Irina Bulmaga: Playing and loving chess during the pandemic

by Irina Bulmaga
11/20/2020 – Irina Bulmaga loves chess. Before corona, the Romanian IM and WGM used to travel all over the world to play in tournaments and league events. But the pandemic brought all that to a halt. In a passionate article Bulmaga wonders how corona changed her life as a chess professional, and how the pandemic affected her love for the game. | Photo: David Llada

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The Corona Diary

I have always wondered how my life would be without so much travelling, if I had chosen something different than chess as a profession and would spend almost all my time in Bucharest. It seemed impossible to imagine. I was so used to my travelling lifestyle – one week here, ten days there, the weekend elsewhere, constantly changing the environment, the time zones and… the people around.

Every time I had to spend more than a week in Bucharest, I was getting bored because I basically had no life here, I don't know any of my neighbors (well, now I know that 'every other day party until the morning' upstairs guy), I have almost no friends nor family here, so it was more of a transit, lay low, recharge your batteries and fly again kind of place for me and yes, this is a description of what 'home' used to mean for me. How else could it be if the average time per month I was spending here was not more than a week?

The pandemic changed it all, or did it not?

Well, when it all began, somewhere in the very beginning of March, I was in the UK, visiting my sister after having played some games in the League there. The initial plan was to rest for a few days, then take the plane from London to Vietnam with a stopover in China. I wanted to play in the strong HD Bank Open in Ho Chi Minh City, then stay for two more weeks, visiting Vietnam. I was very much looking forward to it, as I had a really busy autumn-winter season, having played almost nonstop from the end of September.

I remember when playing at the end of January in Gibraltar, I was oversaturated with chess and the only thing which made me keep on preparing and playing was the thought of that two weeks vacation in Vietnam…

Unfortunately, the tournament was cancelled, and so was my whole trip to Asia. Around March 10, I flied back to 'my shell' in Bucharest, right before the whole of Europe went into lockdown.

The first month was strange. The shops were rather empty and the whole atmosphere seemed to inspire nothing else but panic in everyone. I remember going out to buy groceries twice a week at most, and, other than that, spending all my time at home, cooking, reading and watching movies. To be honest, it felt good to just relax and do all the things I normally do not have time for.

By the beginning of April, I started to miss chess…

The virus situation was unchanged, all the tournaments I was supposed to play were getting cancelled one after another and I understood that my 'shell life' would have to continue until summer. The question was what to do with all that free time?

I started to play online tournaments, and little by little, my chess life began to become virtual. It was an interesting change, and by end of April I was seriously considering starting streaming, as it became popular among chess players. I also saw it as an opportunity to get to know more people, to have at least some 'social life', and to maybe earn some money.

Yes, it was a rather big issue. I am a professional chess player, but I was not giving lessons at all, and my earnings depended solely on the tournaments and leagues I would play in. Streaming saved my sanity, I think. I started to have an actual schedule to stick to and my bank account statement was finally getting some '+' transactions.

The online tournaments I was playing in were sometimes fun, but mostly disappointing, as I encountered quite some cheating. I remember losing a game against a girl who had a 1700-rating in classical chess, but who always followed the first or second suggestion of the engines. The most disgusting aspect of this was and is the fact that there were so many similar cases, and that the online chess portals just seem to be unable to take action against them.

It was even more frustrating to see all those 'elite' tournaments every week, in which top 20 players shared tens- or even hundreds of thousands of dollars while my monthly balance was a steady '-'. It felt like nobody cared about me, and by me I mean all 'non-elite' chess professionals. The fact that I was the #1 Romanian women player and #30 in the world on the FIDE Women's List meant absolutely nothing.

What to do?

What should we do? Start giving lessons? You cannot find ten students just like this, out of the sudden… These three months I spent at home opened my eyes. I realized that being focused solely on chess has a lot of downsides. I also got really disappointed in all the Official Chess Organizations, as their only concern seemed to be how to organize more and more 'elite' tournaments and broadcast them to get as many viewers as possible.

Even before the pandemic, I knew that chess was mostly an individualistic sport, but then there were still Team Tournaments, league events, in which you felt to belong.

Playing in the Spanish League in Linares 2020 | Photo: Official Site

But after the pandemic, I can say that chess is not only an individualistic sport – it is a selfish and cruel one.

By the end of May, I started to get some invitations for over-the-board tournaments again. I was happily accepting all of them, making as many chess plans as possible for the summer months! Luckily, most of them took place as scheduled and by the end of September, all the 'sorrows' of my virtual chess life were forgotten. I was changing environments again, meeting new people, enjoying playing 'real' chess and finally getting more '+' transactions.

Playing with a mask but playing over-the-board, Linares 2020 | Photo: Personal Archive

Travelling again - but with a mask | Photo: Personal Archive

The last 'over-the-board' tournament I played took place in the middle of October, in Northern Macedonia. Filled with positive emotions, I got back to Bucharest somewhere around October 14, 2020. Since then, the second wave of the virus has been rampaging through Europe, and once again all the tournaments are getting cancelled one by one.

This time, I am not pessimistic, I don't feel any anger or frustration… My expectations cannot be disappointed because they're already under sea level. I know, I'm on my own. I'm not part of the chess elite. Number 1 in Romania – so what? Top 40 in the World – who cares? Top 100 – how dare you speak?

95% of the professional chess world is on its own once again, and I don't know how many of us will have the strength to love chess the same way we did before the pandemic.

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Topics: Irina Bulmaga

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.
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Frits Fritschy Frits Fritschy 11/22/2020 06:09
1. Outside covid, the problem may simply be that there are too many people wanting to be a chess professional.
2. In corona times, it's not just chess professionals that are suffering from evaporating income. It's the same for shop owners, employees of bankrupted businesses, musicians, et cetera.
Some people are supported, many others are not. Some victims manage to find new ways to generate income, for others, it is more difficult. Amongst them those who didn't envisage hard times might come their way.
When you are working in a tight market, you have to be flexible and creative.
fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 11/22/2020 02:04
@chesscrab, of course they care, because ppl will not enter and pay money for online chess tournaments if their perception is that there are cheaters, so the site is incentivized to work on it.

I like the article because it starts out with the attitude of entitlement (especially traveling all over the world, which very few are able to do), but by the end she acknowledges her position.
The idea that no one cares, IMO, has nothing to do with anything she has discussed, and is rather her own invention based on a mistaken understanding of economics. The absolute chess elite made a lot of money pre-covid; it is just more apparent now because of the covid curtailing of the non-elite events.
IntensityInsanity IntensityInsanity 11/21/2020 07:55
Enjoyed HolaAmigo’s response!
Alexey Root Alexey Root 11/21/2020 05:45
Hi, Irina, I enjoyed your article! You write well and you chose an interesting topic. Please be in touch with me about possible co-authoring, which would add some money to your bank account. The ChessBase editors have my email address. Thanks, WIM Alexey Root
HolaAmigo HolaAmigo 11/21/2020 12:58
I always thought that "Why do women play chess less well?" was the wrong question. "How do we attract more women to chess?" is much more interesting and can bear better results, the first question already is a deterrent.

So to the people who feel agreviated by women making more money I would point out that some positive discrimination is necessary sometimes to achieve some goals, those to enforce the minorities, the weaker sides, etc. After all, why are you paid at all for playing chess, winning some games, etc? The prices somen get have the potential to attract half of humanity to chess.

I have played chess for many many years, and chess clubs were appalingly male clubs. The random woman who entered was stared at, people were not ready for such an unusual sight; but after all, everybody would have liked to have more women in the club!

There are many ways to love chess, and I found Irina's story very interesting. True, I would have loved the have the chance myself, but bravo Irina, well done!

There are many issues for discussion arising from this article. The pandemia, ways of life, cheating... and mainly how money is distributed between men and women, between elite and lower levels.

Kudos to chessbase for broadening the range of articles!
AgainAgain AgainAgain 11/21/2020 11:35
The negativity is quite sad here. The very same article could have been written by a 2500-2600 GM experiencing the same as Bulmaga did. For all of you missing the point, there are a large number of chess professional who have no means of playing/earning at the moment. Nobody is trying to organize any tournament for them. All we get is Carlsen vs Nakamura game #3000. To me these "elite" tournaments are super boring. And I don't think that losing many mid-level professionals (GMs, IMs) is in the best interest of chess.
Gerald C Gerald C 11/21/2020 09:21
Interesting article on her new life by a nice chessplayer.
chesscrab chesscrab 11/21/2020 06:15
Good commentary; not sure I understand some of the responses posted...feelings and experiences are not right or wrong. I want to underscore one of your points, that the online portals really didn't do much about cheating. While chess tournament organizers may publish harsh anti-cheating policies and claim strict enforcement, in reality it doesn't matter to some of them. They offer a tournament, collect entry fees, pay prizes, and pocket the difference...do they REALLY care if the winner cheated?

Best of luck in your future endeavors, and maybe it's a new career.
Derek880 Derek880 11/21/2020 03:36
After reading this, it's sort of hard to feel empathy. There are THOUSANDS of chess players better than her, that are in the same situation. And then you see players like Alexandra Botez, who is actually ranked about 400 Elo points less than Bulmaga, and she's doing very well with her streaming during the pandemic. There are many other women chess players as well that are taking advantage of online chess streaming right now. She has the privilege of being a thin woman at this point in her life. People will watch her stream simply because of that reason. So there's a way to survive this that many don't have. Maybe it's just me, but the article has a sort of entitlement vibe to it.
Mekkk Mekkk 11/20/2020 11:02
Chess kibitzing isn't about perfection. And to a degree playes are paid for fun they provide, not for pure achievement.

And let me say, that woman chess is much more interesting to watch. Ju-Goryachkina was fascinating match, orders of magnitude more interesting than Carlsen wins against Caruana and Karjakin (taken together). Ju-Lagno was also interesting. While watching chess olympiads I usually end up watching woman because it is so much more fun.

So, well, in online competition it also would be nice to see them. And not necessarily only top 10.
flyingman flyingman 11/20/2020 09:43
As a grandmaster I can say, Irina, that the difference between my life and yours (in terms of financial opportunities and the way we are treated) is shocking. There is no jetting off to Asia for a tournament, no flying to England to play a couple of well-paid league games, no "receiving invitations". More like writing to many organizers hoping for an invitation, playing in tiny local weekend tournaments, and doing mind-numbing instructional work, as well as some menial non-chess jobs to survive. You should recognize your enormous privilege, yet you want to complain that Magnus Carlsen and some top ten players make more than you.
prail prail 11/20/2020 07:22
I enjoyed the article as well, and was interested to learn about the challenges of a (good but not great) pro chess player faces during covid times. In the spirit of bringing chess players together, however, it's never helpful to dismiss someone's opinion by name calling.
LowellLife LowellLife 11/20/2020 07:09
A good article, and a common problem for so many players. Unlike the ill-tempered and ill-mannered contributor before me, I would agree that having achieved a spreading of interest in chess in the 'first-wave' period, it is time for broader-based tournaments.
I am thoroughly bored watching the same 6 or 7 players in every tournament and would welcome the chance to see people at the next level compete (even if it is not genius level play). But the biggest problem is the infrastructure - cameras, monitoring - needed to prevent cheating. Equally streaming seems to suffer from the same problem, with the superstars hoovering up all the subscriptions, often for stuff of limited educational value.
e-mars e-mars 11/20/2020 06:33
@Somewhat Experienced a bit harsh but totally accurate.
Don't forget about the Queen's Gambit ripple effect so that women now more than ever feel entitled to reclaim a better position in the chess world for no other reasons rather than being female.

Bulmaga forgets Chess is the great equaliser. Or, at least, it shoud be
Somewhat Experienced Somewhat Experienced 11/20/2020 02:58
"It felt like nobody cared about me..."
And you care about whom? Always funny when the self-obsessed complain about selfishness. Of course, chess pros live an artificial, uprooted life. Why don't you tell us how you can afford jetting around the world - surely not from price money. Ah, I forgot, you get paid just for being female...
If there were no special prices for women, what sustainable source of income would you have then? You point out being number 1 amongst female players in your native Rumania, but you forgot to mention that you don't rank amongst the top 1.500 players in the world, most of whom can't make a living from shuffling pieces over a board - so why should chess federations bend over backwards to especially support you?
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