Interview with the new IECG World Champion

Nigel Robson

The 11th IECG World Championship is over and the winner is Nigel Robson from England. In the final he scored 10.5 points from 14 games with seven wins, seven draws and no loss. He won the tournament a half point ahead of the 8th Champion Anatoli Sirota from Australia, and two points ahead of three other players.

He has kindly accepted our invitation for an interview so that we can continue the fine tradition begun after the first championship.

These interviews with our champions have often been accompanied by a commented game and we are glad to continue this tradition as well. Click here to go to Nigel's commented game.

Dear Nigel, congratulations to you for winning the IECG World Championship Final 2006! Would you please introduce yourself a little bit to our readers.

Thank you Thomas, and I am delighted to be able to accept your invitation. I am 63 years old and live in the country in West Sussex in the south of England, about 50 miles from London. This year my wife and I will celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary. We have 3 children and 2 very young grandchildren.

I began playing chess when I was about 5 and discovered I was naturally gifted at the game. Soon I was winning against all-comers and at the age of 10 I defeated an English international. I played successfully in the upper levels of schools chess, though I spent far more of my time on the cricket and rugby field.

When I left school I pursued a career in finance and had no time to play chess, although I continued to follow the major championships and indulged in problem solving to pass the time while travelling to many parts of the world. I began to play again in the early 1990's and in 1998 I qualified for the final of the British Chess Solving Championship. I joined the IECG in 2000 and have thoroughly enjoyed meeting and playing against so many friendly opponents.

At work I sat on the Boards of three UK public companies with widespread international interests in the engineering, chemical and construction industries. I was lucky to be able to retire when I was 55 in 2001.

At home my wife and I are keen followers of the performing Arts. We provide support to two local opera and two local theatre companies, and we are regular visitors to Covent Garden. I have many other interests outside chess. I enjoy reading and studying the sciences, particularly physics and mathematics. I have tried my hand at photography and at star gazing through a telescope. During the summer months I will often be found in my seat at Lords or the Oval watching a good game of cricket and in winter I support the Harlequins rugby union club. When I come home there is nothing I enjoy more than pushing wood around a board trying to solve some new intractable problem that an opponent has kindly left me on the IECG server. I rely on my wife for the more difficult skills of cookery and gardening!

Let us talk about your successes. You won the IECG Cup 2000, you have been at the top of IECG's rating list for a long time, and you are the IECG's second and only active Grandmaster. Now by adding the WC Final at your third attempt, you have completed a list of successes. What are your feelings?

Very happy and satisfied, if a little tired, but perhaps my dominant feeling is one of surprise. When I joined the IECG I was still very rusty after a long break from the game. I felt that over time I could become very competitive again, but if you had told me that I would win these tournaments and achieve my rating I do not think I would have believed you.

The tournament was decided in January when you won against Frank Bendig and Anatoli Sirota drew with Horacio Rocca. But when did you know that the final result would favour you?

I started the tournament very badly with two clerical errors on one of my first visits to the server. It was just my third move against Milan Chovanec and my second against Jaroslav Fiala! I had intended to play a Ruy Lopez and King's Indian and found myself in a Scotch and a Nimzo-Indian! Not disastrous, but a bad day because I felt I could probably do no better than draw either of them. Then Anatoli Sirota claimed three early victories and I felt my chance of winning the tournament had probably gone. But of course it is a long tournament and I gradually made up ground and sometime in the middle of 2008 I became confident that I would score 10.5 points. In the later months of 2008 it was apparent that both Anatoli Sirota and Horacio Rocca could match but not beat that score if they won their remaining games. Then Horacio dropped half a point so I just had to worry about Anatoli, but my win against him had given me a good SB advantage. Certainly before Christmas I realised that whatever the final results of other games, Anatoli would not be able to overcome my SB. Of course I did not know until that last draw in January that I would have a clear lead, and that is much more satisfying than having to rely on the tie-break.

Looking at the tournament crosstable your win against the second placed Anatoli Sirota is easily identified as the most important game. It started as a calm Ruy Lopez and has a nice twin, your game with Dinesh De Silva. Would you like to tell us something about these games?

It was surprising that both Anatoli and Dinesh chose the same rather obscure defence ECO C84 against my Ruy Lopez. I managed to channel both games along the line followed in an earlier 2006 drawn game between Khairullin v Khalifman which I had studied quite carefully. I had two ideas to give white an improvement and I tried them both. 16.Be3 against Anatoli that appears in my commented game and later 17.Qb3 (getting a grip on d5, but not an original idea) against Dinesh. In retrospect I feel 16.Be3 is the better move. Against Dinesh my play was coloured by the fact that he was in very considerable time trouble and my chosen variation was perhaps more demanding of short term accuracy from black than was the case against Anatoli. Dinesh had a number of further brushes with the time control and in the end that allowed me to win quite comfortably.

Which of your other games of this final deserves our special attention and why?

In the 2005 Final I was taught a lesson as black in the English Attack by Sergei Bubir. On that occasion I escaped with a draw, but I was lucky. I was fortunate in being able to pass the same lesson on to John Claridge and Brigiliana Perez and claim two wins. I have to say I enjoy playing against John because he likes aggressive Sicilian setups as I do. The line in question used to be one of my favourites with the black pieces. A Najdorf with 6.Be3 e6 7.f3 b5 8.Qd2 Nbd7 9.g4 Nb6 10.a4 Nc4 11.Bxc4 bxc4 12.g5! (very aggressive and rarely played) ... Nd7 13.f4! I analysed this position in great depth after my game with Sergei and resolved never to play it with black again! Of course f5 is coming and white has enough attacking options that I have been unable to find a satisfactory black response.

Your score with the White pieces is simply brilliant: 6 wins and only one draw! What do you think is the reason - maybe your playing style? How would you describe it?

We have already spoken about my two wins in the same line of Ruy Lopez and two wins in the same line of the Najdorf. To complete the symmetry I had two wins against the Richter-Rauzer attack. The Sicilians are fighting defences often producing complex dynamic positions which suit my natural game with both white and black pieces. As an over the board player I was very strong tactically. I had a limited opening repertoire outside the Sicilian, but relied on introducing complications where I could generally out-calculate my opponents. I find correspondence chess is a much more measured game where the knockout blow is rarely available and I have to discipline myself to be more patient, accumulating small advantages and most important, avoiding mistakes. But I still look for the aggressive move, though from an unnatural conservative mindset - a sort of chess schizophrenia!

You have played the 9th, 10th and 11th WC Final in a row. The 9th and 10th finals were won by players whose ratings at the beginning were clearly below the average of the tournament. The 11th final was dominated by the two most successful players attending. Can you please compare the three tournaments from your point of view? And how did your earlier experiences affect your approach to this tournament?

I found them all very difficult! There is a big step up in standard from the candidate finals. I made the mistake in the 9th WC Final of underestimating the eventual winner Andreas Strangmueller. I grabbed a pawn that I knew was risky, but felt with a 200 point rating advantage I would be alright. Well I deservedly lost the game and the Championship with that one bad move! So lesson one is to treat all your opponents with respect regardless of rating, after all anyone reaching the Final is going to be a strong player. For me the 10th WC Final was characterised by the high number of draws. If we exclude withdrawals only the two leading players scored more than two wins. I had nine draws and nearly all were hopeless draws, by which I mean I never saw a glimpse of a possible winning idea. So lesson two is the obvious one, you have to win six or seven games to have a chance of winning the Title and therefore you need a playing strategy which is geared to that objective. Choice of opening is very important, sufficiently aggressive to give winning opportunities but sufficiently solid to avoid losses. It is a dilemma we all know well.

Following the two previous WC Finals, I realised the need to score more wins, so I took a bit of a gamble in the 11th WC Final, like last years winner Miguel Canovas Pordomingo, and chose the King's Indian as my main defence against 1.d4, and it gave me that extra win against Frank Bendig for my last point. Fortunately none of my opponents took me into the darker corners of the defence which might have exposed my inexperience, though I had a few nervous moments against David Gordh when my knights got in a tangle. Carlos Pappier worried me a lot too, because I know from previous encounters just how talented he is, and he was clearly very comfortable as he raced through the first twenty moves or so at a dizzying pace. I wondered what might be waiting for me but in the end I think Carlos was content with a half point.

In truth there is a lot of luck in winning one of these WC Finals. Several of my opponents played into my strengths when they might have played safe. There were also ninety-one other games over which I had no influence, and if they had turned out differently another challenger might now be the Champion.

What are your chess plans for the future? Are you going to defend your title?

I think three Finals in a row enough for anyone, and for my opponents too who will be spared having to put up with me again! I also believe it is right and fair to let others have a chance at winning this Championship. But I will return to the World Championship (I need to check the qualification rules) subject of course to health, and at my age, the little grey cells continuing to function!

I am presently playing an ICCF WC semi-final. It is only my second ICCF tournament and I am keen to establish an ICCF rating. I expect to be playing again at IECG shortly. As you can see from my photograph I might experiment with 1.d4 - someone has told me it is not such a bad first move!

Thank you very much for this interview!

This interview was made by our correspondent Thomas Niessen.

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