Natalia Pogonina Interviewed

by Radio Xadrez

She is beautiful, smart, fun and, with very rare exceptions, would beat you, reader, in a chess game. We are talking about the WGM Natalia Andreevna Pogonina, 25 years old, who gave us the interview published below, inaugurating Radio Xadrez’s international franchise!

Resident of Saratov, in Russia, Pogonina was considered, in 2009 by the PCA, one of the three most successful chess players in the world. With 2.491 ELO-FIDE points on the September list (she’s had up to 2501), she defended the #1 board of Russia-2 in the Chess Olympics.

Natalia (or Natalija) is usually remembered by her beauty and sympathy, qualities which are allied with excellent results on the boards. She is three-times European champion (U16, twice U18), bronze prize winner at the World Championship (U18) and European Women Championship, winner of the gold medal at the 1st International Mind Sports Games played in Beijing, China, in 2008, of which the Brazilian Alexandr Fier was also part.

With more than 34 thousand followers on Twitter, a profile on Facebook and a site that’s updated almost daily, Pogonina stands out for her massive and solid actions for the sport. Married and the mother of 10 month old Nikolai, the WGM reserved some time in her schedule to talk to Radio Xadrez, a few days before she boarded to Khanty-Mansiysk, in Siberia.

natalia pogonina

Radio Xadrez – First of all, we’d like to know: Have you always played chess exclusively or are you interested in any other sports? Looking through the pretty pictures on your website, we have a feeling that you could be a beautiful ice skater or an Olympic gymnast in Russia. Has it always been only chess? :-)

Natalia Pogonina – I am an avid sports fan and enjoy watching almost all types of sport broadcasts. Also love playing football, basketball, volleyball, skating and dancing.

RX – We’ve always heard in America that millions of children play chess in Russia. That leads us to think of babies who are born holding chess pieces, chess clocks and have autographs of Mikhail Tal or Alexander Alekhine on their onesies. Have you played since you were a little girl or did it take a while for you to find out about the game?

NP – As most grandmasters, I have learnt how to play chess at a relatively early age – at 5. Since 12 (after winning the Russian Championship) for the first time I started considering myself a chess semi-pro, and decided to become a chess professional a few years later.

RX – Are there other good chess players in your family? Your parents or a brother (do you have any siblings?)?

NP – My parents aren’t keen on chess, neither do I have siblings.

Natalia Pogonina

RX – We ask that to know if you think having a family of chess players helps in the development of your game or if it gets in the way. Sometimes, competitiveness inside the family or even if one brother thinks the other one is a better player, it might be a little unexciting. Is the ‘Polgar Family’ an exception or do parents and siblings who play together usually enhance each other’s performances?

NP – When two brothers or sisters start playing chess, usually one of them progresses much faster than the other, and the weaker player leaves the game. OF course, there are exceptions (e.g. Polgar or Kosintseva sisters), but they are quite rare. In terms of progress, having access to proper tournaments, coaching, chess friends is more important than a chess-playing relative.

RX – You have recently had a kid, right? Do you think about how it will be to teach him to play chess, what will his first championships be like? Do you spend time thinking about that stuff? How can a parent’s will contribute and not become pressure in this situation?

NP – While many people expect Nikolai to become a strong chess master, neither Peter nor I have any special chess expectations towards him. We will teach him how to play, but let him choose his occupation himself. There’s no need in trying to bring up a chess prodigy artificially. Who knows if he will be interested in chess at all?

RX – Natalia, there is something very important I should ask you from the beginning. We are very egotistical here, so we’d like to know: what do you know about Brazil? :-) We know a lot about Russia and you in particular! Don’t disappoint us! LOL

NP – To me Brazil is associated with sun, friendly people (I occasionally get to chat with chess fans from Brazil via Facebook and Twitter) and, of course, legendary soccer players! :) I have also published stats about Brazilian chess at my blog!

natalia pogonina

RX – One thing we know, for instance, is that Russia is chess’ crib! You hear that in America all the time and it creates this illusion that, visiting St. Petersburg or Moscow, we’ll see kids playing chess on the streets, just like we see Brazilian kids playing soccer. However, to my surprise, a friend of mine who recently visited your country was a tad disappointed. He didn’t see lots of people playing chess on the streets and squares or specialized chess stores or busts of Karpov, Kasparov, Tahl, Botvinnik and Pogonina ;-) . Where do chess players hide in Russia? How is the basis of chess built there?

NP – Nowadays chess is more of an internet game than park or cafe. Of course, there are still old-school players who gather at a local club and blitz all day long, but this great culture is becoming extinct, alas. Also, chess is not as popular in Russia now as it was in the Soviet days, but still about half the population know how to play. Not to mention that Russia is the only real superpower in chess…

RX – Is financial support really significant to evolve in the sport?

NP – Financial support is critical, of course, since without it people aren’t motivated enough to take up on the sport, and are forced to leave it due to not being able to support a family. Luckily enough, although we don’t have the earnings of soccer or hockey stars, one can still make a living playing chess.

RX – You are a woman (a beautiful one, by the way!) and knowing that we, at Radio Xadrez are supporters of the idea that man and women can compete in the same level, we still hear a lot of joking around about it. I’m sure you do also and that’s why we ask: do you prefer playing against women or man?

NP – Thanks! It’s actually very hard for women to compete with men in chess (I have even written an article for ChessBase on this topic). Games against women are tenser, more emotional, thus there are more mistakes in them. Generally speaking, my schedule is mainly composed of top female events (like the World Championship, Chess Olympiad, Russian Superfinal, European Championship, etc.), so I cherish the opportunity to face strong male players from time to time. That doesn’t happen often though.

natalia pogonina

RX – Can you tell us a funny story about how it felt to beat a sexist man is one of your games? :-)

NP – Of course, I did beat some sexist men in my chess career, but didn’t have a chance to face the legendary Victor Korchnoi. He is known as the #1 insulter of women (who have either beaten him or drawn the game). :)

RX – Brazilian girls complain that there are less female tournaments, less incentive. We have recently interviewed our #1, WFM Vanessa Feliciano, who said she prefers to play with man, because in female chess the psychological pressure is stronger. Do you agree?

NP – It’s true: there are relatively few women’s events, the prizes are lower and so on. Also, to improve one needs to play against better opponents, and nowadays even the supertournaments among women can guarantee only about 2500 in average ELO of players, so one has to play men to improve beyond that stage.

RX – Do you get more nervous standing in front of WGM Alexandra Kosteniuk or GM Magnus Carlsen? How do you feel about that?

NP – Alexandra is a good friend of mine. And why should I be nervous standing in front of Carlsen? As to playing him – I wouldn’t refuse trying that if you get him to do it :)

Read the interview in full length at Radio Xadrez Blog