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.

By , Correspondent

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    Pondering her next moves: Alexandra Kosteniuk, shown playing Pia Cramling of Sweden last year, has won every title open to her. But now that she has a family, her days as a competitor may be winding down.
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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.

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.

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“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.

“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.”

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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