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Underdog to Champions – How GM Ivan Sokolov transformed the Uzbek team into Olympiad champions.

GM Ivan Sokolov, coach of the champion Uzbekistan team at the 2022 Olympiad, shares their journey to victory, his advice for ambitious chess improvers and coaches.

Real Stories Of Improvements | 6 min read
Underdog to Champions – How GM Ivan Sokolov transformed the Uzbek team into Olympiad champions.

Winning the Olympiad is a big feat for any country. 

When the young Uzbekistan team won the gold at the 2022 Chess Olympiad, it was a dream come true, not just for the players but also for some others.

“It was the biggest result I have achieved as a coach of the very young team of Uzbekistan,” says GM Ivan Sokolov

But becoming a coach of the Uzbek team was not something Ivan had foreseen. 

“I was invited to the Olympiad as an official commentator.” 

A change in plan

But things took an unexpected turn.

“During the Sharjah Masters, where all the Uzbek players played, the arbiter at the event, also the former Vice-President of the Uzbek Federation, Husan Turdialiev, approached me. And he asked me whether I want a job with the Uzbekistan team.” 

“I accepted because it’s professionally much more interesting for me than being a commentator. But it also gives me less time.”

Winning the trust of the players.

With so little time to prepare, Ivan had his task cut out. Building a good team spirit was an important step. It all starts with trust.

“You need to win their trust as a coach that you are qualified to take the best decisions. You don’t win it based on what people say about you. You have to get the trust from the players.” 

The advantage young teams have.

“I was fortunate to coach Iran and Uzbekistan, 2 very young teams.”

“You have an advantage as a coach when building team spirit with young players – they are very ambitious and full of positive energy.” 

“And they are too young to have feelings like envy, jealousy inside them – feelings which stand in the way of building good team spirit.” 

Training with the Uzbekistan team

From the beginning, it was clear where Ivan’s main focus was going to be.

“I had all the players apart from Abdusattarov because he was playing in Biel. I was trying to work on the different middlegame positions coming from openings.”

“I told them don’t expect me to work on positions to find some blockbuster novelties. I was not doing this as an active player and I’m not going to do it here either.” 

“But I can improve situations at other levels.”

“I’ve built different databases coming from different middlegame positions.”

“When working with a top player, I don’t like ‘directed database’ – like a separate database for calculation, pawn breaks, trade, etc. Because when you’re playing a real game, nobody will give you a tap on the shoulder like – Hey, this is a pawn break situation.”

“So instead, I put a position and say this was in a game move 32, and it is fair to say you wouldn’t have a fair amount of time then. So you have around 15 minutes to make a decision. This is more or less what I was doing in this preparation period.”

Studying the classics

When asked whether he emphasized his players to study classics, Ivan added:

“Some do. Some don’t. And I have to, of course, work on this. Sometimes you come across these things and have to explain the necessity of broadening knowledge.” 

Managing expectations before the start

Every team at the Olympiad hopes to win a medal. These hopes also bring expectations. 

“I was harboring hopes for a medal. But when the officials in Tashkent asked me about the same, I thought it would be crazy to give them some sort of hope or unrealistic hope.”

“Because if I do this, they will also transfer this to the team. And this burden of expectation is going to work against us.”

“It’s much better to enter a competition as an underdog and to hope for the best.”

“I told the officials that I’m not saying that we can’t beat any of the teams. We can. But we aren’t going to enter any of those matches with more than 50% chance.” 

“Also, I was fully aware my team was underrated. I knew our average seeding shouldn’t be 14th in the starting list. It should be higher.”

Pre-game preparation during the Olympiad

During the event, Ivan’s focus was on the practical aspect of preparation.

“I am not looking before the matches at their novelties. Instead, what I have is a discussion with every single player. I ask what they expect is going to happen on the board.”

“Then I ask – Do you consider your choice will result in positions that maybe you don’t like?”

Conquering the biggest team event

With their team spirit and ambitious play, Uzbekistan went on to win the gold medal at the Olympiad.

If you carefully notice, you’ll see that each player(including the reserve) fired at the right time when the team was in trouble.

Performance of the Uzbekistan team at the Olympiad
Performance of the Uzbek team at the Olympiad| Source: chess-results.com

For Ivan, this was his greatest accomplishment as a chess coach.

“It was very interesting, almost the same feeling I would have if I were playing, especially when it comes to emotional ups and downs, joys, and stress.”

Advice to chess improvers

What advice does Ivan have for ambitious players? 

“You need to know yourself, pluses and minuses, to improve. Objectivity is important.”

“Sometimes, I get ridiculous emails from people – Like I’m 2100. My strength is 2400. And I would like to be a Grandmaster by the end of this year. Can you help me?”

Even we get asked such questions at ChessMood, in our 1-1 call with our students, and in emails 😄😄

There’s another problem that Ivan sees in ambitious chess improvers.

“80% of the people I’ve worked with are convinced that they are underrated. This is kind of a common issue.”

Common mistakes players make

Ivan also pointed out where chess improvers often go wrong, especially when they work with engines.

“Point 1. Let’s say you have a position the computer is very enthusiastic about. But for a human, it’s very difficult to prove it because you have to come up with moves that a human is not likely to find.” 

“Point number 2. Maybe the position is better (even for humans). But it might be better for players with a different understanding than you are.”

“Let’s put it this way – Throughout my career, I was a dynamic player with very strong positional understanding. But in Tal or Shirov-type positions, I was never comfortable playing it. The computer can tell me that I can sacrifice a piece and be +1.5. There is no forced mate, but there is a huge attack though I’m a piece down. But I don’t really feel comfortable with this.”

“I feel much better if I’m on 0.00, be a pawn down but have the initiative. So this is often where people make mistakes.” 

“If you are below 2200-2300, working with an engine makes no sense.” 

The downside of using engines.

Ivan also shared an interesting case of what happens when you work too much, especially with a cloud engine.

“I was once discussing with a strong player who used cloud engines. We were analyzing some position of Rossolimo after just 7-8 moves, and he said, it’s a draw.”

“And I looked at him and said – say that again 😄”

Speeding up your success

Through a personal anecdote, Ivan revealed a hack that can shorten the learning curve.

“If you can afford a good coach, do it because it will save you an amazing amount of time.”

“I had only 1 real coach in my life, Velimirovic. It lasted for 1 year. And he did speed up my learning process. Let’s say in a total of 30-40 working days, he sped up my learning process by 3-4 years.”

GM Dragoljub Velimirovic, coach of GM Ivan Sokolov
Ivan’s coach: GM Dragoljub Velimirovic | Source: chessgames.com

Catch the exciting and value-packed interview below with GM Ivan Sokolov. Apart from sharing the journey of Olympiad victory, Ivan also reveals his plan for the future, where is the Uzbekistan team headed next, and so much more.

Whether you are a strong GM, ambitious improver, or a chess coach, there’s a lot of wisdom you’ll find here: 

We would like to thank Maria Emelianova (from chess.com) for the pictures. Share your thoughts with us in the forum.

Originally published Aug 19, 2022

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