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The Art Of Chess: Meet Chess Master And Painter Maria Yugina

The Art Of Chess: Meet Chess Master And Painter Maria Yugina

Mick
| 47 | Other

It's evening in Romania, and WFM Maria Yugina and GM Mihail Marin are sitting on the couch at home for our interview. Their rescue dog, Foxy, bounces around the room, playing around and chasing her own tail, at one point disconnecting the camera and microphone in her excitement.

Many chess players consider the game to be a form of art, and perhaps no one in the world has a better understanding of this than Maria, a chess master and one of the world's very few "chess painters." Her unique artwork combines a colorful abstract style with a pronounced interest in chess, seamlessly weaving the game into her paintings.

We talked about Maria's start as a promising young chess player in Russia, how she developed her unique artistic style, and the fateful Estonian encounter that would transform her life… 

WFM Maria Yugina in front of her two of her paintings.
WFM Maria Yugina in front of two of her chess paintings.

A Young Chess Player In Russia

Like most chess masters, Maria learned to play the game at an early age. "I can't really remember how old I was exactly, probably something like seven years old." Advancing through the ranks at local tournaments and performing well, she proved to be a talented player. However, the reality of the Russian chess scene at the time was a harsh one for most.

Standing out in an environment so competitive and challenging was nearly impossible. Despite this, Maria continued to score good results, even winning her division of the U18 Girls Chess Championship. However, there is a limited amount of space at the very top of the chess echelon, especially for women.

Mihail explains: "She more or less gave up playing because she started to study and to teach, and just kept training." She would still play occasionally, especially during summertime, but would soon add another skill to her repertoire.

A collage of three paintings by WFM Maria Yugina.
A collage of three paintings by WFM Maria Yugina.

Finding Her Own Style

Aside from chess, Maria harbored another talent: sketching and drawing. When she was 19, her mother showed some of her work to a prominent local artist, who was immediately impressed and offered to instruct her, allowing Maria to make her own art. "It was just a miracle that somebody wanted to teach me how to paint."

Maria's early work was classically inspired, following artistic conventions under the watchful eye of her instructor. However, after branching out on her own, her work became more vibrant and expressive, a sort of "colorful cubism" that looks like something Picasso may have created if he spent a couple of years studying chess theory.

"I'm thinking, okay, let's create something new. I'll just try some new things because I'm here, alone, with no more teachers." While it allowed her to explore a new style, the new creative freedom also added another layer of difficulty: "Now nobody could tell me where my mistakes are, because paintings are like chess games. You always have a mistake somewhere."

Mihail agrees, adding a vital distinction: "There is no Stockfish for painters."

... paintings are like chess games. You always have a mistake somewhere.
— WFM Maria Yugina

When looking at Maria's work, a few things stand out: firstly, her love of chess. It's an ever-present part of her paintings. Secondly, there's often a real sense of intimacy and charm in the scenes that she depicts. It's the feeling of two people huddling in a coffee shop on a rainy day or playing chess in a beautiful place as the hours disappear. But where does she find the inspiration?

WFM Maria Yugina and GM Mihail Marin posing happily in front of a natural backdrop.
WFM Maria Yugina and her husband, GM Mihail Marin.

A Chess Romance

Grandmaster Mihail Marin was waiting in line at the European Rapid & Blitz Championship tournament in Tallinn, sleep-deprived after many hours of travel. What was just another event on the calendar became one of his most fateful chess tournaments ever when a well-dressed woman approached him in line to ask for directions—in Russian, no less, a language he was only partially familiar with.

Out of politeness and maybe a certain level of interest in the mysterious woman he suddenly found himself talking to, he responded the best he could. And then they kept talking.

The way that Mihail frames it: "It was like a feeling of something that I've known forever, or it's like something that had come back that was just missing there."

Their conversations continued each day between the games, and the two would meet afterward to play chess. Partially out of mutual interest in chess, and partially as a good excuse to keep seeing each other. Chess served as a great tool to keep the communication flowing in Russian, according to Mihail: "It was nice to play chess—it offered something concrete to talk about!"

For me, a chess game is also kind of a romantic thing, as well as a fight. I always want to win!
— WFM Maria Yugina

The pair kept in contact after the tournament ended and met again in Vienna two weeks later. They spent long winter days together at a coffee shop and restaurant playing chess without a clock, letting the hours pass.

As a grandmaster, Mihail won the majority of the games but was impressed by his opponent's unexpected ferocity. "It was a real fight, and I was worse in some of them."

"I mean, she's lovely, but when you sit and play with her she's different!" Maria smiles at this assessment with just a hint of pride. Even now, as they sit next to each other in their home, it's easy to imagine those first encounters over the chessboard.

Around three weeks after their first meeting in Tallinn, Mihail asked Maria to marry him.

A painting by WFM Maria Yugina, a cubist representation of men and women huddled over a chess board with beverages in their hands.
"This painting reflects everything I like about chess; not just the game itself, but also the post-mortem analysis with a group of friends (and of course, my husband.)" — WFM Maria Yugina

On The Intersection Of Chess & Art

Is chess a science, an art, or some combination of both? No matter which side of the argument you fall on, the consensus agreement is that chess offers some kind of transferable skill to other areas of life—whether it's prioritizing planning and forethought over impulsiveness, improved memory, or even just the mental benefits of meditative activity. Chess and painting are no different in this regard, and skills gained in one discipline can help inform the other.

Maria uses a word that will be familiar to chess players and artists alike: harmony.

"Maybe harmony is always there in both. You have to put the pieces on the board with some logic. It has to be beautiful and logical; you can't just put all the pieces on one side, it's wrong. It's also like this in painting."

Maybe harmony is always there in both ... you can't just put all the pieces on one side.
— WFM Maria Yugina

Mihail also finds a comparison to the planning and analysis required before chess tournaments, and the thought required before making a move on the board. "I mean, it's not only the time that she's actually putting the paint on the canvas. It's thinking and making sketches and inventing new ideas. When she tells me about it, it's really sort of preparatory intellectual work."

An unfinished painting by WFM Maria Yugina, featuring chess and detective imagery.
Murder on the chessboard: a glimpse at an unfinished painting by Maria, currently in progress.

Artistic Accuracy & Strategic Symbolism

In most media depictions of chess, you'll see some common mistakes: the chess board is set up incorrectly, the bottom-left square is white instead of black, the king and the queen are in the wrong place, or the position appears generally impossible to reach. 

With her prodigious chess skills and the acute eye of an interested grandmaster peering over her shoulder, Maria's paintings are free of these inaccuracies.

In fact, there's usually a degree of symbolism involved—if you see a chess position, it's one that's worth analyzing and studying. One example: a vicious bloodbath on the board, as if you've just found yourself in the middle of a fresh chess crime scene.

When you can see a position, it's almost always from a game. In this painting, it's an old-style room, so I wanted to add an old game. Something bloody!
— WFM Maria Yugina

Inspired by a Sherlock Holmes-style detective story, you might find some clues when you take a deeper look at the board position, lifted from an obscure textbook game chosen by Mihail and Maria. Who were the players? Neither Maria nor Mihail can remember, but Mihail recalls the exact move that was just played: Qxd1, in a variation of the Steinitz Gambit that led to a devastating attack. Sometimes, having a grandmaster around the house can be useful.

A painting by WFM Maria Yugina of horses running freely on the beach.
Horses—and, by extension, knights—are one of Maria's favorite subjects to paint.

Aside from chess-themed paintings, Maria also creates other artwork. "From time to time I want to paint something more classic. If I'm not in the mood to create something new, I'll often paint something with a horse. It's my favorite way to relax." She compares the long hours she once spent practicing anatomy drawings to studying endgames in chess: "It's quite boring, but you have to know how to do it!" Years later, the end result of her hard work speaks for itself.


To see more of WFM Maria Yugina's art, visit her online collection at the Danish Gallery.

GM Mihail Marin is a published chess author who has collaborated with GM Judit Polgar on multiple Chessable courses.


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Mick
Mick Murray

Mick is a writer and editor for Chess.com and ChessKid. He enjoys playing the Caro-Kann and Italian Game to varying degrees of success. Before joining Chess.com, Mick worked as a writer, editor, and content manager in Japan, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

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