Home Page arrow Chess Life Online arrow 2007 arrow September arrow Our Champion Turns 40
Our Champion Turns 40 Print E-mail
By Betsy Dynako   
September 12, 2007
Shabbalead.jpg Turning 40 once marked the time of a man’s life when he was allowed to have a mid-life crisis, but 40 just isn’t all that it use to be. Today many people see turning “the big four-oh” as a time to review life goals and achievements. Alex Shabalov is crisis free and looking forward to what the next 40 plus years have in store. “Some people don’t even celebrate 40, they let it pass and they are happy. I am probably going to have a big party,” he mused.

I had the pleasure of spending time with Shabalov just last month in Peabody, MA during the New England Grandmasters. He was kind enough to speak with me and we retreated to his hotel room so he could unwind from his game. He travels with his music collection, about 10,000 albums, what he calls his everyday listening. He is physically fit and training for a half-marathon, so while he could carry the albums with him, it doesn’t mean his car is loaded down with vinyl and CDs. Shabalov's music is electronically tucked away on a hard drive, which we both had the pleasure to listen to while we talked.

Alex Shabalov calls Pittsburgh home. His house is surrounded by the great outdoors. “When I wake up in the morning there are like five different animals in the backyard,” he said. Shabalov shares his home with his wife and younger daughter. His older daughter studies international relations and history at Harvard. “My wife is a cardiologist. Even when I am at home I don’t see her very much. Her hours are pretty much 7am-10pm everyday.” I asked if he worried about his daughters like so many fathers do. His youngest daughter "goes to an all-girl private school. I like the concept that you don’t have to compete with boys at an early stage. I don’t really care what they do in college since I didn’t see it.”

Looking back on Shabalov’s life, it has been no secret that fellow Latvian Mikhail Tal was one of his most influential teachers.

Shabalov's early chess training was from the Russian chess school. "When you start to play chess, it is all e4, e5 and d4, d5 and you have to play it for one year. After one year you can switch to whatever you want. But for the first year you play symmetrical openings." The first opening that Shabalov fell in love with was the Dragon Sicilian: "I started to play it when I was eight, and I thought I would stick with it the rest of my life."

Alex says that his current chess strength came through hard work between the ages of 12-14. He wishes he worked even harder then because he sees 12-14 as the key age for chess improvement. "I see people making a mistake, not being serious at age 14. You can have a job at any point in your life, but you can’t go back and study chess."

Fortunately for us, Shabalov loves life as a professional chess player.

"I like life on a tour; just nothing else compares to it – you are so free. Nothing else can possibly come close to the lifestyle. This is how it works for most of the chess players. Material-wise it is not so rewarding, but the lifestyle is everything. It is more than a drug; nothing can replace it, so I am really surprised when I hear about people dropping chess entirely and going to a 9-to-5 job and then never come back. To me that is just total nonsense. Once you taste this, it is like forbidden fruit. Once you’ve tried it you can never come back."

Shabalov is now focusing on the World Cup (Khanty-Mansyisk, Russia Nov.22-Dec.16), coming up in a couple of months. "I will make up a training regimen starting next week. As the summer ends and the fun is over, I have to do some serious work. The World Cup is probably going to be every two years now, so that is something to look forward to.”

When not competing, keeping physically fit, or chilling to his tunes, Shabalov runs his own business. “Two years ago I started a business called House of Chess,” he said. “There used to be two stores, Cleveland and Pittsburgh. The Cleveland store is doing really well. The Pittsburgh store unfortunately is going to be closed next year. It is not easy to be at the mall when you are on a temporary lease, because you pretty much have no (tenant) rights. The good thing is we are probably going to open a store in the Chicago area.”

Shabalov plans to start a new life when his younger daughter goes off to college. "I might just go off to China. I am currently studying Chinese. The future of the world is there. The country is so dynamic and growing while at the same time there is 1000 years of history. Forty is marking a new life for me. Zen tradition is every seven years you have to change. I would put it at 44, 43 that it would be nice to start something.”

Alexander Shabalov has a bright future, but everyone has something he would like to do over if he could. “The biggest regret that I have is I didn’t work hard enough when I was a teen,” Shabalov evaluates. “I worked very hard – you can’t image how hard I worked – but still. I wish I could have worked a little harder. I little bit more, just a little bit.”