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Difference Maker

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.

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“We played all kinds of games, which I invented all with a chess theme,” he says in an interview by e-mail. “Little by little, we learned how the pieces move, and she heroically withstood all the lessons. She loved to learn something new every day. When I asked her to solve a puzzle, she would always try to do it, since she wanted to make me happy. And she knew I was proud of her when she solved it. I would also reward her with chocolates or other goodies for having solved the puzzle and she would treasure those prizes.”

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After only two months of instruction, Alexandra was playing so well that her father took her to a chess club at a regional youth center. She won every game she played there. Competitions at regional, national, and international levels would follow.

Her father and mother, Natalia, as well as her teenage sister, Oxana, still live in Moscow. These days Alexandra lives in Key Biscayne with her husband and manager, Diego Garces, and their baby daughter Francesca.

The couple met at a “simultaneous exhibition” match in Switzerland, in which Kosteniuk – then just 16 – played 20 chess enthusiasts all at the same time, moving constantly from table to table. “The men’s player was rude; he was forcing people to play quickly. But Alexandra was letting people think,” Mr. Garces says. “She was giving them time because she knew this was important to people who had come to play her. It was their big opportunity, and they were relieved and happy.”

Kosteniuk gives her husband a wry grin. “I was just in a good mood that day,” she mutters jokingly.

“It can take a lot to put her in a good mood,” he banters back, though looking, to me, half-serious.

•••

Kosteniuk takes months to prepare for competitions. While the prize money seems attractive – her World Champion title, for example, earned her $50,000 – it is fast swallowed up in the costs of travel and training. Kosteniuk paid three other grandmasters to help her prepare for the tournament.

Her husband, using profits from a company he used to own in Russia, largely bankrolls ventures such as her website, publications, and promotional videos, as well as their day-to-day living costs.

To a woman still reveling in the joys and novelty of motherhood, such a lifestyle has its challenges. Chess, she realizes, is no longer the central love of her life – she has won everything there is to win, and the days of relentless competition are obviously winding down.

“I have a strong guilt that lives inside me if I’m away from my daughter,” she admits.

“The problem now is that my main dream was fulfilled when I became world champion, and though there’s so many things to do, I have a family and baby and want to spend time with them too.”

Which is where her plans for popularizing chess fit so neatly into her future. She will defend her World Champion title in 2010 or 2011 – the date is yet to be determined – but instead of trudging the competition circuit for months on end, she now plans to focus on her promotional work and educational activities: giving talks at schools, making appearances at chess clubs and conventions, pumping out motivational podcasts.

She and her husband also run a charitable foundation that buys chess sets and books for children, and allows Kosteniuk to give them free lessons. She dreams of opening a chess academy to raise new generations of chess players and, perhaps, even future world champions.

“Alexandra is an ideal role model. She’s down to earth and quite modest, that’s why kids love her. She is reachable, she goes to the kids’ level and understands them,” says her father.

“She’s achieved a lot at a very young age, so when kids look at her they hope they will become like her when they grow up. That’s motivating.”
An avid sportswoman – she was up at 6 the morning of our interview for a five-mile beach run – she is even hoping to get a place on a Russian television show that is like “Dancing With the Stars,” only on ice.

“Now I’m thinking of my family, thinking of new projects and things I can do as an ‘adventure’ person,” she says. “Chess will always be part of my life, but I’d like to try something new.”

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