Preparation is key to success anywhere! I wouldn’t separate chess from other intellectual activities because preparation means that you’re analyzing the available data, that you understand your opponent, that you understand the framework of the game… And then you try to create conditions for the battle on the most favorable terms for you. When you have two top players, the result most likely depends on making sure that you play the game on your terms.
You started playing chess professionally in the 1980s — how did you go about finding that kind of crucial information without the help of the Internet?
You’re right that in my hey days, we didn’t have access to so much data. There was still preparation, you could still prepare for the games, you could collect games from magazines, you could learn about your opponents and about new opening moves… But the information travelled slow! Chess was always very popular in Russia, in Yugoslavia, and in Serbo-Croatia, and 50 years ago many players in the free world complained that they couldn’t read Russian magazines. They would sometimes even learn to read Russian just to make sure they had access to this data.
“You needed to be disciplined outside of the board, to make sure that the rest of your life did not hurt your ability to prepare for the most important matches.”
Why was chess so popular in Russia?
It was popular in Russia — in the Soviet Union, let’s be more specific — and around the socialist communist countries for a simple reason: it was viewed as the very important ideological weapon to demonstrate intellectual superiority of the communist regime over the decadent West. I’m the last person to complain because I benefitted from these programs where huge numbers of kids were introduced to chess and were supported by well-developed state systems. Still, you needed to be disciplined outside of the board, you needed to make sure that the rest of your life and activities did not hurt your ability to prepare for the most important matches.
Was it hard to keep up that pace, or did you enjoy doing it because you wanted to win?
Oh, for me it was not the challenge! I enjoyed it. And I always object to the people who say, “Oh, this person is not so talented but he or she is a hard worker.” I think working hard is a part of your talent, it’s an indispensable part of your success. And that’s what separates good players from great players.
So you couldn’t become a chess world champion on the basis of natural talent alone?
No. You can go far enough — but preparation is just part of every player. Some players are already starting their career at age seven or eight. We have some great young talents at age 10, 11, 12 and they already possess information about the game of chess, far superior to anything that [American chess champion] Bobby Fischer had 50 years ago, or even that I had 25 years ago.
Would you say that you need to be smart in order to excel in chess?
I mean, sure, you have to be smart to play chess. You have to be smart to play any game, poker, whatever. Great minds like Alfred Binet, the inventor of the IQ test, believed that chess was the key to reveal the secret of human intelligence… But what I know about chess is that having an aptitude for chess is nothing but aptitude for chess. If you’re good at poker, you’re also good at math, you know how to make bets… But chess doesn’t make you good or bad at anything else.
So what does make a great chess player? Maybe confidence or a kind of charisma that makes for a good show?
Sure, charisma never hurts with the press but at the end of the day, if you play chess, character is most important. I was world champion for 15 years. I was the top rated player in the world for 20 years. It was really a very long reign, and during this time, there were two thoughts that I had: one was that I knew that I had to stop playing chess at the point where I felt I could not make any more difference. It’s not just about winning, but also about making a difference. So what else I could contribute to the game of chess by winning these game? And at certain point I realized, that’s it and I moved on. The second thought was that if you stay on top, you have to remember that success is the greatest enemy of future success.
Because you can easily become complacent.
Right, or you could lose your ability to be critical in analyzing your own games. I was relentless in analyzing my own games and criticizing myself, even just condemning myself for making mistakes, wrong decisions. It’s all about reinventing yourself. And during that time, I had to cope with all kinds of changes, even when chess underwent this revolution of having computers involved… So that probably tells you that I had a combination of those qualities that helped me to stay on top.
How did that technological revolution impact the game of chess?
Okay, when I played Anatoly Karpov in 1985, for example, we played the matches, but then the next day, they’re gone, they’ve disappeared. I could take a risk in 1985 because I could play an opening even if I was not sure 100% it was correct — but it could be a surprise. Now this attitude has simply been eliminated because you have machines, you have computers, you just push the button and find out any information you need. There’s no more room for bluffs. Technology changed our ability to prepare for the game.
“You have to be more creative now. You have to upgrade your ammunition almost on a daily basis.”
You seem to have adapted well — you were the first chess player to start using a computer for your pre-game study, and you famously played a few games against an early IBM computer called Deep Blue in 1996.
The games against the IBM computer, I played with a blindfold because I had no information about Deep Blue, its past games and plays weren’t made available for me. I had to adjust to playing against an opponent that was not very sensitive to any psychological warfare. So the importance of preparation was really demonstrated… After that first match, what I learned was, well, if you can’t beat them join them! I was the first one to use a chess database as well as a computer for my at-home preparation. And now today, you cannot imagine! Every important game played in any corner of the world of chess is known, it goes right on the Internet. Some people say it kills creativity. My view is the opposite! It enhances creativity because you have to be more creative now. You have to upgrade your ammunition almost on a daily basis.
Does this continuing rise of technology concern or worry you?
Look, today, the difference between a chess engine that you can buy and install your computer, and Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, is about the same as the difference between Usain Bolt and a Ferrari. There’s no way you can compete against these machines, and I think it’s actually quite amazing! We should look for humans working with machines rather than fighting them. For now, machines still need humans, and soon we will be playing the role of shepherds, nudging the flocks of intelligent algorithms in the right direction. But I think the outcome is inevitable: machines are always getting better, and at some point eventually they will dominate.