3 November 2023

Baira Kovanova: Keeping Your Emotions in Check is Above All

The 2023 Russian Women’s Champion is interviewed by Vladimir Barsky, editor-in-chief of the CFR website.



- Baira, congratulations on winning the Superfinal! Thank you for filling out the pre-final questionnaire, from which we have learned that you came to chess thanks to the huge number of excellent marks you got in your first chess class. What else has attracted you to chess?

- First of all, of course, the teacher's praise - I liked that I was the gifted one in the class. He said I should start training, and I was an eager-to-learn child. Chess was not very fashionable at that time, and I studied at a music school, went to dancing, gymnastics and various clubs. Despite my young age, I would go in for all possible activities and even developed my own daily schedule. I told my parents which club they needed to pay for and what time to pick me up. I'd leave at 8 in the morning and come back in the evening.

- And here comes chess on top of that!

- Yes. My mother would talk me out of it because I was never home and never had any rest. She would say, "This is way too much! You have to quit something." I remember my first class only too well. It was after my music class. It was Saturday, 11 a.m. The classroom was on the 3rd floor of the school building. I was so afraid to go in, and my first teacher invited me in, "Come in! It'll be interesting, I'll teach you how to play." I liked the fact that you could beat anyone and the heat of the game itself! I must have really enjoyed playing.

- What other games did you play and do you still play?

- I learned checkers first, and then chess. I like all games: "Alias", "Crocodile" and so on. Card games, like poker, I like less. What else did I play? Yahtzee! That's history now, but there was a time when we used to roll dice in our free time during all tournaments!

- Chess developed in Kalmykia thanks to Kirsan Ilyumzhinov: lessons in schools, international competitions.... How did your people in the republic feel about it? Did they think it was something strange, or, on the contrary, an interesting undertaking? 

- In 1996 we had the World Championship match between Karpov and Kamsky. I was 9 years old back then and had already learned to play chess. I remember us taking a walk when my mother said, "Let's go in and watch." We went in. Of course, I didn't understand anything, but I did like the atmosphere.

- Was it solemn?

- A chamber atmosphere. An action! I was impressed.

- Where were they playing? Wasn't CityChess built yet?

- They played in the House of Children's Art. It's hard for me to judge how people felt about Ilyumzhinov's ideas, I was too young. But many years have passed, and it has become clear to everyone that Kirsan Nikolayevich was not a bad leader. I think this opinion is shared by the majority of the republic's population.

- Did they finally get it?

- Yes. And I think he was too progressive at the time. We're a small multinational republic. We have a lot of our own traditions, it's difficult to introduce something new. I liked chess at school and I think other kids liked it too, it's interesting! If you give children a gadget, they will be interested in that gadget. If you teach them how to play some intellectual games, they will play those games. They will be interested in whatever you give them.

- Were there teachers who could play chess?

- Yes, there were.

- Was the level not very high? 

- My first teacher, Viktor Belyanin, was probably a first category player. He was already a grandfather, about 80 years old. He told me to put everything aside for the sake of chess!

- Were there any chess traditions in the Republic? Didn't it come out of the blue?

- Chess was popular, people played it with pleasure. Now, of course, this is not the case. The older generation used to play to the last man, and the chess club was never empty. The President's Cup would attract so many people! Every event was like a festival.

- Did Kirsan Nikolayevich play a big role in your life?

- Yes, he did. In those days they held competitions and gave support. I can't say that it was tailored specifically to my needs, but financial support could be found. We had problems finding strong coaches. GMs Yuri Yakovich and Alexander Panchenko came to Kalmykia from time to time. They gave lectures and held training sessions. It was interesting. However, I didn't have a strong coach on a permanent basis. Anna Gelashvili is a very warm-hearted person, I traveled everywhere with her from the age of 11 to 17. But she was more of a help when it came to circumchess problems.

Whenever the coaches came to Sanan Sjugirov or Ernesto Inarkiev (he lived in Elista at that time), they invited me as well. I once had a training session with Ernesto - it was very difficult, he was a much stronger player then. And Sanan was still small and it was very interesting to train with him. 

When I was about 15, I had a training camp with Igor Zaitsev in Moscow Oblast, which also helped me a lot. He said: "It's all right, don't worry, you'll play well". But I never managed to win the Russian championship. I did it when I was 18.

- Were you worried about that?

- Yes, I was. I lived for chess, I loved it. I don't know what was more important - traveling to tournaments or playing, but I wanted to win.

- You said that Anna Gelashvili had to put up with your difficult character. What was so difficult about you? 

- I was so... scandalous. Well, not scandalous, but I had an opinion about everything. I wanted things my way, especially when I was growing up. When I was a kid, I was a perfect child for my parents, and then the more I practiced chess, the worse my character became. It was not about ambition, but about an inner desire to win. This influenced my character, and Anna Gelashvili knew how to adjust and control the situation. I always argued if something was not my way.

- Could you practice chess alone?

- No. On the other hand, now that I have come to coach children, I realize that I studied a lot compared to them. I was terribly lazy, I just wanted to play, travel and win, not study. I could work with a coach, but not on my own. But it wasn't as if I didn't study chess at all. I was solving a lot of chess problems every day and I liked it. But working five or six hours a day was not for me. And I didn't really like reading chess books. 

- Was this a normal set of interests for a schoolgirl?

- Not really, because I traveled a lot. In the 10th and 11th grades I practically missed my school because I was mostly away at tournaments.




- How did your cooperation with Pavel Lobach begin?

- I finished school at the age of 16 (I started school a year earlier than usual, at the age of 6) and entered the Kalmyk State University to study history....

- Were you interested in history?

- Yes, it was interesting at that time. I finished my freshman year. I studied well, I liked it, but then it became difficult because I missed many classes because of tournaments. My mother said: "You have to quit chess, there's no point". It was at that moment that they expelled me from the chess school.

- What for?

- It's a long story, a conflict. 

When I started my sophomore year, my mother and I agreed that it would be last tournament, and that was it. It was a round robin in the Moscow Oblast, organized by Mikhail Kryukov. A long tournament, 17 rounds. And I made my first grandmaster norm there. And my rating was around 2300. 

- That's not bad at all! 

- Yes, but many girls of my age had a much higher rating. I thought that's enough, that's it, no more chess. And I would have given up chess if it wasn’t for Sergei Badminov (1949-2016).

- Of course, I remember him well.

- As a matter of fact, he organized everything: all competitions and invitations to master-level players and so on. Thanks to him even children in schools started to play chess. Kirsan Nikolayevich was high up, and Sergey Alekseevich managed all the routine. He was very ideological. Now there are no such figures in Kalmykia - that's why chess has become obsolete in the republic and nobody needs it. 

Badminov advised my mother to go to Lobach: "Why is she studying here? We should move to Saratov". And there is a good law school, now it's known as SGYA, back then it was SGAP. Mom went to Lobach and he said: "Okay, I'll find out." He called the academy, they said: "Let's transfer." Within 24 hours everything was sorted out. I came home from the tournament and we went to Saratov. 

Of course, I knew Pavel Vladimirovich and his student Natasha Pogonina, and we faced each other over the board many times. We began to practice with Lobach. Then Masha Kursova and Vika Tarasova came to Saratov. There formed a group of decent players, which is a big plus. Besides, Natasha is a very strong chess player, she was already well known at that time. I followed her, she inspired me. In February 2005 I moved to Saratov, and in April Lobach and I went to the Russian Children's Championship, which I won. 

- Many young people - not only in Russia, but all over the world - play chess only until they graduate, and then they opt for a more stable job now that they have a solid education. Being a lawyer is a reliable income and a respected profession. Why did you decide to stay in chess?

- My mother wanted me to work in the prosecutor's office after graduation. Actually, I wanted to work in the prosecutor's office myself. We had a six-month internship in our fourth year. After graduation, there was an interview in the personnel department, and I was able to pass it. I had to apply.

- To the prosecutor's office in Saratov? 

- No, in Kalmykia. But there was an opportunity to do postgraduate studies. I decided to continue my studies. My mother wasn't happy, but my father said, "Let it be her choice." My father was in favor of chess and believed in me.

- Does he like chess too?

- Unfortunately he's gone now, but he loved chess. He used to travel with me to tournaments.

When I entered the postgraduate studies, I swore to my mother that I would defend my thesis, but of course I didn't. I passed the qualifying exams for the candidate degree and that was the end of it. 

I was 22 in 2009, and I qualified for the World Championship for the first time out of the European Championship in St. Petersburg. I was rated 2400 and it was hard to make me give up chess. Of course, my mother argued with me about it and said, "No, you have to choose a career!" But it was hard to stop, I wanted to play.

- Chess would not let you go?

- It doesn't let you go at all, I realized. It's hard to stop. It was interesting to play at the World Championship! The rating went up - cool! Everything was going up. They started inviting me to the first team training camp, which is a completely different life. I think I'd also be interested in working in the prosecutor's office, but chess... It happens in different ways, sometimes you have doubts. But on the whole, of course, I'm happy with my choice, even more so now; and I've even found it interesting to start training myself.

- Did you play for the first national team?

- Only in a friendly match against China, but I failed it. 

- Was it important for you to qualify for the national team for prestige or financial reasons?

- It was my dream back then. And now I don't think there's any motivation at all, because the national team doesn't play anywhere.

- You've loved to travel since childhood, that's one of the attractive aspects of chess. But then it turns out that you always travel to the same places.

- That's true.

- Two tournaments in Sochi, two in Khanty-Mansiysk.... 

- By the way, I like Khanty.

- So do I, but it's still a bit monotonous... Does it matter to you? 

- I've never really thought about it. I've never noticed that the lack of something new worries me and that I need something new to inspire me all the time. I'm a happy person. The most important thing is that everyone is alive and kicking - that means everything is okay. 

I like to travel. Of course, it is more pleasant in a place with good and warm weather, sea, and beautiful nature. But otherwise, it is interesting everywhere. I like places where I manage to perform well. By the way, this is the most important factor whether I like a place or not. Even though I usually don't play well in St. Petersburg, I've failed a lot of tournaments there, and failed so badly that I used to get 4 zeros in a row. I had particularly bad tournaments as a child...

- In 2009, you had played well at the European Women’s Championship, and now you won the Superfinal.

- Yes, those are two good results, and all the other tournaments are failures. 



- You already coach yourself. How do the kids feel about their coach leaving?

- It's difficult since I travel a lot. Now I coach at the online school of Nepomniachtchi. Also I’ve got a personal student and I am pleased with his progress. Now he solves many problems better than I did at his age. He's very attentive, he knows everything in the chess world. It's interesting to watch his progress and I want to invest as much as possible in him. It's interesting to study with children who want to study, because then it's a creative process, you're together. 

- Do you live in Saratov now?

- I have an apartment in Saratov, I come there from time to time, but my daughter and I live in Elista. 

- Is there any support at the regional level? 

- Our Saratov Chess Federation and the chess school do their best, they are good, but there isn't enough money for everything. For example, the Higher League in Novokuznetsk this year cost a lot - about 80 thousand rubles. Of course, they can't reimburse everything in full, only partially, as much as possible. In my opinion, the regional sports ministry could do more for chess players. So most of our trips are at our own expense, or the organizers send me an invitation. Meanwhile I have no support at all in Kalmykia at the moment.

-  In the last few years, you've had some great successes after a bit of a slump. What's the reason for that? 

- It is thanks to Sanan Sjugirov! I remember September 10, 2021, when we were at the tournament in Chelyabinsk, I approached him to ask, "Sanan, help me, nothing goes right for me in chess anymore!" 

In 2014 I got married and somehow my priorities changed. In 2018 I was pregnant, in 2019 I gave birth, then in 2020 I had a coronavirus, and all this time I was completely out of chess. I went to the Higher League and failed there. I would drop my rating points in every tournament. Not only the rating - I could see that I my performance was underwhelming. I can't say that I lost interest in chess, but I wasn't motivated enough.

- Did other values come into your life?

- Yes, they did. And it went on and on and on, and then I realized that I wanted to play! Of course, it's strange that such an idea came two years after the birth of my daughter. I turned to Sanan and he said: "Well, let’s do it!" And I won the first tournament that I prepared for with him. I came second in the Russian Rapid Chess Championship. And then we started practicing a lot and, most importantly, systematically. Not just before or during a tournament, but all the time. 

I went to the Russian Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk and managed to win it. Before that, I had won the same Cup in 2017, but then the lineup was not so strong. But in 2021 everyone participated and the lineup was strong, as strong as for this Superfinal. The main thing is that I had an idea how to prepare, how to work on chess. Sanan opened America for me, so to speak. 

Then I had a long break from chess, and when I went to the tournament in Chelyabinsk and dropped 26 rating points. Sanan said, "At least stop losing when you start to lose. And I was very careless with the rating, I didn't appreciate it. I didn't understand that even if a tournament doesn't work out, you should try to minimize your losses. It makes a difference if you lose 25 or 15 points. But for me, when I was upset, it didn't make a difference because I was overwhelmed with emotion.

Anyway, we've been working together for two years now. It's not that I was at the peak of my form in the Superfinal - no, it's just that my game has become more complete.

- Sjugirov is a very young and developing player. He certainly has his own ambitions and is on his way up. Or is he a coach as well as a player?

- No, he just helps me. He's a professional chess player, not a coach. I think Sanan will be a very good coach if he wants to be, but now he has to play and grow. I can't say that the lessons with me help him, but I hope that they don't rob him of anything either, because working with me is not like working with beginners. I ask questions, lots of questions. I might ask how to play the same position ten times until I understand it. I'll ask until it's in my head, and Sanan will answer.

- So he's probably starting to understand things better himself, right? 

- I hope so. Because without Sanan, my successes would not have happened. I've come to know professional and serious approach to studying chess. It's a chess approach, psychology. In Tsarskoe Selo, I started with 4.5 out of 5, and when I lost in the sixth round, I told him: "That's it, here's another Superfinal in which I am going to deliver a series of defeats". I immediately remembered that in my very first Superfinal in 2011, I also started with 4.5 out of 5 and then "failed" three games in a row. In 2013, in Nizhny Novgorod, I started with 4 out of 5 - and again lost three in a row. I couldn't do it, that's all! And Sanan said: "No, you won't lose three in a row, everything will be fine. He's like that, a little phlegmatic, reserved.

- There was a rest day after Round six, wasn’t it?

- Yes, it was my luck. It's good that it was a rest day because it gave me time to recover. And then, when I had a big advantage in the match with Goltseva, I felt that I could control myself. 

No words will be enough to thank Sanan! I hope we will continue to practice. I want it to help him too, to keep improving. I've probably never won so many tournaments in my career as in the last two years. I was able to play well, improve my rating, and win in men's tournaments against strong opponents even before... However, it's not never my tournament winning story, and it all that changed with Sanan’s help. And here is the victory in the Superfinal. I know it was a sensation for many, but it is the result of two years of constant work.

- You can see that your results have been high and stable for the last two years, so it's hard to say it's a sensation....

- I read Dima Kryakvin's article - he says it's a super sensation. 

- He probably wanted to add drama! But it seemed to me that your play added a certain pragmatic approach. Midway through the tournament, you had a pretty quick draw against Shuvalova. And you finished with two short draws against Pogonina and Korneva.

- It was okay for Natasha to settle for a draw, but Marina surprised me. I thought she was going to fight for the prizes; I didn't know she had no chance of getting into the top three. We decided that we would play: if I had wanted a "quick draw" with her, I would have chosen a different line as White in the Caro-Kann Defense. But I chose the line with more fighting possibilities. When she offered a draw, I didn't immediately agree, because I was very surprised. 

- If it's no secret, what did Marina say when you hugged after the match? 

- No, it's no secret. She said, "Go, get ready for the next game!" 

- I see. And while Badelka's match was still going on, you were busy preparing?

- No, our preparation didn't take long. I watched the movie, even slept for a while. Then I opened the broadcast and it was already clear that Badelka was not going to win.

But pragmatism - yes, there's more pragmatism in my play now. 

- Maybe it's a consequence of participating in the Black Sea series?

- I played rapid and blitz in Gelendzhik, then all the events in Anapa. Of course, when you play a lot of games, you have to save your energy somehow. 

I also had a change in my life circumstances. I got divorced, it's a difficult process. You start to realize that the ability to keep your emotions in check is one of the most important qualities in life - not only in chess, but everywhere. If you can't control your emotional outbursts, you can ruin your life and hurt yourself in your profession. No matter who you work for, you can't always go by your emotions. 

I completely identify with the girls who have suffered several losses in a row. Alina Bivol started with 2.5 out of 3 and then she got carried away. She is a strong chess player, but she couldn't control her emotions. Olga is undoubtedly a solid, strong chess player, but in the penultimate round she played Valya Gunina, who caught fire with her victories. I was lucky to play Gunina in the first half. And it turned out that our game was the most important, the key game.

- Your position wasn't good, was it?

- I just lost, I did so many absurd things in that game. I thought it was my worst game of the tournament. Actually, it was my only bad game, and I was so lucky that not only did I not lose it, but I even managed to win it. 

My drawing of lots was interesting: I started with two black colors, I had three black colors in the first four games. Of course, we couldn’t know that the match against Gunina would be so important. In the second half of the tournament Gunina played better and better.




- Do you have new ambitions after winning the Superfinal? 

- I can't say that I'm very happy about the victory. It will probably come later. I also slipped and fell down on the last day, my leg was very sore.

Of course, I'm happy. There is no euphoria, but I feel satisfaction that I succeeded, that I can see the result of my work. I don't want Sanan to see my stupid mistakes time and again, I want him to see that I'm making progress! That is our joint success. 

Ambition? Now it turns out that the rating is the most important thing, we have to raise it. Then we can talk about other things. 

- You're not going to the Grand Swiss because you don't have enough rating points?

- That is indeed the reason. But I would have gone there, it's interesting to challenge the strongest players. 

Last year in Sochi I lost to a girl with a rating of 1300 and I realized that there is no bottom. You can lose to anyone. I lost 5 games in a row, buried the Moscow Oblast team’s chances and dropped my rating by 30 points.

- Was it the classic chess?

- Yes, the Russian Team Championships in May. I am grateful to Sanan that we are still training after that. All he said was, "Let's take care of the rating. I got those 30 points back in no time. And I realized that the rating is the most important thing to take care of, to try not to lose to opponents with a rating below 2000, which is very difficult for me. I can't count how many games I've lost to chess players with 1800-1900!

- And what does your day-to-day life look like when you are not playing tournaments?

- We have a big private house in Elista, there is a lot to do around the house. I play with my daughter, she's so domestic. I also train, I train myself and with Sanan, now we communicate a lot with him on Skype. It's good that I don't have to work. I like doing the housework, cleaning, I like everything to be clean.

- Do you like cooking?

- No, I don't like to cook. I like cleaning a lot. I like cleanliness and it gives me pleasure. And it seems to me that the older I get, the more I like it. Besides, my mother keeps everything under control, she's strict and won’t tolerate any disorder.

- Do you want your daughter to be a chess player?

- No, not at all! I'm not in favor of professional sports at all. I think life has changed and professional sports (not only chess) are losing their attraction. I think education, specialization, profession are more important now. 

And professional sport means, first of all, injuries, both psychological and physical. This is less true for chess. Our injuries are more mental, but they are still there. Every defeat is a huge stress for a chess player, and it's not quite normal, because it affects your endocrine profile a lot, which shouldn't happen all the time. I want the child to enjoy a normal life. However, it is a totally different story if she gets interested in something herself. Does it make sense to send her to study something because it feels the right thing to do? No, let her live a normal child's life!

- Your mother's wish for her daughter was also for a normal life......

- Yes, indeed! Life will sort things out in the end. My older sister is not an adventurous person at all. She's a person of integrity, she has chosen her path in life and is following it. She has a doctorate in economics and is the economic security department head at the Kalmyk State University. She is a scientific secretary. As a matter of fact, my child already belongs to the university life. She tells me, "I am going to the university". My sister helps me. 

It's a pity that my father is not here - he would be very happy now. I always felt his support, we often went to competitions together. He was a maximalist, he always said: "You have to beat everyone!" However, it's important to be practical. Maybe that is the most important skill: when you play, you have to be careful. 

- Do you have any other tournament plans?

- The final of the Russian Cup in Khanty-Mansiysk. First rapid, then classical parts. For now, I have to stay at home.

- What happens after the Cup?

- I don't know, there are no competitions in winter. Maybe I'll go to Ulan-Ude if there's a tournament there. I went there this year and I liked it. I recommend everyone to go to this unique tournament. There is not so much religious background here, but simply the Khambo Lama is a very bright personality, it is interesting to talk to him, he is an interesting person.

By the way, since we're talking about different tournaments... If you compare the Higher League and the Super Final, I think the Higher League is much more challenging. I barely made it to the finish line in the Higher League, the last game was just awful! I played Olya Badelka and I made so many mistakes... In an even endgame I mishandled the position completely and found myself in a lost position, but somehow I managed to get out of it. It's terribly nerve-wracking, so I'm happy that I didn't have to qualify for the next Superfinal. The Higher League is the most challenging tournament for me.

However, the Superfinal wasn't that hard for me. Usually it was a big challenge for me, I was worried, I couldn't eat or sleep during the tournament. This time it was not like that. The site is still very beautiful.

- That's important, right?

- It's nice. The hotel is fine, but it is nothing compared to the venue... I've never been to Tsarskoe Selo and didn't expect the Catherine Park to be so beautiful! And Pushkin itself is a very beautiful city, with a special atmosphere. No matter which building you approach, it has history of its own. The whole city breathes with history. 

I've never come to St. Petersburg just for fun, only to play in tournaments. The first time was when I was twelve years old. I had a whole list of places I wanted to see, and Anna Gelashvili and I visited the Hermitage and the Russian Museum. Of course, I like this city, but because of a series of bad tournaments I said I wouldn't go back. Now I can!

Photos by Eteri Kublashvili and from Baira Kovanova’s archive