The Best in... Austria: An interview with Regina Pokorna

by Arne Kaehler
12/3/2020 – Regina Pokorna is Austria's strongest women player, and in an extensive interview the Woman Grandmaster, who at her peak was one of the world's 30 best women players, talks about her career, her trainers, chess life in Austria, and explains why she loves chess passionately though she no longer plays as often as she used to.

The Vienna Variation - a reliable and ambitious weapon against 1.d4 The Vienna Variation - a reliable and ambitious weapon against 1.d4

The Vienna Variation is a particular and independent system of the Queen's Gambit. It arises after 1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nf3 Nf6 4.Nc3 dxc4, when Black's capture on move 4 is strongly reminiscent of the Queen's Gambit Accepted.

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Chess in Austria

Austria has a long and rich chess history and openings like the Falkbeer Countergambit, the Gruenfeld Defence, the Reti Opening or the Vienna Variation are named after Austrian players and the Austrian capital, and famous players such as Rudolf Spielmann, Carl Schlechter, Wilhelm Steinitz or, more recently, Eva Moser and Markus Ragger, to name just a few, come from Austria. Austria also has its own ChessBase TV show, with plenty of interesting content.

TV ChessBase Austria

With an area of 83.879 km² and a population of 9 million, Austria is set on position 115 in the world in size and 97 in population. Pretty much in the middle of the whole. 

We had the chance to talk to Regina Pokorna, currently Austria's best female chess player.

Interview with Regina Pokorna

Arne Kaehler: Thank you so much for taking part in this interview. You live in Vienna, and you are Austria's strongest female player, but originally you come from Slovakia.

Regina Pokorna: Thank you very much for interviewing me, and letting your readers have a little look at Austrian chess also from a female perspective.

Yes, you’re right, I was born in Slovakia, and for almost 20 years I played for the Slovakian Women's national team. But after I married an Austrian (who is not a chess player!) and found a job in Vienna, I moved to Austria.

AK: Do you remember how you learned to play chess?

RP: Yes, my father taught my sister and me how to play. I was only fours years old but I still remember my first moves. The game fascinated and me and we soon joined a chess club in Bratislava. We were lucky with our first trainer who helped us to get along with the young boys. Just like today, back then only a few girls played chess in Slovakia, but I enjoyed to train with and play against guys.

Regina Pokorna after winning the gold medal at the European Championships 1992 in Slovakia

AK: You come from Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia?

RP: Yes. Compared to Vienna Bratislava is relatively small but for me it is and will always be the most beautiful city in the world.

AK: In the course of your career, you have won a number of prestigious titles. But is there a title that is particularly important to you?

RP: There are two titles that I am particularly proud of: winning the European Junior Championship in 1999 in Patras is the first one, and winning the European Women Team Championship 1999 in Georgia with my Slovakian team is the second. This great victory was even more surprising than my junior title because we became European Champions though we lost the first and the last round.

AK: How did you get better in chess?

RP: I was always lucky to have trainers. My first trainer, Ivan Paulicka, showed me the playful side of chess, and kept me interested and curious about it. My second trainer, Vratislav Hora, was from the former Czech Republic, taught me discipline and showed me how important systematic work is. He was very strict, but also very correct, and he loved chess very much.

But it was Grandmaster Jan Plachetka who had the greatest influence on me. He was the best coach one could hope for. In all the years, in which we worked and trained together, he was like my best friend and a father at the same time. They say "A good coach can change a game, a great coach can change a life", and for Jan this is very true. I was lucky to find Jan as a trainer, and I was lucky to be able to celebrate wonderful victories and to share wonderful chess memories with him.

GM Jan Plachetka taught Regina Pokorna a lot about chess

But besides working with a trainer, I also studied intensively by myself, mostly by reading books – I was never keen to work with computers. And of course, I had a club in Bratislava.

AK: Did you or do you have any idols or role models, players that impressed you a lot?

RP: I was always fan of Karpov, and I do really like Michael Adams and, of course, Bobby Fischer.

AK: What is your favourite chess book?

RP: Karpov's collections of his best games (I got this book in French and although I can’t speak French at all, I studied it twice!), and Lessons with a Grandmaster by Boris Gulko.

AK: I found over 1120 of your games in our ChessBase Mega Database. One of your favourite openings against the Sicilian seems to be the Alapin, 1.e4 c5 2.c3 but is this also your favourite opening?

RP: No, the Alapin definitely doesn’t belong to my favourite openings. I’m playing it when I want to avoid the preparation of my opponent and as a weapon against rather bookish players. I’ve never been an "opening guru", and this opening is a great tool to avoid some sharp and theoretical lines in the Sicilian. But my favourite opening since early childhood has always been the Scotch, and earlier also the Tarrasch Defense.

Sicilian Defense with 2.c3 - Alapin Variation

Sergei Tiviakov started playing the line 1.e4 c5 2.c3 in the Sicilian Defence as White in 1988. Since then, he has employed it in more than 100 games, including a yearlong period when he I managed to win twelve 2.c3-games in a row. White tries to occupy the centre with a second pawn, and Black must know his stuff very well in order to be able to equalize. And this is only possible with 2...Nf6 – all other lines give the first player a small edge everywhere. Especially against stronger opponents, 2.c3 is an excellent weapon.

The Scotch Game

missing teaser!!

The Tarrasch Defence

Are you looking for an active defence against 1.d4? Look no further! The Tarrasch Defence (1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 c5) is one of Black's most ambitious ways to meet 1.d4.

AK: What was your first big success? Do you remember how that felt?

RP: When I was nine, I won the Czechoslovakian Championship G10 and qualified for the World Championships in Poland in 1991 where I finished second. This is one of my nicest memories, as it was one of the very few tournaments when my mum accompanied me.

AK: When and how did you become a Women Grandmaster? Are there any moments or games in your career that you remember particularly well?

RP: I received my WGM title in 2000 after winning the European Junior Championship and the European Team Championship in 1999. I had a great year and the title was an acknowledgment of my effort.

And every player has games that he or she remembers very well. It can be a great victory, a beautiful combination, beating a particular player, or even lost games. I think all chess players share these experiences – it is part of the sport.

AK: You are 38 now, you have a child, but you still look like you are in your twenties. Your current Elo-rating is 2296 but in 2003, you had a rating of more than 2400. Do you have ambitions to climb over 2300 again, or even more? Or do you concentrate on other things than chess?

RP: Thank you very much for the compliment, I will pay you a drink when we will meet in person! Yes, at my peak I was one of the best 30 women players in the world. But I also started to think if this is what I want – devoting my life only to chess? And my answer was "no". I wanted to study, to educate myself and to grow as a person, and therefore I decided to give "normal life" a chance.

I won’t lie, it was hard at the beginning, but I’ve never regretted this decision. I love chess, it was and still is part of my life, and when I sit down to play I’m always very ambitious and I want to win. But in the last ten years chess has become only a hobby for me – I have other priorities.

Family time at the Grundlsee

AK: In 2015, you moved to Austria. How did the people and the chess scene welcome you? 

RP: Well, the decision to change federations wasn’t the easiest. I had great colleagues in my Slovakian team, and in all these years we have been playing together we’ve also become good friends. But the team somehow started to fall apart – jobs and family became more and more important. I also felt that the federation did not support women's chess enough.

So, when I got an offer to play for Austria, I decided to take on this new challenge. I had known the members of the Austrian team for a long time, and GM David Shengelia, the trainer of the women's team, was and is a good friend of mine.

Moreover, I’ve played for an Austrian club since 1998 and knew the Austrian chess scene. But I was still surprised to see how much positive attention the women players get in Austria. Austrians are rather conservative people, but I could feel that they were happy to see me playing for their country.

AK: You now live and work in Vienna. Is that very different from living in Slovakia?

RP: Yes, I live in Vienna and I love the city! It is not only a beautiful city with a long history, it also has a very high standard of living and in the last few years it has become very multicultural. I sometimes even get angry when Austrians themselves speak bad about Vienna.

  The charm of history – The Belvedere in Vienna

I speak German and I do have a job here, and I had no problem to adapt to the culture and mentality. But although Bratislava is only an hour's drive away from Vienna, it is a different country. We have this Eastern European mentality, while Austria has more of a Western European mentality.

AK: How does the current chess scene look like in Austria? How do people play, train and compete? Are there any other strong juniors in Austria and how vibrant is the chess scene?

RP: The Austrian Chess Federation and the women/men/junior national trainers have done an outstanding job in the last years. They implemented a concept for the various top players – we have regular training sessions with the national trainers and one or two times per year we also have training camps with grandmasters from abroad.

The federation also covers the costs of some tournaments, in which play, and we get support to play in the European Women's Championship and we get lots of training material from top grandmasters and from our coaches. Unfortunately, I have never seen this kind of support in Slovakia and I am very grateful for it though I find it hard to find time to make the best of it.

This Spring, we, a group of eight girls, also started an initiative called "Frauenschach Austria" (Women's chess Austria) to support Girls/Women chess in the country. We already have carried out a number of successful projects, e.g. establishing an "Online Hobby League" for female players under 1500. We also managed to build a female chess community who actively participates in online tournaments, our social media team started a Facebook and an Instagram page, where we report about women's chess, we played friendly matches against an international team, and we have prepared chess biographies of all players from the national team and posted them on the website of the federation, etc. etc.

However, one of our biggest accomplishments was the "Girls and Women Chess Congress", a three day event that took place in September in Salzburg and which was organized by the Austrian Chess Federation in cooperation with Germany and Switzerland. I was honoured to be one of the speakers, and it was great to see so many young and inspiring ladies trying to help to promote girls/female chess in their countries, from schools to clubs to national level. I wish there would be more initiatives like this on European level….

Fighting at the board: Regina Pokorna

Of course, Austria has Mozart, but for chess fans there are also players like Rudolf Spielmann or GM Markus Ragger, Austria's number one, and one of the world's top 100 players. Austria also has a generation of young players, who are very talented and who are willing to work hard to improve. So, we see that the concepts start to show results.

Austria's clubs play in league events, open and for women. The women's league is slowly progressing and becomes a bit stronger every year, but in the open league top players from abroad are regular guests which gives talented juniors the opportunity to compete against very strong players.

There are also plenty of strong and nice tournaments in Austria, e.g. Vienna Open. However, due to the corona pandemice there have only been a few tournaments, which were played under very strict regulations.

AK: Are you playing more chess online during the corona lockdown? And how are you using ChessBase?

RP: I hardly ever play online because I am working during the day. After work, I take care of my 3.5 year old daughter, and in the evening I’m usually so tired that I’m glad when I can read a few pages in a book or doing some household stuff. And to be honest, I’ve never been a fan of online chess. For me, it feels completely different to sitting at the board. And I get furious, if my mouse or internet stops working!

I’ve always used ChessBase to prepare against opponents, to study new openings or tactics, or to give online training. However, I still prefer to study books if I have time and feel like working on chess a bit. But our federation supports us with the newest ChessBase versions, Mega Databases and other useful chess material.

AK: Let’s go back to your career: which tournaments did you like particularly well?

RP: I have always liked to play in the Olympiads – the Olympiads are big chess events and you also meet a lot of friends. For me, this social aspect of the event is as important as the competitive aspect. I also liked the "Cvijet Mediterana" tournament in Croatia because Opatija belongs to my favourite places in the world, and the organizer, Ivan Mandekic, puts so much heart into this round-robin tournament for women.

AK: Which of the many Olympiads you played in was your favourite?

RP: I liked the Olympiad in Kalmykia in 1998 most because it was my first Olympiad. I also liked the Olympiad in Baku 2016 since it was well organized and I liked the place a lot.

AK: How is your relation with the Slovakian chess players, now that you moved? And how often do you see your family?

RP: It’s still excellent and I’m in contact with many of them. And it’s always great to see the girls and chat and gossip about the chess community.

As for my family, I visit my parents and my brother regularly, especially if I feel the urge to have a "mama hotel". It’s also important for me that my daughter gets acquainted with Slovak culture and that she learns to speak the language. And she enjoys to be spoilt by her grandparents (smiles).

Unfortunately, my older sister moved to the USA, where she has been living for almost 15 years, and thus we don’t have the chance to see each other as often, as we would like.

AK: If you look back at your career: what was the most remarkable moment?

RP: I can’t really name just one, to be honest… I have sacrificed a lot for chess, I loved it and lived for it, but I’m lucky that I got so much back, too. I won several strong tournaments, I always had luck with the teams I played for, and I’ve met so many wonderful people who I can call friends. One day, you see that these moments were all worth it.

AK: What are your hobbies and passions besides chess?

I really like sports, especially swimming and tennis, and I’m a big fan of Rafael Nadal. I also love travelling, reading books and learning new languages.

AK: And what is your favourite place in Austria, and what do like to do most in Austria?

RP: My favourite place is definitely Vienna – it offers you everything, from sport to cultural activities, beautiful parks, small but wonderful wine hiking tours, great restaurants and delicious food (I love the Austrian cuisine!), and within one hour you’re outside the city rush, and you can enjoy the nature and landscape.

Hallstatt - One of the most beautiful places, not only for Regina Pokorna.

AK: Thank you for the interview!

RP: Thank you! It was a pleasure to have the chance to tell ChessBase readers a bit about chess life in Austria.

To conclude this interview, Regina was kind enough to share and to annotate some of her finest games:

 

Links:


Arne Kaehler, a creative thinker who is passionate about board games in general was born in Hamburg and learned how to play chess at a very young age. Through teaching chess to youth teams and creating chess content on YouTube, Arne was able to extend this passion onto others and has even made an online chess course for anyone who wants to learn how to play this game. Currently, Arne blogs for the English news page of ChessBase and focuses on creating promotional and entertaining articles.
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fgkdjlkag fgkdjlkag 12/4/2020 08:50
Nice interview. I am curious what the difference between Eastern Europe and Western Europe mentality is.
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