Everything you wanted to know about Ukrainian chess

7/14/2008 – It is one of the super-powers of chess, but somehow there have not been that many great events in Ukraine. Until very recently, that is. This year, which is just half over, has already seen the ACP World Cup, the Aerosvit tournament, the Pivdenny Bank rapid and recently the Life:) chess match in Kiev. WIM Olena Boytsun visited the event and sent us some great pictorial impressions.

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From 3rd to 7th of July, 2008 British Grandmaster Nigel Short, former World Championship challenger, and Sergey Karyakin, who at twelve became the youngest grandmaster in history, played a ten-game rapid chess match in Kiev (Kyiv). The venue was the Kyiv Academic Puppet Theatre, Grushevskogo Str., 1a, Kyiv. This is the oldest puppet theatre in Ukraine, established in 1927, and today pays host to puppet theatres from all over the world.

Everything you wanted to know about Ukrainian chess

Impressions from Kiev by Olena Boytsun

Three weeks ago I was at a meeting of the American Chamber of Commerce in Kyiv, and on the table of the meeting room I spotted something that I had never seen before. It was the full-page advertisement of a chess match, in color, in the magazine "What's on" – a guide to what to do in the city. Can you believe it? The whole page. The chess match. Go out to visit a chess match.


A full-page ad in "What's on" in Kiev

In July 2005 I wrote in an article for ChessBase.com: “It sounds like it cannot be true, but here are the facts. The first is: Ukrainian chess players are among the best chess players in the world. The Ukrainian team holds the titles of both Olympic Champion and World Champion. Ukrainian Ruslan Ponomariov is the youngest world champion in the history of chess. Ukrainian Andrei Volokitin is the best-rated junior for a long period of time. Ukrainian Sergey Karjakin became a grandmaster at the age of twelve, a record that still stands and is unlikely to be broken soon. Ukrainian Kateryna Lahno is the fresh European Women’s Champion. All of this is still part of fact number one. The second fact is – Ukrainian chess players have to travel abroad to play in tournaments. There are few or no interesting regular international chess events in Ukraine”.

Two years have passed, and probably this is a good moment to review the status and situation in Ukrainian chess life.

First of all, it is necessary to review the situation with fact number one – Ukrainian chess players are good players. With regard to the titles and places, everything is still mostly true – even Kateryna Lahno, what a déjà vu, is again European Women’s Champion. The men’s team is not the current Olympic Champion, but the women’s team is. Magnus Carlsen took the place of Andrey Volokitin, but Vasyl Ivanchuk is the World Champion in blitz. Ukraine is definitely still among the top chess countries.

The second fact was – there were no interesting chess events in Ukraine. There was no international chess life, only the internal one, sometimes bright, sometimes boring, sometimes scandalous, but still only taking place in the nation-wide chess scene. However: today, in the current year 2008, the schedule of chess events in Ukraine have already included:

  • The ACP World Cup in Odessa in January;
  • The Aerosvit tournament in June;
  • The Pivdenny Bank rapid tournament in June;
  • The Life:) chess match in Kiev in July.

All the events above appeared on the chess scene within the last three years, all of them are interesting, all are international, and the organizers have expressed their willingness to do these events annually.

Apart from current chess events Ukraine is set to stage the match Kamsky-Topalov this autumn in Lviv. It started with shiny-eyed rumors in the newspapers, and on June 24 2008, at a press conference in Kiev, FIDE President Kirsan Iljumzhinov announced that it would definitely happen.


The match will be in Lviv – FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov

Now even the yellow press jumped on the bandwagon, with a story entitled: “Top-level chess match to be played in Ukraine” – right next to the big three-page article “Five-year-old girl eats parents with salsa sauce”.


Sergey Karjakin, the number two in Ukrainian chess

It is difficult to underline who out of all Ukrainian chess players is the national chess symbol. Vasyl Ivanchuk is the most experienced Ukrainian player, Ruslan Ponomariov was the FIDE World Champion. Katya Lahno or Anna Ushenina have everything required to get some more attention of the public, but lack a general PR strategy (in other words, someone should take care of them). Only Sergey Karjakin has a stable media image – “the youngest grandmaster in history” is a phrase that the media adore. And Serge doesn’t just have an image. Apart from being young, open-minded and able to smile, Sergey is the number two Ukrainian chess player (after Ivanchuk) and number 15 in the world, with an Elo of 2727 as of July 1st 2008.


A young fan gets an autograph from Sergey, who wasn't that much older when he became a GM

“The chess match to go out to see” that I spotted in the press was, of course, Karjakin vs Short, organized by the Ukrainian mobile operator Life:) and taking place from the 3rd to the 7th of July 2007.

The playing venue, the Kyiv Puppet Theatre, seems to be a very fine place to hold such an event. The theatre is not very big, but large enough to provide the space for chess fans who want to see the games live. There is also enough room at the entrance and upstairs, where after every game refreshments for spectators and participants can be served. There is a press center with Internet access. There is a VIP room for special guests. And there is a big park around the theatre where you can enjoy the summer weather and play outdoor games, like chess on the big outdoor board.

The event was worth visiting and attracted the attention of the citizens of Kyiv. At the entrance they were guided by young ladies, so there was no chance anyone will get lost. Entrance was free.

Once the person was inside, he or she was met by young ladies again. Different ones. They provided information for spectators and journalists, and also wrote down the names of visitors for a raffle every evening after the games. Every evening one visitor won a new mobile phone.


Every day a raffle: Genna Sosonko draws the name of a visitor...


... and the lucky winner gets a new cell-phone from Life:)


The room where all spectators (and the players) could drink a cup of coffee or eat some canapé.


In between the games people often played chess outside, some very seriously...


... and some showing a lack of ultimate professionality.

The man behind the event was Bessel Kok, who is the Chairman of the Supervisory Board of Life:), the Ukrainian mobile operator. Bessel arrived in Kiev on the 4th of July in order to enjoy the event personally. He stayed until the end.


Old friends: Bessel Kok and Nigel Short


Bessel Kok, Genna Sosonko, Sureyya Civil (the General Director of Turkcell, the largest mobile operator in Turkey), and Tansu Yegen, the General Director of Life :)

Genna Sosonko and Vladimir Tukmakov were the official commentators of the match. They did it so well that I just hope that there was a recording of their discussions. The commentaries were funny, but still rich in content, instructive, smart and entertaining. I followed the whole conversations on the forth game, which was won by Nigel Short.


Marat, the man with the endless supply of T-shirts

The two grandmasters provided commentaries in the hall next to the playing venue. There were chairs for the spectators there, and a very lively public. You could see two young boys, three grandparents (male and two females), an amateur who was more interested in talking to the young girl next to him (but the young girl more interested in meeting Nigel Short). In the commentary hall you could also spot, for example, Marat, who works for an IT-company and wore different chess T-shirts every day.


The bearer of the prizes: Alexander Karjakin, the proud father of Sergey (left)

Through Alexander Karjakin I had an opportunity to meet Tanya Kostjuk, a Ukrainian chess player who now works in Kyiv and whom I hadn’t seen for ages – actually since we were children and played in youth championships.


An old school friend, Tanya Kostjuk (right), was "forced" to come to the event by her colleagues

The people at work mostly forced me to come here, Tanya says. They said that I was a chess player that is why my place now was at the chess match and not at work.

The people from Tanya’s company got to know about the event through billboards and other channels of advertisement. The management of Life :) also used internal resources for the communication with the audience: all subscribers (about nine million people) got an SMS inviting them to the match.


Genna Sosonko and Leonid Bodankin, the Honorary Vice-President of the Ukrainian Chess Federation

During the commentary the audience sometimes laughed at the exchanges between Genna and Vladimir. Oleg Tovchiga, the main arbiter in the playing hall had to warn people about keeping silent. There were no mobile phone rings during the entire event, probably due to a genuine feeling of responsibility on the part of the spectators, but more likely because the soft-spoken guard at the entrance was very convincing in his instructions that you had to turn off your mobile phone, or else.

A very interesting personality around the chess match was Vitaliy Zablotsky, who is not only a university professor and active public figure in Ukraine, but also a keen chess player and an expert in chess history.


Vitaliy Zablotsky chatting with Bessel Kok


Stunning: one of the chess dancers at the closing ceremony

Irina Dovgopola is a young lady from the organizers’ side and responsible for all the details of the match. Irina is a real professional, and although she had never a deal with chess events, the match was beautifully executed. Irina told me that the organization team had gone to Sofia and Prague this spring in order to see live chess events, and that they had to learn everything from scratch.


Sergey being grilled by Olena Boytsun, the author of this article (haircut by Aldo Coppola, necklace by Mexican folk artisans, blouse by Effiecy, handbag by Prada, recorder by Olympus)

The previous tournament in which Sergey Karjakin played was Foros, and of course who could resist asking him The Question. As an old friend of the Karjakin family I didn’t risk a lot.

Me: Sergey, I have a question that all the world would like to ask you.

Sergey (laughing): About him? Again?

Me: Yes, What are you going to do about Magnus Carlsen? Smash him with a tennis racket?

Sergey: Some people say he is unbeatable, but I think it is really possible to win against him, at the chess board, and not just physically.

Me: But still, what if is not possible at the chess board?

Sergey: I am used to winning at the board.

Me: What about chessboxing?

Serges: Ahhh, that could be veeery interesting!

Sergey also said he had prepared well for the event and that he was really happy to win the match against a player of the caliber of Nigel Short.

In my opinion the Life :) match was a great success, both for the company and for the chess world. In a couple of weeks the Ukrainian chess community will return to normal life and to living in expectation of another match, a really big one, to come to Ukraine this autumn.

Photos by Nikolai Gavljuk and Olena Boytsun

About the author

After working on her PhD in International Economics at the Russian and Eurasian Studies Center, St. Antony's College, Oxford University, Olena Boytsun has returned to Ukraine and is currently working in Kiev as Communication and PR Director for a Ukrainian holding. She also acts as independent PR-consultant with major specialisation on personal PR-programms and Internet projects.

Olena has played chess since her childhood. Her current title is Woman International Master. She is a regular contributor to the ChessBase news page.

In September 2008 Olena will establish a new chess TV-Program on the Ukrainian and international market.

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