Sunday, June 19, 2011

World Chess Championship Challenger Boris Gelfand: "You Constantly Have to Pose Threats to Your Opponent"

Veteran Grandmaster Boris Gelfand has maintained a perch near the top of the chess world for two decades but he has never won the ultimate prize, the World Championship. Gelfand's recent victory in the Kazan Candidates Matches earned him the right to face World Champion Viswanathan Anand in a 2012 World Championship match. Gelfand, 43, will be the third oldest challenger in World Championship play since official records have been kept (dating back to the 19th Century); Anand, 41, is also "old" for a top level Grandmaster. While the general public may falsely conceive of chess as a game played by old men in the park, the reality--particularly in the last 15-20 years as computers and the internet have played an increasingly important role in training and preparation--is that elite level chess is predominantly a sport for the young, the healthy and the vigorous; Bobby Fischer set a record by becoming the world's youngest Grandmaster as a 15 year old in 1958, a mark that stood for 33 years but has subsequently been surpassed more than two dozen times as a wave of young players has stormed the citadels of the Game of Kings.

In a recent interview, Gelfand discussed some similarities between chess and soccer, described the necessary mindset for a champion (pay attention LeBron James) and explained why his relatively advanced age has not slowed him down. Here are some highlights from the interview:

1) Gelfand said that chess and soccer are similar because "in soccer, like in chess, you constantly have to pose threats to your opponent." This analogy can be extended across to other sports and even to life itself: it is impossible to win if you are always on the defensive (which should not be confused with suggesting that offense is more important than defense: the best defensive teams generally play an aggressive, attacking defense that makes the opponent uncomfortable and thus forces mistakes). When LeBron James stopped attacking the hoop in the NBA Finals and stopped threatening the Dallas Mavericks the balance of power decisively swung from the Miami Heat to the underdog Mavericsks.

2) Gelfand noted two valuable lessons from watching the Barcelona-Manchester United soccer match:
  1. Always remain humble
  2. There is always room for improvement--you cannot be satisfied by your performance, even if you win.
James and the Heat were hardly models of humility and after the Heat lost James defiantly said that he could hold his head high; ESPN's Magic Johnson--a five-time NBA champion--rightly noted that the correct message for James to communicate was for James to pledge to work on his game (i.e., not be satisfied) to make sure that he would be better prepared to take advantage of such opportunities in the future.

3) Gelfand rejected the idea that his age is a factor even though so many of his competitors are much younger: "The only thing I feel is that it takes me a little longer to recuperate between games, and perhaps it is a bit more difficult for me to achieve consistency, compared to past years. However, by no means do I feel any decline in my tactical ability. When I play I am in full concentration, a condition I attribute to the healthy life style I lead."


Anonymous said...

I liked the Gelfand interview. He says to "always remain humble", and whether he's talking about a friends (controversial?) comment, rivals not playing in the qualifiers or different tournament formats pros and cons he does sound humble desipte the seemingly always politically charged chess atmosphere.

I disagree with his view that "in chess - no one can withstand constant pressure". In soccer or chess, an opponant can close a game down.

Interesting he also compares chess to NBA basketball.

It sounds like his preperation was lots of matchs and tournaments, he was "game fit" going into the qualifiers.

Some people have said having two 40+ players has taken some of the shine off the world championship matches. But listening to Gelfand talk about experience and learnings, I think its good that a couple of seasoned players have made it through.

An enjoyable first half to the interview. Especially the discussion about chess formats.


David Friedman said...


I understood Gelfand's comment about "pressure" to mean that if one player consistently puts his opponent on the defensive then the opponent will eventually wear down mentally, psychologically and/or physically. It is possible to "close a game down" but it is difficult to do so if your opponent maintains the initiative; chess masters and chess grandmasters are very skilled at maintaining the initiative in positions where they only have a slight but durable edge and this "pressure" tends to wear their opponents down. In contrast, weaker players will break the tension prematurely (by exchanging pieces or fixing the pawn structure) and thus not put "pressure" on their opponents in such positions.