Interview with Jovanka Houska

by Tatiana Flores
10/21/2021 – In an exclusive interview with Tatiana Flores, Jovanka Houska talks about her career as a chess player, author and commentator. She also talks about some of her most important and memorable games and reveals how it feels to get free chess lessons from Judit Polgar. | Photo: Alina l'Ami

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Interview with WGM & IM Jovanka Houska

The British #1 female player Jovanka Houska was born in 1980 in South London, England. She gained her WGM title in 2000, and five years later, in 2005, she became an IM. Since 2008 she has won the British Women’s Championship no less than nine times.

Apart from being one of Britain’s most active players, she has written several chess books, and co-authored the novel The Mating Game. Recently, she also became an ambassador for Kasparovchess, and last but not least, she is an extremely popular and successful commentator. There’s not much this woman can’t do!

Jovanka Houska is a successful and active player, author and commentator

You’re a very successful player and commentator; author of several chess books, co-author of the novel "The Mating Game" and you’re married to a chess player! When you were younger, did you ever imagine that chess would play such a big role in your life?

I never imagined that I’d be involved with commentating or writing chess books or a novel, neither with writing articles. I always saw myself as a player and the fact that I am commentating so much has been a surprise to me. But I remember how my career as a commentator began. It was during the Gibraltar Chess Festival, and one day Brian Callaghan, a friend of mine, who is the owner of the Caleta hotel and who had the idea to organise the Festival, asked me whether I would like to commentate. That day, I had played a bad game and thought: "Okay, let’s try it out and see what happens." I loved it, which was a big shock to me, because I had never imagined I could enjoy talking about chess as much as playing it. Or sometimes even more! It’s less stressful.

Let's talk about your novel "The Mating Game". How did you get to know your co-author James Essinger, and how did you come up with the idea for the book’s plot?

That’s a quite funny story actually! I met James in Hastings, I would say around 2004. I was staying with a mutual friend of ours and when he introduced me to James, I immediately thought: what a magnificent bundle of energy! I had never met someone so charismatic, so unique!

He was working with his PR agency at the time, and he once told me, that he thought it very unfair that we chess players don’t make the living that we deserve to and he said he would try and help me. We then came up with ideas for non-fiction books and even TV quiz shows. The people from the world of TV and the world of books loved it; the only problem was that this was in 2008, the year of the great financial crisis, and the market suddenly collapsed and all the plans were put on hold. Then in 2009, when I was about to get married, James called me up with a great idea. He suggested making a book from all the information we had collected – he said it would be his wedding present for me – and I agreed.

I always had some input on the plot, we talked about ideas, I would read the text and corrected it, indicating how things work in the world of chess. We worked really well together and that’s how we came up with the idea of The Mating Game. I think I must have read this book about a thousand times! (Laughs) It was a really big adventure and now it’s with a Hollywood agent, who is going to try to sell it to turn it into a movie, so we’ll see!

Fresh from the printer: Copies of "The Mating Game" ready to be signed by its authors

How would you describe the current situation of chess in the UK and its evolution since you started playing?

Yeah, chess in the U.K. … I’d say the big problem with chess in the U.K. is the lack of structure. By lack of structure I mean that there are no clearly defined paths for juniors – or for anyone – who wants to play chess as a hobby or as a sport or as a profession, and there’s nothing in place in the actual organization to help you do these things. This easily leads to quarrels and fights and that tends to cost time and is also quite demoralizing.
I remember the first time I was asked to play for the National Women’s Team in the Olympiad as a reserve player. I was paid very well and we were treated very nicely. We were lucky to have a sponsorship deal with Duncan Lawrie, a private bank, and it was a lovely and unique experience. But then the sponsorship fell through and the English Federation lost its government funding. People are trying, but many individuals work against an organization which includes a lot of people with different aims – and this is a problem.

There are a lot of great people and players out there, and the team is great. That’s really very positive. I don’t want to be too negative, but I see the lack of structure as a persistent problem.

Please tell me something about your most important games and tournaments.

The moment that made me think that I could be a professional chess player, was when I won the European Girls Championship under 20. I always knew I could do it and had this feeling I was quite underrated, and I was quietly confident in my abilities. When I won the tournament, I thought "Okay, this is great!". A few years later I had a lot of joy when I won against Sasikiran who at that time was playing at grandmaster level and is now a well-known grandmaster. But in our game I completely outplayed him, and I felt such a boost from that. Since then, another big success was probably the European Team Championship in 2005, where I managed to win a board prize, which I had always longed for. Also winning the British Women’s Championship for the ninth time was a great achievement.

 

A spectacular win: Jovanka's game against Inna Gaponenko at the European Team Championship 2005

How would you describe your playing style?

Well, it seems like I have a dual personality when it comes to my playing style. Over the board I’m a little bit more cautious that I’m in my commentary; as a commentator I realized that my instinct is just to have a go and push pawns as much as you can.

When I’m playing I am of course a little more careful. I have a great admiration for positional players; like how can you make those subtle improvements? Sometimes it even looks like a sort of trickery, so I try to emulate that, because there’s a certain feeling of satisfaction when you’ve played a long drawish game and you are equal for a long time, but through persistence, hard effort – and mischievousness, I would say – you persevere and take home the point. I find that to be very beautiful, so sometimes I try to do that, but it requires nerves of steel.

You have recently commentated together with Judit Polgar during the ninth edition of Norway Chess. How has this job been for you?

It was fantastic, a dream come true! Judit Polgar has been an idol of mine since I was a girl. She’s not that much older than me, but I’ve been following each of her games since I was six years old and she and her sisters have been a big inspiration in my life. To commentate alongside her and to get some chess lessons from her spontaneously for free and just to appreciate her attacking potential and how quickly she sees the most aggressive possibilities, how she’s able to use the board in a multidimensional way, was very inspiring. I really felt that this was my dream job, and I’m extremely grateful to Chess24 for giving me the opportunity to comment alongside her and I am also extremey grateful to Norway Chess because that was also a fantastic experience. It’s very rare that you go to a tournament, and you’re so well treated. What else can I say? I simply enjoyed it so much.

You have been one of the three commentators of this year’s recently concluded edition of the Meltwater Champions Chess Tour. I’m very thrilled to know how this experience of working together for months with so many talented people and players in the very first edition ever of this tour has been for you.

I have to say, it’s been the ride of a lifetime! I’ve loved every single minute of it; it’s been absolutely everything: exhausting, but as accelerating at the same time. I’m so lucky to be commenting alongside David and Kaja, who is fantastic at what she does. She really makes you feel at ease and, of course, David’s commentary is always exceptional. I also have to say that the energy coming from the production team is wonderful; it’s so positive and welcoming! It doesn’t really feel like a job; it feels as if I just get to hang out with these fantastic people and have the chance to be part of something special.

I often even forget that’s Kaja, David and me are commentating because we have so much fun! (Laughs) The players also put up a wonderful display of chess: they’ve fought so hard, they’ve given us great games, raw emotions and I’ve become a big fan of each of them. I got to know them all a bit better and listening to their backstories was fantastic.
I’ve adored every single minute of it and there aren’t just enough positive words I could use to describe this whole experience; I have to say it really has been life changing.

IM Jovanka Houska with David Howell (left) and Kaja Snare (right) and  in the Champions Chess Tour TV studio

What projects, tournaments, etc. do you have planned for next year to impress us all with?

I will do commentary for World Championship Match in November, so Kaja, David and I will be back in the studio, this time commentating an over-the-board event, which I think will be a little unusual for us. It’s going to be exciting to see what we have to do to shake things up a little. Then, of course, I have the Grand Swiss in Riga at the end of October where I’m going to play! I haven’t played in such a long time, but I’m looking forward to it. After that I’ll guess the 2022 Chess Champions Tour will be coming back – it was wonderful to hear that the tour takes place again.
I think it will be interesting to see how I can combine playing with commentating when the world opens up and everything becomes a little easier. After sitting next to David for ten months and also next to Judit, I have faith that these two legendary players will have helped my chess somehow. Something has to stick, you know? (Laughs)

Now I’m very curious to know what a typical working day of yours looks like!

It’s not typical; my life is very chaotic at the minute! I am living in a renovation project and having to be the project manager for this house that we have requires a lot of work. It’s a lovely house to live in, but there are a lot of people coming and going and I also have to do lots of DIY and planning. When I’m playing chess tournaments, my life is quite regimented, though, and I have a routine I like to stick to: I more or less eat the same things every day; I get up early in the morning and do some Yoga or some other exercise, I go outside – which is very important to me – and I meditate to be ready for the game. I also always try to limit the preparation to the same time, so there I certainly have a routine. At home, before the tour, it was like that, but now I don’t have typical days whatsoever! (Laughs) I’m happy when I step outside our door and don’t fall into the draining ditch! I wish I had a more glamorous answer, but I really don’t.

What would you like to improve or change in the chess world?

I would like the chess world to hire more professionals. In our federation and FIDE, there’s mostly a combination of chess players, who are excellent at what they do, but I’d like them to bring in too – let’s say – a professional marketing person, a professional fundraiser, so that they can control the image a bit more. These professionals can also teach the chess players how to do their job 100% perfectly. That’s the thing I would do, especially when it comes to fundraising, because I’ve noticed that when you bring the corporate world into the chess world, they come in with new angles and they see the bigger picture, being able just to impart their genius. I think if you’re able to have this learning structure within every organization and FIDE as well, this would be better for the chess world.

IM Jovanka Houska spreads her chess enthusiasm at the Gibraltar Chess Festival in 2017

Thank you very much for your time! The ChessBase team and I wish you all the best with your future endeavors!

The interview was conducted via Zoom on October 7, 2021, by Tatiana Flores


Tatiana Flores was born in Andorra in 1998 and moved to Germany with her family when she was 14. She works as a chess journalist, poet and multilingual author. Besides chess, she is also passionate about literature and music.
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CentrKentr CentrKentr 10/23/2021 09:12
"Since 2008" I can understand; it was the nine times "since 2016" - as still stated in the story as I post this comment - that puzzled me.
ninth-pawn ninth-pawn 10/22/2021 12:07
She won 9 times _since 2008_ when she won first title in Liverpool (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_Chess_Championship). Outstanding achievement.
tatilollipop tatilollipop 10/22/2021 10:06
She did win indeed the British Women’s Championship nine times! This year she didn’t participate in it though, was busy preparing for the Grand Swiss.
CentrKentr CentrKentr 10/22/2021 05:16
Hmm . . . she's good, but winning "British Women's Championship no less than nine times" since 2016 seems unlikely. (I admit my math skills are not the best, but still . . .).
thirteen thirteen 10/21/2021 11:13
Really looking forwards to the unmissable and exceptionally professional input of these three, Jovanka, David, Kaja, for the November WC match. It's a 'Christmas tree' variation!
Theochessman Theochessman 10/21/2021 09:34
Great, now bring on Kaja Snare, please!
tony aguirre tony aguirre 10/21/2021 09:00
Jovi Houska is the best chess player on and off the board!! Pretty, smart, witty and much more a charming personality. The chess world is blessed to have her!!! Kudos Jovi!!!!!!
sxb103 sxb103 10/21/2021 08:54
She is a great person !. I really enjoy the Jovanka/David/Kaja commentary,
They're the best. Very entertaining!
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