Chess in the City

5/16/2004 – On Friday we attended the press conference for the ChinaCom.com French-American Women's Chess Championship. The Russian Samovar in New York City will host the September match between Almira Skripchenko and Irina Krush. We survived the media blitz to bring you interviews and a full photo report.

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Skripchenko and Krush open the ChinaCom.com match

Don't let anyone tell you we don't love our job. Sometimes it can be a little dull and if you've seen the photos from the first round of Linares you've pretty much seen them all. So when you see a press conference for a chess event that looks more like a cross between a fashion shoot and a rugby scrum, you know you're onto something. The media had turned out in force.

First we should admit we arrived a bit late to the Russian Samovar in Manhattan's famous Theater District. Okay, we basically missed the press conference, so sue us. The introductions and speeches were over by the time we made it up the stairs. Even the free snacks were being put away, a chess journalist's worst nightmare.

Lucky for us we didn't have much chess press competition and the players were happy to finally answer some questions from someone who could tell his Elo from his elbow. For example, a little thing they neglected to mention at the press conference is that the match is two rapid games on September 16. The control is 25'+10" and tiebreak will be a pair of 5'+10" blitz games. Then there's an sudden-death "armageddon" game of six minutes for white versus five minutes for black (no increment), with a draw being a win for black. (What DID they talk about at the conference?! You can get more background on the match, ChinaCom.com, and the players in our first item here.)

The players are America's Irina Krush and Almira Skripchenko of France. Krush, 20 years old, is the top-rated American woman and won the US women's championship at the tender age of 14 back in 1998. Skripchenko, 28, is France's top-rated woman player and won the European women's title in 2001. The winner will go on to play a match against the current FIDE women's world champion, Zhu Chen of China. Both participants will soon be packing their bags for the FIDE world championship in Elista, which starts on May 21.

Getting good photographs was harder than you may have thought. Usually the biggest problems are bad lighting or Ivanchuk with his head deep in his hands. Here it was more a case of everything having to be just right or our camera would be smashed to bits. For example:


First Krush is looking the other way. Then there's a Skripchenko hair issue.


Ah, perfect! International Masters Almira Skripchenko and Irina Krush.

The Interview

We interviewed both players together to save time. They hadn't had any snacks either and wanted to get downstairs to the restaurant. (More on that later.)

Mig Greengard: Have you ever played in a chess event with so much attention?

Almira Skripchenko: I played a match against the German hope Arkady Naiditsch and was up on the stage in Dortmund with Kramnik and Anand and I felt really self-conscious because everyone was paying so much attention, especially because the match was really very hard for me. But this time, especially for women's chess, I'm completely stunned that the media is covering it in this way.

Mig: Does it affect your game to play with so much attention?

AS: No no no, when you're playing your game you forget about everything. After this it's easier.

Irina Krush: I don't think I've ever played in anything that had attention like this, not even the US Championship. I think it is easier to just play than to be in the spotlight like this. Then it's just chess.

Mig: To prove how much research I've done, have you two ever played each other before?

Both: No.

Mig: Have you started doing any preparation for this match?

AS: No, we're both leaving for the world championship soon so we've been busy preparing for that.

Mig: Ah, Kalmykia, you love Kalmykia, right? Better than Batumi, at least?

IK: I was there [Kalmykia] once before.

AS: That's what we've been saying. We've been struggling to find a normal venue where we can just focus on chess and not be worried about security.

Mig: Would have gone to Batumi if it hadn't been moved?

AS: No, no way.

IK: Well, I would have written out my will first, then I'd go.

Mig: In a bulletproof vest, maybe?

AS: In a bulletproof bra!

Mig: See, I get into trouble if I make those jokes but since it's from you we'll go ahead and publish it. How have preparations been going for the world championship?

AS: I think it's a competition where you have to take it step by step. I was eliminated twice in the quarter-finals in the previous ones. You use so much energy, you have to ration it. The format is very exhausting, you can leave any day so you put everything into every game so you don't get eliminated.

IK: I don't have much experience with this format. I only played in the WC once in Delhi. I won the first round against Zhu Chen and that was good, but lost my second round. So I never got to the point where I felt too tense. It was over so quickly, before you know it.

Mig: Nigel Short says he likes the knock-out format because if you're playing badly you get to go home. It's not like a round-robin where you have to come out and get killed everyday.

IK: But you can lose and be eliminated not because you are playing badly. If you aren't used to the time control or you make one mistake. You don't have time to recover, it's not always because you're playing badly.

Mig: Would you prefer another format?

AS: It would be very interesting, of course. Right now the ACP is working on organizing a Masters competition, like in tennis. There would be qualification tournaments and bringing together the best players of the year. That is the most important thing.

Mig: What sort of chess training do you do? Do you work with a trainer full-time?

IK: No.

AS: No.

Mig: Umm, keeping your training methods secret? Suspiciously short answers!

IK: I haven't thought about hiring a trainer specifically for this match. You know the US Women's team has had some training by good players, and that's been useful. But I haven't had private training since GM Yudasin a few years ago. Once you start college it's hard.

Mig: Is it a question of time, economics?

IK: Both, it's both. It's very expensive, first of all. I'm paying for college myself so it's hard to pay $60-70 per hour all the time. International relations is my major. I'm actually going to study abroad in Paris next year. I'm also taking classes in literature, politics, economics. Usually I work on chess full-time in the summer. It's been tough during the semester because I've been so swamped. But I'll definitely prepare for this match. I'll play some rapid games, get myself in shape.

AS: In the past year I haven't been playing very much. For me the best training is over the board. When I can I do hire a trainer, but as Irina said it's very expensive. I've worked with Yuri Yakovich, Alexander Voisin and Suat Atalik. And I'm very thankful that the NAO chess club helps me in this sense. They provide me with training expenses, which is very helpful. I'll probably study Irina's games, perhaps with somebody and also on my own.

Mig: Some quick thoughts on women's chess in general. Is it strange for you to play in an event like this with so much attention and say "women's chess" when at the end of the day it's just chess...

IK: ...And when most of us play men all the time anyway.

Mig: Right.

AS: I think it's very positive if it brings attention, because chess doesn't get much attention at all world-wide, women's or men's. I think this separation still exists because we haven't had enough time. Women started to play chess, what, 20 years ago professionally?

Look where we are now. We have many "male" Grandmasters and Judit is up in the top ten. If more followed her example and started training six hours a day and taking it professionally, in ten years there would be practically no separation.

IK: I wouldn't say it's a surprise that we're getting all this attention because women in chess is still a novelty, so it's understandable. Like Almira said I basically think that eventually there won't be a separation. We just need a larger pool of women playing chess. Even now it's different than before. The Polgars, especially Judit, were very young. After that there weren't many girls who were very good at a young age. Now we have Koneru and Lahno, we're seeing the equivalent of the male prodigies. Later on that will happen at a great rate.

Mig: Do you foresee just getting rid of the women's titles?

AS: Once you get enough women at that level. But I still think having a women's world champion is important. It's not a separation like tennis, which is a physical difference. Although even in chess endurance is still a factor. But mostly for tradition and promotion, and to give an example to girls that chess can be a serious sport and profession, that it can be a normal and interesting way of life.

Postscript

The press conference was over but the participants and various other chess VIPs stayed around to enjoy the food and the vodka downstairs.

US women's champion Anna Hahn is a long-time friend of Skripchenko's and is also her host during her stay in New York. Other dignitaries included US men's champion Alexander Shabalov, US Chess Federation Executive Director Bill Goichberg, and GM Lev Alburt.

As it got later the music picked up. The pianist was joined by a guitarist and, later, a wild-man violinist who did things to the mazurka that may not be legal in some countries. But it was an unexpected guest vocalist who stole the show.

With some prompting and some cranberry juice that may or may not have been 80 proof, Almira got up and regaled the packed restaurant with her rendition of a famous Russian song, best known for being part of the soundtrack of a popular Russian film version of the Three Musketeers. (At least that's what she told us.) It mixes in a little French, so it seemed an ideal selection. The musicians reacted with gusto and many of the attendees joined in.

After a look at the piano player's tip jar, Almira decided she'd better stick with chess as a career for now. Irina declined an invitation to contribute a song of her own. The fact that she's not yet of legal vodka-drinking age in the US might have had something to do with that.

Things got a little bit out of hand. In fact, the New York police were soon on the scene. We guess the French just don't know how serious a crime it is in America to pull a chess journalist's ears!

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