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Interview With New Women's World Champion, Alexandra Kosteniuk Print E-mail
By Jerry Hanken   
September 24, 2008
GM Alexandra Kosteniuk. Photo Vladimir Shirokov
Grandmaster Alexandra Kosteniuk just captured her first Women's World Championship title in Nalchik, Russia over 14-year-old GM elect Hou Yifan of China. In a CLO exclusive, Chess Journalists of American president Jerry Hanken interviews the champion, mediaqueen, runner and mother about her road to the title, her plans as the champ and how to attract more women to chess. 

Jerry Hanken (JH) : How did it feel in the moment you made the draw and clinched your first Women World Championship title?
GM Alexandra Kosteniuk (AK): I was so tired, the world championship seemed eternal, and we were in Nalchik almost one full month.  In the knockout system you always have another match to play after you win. I am not even sure I understood totally that it was over and there would not be another game the next day. Well in fact of course I was also so happy, I had finally reached my goal. What a relief, I was waiting for this moment for such a long time, probably since I missed my chance in 2001...

JH: Can you comment on your young opponent's play in the final match?
AK: I must say that Hou Yifan is absolutely amazing. She is incredibly gifted. In the past I was often the youngest or among the youngest in tournaments, in fact in my last try at the World Championship Finals in 2001, I was only 17 and it was a sensation, well now I was shocked to see that while I am still pretty young at 24, Hou Yifan is a full ten years younger than me! When I prepared for my match against her, the earliest game I could find in the database for her was in 2003... About her play, I can say she has a keen sense when trying to get the initiative, when to open the center, how to complicate matters. She calculates variations very well. The areas where I may have some edge would be the strategic moments where experience is beneficial, for example in openings like the Ruy Lopez where it takes years to get a good feeling of how to play the middle game correctly. Taking into consideration Hou Yifan's age, it seems clear to me that she is in a very strong position to become women's world champion one day.

Kosteniuk with her final match opponent, GM-elect Hou Yifan. Photo courtesy chesspics.com.

JH: Please share with our readers your journey to the Championship, the format and the steps you took to get you where you are now.
AK: I always say that chess is a "fair game" in the sense that it gives back to you what you give to it. The more you study chess, the better you will become, and that's a fact proven over and over again. When I looked at my games 2-3-4 years ago, I had many problems in the openings, so I went about the study of openings very seriously, expanded my repertoire (for example I started playing the Ruy Lopez, before I only played the Sicilian), and against 1.d4 I started playing new lines. With White also, I have alternate lines that I play now. That makes it much more difficult for opponents to prepare against me. While openings are important, it's equally important to study the middle game, endgame, and chess studies. While I was pregnant with my baby Francesca, I did a lot of work and read many chess books I never had a chance to finish before. Then this year, I started training since February at home in Miami, running each morning 5 kilometers, participating in races, and studying chess like never before. I wanted to see if I could come back as strong as before, I made it a point I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. The world championship was announced in Argentina in June, but was later moved to Russia in August. This actually turned out quite good for me, because it gave me two additional months to train, and the home crowd certainly also helped, especially at the end when I became the last player from my country. In short, it's hard work and good physical form that pushes you to the top.

Alexandra, alomst seven months pregnant in Miami,
Photo courtesy Pierre W. Henry and chesspics.com

JH: When Bobby won the World Championship in 1972, he promised he would be a playing Champ but was the opposite. Do you intend to be a "playing" Champion?
AK: I certainly feel a great responsibility as world champion, and will play and promote chess as much as I can during my tenure. I have already agreed to play in the Chess Olympiad in November, and in just one week I will be flying to China to participate in the First Mind Sports Games, which may be the key to bringing chess to the Olympic Games. I will continue as hard or even harder in my web activities , for example adding many episodes to my ChessQueen YouTube channel, as well as my free podcasts Chess is Cool and Chess Killer Tips.

JH: Did you have any one moment of doubt after your nice first game victory when you felt the pressure?
AK: It was important for me to win the first game against Hou, especially in a nice style with Black in the Ruy Lopez. That made it quite difficult for Hou to select a good line for the third game with White. But in chess one can never be sure of anything... in the second and third games I was close to winning but let my advantage slip away.

JH: Tell us your thoughts as you played the last game.. Some say you could have won that game easily but took the draw to clinch the title. Is that so?
AK: My last game was very difficult. Normally with White it should be possible to draw without problems, there are many opening variations that give forced draws, unavoidably. However, if one player wants to complicate matters, it usually is possible to do so. I wanted to play quietly, but Hou played very well, she countered with a good ...b5 and that led to great complications, in which we both had only moves to play or face possible defeat. At the end I had survived all her tries, and even had a winning continuation, but I was not looking to humiliate my opponent, all I needed was to win the match, and a draw was all I wanted. As soon as I saw the perpetual check I took it, I did not even think twice.
Alexandra in her World Women's Championship gear, Photo courtesy chesspics.com.

  JH: On a more general level, who taught you most about chess-anyone living or long dead?  If you had to choose one player of the past or present to spend an afternoon with on a social  as well as a chess basis, who would it be?  
AK: That is always a very difficult question to answer. I try to learn from all great players, not from only one. I admire all world champions, who, having reached their goal, continue to search for better play. I have studied in great detail most classics, like Bobby Fischer's 60 memorable games, the matches of Botvinnik and Tal, among others, Kasparov's books, and they all have contributed to my learning. I'm not sure with whom I'd like to spend an afternoon...well, actually, I have often met with Kramnik while in Paris, he is a very nice person, and I hope he will win his next match against Anand next month. Kramnik was one of the first people to call me on the phone after I won the world championship title.

JH: Tell us a little about your husband Diego, and what part he plays in your current chess career. I know Diego is a fine photographer. In what other areas does he put in his time and energy, if any?
AK: I met Diego at a chess simul in Switzerland, he was on a trip in between the USA and Russia. Two years after that we got married in St. Petersburg. Diego helps me so that I can train on chess without thinking of anything else. He works also on the web sites, and he puts together my podcasts and other videos.

JH: Can you articulate for our readers your chess philosophy?  Is it an art, as the late Eduard Gufeld held, or science, a view strongly espoused by the great chess writer and IM John Watson and the current US Senior Champion IM Larry Kaufman?
AK: For the moment I feel chess is mostly a sport. It's very competitive and you need to be in good physical form to play well. Furthermore, it is an unending source of joy for the beautiful wins it provides. It is also an unending source of self-improvement, since any loss is purely due to your own mistakes, and one can learn from one own's mistakes. Chess also lets you search for perfection, and you can take a try at it in each and every game, which is something very difficult to do in other areas of life. Chess is the coolest of games, that's for sure!

JH: Please tell our readers, if you kindly will, which activities outside of chess things interest you?
AK: I try to do as many things as possible outside of chess. Now that I have my wonderful little baby Francesca, of course I take time with her, play with her and see her grow. I also meet with my friends, several of whom also are young mothers, such as French champion Almira Skripchenko. I also like to do many kinds of sports, like playing tennis, skiing, bicycling. I like to go to the movies, I read a lot. Life is so short and there are so many things to do, I usually accept new challenges, I like to do things I've never done before. Of course that's when I have time over after the 6+ hours of chess I train each day...

Kosteniuk with her friend, IM Almira Skripchenko, Nevada, 2006,  Photo courtesy chesspics.com.

JH: Here in the US, female players are relatively scarce. The USCF has only about five percent of membership and this has held steadily for many years. I don't know the stats of other countries but in America, I see this as a vast untapped market.  What suggestions or ideas do you have to reach out to this market?
AK:  I think that chess is a very good game for young girls. At the learning stage there is no difference between boys and girls, and so chess  shows girls they can be the leaders. Girls have no reason to be afraid of boys, intellectually certainly. And chess is a tool where they can prove objectively that they are smart. Young girls should see examples of other young girls who are successful at chess, and for whom chess has been a blessing. Chess lets you make friends, chess helps you travel, chess proves to everybody you're smart. And if you're smart for chess, chances are that you are smart for other things too.

GM Alexandra Kosteniuk at her April 08 simul at Columbia University. Here  she is facing Anna Ginzburg. Photo courtesy chesspics.com.

JH: You are an award-winning member of the Chess Journalists of America(CJA). Tell us your thoughts on this organization and how it has been part of your chess writing, a separate area in which you excel?
AK: I am proud of being a member of the CJA, I think it is very important to write about chess and to get the word out that it's a wonderful game. Every member of the CJA is doing a great job of promoting chess, and they do it in a variety of ways. Nowadays it's no longer only writing in newspapers and magazines, all kinds of journalism activities are needed, from radio to video podcasts to blogs to chess photography. All these varieties of chess journalism make our game grow more popular, and I am glad the CJA is evolving with our times. I wish more people who have chess blogs and promote chess in schools and on the web would join the CJA, as the more we are, the more effect we can make in the world to show how wonderful chess really is.

The champ with her medal, Photo courtesy chesspics.com.

Look for more from Alexandra Kosteniuk in the December issue of Chess Life Magazine including annotations from her World Championship victory and an exclusive follow-up interview with CLO-editor Jennifer Shahade. Bookmark kosteniuk.com for frequent video, photo and game updates.