Interview with Peter Svidler

Interview with Peter Svidler

Russian super GM Peter Svidler is known to have a passion with cricket. His ICC handle is Tendulkar after the Indian batsmen. Here Dave Smith from Rose Forgrove fondly recounts and interview he had with the chess maestro. It was written about 16 months ago so it precedes England’s win against Australia last summer and then their crushing defeat in Australia.

Interview with Peter Svidler

Svidler is a 6-time Russian Champion

Russian chess grandmaster Peter Svidler has a deep reverence for the game of cricket. This is rather unusual in a man living in St. Petersburg and it is even rarer in the international chess fraternity. Svidler’s Russian chess friends ask him how he can watch the “world’s most boring game” for more than 30 seconds.

But Svidler – a six-time Russian chess champion – knows better. He has immersed himself in the cricket’s rich literature and is alive to the subtleties of its techniques and strategies. As an aficionado, he scorns Twenty20s and considers Test cricket the richest form of the game. He attends Tests when he can and will be at Lord’s for the second Ashes match. Otherwise, he will compulsively watch every ball of an England Test match on the internet assuming he can get a decent picture. When England tour Australia, his addiction turns him into an insomniac for weeks.

Asked to explain the attraction, the 37-year-old Svidler says: “It’s my kind of game. I love the slow development of a well-nuanced story. From a certain point in my life, it felt like home to me. I will always be grateful to the English chess player Nigel Short for introducing me to cricket. I would say it has made my life better. It’s nice when something suddenly appears in your life which makes you happy.”

The fateful moment came in 1999, in Athens, where Short lives. The pair had been studying chess together. Short is arguably the greatest ever British player and once challenged Garry Kasparov for the world championship. He’s also a cricket nut.

Interview with Peter Svidler

Nigel Short introduced Peter Svidler to cricket

“We’d had a great session studying chess, but suddenly Nigel said ‘that’s enough of that. Let’s go and watch some cricket’,” Svidler says.
Short drove him an hour out of Athens to the port of Piraesus, to a small Pakistani restaurant, where cricket fans were packed three deep watching India play Pakistan in the World Cup. “Nigel said ‘don’t cheer for stuff you don’t understand. Do exactly as I do. We want to go home and be with our families’.”

The game took place at a time of great political tension between India and Pakistan and Svidler had the exciting feeling of watching a clandestine event. The intensity of the fans intrigued him. Meanwhile, Short, a great advocate, explained the rules and strategies. They watched half the game and Svidler was hooked.

Looking back, Short is astounded by how the obsession took hold of Svidler. “In a few years, he turned into a chess bore!” he jokes. “There was a time when he could tell you the names of every current Test cricketer, including the Zimbabwe XI. Not even professional commentators like Geoffrey Boycott would know them all.”

Sounding like a compulsive gambler, Svidler says he is learning to control his cricket habit for the sake of a harmonious family life. His wife began to question his ‘sanity’ when he was keeping excel files of the names of international players and results of all major series from 2007 to 2009.

“I logged all the statistics and became a bit obsessed. She felt that the excessive watching of cricket above everything else was getting in the way a bit. Since then, I have been trying to wean myself off the extreme manifestations of my sickness,” he says.

His cricket ‘sickness’ caused Svidler to make a decision which baffled the chess world, in January, 2009. He chose to play in the Gibraltar Masters ahead of the far more prestigious Tata Steel Chess Tournament, in Holland. “No elite chess player would normally do that. But I was promised net sessions by the Aussie guy running it, so I went to Gibraltar. There are still videos on YouTube of me batting. But you should not watch them, they make for painful viewing,” he said.

That self-deprecating pay-off is characteristic of Svidler. But the truth is he performs pretty well for a guy who has never held a bat. “The Aussie guy was not obviously trying to kill me as I was the number one seed! It turned out at his military medium that I’m quite hard to get out. But I have basically only two scoring shots for a single – a straight drive and a square cut,” he said.

What remains of his obsession is an unbridled passion for the England team. Riveted by the first Ashes Test match at Trent Bridge, Svidler became intensely involved in the debates about Stuart Broad’s refusal to walk.

“I wasn’t bothered by the Spirit of Cricket malarkey. We would all like cricket to be a gentleman’s game, but I’ve been following it for long enough to know it’s not,” he wrote on an email. “What bothers me is that the win could forever be marred by this stupid incident. When it’s England, I have this intense desire to see us win without any random interference from umpires and other dei ex machine.”

Interview with Peter Svidler

Svidler with the pride of his cricket collection.

Svidler is not overly fond of Stuart Broad and his ‘antics’. He much prefers offspinner Graeme Swann and Andrew Strauss. He likes Swann for his humour and reckons he’d be fun to spend a day with. And he says he “would be distraught if ‘SwannyG’ had not walked after murdering it to the slips”.

As for Strauss, he has followed his career with the same intensity many Russian chess fans reserve for Svidler’s exciting brand of attacking chess. He signs off his outgoing Gmail account with the words, ‘Strauss for PM’.

“I’m a hardcore Strauss fan. I always thought he was a smart, articulate man. At first, I thought he was a very good fit at the top of the order. Then I felt he was unjustly passed over for the captaincy and it was hard for me to watch what it did to him as a batsman. He didn’t score runs for a year, then made a backs-to-the-wall century against New Zealand. The arc of his whole story has always appealed to me,” he said.

His favourite cricket books in his impressive library include Gideon Haigh’s Mystery Spinner and Duncan Hamilton’s Harold Larwood, which “brought tears to my eyes”. But the pride of his collection is a first edition of the Neville Cardus classic Australian Summer, given to him by a fan after London’s Candidates Tournament 2013, in March.

“The guy enjoyed my chess and wanted me to have the book. I was speechless. I’m afraid to even open it so it just sits there on my bookshelf. I am treating it like a vintage wine and I seriously feel it should mature some more before I touch it,” he says.

Svidler’s cricket passion is one component of his intense anglophilia. He reads voraciously in English and has devoured everything by Martin Amis and Paul Auster. And he reveres English comedy almost as much as cricket.

“When I saw Fawlty Towers for the first time it was the happiest moment in my life up to that point and I envy people who haven’t seen it,” he says. “My twin children’s English tutor has introduced them to it and they now quote lines to me, which makes me happy. The tutor also introduced them to the Beatles which is much better than any music today.”

As yet, Svidler’s 11-year-old twins have not caught the cricket bug. Mrs Svidler will no doubt be doing her utmost to steer them away from her husband’s consuming passion. Three cricket obsessives in one Russian household might be too much to bear.

Peter Svidler is commentating on the 2014 Chess World Championships for Chess24 and he has produced several video training series for the site.

Interview with Peter Svidler

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7 Responses to “Interview with Peter Svidler”

  1. Adrian Dawson

    Nov 09. 2014

    That was great Dave, I really enjoyed it. I have always thought of cricket as the “physical” equivalent to chess; with all the placing of the fielders for each kind of bowler and the ball to be bowled. There are many sinilarities. There are so many sports that are compared to chess even though this country does not consider chess to be a sport, they make me laugh :)

    Reply to this comment
    • Martin Carpenter

      Nov 09. 2014

      That is funny sometimes :)

      Nice interview. Svidler definitely a really good commentator.

      Reply to this comment
  2. Matt

    Nov 10. 2014

    A very good commentator indeed, even more so when he reads out a Tweets from “DamnS” – too funny!

    Reply to this comment
  3. Jo

    Nov 11. 2014

    Yep, a great addition to the WC coverage, it’s easy to forget he’s doing it all in a second language, his English is pretty much perfect. Not so sure about the girl, she doesn’t seem to have as much to offer, but maybe it’s just she can’t get a word in edgeways :-)

    Reply to this comment
    • Andy Bak

      Nov 11. 2014

      His English is so good and his analysis his so strong that although Sopiko is a strong player in her own right, she hasn’t been able to say too much!

      I’m sure the commentary will be more balanced as the match progresses.

      Reply to this comment
      • Matt

        Nov 11. 2014

        And now we have a real match on our hands. I was a little worried Anand was going to lie down after the first two rounds but like a true champion he has picked himself up and come back stronger than ever, all guns blazing!!!

        The pressure is back on Magnus, fascinating stuff.

        Reply to this comment
  4. Jo

    Nov 12. 2014

    It is. I was really pleased for Anand winning yesterday. Just a shame having to go to work gets in the way of being able to watch, not that I would log on for a sneaky look every now and then to see how it’s going :-)

    Reply to this comment

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