Tandem Interview: Onischuk and Shulman
By Betsy Dynako   
March 5, 2008
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Alex Onischuk and Yury Shulman in a tandem simul, Chicago, January 2008. Photo Besty Dynako


Betsy Dynako sat down with both Alexander Onischuk and Yury Shulman this past January during the Chess in Education workshops in Chicago. Both Grandmasters are very active in reaching out to chess fans. Alex's recently redesigned website includes analysis of his favorite games. Yury Shulman just co-wrote a book, "Chess Lessons From A Grandmaster," that you can read more about on his website . In Betsy's in-depth interview, she discovers that the two longtime friends sometimes finish each other's thoughts. She asks them about the best thing about being a professional chessplayer, the World Cup and Gata Kamsky's thrilling run.

  Grandmasters Alexander Onischuk and Yury Shulman first met as teenagers and to this day are buddies. Onischuk says, “We remember it well; we met in Alma-Ata (Kazakhstan) playing in a Junior Championship. We were playing so bad that we were joking – that there were three rooms over there: One room for the main players, one room for players that had some points and a third room for players that had practically no points. And that is where we played our first game.” As the three of us laughed at this description, Shulman blushed and said, “I remember, yes,” with a look that seemed to say, do we really have to talk about that part?

Onischuk continued, “The funny thing is…in that tournament I qualified for the World Junior in that event and won every single game after he the draw. So Yury gave me a push. He also started to play better after that and won more games than he lost.” Shulman finished the story by pointing out that Onischuk went on to take second place in the World Junior that year.

Training

To what do these Grandmasters attribute their chess success? Natural ability, study, personal instruction, or the Internet? Shulman first answered with a laugh, “number four", but then turning serious, said he owes his success to study, especially with books. Onischuk agreed, “The ability to study is more important than being talented or even being a genius. I know so many talented kids from my generation that were probably more talented than I, but I worked harder. To become a Grandmaster or a strong chess player you need so many things together. Good nerves, ability to train . . . .”

Shulman cut in, “to be able to sustain the losses. Players lose the ability to play just because they cannot take a draw, they cannot take a loss. They take it too easy, or most of the time they take it too hard.” 

Influence

Since studying was such a major part of their development as chess players, I wanted to know who their most influential teachers were. Onischuk answered first. “I think my first teacher was my greatest teacher. He wasn’t a grandmaster or anything. I believe your first teacher doesn’t have to be great at chess. A good teacher has to develop in you your chess playing personality.”

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Shulman had to think a little bit before he answered, “It is really hard for me to name one. I was very inspired first by my dad, who taught me how to play and then brought me to the chess club. He spent so much time with me he would say, “Yury, now you are suppose to read the chess book at this time. At the same time, of course, there is my first teacher Tama Gorivch, who stays with me now. Her husband Leonid Bondar was helping me also and he was my teacher in university. One of my strongest coaches was Albert Kapengut; he was an international master. He still plays sometimes.”

Shulman and Onischuk are chess teachers themselves now and will undoubtedly become another player’s most influential teacher.

Putting in the Hours


Onischuk said, “I think it depends on if a student wants to become really good. If chess is just fun for you, then just play and enjoy the game. If you want to become a professional, you have to train. Not just play blitz online.” We all laughed then Schulman said, “ICC. . .” and Onischuk finished the thought, “ . . . or with your friends. You have to really train – almost every day.” He paused, “At least one hour a day.”

Shulman:
“But every day.”

Onischuk:
“But every day.”

Dynako:
Not just seven hours on Saturday?

We all laughed.


Onischuk:
“No, no. Everyday! Ok, say, I have a New Year’s resolution to study chess and then you study for month and forget about it.”

Shulman:
“But even that month would be helpful if you studied for one month. But usually when people say they study for seven hours a day they studied for two hours that day, but they feel that they studied seven hours. . . ”

I took over for Onischuk when I finished off Shulman’s train of thought, “Or they think they studied that long but they go and get lunch, then some coffee, watch TV . . .” He wouldn’t let me go for long unchecked and countered with, “. . .play on the Internet.”  

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Alexander Onischuk playing a blindfold consultation game. Photo Betsy Dynako


Working With Your Idol

For Onischuk, his idol was easy to name: “I think Karpov was an idol for me when I was young, and…at some point I became his second. I have been his second for many, many years since 1996. I think I just got lucky that I met my idol and I have worked really close with him.” I had to ask Onischuk who has learned more, he or Karpov. Onischuk puffed up his chest and tried to speak with pride, but he didn’t quite pull it off, saying with a smile, “He was the student." Shulman burst out laughing. Onischuk continued, “. . . officially, but of course I learned more – ten times more, that’s for sure.” Shulman had the same experience with his friend Boris Gelfald.
 

Ups and Downs

Both enjoyed many victories and suffered many losses. Onischuk’s biggest win was easy to guess: “For me the top accomplishment was winning the U.S. championship. When I won the U.S. championship it was like, now what?!” Shulman and I laughed at Onischuk’s simultaneous joy and exasperation. “Maximum that I can do now is win the championship two times. I will never be the world champion. So it was like, I guess I could just retire after that.”

I hope he doesn’t really believe that he can’t become World Champion someday. The U.S. would love to see him pull it off.

For Shulman, there was no single tournament win that came to mind: “I think I remember more the individual games. I remember my loss to Alexei Shirov, which was a really tough loss for me. I had a winning position. I could have advanced. And again I remember the World Cup 2005 when I was able to eliminate Alexander Khalifman. Those events I tend to remember more, they are short but full of emotion. When I won the European Junior Championship, I didn’t even realize it. Some wins aren’t as connected to you personally. Sometimes it is not what is the biggest accomplishment, but what it means to you.”

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Alexander Onischuk lost to Magnus Carlsen in the tiebreak of the super-strong Biel 2007 round-robin.


I turned to the question of the losses. Shulman, of course, picked his second round loss to Alexei Shirov in the World Championship as his most painful/memorable loss. Onischuk needed to think about it longer for an answer, “I’ve definitely had many.” He paused for a long time and looked to the ceiling. He finally said with a shrug, “Somehow I cannot remember them.” The three of us burst with laughter. Shulman pointed out, “You see this is a really good quality of a chess player, he forgets the troubles . . . ” Onischuk cut in, “there are so, so many losses.”

Shulman:
“I am sure poor Alex can recall our last game when if he’d beaten me in the last round he would have qualified for the World Cup…Maybe he doesn’t want to recall right now…."

Onischuk:
“No, actually I have already forgotten about it.”

After another round of laughter, Onischuk shared this: “I was leading in some strong tournament, a round robin, and I played the white pieces against the lowest rated guy – not a bad player – an IM with a rating of 2400... but all the other players were top GMs. Had I won that game I would have at least shared first place. Of course, I lost, with White. I thought I was going to crush this guy.” To aspiring players out there, remember the Onischuk school of chess: Not remembering all of your losses is key to becoming a grandmaster.


World Cup

All of the talk of big wins and losses led me to ask Shulman and Onischuk to share their experiences of this year’s World Cup. They looked at each other and started to laugh, “It was the same experience,” Shulman said. Onischuk agreed, “More or less it was the same experience; we lost to the same guy. Unfortunately, Yury didn’t make it to the third round so we would,” in unison with out missing a beat they said, “play each other.”

Onischuk felt that round one was harder than both he and Shulman expected it to be, saying they were favorites in the round. Shulman claims only Onischuk was a favorite.

Onischuk summed up his tournament,

"I managed to go to the second round and  I beat Predrag Nikolic. Surprisingly, the second match was much easier for me than the first."






"So then I lost to Shirov. I drew the first game with black and the second game I felt obligated to play for the win.



"I didn’t really want to play rapid chess against him. The same thing happened in the World Championship in 2000 I played against Shirov. It was the same situation. I lost the first game with Black, I quickly made a draw in the second game with white, and I lost in the rapid. So I decided this time I am going to get him with White in the second game. Somehow it didn’t work out. Actually, he played great chess against me. It was a fair game, fair match. What can I say? I wasn’t lucky like Yury.”

Shulman wasn’t going to let the “lucky” comment just pass, “He (Shirov) quite misplayed the game against me. I think Alex was watching this. I was playing Black and my advantage was around six points at some point. If I played the right move, I am sure I would have won the game, and it was the second game.” Onischuk echoed what most have been stuck in Shulman’s mind, “Yes, you were just one move away.”



Since the interview was starting to take a sad turn, I asked what they thought might happen in the Kamsky-Topalov and Anand-Kramnik matches. Both Shulman and Onischuk went on about how they don’t make predictions and why it is a futile exercise, but each of them ended up having an opinion.

Shulman:
“These matches are of a high level. Of course we are going to support Gata. I hope if a U.S. player is going to win that chess will be been given a boost, like in Fischer’s time.

“Anand-Kramnik will be the more unpredictable match, because when Kamsky and Topalov are playing you know their styles real well. I don’t think Kamsky and Topalov are going to switch away from their styles, but Anand and Kramnik are more flexible chess players. Topalov is a sharp and attacking player. Kamsky has his own original style. I don’t think they will play something different. I think both matches will be very interesting. In Topalov vs. Kramnik it will be about whose style is better. In Anand-Kramnik it will be decided by who is better prepared.”

Onischuk:
“More or less I think the same thing. With Anand-Kramnik, I have no idea. It is very equal, anything can happen. For me it doesn’t make sense to make any predictions. I think recently Anand is playing better but Kramnik also had a busy year.”

Even though I was interviewing grandmasters about chess and their professional lives, much of what we talked about came back to personal relationships. My final question was:  "What is the best and worst parts of being a chess professional?" Onischuk answered quickly, “I think the best thing is you can travel and meet your friends.” Shulman seconded the motion, “In general you can have more friends than anyone who doesn’t play chess. It was really, really fun when I was a child, because I could see so many friends and new people. I remember as a child I was writing letters to people 5,000 miles away from each other."

The worst part of being a professional player for Onischuk is, “realizing that at some moment this will stop. Your lifestyle will change and you won’t see those friends you have all over the world, because you will settle down and do something else.” Once again Shulman completed Onischuk’s thought, “Also at some point you realize you cannot do the things you use to be able to do.” Somehow, despite their premonitions of slowing down someday, I don’t think either Shulman or Onischuk will be giving up chess anytime soon.

To order the new book “Chess Lessons From a Grandmaster” by GM Yury Shulman and Rishi Sethi, visit
www.shulmanchess.com. You can keep updated on Alexander Onischuk's activities on his recently redesigned website.