What's your profession?

by Irina Bulmaga
2/22/2021 – Irina Bulmaga is a chess professional from Romania but she has sometimes found it difficult to explain to non-chess players what this means. Until recently - when she had an interesting conversation about chess, women's chess, Judit Polgar, Garry Kasparov, and others topics, while waiting for an official document. | Photo: Irina Bulmaga | Photo: David Llada

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Some days ago, I was sitting in a waiting room in an attempt to renew a lost document. There was only one young lady ahead of me, so I hoped to get everything done in an hour or so (hail Romanian bureaucracy!). We were both looking around, then checking our phones, then looking around again…  After about 15 minutes, she introduced herself:

"Hi, I’m Maria! And you?"
"Irina, nice to meet you!"
"An elderly couple is in the office, they told me they needed copies of documents they had lost more than 20 years ago… Might take a while…".
"Oh, I see… Well, I’ve got a lot of time these days…"
"It’s the other way around for me… What do you do? I’m a journalist- very lucky to actually have more work than ever these days!"

I remembered why I’m usually trying to avoid talking to strangers – in taxis, at the hairdresser, on planes or just in a waiting room: eventually all conversations get to the "What do you do for a living?" point. If I say that I’m a professional chess player, usually a sort of a questionnaire "So you play chess?", "You must be very smart, right?", "And can you make money out of it?", "How many moves can you see ahead?", "Do you know Anatoly Karpov?", "Do women also play chess?".

After spending some years trying to explain what a professional chess player is, I concluded that it’s much easier to say "I’m an accountant" or something else – then no one seems to be interested if I know my way around numbers and taxes or if I’m smart or not or if women can count… It’s also not entirely a lie, as I studied Economics at University and took some courses in accounting.

Do you know Anatoly Karpov? | Photo: Georgios Souleidis

Let’s get back to Maria and ‘our’ waiting room. I was in a good mood, as it was one of the rare days I could wear something different than my pyjamas. It also seemed to be a good occasion to have a real conversation (not via Skype or phone) and last, but not least, Maria seemed to be an interesting lady – fit, wearing smart clothes, nicely done hair – but that could be easily explained by her being a journalist. Anyhow, I was intrigued… I once also wanted to be a journalist, and she seemed about my age I took a leap of confidence.

"I am a professional chess player."
"A chess player! Are you among the best in Romania?"
"Well, I am actually the highest rated woman in Romania…"
"Cool! A Simona Halep’ of chess!"
"Not really, I’m ranked only 31st in the World among women, and I haven’t won any ‘Grand Slams’ so far, but I hope my best results are still ahead…"
"You keep saying ‘among women’, do you also compete against men?"
"Well, in chess, women are somewhat privileged – we can compete in both men’s and women’s tournaments, but I mostly play in the latest, as the chance to win a prize is higher."
"Does that mean that men are better at chess? Don’t get me wrong – I’m a convinced feminist! I’ve actually interviewed some Romanian chess players, but they always avoid this theme."
"Yes, I get it… Being a woman, I’ve given this theme a lot of thought… From one point of view, there is only one woman among the top 100 but the number of women playing chess is also much lower compared to men – for every woman playing chess there are at least 100 men… I do indeed believe that men are better at chess then women but the causes behind it go much deeper than the stereotype ‘Men are smarter than women’."

The Romanian tennis player Simona Halep | Photo: si.robi (Source: Wikipedia)

At this moment we were interrupted by a man, who entered the room and asked, "Who’s the last in line?". "It’s me", I answered. The man sat down on a next to us and said, "Ok, thank you! I haven’t expected the queue to be so short…".

Then, Maria resumed our conversation.

"So, why, do you think, men play chess better than women?"
"Well, one reason is what I mentioned before, the fact that there are separate tournaments for men and women. Otherwise, women would have to do better, and could not be content with just being the best among themselves… It would also mean that we would play against stronger opponents and like in any other field – the stronger your opponent, the better your own game becomes. You know, I’ve noticed that if I play in strong ‘men’s tournaments’ for a few months, and then I play in a women’s tournament, my result is usually much better in the latter, as I’m used to strong opposition. But if it’s the other way around, my results might be weaker, as I’m used to opponents who make more mistakes, and instead of trying to push hard myself I then tend to be lazy and just wait for these mistakes to happen. Which will cost you against better players."
"Then the solution seems to be very simple – just cancel separate tournaments and let men and women compete in the same tournaments, right?"
"Hm, in the short term that would mean the ‘death’ of women’s chess, but in the long run it might indeed be a solution, though there’s still a problem – you know that chess is a non-Olympic sport, and if it ever wants to become one, it should keep both categories separate, men’s and women’s, otherwise it could be no longer called a sport…".
"Right, but is chess really a sport? I was always thinking of it as a game…".
"I definitely think it’s a sport because it takes a lot of physical strength to be able to focus for five or more hours in a row! The top players are all fit and work a lot on their physical condition! That is actually the second reason why I think that men are better at chess than women – they are physically stronger… You know, some years ago they conducted an experiment during a top tournament, and measured the heartbeat of the players and the calories they burned during a game, and the results were very interesting: on average they burned no less than 500 kilocalories per game, and in some cases this went up to nearly a 1000! So, how can one say that chess is not a sport?"
"Wow, so if you play chess you can eat all you want without having to worry about gaining weight!"
"I usually lose about two to three kilos when I play in an important event…"
"Hm, I’ve never thought that chess involves that much physical effort, I’ve always seen it as a ‘mind game’… But as a woman, I still don’t like this big gap in strength… Though if you’d allow Simona to play in men’s events I doubt that she would do well against Djokovic or Nadal…"
"That’s what I was thinking as well… Of course, chess is not such a physical sport as tennis … In fact, I think that women could find ways to compensate their lack in physical strength – at least in chess, but that would take a big change in everyone’s mentality! Take the example of the Polgar sisters: Susan, the eldest of the three sisters, was Women’s World Champion, while the youngest, Judit, was competing only against men, and I think, that’s why she became the strongest woman in chess history. She won top tournaments and even managed to beat Garry Kasparov, who some consider to be the best player of all time!"
"Yes indeed, if families and coaches would encourage little girls to compete against boys from an early age, things might be different!"
"You’ve just read my mind!".

Judit Polgar | Photo: André Schulz

Suddenly, the door of the office opened and I saw the elderly couple coming out with a smile. "We’ve solved everything, Maria! What a lucky day, we’ll be getting back our birth certificates and we’ll be able to apply for a passport! We’re missing our grandchildren so much! They’re living with their parents in the UK…", the lady said with tears of happiness in her eyes. "The next one, please!", a surprisingly kind voice came from the office.

"Go, Maria, go! Good luck to you! Keep up the good work! I like your interviews and articles so much! You’re an inspiration to all the women! I wish there was someone like you who told me that women can do as well as men when I was your age, maybe I could then be brave enough to become a surgeon, as I dreamed of… Well, at least I’ll do my best to ensure my granddaughters will follow their dreams! Everything is possible these days, I’m learning English, you know…", the elderly lady said enthusiastically.

"Who’s next???", the ‘office voice’ did not sound as kind as before this time… "Good luck to you too, madam, and good health!", Maria said and went into the office.

"Let’s go, Mihai, you still have your doctor’s appointment and I should call Laura – tell them we’re coming to the UK next month, we should buy tickets, I am so excited to fly for the first time!". "You’re crazy, woman!", the man said, taking his wife’s hand gently and giving her the most endearing look…

The day had been full or surprises and positive emotions, and I decided that the next time, when someone asks me what do I do for a living, I will say that I’m a professional chess player and then answer: "Yes, I play chess, and I am smart indeed, and I can make money out of it, and I can see ten moves ahead, and I’ve actually met Anatoly Karpov, and I am a woman indeed, and I could not be more proud of it!"

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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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