Vlad the Virtuoso

Vladimir Kramnik best games display a fusion of elegance and force that give the impression that this is as well as chess could be played

Chess

The chess world has got the championship decider it wanted. The opponent for India’s Viswanathan Anand in November will be Magnus Carlsen, after the 22-year-old Norwegian last month won the great London tournament between the eight qualifying challengers.

Yet it could so easily not have happened. As this column noted ahead of the event,while Carlsen was the favourite, the Russian ex-world champion Vladimir Kramnik “is an awesome competitor, who will not yield an inch, even under the most extreme pressure”. So it proved: Carlsen (five wins, seven draws and two losses) tied with Kramnik (four wins, nine draws and one loss) for first place, and since they drew their two games against each other, the Norwegian won the tie-break on the basis that he had scored more wins. As Nigel Short pointed out, this was somewhat perverse as it meant that Kramnik was eliminated for having lost fewer games than Carlsen.

 More frustrating still for the 6 ft 5 in Russian, his only loss came in the last round. Knowing he probably had to win, Kramnik took uncharacteristic risks and spurned several drawing opportunities against the volatile but immensely dangerous Vassily Ivanchuk. As it turned out, a draw would have been sufficient to earn Kramnik the right to a revenge match against Anand (who took his title in 2007), because Carlsen also went down in defeat in the final round. 

 It must have been a bitter disappointment for the 37-year-old Kramnik, who had been half a point ahead of Carlsen with two rounds to play. Yet when I spoke to him at the prize-giving (presented by the chess enthusiast Chancellor George Osborne at 11 Downing Street) Vladimir seemed serenely untroubled and as good-natured as ever.

Some days later I called him, if only to find out how he managed to behave with such equanimity. He laughed: “I suppose I have this typical Russian fatalism; it’s an attitude I have to life generally.” When I pointed out a little tactlessly that he had given the media a present by not winning, since Carlsen is seen as the fresh face from the West, rather than just another Russian, Kramnik replied “If everyone was rooting for Magnus and not me, I don’t mind. He is the big Western star, I understand that. I understand that all the so-called progressive world was behind him. But I don’t think of that world when I am playing.”

He also gave another reason for being what I suppose we should call “a good loser” — and which I found almost incredible: “I’m not the competitive type. I don’t have the sportsman’s mentality. I absolutely don’t have the killer instinct. I never had it from the start.” Kramnik explained to me that both his parents belonged to the world of the arts, his mother as a piano teacher and his father as a sculptor: “My father taught me chess when I was five, very much as part of my cultural education; and over the chessboard even when playing for the world championship I think of myself as an artist, as my parents were.”

Kramnik brings to mind the French surrealist Marcel Duchamp, who played chess for France, and observed that “While not all artists are chess-players, all chess-players are artists.” Certainly, Kramnik’s best games have an extraordinary fusion of elegance and force, giving the impression that this is as well as chess could be played. Perhaps it is this, the desire to play the best possible chess, which makes him a tournament killer, even as he denies having any sporting instinct. In this sense, he is like the winner of multiple international piano competitions — a parallel he will have understood from observing his mother.

(There is perhaps another reason for Kramnik’s inner serenity, something unusual among chess players at the highest level. He is quite a religious man, who married his French wife Marie-Laure in a Russian Orthodox Church in Paris. He told me that he himself had been “baptised in secret in the Soviet Union. It would have been trouble for my parents if it had been known. They could have lost their jobs.”)

When I study the games of Vladimir Kramnik I feel a sense of genius, just as I do listening to the music of the greatest composers. Yet he dismisses this: “I’m no genius. And it’s a myth that chess champions are geniuses, or even much more clever than the average person. Anyone could become a Grandmaster, if he studied hard enough.” And what of the fact that as a 15-year-old he astonished people by being able to play 20 games simultaneously, without sight of any of the boards? “There are lots of things I’m useless at, an idiot in fact: I can’t read maps at all.”

Interestingly, Carlsen, who definitely does have the sporting killer instinct, shares Kramnik’s view that extreme chess talent is not the proof of a generally superior intellect. True or not, it would be a wonderful battle of the brains if these two could one day play a full-scale world championship match against each other. Kramnik actually has slightly the better of head-to-head encounters with Carlsen, leading by three wins to two. 

Perhaps the most elegant was the following game from the Dortmund Tournament of 2009 — a win which ensured that Kramnik finished in first place above the ultra-competitive Norwegian. 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 Be7 5.Bf4 (The standard move is 6.Bg5, but Kramnik prefers this more modest development) 0-0 6.e3 c5 7.dxc5 Bxc5 8.a3 Nc6 9.Qc2 Qa5 10.Rd1 Be7 11.Be2 dxc4 12.Bxc4 Nh5 13.0-0 Nxf4 14.exf4 (Kramnik’s pawn structure appears compromised, but it gives rise to interesting attacking possibilities) g6 15.g3 Rd8 16.Rxd8+ Qxd8 17.Rd1 Bd7 18.f5! (A sacrifice justified by the weak black squares around Carlsen’s king, but also by the variation 18…exf5 19.Qb3 hitting both b7 and f7) gxf5 19.Qd2 Qb6 20.Qh6 (Naturally Kramnik doesn’t fall for 20.Qd7? Rd8 trapping White’s queen) Be8 21.Ng5 Bxg5 22.Qxg5+ Kf8 23.Qh6+ Kg8 24.Qg5+ Kf8 25.Rd6! Qc7? (25…Qc5 was the best defence) 26.Qh6+ Ke7 (26…Kg8 is refuted by 27.Rxe6! fxe6 28.Bxe6+ Bf7 29.Nd5 Qe5 30.Nf6+) 27.Qh4+ Kf8 (27…Kxd6 loses the Queen to 28.Nb5+) 28.Qh6+ Ke7 29.Nb5 Qa5 30.b4 Nxb4 31.Rxe6+! (The coup de grace, requiring filigree calculation) fxe6 32.Qxe6+ Kd8 33.Qf6+ Kc8 34.Qxf5+ Kd8 (If 34…Bd7 35.Nd6+ wins the Queen) 35.Qf6+ Kc8 36.axb4 and Carlsen resigned. He would have seen that there is a forced checkmate in eight: 36…Qd8 37.Be6+ Bd7 38.Qc3+ Kb8 39.Qe5+ Kc8 40.Qc5+ Kb8 41.Bxd7 Qxd7 42.Qf8+ Qc8 43.Qd6+ and mate next move. A modern masterpiece.