Person of day - 11 MARCH 2023
Elena was born in Leningrad and moved to Krasnoyarsk with her family when she was 12. In her family, everyone played chess, including both parents and her younger sister. Elena’s mother, Lidiya Nikolaevna, became Krasnodar’s regional champion in 1979, while her daughter was already ascending chess Olympus as a student of Krasnodar University’s law faculty.
Akhmilovskaya’s biography is a unique achievement: she complete d the path from regional champion to grandmaster in 2.5 years but was never awarded the title of international master. In her first year at university, she wanted to transfer to her native Leningrad, but the local administration acquiesced and provided her with accommodation. At the final of the “Burevestnik” society, Akhmilovskaya was helped by the coach of Leningrad University, Alexander Kentler. Elena qualified for the USSR championship, where she was noticed by the patron of Russian chess, Vera Tikhomirova, who found her a mentor. That man was master Vladimir Lepeshkin.
In 1975, having just become master of sport, Elena began to compete in qualifying competitions for the world championship. She split 1st-2nd place in the zonal tournament and in 1976 she achieved an identical result at the inter-zonal, thus qualifying for the candidates’ matches. For that accomplishment, she was awarded the title of grandmaster, though it was formally given to her in 1977.
In her first candidates’ cycle, Akhmilovskaya won the quarter-final against Tatiana Lemachko, but lost to Maia Chiburdanidze in the semis. A quarter of a century later, Elena remembered that match in an interview: “Chess is a very fair game where everyone gets what they deserve. I lost that match to Maia Chiburdanidze and she then became the world champion. That means that she deserved to win. Whenever I lost, I blamed only myself and just tried to work on my weaknesses. Chess is a very vicious game and if you ease up, you risk being excluded from the world elite forever.”
The next two qualifying cycles were not particularly successful for her, but in in 1986, having triumphed in the candidates’ tournament in Malmo, she won the right to a match for the world crown with Maia Chiburdanidze. That contest took place in two cities- Sofia and Borjomi- and finished with victory for the incumbent world champion by a score of 8,5:5,5.
Akhmilovskaya was the champion of RSFSR in 1980 and the RSFSR People’s Spartakiads in 1978 and 1983. She was a prize-winner in Soviet championships and an Olympic winner in 1978 and 1986. She was also a winner and medallist of multiple international competitions as a member of the Soviet national team. In 1981, she was awarded the Order of the Badge of Honour and became a recognised Soviet sports master in 1987.
Rimma Bilunova, the captain of the women’s Soviet team in the 1980s, remembers: “In the women’s Olympic team, Elena was one of the most dependable players. And it wasn’t just about her impressive results- 10 out of 10, 8,5 out of 12 and 8,5 out of 9. She was never scared of playing black, she never complained and she never let her stardom affect her attitude. As captain of the women’s team, I found it easy and enjoyable working with her. Elena seemed to be an interesting personality as well as a fascinating chess player. Attractive, friendly and with a subtle character and internal dignity, Elena could listen and immerse herself in the world. I thought that she had lost of potential to prove herself later on in something else.”
At the Olympiad in Thessaloniki, Akhmilovskaya scored 8,5 points out of 9. However, she did not play final, decisive match.
R. Bilunova: “Everyone got used to the Soviet team winning gold: usually, we won first place with one or two rounds to go. But here, for the first time, the Hungarian team contained the three Polgar sisters: little Judit was ripping everyone apart at the last board. We were neck in neck, but with one round to go, Elena Akhmilovskaya left us. Naturally, this affected team spirit. Elena performed very well and came first on her board, but I had to collect her medal for her. And the team ended up in second place…”
And here is Elena Akhmilovskaya’s version of that famous story: “I wanted to marry him (the captain of the American team John Donaldson-ed) and we were married in Athens’ city hall. Perhaps this is a good story for a newspaper, but I did not see anything extraordinary in it. A few days after the wedding, a friend called and told us that one popular Greek newspaper was going to publish a large piece on us and that a large scandal was brewing. I was advised to leave quietly. There were no politics or desperate dissidence in my actions, but the perestroika was only just starting and there was a real danger of my travel access being restricted and me being separated from my beloved. I felt sorry for the team because I let it down, but sometimes difficult decisions have to be made. I chose personal happiness.”
Elena Akhmilovskaya won American women’s championships in 1990 and 1994 and split 1st place with Irina Levitina in 1993. A few years after moving across the ocean, Elena divorced Donaldson and married international master Georgi Orlov. She had a son, as well as a daughter from her first marriage.
E. Akhmilovskaya: “At first, things were very difficult in America. I had to work a lot and there was no time left for chess. Adapting to America is not as easy as it seems. On one hand, life itself is easier and more comfortable, but it is quite difficult to live there from an emotional point of view. Depression and longing for one’s homeland strike many.
In America, I went to work in a bank. The pay was small, but it took a lot of effort. I worked for the whole day and had to be with my family on top of that. Then I became an accountant and learned to program. But I returned to chess because that was what I could do best of all. My husband is in charge of Seattle’s chess programme for schools. Chess is taught in 50 schools in the city. They are not compulsory, but many students gather for one-two hours to play…thankfully, sponsors like chess in America.”
Alas, at the moment when her whole life seemed in order, Akhmilovskaya was struck by a severe illness…Elena died in 18th November 2012 in Seattle, when she was just fifty-five.