Sometimes they don't realise how strong we Greeks are

Ioannis Papaioannou, the Greek team’s first board, usually tries to keep a low profile. Today though, after winning his game against the legendary Alexander Beliavsky, he took the risk of visiting the Expo Center of the Olympiad, where he was of course “arrested” by Anastasia Karlovich…

-          Congratulations on your victory! Please tell us a few words about it, and also about Greece’s match against Slovenia.

It was an interesting game. Actually, this was the fourth time I play against “Alexander the Great”, Alexander Beliavsky, and in all these games I was White; this is unfair, but unfortunately there is nothing I could do about it… All these meetings took place in Olympiads and team events in general, and all of them were drawn – except today’s. I am sure that if HE had all Whites instead, he would have scored better than one win and three draws. Today’s game was quite interesting; he missed a tactic at some point, when I played Ne5 he played …f6, which was a tactical mistake. I believe that in any case I was slightly better, but after this I was much better throughout and he had no chance of counterplay, because of the nature of the position; he was very unlucky in this respect.

The match against Slovenia is quite interesting; we are leading 1-0 at the moment, thanks to my win, but unfortunately we were not doing so well on the other boards when I left the playing hall, so I don’t really know what’s gonna happen…

-          Let’s wait and see! (ed: the match finished 2-2, leaving Greece as the only other undefeated team in the Open section of the Olympiad, apart from leaders United States) By the way, I learned the other day from your colleague, GM Dimitris Mastrovasilis, about this special Greek strategy: that you normally play for a draw with White and push for a win with Black. So what happened today? How come you deviated from the plan?

Okay, this is more a Greek joke rather than a Greek strategy! But you know, it is never easy to obtain some advantage, regardless of the color… For example, I feel a bit guilty, because the other day I played against a great French player, MVL (Maxime Vachier-Lagrave), who partly because of me will not be the MVP of this tournament! We made a quick draw, I exchanged every piece, I had some good idea in mind… Okay, it happens sometimes… He is a 2800+ player, what can I do? A draw against him is a fine result.

-          Is it easy to make a draw against such players?

Absolutely not! Be my guest! (laughs) OK, so, this is not really a Greek habit, it just happens sometimes. Our team is semi-professional, so we often are not so well versed in opening theory, we haven’t analyzed that many positions, or we forget the theory… So sometimes we are forced to make draws with White, it happens. But, on the other hand, we are very passionate players, we play “street chess”, as I like to say.

-          Coffeehouse chess!

Yes, exactly, coffeehouse chess, if necessary! For example, my teammate Stelios Halkias is very good at this – creating problems for the opponent from out of nowhere, so we are good fighters, I believe, and so I think we have chances for a good place in the final standings in this Olympiad.

-          How do you explain that the Greek team very often plays much better against the stronger opponents, while on other days you can lose to anybody?

Hmmm… I wouldn’t say we can lose to anybody! It probably happens for no reason, maybe… It is of course a good challenge to play against a strong opponent, and often these opponents don’t realize just how good players we are! We are really good players and sometimes we can play really good games, but the opponents often fail to realize this, perhaps because we are not very active. I, for example, only rarely play in tournaments abroad, I mainly teach chess. So our opponents sometimes get the impression that they can beat us easily – me, or Banikas for example, or others. But the truth is that, from time to time, we can play some games on a level way above 2700.

-          So you are some kind of dark horses in this Olympiad, can I make this statement? (laughs)

Yes, you can put it this way, why not? Besides, let’s not forget, the horse of Alexander the Great (ed: the actual one) was also dark, right? It was black. So we are similarly strong.

-          I also know quite well that you have a fantastic memory and you don’t only focus on your game, but you follow several other games around the playing area. Here we have so many games to follow, how do you manage during the Olympiads?

I will tell you! First of all, my memory used to be good indeed, but now, as time goes by, it becomes less and less so. At this moment I keep in my head only 30 games, more or less, mainly from the top boards. It’s because they are interesting – we like chess, we live for chess, we like it so much…

-          Which matches did you pick out today as most interesting?

First of all our match, of course, and then the great game of Jobava (ed: against Ponomariov; Jobava won quickly and spectacularly). He played an amazing game; I was trying hard to calculate what was going on and he won a really great game! All the games of the Georgian players I found interesting, but also many others among the top matches.

-          At the same time, I also noticed that you consumed much less time than your opponent in your game. How do you manage to play so fast?

I do play fast usually, but that doesn’t mean that I calculate fast – I just play the moves fast! Here, because I haven’t really played for a long time, I actually consume more time than usual, but okay… Since I am not a professional chess player, let’s just say that I do not care that much if a move is good, is winning or losing; I try to do my best, but it’s not a matter of life and death for me. So, that “gives me the right” to play fast. Even when I lose, I also play fast! Yes, I lose fast!

-          So, since you don’t care so much and play fast, you even succumb to giving interviews!

Yes, finding time for interviews is the main reason I play fast. (laughs)

-          How do you prepare for the games? I’ve always been wanting to know about this aspect of the Greek team, you often show some interesting preparation. Do you share opening secrets and ideas with each other?

Sometimes yes, we do share our knowledge. You know, I have the bad habit of preparing only at the last moment, very few minutes before the game; I often don’t start preparing until maybe one hour before the game. This happens mainly because I am bored. But also, there are so many possibilities, you can hardly predict which variation will come up… So, at least in this tournament, this is how I prepare: I get up late, I go to eat something and then, if I have some time left and am not feeling sleepy, I will sit in front of the computer and maybe check some variation. But usually these variations I check do not occur in my games anyway. Take today’s game as an example: I was preparing for other things. I have played three Catalans against Beliavsky, the first one back in the 2000 Olympiad in Istanbul, and all three of them were drawn. So this time I was again preparing for and hoping that he will enter the Catalan, but instead he played the Slav Defense, for the first time in our personal encounters, and that was a surprise for me; I hadn’t prepared for it at all, but I would say it was a rather pleasant surprise!

-          Of course, since you won the game! And by the way, it seems that your strategy is working, because you have plus-three (+3) in this tournament. Congratulations so far for this result, but tell me, do you think your approach is really working? (laughs)

I don’t know… My strategy is mainly based on luck sometimes. Okay, so far so good, but there are three very tough games left, no matter if the team plays up or down, so it is not the right moment yet to say I played a good tournament.

-          Yes, you are right, we still have three rounds left. What do you think about the Baku Olympiad? You have played in many of the past ones – how many, actually?

I have played ten… Or eight… The first time I played for our national team was in 1998, and since then I have played in every one of them (ed: this sums up as Baku being the tenth). I must say that this is one of the best, if not THE best. It is very well organized, the hotels are really great… Sometimes the organizers are overdoing it with all these precautions, the anti-cheating measures; they are working in the absolutely correct direction, no doubt about that, but sometimes it is a bit too much. I think they are too much afraid of cheating, maybe more than they should.

-          What about you? Are you afraid of cheating?

Well, I’ve never cheated in my life (laughs) and I’m not afraid of cheating either. I play against serious players, I hope they will never cheat, and even I do happen to play against someone who is cheating, well, then I will play an interesting game against a computer! I will lose in the end, but what to do! (both laughing)

-          I like your optimistic attitude! I wish you good luck, as well as to your team! Thank you so much!