Boris Gelfand is an Israeli “super” Grandmaster and a chess legend. His over 30 years’ long professional career achievements include reaching world #3 ranking, winning many top tournaments and most notably qualifying for the world championship title match where he was one rapid game away from becoming the world champion. We had the privilege of having this insightful interview with him at his home in Rishon Lezion, and also getting a treat of his excellent homed brewed coffee!
Boris, thank you so much for dedicating time for this interview. Could you tell us how did you start playing chess, and why do you think it was you who made it this far?
I started playing chess at age 5, and it was by accident. My father had bought a chess book for me to read. My parents were not chess players, he just thought it would be a good way to develop a child and he never imagined that it would become a habit of a lifetime. The book caught me and this is how I started my journey into chess. Which book was it? It was “Journey to the Chess Kingdom” by Averbach and Beilin. Then we had the summer vacation and there at the beach where adults playing chess. I got fascinated by chess and was going there to play them the entire vacation, and I even won some of the games. One of those adults was my father’s friend and he said to my dad that I had a special talent and I should go study chess seriously. I was 6 and this is when I started training regularly and gradually became absorbed and excited by chess. At first it was only on weekends, then 2-3 times a week, and later I became totally absorbed by it. I started dedicating most of my time to chess. I’d come home from school, do some homework, and then train for the rest of the day or go through a new chess book without the board. I needed a good trainer. Luckily I lived in a big town, Minsk, where there were good trainers and we were a group of strong kids in the chess club. Then successes started to come. I took 3rd place at USSR championship for ages under 16. I remember one funny moment when my father one day suggested we go for a walk in the park, and I refused and told him that if I go, then while I’m in the park my rivals would be spending time learning chess and getting better. At some point my trainer went to USA and he asked his friend to replace him as my coach. That friend was a famous coach, Albert Kapengut, who also trained Michael Tal, among others. He was my coach for many years since then and together we did the journey to world #3 in 1990. To the question why me, I’d say that it was my complete dedication and motivation, being lucky to have a great coach, and being in an environment with other great players.
Many chess players are also talented in other areas. Do you think pursuing other interests in parallel is an obstacle to achieving world top level?
Yes, it’s true. It’s not an easy choice, since being a chess players isn’t a good income generally. It depends also where you live. There are countries where it’s better to be a doctor, for example, than a chess player. In some other countries where this is not the case, the parents and the kids are highly motivated, like in India for example. Even Magnus Carlsen’s father once asked me for advice when Magnus was around age 16, whether it’s a good idea for him to become a chess player, or should he go to study. What did you say to him? I told him that Magnus has a huge potential and definitely should focus on chess – but it’s up to him to decide. Only those who have no hesitations may succeed. In Israel we have other problems.If you want to be a chess player you should go against society. People don’t realize it’s a very hard work. Kids here are being told you shouldn’t play too much chess. So many great talents just get to be good enough to get a scholarship for the college in the US for example, and never get to reach the top level. Each of the players that don’t make it to the top have their own reasons, some don’t like to work hard, some like to study hard, but don’t like to play, others have no natural ability to gamble or to take risks. You need all these combined to succeed. In recent years only one Israeli, Tamir Nabaty, went all the way – he had a very good period last year. He’s really strong, has some special style without a trainer, really impressive, but he is the only one. I’d say in Israel one could give it all until the army age, get the “sportai mitztayen” and then see.
What are the optimal conditions for a child to be on the path to world top in chess?
Firstly, he needs to be born to a family that supports him but without a pressure. Trainer should be demanding, but parents should be out of the process. Unfortunately, all over the world, but especially in Israel parents play too much of an involved and negative role. Secondly, the kid should have ambition and passion. Motivation could be different for different people. For example, my motivation is to perfect myself, also Kramnik’s .Carlsen’s is to win every game. Each motivation that pushes you forward is good. Some just want to impress a girlfriend. The third condition is to have a good coach. How do you know whether the coach is good? By his track record. He has to be known for bringing results. In Israel, fortunately, we have some of the best coaches in the world. Alex Huzman and Lev Psakhis brought up all the best talents in Israel and many others around the world. Alon Greenfeld brought two players to 2700 (from India, Vidit and Adhiban) and also Emil Sutovsky. Fourth condition is to have a good environment – a group of players of the same level together. It’s important to interact with other players from whom you can learn, and who can learn from you.These are healthy and fruitful relations which are beneficial to both sides. It’s also a healthy rivalship. Chess is a lot about information – when you share your approach it’s a win-win. Kramnik and I, for example, have been doing this from 1992. For more than 25 years, we exchange our ideas about chess. I also do it with other top players, like Aronian.
Is school an obstacle? What about travelling to the tournaments?
I think if the guy is bright he can manage the school. Traveling to tournaments is very important. One needs to play strong players. For a small country we do have a concentration of good players, but this is not enough. In the Israeli top league same players play each other and no one progresses. There is no diversity of opponents. It might be OK up to a certain level, like below 2450, but not more. When I was young I lived in a big city with many good players - when I played city championship I learned a lot from each game. But when you already know how to play against all of your opponents you’re stuck.
These days there are so many ways to practice chess: on-line games, chess database programs, YouTube videos, books ,etc.. What is in your mid the most efficient way for a young player to spend his time learning chess?
This is a very good question. In my time, there was a lack of information. Today, there is too much information. It’s easy to get distracted, that’s why you need a good coach. Playing 1 minute bullet games on-line would not give you any progress in chess. Playing versus strong opponents is very important, but it’s better to stick to at least 10 or 15 minutes time controls. To distribute the time optimally, one needs to rely on a good coach. The needs are different for every player, for example some players are good in simple positions, others are good in sharp, complicated positions that require a lot of calculation. The coach would know how to direct the player on what to train on and how to distribute the time.
In recent years, chess in Israel has become more popular among the general population, but the level of achievement and a number of top rated players declined sharply. What do you attribute this to?
It’s true, in the years 2000-2015 Israel had one of the strongest chess teams in the world. Partly, it was helped by the Soviet Union immigration. We were also high on the map for international tournaments. But then it turned back when Israeli chess was hijacked by a group of people with low chess qualification and narrow-minded personal interests.They have no idea how to organize the professional chess life and how to allow our best talents to reach success. The approach of the federation in Israel is counterproductive to achieving top level. Recently, the new chairman of the federation was able to raise large funds, but the money is distributed such that there is no progress. The way money is spent encourages mediocrity, doesn’t reward the best enough and there is no respect for good coaches and players. Of course, I’m the enemy number one. In recent years there were no good international tournaments in Israel. This year it’s changing and the new chairman of the federation managed to bring two tournaments- FIDE Grand Prix in Tel Aviv in December and a very strong international festival in Netanya in July. Meanwhile, in other countries they work very hard at a young age. I know this because I travel to give lectures to junior teams worldwide. In India for example, kids train professionally from a young age and already have very strong players ages 12-13. Chinese also. Players from these two countries already constitute a large part of world’s top young players. Recently I was giving a lecture in Uzbekistan, and there was a strong GM aged 14 who asked me which books I’d recommend for him to study. I suggested a number of books, but was surprised by his answer: he said he had already read all of them. If everything goes ok, he will be in the world's elite in 3-5 years. On the popular level indeed there has been a big progress in Israel. Here in Rishon, most of the schools and kindergartens teach chess and 10% of the kids go to the chess club.I’m proud of this achievement!
Tell us about the experience of being world top player? And also, what is your daily training routine like?
It’s very demanding. You’re always in competition with the best players in the world. Each day, for 30 years now, I try to keep up the level. When you win–it’s a big satisfaction.There is a kind of artistic satisfaction from winning a chess game for me. My daily routine starts with breakfast, then morning physical exercises, then I start the chess training. I look at some games, solve some positions. After lunch I start working on preparation to the next game, preparing surprises for my opponents. In the evening, some more exercises. People don’t realize how much constant investment there is to stay at the top level. Once a guy was sitting next to me on the plane, he recognized me,we had a nice conversation, and then he asked what I do with all that free time when I’m not playing chess.
What are your plans for the career going forward?
I try to play well, on the level of the best players in the world. For that I need to manage my energy levels, get enough sleep and so on. I give lectures to national teams. I write books. I believe it’s important to share my chess knowledge and I’m happy that this is appreciated. Many players tell me they appreciate my books. I hope this year the third volume will be out.
Last question, which is hard to resist not asking - how was the world championship match experience like?
I would separate it, there was the way to the match and the match itself. The way to the match I had to win two of the highest level tournaments, the Word Cup and the Candidates tournament. The match itself - I believe it was up to destiny. And it turned out not to be my destiny. From chess point of view I did my utmost and I am very proud of it. I think I played very well. During the match you had won a game after all draws, which put you in the lead, but then lost the next game, which was unfortunate. Right. I guess I did not return my balance fully. Every time after you win a good game you get excited, and I always try to balance. It’s true for every tournament, not just the world championship match. Is it also true during the game, when you get early advantage? Yes, It’s not over till it’s over.
Boris, thank you very much for dedicating your time for this interview, and sharing your valuable insights!
Sure, you’re welcome!