Interview with Natalia Pogonina (2/2)

4/14/2015 – Is the women's chess world divided into two camps, Hou Yifan vs the rest? How does one deal with issues such as the prevalent male chauvinism in chess? What are the other advantages for being a finalist or the champion? What should players do to help promote the game? These are a few of the questions Natalia Pogonina is asked in this second part of the in-depth interview.

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Peter Zdhanov - Had you qualified for a match against Hou Yifan, would you be interested in playing? Kibitzers have been joking that since you have knocked out Guo Qi, Ju Wenjun, Zhao Xue, it would have been logical to take up on the Chinese #1 next.

Natalia Pogonina - Yes, I would be happy to play such a match. I have no fear at all. Four games is a short distance, and in a 10-game match there is plenty of room for experiments and trying out all sorts of things!

Do you agree with a popular assessment that after Judit Polgar’s retirement women’s chess is divided into Hou Yifan and everyone else and that none of the participants of the last Women’s World Chess Championship has a realistic chance of beating the formidable Chinese player? This is a popular opinion.

I don’t think that the match is going to be one-sided. Of course, Hou Yifan is playing on a very high level these days. She is very strong. But there is always a chance. I wouldn’t say that everyone else is doomed against her. I would rather not comment on the chances of the players because I know both of them in person and believe that it would be inappropriate on my behalf.

Would a match be a fait-accompli? No, though Yifan's edge is undisputable.

Mariya Muzychuk is 22, Hou Yifan is 21. This year you turned 30. How do you feel about this? There is the... let’s put it this way: Anand-Gelfand-Ivanchuk camp of people who seem to be willing to play chess all life long and manage to compete at the highest level after age 45. But there are also quite a few GMs who believe that modern chess is a game of youngsters.

I have a calm attitude towards aging and don’t think that one should be in a rush to achieve everything in chess while being in one's twenties. I don’t set myself any limits. In women’s chess there is a remarkable example – Pia Cramling. She will be 52 soon, but she made it to the semi-finals here.

Yes, I was impressed by her play and amused by a comment of one of the fans: “Pia, don’t worry! You are still too young, and you will gain experience and do better next time!”

Why not? I won’t be surprised if she reaches the semi-finals in the future. It’s a bad idea to set mental barriers in your own head. Nothing is impossible.

Chess fans often ask when you are going to become a GM. Some of them have been monitoring your performance on a daily basis, doing calculations, arguing with each other. She deserves it; no, she is too weak. It seems that for some of them becoming a GM or not is a really big deal. What would you tell them?

I used to be concerned about this, but for the last few years I have formed a calm attitude towards it. It’s hard to say whether I will ever fulfill the requirements or not. So far I don’t have any norms, but so what.

Well, you just earned a norm…

Really? I don’t think so. 

You are due a GM norm for reaching the final of the WWCC. The winner gets an automatic title. But you are not one to read the FIDE Handbook…

No, I hadn’t heard this. Neither have I read the Handbook. It is so huge and full of all sorts of rules and regulations…

Would it be fair to say that you have had a couple of 2600+ performances such as at Moscow Open-2009 or the Russian Superfinal-2012, but there haven’t been enough title holders among your opponents, because there are generally few women with the GM title? Maybe you will have better chances in the Grand Prix series for which you have just qualified?

I don’t know. It is not on my agenda at the moment. Previously I used to care, but now I don’t pay much attention to such matters.

What about your rating? You gained a bunch of points in Sochi.

It is unstable. At one moment I was rated 2508. A bunch of points? Like ten? (with irony in her voice)

Fifteen. Not a big deal, you might say, but Mariya, for example, won the tournament and has yet shed a couple of points in classical chess.

Oh, really? The peculiarities of the knockout system! Funny stuff…

How do you address the prevalent male chauvinism in chess? For example, some of the official commentators were quite condescending and excessively familiar when discussing the players and their games, saying things such as “well, she won’t find this move, of course”, “you can expect anything to happen when women are playing”, “wow, she has some sort of positional understanding”, etc. Funnily enough, in many cases the variations they were touting were in fact worse than what actually happened on the board.

I didn’t get a chance to listen to the commentary, so it’s hard to judge. One shouldn’t worry about it. In terms of promoting women’s chess this is, of course, a minus. Why try to portray women’s play as something inferior to men’s? The commentators are supposed to be able to underscore the advantages of women’s chess and to know how to entertain the public. If someone indeed did say something like “she is not capable of finding this move”, then it’s pretty sad. Women’s chess is a delight to watch. When we came to the closing ceremony in dresses, a popular question was why we don’t wear them for the rounds. I jokingly replied that in this case no one will be following men’s chess at all! Women’s chess has its own advantages, so a condescending tone is not appropriate. Besides, there are more and more women who are capable of beating male grandmasters. Not to mention that the male GMs themselves blunder a lot and are also by far not always able to find the strongest moves. If the commentator is disrespectful towards the participants, then the viewers will feel like they are watching a second-rate show and might become upset. 

Sure, especially if the kibitzer himself is not very good at chess, so he trusts the commentators, and they are like: “Oh, another blunder”. Also, I don’t quite understand this division between men’s and women’s chess. There is, let’s say, chess at 2500 level and chess at 2700 level. Generally speaking, a 2700 is stronger than a 2500. However, if we compare two 2500 players, it doesn’t matter much who has this rating: a woman or a man.

Of course. Maybe this has to do something with the identities of certain men who get a certain satisfaction by insulting women. However, I know many strong grandmasters that respect female colleagues and follow our games with interest. I doubt that any of them will say something like “this move is beyond her ability” and the like. I wouldn’t generalize and say that the problem you have described is omnipresent. The commentators are supposed to act in a professional manner and abstain from making a false impression that some sort of weaklings are playing. There shouldn’t be any disdain. All the participants were rather strong players who underwent a rigorous qualification process. Maybe we shouldn’t be putting so much emphasis on the distinction between men’s and women’s chess and instead concentrate on the game itself and the personalities of the players.

I noted with satisfaction that many male GMs have been closely following the tournament. Who is your favorite top male GM in terms of playing style?

I am very impressed by Magnus Carlsen’s approach. He is fighting in any position. For him there is no notion of “I didn’t get an opening advantage, so let’s just call it a draw because we are both so good”. In every situation he is searching for some hidden mysteries and for practical chances. At least that’s how it seems to me.

For the general public prize money is more important than the content of the chess games. They keep asking: how high were the stakes, how much did you make? Of course, the difference between the first and second places at the WWWC is not just $60k versus $30k. The prize for the match against Hou Yifan, plus increase in appearance and endorsement fees and other such bonuses quickly add up to a few hundred thousand dollars. Did this put additional pressure on you? What role does money play in your life? When you are participating in a tournament, do you have thoughts/concerns about winning or not winning a certain prize?

No, I didn’t have any reflections about the potential benefits. The increase in prize money came as a bonus after every round, but it wasn’t something overly important. Well, if you make it to the final, you earn more. After the tournament you can decide on how to spend your prize, although you have to receive it first. All the more, I didn’t have any musings about the first place granting money here, money there. For me more critical was the fact that the winner of the championship gets to play a match against Hou Yifan. Not in the sense of the prospects of cashing in on it, but as a chance to take part in an exciting ten-game match. A pro needs to make a living somehow, but I am not fixated on money to the extent of calculating how much I will make in one case or the other.

This reminds me of Mikhail Botvinnik's reply to the question why Boris Spassky's results plummeted at a certain point. The Patriarch pointed out that initially for Boris money was merely a means of playing chess, but eventually he started playing chess for the sake of making more and more money. This is an interesting philosophic argument to ponder for any professional player…

Shortly after the match, Natalia Pogonina tweeted her congratulations

Do you think that the leading grandmasters are responsible for promoting chess? What are you doing to get more people interested in the game?

In the perfect world it would be nice if each of them did something to make chess more popular. I am not saying that everyone must launch a site, be active on Twitter, give simuls, etc., but why not start with some small nice deeds. Local activity is also productive; why not do something for your city.

It should come from one’s heart, not be imposed upon, right?

Yes, of course.

Let’s talk a bit about your life outside chess. What hobbies do you have? How do you spend your free time?

It depends. I am cognizing life. In chess. Outside of chess. Trying to spend more time with my son. Dedicating a lot of attention to the Internet. Reading. Now, for instance, I am catching up on the novels of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I love nature and going out for a walk, as well as enjoy taking photos.

Air Pogonina is ready for takeoff

How strong is support for chess in Saratov? Do you like the city you live in? Are there any aspirations to move somewhere else or maybe even to emigrate from Russia?

A new president of the Saratov chess federation has recently been elected. Maybe there will be some changes. I don’t know. I have been living in the city for quite a while already. Everything is fine, there are no special problems. Of course, I would appreciate more support for chess, but given the current economic situation I understand perfectly well that chess isn’t the first priority in the society. Chess could use extra funding, but it’s clear that it’s not so easy to establish that.

I am definitely not planning to leave the country. I love Russia a lot and have no desire to move anywhere else.

Last but not least, please tell us about your upcoming tournament plans. Of course, we are trying to update your tournament calendar at Pogonina.com, but some people don’t know about its existence and send you direct messages asking where they can root for you next.

I have a very tight schedule. On April 16 we are flying to China for the World Women’s Team Chess Championship. From there I will travel to Sochi for the Russian Club Cup. It is a really tough routine. The good news is that since I reached the semi-finals I am not obliged to earn a qualification spot for the next World Championship, so I don’t have to play in the European Championship. That is a relief; now I can skip the event with a clear conscience.

Natalia, thank you for the interview!


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.