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Interview with Anna Zatonskih Print E-mail
By Tom Braunlich   
June 13, 2008
Anna Zatonskih won the 2008 U.S. Women’s Championship last month in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I interviewed her for the report on the event I’m writing for Chess Life magazine. Due to space restrictions and the interview's timeliness, I am publishing it now on CLO. We hear about her new life living in Germany, her feelings on the championship, and her thoughts on the controversial playoff game.

Anna Zatonskih: I would like to begin by expressing how delighted I am to have won the 2008 U.S Championship.  This has been a dream come true and I would like to thank the organizers for staging such a wonderful event, my fans, my parents, my husband and my daughter for supporting and helping me. Without them none of this would have been possible.

Tom Braunlich:  Tell us about your family home life now; I understand you've been living in Germany? What have you been up to recently?
AZ:  I’ve been living in Germany for a few months now. My husband (Grandmaster) Daniel Fridman, a German citizen, managed to fly to the U.S. back and forth for two years, joking that he lives on a plane.  Now it is my turn to live in Germany. After our lovely one-year-old daughter Sofia and I moved to Germany, Daniel was so happy that he won the German Championship!

Germany is very different. I don't speak German yet. I miss the U.S. and my American life. I worked for 2½ years with “Great Knight,” a  chess organization in Long Island, New York, enjoying every moment of teaching kids to play chess. I remember my students were so excited when I won US Championship in 2006! We celebrated in each club and we ate so many cakes!Recently I visited a children's tournament and was very happy to see them again! My pupils were giving me advice on how to become a champion! That was sweet! I received many nice e-mails during the U.S. Championship and felt a great support from them! I am trying to convince Daniel to come back to the US :)

TB: At least you will have no jet lag for the upcoming Olympiad in Dresden. How do you like the U.S. Chances there?
I think we have a good chances!  There are new rules as well - no draws before move 30 and nobody can be late even for one minute! I am wondering how strict that last rule will be?!

TB:Rusa Goletiani had to drop out of the Women's Championship this year at the last minute due to the demands of her new baby. Now that your own child is a little older, were you able to get in more preparation for this event? How do you balance the demands of chess and family?
AZ:In 2007 I played in the tournament having a small child and I completely understand Rusa’s decision. It is very tough. The baby keeps you up all night while next day you have to fully concentrate and play a game! Rusa is a former U.S. Champion, so I think if she would play she could go for a win.
    Last year’s FKB U.S. Women’s Championship and open was the only chess event I had participated in for more than a year, which is not enough to make serious progress in chess. Now my daughter is getting older and I want to come back to chess. This year during the U.S. Championship I was able to leave her home with my mother, and it was easier to concentrate during the games knowing she is being well taking care of. I would like to thank my parents for their incredible help and support. My Dad still believes I will become a World Champion!

Anna with her daughter Sofia and husband Daniel in April 2008.

TB: Do you study regularly with your husband?
AZ: We don’t study regularly at home but during tournaments his help is enormous! He was playing a tournament himself during the U.S. Championship, but still found time to help me prepare for the most important games, and his recommendations were priceless. He has a wide opening repertoire and many unusual ideas.

TB: What are your plans now as a chess player, in both women's chess and overall? Is the GM title a goal for you?
AZ: It is not easy to talk about goals at the moment. Many things changed after my daughter's birth. Until recently I was working 5 days a week, but now I have more free time, which I intend to devote to my family and chess.  I am trying hard to get stronger, and I am preparing now for the World Championship. It is very important for me to play well in this tough knockout event.

TB:What were your overall impressions of this year’s championship?
AZ: I think the championship was well organized, and I want to thank the Frank Berry and the organizers for their excellent work planning and managing the tournament. Thanks also to Zeljka Malobabic for her outstanding work on monroi.com. I encourage everyone to check the video and photo reports on monroi.com. The videos are great! You don’t only see the players concentrating during the games but can also listen to funny commentaries about the games and participants.

TB: After the U.S. Championship, how did you celebrate?
AZ: The playoff finished very late and I was so tired after it all. After the closing ceremony, which finished at 11:30 PM, we had a normal dinner at IHOP (The only place still open.) I started celebrating the next day in New York.  We had a
wonderful dinner with  Sagalchik family!
The next day I flew to Ukraine, where I left my daughter.

TB:I heard you won a rapid tournament in your stay in Ukraine?
AZ:Yes, a week after the U.S. Championship finished, I participated in  Serebryannik Memorial in my hometown, Mariupol Ukraine. It was a rapid tournament with about 150 participants including 1 GM and 5-10 IMs. I took first place with 8 out of 9. My father was so happy. I didn't play for three years in my home city. I brought my daughter Sofia to the chess club. A lot of people remembered when my father took me to the club when I was around Sofia's age. :)   
Anna Zatonskih, a week ago with her award from the rapid tournament in her hometown.The T-shirt is from Stillwater!

TB: This year's championship often seemed like a race between you and Irina Krush. You both jumped out to impressive 5-0 scores and you had a half-point lead on her going into round 7. But then you lost to Tuvshintugs and fell a half point behind. How did that feel? Did you think it was over then? Are you usually able to respond well to that kind of setback?
AZ: Loosing that game was pretty painful for me. Chimi played well and had some interesting ideas in the ending. Of course I was upset, but it wasn’t over at all. After the game we had a good dinner, and went to the gym and pool. Relaxing always helps me forget about a previous loss and concentrate on the next game. In the last two championships I have played well after losing. Although I lost to Tuvshintugs, I knew I had to play white with Irina in the next round, and I was ready for a fight. I also knew that Irina would be playing with Katerine Rohonyan in the last round.

TB: The 8th-round game with Irina was obviously a key moment. Was it as tense for you as it seemed to the spectators?
AZ: I think that was the key game of the tournament. It was very tense. I had white and was half a point behind while trying to give my best to win the game. I managed to get a winning position at some point but both of us were in time trouble. I missed the best continuation and gave Irina the chance to equalize the game with a good defense. Even after that draw it was clear to me that the tournament was not over. In the last round we both had to face strong opponents and, like in every chess game, anything could happen.

TB: After you tied with Irina with 7½/9 there were rapid playoffs for the title that proved to be an ordeal for both players. How did you get through it?
AZ: I always enjoyed playing in rapid chess and blitz but the playoffs were heavy with pressure on both of us. We got 15 minutes + 3 seconds increments for the first set of games. I won my first game but Irina won the second one. With a tie we had to play blitz 5 minutes with 2 seconds increment. I won a pawn in the opening and lost on time having 1 piece and 2 pawns up. I could not believe I lost! I ended up in a very difficult situation where I had to win with black pieces and I did it. Our score was equal again and we had to play a final Armageddon game.

Probably this is not the best way to determine the winner but this is how the rules were set up. Jim Berry flipped the coin and Irina had to choose the time.  She chose 6 minutes for white and 4½ for black. After the game my husband told me playing white would have been a better choice since they had a time advantage and we had no draws yet in our match anyway! However, I chose to play with the black pieces and don’t regret it all, especially that they brought me the final victory.
I started the Armageddon game not very successfully and was in a worse position, which especially managed to increase Irina’s time advantage. With good defense I survived till the severe time pressure where we both had less than a half of minute.

TB:What is your response about the controversy stirred up by Irina in her Open Letter published on Chess Life Online a week after the tournament which protested the playoffs?
AZ:Close to the end of the game Irina knocked her rook over and never put it back. The USCF rules say: “If, during the course of a move, a player inadvertently knocks over one or more pieces, that player must not press the clock until the position has been reestablished.”
I remember my very fast thoughts at this point: If I will press ‘pause’ and claim win or extra-time based on illegal actions… I will lose on time!  The “Pause” button is a very small one on the front of the clock. So I only had 2 seconds and I didn’t have a time to do it! I know Irina didn’t do it on purpose but I had to move my rook as fast as I could. I didn’t see any other choice for me.  
Irina pointed out (in her Open Letter) that I started couple of my moves before she pressed her clock. I’ve always liked to watch on YouTube how strong chess players play blitz. I was amazed how they can make good decisions in just a fraction of a second. During those games players with a 2600-2800 ratings and even world champions occasionally moved before their opponents pressed the clock. This is a common thing in blitz games.

 Susan Polgar also didn’t see anything unusual and wrote that “[she] played in countless blitz tournaments and this looks like a normal blitz game to me. I do not see anything unusual and I do not think that either player was doing anything “illegal” on purpose.”
I think most of the chess public is aware of the circumstances surrounding the Armageddon game, which ultimately crowned me as the 2008 U.S Women’s Champion.  I understand Irina is upset at losing the title and I would have been upset had I lost.  When there is only 1 second left on the clock, the result is determined by the strength of one's nerves and luck.  On this occasion my nerves proved to be stronger and luck was on my side.

Overall I agree with Irina that a better system is possible to determine future champions in the next championships. However, prior to the U.S. Championship 2008, all participants were made aware of the rules and regulations under which this event was to be played, and everyone agreed to those rules. Arbiters, officials, committees were in place to enforce those rules and maintain fairness.
 I would like to thank Irina for a good fight on the chessboard and wish her luck in her future chess career.