As part of our continuing “This Girl Is On Fire” campaign, we conducted an interview with chess champion Natalia Pogonina after winning the Chess Olympiad.
Update (April 7, 2015): Natalia Pogonina lost to Mariya Muzychuk in the Women’s World Chess Championships in Sochi. Muzychuk will have to defend her title against the ex-World Champion, Hou Yifan of China, in October of 2015. The competition pitted 64 players from 28 countries against each other between March 16 – April 6.
Natalia Andreevna Pogonina (Russian: Наталья Андреевна Погонина) is a chess Woman Grandmaster from Russia and one of the best female chess players in the world. Since 2004 she has been a member of Team Russia and is the reigning Olympic Women’s Chess Champion.
Woman Grandmaster (WGM), three-times European champion (U16, twice U18), bronze prize winner at the World Championship (U18). Ranked as 3rd most successful female chess player in the world in 2009 by the Association of Chess Professionals. In 2011 Natalia became the only chess player in the world to simultaneously win the Eurocup and European Team Chess Championship and in 2013 – the only person to hold the individual and team Russian Champion titles. She was runner-up at Women’s World Team Chess Championship-2011 and earned the bronze medal in 2013.
How did you enjoy the Chess Olympiad and why didn’t you play every round?
Hi! I have enjoyed Tromso a lot, from the friendly people to beautiful sceneries and the chess fever which is now taking place in Norway. Observing chess being broadcast on national TV every day for hours, plenty of chess merchandize in the shops and chess boards being offered at any bar was definitely pleasant for me. However, the organization of the Chess Olympiad itself left a lot to be desired. I don’t want to go into details, but it is enough to point out that two chess players/participants died during the Olympiad’2014. This is very sad.
I guess you were referring to a particular day when I didn’t play, right? It’s up to the captains to decide which line-up to choose for a particular match. This time I participated in 7 out of 11 rounds, although I would have certainly liked to play more and was always eager to compete.
Obviously, it was amazing to win the Chess Olympiad for the third time in a row. We have a fantastic team, and I am happy that we managed to perform so well.
What chess title are you the most proud of and why?
In terms of bragging rights the most prestigious team tournaments I’ve won are two international Chess Olympiads. My best individual result so far probably is becoming champion of the strong women’s Russian Superfinal in 2012.
In one of your tweets, you say that you were a strange girl growing up. What made you so strange?
I wouldn’t say that I was particularly strange. However, I was more into cars, toy soldiers and playing with boys than with girls. Then came PC games, checkers and chess which are also more popular males than with females. Other than that I was pretty normal 🙂
You were working on a book about the connections between chess and sex. Will that book ever be published?
My teammates used to jokingly bug me with this all the time during the Chess Olympiad. They’ve been asking for some excerpts to read. Frankly speaking, I am not sure whether this book will ever be finalized and published or not. Peter Zhdanov, my husband and co-author, is more interested in this kind of research than I, so it’s better to ask him.
Why do you believe physical training is very important in chess?
Tournament chess involves playing for 5-6 hours every day, not to mention preparation. This requires a tremendous amount of energy, and only a very fit and athletic person can endure this regime without losing concentration and succumbing to fatigue. I recall reading a paper stating that playing professional chess is more demanding in terms of energy than working in a mine. Hence, every serious chess player pays a lot of attention to sleep, nutrition and physical exercise.
What should we do to make chess more popular among girls?
Inform, motivate and persuade. If more parents realize how beneficial it is for their daughters to learn how to play chess, then the ratio between men and women in this industry will eventually even out. Also, female pro chess players should be more active in promoting the game, thus serving as role models for the young girls. Finally, currently the prize money in women’s chess is considerably lower than in open tournaments. Of course, one can argue that women are allowed to compete for the “men’s” prizes too, but at the moment it is clear that in the nearest future we won’t see a female challenger for the World Chess Champion title. I’ve heard radical suggestions along the lines of eliminating the women’s events altogether and making us compete with men on equal basis. This hardly looks like a feasible solution: by far not all the women like competing against men, and just about all of them would be forced to give up on the profession, because the level of competition is too tough in men’s chess for women to handle at the present time. As a result, I believe that women’s chess should be additionally sponsored (“positively discriminated”) until at least a few women reach the level required to be invited to the “men’s” super tournaments.
You have said that the marketing potential of chess players is seriously underestimated. What can be done to change that?
Chess, the royal game, is a very strong brand which is associated with intelligence, luxury, rich historical traditions, refined manners and many other attractive qualities. The problem is that most players either don’t want to get involved into any PR activities, or have a relatively low marketing profile. Consequently, many companies prefer to use the chess board and chess pieces in their ads without asking any of the leading GMs for endorsements. Lately there is more buzz about chess in the media than, let’s say, a few years ago, but we are still far behind compared to pop stars or even football players. The chess community needs to work better with the media and sponsors to increase the coverage of chess events and the life of chess players. This is hard to implement when a typical chess federation doesn’t even have a PR department, while many strong GMs still don’t hire agents/managers – either deliberately or due to lack of funds.
I myself promote chess whenever I can by writing articles, giving simultaneous exhibitions, commentating on events live, playing vote chess games, giving interviews and taking part in photo shoots, chatting with fans on social networks and answering their questions, endorsing certain chess products and so on. My official site Pogonina.com is the most popular personal chess site and one of the leading chess sites in the world in general. While I understand perfectly well that some of my colleagues are focused exclusively on their own careers and achievements and don’t blame them for doing so, I still believe that each of us is responsible for taking chess to a completely new level of popularity, and that requires being more accessible, friendly and helpful to other people.
On your website, you have written about the Polgár sisters’ father László and his thesis of “geniuses are made, not born.” Are you using any of his ideas with your son Nikolai?
I don’t think that it’s a good idea to try to make a “genius” out of your kid at all costs. Some of these so-called “prodigies” grow up to become unhappy and quite unremarkable people. Each of us has his own talents and his own rate of development. We are definitely not going to impose chess or any other activity on our children. It is important to help them become critical-minded, well-educated and independent, as well as to offer them a chance to learn more about the world and the wide range of potential career paths and hobbies which can be practiced. Then we will let them make their own choices as opposed to training them from early childhood as if they were some kind of robots or pets.
Finally, I don’t quite agree with the statement “geniuses are made, not born”. It sounds as a good motivator and reminds a bit the American dream. Of course, one can partially compensate for lack of talent by working hard, but a regular Joe won’t become a Magnus Carlsen no matter how many hours a day the former puts into studying chess. Similarly, while in every society there are widely popularized stories of poor people who grew up to become successful and rich, the social status and financial level of most of us is defined by our social circle and the strata we were born in. Simplistically speaking, you are more likely to become a millionaire if you were born to a wealthy businessman than to a school teacher.
What was it like to be nominated “Girl of the Month” for Russia-2 TV?
From time to time I get featured in all those “most beautiful female chess player” or “hottest girl” contests all over the world. I believe it’s fun and useful for promoting our game. Of course, it is also pleasant to be nominated, but I don’t take this fuss too seriously and treat it with a good deal of self-irony. Also, the cliché “beauty with brains” seems to be popular and works quite well, so why not take advantage of it for the benefit of chess.
Why is Antione de Saint-Exupéry one of your favorite writers?
He was a very brave, iron-willed and kind person. I wouldn’t say that he was a role model for me, but I have certainly been looking up to him growing up. Additionally, I share his passion for airplanes and hope to get a pilot license one day.
What are you goals and ambitions, chess-related and in general?
In terms of chess, I am planning to fulfill my creative ambitions via chess and to reach a deeper understanding of life in general and of the game in particular. I am more focused on enjoying chess and on ongoing improvement than on any particular titles or achievements.
Talking about general goals and ambitions, I believe it is too personal to discuss in public.
What would you like people to know about you?
For those readers who liked the interview and/or love chess, I encourage you to contact me by e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, etc. You can find the contact information here.