|Posted: 7/26/2018 | Updated: 11/26/2018|
GM Chernin Speaks About Training Fabiano Caruana!!!!!
Can A Future ICA Student Become The World Champion Of Chess!?
In November, Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, a 25-year-old Italian American raised in Brooklyn, takes on world chess champion Magnus Carlsen as his official challenger. If he wins, he would become the first American world champion since Bobby Fisher won the title in 1972. Grandmaster Alex Chernin, a longtime coach for the International Chess Academy, was one of Caruana’s most important trainers during his adolescent development, and spoke about the experience with us in 2013.
For most students who stay an extended period of time with us (ten years or so) the ceiling for achievement hits around the 1500-2000 USCF rating level. It isn’t that most can’t go farther but rather, for them doing much more than this, or even more than that as was the case with players the caliber of Caruana is not as top a priority, as GM Chernin put it “to get on a traditional successful life track.”
There is nothing wrong in this decision either way, and as we have mentioned the tangible, and intangible benefits of a chess education have many useful applications away from the board as well, even though this cold sobering fact does little to comfort unfulfilled ambitions.
In some instances, such as with International Master Alex Katz, or national master Max Schwartz we do get students who decide to take things just a bit deeper over the board, but those are more exceptions that prove the rule as opposed to ones that break it.
The life of a professional chess player is not, and never was that glamorous if the player stood outside the top ten in the world, and that life would need to be supplemented with teaching, coaching, or writing because, truthfully, if you have to do something else to make a living you aren’t really a professional. Some perhaps get by with the help of a wealthy donor’s patronage but these are again exceptions that emphasize the rules.
While this may be a scary proposition to overcome, one of the things we as a school try to instill in our students is to breakthrough and fight, even in a lost cause sometimes, to overcome that impossible, and not even for the sake of succeeding but so later you don’t regret not trying hard enough.
Back in 2013, we conducted an interview with one of our longtime coaches, grandmaster Alex Chernin and saved it for precisely a time like this when we knew it would have the most impact.
In March of this year, grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, a child prodigy raised in Brooklyn who holds dual American and Italian citizenship, came back from a devastating late round loss to Sergey Karjakin to vanquish his remaining opponents in the Candidates Tournament. In doing so, he become the official challenger to world chess champion Magnus Carlsen, a 27-year-old Norwegian who has held the title since 2013. This November, Caruana will go up against Carlsen in a bid to become the first American world chess champion since Bobby Fisher won the title in 1972.
Chernin, who was born in Soviet Ukraine and now lives in Budapest, worked with young Caruana for three years in Chernin’s adopted Hungary from 2007-2010. There, he faced exactly the sort of questions from parents, and perhaps from Caruana himself, about whether it was time to quit chess due to the sort of individual failures all players have to go through to get to the top.
Unquestionably, Chernin’s work with Caruana tangibly paid off and we wanted to share this experience in order to inspire and educate. It may be a long shot, but perhaps there is a little player out there, an undiscovered child prodigy, who has these aspirations. And maybe – just maybe – he or she will be the next Fabiano Caruana.
This interview was conducted in Russian and later translated into English. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I worked with Fabiano Caruana for three years, during which he moved to Budapest. When we started, his rating was around 2490 [Note: He is currently rated 2822] and even though he had experience playing in the world junior championships his results were not stellar, which is all I knew about him at the time.
Of course, I soon familiarized myself with his games, which suggested a steady progress without any huge jumps in rating. In other words, a normal progression that improved after he had moved to Spain two years before he started working with me.
This is quite natural given that American tournaments aren’t the best place to reach your full potential—they are two games per day compared to one game per day in European tournaments. The move to Madrid in 2005 definitely created the right conditions for improvement and of course the Italian Chess Federation supported him financially which also helped.
We started working in 2007. Right after the first few sessions, he was able to cross the Grandmaster threshold thanks to three tournaments in Budapest called “First Saturday.” In that early period he also added a few victories in a couple of open tournaments. One of the open tournament wins was particularly important because it led to his invitation to the prestigious Wijk Ann Zee tournament Group C, an important milestone in his career.
From a chess standpoint he did have potential, especially in his ability to calculate. Of course, this ability was somewhat disorganized, but I could see that if it was something we worked on he could have meaningful accomplishments down the road. The ability to calculate is disorganized if it lacks discipline. An ability to calculate deeply is an inherent natural skill, so if the natural talent is there, a coach can deal with the disciplinary aspect of calculation and guide the student on the right path to success.
Today, with computer modeled lines of play, a player who lacks this inherent natural skill will die quickly on the board if he is pitted against someone’s prepared line. The standards for calculation therefore are quite high when it comes to the elite levels of chess.
Fabiano had a tough time at first because his instinct to give answers quickly clouded his ability to get correct results. This also unsurprisingly influenced some of his games in tournament play. It’s very important in chess not to latch on to the first idea you see but rather use it as a basis for further exploration. Teaching someone to do this can only be done by having him or her fail in solving a great deal of positions. In this way, their ego is forcing them to become more patient in finding the correct path.
His impulsiveness also influenced other aspects of the game including positional, preventative, strategic and endgame thinking. This took up roughly 50% of our time with the other portion spent on the aforementioned ability to “calculate.” This was perhaps even more critical in these aspects because when he was burned by the results of applying superficial solutions to complex problems he developed a very serious attitude to this facet of the game.
Another extremely important aspect of our work together was studying the so-called “classics.” We spent a great deal of time going over many historically significant chess games, especially focusing on Botvinnik (Note: Mikhail Botvinnik, the Russian-born international grandmaster and three time world champion for periods between 1948-1963), whose style I do believe reflects how Caruana plays as well.
I have to say that his profile as a chess player—right around 15 years of age with a rating flirting in the 2500 range—was quite typical for many teenagers in the world of chess. There is no shortage of players who reach this level around the age of 15-17 and are then faced with the question of what to do next. These players often realize that their rating is not growing as quickly as before and in many cases it would be quite reasonable to assume that they would stop playing serious, “professional” chess if left on their own without a coach. It’s an age when many players see their ambition curbed to something akin to a formally “professional” player but one whose limit is somewhere outside the level of the fifty best players in the world.
There aren’t that many individuals who specialize in this category of player. For this reason, many young talents disappear from the world of chess and most often find themselves in other fields of interest because they just do not know how to, on their own, cross over from the range of about 2500 to the level of 2700 (Note: the informal title of “Super” grandmaster is often attributed to this class of player).
At the moment, this rating corresponds to the top fifty players in the world and is the difference between a young talent and a fully well-rounded and educated chess player. It is a path that is quite difficult to walk alone, which is precisely what my role was in the case of Fabiano Caruana.
The whole process wasn’t just training, but a total education wherein he had to be taught many things that a top-50 player must know. He learned fast, and fewer than two years after we started working together he qualified for Wijk Ann Zee Group A, for which he had to win Group B.
In 2009 the B group was quite strong with players right outside the elite level including: Rustam Kasimdzhanov, Alexander Motylev, Nigel Short, Zahar Efimenko, Francisco Vallejo Pons. Winning this group showed how much Caruana had achieved to this point in time.
After this, our working relationship changed right up until the end of our contracted three years. Right before Wijk Ann Zee Group B, I started accompanying him and working as his second/trainer in tournaments. I served in this role 13 times. I didn’t want to trust this job to anyone else because the level of opposition jumps immediately to the level of world champions.
A young player has no idea how to prepare for this level of play. It was necessary to profile each player he had to face and detail their weaknesses and strengths, as well as how to hide the weak points in his own opening repertoire. I had to pass on all my own personal experience and knowledge of playing in elite level chess tournaments.
The last tournament I seconded for Fabiano Caruana was Wijk Ann Zee Group A, which was of course the highest level.
Objectively, I can’t say that his path with me was always perfectly smooth, and in fact I do think he could have reached the elite level a bit faster. One factor that hindered him, something that could only be overcome with time, was elementary maturity. If, in a chess sense, his attitude regarding the game was better than most other kids his age, from a basic personality standpoint it was somewhat lacking. This showed in his lack of control after one particular type of game. It most often cropped up when he was losing in a fighting game. In the next game there would be a drop by a few hundred rating points in his quality of play. Sure, after a while he recovered, but those double losses, one normal, and one catastrophic, haunted him throughout those three years.
I always told his parents that “he just needs time to grow up,” because he was his own worst enemy and this didn’t allow his rating to go up as high as it could have. Each of these double losses, especially when the loss came to a player rated in the 2300-2400 range, cost him around 15 rating points in 48 hours. Eventually he would get it back, but it interfered with his progress.
The result of our work was that he reached 2700, which was what we had agreed upon at the beginning of our relationship. We had projected this to take roughly three years, which it did, and then of course they left Budapest when the goal of a 2700 rating was accomplished.
After this he really didn’t need me, because at that level a player no longer needs educational training, but rather normal training and opening development. The training requires upkeep of his calculating abilities, and of course working on his opening repertoire. This would require a coach to limit themselves to just a single student which was not something I wanted.
I continue to work with players of this caliber, and Fabiano wasn’t the first who I coached to that level. One player before him was Csaba Balogh, a grandmaster who lives in Hungary. My relationship with Balogh was shorter, so the result was not the same as with Caruana, though I did take him from around 2400 to 2600.
I will say Fabiano had more clear-cut ambition in his character and that is why his results were better than Balogh’s. There’s no doubt that my work with Balogh, working on solving many of the same issues, helped when I started working with Fabiano Caruana.
Down the road my experience with these two players should aid me in developing new and as-yet hidden talents.
For me has always been necessary to try and prepare a few students like Caruana. I tell my students that their choice is either to continue studying serious chess or quit it altogether. Potential professionals, including Caruana, always ask that question of me, and of themselves. Throughout our working relationship, there were many times when Fabiano’s parents asked whether it may make more sense to quit chess, move to America, and pursue a college education and get on a traditionally successful life track. They always asked about the chances he had to become a “super” grandmaster and the world champion to which I always responded as follows:
He has a good chance to reach the top ten in the world, or thereabouts, sometimes in the top ten sometimes not, but maintain that position in a very stable and prolonged fashion. However, there will always be one or two players who will be stronger than him. I think the difference between him and Magnus is difficult to overcome, although I will say that given FIDE’s habit of changing the format and rules of the world championship match I believe there could be a scenario that favors Fabiano and he does become the World Champion.
Grandmaster Alex Chernin has been teaching in our “grandmaster” camp for many years each Summer and has worked with some of our strongest students on a semi-individual basis. He has authored the critical work “Pirc Alert” as well as other important chess works. If you’d like to get more information about our “grandmaster camp” with Chernin please contact Diana Tulman at firstname.lastname@example.org.