Interview with Rafael Leitao

Rafael Leitao is a Brazilian grandmaster. He is born in 1979. He became the world champion of kids under 12 years old in 1991. In 1996 he became the the world champion of under 18 years old. He is the only Brazilian that has become world champion in chess. He became a grandmaster at the age of 18 and he is still the Brazilian that has become grandmaster at the youngest age. He participated in all youth world championship from 1989-1996. He also participated in few junior championships.

Among his accomplishments are:

  • Second place in world championships under 10 in 1989 with 10.5/11 points
  • World champion of under 12 years old in 1991.
  • Third place in under 14 years old in 1993.
  • Second place in the world championship in under 16.
  • World champion of under 18 years old in 1996 at the age of 16.
  • Won the Pan-American championship (both North and South America) eight times, every time he participated.
  • Won the junior (U20) Pan-American championship in 1995 when he was 15. After that tournament he became an International master and got his first grandmaster norm.

Can you tell me when you learned how to play chess?

I learned to play chess at the age of six. My father taught me. He used to play in university tournaments in chess but was not a serious chess player.

How did you train at early age?

We did not have any chess school where I was brought up. I am from an island in the north east of Brazil, about 3000km fram Sao Paulo where all the chess activites took place. My father had good chess books. Sometimes he would give me assignments and sometimes study with me but I had no one else to play chess with in my city.  Sometimes I would train with a trainer from Sao Paulo but this was at most one week per year. I am mostly self taught. I had good discipline and I trained chess about two hours a day most days at an early age (from 6-10).

I solved technical problems and read chess books. I read Bobby Fischer‘s book, „My sixty memorable games“ when I was very young and I studied the games of good chess players. Bobby Fischer’s book was my favorite book. I also studied the book by Alexander Kotov, „Think like a Grandmaster“ at the age of 10 or 11. I was hugely impressed by all the theory in the book when I was a kid, even though I don‘t agree with everything now. I also read the Portugese translation of „Modern chess strategy“ by Ludeck Pachman which is a very good book and was always recommeded to Brazilian chess players. Later I got a big fan of the books by Mark Dvoretsky [a famous Russian coach] when they got sold in Brazil in 1991 or 1992. I actually went to Moscow to train with him in 2002 and he came to Brazil to train our olympic team in 2006. I really enjoyed his approach.

I find it surprising that I could compete with the Soviet boys and others that always had trainers. When I was second in the world championship under 10 in 1989, Peter Leko who was third had a trainer with him (Pal Benko).

What was your first big achievement in chess?

When I was seven years old, I played in my first national championship. It was a tournament for kids under 10 years of age. I  finished in third place but I was fighting with the best. At that time my father realized that I had some talents. When I was nine years old I played in the world championship under ten and got a 10,5 points out of 11. Before the tournament I had thought that it would be good to get 50%. After that tournament I got support from my city and my father could go less to his work to train me.  Before the world championship under 12, the support from my city had ended so I almost did not play in that tournament. A few months before the tournament  I got sponsorship from a company in Sao Paulo. The owner of that business liked to play chess. After I won I got that sponsorship for ten years.

Did you get a lot of attention when you won your world championship titles?

I got really famous in my city after I became the world champion. Still many people people in my city recognize me and remember that I won the youth world championships.

Did you have an assistant in the youth world championships?

Gilberto Milos was my coach in the world championship under 18 in 1996. I would not have become the world champion under 18 without his help. We outprepared my opponents in many games. Milos could more or less predict what would happen in the openings and I won many games just because of our preparation. The coach can make a lot of difference, especially for kids. The coach can give them confidence and calm them down, for example.

What is your most memorable game?

The most memorable game without a doubt is a game against Alexander Baburin. It was game played in 1998 in a tournament where I became grandmaster. This is the best game that I have played in my life. This game is famous because of the move Na4 that I played in 15th move. This is a move that is not easy to find. Computers at the time could not find it. Nowadays strong chess progams find the move.

The game that I played in the last round of the youth world championship for under 16 against Erald Dervishi from Albania, is also very memorable. The tournament was held in Brazil. I was leading from start to the last game. Some people from my city came to watch the game. I had an almost winning postion but I made a draw. If I would have won the game, I would have become the world champion under 16. I wanted to quit playing chess after this game. Chess is tough. But it is impossible for players like me to quit thinking about chess. I can stop playing for awhile but I will always look at good chess games. It is impossible to quit chess completely.

You later got interested in correspondance chess. You are even a grandmaster in correspondance chess. Do you still play correspondence chess?

Today, I think correpsondence chess is completely useless. Computer chess programs are so strong today. When I was playing correspondence chess, I could still beat guys that used computers because chess programs did not evaluate all positions correctly.

Who is your favorite chess player?

Bobby Fischer was my childhood hero, I read his books and all his stories. You should only judge an artist by his work and Bobby Fischer should just be judged by his games. I also liked Karpov because of his style. It is very rewarding to study his games. Karpov would sometimes win games and you didn’t know how he won the games.  You really had to dig deep to really understand all the things he did. He was a fantastic player.

Iceland will always be in the heart of chess players because of what you did for Fischer. People that are not chess players can’t understand the status of this guy, they cant understand that he was a genius . A player like him might appear once in a hundred years.

Do you know of any Icelandic chess players?

I know Hjartarson of course.  I know [Jon L.] Arnason. I know Gretarson, who won the world championship, which I took part in. I know Stefansson. I even played against him once. I didn´t know much about Steingrimsson but I looked at his games few days ago and I see he plays quite well. And of course I know the old Olafsson. I also know the other Olafsson, I checkmated him in a nice fashion in a tournament in Capella Grand in 2000. Petursson was also very strong. I played against Thorhallsson in New York open in 2000. I think, I know of most of the Icelandic grandmasters.

Helgi Olafsson- Rafael Leitao. Cappelle-la-Grande. 2000. Mate in three.

Why did you decide to participate in the tournament in Selfoss

Iceland is a place I always wanted to visit. I think I was once invited to Reykjavik open, but I could not go.  I like the format of the tournament, that only former world champions are invited. The conditions are also good. Before I got this invitation I had decided that I would not play in any more tournaments this year. I had actually turned down two invitations. But when I got the invitation to this tournament I thought: Even though it is not going to easy, I have to play in this tournament.

What other interest do you have beside chess

I like reading a lot. I have always liked it. I like sports, especially football. I am also like following the stock market and investing and reading about investing.

What are the biggest challenges of being a professional chess player.

The biggest challenges are financial. It is difficult to be focused if you are not sure you will be able to pay the bills.

To become really good you have to work hard and have passion and discipline.  Working alone is very difficult. This is the reality of many good chess players in South America.