10 November 2016

Alexandra Kosteniuk: I Switched to Chess Mode Very Quickly in Novosibirsk

The Russian Champion answered Eteri Kublashvili's questions.

Eteri Kublashvili: Sasha, congratulations on your victory! You performed brilliantly and showed an excellent result, but what can you say about the quality of play? What game are you particularly pleased with?
Alexandra Kosteniuk. Thank you. It's difficult to judge now, I'll do a more serious analysis a bit later. For now, I can only speak about the result, and of course I am pleased with it because I have sailed through such a difficult tournament fairly smoothly. But there were two moments that stood out, which I am proud of and for which I can praise myself.

In the first round versus Anastasia Bodnaruk, I had already lost my edge when my opponent blundered by playing 59. Bh8?

Bodnaruk – Kosteniuk


It all happened when about two minutes were left. I pulled myself together, calculated and finally found a precise win: 59…h3! 60. Rxd8 h2, and the pawn passed. Somehow it proved to be a beautiful idea, like an endgame study. 

The second pivotal moment was in the round 10 game versus Evgenija Ovod, where I also found an important resource in the last few minutes.

Kosteniuk - Ovod


61. Rxc4!

This was the strongest move. And even though the position was near equal, it was easier for me to play with the flag hanging.

Those were the two moments that were special for me.

Apart from your chess achievements, what will you remember this tournament for?
It's hard to say, to be honest. I switched to the "chess mode" very quickly. I slept and played chess in my dreams. I was very glad that I managed to sleep on my day off without playing chess or analyzing. It even went as far as me analyzing a position or an opening variation as I slept, and I realized that I was sleeping and analyzing at the same time. I thought: "Ok, I don't know how to play there, maybe I'll analyze something while I sleep." In the end I wanted neither to sleep nor to eat nor to drink. Only chess. I didn't have the strength, the time or the desire to do anything else.   

So the day off was very quiet?
Yes, I did some things I had been planning, and in the evening we went to the theater. And I am grateful to the organizers because, for the first time, a wide choice of activities was offered to the participants so they could choose where to go. I don't remember anything like this in the past. It wasn't a big deal, but it cheered us up!

Let's go back to chess. Was there a moment when you realized that you could win the tournament?
It's hard to say. You always hope, but you stay alert. The start was very good: 4 out of 4. I never started like this before. I won a Russian championship only once, in 2005. You see, I started there 2 out of 2. But when I lost to Natalija Pogonina and had two draws later, things became rather complicated and vague. It was actually Natalija who caught up with me. Even when I played in the tenth round and was well ahead of the others ― by 1.5 points ― things were still unclear. Besides, my game started to go slowly downhill before the second time control, and if I had lost...

And Anastasia Bodnaruk and Natalija won.
Yes, and the girls won. So it was undecided till the last moment.

Last year, you told me in an interview that you were going to quit professional chess gradually. Will this victory make you change your decision?
I plan this every time (laughs). I don't even know, I can't say. It's clear that when I win, I don't have such ideas, but each time I say, "I'll continue to play this year, and then I'll quit." But I think this is the common talk of all chess players who have reached a certain level and have been playing for a long time. I still have motivation issues, particularly between tournaments.

I am used to dedicating myself to chess completely during a tournament, when I do nothing but prepare for one game after another. But I believe that I have to work and study chess more between tournaments if I consider myself a professional. And there's lots of other things and projects, and it really wears me down. This is why I say I need to stop this, but I think I'll keep saying this all the time.  

How great is your husband's merit in your victory?
Of course, it's great. He creates the atmosphere and is a "lightning discharger" for all my emotions, positive or negative. So his task is far from simple.

When we started going to tournaments together, during the first year at least all the competitions ended in my rating declining. But we finally fell into step and started to get positive results, and now victories have come (laughs).

I believe Pavel is your only coach? Or do you have other assistants if it's not a secret?
No, at the moment it's only with him that I work, if I may use this word. It happened naturally: first we started dating, and then he also began to help me. Somehow it happened all by itself, I hadn't considered him as a coach, but that's how it turned out. And now we have worked our way to the Champion's title (laughs).

Did you like it how the tournament was organized?
Yes. I really liked the hotel, one could see it was new. Now that I spend plenty of time in the hotel, the first smell that I feel as I enter my room is very important for me. The first impression from the room, from the hotel itself is crucial.

And the organizers tried to do everything in the best way possible. We played in a museum which has its own particular features, of course, but actually I believe we are spoilt by the Russian Chess Federation and the Timchenko Foundation that offer us an opportunity to participate in tournaments like that. Both the prize fund and the organization level are only improving from year to year. Every time I participate in Superfinals with pleasure and look forward to playing in them.

As for the prize, this time the winners have received Renault Kaptur cars from Renault Russia, the RCF's strategic partner. What's your relationship with cars, by the way? What's your driving experience? What cars do you prefer? Besides, it turned out you don't have a Russian driving license for now...  
I've been driving for a long time, perhaps almost 15 years. Yes, it so happened that I don't have a Russian driving license, I've only been driving abroad, so when I learned that the main prize would be a car I was really motivated. I started to find out how to get a Russian driving license, I've signed up for classes at a driving school, I started doing some online lessons and passing tests... Now I'll have to get to obtaining a Russian driving license.

This being said, I can't say I know much about cars. I don't like driving, a car is just a means of transportation for me. 

You can't do without a car in America, right?
Yes, it's impossible not to drive. But wherever it's possible to move around without a car, that's what I do. I often walk or use public transport in Moscow. And when I am in America, I take my daughter around in a car and I drive myself.

I can't help raising the Olympiad topic. It's often been discussed, but not so many opinions from the Russian women's team have been expressed. Except perhaps your participation in a Match TV emission. Do you feel that the general level of women's chess has greatly improved?
I think so. The leading female players' level has grown particularly strongly in recent years. I can't tell you for sure why a quantum leap of this kind has happened. Maybe because women have started playing in men's tournaments more, or working with strong male players. Anyway, their level of preparation is quite impressive now.  

In general, the Olympiad is a complex topic, but I think that if we judge by how our chess players and coaches worked and put their every effort in it, everything was fine. A team tournament is a very special matter after all, you must become one with the team for a certain period and be a single body with other people. Sometimes there are tournaments where we win, but your personal interests kind of conflict with those of the team's other members. This time everything was fine as it seemed to me. Both the coaches and the players were fully committed, but you should understand this is a game, this is sport. We won the Olympiad three times in a row before, and even this time, despite the poor middle of the event, we fought for the gold in the last round. It's just that we were in an all-or-nothing situation, we lacked a little bit, but despite all that we were fighting for the first place. So I can't say we completely failed it.    

Lessons need to be learned, of course. I've been saying for many years that work with the team should be done on a regular basis. That is, we should gather together not twice a year, but on a permanent basis, once a week or every two weeks. This is very important, particularly for women's chess, because it motivates. When a woman has a family, children, and other worries, she really needs a tutor to show her the way. Maybe even more than a man does. I believe it's worth considering these things.  
As for the performance of each of the participants, I am sure that the coaches are thinking about it all the time. Next year we'll have two team competitions: the World and the European Championships. So we'll have an opportunity to come back and prove that the fourth place is not where we're used to seeing ourselves.

Now about personal tournaments. Your next competition is a stage of FIDE Grand Prix in Khanty-Mansiysk. Given your score, you have chances to win the series. Have you calculated the odds?
Yes, I have theoretical chances. It's a very complex system, so to be honest, I'm not particularly following it... Grand Prix has always been a very difficult series for me, I only agreed to play there for the sake of practice. In the first tournaments I took the last places twice, and the tournaments are so strong that if something goes wrong, you just come to the next tournament and hope that this disastrous series will stop. So I always think about the next Grand Prix event warily, I just hope that I'll be able to show good play. I don't think about the result at all. Now I need to take a rest, recharge my batteries, and analyze my mistakes, since the Superfinal consumed a lot of energy, with each win earned after a grueling game. And then I'll rush into the fight again.

Did you find the time for jogging in Novosibirsk?
I jogged in the gym every day, and we jogged twice in Pervomaisky Square.

Was the weather a problem?
We're not afraid of below zero temperatures, but the slippery ice was a problem. But after snow fell out we jogged on the last two days, and it was, on the contrary, very pleasant: a slight frost and snow like in a New Year fairy tale. We really wanted to see the New Year in!  

In general I try to jog at tournaments because it helps me to recover, regardless of the result. So it's crucial to find a place where to jog.

Along with sports, you are actively popularizing chess. You've recently published Propisi (Worksheets), are you planning to continue the series?
Yes, Propisi and Rabochie tetradi (Workbooks) came out, and in January I planned to work on materials for the second year of studying chess. I would like to do books for three or four years of studies to continue the current program for pre-school children (from 3 to 7 years old).

Furthermore, there is the Kosteniuk Chess Cup that I held this year between the Olympiad and the Russian Rapid Chess and Blitz Championship.

This time in Podolsk?
Yes, closer to Moscow. There was another novelty: I tried to bring together all the leading girls in the under-12 tournament. Those who were able to come played a round-robin.

I want to continue working in this area because children's chess is an interesting and very gratifying field that is now actively developing. When you see the eyes of those kids, you understand where you invest your effort and energy.

So yes, I've got the Cup, the books, and in principle, considering all my trips, as I do my best to find a balance between my family and professional life, I don't have any other hobbies except for jogging and sports as a whole. I don't have enough time.

And you also opened an Academy in Paris.
Yes, this year we opened a section at the Russian Center of Science and Culture. We have two groups, the classes take place once a week. Either Pavel or me hold teach in classes when we can. Konstantin Landa helps too. The classes are in Russian, every time we give a home task, and it's discussed during the lessons. So we hardly have the time for anything else.

Does your daughter play chess?
She doesn't play chess. She knows the rules, she has played in a few tournaments, but she says, "Mummy, I don't like it." Perhaps I showed too much zeal in trying to get her to play chess. I think it's my fault. It was a stress for her because she is a very responsible little person, and I probably signed her in for tournaments too early. She didn't want to upset her mum, but in general it was very hard for her.

But she is a very sporty girl, she has a lot of hobbies. Along with sports she also sings and performs. She has a musical band now, so my daughter is a pop star (laughs).

A worthy continuation of the dynasty!
Yes, we are singing all the time now. And she's also started playing tennis. She did figure skating for many years before that, but now she doesn't have enough time, the skating-rink is pretty far there. We tried going there twice a week, but now we quit because of tennis and the musical group. She'll come to Moscow for the New Year and will do some skating. I'm really looking forward to it.  

Photos by Aleksei Tsiler and Eteri Kublashvili