1 November 2020

Valentina Gunina: My Goal is to Become Women’s World Champion

Russian Championship Higher League's winner is interviewed by Vladimir Barsky

New Shoes and an Excellent Plus Mark

- Valentina, my congratulations on your brilliant victory!

– Thank you!

– Eight out of nine makes a gap of one and a half points from the second prize-winner. Did you want to train, or did you have to play in the Higher League to qualify for the Superfinal?

– I had to. It did not work out well for me last year as I dropped many rating points. On the other hand, I didn't want to miss the opportunity to play live chess. After all, the last time I played the long time control was in St. Louis in February.

- It was not a success there, was it?

– It was not. The problems started about three years ago when I needed to undergo surgery on my joints, which affected my ability to think straight throughout the game. Fortunately, Ian Nepomniachtchi has recently advised me a good doctor who also happened to treat Kramnik. He had helped me a lot and kept a close eye on me for the entire tournament to make sure I was OK.

I will share a little joy of mine: I have recently bought a new pair of shoes! Before that, I could only wear sneakers with a special insole. They are super soft go easy on your feet, but they are still shoes!  I was so happy!

A Cup for the Sochi Victory


– This news will definitely please your fans!

– Everyone's joys differ. Emil Sutovsky always demands (and rightly so) no ugg boots and sneakers and that girls put on beautiful shoes for major tournaments. I had to explain and bring medical certificates that I couldn't wer even ballet shoes.

– I hope these problems remain in the past!

– All in all, the quarantine did me good in that I could take serious care of my health problems and address many personal issues. I also brag to everyone about having solved a thousand puzzles during that time!

– Where did you find that many?

– Figuratively speaking, I took the coach by the scruff and told him, "Come on, give it to me no matter what!” 

– Who exactly did you take by the scruff of his neck?

– I will keep it to myself! But we worked hard and are happy with the result achieved.

– Did you play online tournaments?

– Yes, but with the idea of finding out more about my strengths and weaknesses. We also delved into the legacy of world champions because of gaps in my knowledge. It was interesting, but not easy. To analyze games by Smyslov and Botvinnik was more than a challenge.

– Why?

– Because this is not my style at all. However, Tal's games were sweet music to my ears!

– What is your take on Smyslov's games, for example?

– It was tough to predict his moves. The coach would deliberately give me positions not about calculating lines but about the feeling of where the pieces belong. Here, for example, Tal's typical game would be board on fire. I say, "Rook-d1 seems like a logical move here." It turns out to be the first line, and the coach is surprised, "How would you find it so fast?” And I explain to him that there is an order in every chaos. It's evident to me – this is the cornerstone of my style!

During the quarantine, we analyzed my games inside out to determine what was missing. It turned out I was bored with boring positions. It is in me to feel against doing something if not interested in it. I am just joking – this trait seems to be inherent to all Aquarians. I am well familiar with all of Karpov's games. I like them for their many non-standard ideas and subtle positional decisions. It sometimes takes me seconds to find some most complex ideas just because it feels interesting. It is a lot more challenging to play dull and dry games in the style of Malakhov (laughing). I'm just kidding – Vladimir used to my coach for many years, and we get along exceptionally well.

– Are you revising your views on chess now?

– I am. Back in March, when everything was only beginning, we realized that the limitations were not fleeting. And we thought it best to exploit the time given by thoroughly studying chess and addressing health problems. To add to this, I have a fitness coach taking care of my physical shape. I know her from the time she helped me recover from surgery. I remember it being both funny and sad. I had come to her once with a cast around my arm. She looked at me and said, "Well, this is no big deal; we will work on your legs and build your back muscles." The next time was her seeing me hobbling on crutches already.

She helped me recover back then and now agreed to help as well. The first month of quarantine, when nothing was clear, I sat home consuming all sorts of tasty things. And all this after the post-surgery gaining of much weight that I have failed to lose so far.  I do not like it, needless to say. Lyudmila takes me by the scruff of the neck and says: "Let's go to the park to do some exercises." We had one-hour sessions four times a week without any breaks. She said, "I know you're a top-level chess player, so what? You will do all the exercises no matter what!” The last 10-15 minutes of each workout dedicated to abs exercises was the easiest part because I already had those muscles in good shape.

I also have an excellent psychologist and an amazing woman working with me. She prepared me for Sochi and later evaluated my performance as a five-plus mark. She would never give me more than a bad mark, and she grumbles a lot when I don't follow her instructions.


Russian, English, Geography


– What else were you up to during quarantine?

– It's nice to have spent much time with my family. At first, it was my mother and me, and then my brother came along and got down to eliminating gaps in my education. My brother is very smart and tells me what movies to watch and what books to read. I also decided to take lessons in some subjects that I want to improve. I have done a dictation in Russian and was very happy to get a good mark!

– Congratulations!

– I want to speak correctly because I often have to give interviews, among other things. I need to express my thoughts more clearly. I try to read a lot; it's a pity that very few books show which syllable is stressed.

– And what else besides the Russian language?

– English and geography.

– Why geography? There is a famous cliche "a cabman knows his way about."

– I like to study a map of the world. The teacher says it improves my memory, and it is my visual memory that needs much improvement. Besides, I have already visited many places, and it feels nice to pinpoint them on the map. The teacher recommends what to watch or read up on a particular topic. This is my way of self-educating.

– How did you gear up for the Higher League?

– I went to the Igor Kurnosov Memorial. I like visiting Chelyabinsk. I have a VIP place there: I stay with Igor Kurnosov's parents, and they also invite me to their garden outside the city, and I consume everything that grows in it. We have a great time together.

– How are they?

– They do their best to stay strong, thank God. I come and make a mess, and it probably takes them long to recover afterward (smiling).

The tournament in Chelyabinsk is wonderful, of course. Maxim Shusharin deserves great respect for not refusing from the memorial at this challenging time when you need to collect so many papers.

I really liked how I performed there. The coach and I do not focus on the result but the quality of the games instead. This is because we have a goal in mind to make me a world champion.

– It sounds like a great plan! Did you head to the training camp after Chelyabinsk?

– Yes, it was on Krasnaya Polyana. However, I was there alone and communicated with my coach via Skype. I walked a lot and climbed mountains. After all, when I was on crutches, I could sit at home for days in a row. And I can't do without going for a walk now. My brother and I can walk for hours on end. We'll take coffee and go out to stroll and talk. Even my mother has grown into the habit of taking long walks.


Valentina Evgenievna


– So, the Higher League is the first classical tournament in six months. It was again about facing a player opposite you, touching wooden pieces with your hands, plus a new reality in the form of a transparent glass partition. Did it not feel like some connection with the previous reality was missing?

– You bet it was missing! I hit the screen with my head several times both here and in Chelyabinsk. It is a rather painful experience, I should admit.

It's funny how quickly you lose touch with real chess pieces. My coach and I once decided to hold a training session and, as a result, started throwing pieces at each other because we have grown out of the habit of moving pieces with our hands. You take a piece, and it just escapes you. We were throwing pieces, drinking coffee, and laughing.

It was in the Chelyabinsk tournament that I discovered about having lost my sense of time. I have never had any problems with time management, but there I seemed to think a little more than necessary and was already pressed for time against Shimanov! Fortunately, it was no longer a problem in Sochi and I am overall delighted with how this tournament has unfolded for me. There were clearly some mistakes, and I blundered in the openings, but, in general, I liked that my play was more or less smooth. Besides, I now perform better without queens on the board. I even started to enjoy figuring out where the pieces belong. We have devoted much time to this aspect.

– What about your performance in Sochi?

– It was only one game that didn't work out well for me. I should add, however, that young Leia Garifullina delivered it very well. At the critical moment, I spotted the right idea and tried to calculate the lines, but my head switched off. I even started to fear that it would be a deja-vu of my last tournaments. Suffice it to recall that I survived the previous European team championship on painkillers. It is a challenge because you feel a lack of inner strength. Fortunately, it was only a one-time episode in Sochi.

– Which of the eight wins did you like the most?

– It is the 8th round win over Margarita Schepetkova. One of the strongest competitors was, of course, Marina Guseva, who ended up taking second place. However, she mishandled and got a bad position right out of the opening. Marina can play so well that you need to be on the alert all the time, but that game was such a "freebie."

By contrast, Schepetkova played very well. I got an aesthetic pleasure not from the result but because the game was fascinating and got me on cloud nine.

– The computer did not evaluate your out of the opening position as a very satisfactory one. Where did the opponent blunder?

– I do not analyze games during the tournament and only get brief feedback from my coach.

– What did he say? Did he praise you?

– Well, he usually praises me lavishly so as not to get fired (laughing). In fact, the coach gives an objective assessment and never claims that I'm good if this is not the case. He is happy that I now perform better without queens on the board.

– What is your take on the Higher League lineup? Were there many opponents that you've never faced before?

– There were some very young girls that I didn't know at all. At the same time, they play much better than their current rating. They are young and talented.

– Have you ever faced Garifullina over the board before?

– Only in the rapid. She's very talented, but at least I knew her. There were some girls I had never seen before.

– And how did you feel in the role of Valentina Evgenievna?

– (laughing). It was fun, but it didn't bother me much. The most important thing for me was to assess the weak and strong aspects of my game. It turned out that I am still very much up to the task! Of course, it is clear that there is much room to improve, and I have mentally populated a whole list of to-do items. When I come back home, I will share it with my coach.

All in all, it is in me to continually generate some ideas. We are friends with Max Notkin, and I suggested playing a game that I devised myself and that I call "do you know?" You have an object in mind and start asking suggestive questions, and the person tries to guess the object. We took turns asking questions to probe each other's mental resources. I think I exhausted him with my questions, but it definitely broadened his horizons even further!

– A new generation of strong girls has grown up in Russia somewhat unexpectedly, hasn't it?

– Many of them are clearly talented, but there is still something to improve. It is clear that the Federation supports the national team and that I played in Sochi because I was "in the line of fire" and needed to stake my spot on the national team because there is no lack of candidates. You can be easily replaced over poor performance, and I don't feel like losing your privileges.

If you are not part of the national team, it is difficult to grow as a chess player. For example, the women's first prize in this tournament was 150 thousand rubles, while the men's first prize was 500 thousand. The gap is just too wide! Girls have to survive somehow. I can save money from significant prizes (for example, from the Olympiad, European and World Championships) and spend it on training with a coach. You clearly need to win and earn it first, but when you don't have any support, sponsors, and so on, you simply can't afford a coach because the prize pool is small. For example, I see that I have a big edge over my opponents in terms of opening preparation. Unfortunately, I have forgotten most of these lines, but my opening files are otherwise much better because I collaborate with a professional.

To be honest, I'm not fascinated by working with a computer on my own. This is such a thankless task: I blunder and keep forgetting all my lines. It is way more pleasant to work with a coach: I need an opponent, an assistant. I do not feel like working with the engine; I get bored.

– Did Inna Ivakhinova support you during the tournament?

– Inna came with a student, and we walked together. We have been friends with Inna since we were 11 years old, and we joke about celebrating the 20th anniversary. However, a 13-year-old student was probably interested to know how I study and what books I might recommend her to read, etc.

– What books did you recommend her?

– I read Vladimir Kramnik's book "Breakthrough" when I was a student. Needless to say, this is one of the most magnificent books! His games are monumental; you can go over them again and again. It hurt a lot to hear him announce the end of his professional career. We all grew up on his games, and I wanted more – and here comes such an upset! When he returned to the world of fast and blitz chess, I was overjoyed!

Three favorite tails


– You tried commenting on the online events during the quarantine. How did you like it?

– It's funny because my speech is peppered with many junk words that I picked up living in the student dormitory. My mother pleads me continuously to adjust my speech slightly and think before I speak. They even reprimanded me for improper language on a couple of occasions.

– Was it when you commented on Chess.com?

– Indeed. And then Murtas Kazhgaleyev invited me to his YouTube channel and added, "You are free to say whatever you feel like." This is when I found myself in my element! I was over the moon.

– Overall, did you enjoy this new experience?

– Yes, I understand that commenting is hard work, but I like trying my hand in something new. Thus, I decided to learn to sing a few years ago.

– Wow!

– I took vocal lessons from a tutor, and everything seemed well on track when we tried to train my voice. There came a day when the tutor organized a concert where I needed to sing a song by Zemfira. I went on stage, and there happened the same thing often happens during my games – I just forgot the words! I tried to dance as an accompaniment to the music, and my voice is not great as it is without adding the forgotten words into the picture. So, I decided that it was my business to play chess after all.

Back in my school days, I hated when I had to learn poems by heart and then not to forget them on my way from home to school. It's about the same with chess lines as they fade into oblivion and would not stay in my head. On the other hand, my brother has developed a colossal memory, and he constantly teases me with some quotes from classical books. He never says that I'm an illiterate person, of course, but this is how close he gets to it. And I like to learn something new more than anything else. I also like spending time with animals.

Going into the tournament, I decided to devote the prize money, if I win any, to the care of homeless cats. I will only pay my coach's share and will give away the money remaining. I love animals, I have three tails at home, and I also donate to the animal shelter. We have many homeless cats and kittens living in house basements here in Odintsovo. Taking care of animals motivates me.

– What pets do you have?

– Two dogs and a cat. The older dog is four years old and is from Armenia; the baby (one-year-old) is from Montenegro. And my cat is seven years old and is an old fat creature.

Home is much fun! However, I have always had a strong sense of guilt in front of my mother because in my absence it is she who has to take care of everyone's needs. And now my brother has taken on most of the burden; the animals obey him, and Lilya (the older dog) just adores him.

The Russian Championship Higher League winners Valentina Gunina and Maxim Chigaev

– Is it difficult to come up with future chess plans nowadays?

– Well, I just wanted to qualify for the Superfinal. There are no upcoming tournaments yet, but I will undoubtedly continue to work on my chess. The coach and I might go to the training session.

I'm generally happy with my life, even boldly happy, I would say. I just learn from my mistakes and enjoy my life. My family indulge me and call me a princess. They allow me everything. This is why we watch movies that I like. I may approach my brother and demand that we go for a walk, and he never refuses to go. They have done so much to spoil me with their attention!

Pictures by Vladimir Barsky