Ever since José Raúl Capablanca astonished everyone with his remarkable ability, no Cuban, other than Leinier Domínguez, has advanced so far through Caïssa’s kingdom. Domínguez, from Güines, has never been – and probably never will be – World Champion of regular pace chess, neither has he spent years undefeated, nor have his opponents given him nicknames, such as “the chess machine.”
Capablanca was a genius and renowned figure. A phenomenon in every sense of the word. Leinier Domínguez however, is not. At first glance, and beyond, he is normal man. He has featured among the top 10 best players on the planet, but can go unnoticed. He knows how to disappear, as José Martí would say.
He doesn’t speak, but rather whispers. Under a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap, behind a pair of glasses which magnify the exhaustion of meticulously studying the table, before the eyes of the public, mounted upon the horse of success, is the same boy who learned how to play chess in a small town in the province of Havana. It seems like he prefers not to be recognized.
Watching him, Leinier Domínguez looks like a person so focused on his chessboard that he neither has the time or desire to raise his head and look around. And even less so now, given the recent birth of his son Sebastián and his ever increasing international commitments. Almost showing no signs of irritation, (I say almost so as to be completely honest), he responds to some spontaneous questions I casually put to him in the busy lobby of a Ciego de Ávila hotel.
Why do some people get annoyed every time you compete?
I think it has more to do with the level than with my attitude or personal style of play. The opposition is very tough, with strong, well trained players. It’s difficult to cause an upset in matches of this level. Cubans obviously look at my statistics, but if they also analyzed those of other chess players, they would discover a similar situation, many with a significant percentage of draws. Of course, when I play in tournaments of a different category my results are better, but in theGrand Prix, in Wijk aan Zee, and these types of events, the story is very complicated.
Many people, and sometimes justifiably, say that you prefer to play fast chess…
Since they imposed the Sofia Rules few matches finish in less than 30 or 40 moves. In many competitions I play until the end. Capablanca is different, as it still uses the old system. But I’m telling you, the games when I play for a draw are those in which I face players who are my friends or train with me, like Bruzón or Peter Leko. I think a high percentage of my commitments this year have been played to the end.
So you don’t consider yourself to be uncompetitive?
Not at all. I practically always try to win.
Do you feel overly pressured by the public?
It’s that they assign me a level I don’t have. MyELO score has fluctuated in recent years, between 2720 and 2760 at its best, this is my range, not that of the players with 2800 points. I’m not in the Top Five. I’m not Carlsen, nor Caruana. I understand that the people want me to win. I also want to, but objectively there is no reason for me to hope to arrive at a tournament with an average of 2750 and start to win day after day.
Do you believe that one day you could reach such a level, or perhaps you have already reached your peak?
I don’t think I’ve reached my peak. There are things I can do better, but I don’t have all the means to achieve this. Although, who knows, maybe if I trained hard and under better conditions, with a complete team and all the rest, its still not certain that I would achieve the results many demand of me.
What do you need to do to become a 2800 point player?
The first thing is to work. You need a solid trainer, various strength analysts…professional teams which provide you with advanced training. However, not everyone can do this, because it is very expensive. Kasparov did it in his time. Kramnik too. Anand, Topalov, Carlsen, also. But not many.
Recently several opponents have beaten you in finals. What happened?
I don’t think it was down to technical deficiencies, but problems with time management, which has also been one of my weak points. I have to improve on this, because I rush in almost all games and consequently squander advantages or loosing moves to level the match.
How is it that a former Blitz world champion would have problems with time keeping?
This often happens. For example,Grischuk is a great Blitz player who frequently suffers from bad timing. I don’t know how you resolve it. In my particular case it has to do with the lack of games I have played over recent years.
Do you like quick chess or could you spend your life playing at the normal pace?
I also like Blitz a lot. I grew up in Güines playing Rapid Transit, as we used to call it. It’s something that I enjoy a lot, it requires more adrenaline and is more of a spectacle.
In my opinion, another of your limitations is your repertory of openings…
It used to be. I have been working seriously on this and I have increased it a bit since theTbilisi Grand Prix until now. I will incorporate systems with whites like the Queen and with the blacks I have been doing more work with the Nimzo-India Defense. It’s about making yourself less predictable, although this obviously carries an inherent danger, as by incorporating more lines, there exists less possibility of knowing them in full.
Do you prefer team or individual tournaments?
I find them both appealing. The team tournaments have that collective flavor, the spirit of coming together, of enjoyment not only for your personal result but everyone’s. It might even be more exciting that the individual tournaments.
Are you definitely a positional player?
I think so. My style has changed, because before I was more prone to tactics, to a more varied manner of play, but over time I focused more on technique.
Is Fischer still your favorite player?
Yes. Although I also likeCapablanca and Kasparov.
Name an enjoyable tournament…
The Salónica Grand Prix, two years ago.
And a painful one…
There have been several. Corus 2009, where I lost the final against Karjakin. Or the Baku Grand Prix, 2014.
What happened against Carlsen?
He was always tricky to play against, even before becoming as strong as he is now. There are players who make things more difficult for you, in this sense everyone has their nemesis. There have been times when I have had the advantage, like in Biel 2008, but lost it, that’s how I lost the tournament. Also in Sofía, 2009, I could have beaten him, but it didn’t go my way.
And against Baadur Jobava, whose level is inferior to yours, why do you lose so frequently?
Using the same opening I usually attain comfortable positions, perhaps there’s something psychological to it.
Apart from them, who don’t you want to face?
All the elite players are difficult, playing against them you feel the pressure from early on, they create problems from their initial moves and you have to constantly play to your max to overcome these difficulties.Aronian is one of these, also Ivanchuk, when he’s in good form.
In which stage of the game do you consider yourself to be strongest?
In truth, when I compare myself with the five best in the world, I see myself as weak in every stage. I have made a great effort to perfect each one, although I feel that I do better in my opening and middle games.
How many 2700 point players have you defeated?
I don’t have that figure. Over 10 I think, but I don’t know the exact amount.
Would you like you son Sebastián to play chess?
Yes, because he would have what I lacked, a full timeteacher. If he has talent he could go far. Why not?
There is a moment when chess stops being hobby and becomes a life style. Have you lost your love for the game in that sense?
I am still fanatical about chess, I read a lot, and when I am not playing I am usually thinking of an interesting position or some idea I want to try out. It’s true I try to live a balanced life, not focus solely on chess, and dedicate time to my family, but I think I am going to play until I am old, and if I stop winning, I will still play for fun.