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Meet Teimour Radjabov: the prodigious legend-slayer who almost walked away from chess

Formidable over 64 squares: Radjabov is known for his ‘combinational or tactical style’, which can involve piece sacrifices. | Photo credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Big-scalp hunter: Radjabov’s conquests include current World champion Ding Liren, whom he beat in the final of the 2019 World Cup and at the 2022 Candidates. | Photo credit: Getty Images

Big-scalp hunter: Radjabov’s conquests include current World champion Ding Liren, whom he beat in the final of the 2019 World Cup and at the 2022 Candidates. | Photo credit: Getty Images

There was a time when Teimour Radjabov considered quitting chess and starting a new career, in oil and gas trading or even cryptocurrency. But victory at the 2019 World Cup convinced him that there was still a lot of chess left in him. One of the game’s great prodigies, he stunned Garry Kasparov — they both belong to the same city in Azerbaijan — as a 15-year-old. The former World No. 4 remains a leading player. Excerpts from an interview Radjabov granted The Hindu:

As a young boy growing up in Baku, and thought of as the successor to the city’s most famous son, was it difficult handling the huge expectations?

No, I was not really thinking much about it. I had a really tough schedule and a lot of tournaments, a lot of training. Also, I had to combine it with school. And altogether, it was just taking a lot of time. I was mostly working with my father, who was a good chess player. He had left his job so that he could spend more time in my training. I didn’t feel pressure, but I was motivated to come to the top of the chess world. And it was hard, of course, with my generation boasting so many strong players like Kasparov, Viswanathan Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Vassily Ivanchuk, Peter Svidler, Peter Leko, Nigel Short…

You caused a sensation when you beat Kasparov at the 2003 Linares tournament – the Wimbledon of chess, as it was described with a stunning knight sacrifice. The World No. 1 had been unbeaten at Linares for several years…

He was beating everyone and winning all the tournaments in a row. He was probably trying to set new records. In that game, I had to do something, as there was no chance for me to win, and I found that knight sacrifice. I was a youngster and always seeking blood; I was just trying to win against the best players in the world. Those days, if I saw an opportunity for a sacrifice, I would usually go for it.

Garry was very surprised, he had liked his position before I made the sacrifice. I think he took some time before he made his move. Twenty years later, it remains one of my most memorable games, for sure. All my life I had studied Kasparov’s games with Anatoly Karpov, then to play and win against him was great. 

We were all used to Linares while it was there; now that it’s absent, it’s unpleasant.

Later that year, you scored another memorable win, against Anand, with a queen sacrifice, at the Sparkassen tournament in Dortmund.

Anand was probably the second-best player in the world at the time. And it was one of my best games. He offered a draw at some point when the position was unclear. I declined and went on to win the game. It was crazy to beat Garry, Anand and Ruslan Ponomariov, who was the [FIDE] World champion at the time.

How do you look back at your victory at the Chess World Cup in 2019?

Before the tournament, I was on the verge. I was considering whether I should stay in chess or should I really leave. I felt maybe I should think of coaching or setting up an academy. I saw that I already had done enough at some point. I also felt that I could not bring too much to the country and to myself in terms of results. And I was kind of overstressing in most of my games, just not able to play the chess that I like, you know, this combinational style or tactical style… I was lacking in motivation.

I was thinking about even finding some other profession or something. I thought about IT trading and all that stuff. I was also considering oil and gas trading and crypto trading. So I started even partly, I was into this Bitcoin stuff. I was skipping some events and was just reconsidering my place in chess. And then at some point, I somehow won this World Cup and I was really happy because it was really unexpected.

And in the final you beat a very good player who would become the next World champion. Ding Liren was the top seed, while you were seeded 10th.

My road to the final was also tough, as I had to overcome Maxime Vachier-Lagrave and Jeffery Xiong, who was playing very well in that tournament. I felt I would have no energy for the final, but somehow I managed to come back after the first rapid game. And later on, I think I played probably my best chess in the rapid and blitz ever to win the title.

How do you view India’s emergence as a major power in international chess?

I am really happy to see the Indian new generation grow, because earlier it used to be Anand and a few other guys of my age. And now all these youngsters are popping up, just playing strongly.

I think India put a lot of effort together, with the government and the corporate companies. Indian players have sufficient sponsorship, which is very important at this age. You have to get coaching, do a lot of travelling and spend money on chess engines. So I feel India has done a great job. I think it is the world’s leading country in terms of the young talents. India is certainly leading by a huge margin, I feel.

They — D. Gukesh, R. Praggnanandhaa, Arjun Erigaisi and Nihal Sarin — are very good players, obviously. But to become the world’s best still needs a lot of work. The competition is also strong, with guys like Vincent Keymer and Nodirbek Abdusattorov. There is also Alireza Firouzja, who is already regarded as a top player; you don’t even consider him a youngster. It is exciting for India. It is exciting for world chess to see so many youngsters.

You played at the inaugural edition of the Global Chess League, a new concept, in Dubai.

I enjoyed playing in it very much. Even if not as a player, I would be very happy to visit it again. The location was great, the organisational part was amazing. So everything was perfect. And I am very happy that India is now very active in organising great chess events.

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