A chess champion crusades to make the game ‘cool’
Russian Alexandra Kosteniuk, the women’s world title holder with a fashion-model image, wants to broaden the game’s appeal to young people.
KEY BISCAYNE, FLA.
Alexandra Kosteniuk’s hand quivers as she picks up a pawn and skips it to the center of the chessboard on the table before us. I wonder, just for one silly moment, whether she is trembling in fear of her opponent.
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Perhaps even the reigning Women’s World Chess Champion can have bad days, I speculate, when a beginner like me stands a chance of ambushing her king and declaring “Checkmate,” sending her reeling in admiration at my stealth and cunning?
No, I discover after three minutes’ play, during which she slaughters me in just 14 moves. She doesn’t. And her shivers are nothing to do with nerves – it is simply a chilly day, here on the open veranda of an oceanfront cafe on Key Biscayne, Fla.
“Your first move was good,” she compliments me, allowing me a fleeting second to feel proud of myself for my opening “pawn to E4” maneuver. Then she adds, “But by your fourth move, the position was hopeless,” referring to my clumsy sacrifice of a knight.
A Russian with good looks and flowing hair, Ms. Kosteniuk has been dubbed the “Anna Kournikova of chess.” It’s a label she scorns, though: the fetching Kournikova, she points out, never won a singles tennis tournament.
By comparison, Kosteniuk has made all the right moves and swept the board in the world of chess. A master when she was 8 and a grandmaster at 14 – rankings that denote supreme skills – she has since captured every title available to a woman player, culminating in the Women’s World Chess Champion crown in Nalchik, Russia, last September.
But the undeniable similarity to Kournikova is that Kosteniuk is not averse to striking a glamorous pose for the cameras, sometimes while dressed in little more than a bikini. Her purpose, she says, is to illustrate her mantra, “Beauty and brains can go together.”
There have been photo shoots in top fashion magazines, and advertising contracts with a Swiss watchmaker, a Russian electronics company, and a mobile phone firm. Her face has been plastered on billboards, buses, and television screens across Russia. Her commercial ventures include a chess computer game marketed under the name “Alexandra the Great.”
The cover-girl poses and hunger for publicity have less to do with vanity or money than with her passion for injecting some color into the black-and-white world of chess. She wants to transform its geeky reputation.
Indeed, she considers her glamour and youth – she is now 24 – powerful tools in her mission to enthuse more young people about the game and persuade them to believe that “chess is cool.”
“Chess has a very wrong image. People think it’s boring, and only fat men in suits play it, so I break that signal and show them chess is cool,” she says. “You can easily be beautiful and play chess well, or be a professor, or any kind of high achiever. The only thing chess doesn’t have is a lot of attention from the media and from sponsors, so I think I can help in this way. If you tell people there are some nice models playing chess, somehow the modern world finds it more interesting.”
Born in Perm, Russia, and raised in Moscow, Kosteniuk set out on a path to greatness at the age of 5. That’s when her father Konstantin, an officer in the Red Army, taught her to play chess. She was limited to only 30 minutes of television a day, and every moment was filled with some kind of activity – playing soccer with friends, reading a book, poring over mathematical puzzles.
“No time was ever idle,” says her father, adding that even now, Alexandra “absolutely hates to sit down doing nothing.”
“She was always glad to sit at the chess table with me and listen to me talk about those chess pieces,” he recalls.
She developed skills methodically.