24.06.2005 Women's chess: Ilya Odessky

Judit Polgar is the only woman who plays at the level of the best world players, she is preeminent among the other women. What is the secret of her achievements?

I am interested in women's chess from the position of fairness, not strength – just as well as in women. If a woman comes to a door and opens it with her heavy shoulder, I am not interested in her. A woman should just stay exhaling fragrance and wait for me to open this door.

Now, back to Polgar. I can determine a moment when I stopped to observe her with interest quite precisely – it happened when she started to win one game after another against the French defense (I guess, against Bareev and Short, it is easy to check). Bareev, by the way, once made a remarkable observation. He said, the French is such an opening that one can lose in a slashing style, not understanding the reason of such a shame. It means, if you play the Pirc and get slaughtered in 20 moves, there is no question why – because the opening is suspicious. And in the French one can play all the correct and strong moves and nevertheless get packed in the same 20 moves.

And this is what had actually happen. Bareev and Short tatted on the queenside, established a control over the critical squares – in short, conducted a finest positional play. And instead of responding with the only defensive moves, Judit simply gave up the wing and boldly went on mating. And she succeeded indeed and even more than once. That was the moment when I understood very clearly that she is of no interest to me as a female player, because she does not play sweet women's chess, but something fundamentally different.

She still acted like a female player from time to time; for instance, she was comfortably losing a game after game to Kasparov and Kramnik. On the other hand, many male players who are often called elite had also been losing to Big Ks in a similar manner; therefore it is not an argument. However, later even those rudiments had gone; in the Match of the Century Polgar drove Kasparov from one corner to another with her rooks – and finally got him. And after that her play had lost any resemblance to women's chess.

Thus, if you want me to talk about women's chess, I gladly will, but let's leave Polgar alone.

Is there a difference between women's and men's chess?

It depends on a standpoint. For a trainer of a female player these differences are of one kind, for a husband – of another kind, a spectator notices something else... As the European women's individual championship is underway right now, and – thanks to the XXI century! – we are able to watch games online, let's talk about the differences from the spectator's point of view. In my opinion, there are three major differences in this case.

1. Everything is clear.

Imagine yourself watching, for example, the European men's championship. By the 20th move in a key game of the day you simply stop understanding – chesswise – what is going on. Why didn't he capture the pawn? Why did he move the bishop away? Why didn't he exchange rooks? Everything is completely uncertain, and you realize that this uncertainty is your problem – you are simply too weak to understand. Then you start following the event like... at the race track. If you like Ivanchuk, you support him, whispering: "Go I-van-chuk! Go I-van-chuk!", without a slightest idea about a kind of position he has. Surely, one could turn an engine on and listen to what it suggests, but this is a quite another issue.

And what about women's events? Everything is clear. And if not, then it is most likely their problem, not yours. If a girl did not play 'your' move, she made a mistake, not you – and if you finally turn an engine on, it will confirm that you were right. I have to tell you that this is a rare pleasure you don't get elsewhere, following any other kind of sport. You are from St.Petersburg, right? Imagine you're watching a match of "Zenit", Kerzhakov dribbles through the center and shoots wide instead of passing.  You shout: "Look, Arshavin was wide open, he could have scored!" – so what? How can you confirm it? Would Arshavin have scored, or shot wide? Or a defender would have blocked him? And here you are watching not an ordinary match, but the European championship! And you not just understand everything, you can justly criticize the participants! Well, if such a choice of options does not please a chess follower, I don't know how to inspire him at all.

2. Everything is honest.

When we talk about men's open, we always talk about prearranged games. The worst thing about it is that maybe there are not as many thrown games as talks and rumors about them. Someone had a good tournament, scored 8 out of 9 or 9 out of 11 – of course, he is being 'led to the prize'. Maybe not, maybe there was nothing unsporting about this result – but the talks go on, sullying both tournament's outcome and winner's reputation.

There's another football example. A few years ago I visited a match between 'Spartak' and 'Locomotiv', which was held for some reason in Ramenskoe (Moscow suburb). It was one of the last matches of the season. 'Spartak' had secured its place, while 'Loco' desperately needed a point. After 90 minutes of football 'Spartak' was ahead 1-0. Time to blow a final whistle – but the referee does not seem to know that. Three, four, five extra minutes – the game goes on. And suddenly all 'Spartak' players join the attack, lose the ball, Loskov passes to Obiorah, bang – a goal! And the referee gives a final whistle. Afterwards I've read a lot of interviews – everybody swore it was just a coincidence.  Well, I don't know. Maybe it was – but the crowd was not enthusiastic: we all felt like being cheated.

Now, have you ever heard about thrown games in women's chess? I am stressing the word "heard'. Well?.. Me neither. Not a single case! Every family has its black sheep; maybe somebody secretly throws games from time to time, but on a surface everything is clear. This is a great advantage for a supporter: there are no doubts about the fairness of play.

3. Everything is sporting.

Women do not need 'Sofia', women always fight to the uttermost – only if they are not so exhausted that they can't physically stay at the board. This is a fantastic paradox of women's chess, which I can't explain, but only confirm.

Once again, compare it to men's elite. Many of them are at daggers drawn with each other. The list of mutual complaints is so long – so prove at the board that you are smart and your opponent is a complete nonentity! Alas... After executing 20 home-prepared moves Black surprises his opponent with ' a very strong novelty ', and then comes a draw agreement on move 22. Naturally, they need 'Sofia rules' that forbid draws, because it is not a sport. Sport appears where a result is caused by a struggle, not a mutual scare.

In women's chess the course of events is simply incredible in that matter. Look at the match Kovalevskaya-Kachiani from the last world championship. They are very close friends – but look what a mess they created on board. Look at this European championship, Grabuzova vs. Zaiatz. A fellow journalist approached me shortly before the start of the online and said: 'They are very good friends, stand well in the tournament, so why should they break good luck for each other? A draw on the 15th move – no doubt'. Ha ha! Don't even hope! Look at the position after 15 moves – just out of curiosity. You will understand a lot about women's chess.

Women's chess: clear, honest, sporting. Men's chess: unclear, unsporting and often with bad reputation. These are the differences – I repeat, from the spectator's point of view.

Considering all of the above – can women's chess become a professional sport?

Well... I don't know what to say. I think the issue whether men's chess can be a professional sport is rather more vital these days.

It's certainly more interesting to broadcast playing girls instead of sullen men. Do you think this fact can be used as a pretext for creation a chess TV show to popularize chess?

You know, this question, as well as the previous one, is a particular question: you divide a general issue into several partitions. And the main issue is: what do chessplayers want themselves? Because you can't make one happy against one's will.

What do chessplayers want? This is the major question. I formulated the answer once, and, pardon my bragging, I think I came up with a good one. CHESSPLAYERS WANT TO LIVE LIKE BOHEMIA, EARN AS SPORSTMEN AND HAVE A REPUTATION OF SCIENTISTS.  And this is the essence of our problem, the roots of this baby talk – ah, we don't know what is chess, oh, it is sport and art and science (now it is also education), it is so complex, so difficult... Therefore, since it is so complex and difficult, and bounds of the subject are not identified, serious corporate investments do not come to chess. Because investors are not idiots, they have to realize exactly what they are paying for. Investing into sport means serious amount of money and clear goals, investing into arts and sciences means different money and different goals. A couple of days ago I was told that Alexey Slavin, a chess activist from Samara, is retiring. He sponsored women's chess – the higher league, then the superfinal. Why is he retiring? Because he feels offended that he did not get his due for his money (quite serious money, by chess measures). A bad news; however, I have a question: did he realize what he had sponsored indeed? Or it was yet another case: thinking that he invests money into sport, he subsidized a party that was somewhat related to arts. Maybe he thought he is an investor, and everybody around treated him like a patron of arts? 

...I remember once on a flight to Madrid I sat next to a Russian physicist. He bragged a bid – he has house in Spain, faculty at the university, laboratory, students... And when we were about to land, he sighed and said: 'Still, on the other hand, I earn 700 times less than Raul'. Well, maybe he said 70 or 7000, that doesn't matter. What does it mean? Does it mean that a young fop that kicks a ball is 70 times more useful for the society than a skilled Professor of Physics? Of course not, quite the contrary, one could suspect the proportion being reversed.

It means that our world is upside down, the society is upside down – and it is not something chessplayers must fight against. And now we are back to the question: what do you want? Do you want to earn like Beckham? Then be kind to advertise underwear, even if checked black and white. Are you saying that you are proud and you want to live on what you earn for a well-played Queen's Gambit? Then don't complain that you earn peanuts, because your skill in Queen's Gambit worth peanuts in the market.

How many people play Queen's Gambit good? A hundred. How many people can appreciate a person who plays it good? About 100,000 – a number even smaller than a number of people who can appreciate a good violinist, a tiny amount that has no value in the advertising market. And the only conclusion can be derived from this story is that a good Queen's Gambit skill is not a summit. Maybe it is a spiritual summit, I don't object, but it is not a way to live an established life and to support one's family. It is just a starting point, a trampoline that must be used for a leap into another dimension, a world of sports advertising money.

In my opinion, in our country only one person realizes it – Konstantin Kosteniuk. There was a trainer's conference in Dagomys in 2002, and I approached him: 'Could you read a lecture, or, even better, a series of lectures and a seminar?' 'What are you talking about, – he said, – who's gonna listen to me?' And he was right, because he understood that audience better than I. I entered the doors of trainers and parents of talented kids like a physician.

– What's the trouble?

– Too little money; apart from that everything's fine.

– And what are you going to do about it?

– We'll perfect our Queen's Gambit. It is a pity that there are only 24 hours per day, we could have reached new heights with 25!

– You could try a different approach, perhaps? Try to break into the TV, to remind about you in your local mass-media?

– Oh please, we don't even have enough time to learn the Queen's Gambit, and you suggest such nonsense! And thanks for visiting, but we must go training.

When I worked in 'Chess Weekly' and the starting circulation was very small, Konstantin Kosteniuk visited us at least once a month. There was always an occasion: 'Sasha gave a simul', 'Sasha played living chess', 'Sasha visited this and this', et cetera. And he was always brining small text, pictures, business card, phone number... 'Thank you, bye'. He obviously called to dozens, hundreds media, sent out hundreds of emails, wrote thousands of small texts – and launched her daughter into the orbit.

You are asking non-specifically: TV, chess show – and I want to be more specific. Why nobody advertises Kosintseva sisters? Where are they – on TV and radio, in magazines and newspapers? Why nobody makes megastars of them? There are no contra-indications, and possible occasions are countless.

First of all, they are sisters – one could remember Polgar, and besides, sisters – this is already a plot. Chess talent is great, plus spotless credit history – no suspicious actions, because nobody knows anything at all about them. One could make up tales in tabloids and reveal the truth in analytical issues. A number of references is 1000 more important than a quality of them – a first law of PR, remembered cold by Kosteniuk.

'A famous chess player Tanya Kosintseva planted a tree!' A day after: 'Nadya Kosintseva rescued a neighbor's cat!' Next day: 'Tanya and Nadya Kosintseva returned the cat to its owner. 6-year-old Vova Batarejkin was very grateful. He turned out to be an avid chess player: 'Now I am your fan forever!'

A key phrase is 'a famous chess player'. It has to be repeated as an obvious fact. Then a reader, being afraid to lose the pace of life, thinks: 'Wow, famous! I didn't know. I should follow them more closely. How could I have missed?' And then there is some Biel tournament, and girls do very well: one must not forget telling the media about the outstanding victory. A reader opens 'Sport-Express' – look what a strong girls, they crush everybody. Turns on the radio – the sisters say that during the Biel tournament they consumed only some special drinking yoghurt, etc.

Besides, the sisters are not from Moscow – from a province. Archangelsk is also a cool PR theme, 'Young Russia'. The younger one saved the Olympiad in Bled, the elder one also plays very good – how come they are not advertised? Whom else to advertise?

In reality there are no Kosintseva sisters – neither on TV or radio, nor in newspapers and magazines. And you know, I won't be surprised if Masha Fominykh has a more successful life. She knows what she wants and knows (or thinks that she knows) how to get it. Will see. Maybe this is not a crazy idea – Masha Fominykh as a TV presenter. Why not? One could write a text for her, and all she need is to step into the spotlight and open her mouth. I am sure that male spectators will watch such a 'Chess School' without rest.

Should the chess teaching of boys and girls differ?

If you ask seriously, my answer is – yes! The system is absolutely different! This can be put in such a way: we teach boys chess and we teach girls confidence. A famous grandmaster and trainer (let’s call him X) once told me about his lessons with extremely talented female chess player Y, a world championship candidate. “I could have explained a variation once again in half an hour after the first explanation”.  I stress the fact that it was told about one of the most talented female chessplayers of the Soviet Union, what is to be said about the rest?

If a boy who plays at least at the level of national championship gets an advantage by the end of the opening, he will either win or make a draw; the exceptions are utterly rare and just verify the common rule. If a girl has a better (or vice versa a worse) position by the end of the opening – it means absolutely nothing. “To grasp an opening and not to spill it” – this is not about women’s chess, it’s like entering the wrong door if you believe in this conception. If a female chessplayer is confident, if she is motivated to please a young man or a trainer, there are no obstacles on her way – and the pattern of chess pieces on board will have the least influence.

By the way, speaking about the system of education, I vote for co-education. Any position set, any exercise will have more nuances, generally positive ones, if there are two children of approximately the same age and different sexes at the board. However, it’s a misery having a lesson with two girls. God forbid, if you praised one girl and forgot another one! I do not know those harts of the harts from which they put out their claws – it will be up to there both for a trainer and foolishly praised girl, and a random piece – everybody and everything will be scratched. Curiosity to the opposite sex can be used to the benefit of a chess training while it will never work with jealousy.

So, do you agree that not only professional but also good personal relationships between a trainer and his student help to get a better result?

I’ve already mentioned that this is the most important aspect that leaves the rest far behind! This is the main thing and not only during a tournament. Good personal relationship is a perfect motivation. I can tell you a lot about this…. In 30 years.

Whom of the female players do you like, judging by their play and personal qualities?

I would reverse the order, personal qualities first and then playing skills. There are, of course, happy coincidences: a nice girl who plays strong. But what does it mean “strong”? Unfortunately, recently – I try to keep a close watch on all the important women’s events as it’s a real pleasure for me to play over their games – “play strongly” became a synonym and even a substitution of the phrase “calculate strongly”. All the strong female chess players are good at calculating first of all; more over, those who calculate good prevail among the players of the lower level. I would say that there has been only one girl in Russia for the last ten years who was able to play good positional chess – Luiza Khusnutdinova, but at a certain moment she stopped developing. Kosintseva sisters, Korbut, Pogonina, coming down – Gunina, Malysheva, Nebolsina are all good at calculating.

Do you remember there is an episode in the movie “Rain Man” when Raymond (autistic hero of Dustin Hoffman) was put through a kind of medical questioning

– Where were you with Charlie Babbitt?

– In Las Vegas.

– What were you doing there?

– We were counting cards.

– What else?

– We were counting and counting and counting cards…

It seems to me that if Valya Gunina is asked after an ordinary game: “What were you doing today at the board?”, it’s quite possible that she will answer: “I was calculating variations. – And what else? – I was calculating and calculating variations…” 

I can't be sure about the roots of such an enthusiasm about the brute force style, but I have a hypothesis. I think it comes from the Chinese! You know, the Chinese girls did not have a base, a strong foundation, upon which the Soviet chess school was built. Botvinnik, Smyslov, Petrosian – a great school of positional play. And the Chinese had to start from the scratch, like first computers, and like the first computers they started from what is the most easily improvable – a well-ordered calculation. As Chinese are incredibly workaholic and focused people, plus they have a well-developed pharmacology that allows maintaining a concentration for 5 and 10 hours straight, they started to beat the strongest women's chess nations – Georgians, Russians, Hungarians, Americans, although their play was much impoverished by this approach. And then our girls started to analyze: why do we lose? Because our calculation is weaker. When the Russians began to work on their calculation, they started to play like the Chinese. And is it good? The duplicates are always worse than the original.

One has to realize: teenage girls burst into the Olympic squad. Katya Kovalevskaya is still able to compete with them, but such distinguished players as Alisa Galliamova, Svetlana Matveeva, Tatiana Shumiakina, Tatiana Stepovaya can not. They lose to those girls, knowing three times more and having so much wider arsenal – because they calculate worse. What do I mean by "worse"? Not that they can't calculate a line in principle, no. But they are able to calculate for about an hour, an hour an a half... And then there is a decline due to tiredness. Either they commit a blunder, or simply begin to choose second-best moves, giving up their positions, losing to the pressing force.

The game T.Kosintseva-Kosteniuk from the Superfinal in Samara is extremely instructive for those who want to understand women's chess. Remember how we were watching the online broadcasting together – you, me and grandmaster Denis Yevseev. Denis looked at the position with increasing amazement – how is it possible: pawns advance from the king, a knight breaks away from his forces and enters the scorching heat? The position is wild, and there is no harmony in a pieces' disposition... Then he looked further – aha, the variations 'accrete': pawns can advance, and it is not easy to catch the knight. However, then a grandmaster understanding began to tell: still, one just can't play like this, there must be a punishment – and Denis immediately dictated the variation, later given by Yury Yakovich and other annotators. The point is that girls miss this clear mind: wait a minute, the variations seem to accrete, but one can't play like this! This is exactly a positional school: harmony of pieces has a priority over the variations.

So, about my preferences. Of course, in chess sense I support those who are capable of producing interesting games without blows and bruises, thanks to deep positional ideas. Antoaneta Stefanova, Pia Cramling, Victoria Cmylite, Elina Danielian – I name ladies of different class but same style. However, future does not belong to them. I look at the 'generation next' and clearly see a tendency: calculation, calculation, calculation. Koneru, Dzagnidze, Lahno, Tanya Kosintseva, and of course, Chinese girls...

As for my personal preferences, I give them all to Vera Nebolsina. There are several reasons for it. First, Vera is a vegetarian, a stubborn one. The girl does not eat fish and meet for ideological reasons – one can go crazy about it! Do as you wish, and I consider it a true feat.

Second, she wakes up at 7, sometimes even at 5. If I wake up before noon, it means I didn't sleep well and the day is spoiled. Vera rises at cock-crow, does morning exercises, takes a hardening shower (in my opinion, the Gestapo torture) – brr! She is a hero twice.

Knows non-Russian language – characteristically, French. She came to the '64' editorial office on a way – from where and where to, do you think? From China – to Moldova!


'From shade to light she flies across

She is herself the shade and light.

With all the marks and signs are lost

Where came she from to our sight?


She flies and squats for modest rest,

She must have been a Chinese guest,

There are no others of her kind.'

There are no others of her kind...


Questions were asked by Misha Savinov.

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