Gaprindashvili: "I am very thankful that chess was my sport of choice"

12/26/2018 – About a month ago, Nona Gaprindashvili took clear first at the 65+ Women's World Senior Championship. During her stay in Bled, the European Chess Academy made a lengthy interview with the living legend. Nona talks about personal experiences and gives her opinion on topics ranging from the Carlsen-Caruana match to her love for the Dinamo Tbilisi football club. | Photo: Hans Peters / Anefo

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A pioneer

Nona Gaprindashvili is a living chess legend. The grandmaster comes from Georgia, the country that produced numerous women masters and champions, with Nona herself being the pioneer of the so-called Georgian women's chess school. 

She was born during the Second World War, on May 3rd 1941 — she is already 77 years old. Nevertheless, she is still as vital and full of energy as she has been throughout her whole career.

And what a career it was! She is a five-time Women's World Champion; she was undefeated from 1962 — when she dethroned Bykova Elisaveta — up until 1978, when her fellow Georgian, then 17-year-old Maia Chiburdanidze forced her to proudly pass on her role of champion. Nona is a proud winner of eleven Olympic gold medals, if we take into account only the team medals. She was the first woman to receive the title of chess Grandmaster after achieving many remarkable successes in the mid-70s.

Nona Gaprindashvili portrait

During this year's World Senior Championships | Photo: European Chess Academy

She still loves to play, nowadays mostly in exhibitions and senior championships. Not long ago she became the World Senior Champion in the women's category for the fifth time — the same number of titles as she holds in European Championships. Her achievements go on endlessly. We were honoured to talk to the legendary champion during a celebratory dinner organised in her honour by the famous Slovenian businessman Janez Skrabec, in his villa.


Interview by Tadej Sakelsek and Adrian Mikhalchisin

How did you start playing chess? Where does your immense love for chess come from? 

Nona Gaprindashvili: I was born in the small town of Zugdidi in western Georgia. When I was about 5 or 6 years old, I had four older brothers and I followed them everywhere. All the children from the neighbourhood gathered in our house. We were really connected and did a lot of things together. We made an improvised table for table tennis, we loved to play billiards, and football...they placed me, a girl, as the goalkeeper. We really enjoyed playing chess as well. 

There were two important moments that led to my subsequent more serious pursuit of a chess career. My older brother was the best chess player in our town, Zugdidi. He also took part in a Georgian championship. I learned to play chess by watching him play. 

The second and very important moment was when I was about 11 or 12 years old, and I travelled to the Georgian capital, Tbilisi. At that time, my older brother was chosen to play in the team championship but he had to cancel at the last moment. They had heard that my brother had a younger sister who also played chess, so they chose me to play, as they also needed a girl. While we were travelling to the competition by train, I played some games against the other team members, and in the end, I won even against our first board. We finished fifth in the competition, which was a great achievement at the time for a small town like Zugdidi.

Zugdidi is about 350 kilometres northwest of Tbilisi

I played really well and one of Georgia’s most important trainers and the father of the Georgian women's school of chess, Vakhtang Karseladze, noticed my play. Not long afterwards he called and asked my parents to let me come to Tbilisi, where I could get some proper training. My parents finally agreed and I started training in 1954. The following year I was already practically winning all the tournaments, and in 1956 I won the semi-final of Women’s Soviet Union Championship. At that time, this was considered a tremendous achievement for a 14-year-old girl. And this is how my long and successful chess path began. 

Who are, in your opinion, the greatest and most important players in the history of chess, since you practically know all of those that played after the Second World War? 

It’s a very difficult question to answer. I would like to point out (not rank them) two important players. First is Fischer, as he practically defeated the Soviet Union, and the second is Mikhail Tal, who in his games showed that chess is a sport, as he forced his opponents to truly fight during the game — preparation didn’t do much with him. He showed a new approach to chess. I would also like to point out Morphy, as I consider him to be a great player as well, even though he never became a World Champion. 

Anyhow, I never like to evaluate the players in such a way, as it is very difficult to compare them. It is very similar with writers for example. I might like all of someone's work and with others maybe I only love a book or two. Do you understand? 

Timman vs Gaprindashvili

Playing Black against Jan Timman in 1979 | Photo: Rob Croes / Anefo

You have played many matches for the Women's World Champion title. Can you share any interesting stories with us? 

Usually the World Champions have the unofficial right to choose the venue. For example, before my first match with Bykova, she wanted the match to be played in Moscow; I agreed without questions, as in my opinion she had every right to do it as a World Champion, though I have never asked for such “advantages” as a World Champion. 

For my first match against Kushnir I agreed that the best venue for the match would be in Riga. My opponent’s team did not agree with the suggestion, therefore the Ministry decided that half of the match would be played in Moscow and the other half in Tbilisi. Her team, which had Botvinnik as an advisor, did not agree and they requested Riga again. This time I didn’t agree with them. I won this dispute and the match was played in two places.

For the second match, my opponent’s advisors Botvinnik and Kotov were better prepared — they showed a doctor’s confirmation where it was written that Kushnir was only able to play the match in the Russian Federation. I ended up having a meeting with my opponent, where I told her that I found her medical certificate to be suspicious, and the fact that my opinion as World Champion was not heard to be unfair. Botvinnik was at that time a close friend of FIDE President Max Euwe and he managed to get the match postponed for six months. Then, a meeting of the Soviet Chess Federation was organised, where Botvinnik accused the federation for the complications. At the time I was the only one who publicly went against him, and I accused him and Kotov for the complications. What followed was dead silence in the room, as at that time no one dared to speak against Botvinnik. In the end, the Federation decided that the match against Kushnir would be played in Tbilisi. 

I must say that later in my life I had great relations with Botvinnik. We travelled many times abroad together, dined together many times and he was very pleasant to speak to. At one occasion, in Amsterdam, I got very ill and had to stay in bed, and all of a sudden Botvinnik entered the room with fresh tea and honey in his hands — he opened all the windows and said that fresh air cures everything. He was a really nice person. 

I can mention a few more details about my match with Bykova. A month before my match I travelled to a small town near Moscow to a holiday home of the Academy of Science, for preparations and acclimatisation. When we settled, I went to find a billiards table and a table tennis table — I was very good in both, especially in table tennis, which I played in “Chinese style”. Finally, I found a great room with billiards tables for beginners and advanced players. As I was small and skinny, everyone kept sending me to the beginners table. Next to the advanced tables, all the academics had cue sticks with their names on them. It took me two days to beat them all and the academics offered me to use any stick I wanted during my time there. Every day, after I finished my chess preparations, I played billiards, table tennis and volleyball. At the end of my preparation, one of the leading Soviet economists, Strumilin, sent me some flowers and a note, in which he wished for me to win the match against Bykova. 

In 1963, already a World Champion at 22 | Photo: Jack de Nijs / Anefo

My trainers in the match were Georgian master Shishov and famous grandmaster David Bronstein. Bronstein was able to train me only during the preparation stage — he was not able to train me during the match due to local pressures. Bronstein, as well as Bykova, came from Moscow and could not be seen with me in public. During the match, he even went to play some simultaneous exhibitions to Siberia in order to be as far away from the match as possible. At that time, this was a big problem in the Soviet Union, as grandmasters were not allowed to train women players. 

At the beginning of the match, I was practically unknown in Moscow. On my first free day I decided to visit a football match in which Torpedo, from Moscow, played. At the time, it was my second favourite club. As I was sitting at the western side of the stadium, someone from the crowd recognised me and started shooting “Nona win”, and soon everyone in the crowd followed. 

Many times you took part in men’s tournaments. What do you consider your biggest achievement? 

Without a doubt it was my shared first place in Lone Pine, USA, after which I was — as the first woman in history — awarded the grandmaster title. At that time, even a master title was extremely important. When I look back at the games that I played there, I find them to be really special. I was not extremely well prepared theoretically, but I managed to create very complicated positions during the games. 

I remember best my game against the American grandmaster Tarjan, in which I sacrificed a piece and won the game. After the game, my opponent congratulated me and told me that my idea in the game was incredible and that he and grandmaster Adorjan were not able to find this idea in their deep analyses before the game. 

Another very important game was the one against Peters, who chose to play the Sveshnikov Variation of the Sicilian Defence, which was not well known at the time. I chose to play a variation that was very rare. Grandmaster Balashov, who accompanied me in the tournament and shared first place with me, advised me to play it. I managed to create a very complicated position and eventually won the game and the grandmaster title. 

When I was 60 years old, I published a book which contains my best games. The book is divided into three parts: short games, games against men and games against women. The only game in the book that ended with a draw was the one against legendary Serbian grandmaster Drasko Velimirovic. The game was even chosen as the most beautiful game of the year by the Chess Informant.


Nona's games from Lone Pine 1977

 

You are one of the greatest woman chess player of all time. Can you let us know your opinion about women's chess nowadays? 

Asia took over the control of women's chess. Countries like China, India, Vietnam and others are progressing with lightning speed. Generally, all the World Champions are greatly respected, but in my opinion there is a difference between the ones that only got to hold the title once and the ones that were able to hold it for a long period of time. After me and Maia Chiburdanidze, came the great champion Xie Jun, and after fifteen years Hou Yifan, who gave up — as Fischer had done — her title out of principle. I was very surprised by the Chinese in the Olympiad, as they brought a young team and won. At the same time, they have a new star in Ju Wenjun. 

Nona, did you get the chance to follow the match between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana?

Yes, of course I followed the match. I am a chess player at the end of the day! I was not surprised by the final outcome — in my opinion Carlsen was the favourite, even though it is clear that his theoretical preparation is a little weaker lately. Last year I got the chance to observe him during the World Cup in Tbilisi, where he was facing some problems and did not resemble his former "chess Mozart" status. Twelve draws is too much, even when the games were full of fight. But it was clear that the Norwegian would defend his title in the tie-breaks.

1992 Olympiad in Manila

Kazakhstan-Georgia during the 1992 Olympiad in Manila | Photo: Gerhard Hund

Nona, we all know by now that you love football. Probably Dinamo Tbilisi is the club that you support?

Of course! 

Which football games do you remember the most?

When I became a World Champion, Georgia was flourishing in all fields: in science, medicine, culture and sport. I am very proud of this period. Those were some totally different times. When I played chess, the playing venues were full of people. I felt like I was playing and winning for Georgia and not only for myself. Chess was extremely popular at the time — practically everyone knew how to play it, even football players.

When I played my match for the Women's World Champion title against Bykova in Moscow in 1962, the football players of Dinamo Tbilisi came to support me in the last game. They did not witness the end of the game, as the game was adjourned and was supposed to finish the next morning. In the end, Bykova resigned her hopeless position over the phone and I became the World Champion. The same day, the football players of Dinamo played the match against Zenit in Leningrad — they lost 1:4. That time Dinamo Tbilisi played badly. 

Nevertheless, I visited all the matches when I was in Tbilisi. In 1963 I was asked to be present at the opening match of the new season. By coincidence, Dinamo Tbilisi played against the same opponent as in the time of my match against Bykova. This time Dinamo won 4:1 and it was a perfect revenge. That year, Dinamo ended the season in third place and in the following year they became the champions of the Soviet Union. The players jokingly pointed out my “lucky foot” at the celebration. 

In the seventies, our team played well in European cups. This was a renewed team compared to the one that played during 1963 and 1965. Our players endured through all the pressure, even the one inflicted by the referees.
 
We always had a lot of talented players in Georgia (Kakha Kaladze, a former AC Milan star, is now the major of Tbilisi). This year, our young players played extremely well in the European Nations Cup. Remember the name Chekvetadze — he is a future football star of the world. Sadly, young football players do not have good working conditions in Georgia and, as a result, only the ones that are noticed by western European clubs succeed.

Did you have good relations with the football players?

Yes, practically with all of them. For example, the captain of Dinamo in the middle of the seventies, Manuchar Machaidze, was a chess player. He even had a first category and played in Tbilisi Chess Championships during the winter.

Which team is your favourite nowadays?

Naturally, I still favour Dinamo Tbilisi, even though they play poorly. But in a worldwide sense, I am a big Barcelona fan. I can let you know about an interesting anecdote. Two years ago, I was invited to Barcelona by my former student WGM Ana Matnadze, who had been living in Barcelona already for a couple of years. I did some sightseeing, but most of all I was looking forward to visiting the Camp Nou football stadium. I practically checked all corners of the stadium. But imagine my surprise and immense joy when I met the whole team in the hallway — Messi, Iniesta and other stars. We even took some photos together.

Gaprindashvili in 2016

Going strong in 2016, with Elena Fatalibekova sitting next to her | Photo: Gerhard Hund

Nona, did you occupy any other important positions outside of chess?

During the time of the Soviet Union, I was a member of the Georgian Parliament multiple times. A few years ago I was also an active participant of the protests against the former Georgian president Saakashvili, where 140 people ended up being killed, but the western media failed to report it. The world is poorly informed about his and his team’s criminal activities. I have grandchildren and I wish for them to live in a normal country. Sadly, the positions of government continue to be occupied by criminals, who enjoy the protection of selected western countries and international organisations. I was also a supporter of the revolution against the former President Shevarnadze in 2002, after which Saakashvili became the President. Sadly, after that, development took a catastrophic turn. 

My most important position was the function of Olympic Committee’s President between 1989 and 1996. Even though the economic position was poor at the time in Georgia, I decided to run for President and ended up being elected. I am extremely proud of this period in my life. Despite the poor economic situation, we were very successful at the Olympic Games and World Championships. Big thanks go to my then very important co-worker General Secretary, with whom we worked well together.

As a former sportswoman, I wanted for sports to be fair and clean. However, I was faced with many irregularities. I am very thankful that chess was my sport of choice, as the arbiters there do not have much influence on the game itself. I admire other sportsmen and sportswomen, who are many times faced with corrupt decisions by the referees and are forced to accept them and still find the strength to continue on their path. 

The second major problem in sports is doping. I was told and explained about it by a former doctor of the Georgian Chess Federation, who previously worked in cycling. At the time of my presidency, Georgian athletes did not use doping — USA, Russia and Germany were the only countries in the world where they were able to use it properly and professionally. I can tell you a story about my proposal at the International Olympic Committee about doping: I proposed to create a list of substances that are not harmful for the health. They all laughed at my proposal and later explained to me that the committee gets paid millions to put all kinds of substances in the forbidden list. This realization disappointed me and I resigned from my position. 

Since you travelled a lot, can you educate us about food in different countries and its influence on the ability to play chess well?

Naturally, for my taste, Georgian cuisine is the best. Even Anand (smiles) became a World Champion with the help of Georgian food, as he was living and preparing for the match in Spain with Georgian Grandmaster Ubilava, and the latter's wife was preparing Georgian food every day. But I don’t mind other cuisines, though Chinese food causes me some problems. Maia Chiburdanidze loves Chinese food on the other hand. I love our traditional Georgian turkey dish "satsivi", which we prepare during the New Year holidays. I usually eat satsivi only during this time of the year. 

When I was young I did not understand the importance of eating caviar and olives for the ability to play chess well. It was only when my brother started to work in Siberia after university that I learned about the effects of caviar on the brain functions, as my brother started to regularly bring home bottles of caviar. During tournaments, the great Soviet players like Botvinnik, Korchnoi and Karpov also ate caviar — they understood why.

You visited many countries during your career. Did you have any problems with food?

No! Nowhere, not even in Russia, where the quality of food was usually lower. Many times players got food poisoning in Russia. When I was preparing for my match against Kushnir, many people warned me about the possibility of food poisoning. Nevertheless, I must emphasise that people in Russia always treated me well and I never had any problems.

Usually, I and other Georgian players took some Georgian spices and sauces like “tkemali” with us. In order to improve our immune system, we drank pomegranate juice, though I must say that I drank too much of this juice during my third match with Alla Kushnir, and I probably won the match by only a minimal difference because of it. We had to postpone two games, as my throat got infected due to the fact that I had drunk too much pomegranate juice. Until the end of the match, I was only eating soups, salad and yoghurts — as a result, I had very little energy for the games. 

What do you do in your free time?

I love going to the theatre, and I especially love the dance shows. I follow all sports. Besides football, I enjoy snooker — I love that it resembles chess: it requires a lot of strategic thinking. I like to read as well.

Nona, are you visiting Bled for the first time?

No, no, since your independence this is my third time here. Years ago I played at the Bled Open (1997); in 2002, I visited the Olympiad as a special guest and I handed out the trophy with my name (the cup for the best result in the open and women sections combined). So, when I heard about the World Senior Championship being played in Bled, no one could stop me. Not even my problems with the hips. 

Anyhow, I played numerous times in former Yugoslavia; I even learned Serbo-Croatian language, as did other famous Grandmasters from the Soviet Union — Tigran Petrosian, Viktor Korchnoi, Tigran Petrosian and Mikhail Tal.

Gaprindashvili in Bled

A living legend in Bled | Photo: European Chess Academy

Will the World Senior Championship in Bled stay in your memory?

Absolutely! Not only because of the cup here in front of me. I played in many senior championships, but I absolutely loved Bled. I might have wished for a bit higher prizes, but I loved the organisation in general, and especially some new ideas of the organisers like the Sudoku tournament, the chess quiz, the additional rapid and blitz tournaments, the special lectures by Adrian Mikhalchishin, the literary evenings, etc. I was also touched by a special attention that the organisers honoured me with. And this dinner. Wonderful!

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Derek880 Derek880 12/28/2018 06:37
Very classy interview. It's always nice to see chess players display this much class and humility.
KingMatti KingMatti 12/27/2018 09:02
Wonderful, inspirational interview.
peterfrost peterfrost 12/27/2018 05:06
When I played in the World Seniors in Marienbad a couple of years ago, there were several famous players I was keen to see in the flesh. One of them was Nona. In the first round, our boards were in the same room, and so I eagerly lingered near hers in the minutes prior to the round starting. Nona duly arrived and shook hands with her opponent, a 1700 American. I was struck by how friendly and engaging the living legend was, asking several questions of her amateur opponent, including where in the US she came from. It would have been easy for Nona to intimidate her opponent with a "you don't deserve to sit in the same room as me' attitude which is commonly adopted by other famous GM's. Nona was completely the opposite of that. She is a class act.
Lavanda Lavanda 12/27/2018 03:43
Interesting interview, thanks for sharing this.

But why "She was the first woman to receive the title of chess Grandmaster after achieving many remarkable successes in the mid-70s."? She is stil alive and is still the first woman to become GM.
anandymous anandymous 12/27/2018 02:43
I wish to thank you for this article. She's not a very well-known chess player, in general, and I thought the interview was rather interesting. Her results at Lone Pine are certainly something to be very proud of.
ulyssesganesh ulyssesganesh 12/27/2018 02:00
what a champion, so earthy and still larger than life!
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