.' This comes out in a neutral fashion: He doesn't appear to be bragging, nor self-critical. Some words on the subject of fast versus slow play would have been interesting. In a nostalgic last session (from the 2nd DVD) about his family and friends who have helped him, he quotes his father as contradicting the many players who advised him to slow down. He advised Anand to 'go ahead if you see something fast and play it'. Not bad counsel, as it turns out.
As the games continue, Anand warms up and goes much faster, providing excellent advice as he rips through variations. There's a great Ruy Lopez game versus Kamsky from the PCA Candidates Final, in which the game turns positional and Anand finds some wonderful ideas to gain a big advantage. The presentation is sharp and crisp; not only the complex positional phase, but also the method of breaking thru, requires quite a bit of explanation by analysis, and Anand also succeeds in talking through it, all in the course of less than 7 minutes! Or, for example, there's a complex game versus Shirov in which there are several subplots (a long-term positional sacrifice suddenly turns into a roaring attack). Anand shows the game in detail, and then returns to tell a story about the opening. After he finishes, you look up and see that less than six minutes has passed! This is quite fun.
Anand skips over the Kasparov match, making some interesting general comments about where he went wrong and how the match turned around psychologically in 3 games (win-loss-loss). But perhaps the whole thing is too painful to dwell upon, because he doesn't show any specifics. His 9th game win is a beautiful one, and you can read his notes to it in the accompanying database.
The second DVD covers 2000 through the World Championship in Mexico City in 2007. 2000 is a huge year in which he finally wins the FIDE World Championship, a title that he considers legitimate and at the time signified the culmination of years of effort. He expresses his disappointment and frustration (anger?) at the famous Prague Talks and the process that led up to them. Anand points out that he hadn't been out of the top 3 players in the world from 1996 to that point (which still holds true up to the time this DVD was made), and was always in the top 5 going back to 1991. And of course his career had been sprinkled with major successes in Linares, Wijk aan Zee, Candidates matches, the FIDE Championships, etc. Yet he arrived in Prague to find that his name wasn't on anyone's list dealing with proposals for the unification of the World Championship! From that point on, he decided to ignore the title and simply play chess. On the DVD, he shows us some particularly nice wins over the next two years.
In 2005, after the retirement of Kasparov, the issue of the World Championship and associated events arose again. Anand was #1 in the world at the time, but right at that point Topalov went on his stunning run of successes and became a favourite for the San Luis World Championship. As it turned out, he stayed hot and beat out Anand, who finished 2nd. Anand shows his class by again presenting a loss (he also includes some nice draws), this time to Topalov in Sofia 2005, to show how strongly Topalov was playing.
For the 2007 World Championship tournament in Mexico, Anand talks about his mood and approach; he also discusses the opening preparation, in particular in the Semi-Slav, which gave him success playing Black. The course of the tournament over the first rounds made a crucial difference, beginning with the very first one, in which he blundered versus Gelfand and should have come out with a huge disadvantage; fortunately, Gelfand missed the opportunity and offered a draw. Later, Anand reflected that this was probably one of the two most important games in the entire (long) tournament (the other a win over Grischuk that secured his 1-point advantage). Looking back on his victory in Mexico City, he says that he's happy that there's no ambiguity about 'two titles' or any of that, and that he's finally the only World Champion. At the end of the DVD is talking from the perspective of preparing for the Bonn match vs Kramnik.
I think that Anand's two-DVD set is better and more entertaining than Kramnik's in almost every respect, although both are well worth getting. Anand is generally warmer and covers more ground in terms of both his story and chess material. I like the fact that he deals with his ups and downs, and that he shows his losses. You feel the disappointments and pleasures as you follow his career. I also prefer complete games to game segments, especially when you are talking about important games which have a story to them. And, as mentioned above, Anand's DVDs contain a complete database.
Congratulations to ChessBase for releasing these two high-quality products; viewing them has made me all the more excited about the coming match.