Having the best of both worlds

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST


MAXIM SOROKIN began playing chess at a time when his country, the Soviet Union, was producing potential World champions by the dozen. Young Maxim, who was taught the game by his elder brother at the age of five, was no child prodigy. Still, in the highly competitive chess scene in his now fragmented country, he made an impression.

His first rating was 2430 Elo points, that's much more than the strength of an International Master, and just 70 short of that of a Grandmaster (GM). He became a Soviet Master at 17, and a GM at 24. In 1991 he was part of the erstwhile USSR team which won the World under-26 championship. In 1996, he tied for the fourth spot in the Russian National championship, in which Alexander Khalifman, a former FIDE World champion, and Peter Svidler, a super GM, also contested.

Since he liked the game so much, Sorokin had to sacrifice a potentially rewarding career in Physics. "I had to make a choice between chess and academics," says the soft-spoken 33-year-old. "It was impossible to combine both, as the study at the University was demanding a lot of my energy. Finally, I decided to leave Physics and became a player full time."

However, in 1989, he had a stint as an assistant trainer at GM Alexander Panchenko's chess school, and that proved a turning point. "I liked the experience. I found it interesting to teach chess to the youngsters," he recalls.

That was the beginning of a successful career as a coach. In 1993 he went to Argentina, accepting the invitation to begin a chess school in Buenos Aires. He lived there for five years and continues to be an Argentine citizen, though he has returned to his native land. "It's not that easy to change federations, you know," he explains.

Sorokin was in India recently for three months, to coach promising young chess players. Last year also he had conducted a similar camp for the Indian kids, who benefited immensely from it. He himself benefited a lot from his stay in India, as he won the GM tournament at Sangli last year.

Excerpts from an interview he gave The Sportstar at Kozhikode:

Question: You have been coaching the Indian children for the last two years. Your impressions.

Answer: I like working with them, because they are not averse to working hard on theory. They are receptive and show a willingness to learn the scientific aspects of the game. This is a rare and important quality. My experience in other countries has been entirely different. The children there do not want to learn theory; they just want to play blitz games. I feel this attitude of the Indian children will stand them in good stead as they grow up as players.

You should be happy that one of your wards, M. Kasturi, won the Asian junior championship in Teheran.

Yes, I am. She was the best of my trainees at the camp. But I did not quite expect her to win the Asian junior title, because it is an under-20 tournament, and she is only 14. So it is an excellent performance. She is strong in tactics. Of course, she did not do very well at the World junior championship. But we should remember that it is a very strong tournament.

Another Indian girl, Koneru Humpy, did pretty well there though.

Yes, she seems to be really good. I haven't met her so far, but I have heard a lot about her from the other Indian players and they all said she had good positional understanding. I am sure she has a bright future. She should play in more men's tournaments I feel. Like Judit Polgar, she will learn much more by playing with men.

What are your views on the other Indian child prodigy, Pendyala Harikrishna, who became the country's youngest Grandmaster recently?

I have been following his progress through the newspaper reports here, and it is good for Indian chess that he is doing so well. I have played with him twice, at the Wipro GM tournament at Hyderabad and the Goodricke GM tournament in Kolkata. I drew with him at Hyderabad and was lucky to win in Kolkata.

He is very strong positionally already. It's quite surprising when you consider his age. He is a natural no doubt. And I think he is also lucky that he has a trainer like GM Evgeny Vladimirov, who is one of the best in the business.

How much progress do you see in Indian chess?

I first came to India in 1990. When I played at the Goodricke tournament in those days, I did not find it difficult to win against Indian opponents, except of course Viswanathan Anand and Dibyendu Barua. Now you face stiff resistance from every Indian you play. I think the Indian chess federation is doing a good job. Your players now get the opportunity to travel abroad for tournaments. Coaching camps are also essential for the development of the game. It is good that the federation is organising frequent camps.

What does the future hold for India?

A lot. At the Istanbul Olympiad last year, the Indian men finished eighth without Anand. That is a great result. So India will surely become one of the major powers in world chess in the near future. India is fast catching up with China.

Although chess was born in India, the country doesn't have much of a tradition in the game. If you go 20 years back, you could see there wasn't a single player of international repute. So I think it's remarkable that India is doing so well in chess now.

What do you think India should do to improve further?

There should be a lot of trainers. There is nothing quite like learning from the masters. I was quite lucky to learn the game from highly qualified masters from the age of six. I never had a coach below the rank of a National Master in Russia.

You have seen the erstwhile Soviet Union disintegrate. How badly did it affect chess?

Of course, the golden days of the Russian chess player are over. Earlier, the players were considered an intellectual elite by our people. They had the privilege of travelling abroad at the State's expense. And many of them drew salary from the government too.

Though chess does not enjoy the support any longer as it used to in Russia, how come it still comes up with brilliant young players like Alexander Grischuck and Alexander Morozevich? Grischuck, you may remember, was a revelation at the World championship in New Delhi last year.

Russia has a big advantage of possessing excellent coaches. Both Grischuck and Morozevich have good trainers, and that is the main reason why they are doing so well.

How do you manage to combine coaching with a fairly successful career?

I enjoy coaching. Playing the game of course is always fun. So I want to continue to have the best of both worlds.

When are you coming to India again?

I hope to play in the Goodricke, early next year. And of course I would like to work with the Indian youngsters again.

I like India a lot. The people are friendly and unlike many foreigners, I don't have any problem with the Indian food at all. I rather like it.

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