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Kamsky After Match: "Life Goes on." Print E-mail
By Macauley Peterson   
March 1, 2009
Gata Kamsky in Sofia, Photo Cathy Rogers
"At the beginning of the match, when they asked me, 'what is your biggest concern,' I said, 'I fear myself.'"

Gata Kamsky lost his match against World Number one Veselin Topalov in Sofia last Thursday, but the 4.5-2.5 final score does not adequately reflect the closeness of the contest. Even in the critical seventh game, Kamsky had the win -- which would have equalized the score -- clearly within reach. But poor time management earlier in the game left him floundering to keep control as they approached move 40. When the dust settled, Kamsky was lost. He sat in apparent agony for some twenty minutes as he considered his missed opportunities and accepted his fate, before finally playing on a few moves and then extending his hand in resignation.

Throughout the match Kamsky was well prepared in the opening phase, an area of his game that had been slow to recover since his return to the international chess scene over three years ago. In Sofia, finally, that was not the problem.

Instead, Kamsky's failure to capitalize on Topalov's risky play in the final game, and his egregious blunder in Game 5, were largely lapses of concentration. A crisis of self confidence.

Prior to the closing ceremony, during our interview on Friday morning, Gata was surprisingly frank in his diagnosis. "At the end I started doubting myself, which is the biggest mistake I made...instead I should have just trusted my instincts." He was referring principally to two moments in Game 7. The first was when he played 25...Ba4, a move which cost him over thirty precious minutes on the clock, rather than 25...Kf7, a clear improvement.

Position after 25.Qd6

"I was afraid," said Kamsky. He had calculated the line beginning 25...Kf7 26.Rxe6 Qb3. "I realized it was good, but I just didn't trust myself." It was an unfortunate lack of self confidence when he most needed to keep a clear head.

"I just thought on general principles, if I play Kf7, it's straight into the lion's den with the king," he explained, regretfully recounting how he had refrained from playing the move just in case he was missing something in his calculations. "And of course I saw everything," he added ironically.

The second key turning point came when Kamsky missed, 31...b4! winning outright.

Position after 31.Qb7

"I played [30...]b5 and I thought that I am winning somehow, and I got really nervous, but I didn't expect it, you know? I was expecting a draw, and then suddenly I'm winning, and then I see this Reb8 idea, and I was looking at [31...]b4 [32.]d7 Rb8, and I saw Rb8 and I thought, what the hell, what's the difference? So I played Rb8, and I realized that he plays Qc7 -- he hits my bishop on c2 and I don't have time for b3. So I panicked."

Topalov was playing quickly and confidently, although, as Veselin explained in our post awards interview for Chess.FM, he misevaluated the position, believing he could pressure Kamsky on the clock without risk. "In fact it was quite a big mistake what I played...Of course I counted on my opponent's time trouble, and he also looked tired and nervous, so I think in a way my decision was justified." It was a keen sense of psychological awareness and a bold move from the Bulgarian.

On Friday, the headline in the daily bulletin read, "Risky Play Unpunished!" Objectively, Topalov's strategy could easily have backfired, but he was playing in typical style. He was in his element. He knew what he was doing. "Some players they do quite well in their own time trouble, but most of the players they lose control, and here also because of the tension, I think, Gata blundered many times."

Kamsky agrees that the clock was a major factor in his losses. "My nerves didn't really save me," he said. The question then becomes, what was wrong with Gata's nerves?

One easy answer is that he lacked adequate time for pre-match preparation. The difficult process of getting this match off the ground is well known: After a drawn out bid process, Kamsky's personal reservations about playing in Bulgaria contributed to the delay until November, when he replaced his manager with his second Grandmaster, Emil Sutovsky, who was instrumental in hashing out the match details during the Olympiad in Dresden, where contracts were finally signed.

Even after Dresden, however, Kamsky was not able to focus completely on match preparations. In December he remained preoccupied by a personal family matter that had thrown his life into chaos as early as last Spring. Kamsky is a private person and would not discuss the details for publication, but Sutovsky agreed that the situation was a significant distraction, and even described it as the number one problem for Kamsky’s training efforts.

Consequently, Kamsky's preparations did not begin in earnest until January. And it wasn't until his arrival in Sofia, just days before the match, that he had a chance to work with his seconds, grand masters Evgeniy Najer and Andrei Volokitin, both recruited by Sutovsky. Kamsky got to know Volokitin at the Corus tournament in Wijk aan Zee, but he had not even met Najer when they arrived in Sofia.

Despite the shortened training schedule, Kamsky praised his team’s efforts, describing them as top notch analysts who can delve into research in any opening.

One of the biggest surprises of the match was Kamsky's use of the French Defense. "In fact, [The French] was one of the ideas that first hit me, and I actually spent a week with Yury Shulman in Chicago in September, so I have to say a lot of thanks to him [and] his family." Shulman gave Kamsky a "basic tutorial" on the French. "What can I say? I liked it," Kamsky said, without elaborating.

Kamsky was generally fine with black, neutralizing Topalov’s 1.d4 with the Grunfeld Defense. Topalov had planned to employ 1.e4 as well, but the French came as a total surprise to him.

Kamsky’s only win came on the white side of a Zaitsev Ruy Lopez in Game 4. Volokitin mentioned the old-fashioned 12.Ng5 idea to Gata while in Wijk aan Zee. "He told me that such an idea exists, and that it was, in fact, played in the very first game played in this system," Kamsky explained. "It's fine, it's positional, and it's something [Topalov] would definitely not expect, and of course the game showed that he really didn't expect that, so I was actually lucky to counter-ambush him right away."

Topalov's own surprise was refraining from the Najdorf against 1.e4, assuming that Kamsky would have spent quite a lot of time preparing against it. "In general it's normal that you try to surprise your opponent in a match,” Topalov told me. "It was just a strategical decision made before the match, not to play it."

Both of Topalov's seconds, grand masters Ivan Cheparinov and Erwin L’Ami, and Topalov himself expressed a modicum of disappointment at Veselin’s opening play. "Normally I'm usually better prepared than my opponent, and this time I cannot really say it," he conceded.

In the end, the result was in line with what one would expect based on rating differential alone, yet Kamsky sounded proud of his efforts. "Everyone thought that he would crush me. I too actually thought that Topalov would show me some superiority. The only superiority that he showed me at this point is that he's a better practical player. He beats me on the clock. I know that a lot of other players can also beat me when I'm in time trouble."

After resigning the last game, Kamsky seemed more relieved than disappointed, and didn’t hesitate to praise his opponent. "It was an exciting match. I was actually trying my best and I think I showed a lot of my best chess. [Topalov] also showed, of course, fantastic chess. He was able to come up with moves that kept surprising me, and of course they are also strong moves." Kamsky was not at all bitter. "My opponent he played well, really well. He didn't make more or less obvious mistakes and when he did I kind of reciprocated with my own...Mine was the last!" He laughed gregariously.

Kamsky’s problems with self-confidence are clearly surmountable, and while time management is still an area he needs to work on, his remarkable talent first exhibited in the early 90s remains.

Kamsky seems more than ready to move on to new challenges. And there’s no time to waste. Gata will compete in the upcoming Amber Blindfold and Rapid tournament in Nice, France, an event in which Topalov is also participating. Just two weeks after that, Kamsky will head to Nalchik, Russia, where the next edition of the FIDE Grand Prix series is being hastily arranged. In May, Kamsky will face off with American GMs in Saint Louis, his first U.S. Championship since 2006.

Macauley Peterson covers international chess for the Internet Chess Club. His reports from Sofia can be found at the Chess.FM blog.

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