An Alternate's Chess Olympiad

by Alexey Root
11/16/2019 – The Chess Olympiad in Novi Sad began 29 years ago today, and ran from November 16th to December 4th, 1990. The 1990 U.S. Women’s team finished in sixth place at the Chess Olympiad held in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia (present-day Serbia). In board order, the team members were WGM Elena Akhmilovskaya Donaldson, WGM Anna Akhsharumova, WIM Esther Epstein, and alternate WIM ALEXEY ROOT, who shares her alternate experience here.

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Reflections on Novi Sad 1990

On December 8, 1990, in his L.A. Times chess column, IM Jack Peters summarized the recently-completed Chess Olympiad. First, he listed the top finishers in the “29th Men’s Olympiad.” Then he wrote about the concurrent women’s event, “Hungary won the 14th Women’s Olympiad on tiebreak over the Soviet Union. Both teams scored a fantastic 35-7. It’s the second time now that Hungary, led by the Polgar sisters, has edged the Soviet women. China finished in a distant third with 29-13. Next were Bulgaria, 26-16, and Yugoslavia, 25-17. The third-seeded U.S. team, the strongest ever, ended up sixth at 24½-17½.”

Alexey Root

I drew my first-round game, part of a 2-1 U.S. Women’s team victory over the third-best Yugoslavian women’s team. Then Anna Akhsharumova told me that I would likely not play again. Therefore, Anna said, I should travel to Italy and sight-see. Anna meant this as a generous offer, as I had never been to Europe.

If I had left for Italy, my teammates and coach (GM Alexander Ivanov, Esther’s husband) would not have missed me. Their preparation meetings were conducted in Russian, which was their native language. I am a native English speaker who had taken some French classes.

Playing hall

Playing hall in Novi Sad

My teammates had moved from the Soviet Union to the United States within the previous five years: Akhmilovskaya Donaldson in 1988, Akhsharumova and her husband GM Boris Gulko in 1986, and Epstein and her husband Ivanov in 1988. I was on the team as the previous U.S. Women’s Champion, having won that title in July of 1989. The other players were on the team due to their high ratings. They planned to play each round. So Anna’s offer made sense. Yet I declined it. I wanted to stay in Novi Sad in the unlikely event that my team needed me. 

In the meantime, I found a purpose for my being in Novi Sad. Elena’s nine-year-old daughter, Dana Donaldson, was sitting in the bleachers before round two, while her mother prepared to play. At the same time, Dana’s step-father, IM John Donaldson, was readying the U.S. “Men’s” team. I asked Elena if I could babysit Dana during the rounds. Elena agreed. I babysat each round, except for the one other Olympiad game I played (and lost). I took Dana swimming, sang songs with her, and let her play dress up with my shirts. 

Polgar signaturesDana and I also socialized with chess stars. On one small piece of paper, Dana collected autographs from the Polgar sisters. One signature smudged, and Dana wanted to throw the paper away. I asked her for it, and I still have it today. Like me, the alternate for the Polgars, WGM Ildikó Mádl, played only two games in the 1990 Olympiad. 

After the 1990 Olympiad, I kept in touch with Dana by postal letter. In 1995, Dana met my then two-year-old daughter Clarissa, when Clarissa and I were visiting my family in Tacoma, Washington. That 1995 visit was the last time I saw Dana in person. We stopped writing letters to each other around 1998. 

In 2009, I got a friend request on Facebook from a “Donna Van Zandt.” The name was unfamiliar. However, I quickly figured out who “Donna” was, because her friend request asked me about one of the songs I had taught Dana in Novi Sad. Dana/Donna shared with me that the stutter she had as a child had continued into adulthood. Back in 1990, Dana stuttered when speaking but not when singing. So we sang songs a lot in Novi Sad. 

We occasionally commented on each other’s Facebook posts. I also posted two photos from 1990 that I thought she would enjoy. I posted the photo of Dana’s fingers making “rabbit ears” behind my head, when I had my hand on Nigel Short’s shoulder. Dana commented: "I love it!"

Novi Sad group photo

Can you name the other people in this “Nigel Short” photo? 

I also posted a swimming pool photo. She liked that photo too:

Donna Van Zandt Oh!! Even when I didn't have a photo to trigger memories, I've always remembered that pool...the hotel, the city. I think about it often.


Poolside in Novi Sad

Elena Akhmilovskaya Donaldson died in 2012. According to an article in the Seattle Times, Dana remembered “travelling to some of her mother’s tournaments, where other chess stars took care of her while her mother played. Once, she said, her caretaker was World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.” I am not a chess star, but I also took care of Dana. That I gave Dana happy memories, which lasted her entire lifetime, is a proud accomplishment for me. 

In 2014, Dana (aka Donna Van Zandt) disappeared. With no updates, I assume she is dead. In September of 2019, I took a new photo with GM Nigel Short. Since my only previous photo with Short included Dana, seeing Short again made me think of Dana. I can’t shake the thought. I write this article in her memory.

Root and Short in 2019

Alexey Root and Nigel Short in 2019

Games from the 1990 Women's Olympiad



Alexey was the 1989 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and is a Woman International Master. She earned her bachelor’s degree in History at the University of Puget Sound and her doctoral degree in Education at The University of California, Los Angeles. She has been a Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas since 1999 and is a prolific author.


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