The best Russian chess player, and number 7 currently in the world, according to the FIDE rating, Ian Nepomnyashchiy, talked about his passion for video games and esports. In an interview, he recalled how he first found Dota 2 and Hearthstone, and compared the popular card game to chess. Cybersport caught the Russian chess player and discussed his time with esports.
You met chess when you were four years old. And when did you first get into games? How did it all start?
I had no computer as a child. Our friends, when they left for another city, left us 386 or 486 with MS-DOS. They had different games: “Field of Miracles”, airplane simulators and stuff like that — that was my first acquaintance with games. But it is not very fascinating. A few years later, when I was 11, they showed me “Heroes of Might and Magic.” It didn’t run on my computer, but every time I had the opportunity to play with others, I did it with pleasure. By the age of 12, I had the first laptop on which such games were played. And the first thing I did was buy a CD with the fourth “Heroes”. I was very happy.
How did you get acquainted with esports?
DotA was shown to me relatively late, in the year 2006. Therefore, I am not a super old school player compared to NS or Lost. I liked the game because it required teamwork, it could be played with friends. Even against bots at that time was interesting. Now it also becomes interesting to play against bots. After playing for a year, I learned that there are strong teams. At that time, SAY_PLZ was still playing, that is, sP — old school players will probably remember. He played for Virtus.pro. I don’t remember in what year, maybe in 2008, I came to ASUS event on Pyatnitsky highway. There I felt the atmosphere, but it was far from professional playing.
My skill gradually increased, and I began to play a lot in various in-house leagues. I was in the same clan on Battle.net with Dread and Solo. It was about 12 years ago. Besides Dota, I also play Hearthstone. Such a discipline for a solo player is more convenient. It is clear that you need to train there, you need a sparring partner with whom you discuss theory, debuilding, etc., but in fact you can do everything alone. Sasha Dashkevich aka XBOCT introduced me to Hearthstone. He said that’s “a very good game, beta just came out, you should try it” At first I didn’t like it — it looked kind of childish, stupid, but I slowly got pulled in.
Why didn’t you become a professional player? Not enough time or no desire?
I have never had a professional team because I didn’t have much time. My main occupation is chess, there is my priority. For me, the turning point was the ASUS tournament in Kiev. I flew in from a major chess tournament in the Netherlands, and I had a few days off. I was called to the DotA event, and I agreed since I had never been to Kiev. We went, took first place, it was a surprise. Received a prize, divided it with the team and just barely made back the cost of the tickets. At that time, there was no money in esports, at least in DotA. I thought that there was no big sense in all of this since it was difficult to earn money.
Ironically, in 3-4 months they announced the first The International with a massive prize pool. I appreciated the irony because by that time I was not tightly involved with anyone, the teams were already completed, line-ups were formed. And I did not have an opportunity nor desire to self-insert somewhere.
The first The International was a big breakthrough with which the esport began to flourish. That was the start of the boom.
Do any other chess professionals compete in video games to your knowledge?
Very many. For example, Peter Svidler is an eight-time champion of Russia, a multiple world champion in the national team, an Olympic champion. I showed him Hearthstone at one of the Olympics, thinking that Peter Veniaminovich would play less poker, would play more HS; to somehow unload it. He liked the game. Since 2014, he still plays it. I do not know about poker, but, apparently, that’s another thing for him to indulge in (laughs).
Young grandmaster Kirill Alekseenko played a lot of Hearthstone. He went full grind mode, went to the top 50 in Europe. At the same time he is a very capable chess player. Another member of the Russian national team, Zhenya Tomashevsky, plays HS as well.
Hearthstone is unpretentious, you can play it over the Internet, from any place, you do not need to carry anything with you. It doesn’t matter whether you play from a tablet or phone. If you have time, you can play.
I know a lot of well-known chess players who play DotA, but not at a professional level.
I heard that Magnus Carlsen is a fan as well?
I communicate on the Internet with world champion Magnus Carlsen. Once he wrote to me late at night:
“What are you doing? Not sleeping?”
“Are you watching the Major?” I was surprised, to say the least. I said: “What? Major? No. Who’s playing?”
“Well, this is cool, this and that, EHOME is playing.” He said that sort of thing.
He took a picture somewhere at the airport with Puppey and was very happy about it. There is also a Hearthstone player — StanCifka. He was one of the top players. He is an international chess master. But as a chess player, I don’t know him at all, only as a streamer and player.
Hearthstone developers often like to compare their game with chess. But ordinary esports fans believe that such a comparison is inappropriate. So is it possible to compare these games?
Regarding the developers of HS, at some point the CEO of the game corresponded with me and Peter Svidler. He asked us what we want to improve, change, what we like and what we don’t, what we think about additions, mechanics. It lasted several months. The developers tried to collect for themselves a useful backup of feedback.
Comparing Hearthstone with chess is difficult, since HS, like any card games, is a highly probabilistic game. The game is rather a bit like sudoku. Although I have never played it, but I know that there are a lot of small scores, some numbers. In general, the principle of thinking is a bit similar, you need to think all the time; There are options for how to proceed. As for strategies, it is difficult for me to judge, because I did not play HS professionally. I entered the top 10 of Europe in the ladder, but I did not grind on servers. This is quite a serious occupation, as in WoW, where in order to be in the top guild, you need to have five pumped-up characters, who then buff each other and prepare to take the world’s first and server’s first. Same in HS — you need to invest a lot of time.
There is a lot of small counting in HS, you need to constantly keep your brains in good shape. This is similar to chess, but, on the other hand, everything is overshadowed by a large number of randomness and unsuccessful changes in mechanics. Last year I played quite a lot, and it was absolutely disgusting that after two moves, in principle, you could win the match, because the players understood the deck archetypes.
Did you play the popular chess game for Dota 2?
I played it of course, as soon as it appeared. At that moment I was in the chess tournament in Holland, I went to Dota 2, I downloaded the custom game, but I didn’t figure it out: everything was in Chinese, there was no localization yet. I thought that this was another settling mode, but for some reason, then it just spread on Twitter. I returned home, I looked, that everyone plays only Auto Chess, all the Hearthstoners were in it, all the top streamers played it. I started to play a little. I can not say that successfully, I play more for fun, public with friends. Played a couple of hundred games.
Dota Auto Chess is a bit long for customs. Still, in HS the game lasts half an hour, if a matchup is really long, and the average duration in Auto Chess is 30-40 minutes, during this time you can play a game of Dota 2. But the custom mode is interesting, it is clear that the developers are trying, doing something with the balance. But I am not sure that we will see it soon at esports events, everything is still damp there. With chess, however, the connection is small, except for the 8 by 8 board, it is difficult to grasp something in common.
You were a statsman at one of The Internationals. Have you considered doing that again?
Back then I had a free month, and I wanted some tour. V1lat just wrote to me that there is a vacant place of a statsman. At that time I was a little bit inactive, I have played little in the past few years. But learning to process information is easy. Valve paid for it, so money-wise it was not particularly expensive, but I wanted to see the World Cup for this game live. Specifically, I wouldn’t want to be the statsman in the future, because it is very hard work. You really sit at a computer 10-12 hours a day — the commentators change, the statsman remains. You can not rest, work on all games. But to sit in on the analyst desk or comment — I would prefer that.
I came to RuHub once, they called me to comment on a couple of games. I don’t know how it happened, but they didn’t seem to be disappointed with me. But, probably, it is not worth for them to do this too often, so that the quality of the content is higher.
It was at ESL One Hamburg 2018. Will we ever see you again in such a commentator role?
There is a desire, but I am afraid that there is no possibility. This year, the chess calendar is as severe as if it was made in Chelyabinsk. Since May, tournaments go one after another. Until September-October, I will have only three weeks to rest. This is not enough, because this time should be used to recuperate. But in theory, commenting is fun. One of the problems of chess — on the Internet, no one looks at it in in the same way they do with popular games.
In such a tight schedule of chess tournaments do you manage to follow a little bit of esports?
We still live in the 21st century. In 2019 people watch the Internet, surf. I go to the news feeds in the morning. When a big event like a Major is taking place, where our teams play, it is clear that I will not watch all the games, but if there is time to watch the grand final, I will do it with pleasure.
Not so long ago, bots from OpenAI defeated OG, and then won 99% of matches against regular teams. How do you view AI in games?
Google took up the intellectual games — for a start, they beat a man in Go, although nobody had succeeded in doing this before. This program was called AlphaGo. The victory turned out confident, and after that, Google began to play chess. But their computers have long proved that they are stronger than man. For example, there is Stockfish’s strongest chess program, and the AlphaGo neural network beat Stockfish from 100 games about 25 times, the rest in a draw. This program is self-taught. Every hour it spent on learning and development. Therefore, it is not surprising that this happens in games.
The first bots — for example, in Warcraft — were able to finish off creeps, but with this, their powers ended. And now it all stepped forward — bots have a temperament. Of course, it’s too early to display the AI team at The International, the project is still raw, but the progress is impressive. It has only been a couple of years since Dendi played a show match against a computer. Over the years they have created a team of bots that wins almost all matches. Yes, some teams have found tactics against them, they have found patterns, I read an article about the fact that they do not normally define invisibility. But now the bots will take the time to educate themselves against it.