“You Can Become a European Champion!”. And I Thought – Why not?

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  • GM Anton Demchenko GM Anton Demchenko

“You Can Become a European Champion!”. And I Thought – Why not?

GM Anton Demchenko shares his journey to becoming the 2021 European champion, talks about his approach to chess, the hardships he faced and a lot more.

Real Stories Of Improvements | 9 min read
“You Can Become a European Champion!”. And I Thought – Why not?

Recently, GM Anton Demchenko became the European champion!

While many think it was a sensation that someone, being number 33 by rating at the starting rank list, won the tournament, it didn’t surprise me at all, as I had the pleasure of knowing Anton closely.
How much he works and how strong a player he is.

I first met him in 2012, in very funny circumstances.

I was playing in a rapid “Botvinnik Memorial” tournament, in Saint Petersburg.

After the 6th round, I was leading the tournament, and then I blundered and lost in a very painful way.
I lost my mood and tilted?

In the next round, I did something stupid. I didn’t go to watch the pairings and asked the arbiter to tell me where my place is.
He said, “Board 5, you’re White.”

I didn’t know who my opponent was, and his face was unfamiliar. (Usually, it’s a good sign that the opponent is not from the top seeds of the tournament).

Forget Danny Devito GIF by It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia

I said to myself: “Okay, let’s win this game, and still fight for the first place.”

He played Kings Indian, an opening I was always happy to face when playing 1.d4.
But then suddenly, my opponent started to outplay me very badly, like a kid.

He brought all his pieces into the game, executed all the standard ideas of King’s Indian, and started to penetrate my camp.
I don’t remember who has ever beat me like that, without giving me chances.

I lost the game and very frustratedly went to the pairings to see who my opponent was.
And there I read - IM Anton Demchenko!?


The next time I met Anton was in 2014. We were playing 2 tournaments in the Philippines, and he was my roommate.

There I got to know him closer. How smart and disciplined is he.
Also, I was impressed by his opening preparation and how hard-working he is.
You know, when 2 chess players share a room, their talks are often about chess?
And when we were talking about different openings, I realized how much more he knew than me.

It was to the point that I was thinking if we meet in the tournament, and I’m Black, I’ll have no openings against
is 1.e4!?

But the most impressive thing for me was to see his fighting spirit and how focused he is during the games.
During my professional career, I have seen 3 players that I was jealous of how focused they’re playing chess.
They’re GM Zhigalko Sergey from Belarus, GM Robert Hovhannsiyan (aka Robert_ChessMood), and clearly, GM Anton Demchenko!

And today I’m super excited to interview Anton.

Avetik Grigoryan (AG): Anton, congratulations on winning the European individual championship! What is it to be the European Champion? How cool is it? What do you feel?

Anton Demchenko (AD): Thanks! To be honest, I still can’t believe it. Sometimes, during the day, I ask myself – Am I a European champion? Seriously? Hmmm… But I’ve already started to get used to this thought.

Actually, almost nothing has changed in my life, and I’m happy about that.  The only changes are some interviews, and more messages than usual.

What about my feelings? I can't say that I feel something like euphoria. OK, I’m happy about my result, but I understand that I still have things to work on.

AG: During my professional career, I used to play the European Individual Championship a few times and noticed that for most of the players the goal is to qualify for the World Cup. What was your goal before the tournament? At what point did you say to yourself “Let’s win this tournament”?

AD: I just wanted to play good chess. As you can notice from my games, this goal hasn’t been fully achieved. But at least I tried 🙂 I want to emphasize that it is dangerous to play with thoughts about the results. So I tried not to think about them. But yes, I was hoping to qualify for the World Cup in the beginning of the tournament.

After round 2 or 3, the captain of my Icelandic team told me as a joke: “You can become a European champion”. And I thought – why not? But only after round 9, when I already qualified for the World Cup, I realized that it is possible to fight for something bigger.

AG: What was your preparation for the tournament?

AD: I had noticed that it is useful for me to play an open tournament 2-3 weeks before. And I played such a tournament in Kavala in the beginning of August. I won the tournament (first time in the last 2 years), which put me in a good mood!

Then I just tried to relax. I think it is not a good idea to prepare hard in the remaining 1-2 weeks before the tournament. Your preparation should be between tournaments, but not right before one.

AG: What was the game/move you’re most proud of in this tournament?
Is it your 20.b4? against Donchenko? I was super impressed by that move.

White wants to ruin Black’s pawn structure, and after 20...cb4 to secure a good square for their bishop on d3!

AD: Absolutely. That game and that move! Actually, I didn’t play too many good games in this tournament. And I’m happy that I played at least one game without clear blunders or wrong calculations.

AG: During the tournament, and during the games, there should have been lots of tension. How did you deal with it?

AD: During the tournament, I usually try to relax my brain and nervous system by doing some physical activity. Mostly long walks. It helps to have a good sleep. I think this is the most important thing for a chess player during the tournament. By the way, I had problems with that in the last 2-3 rounds. Actually, the weather was rainy and I was unable to take a walk. And it almost led me to a disaster in the final rounds.

During the game, I try to think about good moves, not about the result. It is not so easy, of course. But I know that if you think about the result, the tension will increase. And in the end, you can lose your motivation as a chess player because of this.

AG: When we were playing tournaments in the Philippines, back in 2014, I noticed how strong is your focus during the game and how concentrated you are. Do you have any tips for chess lovers, how to be/stay in the Zone during the game?

AD: In general, if you’re doing something you like, it is easy to keep your concentration. Of course, there are many other important things. It’s hard to play chess when you are ill/tired, when you haven’t slept well or something is wrong in your life, etc.

But the main idea is that positive emotions are important. Try to enjoy the tournament. Enjoy your preparation, enjoy the process of playing. Concentrate on your path to the goal, and not on the goal itself.

AG: At the beginning of 2019, you got your peak rating of 2,679! Then your rating dropped below 2,600. What happened? How much attention do you give to rating?

AD: ELO is definitely important for me. The invitations depend on your ELO. If it is low, you will get worse conditions.

It wasn’t a good period in my life due to some personal circumstances.
Whether this was the main reason or not – time will show.

AG: During the pandemic, many chess players were getting bored because of the lack of tournaments. Many lost their motivation to train. But after you won 2 big tournaments in the last months, it’s easy to guess that you have done huge work. How do you find the motivation to train when your body doesn’t want to?

AD: Actually, I just like chess 🙂 I mean not only the process of playing. I also like analyzing something by myself or with my GM friends. So there is no need for me to force myself to train. When I don't feel the desire to train, I just don't do that. It is normal to have such days from time to time. However, if you have more than 360 such days per year, it is a reason to get concerned about it!

AG: In your interviews, you said earlier that in childhood, Capablanca’s games had a big impact on your chess. How important is it to learn classics?

AD: I think it is very important. It is the base. When you learn classic games, you expand your chess culture. It means you will be able to understand and play well in more positions. By the way, it may be helpful, if you decide to play a new opening. You will not be afraid of a new position and will be able to play it on a decent level.

Actually, I like learning classic games. Among my favorite authors are Nimzowitsch, Alekhine, Tarrasch. Sometimes I print out old games from the database. By this method, I’ve learned games of Morphy, Pillsbury, Blackburne, Janowski and many others.

AG: What are some other books that had a big influence on your chess? And which were the books you read in the last 2 years?

AD: Some classic books by Alekhine. For example, about tournaments in New York 1924 and 1927, and about Nottingham in 1936. Also books by David Bronstein. I really like his style and his books.

Later I studied Kasparov’s book series (“My great predecessors” and others).
Among other books which I read in the last 2 years, two come to my mind. The first one is about 122 selected games by Bent Larsen, and the second one is “Middlegame pawn structures” by Ivan Sokolov.

AG: Who are the people who have the most impact in your chess career? Did you have coaches?

AD: When I was 4, my grandfather and father showed me the board and the moves of the pieces. But in the next few years I wasn't interested in chess.

I started playing chess at the age of 9. Then I visited group lessons of IM Arsen Stambulian for about 1 year. Unfortunately, it was impossible for me to continue those lessons at that time. In general, that is almost all of the experience I’ve had with somebody coaching me.

Also, in 2002 I had 1 day of free lessons by Vitaly Tseshkovsky. He was the USSR champion twice. We studied my games from a recent tournament with him. But it was just for 1 day.

I was simply unable to have a coach for financial reasons.

Mostly I learned from books, engines, internet blitz games, and last but not least, from my friends, sparring-partners and opponents.

Now I think that having a good coach is very important. It can save your time and your efforts. I understand that even when I was 20 years old, I didn't know many things that are well-known to 12-year-old teenagers today. Also, I can mention those players whose styles I like. They are, among others: Capablanca, Petrosian, Fischer, Keres, Kholmov, Bronstein, Short, Adams, Kamsky.

AG: What do you think are the main mistakes chess players make during their careers?

AD: This is a very extensive topic, but I want to emphasize 2 moments.

1) I already spoke about the role of a coach in a chess player’s career. This is important. But even more important is independent work. I like the old English saying: “You can lead a horse to the water, but you can’t make it drink”.

You are like a horse, and your coach leads you to the healing spring of chess knowledge. But then you still have to absorb this information. Also, if you don’t work by yourself, you won’t be able to find such healing springs later, without the help of a coach. Every chess player has their own healing springs. We just need to find them.

2) If you started playing chess as a professional, you need to be serious about it. Many players, even very talented, are not using their full potential. Take some time to understand what your weaknesses are.

Maybe that is your bad physical shape? Maybe you have bad habits? Or maybe you feel you lack some chess skills?

Think about your chess. But don't turn it into hard work. It is possible to enjoy the process and have a serious attitude at the same time.

AG: What’s your long-term goal as a professional chess player? What are your plans for the next 1-2 years?

AD: I don't have any special goals. Of course, I will try to increase my results and rating. But my main goal is not oriented on results, scores or rating. I just want to make my chess better.

P.S. You can share your thoughts and ideas about this interview here in our forum!

Originally published Sep 21, 2021

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