'I am very happy to be in the final'

ARVIND AARON

AS the World chess championship in Moscow saw many seeded players fall by the wayside after each round, one of the two players to hold fort was Ruslan Ponomariov of Ukraine. One of the few teenagers in the meet, Ponomariov showed maturity in handling knock-out games with an iron nerve serving up a rare mix of high quality games and extraordinary faith in converting a situation to his advantage.

ARVIND AARON

This boy is breaking all records in chess! First, at 14 years he became the youngest Grandmaster in chess history. Then at 18 he qualified for the world championship. He has broken the record for a finalist which was last held by 20-year-old Gata Kamsky in February 1995 at Sanghinagar, near Hyderabad. If he defeats Ivanchuk, he will become the youngest world champion on January 26, 2002. So far, Kasparov is the youngest to win the world title at 21.

Ponomariov is a small-made boy which prompted one of the comperes to address him as "little Karpov". In 1975, Karpov was written down in the match against Bobby Fischer not because of his chess qualities but because he was not even 50 kg. Ponomariov was 53 kg at the start of the championship and said he must be much less as it is normal for players to lose weight during major chess tournaments.

He has a 11-year-old sister but she does not play chess. His father is an engineer and mother a teacher and they live in a town called Kramatorsk. The chess world will be backing him to win the world title in the all-Ukrainian finals from January 16. Ponomariov has been getting into the history books at regular intervals. He is rising fast and invitations to major events are on the way. In the coming season he will take on the world's best players from the top 10.

As soon as the closing ceremony for phase one of the world championship was over on December 14 at the State Kremlin Palace, Ponomariov spoke to The Sportstar in an exclusive chat and this was translated by noted chess trainer GM Elizbar Ubilava. Excerpts:

Question: Did you ever dream that one day you would be playing for the world chess title while so young?

Answer: No. When I was young I did not know that there will be a knock-out system. I should consider myself very lucky to be playing for the title when I am only 18 years. I think it was possible only because of the system. I remember once, when Grischuk was asked whether he would become world champion, he replied, "Maybe in some system I will be able to become world champion."

Which were your best and tough moments in Moscow?

The best moment was when the semi-final was over. I participated in three world championships. In the last one at New Delhi I was eliminated in the second round. In the first one, in the first round. I thank everyone including my sponsors and coaches for my performance here. When I went past two rounds it was more or less calm because it was my best performance ever in such competitions.

Is the support you receive from the Ukrainian sponsor enough to win the world title?

Yes, it is sufficient enough to win this world championship. I thank everyone including the fans in Moscow and in other places who want me to win.

How did you celebrate? Did you speak to your parents or others back in Ukraine?

The real celebration will be when I return home. Now we have holidays and it should be a good time to celebrate.

How do you plan to play Ivanchuk?

I should analyse a lot of his games. I have played him only once so far. I know that he is one of the best players in the world. It is very difficult to prepare against him because of his repertoire. It is not enough even if we see all the openings to play against him (laughs). My hope is that I am younger and in this system it may be tough for him to play. I will play calm and try to fight very hard.

Is white in Game One an advantage in the match?

It is difficult to say because you play four whites and four blacks. Maybe for me to play (game one) black is better because I have to warm up to the situation.

You beat all the three famous Russians, Alexander Morozevich, Evgeny Bareev and Peter Svidler. Do you feel that you are getting stronger?

Two of them, Morozevich and Bareev, I beat only in tie-breaks. I now feel that I can fight against anybody including Morozevich who has a very high Elo. Against Morozevich I was a little better in positional games and against others it was different. In tie-break he played very well in positional terms but when we were in a tactical position he made mistakes. Svidler was a little bit tired playing tie-breaks in previous matches against Gelfand. Probably it was important in the second game when he played with white. Svidler had a big advantage and could have won this game but he got into problems and lost in the tactics. In his second white game he tried hard but somehow lost.

You are the youngest to qualify and play in the world championship, bettering the record of Gata Kamsky who did it at 20. Are you happy or do you see it as some kind of pressure?

Of course I am very happy to be in the final. It was a very difficult task to reach this stage and even think about this. Even if I win the final match it is not easy to imagine that I am the world champion. I should prove that I am the best player ahead of Kramnik and Kasparov. I like to play top players such as Anand, Shirov, Adams and Topalov.

You played in three world championships at Las Vegas 1999, New Delhi 2000 and now Moscow 2001. Which one did you like and why?

It is not an easy decision but I like it here in Moscow. All three offered different cultures and three different continents. Here it was more easy talking to people and relating things. As far as organisation, all three cities had very nice facilities.

There were many happy moments for you this year, like winning the once in four years World Team Championship where you played a great part in your team's success. What went behind these successes?

May be, my success is because of my new trainer GM Gennady Kuzmin and other people who helped me. When there is sponsorship there is more responsibility to play better and I try to play well. During this championship my supporters at Kramatorsk were watching the games on the Internet. When I was winning, many called to congratulate me.

If you become world champion at 18, will you give up your study of law?

If I try to do something in my life I will finish it. I will not leave it half-way. No, I will not give up studying law.