'ChessBaby' Almira hits the poker world

by ChessBase
10/16/2009 – Almira Skripchenko is an International Chess Master, rated 2450. She has won the World U16 title, the European Women's Championship and a number of other top events. Originally from Moldova, she now lives in France and is moving away from chess – to poker. Recently she made it to the final table at the World Series in Las Vegas. Portrait and interview.

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"ChessBaby" Almira hits the poker world

By Diana Mihajlova

After the last game of the Paris Championship in July Almira Skripchenko and I sat down for a dinner and a friendly chat. You would think that chess would be our usual topic, but this time, our brief encounter (over her favourite salmon dish) was marked with another subject, about another game, which consistently draws in ever greater number of chess players. Poker is the name of the game.  

Almira Skripchenko, chess IM and poker player

Almira had just recently returned from Las Vegas, the world’s Mecca of poker, where she took part in the World Series of Poker. It is like the Poker world championship and consists of over fifty tournaments. At the same time the Las Vegas Open was running, with the usual gathering of elite chess players. A number of well-known names came to the chess tournament in order to compete on the poker circuit later. Among them was Grischuk, Van Wely, Fressinet and even Jan Ehlvest, who told Almira that as in chess it was impossible for him to play poker against women.

Is it a surprising and perhaps worrying trend that so many chess players are now taking up poker? Not really – the game requires deep knowledge and understanding at which chess players naturally excel. And poker is also sometimes about money – and a lot of it, if it is played well. 

Almira is one of very few active and successful women in this field. Since 2008, she has been signed up by one of the most successful poker teams, the French Winamax. She is under a contract with the company which offers her the opportunity to play in major poker tournaments. Amongst poker players she is known as "ChessBaby".

"Play from your house, and enter the court of the royals", reads the Winamax advertisement that can be found in every poker Magazine [click to enlarge]. That is Almira, looking a bit taken aback, at the man in boxer shorts.

Poker is traditionally associated with gambling, which carries some pejorative meaning as socially doubtful pastime. However, poker should also be seen from another aspect: the game demands a deep concentration and thought, as well as mental creativity. Today it has definitely become a game of skill, especially at the tournament level. The financial incentive it offers, which is much more tangible than in chess, is just an additional bonus.

Almira and Phil Ivey playing together in the World Series 2009. Phil is a poker legend – the Tiger Woods of this game. He has won seven World Series of Poker bracelets and will be playing this year's Main Event final table in November, fighting for the title of world champion.

The website of the 40th Annual World Series of Poker shows that in the $2000 No-Limit Hold’em event that took place from June 18 – 20 June in Las Vegas, Almira Skripchenko made it to the final table and finished on the seventh place. This involved playing for fourteen hours a day for three days, battling through a field of 1700 competitors. Almira and Laurence Grondin were the only two female players to make it to the final table in all of the World Series. Almira’s wining was $76,664. We all celebrated this success – until we learned that she went out on a hand with two kings against two fives, where she was an 80% favourite to win and fight for the first prize, which was over $600,000. The opponent got a five on the flop and she was out of the tournament.   Already in March Almira played at the Poker Stars EPT German Open in Dortmund and in the Poker Stars EPT in Barcelona in September. She won substantial prizes in both of these events. She is also playing poker tournaments, fairly successfully, on the Internet. So it is not surprising if chess players like her are thinking seriously about switching their allegiances to poker.

‘Playing just for money is not interesting for me. Of course money is part of it. But for me the money is a prize for a good performance, for hard work. Money is not a driving force or a goal in itself. I am attracted to the game because it is complex and challenging. I have a different, a chess approach. I play poker with the noble approach of a chess player.’

Almira is only at the beginning of her poker career. However, she has been playing chess since the age of six. Her current Elo rating is 2450 and her noteworthy successes include: World Under 16 Girls' Champion in 1992; European Woman Champion in 2001; Winner of the 2004 North Urals Cup, the second international super-tournament for female chess players, where with a half a point ahead she won over the legendary former World Women’s Champion Maia Chiburdanidze; Winner of the 2005 Biel Ladies tournament; three times winner of the  Ladies' French  Championship. She has represented her native country Moldova and since 2002 her adopted country France at Women’s Chess Olympiads playing on the top board.

Born in Chisinau, Moldova, in 1976, Almira comes from a family with a long chess tradition. Both her parents, a Russian father and an Armenian mother, were actively involved in the promotion of chess by playing and coaching, while Moldova was still part of the Soviet Union. Her father, Feodor Skripchenko, dedicated all his life to chess in the Moldovan Chess Federation.

The tradition continues in Almira’s own family today. She is married to French GM Laurent Fressinet. They are both professional chess players and live in Paris with their two and half year old daughter Ludivine.

‘She already knows the pieces. But she is more aware of my playing poker. She often tells friends and neighbours: Mammy is out playing cards.’

Loves music: Almira's two-and-a-half
year old daughter Ludivine

‘It is hard to imagine life with somebody who is not a chess player – or in fact not a player in general. Anyone who does not play chess cannot understand the dedication and the pressure the game requires.’

Laurent is also a keen poker player, but while for him chess remains a main profession, at least for the time being, we might say Almira’s professional direction is taking a different course. Poker is clearly winning over chess as her main activity. Poker requires skills, dedication and time. Almira has embraced it full heartedly to the point of relinquishing her work on chess.

‘I have stopped training for chess for almost three years. I do still play at chess tournaments, and I prepare for my games (like a maniac!), but I do not train beforehand. I train by playing during the tournament itself. Even so, I managed to qualify for the 2010 World Championship. But for that one, of course, I intend to dedicate some training time.’

Does that mean you are more concentrating on poker?

‘I am definitely more concentrating on poker. My poker playing schedule is programmed until July 2010.’

Almira will be playing at prestigious world poker events including the European Poker Tournament (EPT) in Warsaw, Amsterdam and Prague, and the World Series of Poker (WSOP) again in Las Vegas.

Almira in Dortmund at the EPT German Open

She maintains, with a great sense of reality, that one unfortunately cannot stay with chess indefinitely. Eventually most chess players are bound to look away towards some steadier or simply different profession.

‘After so many years in chess, it is natural to want to do something else. It is a natural evolution of a human being. One needs change. I could never do only chess. I am never satisfied. Now, with poker, I feel I have come into my element.’

Why poker?

‘I would have loved to be able to study architecture if I could. I am passionate about architecture. But it is not realistic at this point in time. It requires much too long a study. I can learn poker in about a year. For a chess player the transition to poker is more natural. For me it is a personal challenge to understand and master a different game than chess. One of the most important things I had to learn was how to bluff – an ability that is rarely useful in chess. I have to admit that I enjoy bluffing very much.’

Why not go further into perfecting chess?

‘We are not getting any younger. As long as you train regularly, you can maintain your intellectual performance. But unless you train six to eight hours a day for 40 years you cannot expect to sustain your playing strength. It is also connected to the physical shape. After 27 years of playing chess, even though I had some notable successes, like being a European Ladies Champion, I felt I was not heading much further and needed some change.’

Are you a bit disillusioned with chess?

‘I never had illusions in the first place. But when you are young you are always a romantic and have high ideals. Then you become a mother and become more pragmatic. Being a parent changes everything. When family and kids arrive, you start to see things from a different perspective. Even my best friend Alexandra, who is also a young mother, is now transmitting her knowledge and experience to kids around the USA.’

Best friends: Almira and Alexandra during a tandem simul in Port-Marly earlier this year

Almira is referring to GM Alexandra Kosteniuk, the current women’s world champion who has moved for good to the United States, in Florida.

After achieving the titles Woman Grandmaster and International Master, the Grandmaster title is no longer on the cards?

‘I have one GM norm. But obtaining the title probably will never happen. Without work you can get nowhere.’

I brought up the subject of ‘kids’ dominating the chess scene. In my own very modest involvement as a chess player, I lamented, I am most intimidated when playing against children and that they are giving me the hardest time. Almira gallantly consoled me:

‘You are not the only one. My worst enemies are kids. At this (Paris) tournament, the only game I lost was to the young Moussard. When I go to big international tournaments, like the European Championship in Plovdiv, I see all these young players and realize that I don’t know half of the field. That is when we are reminded that we are getting old.’

While Almira was playing in Paris, Laurent was playing at the Masters tournament in Biel and their young daughter was staying with her grandparents in Moldova, for the first time on her own. Almira was on her way to join her in a couple of day’s time.

Almira at thirteen, 1989 in Moldova

The raspberry cake we had for desert brought up fond memories of her childhood.

‘It is my favourite fruit. There were plenty wild raspberries in the fields close to my house, and I enjoyed picking them when I was a child. I suspect my daughter will be doing the same right now.’

Do you miss home?

‘My home is now Paris. You are linked to people, not to places. I have been in contact with so many different cultures I can live anywhere.’

She is not alone in Paris, where a large chess community has concentrated over the last years. Among her close friends are GMs Pavel Tregubov and Vladimir Kramnik and their families with the latest addition being Marie-Laure and Vlad Kramnik’s baby daughter Daria.

‘We get together for parties, diners, birthdays. My duty is to make a big table at my place. I cover it with food and plenty of desserts – but I don’t cook!’

The ‘boys’ would also get often together for some serious work: Laurent was a second to Kramnik; he was a member of Kramnik's support team for his match against Anand in 2008.

GM Laurent Fressinet at the World Championship 2008 in Bonn

Almira has clearly immersed herself in the mysteries of poker. However, to the delight of chess fans, she is not completely abandoning chess. She retains her role as a captain and a player for the Monaco women’s team ‘Cercle d'Echecs de Monte Carlo’. Along with GMs Pia Cramling, Koneru Humpy,  Alexandra Kosteniuk and Monika Socko they were European Club Champions in 2007 and 2008, and just a few days ago they finished second in the 2009 ECC in Ohrid, Macedonia. Almira won a silver medal for her performance on board four.

At the beginning of the next year, January/February, both Almira and her husband will participate at the Gibraltar Chess Festival.

If the ‘chess approach’ of playing poker would help in the practicalities of everyday life, so much the better. But I for one would like to see this beautiful, friendly, down-to-earth young woman remaining faithful to chess for many more years to come.

Copyright ChessBase

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