Against all odds - How the Ukrainian Women won Gold at the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022

by Sagar Shah
9/3/2022 – The Ukrainian women's team achieved something truly spectacular when they won the gold medal in the women's section at the 44th Chess Olympiad 2022. We speak to board no. 1 and 2 of the team and two of the best chess players of the country for several years now - Mariya and Anna Muzychuk. They talk about their experience of playing in India, how tough it was to win the Olympiad, and also show us the critical moments in their games. The entire country of Ukraine has been through tough times recently. This Gold medal is a dedication to the mental strength of these champions of the nation. | Photo: FIDE/Lennart Ootes

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A war-torn country clinches gold in the chess Olympiad

Full interview with Anna and Mariya Muzychuk, the golden sisters of Ukraine | Video: ChessBase India

IM Sagar Shah (SS): Hello, Anna and Mariya! How are you?

Anna Muzychuk and Mariya Muzychuk: Hi Sagar, nice to see you!

SS: You guys have achieved something truly special!  I was going through the records and I got to know that since 2014, both of you have been playing for the team on board 1/board 2, and every year Ukraine has won a medal! This is simply phenomenal. Both of you have contributed so much to Ukrainian chess and to your country.

Anna Muzychuk (Anna): Yes! We are very happy and glad that this time, it was finally gold because earlier we had finished on 2nd and 3rd places, but we really wanted to win. In 2018, we were really close to that. It was just an unfortunate result in the match of our opponents, because we won our last match. We were very disappointed that we lost due to additional tie breaks.

The medalists of the 44th Chess Olympiad (L to R) - Georgia (Silver), Ukraine (Gold) and India (Bronze) | Photo: FIDE/Lennart Ootes

But this time, it was fortunate for us because I wouldn't say that we were leading the tournament and everything went smoothly. It was quite a lucky last round for our team and also our opponents, everything worked out for us that day!

Mariya Muzychuk (Mariya): I have to say playing for the national team in the Olympiad was always one of my dreams. I took the gold medal on my board in 2010 and 2015, but of course it’s not the same! So right now, I can say that I have a full set of awards because I came 3rd, 2nd, and finally, 1st place at the Olympiad [smiles].

At the 42nd Baku Chess Olympiad 2016, GM Susan Polgar presented Mariya with the Caissa Cup, the award for Female Player of the Year | Photo: Official site

SS: You have won the world championship, now you have the gold medal at the Olympiad. Anna, you have won the World Rapid and Blitz titles. So, I guess everything that has to be won, the gold medals are there in the family!

Mariya: Yeah, true. And also in 2013, it was a very successful year for us because we won the working championship and the European team championship.

SS: Amazing! How happy are you with your own play? Mariya scored 6/10 on the top board and Anna, you scored 7/10 on Board 2, also winning the Individual Silver medal in your board. So, how happy are both of you with your own performances?

The golden siblings of Ukraine chess | Photo: FIDE/Lennart Ootes

Mariya: Well, I have to say that playing on the first board is always very tough because the opponents are very strong. The preparation lasts for only 2-3 hours., and of course it requires responsibility. Speaking about my overall result, I can't say that it was an amazing performance for me, but still I think that I showed quite a good play. I'm okay with it!

SS: Anna, what about you? I think you also scored very critical wins, which helped your team at critical moments in the tournament.

Anna: Yeah. In general, I scored +5 in this event. It’s quite a lot, but at the same time, when you are one of the highest-rated players in the tournament, it's always very difficult not even to gain some points, but to maintain your own level. So, losing 2 rating points is not a big deal, especially considering the team success.

Anna won the Silver medal on Board no.2 with her excellent performance | Photo:  FIDE/Lennart Ootes

SS: Absolutely. Apart from both of you, I think all of your teammates did exceedingly well. But one of them who did really well was Anna Ushenina. I think she also got a medal on her board. What do you have to say about her overall performance?

Anna: Yes, I think both me and Anna Ushenina scored quite many points. In the beginning, maybe it was a bit more on my shoulders. But in the end, she won many important games, many crucial ones, and her contribution to the overall success was really huge.

14th Women's World Champion - Anna Ushenina scored 7.5/9, winning games in many critical junctures | Photo: FIDE/Lennart Ootes

SS: You also had two other players, Natalia Buksa and Yullia Osmak.  I think they also played their role in this gold - 7/10 for Natalia and 3/5 for Yullia. 

Anna: Yes, It was a good result for Natalia. As for Yullia, unfortunately she didn't play the second half of the tournament because our team captain decided that the optimal team composition is to play with their main squad. But you know, everything depends on your result and how you finish. If you end well, then everything works. But when something bad happens, then you start blaming everyone. Of course, in team competitions there can be situations when one player is not in the best form. It's not like he/she is doing something wrong, it's just that the tournament doesn't go well.

Mariya: Of course, it's impossible to become the champions of the Olympiad without the help of other teammates. I'm very grateful to them, they did their best!

Even though IM Yuliia Osmak played only five games, she was an integral part of the team's success | Photo: FIDE/Mark Livshitz

SS: What about the trainer of the team, Michail Brodsky? How was his role, and has he been the coach of the team several times, or was it the first?

Anna: No, he has been the coach since 2012 or even before, for so many years. We know him and he knows us!

GM Michail Brodsky, Coach of the Gold-medalist Ukraine Women's team | Photo:  Przemysław Jahr

He’s a Grandmaster, I don’t know if the ChessBase India community knows much about him. He is rated around 2550, so he was not only the Team Captain, but he was also helping the team members with preparation. We had one more coach at the tournament, Alexander Kochan. During the closing ceremony, the organizers only awarded the Team Captain.

SS: Wonderful! Here's a very nice picture taken by Shahid. It just shows the amount of interest that was there!

Vishy Anand made the first move of 44th Chess Olympiad on GM Anna Muzychuk's board | Photo: Shahid Ahmed

So many journalists were there, also Vishy Anand made the first move on your board. How was the overall experience of this and also playing in India for both of you?

Anna: You know, regarding this picture, I posted some videos and pictures in the very beginning of the tournament. Some people commented on them, “Just a little bit of attention” [laughing].

Anna's facebook post after the second round of the 44th Chess Olympiad | Source

It was really amazing. Playing on the top level, you are kind of used to being under the cameras, and the first move made by the celebrities. There was attention and a lot of media, but it was so much and there were so many people! You can see our team captain in the picture, but he's hardly standing. After the game, he told us that due to the pushing, he would fall into the board, and then it would be catastrophic [breaks out laughing]. But it was amazing, and we would like to thank the organizers and everyone who contributed to organizing this event. There were many situations, where the Indian people really took a lot of care and showed hospitality.

SS: Everyone was so happy to see both of you. I know for a fact that so many people were very thrilled that both of you came to India. I’m sure at some point, you were stopped by the people around, asking for pictures and autographs.

Mariya: Yes, it happened every day, and there were so many requests from the reporters as well.

Anna: It's unique, because we have played so many Olympiads, I played my first Olympiad in 2004 and Mariya in 2010. Usually, the Volunteers are just organizing things, like they have to guide people, provide transportation, some things in the hotel and that's it. But here it was totally different. It looks like literally all the volunteers knew about chess, and they all wanted to take some photographs.

The soul of the Chess Olympiad 2022 - Volunteers | Video: ChessBase India

This is really good, because you feel like it's needed and interesting, and people want to see more of chess. That’s what we are playing for! I spoke a bit with the volunteers, and they told me there were 10,000 applications, out of which only 400 people were selected. But can you imagine, 10,000 people!

SS: I'm sure that some of the people also watched your streams and got hooked to chess in the pandemic.

Anna: Yeah! One person told me a funny thing. He came to me and said, you know, I started to be interested in chess just recently, from the Chess Super League. I saw your performance where you had a 100% score, and only then I found out that you are also a world champion. I was like,

“Hmm, it’s more important to win the Indian online league than to win the World Championship! "

Anna had a perfect score in the Chess super league. Her interview after winning a crucial game against Georgian GM Nana Dzaganidze | Video: ChessBase India

SS:  I wanted to see a couple of your games and the key moments. Anna, I think this was a very important win because it helped your team equalize the score against Romania.

Anna: Actually, we were quite close to a win, but unfortunately Yullia lost the last game which she shouldn't have lost, she just blundered terribly.

SS: When I went through this game, what I realized is that your opponent simply collapsed. You won the game very easily. Can you tell us where the mistake was?

Anna: Well, I think there were already some inaccuracies early in the game.

 

Here, the main move is 10...Nd4 and there are many games with it. The line continues with 11.Bxd4 exd4 12.Nd5, this is the main line. I'm not a big fan of 10…Qd7, because in the Ruy Lopez, you usually don't put the bishop on g5. After 11.h3 Bh5, the bishop is a little bit misplaced. I actually considered 12.g4 here, and there are many lines after g4.

 

Mariya: I would never make such a move [chuckles].

Anna: [smiles] If you play 12…Bg6 then I’ll play 13.Nh4 and the Bishop is very bad.

Mariya: But what if I play 12…Nxg4?

Anna: Yes, there is 12…Nxg4 13.hxg4 Qxg4+ 14.Kh2. Now if Black plays 14…Qxf3, there is 15.Qxf3 Bxf3 16.Bd5! It’s not only that we are winning an exchange, but we are maybe winning even more material. Somehow, all the black pieces are misplaced.

 

But then I thought that Black has another possibility - instead of taking on f3 immediately, they can also play 14...Rac8.

Now I cannot move my Knight, because there is …Qh4+ and I’m losing my Queen. I thought it was very bad. But to my surprise, after the game I checked a little bit and the computer evaluates it as a more or less equal position! Because after Rg1, I have to give the knight and there is some compensation with Bh6 and Nd5. In any case, g4 was quite risky.

SS: In the game, you played 12.Nd5, and then came g4 and f4, you just ran over the position.

 

Anna:  Black’s problem is that the bishop on g6 is out of place, like in the famous game Winter-Capablanca with reversed colours.

Check out the video analysis of this timeless Capablanca masterpiece! | Video: ChessBase India

 

SS: I think you won a very nice game here. Mariya, you won a very nice game against Alina Kashlinskaya. I think that helped the team secure the win with 3-1. This was all theory until move 27! Till what point was it your preparation?

Mariya: I knew this line, perhaps it was unfortunate for my opponent as she went into it. Actually, everything was prepared until the 27th move.

Modern day opening preparation for you - the players were prepared as deep as move 27!

SS: Was she also blitzing out the moves, or was she taking her time?

Mariya: She knew this line as well, but I probably knew it a bit further.

When she played …a5, I was pretty sure that she knew the line, because you don’t play …a5 if you don’t know it.

 

In this position, she started to stray. It was necessary to play very precisely, 27…Kg8 was the decisive error.

 

SS: 27…Kg7 Is correct, but 27…Kg8 is a mistake. But it’s very difficult to know, did you understand during the game that this is already an error by Alina?

Mariya: I knew that after Qe7 it was winning. But still, it's not so easy when you know that you are winning, but it’s necessary to make precise moves. Just one imprecise move, and it’s already equal.

 

The difference between 27...Kg8 and 27...Kg7 is that, after 27…Kg7 28.Qe7, Black has 28...c5 followed by Ra6, and Black can play Rg6 blocking Qg5+. But when you play 27...Kg8, now Ra6 is not possible anymore because of Rd8+.

The difference between one king move decides the fate of the whole game

I knew that it would be very hard for Black to find all of this over the board. I repeated this line I think with everyone who played French, maybe 10-20 times [chuckles]. I’m very happy that it worked out in this very important game.

SS: Yeah, you sometimes prepare some line alone at home and you're like, “oh, why do I have to prepare so much”? But then when you win the gold medal, you're like, “okay, it was all worth it!”

Mariya: Yeah, Alina plays many openings and she is very good with theory. But it was my day [smiles].

 

SS: Fantastic. I have to ask you, where are you right now? Are you in Ukraine?

Anna: No, we are in Spain because it’s difficult to stay in our home. Very often there are sirens - be it at daytime or night. It's difficult to travel, as all the airports are closed. The situation is very sad. All of our team members had to leave their homes. We are in Spain; the other girls are in other countries. But all our family, like our parents and grandparents and most of our relatives, are in Ukraine. We are staying in touch with them while we are here, and we are preparing for our next tournaments.

SS: It must have been so difficult for both of you to win this event, even just coming to India and playing was very tough. I think you must have gone through so much. Winning this medal and dedicating it to the country will mean a lot for both of you, right?

Anna: Yeah, of course it was a very important win for us, but it's also important for Ukraine, the Ukrainian citizens, and for all the people who defend our country.

SS: With everything that has happened, your team winning the gold medal is maybe one of the biggest achievements in the chess world. To have such mental strength is not at all easy. Also, I just want to tell our viewers that there is a book called “From Ukraine with love for chess”, and it is available on New in Chess. Whoever gets this book, all the contributions from this will go to the charities that are working in Ukraine. So please do get it.

The cover and preface of "From Ukraine with love for chess". You can get the book here

It actually has a lot of chess material, right? The best games of Ivanchuk, you, Ponomariov, and many more.

Anna: It was actually the initiative of GM Ruslan Ponomariov. He did a lot- he was the author, and he was contacting all the Grandmasters. He was collecting all the games, then passing them to New in chess. I think almost all strong players and Grandmasters, we annotated some of our best games and this book is both available in paperback and online format. Those who are interested, you may check it out on New in Chess and Amazon. I would like to thank New in Chess for accepting this idea, and they agreed to publish it for free.

SS: Wonderful. Anna, Mariya, both of you are heroes. We wish you good luck. I think the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix might start soon. Are you participating in it?

Anna: We won’t play the first event, which starts in September. But we will play the European Club Cup and then we will play the Candidates in October.

SS: Yes, both of you will be playing there so best wishes for that!

Anna: We will also be playing in India, in the Tata Steel Kolkata event.

SS: Thank you Mariya and Anna for joining us!

Anna and Mariya: Thank you so much for this interview. Thanks for inviting us, and thank you for your support to Indian chess. Bye!


Sagar is an International Master from India with two GM norms. He is also a chartered accountant. He loves to cover chess tournaments, as that helps him understand and improve at the game he loves so much. He is the co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India website, the biggest chess news outlet in the country.
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