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11 January 2019

Kateryna Lagno: I got it hot and strong for drawing Carlsen

World Women’s Blitz Champion interviewed by Sport-Express.

Photo by Boris Dolmatovsky
Photo by Boris Dolmatovsky

Giving birth to a fourth child, Kateryna Lagno, one of the most gifted female chess players, seemed like a spent force for many once and for all. However, the heroic mother came back to prove herself a real fighter and athlete. A month after the birth of her daughter Aglaia, Lagno went to Khanty-Mansiysk to climb it all the way to the world championship's final, in which she went down to Ju Wenjun only on tie-break. Moreover, the eve of the New Year saw Kateryna pull off another feat as she took gold in the world blitz championship. This said, the Russian finished undefeated, which is a phenomenal result for this format of chess.


No need to praise me


– Kateryna, has this heroic deed caught up with you yet in a sense that you are a real Russian woman who has succeeded in achieving such incredible results despite all circumstances? I mean giving birth to a fourth child and heading for the world championship immediately after. What does it feel like to be a mother of four children? This is about times when even one child is akin to feat for nowadays families.

– I was very much aware of the associated hardships, and the choice was mine. Therefore, there is no need to praise me. Being just 29 and fond of chess, I have no feeling of having had enough of it. Indeed, I have harder time than many athletes free of family obligations, but I did want to return, which helps me not give up.

– Aglaia was born September 27. The world championship in Khanty-Mansiysk was to start a month later. How hard was it to make up your mind to go?

– It wasn’t a smooth decision to take, to be honest. However, I have missed as many as two championships already.

I changed my mind about Sochi for the same legitimate reason, whereas later they did not allow me into Tehran as a player who hadn’t played 30 classical games within a year. I did not feel like missing yet another championship.

– Does it not give you the creeps to leave behind a baby who is a month old only? Or does confidence come from experience?

– Exactly so. You tend to fuss and worry a lot over a firstborn. I am no longer a rookie, however. This is not a best-case scenario, but I do not see any alternative either. My relatives and a babysitter were the ones sparing me the mental worries that would have otherwise haunted me into the games.

– Back in 2003, I was amazed by our legendary basketball player Maria Stepanova, who was breastfeeding her month-old baby in between halftimes of the European Championship that she ended up winning after all. Meanwhile, she was the one inspiring the rest of the team. Did you think about taking Aglaia with you? 

– If realistic for a basketball player, it is also bound to be attainable for a chess player. History knows such cases. Nevertheless, you need to realize that similar conditions will not hold you long. The maternal instinct will take the best of you anyway. I was facing a choice of either taking care of the baby or devoting entirely to chess.

– Did you set any goals going into the championship?

– You know, a week before the tournament my coach Vlad Tkachiev asked Denis Khismatullin to play a couple of blitz matches with me.

I failed completely. The first few games was a disaster. Still, no matter the overall and specific opening preparation, praxis is a must. Overall, my goals were modest.


Armageddon with Pogonina – icing on the cake


– Let us recall your path to the final.

–  Round one paired me against a young girl Nikki Jess, an international master from the Republic of South Africa. Feeling it crucial to gear up into the tournament, I was happy about the fight breaking out in game one as allowing me to set my mind into the right direction. Game two was an easy victory as White, giving me an additional rest day. By the way, I did my best to put it to use. I spent it playing in Internet and solving chess puzzles. Hoang Thanh Tran was my next challenge. She is a Vietnamese player flying the Hungarian flag. It was a 1-1 draw in the classical section and a confident 2-0 victory on tie-break. Vlad even cautiously voiced that the speed of my taking certain decisions was a sort of proper shape indicator.

– The followup match with Pogonina turned into a thriller. It ended with Armageddon (which comes into play when the tiebreak score is level. White is given 5 minutes and Black is given 4, in which case White is bound to win since a draw benefits Black). Could you dwell on it in more detail, please?

– I could have won as White in classical game two, but had no regrets about missing it as it was in time trouble, in which I even had to go through a worse position afterwards. Therefore, I believe a tie in the classical section to be a logical outcome. There followed a rapid section. My openings were a failure with both colors. My bailing out in game one was a miracle, followed by a drab draw as White. The first 10-minute game defies any commenting whatsoever. I bailed out while down two pawns. They call it “female chess.”

– What happened next?

– Going into the blitz section, I won game one out of the blue. In game two I had an inner feeling of a stalemate lurking somewhere in the position, but it escaped me and Pogonina levelled the score. Thus, Armageddon was a sort of icing on the cake. I picked up White, but it was not going well for me. The only thing I did worthy of praising in this game is an objectively wrong decision to ditch a central pawn. Nevertheless, its sacrifice gave me a clear plan, which is crucial in blitz. Pogonina just lacked time to find the right path in the position. To be honest, it is such victories that give me pleasure.

– The subsequent path to the final was still a big challenge looming ahead...

– The 2 0 score against Lei Tintsze in the classical section might give you a notion of an easy victory; however, there was nothing easy about it - it just happened the way it happened. Well, I was more refreshed into the semifinal tiebreak against Maria Muzychuk, who had had a very gruelling final four that left her completely drained.

Game four unfolding as if in a daydream


– You won game two of the final and managed to bail out in game three. You were an inch away from the crown that so many were looking forward to see you taking.

– To be honest, all that excitement arising after my victory in game two escapes me. I did win the game, but the match was not over yet. It would have been justified if it were about everything playing into my hands in terms of easily equalizing and drawing as Black by some move 20 and, alternatively, giving my opponent a hard time as White. The reality was different, however; I bailed out as Black in games one and three, the latter save being nothing short of a miracle. Our opening guesses went wide of the mark. The opponent was much better prepared in the openings. So, it was the hardest of matches ... And then, who and what was expected of me?

I think I was entirely written off going into the event. I read someplace before the championship that main hopes were pinned on the Russian players - Kosteniuk, Gunina, Goryachkina, whereas my name was mentioned in the line: “also participating will be...” And all this despite my being No.3 in the tournament. So much for the expectations. 

– When the Chinese world champion, Ju Wenjun, pulled off a must-win as Black, they began to say out of earshot that it was rather about you losing to yourself the night before the game. That it was about nerves, fear, a victory being within reach. Is it so?

– It was annoying to hear it from people who know me not at all. Only the closest people know what was going on in reality.

– Will you share it with us?

– Even if it may sound contrary to certain thriller fans’ liking, I will still put the way it was - I was tired. It was already when leaving the tournament hall after the miraculously salvaged game three that I felt completely exhausted. I was physically very unwell. A spectator is not privy to what is going on in reality and the amount of home preparation as he/she just sees a player enter the hall to play a game. With so many opening traps engineered for me to walk into, I had a lot of energy exhausted going into the games just to escape them. Unfortunately, it was about missing a person significant to me when most needed, and this is our mutual oversight. I was keeping in touch with Tkachiev over Skype, but never asked him to support me in person right from round one. Going into the final I was unaware whether I would need support, and when I realized that I did need to talk to someone to snap out of the mental deadlock, it was already too late for that person to arrive in time. No device, whatever advanced, is going to replace real-life communication.

– You fell apart as White in game four...

– What difference does a piece color make if you see nothing, as if the action takes place in a daydream? I wish we had a rest day before the tie-break. Purely chesswise, it would have been a lot more exciting as opposed to what was happening on the board when one player was giving everything away to her counterpart.

– Did you have a feeling about all hell breaking loose around you?

– I did not. It was an utter state of anguish to go through. However, it was not without a reason.

Rapid format is a future of chess


– Classical championship just over, it was time that rapid and blitz strategies be worked out. I wonder if you were still eager to play more chess.

– I was extremely happy to learn about the upcoming event!

– Why?

– It is a pleasure that such events exist in the first place. There were concerns about it taking place at all. Only when playing in the final, there came an announcement from FIDE about the upcoming rapid and blitz championships to take place in Russia. I rate rapid and blitz same way as classical chess. I believe the rapid format to be a future of chess. It is especially true about men’s chess that has come to gravitate so much towards the boring drawish tendencies.

– However, your latest performance in the Saudi Arabia was somewhat underwhelming. What is the reason?

– It was an unfortunate case of falling ill shortly before heading for it. It would have been a good idea to miss the rapid, but I mistakingly hoped for my health to restore before long. This is why going over my rapid games from that event is a taboo (laughing). When it came to blitz, I started performing more or less OK, and ended up taking the third place.

– It was very cool to see two countries, Saudi Arabia and Russia, combine efforts to carry out the world championship in St. Petersburg. It is worth bearing in mind that both FIDE and RCF administrations had it all fitted out perfectly on so short a notice.  Did you like it? 

Let me repeat myself, I was extremely happy. It was a pleasure to see the competition so well accommodated right in the center of St. Petersburg. I do not recall seeing so many spectators at any prior chess event. We are not used to so much attention, and all this chess commotion was a healthy thing. They approached me to wish good luck on many occasions.

– It is the opinion of many that you had it all going your way in St. Petersburg. You finished fourth in rapid and delivered a simply phenomenal result in blitz. It looked as if that gruelling Ugra marathon had no bearing on you.

– No, this is just how it looks like. There are games that I am totally unhappy about. Even if sharing the point of view that luck sides with a winner, I would still like to see more points reel in on a deserved basis. So much to say about my going down to Ju so meekly. I am a realist. I see that my play is far from ideal.

–Has the St. Petersburg's gold made up for the bitterness of Khanty-Mansiysk’s silver?

– I do not go about comparing between these two competitions. I try not to waste time thinking about such things. A new event opens a new chapter. I am simply happy that I did manage to finish the chess year on a positive note, even if it was not brimming with events.

– Your big success draws congratulations from none other than the head of state. What does it mean for you?

– When chess draws attention at this high a level, it is both pleasant and personal, as well as very beneficial for the development of our sport. I thank Vladimir Vladimirovich for congratulations and New Year wishes.

–This is a first major tournament run by a newly-elected FIDE team headed by its president Arkady Dvorkovich. Do you see any positive improvements in FIDE now that it is headed by such an experienced manager? After all, Dvorkovich shares deep family and business traditions bonding him to chess, not to mention his having been head of RCF over a lengthy period of time.

– Time will tell. I am happy to see FIDE taking control of the situation so quickly to rescue the world rapid and blitz championships. Besides main competitions, a lot was done for the spectators as well. Thus, one could participate in the puzzle solving contest and amateur tournaments. Purchasing chess literature and chess sets was also an option.


Filatov living his work


– It is five years now that Andrey Filatov has been at the helm of the RCF. What can you say about the RCF President?

– I do not think I am the only one feeling comfortable about working with him. Andrey Vasilyevich is living his work. His name is associated with significantly positive changes.

– Such as?

– Well, the state’s interest towards chess has increased in the first place. This is a big plus, whichever way you look at it. There has been an increased attention from the mass media as well. Also worth mentioning is the classy look of the newly renovated Central House of Chess Player.  Gogol Boulevard 14 has been restored to become one of Moscow’s best-looking buildings. Again, there is the Sochi sports center "Sirius", in which the talented youngsters are trained by experienced coaches headed by Vladimir Kramnik. Andrey Vasilyevich does his best.

– Will you rejoin the national team? We missed you so at the two latest Olympiads, in which the medals were within reach but ended up escaping us nonetheless.

– I am a big fan of team events. Yes, I do want to be part of the team again. The team world championship is scheduled to kick off before long. We will do our best there.

– What is your hobby? Can you spare it any time at all?

– I am fond of singing and cooking. I used to spend time doing both earlier when I was not so pressed for time. I have another soft point, which is so common among women that can be easily forgiven – I am a shopping addict. This is especially true in the season of discounts, when this soft spot keeps coming back at me time and again (laughing).

– Your husband is a three-time blitz world champion, a finalist of the Candidates' matches and one of the world's best grandmasters. Does he assist you chess wise?

– He does! However, I try not to take up too much of his time. He is a tournament player after all, and what is required at his level is not so crucial at mine yet. And then, I have a coach I can contact anytime I need. I would like to use this opportunity to say thanks to Ruslan Vladimirovich Shcherbakov. Even if not among those assisting me at the latest events, he did give me a lot in the past, and I know I can turn to him any time with my questions. He is a remarkable expert and individual.

– Let me ask you a somewhat personal question – do you and your husband ever argue over chess?

– Not over chess, but we argue big-time over figure skating (laughing). I root for Medvedeva and disagree with how they hunt her down for no reason at all. As for my husband, he is all for Zagitova and Eteri Tutberidze. The topic has become a sort of stumbling block between us. I believe that figure skating makes girls vulnerable by quickly downgrading them from the moment of their being in top form at the age of 14-15 to veterans in as soon as some six years. This is not right, and something needs to be changed about the existing regulations. Thus, figure skating is the biggest point of disagreement in our family, and I pray it stays on like this.

Take it up with Karjakin

– It is amazing how your life path is reminiscent of that of Sergey Karjakin's. That is, it is exactly the same...

– It is an interesting observation indeed. Sergey and I have known each other since the age of seven. We studied together in Kramatorsk. Then we both left Ukraine for Russia. Each for different reasons, but still. 

– This amazing similarity is about your chess paths as well, right?

– Indeed. We both qualified into the world championship finals, both went down on tie-breaks, followed by each of us taking the world championship in blitz afterwards. Such a chain of coincidences is amazing. If he were to defeat Carlsen in that match of his, I take it I would have achieved the same result. So, you need to take it up with Karjakin! (laughing).

– Did Karjakin stand out as a big talent back then?

– Moreover, no one doubted his becoming a world champion sooner or later. There was absolutely none who doubted that. Once, strolling together during the Russian Championship in Chita, I asked him whether he wasn’t annoyed at himself in a sense that being such a gifted person he would not nourish it into something bigger, just being content with what he already had. Having won the Candidates, he reminded me of that conversation, adding that it had touched him to the quick.

– You are bound to share some childhood memories, aren't you?

– Whatever the reason, our fathers bet on an ice cream about who of us would be the first to finish the running track at the stadium (400 meters). Neither of us had any physical training at the age of 10. My agile opponent surged forward without delay, and, needless to say, a more calculating mind was the first to cross the finish line (smiling).

– Wow!

– All other non-chess related stories should rather be classified as hooliganism (laughing). Suffice it to say that I had my fair share of troubles through this guy.

– Do you think he will manage to pull off another break through across the entire qualification cycle to face off Carlsen yet another time?

– It is rather no than yes, unfortunately. I do wish him success from the bottom of my heart, but this is a real grinder. The men's competition is mind-boggling. There are new stars rising on the horizon, Chinese and Iranian players among them, while the old stars are still there to be reckoned with... He needs to focus entirely on chess, just like he did back then. However, Sergey has been in the limelight ever since the match. There is no doubt about this limelight being in the way of his further chess progress. 

– Is Carlsen really great?

– He is. I think Carlsen’s father is a blessing for him. He does support him. However, this is rather an exception than a rule. They have been working as a team ever since. I remember playing in Wijk aan Zee’s tournament C back in 2004. Round one had me paired with a little Norwegian boy. It was on the eve that I saw him and his dad playing football about an hour before the start of the game. I thought it strange. I wondered how on earth he was going to perform now that he was out of energy. However, we agreed a draw in a game that lasted six hours, me escaping in the endgame. You have no idea how hot and strong I got it after that game. I heard it from every Tom, Dick, or Harry who felt like saying anything to me. They claimed that drawing a Norwegian boy was not the way to go if I wanted to achieve any high goals. Needless to say, Magnus ended up winning that tournament.

– Indeed, Henrik Carlsen’s trainee is not only a champion, but an athlete as well. Magnus has built an incredible physique...

– Victory is an invariable goal of his whatever game he is playing. Back in 2008, I made a foolish mistake by deciding to share a football game with the boys at a tournament taking place in the French city Cap d'Agé. Not only was he not making any allowances for the girl playing in the opposing team, he was entirely oblivious to it! Only when the ball miraculously missed my head did he approach to apologize. That was the moment I concluded that no matter how strong a grandmaster I was, chess is the only game I could feel safe to be part of (laughing).

Original (in Russian)

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