Chess, my brain and I (and pickles)

by Irina Bulmaga
3/18/2023 – Irina Bulmaga is the 30th highest-rated woman player in the world. Last month, she bravely decided to play in the open section of the Romanian Championship, when only a final-round loss prevented her from reaching the podium. Here she tells us the story of her time in Sebes, focusing on her inner thoughts, presented as a candid dialogue with her own brain. She concludes: “Brain and I are thankful. GM or not, we have a purpose. Our life is about chess and making girls and women believe”. | Photo: Romanian Chess Federation

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What is this life about?

That’s a question which keeps returning to my mind in all kinds of circumstances. Sometimes I ask it myself after a bad tournament or another kind of disappointment; other times, after a very successful event. I think about it while on a nice beach, or while watching the stars from a terrace on a windy day. I still don’t have a clear answer. Am I supposed to just live this life? Should I try to be happy or to make the ones around me happier? Is chess all my life is about? Why does it matter what my life is about at all?

One night, just at the beginning of 2023, all these questions wouldn’t let me sleep. No tournaments were coming up until late February, when the Romanian National Championships were to take place, and I was trying to understand what I wanted for the year.

“I want to play chess”. This was what I wanted to do and what I have done for the last 20 years. Apparently, I still haven’t had enough. “Ok, I will continue to play chess”. But who cares? I will win or lose, become a GM or not. Hmm… “I want to be the first woman in Romania who becomes a GM”. “A pointless GM in a pointless life, being pointlessly happy”, says my ever optimistic brain, continuing: “Why? Life begins and comes to an end for all of us – GM or not”. It does indeed, but… “I want to make a difference in this world”. “Haha, of course you do!” my restless mind retorts, deciding to fully participate in this late-hour conversation. “You’re naive, everyone wants to leave some sort of footprint in this world. Why should you be one who actually manages to?”. My brain rarely agrees with me on any matter.

“Because I have the means: I can inspire girls and women to reach the next level, be the best not only among women, I am certain I can become a GM and one among the very best chess players overall in Romania!” “What means? You’re rated 2428, which stands for maybe the 15th ranked player in Romania, you’ve been an IM for 10 years now. Where was this ambition during all those years, or do you imagine that the GM title will just fall upon you?”. “The ambition was there, all this time, I just got distracted. Qualify here, get there, visit this new country — that’s not what I really want. I will work harder, care less about ‘unimportant’ things, I will try my best!” Silence. “Nothing to say, witty brain?”. Still no answer. Uncertain of whether my brain was shocked or decided to hysterically laugh in silence out of courtesy, I decided that I had my goal set for 2023, and I finally managed to fall asleep.

Irina Bulmaga

“Childhood living is easy to do” — Irina Bulmaga and her grandparents (from ‘A chess story’)

The next morning I started to make plans: training plans, mindset plans, tournament plans. “The brain” continued its silent treatment. “Very well — working in silence is more efficient”.

I decided to participate in the open section of the National Championship. Weeks flew by quickly. Training sessions flew by even faster. “You’ll make a fool of yourself, and you won’t win any prize and regret you haven’t played in the women’s event”. “Hello to you too, my dearest brain”.

Reality is always rather different from what we imagine it to be.

I was the only woman among the 100+ participants and started as the 12th highest-rated player. It was one of the strongest national championships in years, with almost all the top GMs participating, except for Richard Rapport and Bogdan Deac.

I won in the first round, with some adventures, albeit the position was close to equal for a long time. My opponent was rated barely above 2000. “Wannabe GMs don’t need 5 hours to win against a 2000 player”. “I will take it, I can play 6 hours every day if it is what it takes, and you will do so happily too, my dear brain”.

The next day came. I had white versus a young, 2198-rated player. Another 5 hours, another complicated game. I won.

Almost all the players stayed at the same hotel and ate all their meals at the hotel’s restaurant. I was happy to meet some friends and to be able to chat a bit and relax before and after the rounds. People were coming to me and wishing me good luck, telling me how inspiring it was to see me “beating all these guys”. It felt good. I told myself I wasn’t doing that just for my own benefit. “I have to keep going strong until the end”.

The next day was coming and with it the only double round of the tournament. I was lucky with the pairings and got two whites and a 2147-rated opponent in the first game. “Good, a bit of preparation will be just enough, let’s sleep early and play well tomorrow.”

The plan was good, and it worked out, but without the ‘playing well’ part. After a gruelling fight — in which I was lost on more than one occasions — I won. Three out of three. I couldn’t have hoped for a better start. There was about one hour and a half until the next round. I went to have lunch: there was soup and some meat with pickles and potatoes. Only that there were no potatoes left. “I want potatoes!”, Brain threw at me. “There is a time for chess and a time for potatoes, just eat those pickles with meat and stop pretending you’re in some vegan saga, Brain”. “You are as sour as your pickles!”. Nonsense conversations like this one with Brain are fortunately (or not) not an exception. I stood up and hurried to my room to check the pairings. Black against our youngest GM. “I am tired, time to sleep”, Brain assessed the situation. “Time to prepare, darling”. To make Brain less bitter — or wait, it was ‘sour’ — I made a compromise and let it sleep a bit.

A draw offer on move 10. That was unexpected. I thought for a while and accepted it. I was not sure who was more content about not having to play again for 5 hours, Brain or me. Went for a walk and after a 1-hour debate with Brain, we decided that it had been a successful day.

On the next day I was to play the top seed, 2650+ rated Kirill Shevchenko, with the white pieces. I was rather happy about the pairings, as Brain prefers to face strong players, against whom it doesn’t feel bad about any result. Brain silently prepared and started its complains only at lunch, when I fed it another portion of traditional Romanian pickles. To make its monologues stop, I had to feed it some terribly unhealthy fries too. It worked. Brain remembered the prep, played a novelty, and with Kirill taking more and more time on each move, while I was still ‘in book’, Brain demanded a restless walk while eating a banana. With about 28 minutes remaining on his clock and a worse position against my hour and 21 minutes, my opponent offered a draw. “Don’t take it, you have at least 3 obvious moves!”. “We make a draw today, which is more than we hoped for, and I promise that at the European Championship in Serbia I will let you play whichever position you want against whomever you want, Brain!” A draw it was.

Kirill Shevchenko

Ukrainian-born talent Kirill Shevchenko now represents Romania — at 20, he is the third-strongest player in the country | Photo: Romanian Chess Federation

The walk after the game took longer than the usual one hour. Brain was unhappy. “I ate your pickles, remembered the prep and the novelty we worked so hard to produce, and you accept the draw offer…with one extra hour on the clock! Shame on you, wannabe GM!”

Back to the room, I noticed that I had black against a younger IM in the next round. I decided to let Brain relax and prepare the next morning. Brain demanded some Dr. House — which it got, although it did not help it fall asleep easily. “Why draw? Why?”. The next morning, I woke up in a rather bad mood, as I hadn’t been able to sleep well.

I got a slightly worse but solid position when, unexpectedly, another draw offer followed, somewhere around move 20. This time, Brain was on the same page as me, and we agreed to take it. With 4½ points out of 6, I was among the leaders.

At the usual walk, Brain was awkwardly silent. We listened to some music and made plans about how to win the next day with the white pieces. What a surprise it was to find out, when we returned to the room, that I had a double black and had to play GM Mircea Parligras. Brain refused to prepare for another black, it wasn’t content even after watching Dr. House and refused to sleep until very late into the night.

In the morning, I had to add a cappuccino to my usual cup of coffee, plus an extra shot of espresso. Brain still refused to speak to me, but agreed to prepare. I have to say that I’ve noticed that, unlike in any other social circumstances, the silent treatment from Brain is a rather good sign. I played a good, solid game, to make a draw without any problems. Two more rounds to go.

Meanwhile, Kirill won two games in a row to grab the sole lead, so I was in shared second place. Brain was rather exhausted I believe, hence the silence. It was tired of protesting against pickles, demanding coffee and potatoes. Sleeping was also not a satisfying occupation any more. It seems that all Brain wanted was for me to lay on the bed trying to understand how to sleep, begging him to answer to me, but not getting anything in return.

In the eighth round, I was once again paired with a younger player, rated 2389. I had white. I’m uncertain if it is me who’s supposed to feel old at almost 30, or it’s just all the others who should feel bad for becoming younger and younger as years pass by… I played a good game, agreed with Brain not to agree to another draw offer, and went on to win. Six out of eight and shared second place. Kirill won again and was in clear first place with seven points. I had one of the best tiebreak scores in the tournament, so a draw in the last round would most likely be enough for a medal.

The pairings for the last round appeared — and I got another black against yet another young player, rated 2455. Brain had hoped for a double white to finish with five whites and four blacks, and was rather sour about not getting it, even though I had mercy and stopped feeding it pickles by that point. What became the usual silent protest against sleeping followed.

Irina Bulmaga

Playing black against Samuel-Timotei Ghimpu in the all-important final round | Photo: Romanian Chess Federation

The last round was played in the morning, at 11.30 am. Brain started feeling chatty again — a bad sign? Full of caffeine and hopes — wearing a rather strange long-skirt and long-hoodie combo — I went to play the game. The game went fine...until it didn’t. I made an unfortunate move caused by an even more unfortunate assessment of the situation and got a bad position. But it was not over. Kirill won his game rather quickly, clinching first place. Draws were agreed on all the other boards around me, and only I was left playing. A draw was enough to share 2nd-3rd places. The only problem was my position, which Brain was disgusted about. To be honest, I was also disgusted. We agreed to continue the fight. Brain wanted more caffeine, I didn’t manage to comply… Nonetheless, the opponent went wrong. The position was again about equal, but another mistake followed. I fought hard again to get a rook endgame with a pawn down, but with rather big practical drawing chances. The chances were there, but unfortunately, the precision wasn’t. I lost the game and had to congratulate my opponent, who got the bronze medal. I finished fourth.

I blame Brain. Brain blames the lack of caffeine. I blame the lack of sleep. Brain blames the pickles, and so it goes — this is the problem with such cycles: they never end.

One hour of packing in silence followed. Then the closing ceremony came with many happy and unhappy players. Some rounds of congratulations later, there I was, in a car, a 5-hour drive away from home.

Home… The place where I sleep fantastically well, but also where I get the most fantastic sleepless nights full of meaning(less)ful conversations with Brain. The place where I can always enjoy a jar of the best pickles ever, kindly made and sent by my mom from her place hundreds of kilometres away. The place where plans are born, trophies gathered and hopes scattered around.

Brain and I are thankful. GM or not, we have a purpose. Our life is about chess and making girls and women believe. Will it make a difference or not? I have no idea, but does it really matter? What does matter?

I choose to live a life where I believe that becoming a GM and becoming one of the best players in Romania at nearly 30 years of age is possible, and I am not afraid to get sour due to a potential failure or due to an overload of pickles in my diet.

Irina Bulmaga

Despite the final-round loss, it was a remarkable performance — and it was duly rewarded | Photo: Romanian Chess Federation

All available games - Romanian Championship 2023



Irina Bulmaga is a WGM/IM born in Moldova, currently representing Romania. She became the youngest Moldavian Champion among Women at the age of 14 years old. Since 2010, she has been a part of the Romanian Olympic team, successfully representing it at 5 Olympiads, winning an individual bronze medal in 2014.