Boris Gelfand comes across as a genial genius. Soft spoken and extremely warm in his ways, he is a favourite of the Indian players, young and not-so-young alike. When not playing competitively, Gelfand loves to spend time travelling to share his vast knowledge and hone budding players.
Not so long ago, he was best remembered in India for finishing second-best to Viswanathan Anand in the 2012 World Championship match in Moscow. But in recent years, he has worked closely with the teen talent of India that is so delightfully threatening to rule the roost sooner than later.
Thanks to the initiative taken by Microsense, a noted network systems integration company, Gelfand, along with Vladimir Kramnik, has had a closer look at the creamy layer of India’s budding chess talent.
A former World No. 3, Gelfand remained among the top 30 players for 27 years since 1990. He played for the Soviet Union and Belarus before representing Israel in 1999. The 54-year-old was in Chennai where the Indian teams for the Chess Olympiad were training. For over 10 days, Gelfand spent time with the players who could not have enough of him.
For one long session, Anand joined Gelfand and the two kept the group under their spell.
In Chennai on the invitation of the All India Chess Federation, Gelfand took time off to speak to Sportstar and maintained that India was a serious medal contender in both sections of the Chess Olympiad.
Boris, curious to know from you, do these players really need someone to “coach” them? Somehow the term does not sound appropriate considering the level at which most of them are currently playing.
You are right. Coach is not the correct term. Call me a consultant or a mentor because they are all great players. Actually, in the past, during the different projects, I helped the Indian junior players. I’ve been in Chennai here for the Microsense-organised camp. Then online coaching for the Westbridge Anand Chess Academy through Anand. So I’m familiar with younger players and have less experience with more experienced members of the team.
How do you deal with different styles of the players in any camp of this kind?
All chess players have their own style, their strong and weak points. My goal is to help each member of the national team to eliminate or minimise weak points and try to help how to channel a game in a direction where he is ahead and where his strong points are more vivid.
Dream team: Boris Gelfand with Vladimir Kramnik (left) at the official inauguration of a coaching camp in Chennai, in January, 2020. In recent years, Gelfand and Kramnik have had a close look at India’s budding stars.
| Photo Credit: M. KARUNAKARAN
In general, how was it working with this group?
It was great to work for about six days with the women’s team and then with the men. We all were together in it. So, we chatted, communicated and solved on-board problems. Even on days when I was sharing my experience with the women’s team, I also spent some time with members of the men’s team.
As a group, I think they are all very hard working, very motivated and focussed. I’m very glad to see [Koneru] Humpy get back to chess after some years. She is really in good form and is really sharp. Also, some other members of the team are very motivated. It’s the first home Olympiad and that, too, after the pandemic. Therefore, they are eager to show themselves and it’s a very good sign.
How do you plan your schedule for such a short duration camp?
You know, the time was not that much and I wanted to share something in the camp. But, of course, I have to listen. What’s more urgent for some? Where do they struggle the most? What is that a player feels less confident about and what could I do to boost it?
I spoke to them about the mistakes I made. All of us are human, all of us make mistakes, all of us will have our moments of weakness, lack confidence and worry about how we get better. So, I think, by doing this, I may help. Each of us thinks: ‘I’m the only one who has this kind of trouble’. In fact, for everyone, everybody, even the strongest players go through such moments.
How was it to have Anand around for a session?
It was nice that Anand found time to do it and I learned a lot. He made some points. Maybe, I have my style, I see it my way and he sees it another way. This way, when they (the players) see different approaches, they can pick up the best from each of us and make another push. You know, he is doing a lot. He is sharing his experience with juniors and it’s really fantastic.
The weight of expectations: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) with Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M. K. Stalin (centre) and Viswanathan Anand at the inaugural ceremony of the 44th Chess Olympiad. Gelfand knows there will be pressure on Indian players to do well. “I hope they will take it in a positive way than be stressful,” he says.
| Photo Credit: AFP
Any takeaway for you from what Anand said?
Anand made a point that the process of gaining confidence is different from tournament to tournament. In some tournaments, he is winning all better positions but none in some others. For me, it is not like this. For me, I have moments that are up and down. When Anand has his confidence and is doing well, he is unbeatable. I was looking through the games, what he explained, and then I realised how it works.
Talking of Anand, how do you remember your 2012 World Championship clash in Moscow?
It’s kind of interesting, because almost exactly after 10 years we played our World Championship match in Moscow, we met in Chennai.
Playing Anand was a unique experience and I’m proud I managed to get to this match. I prepared well to be equal to such a great opponent. A few years before that match, I was one of the best players of all but not all best players in the world succeeded. I managed to get to a point. I would say that was a matter of destiny.
It was a total equal match. Both sides had their chances. I missed some chances. He missed some chances. But it was a balanced match. Even in the (rapid) tiebreaker, I believe I played better that day. But he took his chances while I failed.
How would you reflect on your chess career at present?
I’m happy. I would be happy to play a bit more but for a year and a half, there was pandemic. From July to December last year, I played really intensively. I played eight tournaments. Now I don’t have that many invitations. Hopefully, something will come up. I will play more but also, at the same time, I’ll do some kind of mentoring.
I’m helping young players in different countries — a lot in India — improve and I’m happy to do it. Since that World Championship match, I have written four books. In all, I’m happy to play and share my knowledge as much as possible.
How do you assess the Indian teams for the Olympiad?
The Indian teams have great potential. I think people could underestimate India’s team B. They have the potential to be, at least, among the top 10… maybe even better. If some of the players are in form, it can go far. It is really a unique generation. They also have a more experienced B. Adhiban in the team. It will also help.
So I think the teams have a chance to fight for medals. I just hope they will be inspired by the local conditions and not be under pressure. There will be extra pressure because India is a big country and everyone is waiting (for India to do well). I hope they will take it in a positive way rather than be stressful. I just hope playing at home ground would help them… home food, climate etc. Also, objectively, for some teams coming from abroad could take some time to get adjusted. So India has the home advantage.