Interview with Natalia Pogonina (1/2)

4/12/2015 – "The race after titles, fame and money is destroying people from the inside", says Natalia Pogonina in an in-depth interview conducted after the exciting Women World Championship. After being dubbed (justifiably) the queen of comebacks after producing three victories in must-win situations, the finalist discusses the special preparation made, and her mental approach.

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Peter Zhdanov - Natalia, my congratulations to you for an inspiring performance! What were your expectations for the Women’s World Chess Championship? The bookmakers didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in you: one company estimated the odds of you winning the event at 1:41, while the no.1 favorite’s chances, according to their assessment, were almost thirteen times higher. Did you set any goals before the tournament?

Natalia Pogonina - I don’t pay attention to such forecasts. Humans are in charge of all those assessments, and they can make mistakes. For a player there is not much sense in studying such information. Under the knockout system anyone can pull oneself together and do well. One shouldn’t set any limits for oneself. I didn’t have any particular goals and didn’t treat it in the “the minimal task is to reach round X” way. I was mentally prepared to go home after the very first round. If I move on, it’s nice. If not, it’s also fine, because I will return to my family. Maybe this attitude helped me to focus on the game itself instead of dwelling on the results. My attention was on the game, not on the outcome.

This was the fourth time you competed in the Women’s World Chess Championship. Did you do any special preparation this time?

My preparation was more serious than usual. In early March I played a training match against a strong GM. We agreed to keep his name a secret, although if he finds it acceptable, I will gladly reveal the mystery. We played standard time control chess, rapid, blitz and even Armageddon. This was very interesting and useful. I believe the match helped me a lot, especially since I hadn’t played anywhere after the Russian Superfinal in December. I was rusty and lacking practice. Without such training it wouldn’t make much sense to participate in the WWCC. Also beneficial was the training session of the Russian women’s chess team which took place in the vicinities of Moscow in February.

What do you think of the knockout format? How objective is it? Would you prefer the “men’s” system or some other approach?

Men have a rather interesting scheme with the World Cup being the knockout event. Getting rid of the knockout tournament altogether doesn’t look like a good idea to me. A system when there is the World Cup, the Grand Prix series, the Candidates tournament and the World Championship match is very attractive. The only drawback is that it is very complicated and costly. This time FIDE had trouble finding sponsors for the Women’s Championship, so they had to postpone the event. If we adopt a more expensive system, wouldn’t there be even more potential problems? This is what bothers me. If FIDE manages to attract additional funding, I guess it will be interesting to universalize the systems. If not, then maybe we should just keep the current system.

Knockout is a very specific format. Two-game matches are a real challenge. Sometimes even top-tier rating favorites are eliminated in the very first rounds. Lose one game, fail to strike back, and you are out. There is barely any room for mistakes. You have to be prepared very well and have nerves of steel to prosper under such a system. Let me repeat my statement: I would love to play under the “men’s” system, but at the moment this doesn't seems realistic to implement.

Is it even worth it, this endurance test? When watching from the distance one’s hair can turn grey prematurely from the level of stress. And how does it feel to be part of the process? How much weight did you lose during the tournament? I guess it’s entertaining for the spectators to follow all the sensations and the drama, but how does it feel from the participant’s perspective?

Don’t blame the format too much. It’s up to you how you react. No one is obliging you to be nervous. This system teaches you to be strong intrinsically. It has its own advantages. In terms of self-development it is very useful not to be distressed and to maintain good self-control. The fact that I lost a lot of weight reveals that I have been making certain mistakes. Maybe my schedule wasn’t good enough: I worked on openings too much and sacrificed time for sleep. One should be able to survive through this without any serious harm, but you have to be prepared in a special way. By the way, Anna Muzychuk told me that Mariya also lost quite a few kilos during the tournament. It’s not only my problem.

Such extreme conditions allow one to test oneself and temper one’s character.

Is playing on your home turf a gift or a curse? Do you think it was easier or harder for the ten Russian chess participants to compete in Russia as opposed to another country?

For me the venue was convenient in the sense of being close to one of my homes. Normally when you purchase the tickets you have to decide what return date to choose, but here the trip was simple. I would also like to note that the organization of the event was top-notch: an excellent hotel, a comfortable tournament hall, amazing nature, fantastic mountain air. Had we played in a megalopolis, it probably would have been tough, while here even if you are tired and didn't sleep well, the atmosphere is still refreshing.  

For the first time in my life I felt how double-edged it is when everyone is actively rooting for you. On the one hand, this is nice. On the other hand, additional responsibility is placed upon you; everyone is expecting something from you. You subconsciously start to feel that you are playing for all of Russia and thus should show a good result. After round three I felt an instant increase in attention. At first I couldn’t cope with it, but later managed to somehow let go of the tension. For me all those attempts to cheer me up by saying “come on, I know you will win” or “you will score today for sure” are counter-productive. I appreciate the fans’ support, but not when they come up to you and start saying such things. I guess they think it’s helpful, but the effect is often the opposite. Maybe it’s just me though.  

How is Sochi after the Winter Olympics? You were there during the Carlsen-Anand match and also now. Did the resort turn into a ghost town, like some journalists predicted?

Everyone is saying “world championship in Sochi”, but in fact we have stayed in Krasnaya Polyana, a mountain-skiing resort an hour by car away from Sochi. As to Sochi, numerous sports and business events are held there. The Olympic infrastructure is actively exploited. There are many tourists and vacationers. The Winter Olympiad contributed a great deal to the city’s development. I am not an expert myself, but Deputy Prime Minister and Head of the organizing committee Arkady Dvorkovich mentioned that Sport Accord is starting there soon, Formula 1 and other events. Everything is going to be all right!

Since we already started talking about stereotypes that exist in the press, let’s deal with one more. In the Western media it is often emphasized that in Russia chess is a matter of state importance. That not only the population, but also the authorities monitor the events and pay serious attention to the results of the athletes. Did the Russian Chess Federation offer you any support, especially at the stage when you became the only Russian contender for the title?

I was given a lot of attention, in particular after round three when all the other Russian players had been eliminated. All my needs were addressed. I should also note that the RCF offered me a hand in organizing the training match which I mentioned earlier. For me the feeling that they do care and support me was even more important than the financial contribution.

Russian Prime Minister (and ex-President) Dmitry Medvedev attended the event and spoke to
all the Russian participants of the championship

In the international press a few media independently dubbed you the Queen of Comebacks. How did you manage to “return from the dead” three times in a row? This is a unique feat in the history of knockout events. How did you handle the nervous tension between rounds? Did you sleep well?

This is a very complicated and personal question. I have my own life philosophy. I can’t give concrete advice, because I slept badly and prepared overzealously. I also didn’t follow such popular advice as “forget about the tournament and do something else”, “watch a movie”, “get a massage”. All I had to do was to fight and to not be afraid, and in the end it turned out I won all the tie-breaks.

Then why didn’t you make another comeback in the final? Both you and your play looked less confident and somewhat constrained.

I don’t want to go into details right now, but I demonstrated certain psychological weaknesses in the Final. I made blunders: not just chess ones, but human mistakes, so to speak.  Also, of course, I was very tired, so I wasn’t able to recover and readjust my game. I didn’t have a fresh head for the Final. I spent too much time studying theory. Even if we caught Mariya in preparation from time to time, I didn’t have enough stamina and mental strength to capitalize on it. Masha was better prepared for the Final. 

I wasn’t focused on winning the gold at all costs. It was ok for me to get silver, but I wanted to play one more tie-break. I didn’t earn that chance though. It would have been more exciting to win silver in an Armageddon than after the classical games.

This is somewhat surprising. In my opinion, most players would consider that a terrible blow: how is that to make it to the “lottery” Armageddon and to lose it? One could spend the rest of the life moaning: “Had I had a little bit more luck back then, I would have…”. No? We know such individuals in the chess world.

No, no, for me it was more important to actually experience the playoff. I wasn’t afraid of losing it.

Did your five-year old son Nikolai support you? How did he evaluate your chances? We both know that he is an expert at estimating the strength of a player by just looking at his or her image.

He didn’t tell me anything about the final match. When he found out that Mum will be back home by April 7 or so, he relaxed. For him this is more important than the result. He kept asking me after every game how I performed, but for him the key thing is to see me ASAP. As to the medals – so far he doesn’t care much.

What meaning do you place in the title of the Women’s World Chess Champion? Have you ever dreamed about becoming the queen of chess? Or do you have such a goal now? Many people wish that for you or are trying to console you and to reassure you that you will win the title eventually.

I don’t dream about becoming the Women’s World Chess Champion. Someone might say that it’s unsportsmanlike and so on, but that is my way. I have my own goals in chess and am not fixated on the titles. I don’t have any strong emotions about becoming the runner-up instead of the winner. Please note that it is not some sort of a psychological defense, you know, “she lost, so now she will be telling herself that it is not that important”. I have had that calm attitude towards titles for quite a while already. For example, you can check out my interview for Sport Express in 2012 where I told Elena Vaytsekhovskaya that I have no ambitions of becoming the Women’s World Chess Champion. Of course, I would cherish the opportunity to play a full-fledged ten-game match for the crown, although not because it’s a chance to win the title, but rather due to it being a great experience.

Just imagine, you would become a champion and commented in your reserved, “Zen Buddhist” voice: “It’s not that I particularly wanted it…”. Kramnik-style. 

Right. So much undesired fuss around you. For me the results are secondary. All those questions from journalists about “achieving immortality” or “securing one’s place in history”… More important is what you are doing and what road you are walking. Obsession with titles, money and fame is destroying people from the inside. This is foreign to me. Of course, if life grants you something, you should be grateful and shouldn’t run like the plague from it. But there is no point in ardently chasing it either.

During the post-match press conference I was asked how I felt about being the Vice Women’s World Chess Champion and what expectations I had. My answer was that I don’t have any particular emotions and that I am already occupied with preparing for the upcoming World Team Championship. As to expectations, my reply was that now I have a chance to play the Grand Prix events and have secured a spot in the next World Championship. The audience has burst out laughing. Did I say anything wrong?

Well, for them you acted like a chess schitzo, a Luzhin in a skirt who is obsessed with the game to the extent of confessing that the benefits of being World Women’s Chess Champion is that you can play some more chess. I guess they were expecting a beautiful girl such as yourself to say something like “more people will be recognizing me on the street”, “I am looking forward to additional endorsement deals”, “stay tuned for my new photo sessions for magazines”, “my popularity will increase”.

Well, maybe, maybe. I mean, really. What are my expectations? The event has granted me valuable experience. It is also nice that some people watched me coming back over and over again and have arrived at their personal conclusions. Hopefully, they will be setting fewer mental barriers for themselves and will believe more in their own powers. One’s duty is to do one’s job well and to hope for the best.

Continued in part two...


About the author

Peter Zhdanov is an IT project manager, expert and author of two books on parliamentary debate, BSc in Applied Mathematics and Computer Science. He also studied for an MA in Economics and a PhD in Sociology, but eventually decided to pursue a career in the chess industry. Chess-wise he is the founder and editor-in-chief at Pogonina.com, manager of grandmaster Natalia Pogonina and CEO at Chess Evolution. Peter is a Russian candidate master and an avid fan of the game.