Interview with GM Evgeny Sveshnikov

By Angelmann, courtesy of

I had hoped to interview Sveshnikov back in 2008, at the Cesenatico tournament, but I knew that the great player and theoretician didn’t speak English very well, (neither do I, in any case…) and my Russian isn’t particularly fluent … :o ) Here in Roseto, I was lucky to be helped out by Sandra, a beautiful Lithuanian girl. Sveshnikov agreed to the interview immediately, especially as he learned that I represent, an amateur blog, whose only goal is the promotion of our game.

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Scacchierando: You were born in Cheliabinsk, and currently live in Riga.

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Yes, I was born in Cheliabinsk, in 1950, I am 60 years old but I can’t really say that I feel my age! My mirror reflects an image that I have a hard time recognizing … (Sveshnikov smiles broadly throughout the interview, sometimes with sly, playful humour, with an intelligent look in his eyes, the look of someone who is passionately interested in every aspect of life). I divide my time between Cheliabinsk, where my two daughters live, and Riga, where my two boys are. I got married twice: when I was 33 I had a very serious illness, and during that time my first marriage broke down; two Russian women, a brunette and a blonde (said with the smile of someone who has always admired women).

Scacchierando: At what age did you learn the game?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: When I was two I used to play with checkers! When I was five my father taught me the rules of chess. I played with him and my grandfather, and soon enough I was able to beat them both, even if chess was still only a family pastime. Things changed when I was 8; I went to a summer camp, with kids of all ages, and competed in the chess tournament, which I won! I consider it the first of the 93 tournaments I have won so far. The prize consisted in a wooden plaque with “The Winner” written on it, and I still have it! I hope I will be able to reach the 100 mark sometime.

Scacchierando: You then played in the Pioneer palaces, did you have any teachers?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Yes, I started playing more frequently. I had only one teacher, a candidate (a Russian candidate of the time is comparable in strength to a present-day FM or IM), Leonid Aronovitch Gratvol, who is 73 today and lives in Israel, we are still in touch. I was never a child prodigy. My growth as a player was slow and mostly due to the effort and passion I put in my studies.

Scacchierando: Apart from chess, were you able to complete your studies?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Yes, I earned a degree in engineering when I was 22 and following that I started work. I hadn’t done my (compulsory) military service, and when I was 24 I was asked if I wanted to serve in the army or, since I was a Master, if I wanted to play chess. I chose chess, and I rapidly became IM at 24 and GM at 27. When I was a boy I loved geography and dreamed of seeing the whole world; chess has given me the opportunity of doing so and there’s very few places where I haven’t been!

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Evgeny Sveshnikov

Scacchierando: Did your interest in theory start early in your career? I read that you have worked a lot with Gennadi Timoshchenko.

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Not really. Timoshchenko also lived in Cheliabinsk and after one of our games, which I won, he asked about my idea and the strategic themes I was working on, so we ended up working together for a while. I have always been interested in theoretical work, and I started to teach very early in my career, when I was 30.

Scacchierando: I thought that as a Latvian, and being a great attacker, you had had ties with the great Riga school, but it seems this is not what happened …

Evgeny Sveshnikov: No, not at all. Gratvol was my only coach.

Scacchierando: What success in your chess career do you remember more fondly?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: I don’t think I have a favourite, as on the one hand I love the game on its whole, on the other hand I am more attached to single games, to creativity, nice combinations, to particular moments in a game. Botvinnik worked a lot to bring forth a scientific-mathematical view of chess, being, as he was, a pioneer on computer science research, which was a strong influence on the Russian school and the very development of chess. I have always preferred a more artistic and creative vision.

Scacchierando: Then you probably are an admirer of the great creative attackers, like Tal, Nezhmetdinov …

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Definitely. I knew Nezhmetdinov well, I shared a room with him during a one-month training session. An interesting and brilliant man, the only person I have known capable of excelling both in checkers and chess. With Tal I have a plus score, 4-3 in my favour, I believe.

Scacchierando: You have met many world champions …

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Many! My overall score against World Champions is nearly level, 22 – 23. Besides Tal, I have played with Smyslov, Petrosjan, Spassky, Karpov, Kasparov, Kramnik and Anand. I don’t consider the Fide knock-out tournament winners World Champions. As far as I’m concerned, the title went from Kasparov to Kramnik and then Anand.

Scacchierando: What are your memories of the Chess Olympiad in Turin?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: In general I don’t like Chess Olympiads very much. I have played in many team competitions, sometimes with flattering results. Concerning Turin, I particularly remember the playing hall, truly splendid. I have played many times in Italy , the first time in Marina Romea in 1977. I particularly like Sicily, where I won a tournament. I think I won 6 tournaments in Italy overall.

Scacchierando: Chess requires a lot of time and effort. Does it take more than it gives?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Everyone is looking for something in Chess, and Chess has a lot to offer. I have always had a great passion for it, and I still find it wonderful.

Scacchierando: You support the idea that it should be necessary to introduce rules protecting the great players, giving them copyright of the games they play.

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Absolutely. Games are instantly available to anyone all over the world. It would be enough to introduce a small fee for watching live games to change things. Also, databases make playing and creating very difficult. It’s too easy to become a GM nowadays, and too many grandmasters limit themselves to “push pieces around”. The elbow room for creativity is far too small today.

Scacchierando: Could Chess 960, Fischer Random, be a new frontier?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: I don’t like Chess 960, many starting positions are too unnatural or unbalanced (we had some trouble communicating at this point, and we hope to have rendered Sveshnikov’s thoughts correctly, as our interpreter had no knowledge of Chess).

Scacchierando: A last question, which champion of the past have you loved the most?

Evgeny Sveshnikov: Well, loving chess, all of them! But I might add that I hold in great esteem not especially, or not only, the World Champions, but also the great innovators. The names of Paulsen, Chigorin, Nimzowitsch spring to mind. In a more modern setting, I would name Boleslavsky, Geller and Polugayevsky. These are men who have ventured to a deeper level of understanding, who have explored not only the practical, or competitive side of chess , but the game in its entirety. Maybe, like the great explorers of old, they are the true winners in the history of chess.

Here the interview came to a close, a one hour walk through history and the vision of a great such as Evgeny Sveshnikov. And talking about great innovators … Mark Taimanov described the Sveshnikov variation of the Sicilian Defence as the last great innovation in Openings theory.