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Natalia Pogonina: "Women's Titles Don't Mean Anything in the Men's World"

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Sunday, 16 September 2012

Winner of Chess Olympiad in Istanbul Natalia Pogonina

Interviewer: Elena Vaytsekhovskaya,

What is a Chess Olympiad? Why was Judit Polgar the only woman who could compete on par with male grandmasters? What thoughts do chess players have at the board? Do chess players need muscles? Was Robert James Fischer mad? Answers to these and other questions can be found in an interview of grandmaster and two-time Olympic champion Natalia Pogonina


European Team Chess Champion and Vice-Champion of the World Team Chess Championship, grandmaster Natalia Pogonina recently returned from the Chess Olympiad with two gold medals. Our womens chess team has achieved a team victory for the second time in the Russian history (not counting the Soviet victories

- Natasha, what do the chess players themselves consider to be more prestigious the Olympiad or the World Championship?

- Being called a World Champion is obviously more prestigious. However, if we take team events, then the Olympiad is unmatched.

- Chess Olympiad what is it?

- On the one hand, its a great festival. On the other hand a tense and exciting tournament. It is very important. Almost 160 countries participated in the Olympiad at Istanbul, including New Zealand, Uganda lets say, most of the nations from all over the globe. There were a few thousand participants.

- And what about the Olympic slogan: Taking part is more important than winning?

- For such countries as Russia there is always only one goal: to win. Thats the reason why we all feel the responsibility and cant relax even for a minute. Losing focus can quickly lead to forgetting about your dreams and ambitions.

- Has this goal (gold) been formulated for our chess players since the times when Anatoly Karpov and Garry Kasparov were sparkling?

- Yes. But nowadays the competition is much tougher, especially in the Open section. The chess world is generally more condescending towards women. Men are more competitive, and they take losses more personally.

- And what about the competition in the womens chess?

- Our main rivals are usually the Chinese ladies. In Istanbul they had the reigning Womens World Chess Champion Hou Yifan on board 1. She is widely considered to be a chess prodigy: she won the title when she was only 16. Now Hou is 18. Also, there are other teams that have traditionally been strong: Ukraine, Georgia, USA

- What board did you play on?

-  I was a reserve player. We have the 4+1 system, meaning that the reserve player can appear during any round, but only on board 4. Overall there were 11 rounds. I have played 8 games; other members of the team 9.

- You had the best performance on your board, right?

- Yes. The best result among reserve players, 6.5/8. Hence, I now have two Olympic medals: a team one and an individual one. The same result was demonstrated by another girl from our team Nadezhda Kosintseva. She earned gold on board 3. Alexandra Kosteniuk won bronze on board 4. So, speaking figuratively, we stroke with the tail. This skill is very important in chess. Most countries can find one or two strong players, but very few are capable of allocating five stars. I guess we won the Chess Olympiad in Istanbul due to having a strong tail.


- I remember how Kosteniuk appeared in chess, and everyone was predicting a long and exclusively winning career for her. She won the Womens World Chess Championship in 2008, but then somehow hid in the shadows, dont you think so?

- Well, after Kosteniuk we didnt have any Russian champions. By the way, in the final match in 2008 Alexandra faced Hou Yifan, who was just 14 at that time. Before the championship Sasha gave birth to a daughter, so that might have affected her career. Becoming a mother strongly influences active athletes.

- Many years ago I talked to a legendary Soviet chess player Nona Gaprindashvili. She said that a man can have a family and still give all his attention to chess. A married woman cant: for her children is the top priority. And if a woman doesnt get married, she usually starts suffering from different complexes. Also, women are more emotional than men. And this affects ones play a lot. Do you agree?

- Of course. Family duties are usually a prerogative of women. When one has a child, she has to completely restructure the training process. Some of us manage to achieve it. For example, Judit Polgar has two children. She is now not at the level she used to be at (top-10 in the world), but she is still a member of the chess elite who gets invited to strong male tournaments.  

- And do you participate in male events? (In Russian the Open Olympiad is called Mens. The same holds for other similar tournaments

- Yes, but not as often as I would like to. I have too many must-play events both as an individual player & as a member of Team Russia. It is hard for me to find the time and opportunities to compete somewhere else. However, sometimes I do manage to do it. Playing against men is very useful. As long as they are strong grandmasters, of course.

- Why is it beneficial?

- To improve, you have to compete against players who are better than you. Generally speaking, men play chess better than women.

- Can we say that chess occupies the central spot in your life?

- One of the central.

- Do you have space left for a personal life; doing what you want, but not what you have to?

- This is a tough question. For example, this year I have one tournament after another. The tournament calendar is known in advance and cant be rebuilt in any way, so all my personal plans have to be fitted for the chess schedule. Its a matter of tricky time management. I also have to dedicate time to my child. He is very small, will be 3 in November.

- Who is helping you with the baby when you are traveling?

- My mother.

- Do your relatives complain about seeing you only on special occasions?

- I would say they have an understanding of whats going on. Both my parents and my husband. My spouse has never been a professional chess player, for him it is a hobby. He is helping me a lot in terms of management and PR. I am traveling so much that we dont see each other often enough.

- As part of my job I have periodically met well-known chess players, and each time I thought that being married to a male chess player is a catastrophe. His mind will be occupied with games and positions as opposed to family matters. But if we start thinking this way, then being married to a chess-playing woman must be even worse?

- You know, it is not exactly so. When men are focused on something thats the end of everything! One cant even ask them about anything else; they are so obsessed. Women are different: we are good at multi-tasking. Not being hung-up on something is a definite pro. However, maybe there are also cons

- A follow-up question: when you are sitting at the chess board, do you have time to think about anything else except for chess? Do you have some irrelevant thoughts?

- It happens. And not only to women. Sometimes a tune gets stuck in your head, and there is nothing you can do about it. You are calculating variations and mentally singing a song. I had such a situation at the Olympiad in Istanbul when I won a dead drawn endgame against a player from Poland. This allowed us to save the match; my game was decisive either we lost, or drew. I had no idea to how play for a win there, but the song helped me in some way.

The line that started playing in my mind was from a rap song by Johnnyboy: Anxiety has no place in my heart/Believe you can win, and victory will come. And I succeeded!


- Male grandmasters have often told me that a top chess player must be in a great physical shape. Otherwise he simply wont be able to perform well during the final rounds.

- This is true. Thats why most chess players are paying serious attention to physical sports. Such a tournament as the Chess Olympiad lasts for three weeks, and the level of nervous tension is extreme. If you are not physically strong and endurable enough, at some point you might have a blackout. Thats why everyone is trying to keep fit. Some people swim, others take up running

- Does the tension prevent people from sleeping well during nights?

- Depends on how strong one is psychologically.  

- Judging by your results, you have a strong will.

- Before this Olympiad we had a 10-day training session. While playing soccer, I got my foot injured, and I am still having problems with it. So, my first day at the camp started with getting crutches and learning how to walk using them. I was even afraid I would have to skip the Olympiad.

Luckily enough, there was a doctor who usually treats gymnasts at the training base, Sergei Gulevsky. Unfortunately, our chess team doesnt have a personal doctor. The gymnastic specialists have saved me: every day I had certain medical procedures. Had they not helped me, I would have probably missed the Olympiad.

- Did you take part in individual World Chess Championships?

- Yes, twice, and both times unsuccessfully I lost in the very first round. The next championship will take place in Khanty-Mansyisk, Russia, in November, and I am planning to participate.

- World Championship Candidates (men) usually have large teams of grandmasters helping them prepare for the events. What about women?

- To a much lesser extent. We dont have the financial capabilities. Womens chess has always been money-deprived as compared to mens chess. Hardly anyone can afford to hire a few grandmasters to work for oneself. Maybe only Hou Yifan, if she gets support from the Chinese authorities. I will have to choose and hire a second myself and bear all the expenses.

- So you are working with different specialists?

- Yes. Nowadays I have two persons assisting me GM Vladimir Georgiev from Bulgaria and Russian GM Roman Ovechkin. I am not sure how I will be preparing for the World Championship. A training session is usually required. Once I find out the pairings and who my opponent is, I will start working on a dossier.

- Are there any female chess players whom you detest?

- I have negative scores with some of the players. Therefore, we can say that I am psychologically uncomfortable playing them. But I dont have any enmity towards any of them.


- When did you realize that you will become a professional chess player?

- Since childhood it seemed to me that if I will be successful in anything at all, it will be chess. Thats what I wanted to do. My grandfather taught me the basics. At that time we lived at Kamchatka in a rather small town. In 1998 I became the junior Russian champion. This has seriously affected our familys lifestyle. My parents decided that I should move from Kamchatka to Saratov.

There I had the chance to start training with IM Pavel Lobach, who has been assisting me for years.

- Why do you find chess attractive?

- This game has some sort of deep wisdom attached to it. It is very appealing. Chess helps me understand life better. Also, professional sports set hurdles before a person on a daily basis, and one needs to learn how to overcome them. This makes ones character stronger and changes the way we look at things.

I cant call myself a workaholic. Sometimes I need to force myself into training, but I love playing in tournaments. Even when I lose.

- What was the longest game you have played?

- Once my game lasted over 140 moves. It took 7 hours. In fact, long games happen all the time. I remember one of them: it also lasted about 7 hours and meant a lot for me. I needed a draw to earn a medal at a super tournament for the first time in my life. I was lost a few times, but managed to save the game after all.

- Do you have a chess dream?

- Nothing in particular. This might sound strange, but I have never dreamt about becoming the Womens World Chess Champion. Chess has its own specifics: even if you become the best in the world among women, your title doesnt mean much to male players. I want to keep improving, become stronger. I dont care if I win titles on my way up or not. Luckily enough, our sport offers opportunities to occasionally face men over the board and understand ones true rankings.

- How often does it happen?

- Technically speaking, women have the right to compete in any mens events. However, they are hardly ever invited to play there due to not having high enough ratings. Judit Polgar is an exception

- How would you explain that Polgar is so much stronger than all the other women?

- I dont know. The Polgar sisters had an extraordinary education offered by their father. They were trained the way male chess professionals are brought up: no discounts for gender or age. It is very important, in my opinion, to realize that you can play as well as men. If a girl visits a chess club, she will always be scolded and reminded that she is a girl. This affects ones psychology in a negative way.

The Polgar sisters probably didnt have any fears of failure. From early childhood they were playing mens, anxiety-less chess. I was always interested what will happen if someone applies Laszlo Polgars methods to training other chess kids.

- Am I right that all your chess idols were men?

- I didnt even have any chess idols, to be honest. I have always admired the playing style of Robert James Fischer though. We have the same birthday March 9th.

- Were you displeased when the public started calling Fischer mad and making fun of him?

- He was weird in some way. But he was a genius. I think such people can afford to act strange sometimes. If someone got irritated by his behavior, it was certainly not Fischers problem. The US chess player has had an incredible impact on chess. Without him the game could have gotten stuck in the underground, on the outskirts of the modern world.

- What can you say about yourself as a chess player?

- Stubborn... Universal... Always know what I want.

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