Sexy and smart: Natalia on Brazilian Radio Xadrez

10/11/2010 – She is beautiful, smart, fun and super strong in chess. We are talking about the WGM Natalia Andreevna Pogonina, 25 years old, a resident of Saratov in Russia. At 2491 Elo points (she's had up to 2501), she defended the #1 board of Russia-2 in the Chess Olympics. Now Natalia, a law student, has given an indepth interview on different aspects of her life.

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Natalia (or Natalija) is usually remembered for her beauty and sympathy, qualities which are allied with excellent results on the boards. She is three-times European champion (U16, twice U18), bronze prize winner at the World Championship (U18) and European Women Championship, winner of the gold medal at the 1st International Mind Sports Games played in Beijing, China, in 2008, of which the Brazilian Alexandr Fier was also part.

With more than 34 thousand followers on Twitter, a profile on Facebook and a site that's updated almost daily, Pogonina stands out for her massive and solid actions for the sport. Married and the mother of ten-month-old Nikolai, the WGM reserved some time in her schedule to talk to Radio Xadrez, a few days before she boarded to Khanty-Mansiysk, in Siberia.

With a degree in Law and taking a master's degree at Saratov State Academy of Law, Natalia is undertaking a separate work, almost in secrecy, that will cause a commotion in the chess communities all around the world: she is writing the book "Chess Kamasutra", which will teach chess using sex analogies (and vice versa, she says).

That very old-fashioned image, possibly spread by Hollywood movies that portray the Cold War Russians as introspective, cold, and in some cases, somewhat grumpy, will be easily left behind when you read this interview. Even while living in a freezing country, Natalia always has a bright smile on her face, melting away the glaciers on and off the boards.

Natalia, we're extremely happy that you have accepted our invitation. It’s great to be able to have you as a guest and to provide this unique possibility for the Brazilian fans to get to know you better. Radio Xadrez appreciates your kindness and wishes you all success in your career and personal life!

Radio Xadrez: – First of all, we’d like to know: have you always played chess exclusively or are you interested in any other sports? Looking through the pretty pictures on your website, we have a feeling that you could be a beautiful ice skater or an Olympic gymnast in Russia. Has it always been only chess?

Natalia Pogonina: I am an avid sports fan and enjoy watching almost all types of sport broadcasts. Also love playing football, basketball, volleyball, skating and dancing.

We’ve always heard in America that millions of children play chess in Russia. That leads us to think of babies who are born holding chess pieces, chess clocks and have autographs of Mikhail Tal or Alexander Alekhine on their onesies. Have you played since you were a little girl or did it take a while for you to find out about the game?

As most grandmasters, I have learnt how to play chess at a relatively early age – at five. Since I was 12 (after winning the Russian Championship) for the first time I started considering myself a chess semi-pro, and decided to become a chess professional a few years later.

Are there other good chess players in your family? Your parents or a brother (do you have any siblings?)?

My parents aren't keen on chess, neither do I have siblings.

We ask that to know if you think having a family of chess players helps in the development of your game or if it gets in the way. Sometimes, competitiveness inside the family or even if one brother thinks the other one is a better player, it might be a little unexciting. Is the 'Polgar Family' an exception or do parents and siblings who play together usually enhance each other’s performances?

When two brothers or sisters start playing chess, usually one of them progresses much faster than the other, and the weaker player leaves the game. Of course, there are exceptions (e.g. Polgar or Kosintseva sisters), but they are quite rare. In terms of progress, having access to proper tournaments, coaching, chess friends is more important than a chess-playing relative.

You have recently had a kid, right? Do you think about how it will be to teach him to play chess, what will his first championships be like? Do you spend time thinking about that stuff? How can a parent’s will contribute and not become pressure in this situation?


Peter Zhdanov, Natalia's manager, co-autor and husband

While many people expect Nikolai to become a strong chess master, neither Peter nor I have any special chess expectations towards him. We will teach him how to play, but let him choose his occupation himself. There's no need in trying to bring up a chess prodigy artificially. Who knows if he will be interested in chess at all?

Natalia, there is something very important I should ask you from the beginning. We are very egotistical here, so we’d like to know: what do you know about Brazil? We know a lot about Russia and you in particular! Don’t disappoint us!

To me Brazil is associated with sun, friendly people (I occasionally get to chat with chess fans from Brazil via Facebook and Twitter) and, of course, legendary soccer players! I have also published stats about Brazilian chess on my blog!

One thing we know, for instance, is that Russia is chess crib! You hear that in America all the time and it creates this illusion that, visiting St. Petersburg or Moscow, we’ll see kids playing chess on the streets, just like we see Brazilian kids playing soccer. However, to my surprise, a friend of mine who recently visited your country was a tad disappointed. He didn’t see lots of people playing chess on the streets and squares or specialized chess stores or busts of Karpov, Kasparov, Tahl, Botvinnik and Pogonina. Where do chess players hide in Russia? How is the basis of chess built there?

Nowadays chess is more of an Internet game than park or cafe. Of course, there are still old-school players who gather at a local club and blitz all day long, but this great culture is becoming extinct, alas. Also, chess is not as popular in Russia now as it was in the Soviet days, but still about half the population know how to play. Not to mention that Russia is the only real superpower in chess...

Is financial support really significant to evolve in the sport?

Financial support is critical, of course, since without it people aren't motivated enough to take up on the sport, and are forced to leave it due to not being able to support a family. Luckily enough, although we don't have the earnings of soccer or hockey stars, one can still make a living playing chess.

You are a woman (a beautiful one, by the way!) and knowing that we, at Radio Xadrez are supporters of the idea that man and women can compete in the same level, we still hear a lot of joking around about it. I’m sure you do also and that’s why we ask: do you prefer playing against women or man?

Thanks! It's actually very hard for women to compete with men in chess (I have even written an article for ChessBase on this topic). Games against women are tenser, more emotional, thus there are more mistakes in them. Generally speaking, my schedule is mainly composed of top female events (like the World Championship, Chess Olympiad, Russian Superfinal, European Championship, etc.), so I cherish the opportunity to face strong male players from time to time. That doesn't happen often though.

Can you tell us a funny story about how it felt to beat a sexist man in one of your games?

Of course, I did beat some sexist men in my chess career, but didn't have a chance to face the legendary Victor Korchnoi. He is known as the #1 insulter of women (who have either beaten him or drawn the game).

Brazilian girls complain that there are less female tournaments, less incentive. We have recently interviewed our #1, WFM Vanessa Feliciano, who said she prefers to play with men, because in female chess the psychological pressure is stronger. Do you agree?

It's true: there are relatively few women's events, the prizes are lower and so on. Also, to improve one needs to play against better opponents, and nowadays even supertournaments among women can guarantee only about 2500 in average Elo of players, so one has to play men to improve beyond that stage.

Do you get more nervous standing in front of WGM Alexandra Kosteniuk or GM Magnus Carlsen? How do you feel about that?

Alexandra is a good friend of mine. And why should I be nervous standing in front of Carlsen? As to playing him – I wouldn't refuse trying that if you get him to do it.

We have a section on the Radio Xadrez show which is a pun with two words in Portuguese. You see, the word for “chess” (the game, “Xadrez” in Portuguese) is also used for “jail, incarceration”. Therefore, we always ask our guests: who (from the chess universe) would you send to jail. What would your answer be? Who deserves a few days in prison?

This reminded me of an anecdote about Bobby Fischer who was going to be visited by his friend and rival Boris Spassky in prison. Bobby was claimed to have said that he would have preferred to meet Alexandra Kosteniuk under these circumstances instead of Boris.

Another section on the podcast is the question “who is the best-looking Brazilian GM?” We know none of them are good looking, but it boosts up our players’ egos! I’ve forwarded you a picture of each one of them, which one is your favorite?

There used to be an online chess beauty contest for women, but I have never heard of such an event for men! Brazilian GMs would definitely perform well there! Each of them is attractive in a way, especially their last names: Fier – just like fire, Diamant – diamond, Lima – like lime, and so on.

You’re a big supporter of chess and you have used “informal means”, if I may, to spread the sport, such as blogs, twitter, etc. We appreciate that very much, since it’s the same thing we try to do with Radio Xadrez, because we know the support is still small, especially in Brazil. If you were Brazilian and in our situation, what kind of advice would you give to players from our country to overcome those obstacles?

Probably the hardest step is the first one. People often think "nothing depends on me, what can a single person do?". However, nowadays the role of personalities is extremely high in our society. If one loves chess, one may help promote the game by playing well, writing articles, teaching kids, blogging, attracting sponsors, writing books and in myriads of other ways! Never give up, trust in yourself and head to victory!

By the way, could you follow our profiles and send us a kiss through there?

Just did.

You have written an excellent article recently that had very positive repercussion around here (Getting Better in Chess: The Critical Mistake to Avoid). Could you give us some extra tips, that weren’t included in it?

Thanks for paying attention! We are publishing a lot of (hopefully) interesting articles at http://pogonina.com, not to mention publications at other chess portals. People who are particularly fond of my articles shouldn't have any trouble finding them.

Actually, we are more interested in knowing when will "Chess Kama Sutra" be coming out. Can you give us something in advance from the book?

I'm embarrassed to confess that I still can't find enough time to finalize the book. Tournaments, projects, a ten-month-old kid – this doesn't allow one to concentrate sufficiently on such a sophisticated subject as Chess Kama Sutra.

Natalia, give us good news: when are you coming to Brazil? How can we have lessons, lectures, simuls… or even have some drink with you at the bar?

I'm open for interesting invitations, but generally have a very tight schedule with lots of events planned a year ahead. However, there is a saying "asking never hurts". If you are an organizer who is reading this, feel free to contact me at natalia@pogonina.com.

There is a poll on your website and we want to know your own answers to it: do you have sex during tournaments?

Sometimes.

Do you play Poker?

Yes.

Who is your favorite active top player?

In terms of chess style – Topalov, in terms of personality – I don't want to name one since I'm friends with a few top chess players.

What is your attitude towards chess beauty contests?

Entertaining and beneficial for promoting the game as long as they are run fairly and adequately.

Karpov or Kirsan, what’s your opinion on the FIDE elections?

We'll soon find out the answer to this question. I'm being asked about this political confrontation on a daily basis, somewhat tired of commenting on chess politics.

Alexandra Kosteniuk has done sexy photos. Would you agree to do a sensual essay for a magazine?

Generally speaking, I am a rather modest girl (not the one you would expect the author of Chess Kama Sutra to be!). So, even if I did agree, that would be some mild erotics, not the porn-type images one can find in some of the magazines.

We have a few very envious friends who will not believe we are talking, starting today, to the greatest chess muse! Please, it would be a priceless gift to us if you could record a small amateur video, telling us what it was like to have answered Radio Xadrez’s questions and sending me a special kiss.

Haha, I'd love to do that, but am really busy preparing for the Olympiad that is just about to start! I'll have to send you guys virtual kisses instead! Mwah!

Natalia Pogonina, good luck in the Chess Olympiad! Let much hope for Brazil, of course, and secondly place, Russia-2!

Thanks a lot for your kind wishes! Hope Brazil will perform well at the Olympiad.

  • Source: Radio Xadrez (where the interview is also available in Portugese)

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