Death Match 20 - A Family Affair

Death Match 20 - A Family Affair

| 16 | Fun & Trivia

For the first time in Death Match history, we may have to ask the wives to leave the room. American GM Yury Shulman and German GM Daniel Fridman are both married to titled chess players, but there won't be any consultation allowed during their match on Saturday, January 18 at noon Eastern, 9 a.m. Pacific.

Their significant others both play for the U.S. and the men report that becoming a chess family has resulted in different trajectories for their individual careers. 

Fridman is married to IM Anna Zatonskih while Shulman is married to WIM Viktorija Ni; both women have represented the U.S. in international events (Zatonskih has even played a Death Match!). To make everything come full circle, we should also note that both Ni and Fridman are from Latvia, which could be where Shulman and Fridman met - see below. Whew!

After Shulman and Ni gave birth to their first child several years ago (while dad was playing in a U.S. Championship!), Yury saw his rating plummet. I'll let you look at his rating chart and guess the age of his son. Still, the loss of 100 rating points no longer affects him like it would have years ago.

GM Yury Shulman at one of his many encounters with GM Gata Kamsky at the U.S. Championship.

"I do not feel anymore that if I do not win the game that life is over, because I understand that there are much more important things when you have a family," he said. "I am glad that Gabriel is a very active boy, but sometimes it comes at a cost of a very active game being played by his father."

It seems, however, that Newton's Third Law applies to chess families. A (nearly) equal and opposite rating gain was turned in by mom after their family became three, as Ni acheived her all-time peak.

Fridman reported that growing his family has only helped his climb atop the world rankings. "I was around 2550 when I was single," he said. "I gained more than 100 points after I met Anna and we became a family."

Zatonskih has also been buoyed by her daughter. Three of her four U.S. Women's Championships have come after becoming a mother, and just after giving birth, she won team bronze and individual gold at the 2008 Dresden Olympiad (more on that tournament later).

Fridman and Shulman have known each other for more than two decades. But who says grandmasters have great memories? They both agree to participating in the Soviet Junior Championship at the same time, but they didn't agree on which event they met. Fridman claimed it was in 1991 in Alma-Ata (now Almaty, Kazakhstan), while Shulman had a more vivid account of their first meeting, in 1992.

GM Daniel Fridman (r), is regularly invited to top-level tournaments. Here he faces GM Vladimir Kramnik in Dortmund, 2013 (photo courtesy Peter Doggers,

"It was really kind of funny how we met for the first time," Shulman said. "Both of us were playing in the USSR Junior Championship in 1992 in Jurmala (Latvia). My dad traveled with me as a coach and since he is an International Grandmaster in Draughts (International Checkers), he came to the tournament a little late after his event. Of course, there was no cell phones (at least in the former USSR), Internet or GPS, so he had to find the way to the hotel. He saw some young guy on the train from Riga, who was reading a chess magazine. My dad just followed the chess player to the playing hall and this way he was able to find me. As we can easily guess, the name of that boy was Daniel."

Research shows that they both were in the events of 1991 and 1992. But these documents don't prove that they knew each other in 1991! We'll call it a draw. They both accurately remembered their first and only over-the-board meeting, in 1997.

The game was drawn, and according to Shulman, so was the match, as Belarus and Latvia also split the point.

As for familial obligations in the upcoming Death Match, Shulman is more used to helping out Ni in her events. "At first I tried to prepare Vicky a lot, from beginning to end," he said. "Nowadays she mainly asks me which of the several lines she picked, and I would [make] recommendations. I would say it was successful work for me as a coach and as a husband."

Zatonskih would often have to get transoceanic coaching from Fridman by phone at U.S. tournaments (their family lives in Germany). Fridman is prepared to have the favor returned for the Death Match.

"Sometimes Anna helps me to prepare and this time she definitely will," Fridman said. "Our daughter Sofia likes to hang on my arm and ask many questions, while I am blitzing on the Internet. It usually doesn't help me in one-minute games."

No word on who prepared whom for this game. Sofia wouldn't say.

Clinging daughters aside, Fridman said the 3+1 portion will be the most comfortable for him, "but the other two are OK as well. It depends on the day's form." He added that he won't be able to call on the Death Match experience of countryman GM Arkadij Naiditsch, who will be preparing for the top group of Tata Steel (which happens to start just before the match).

"I don't have much experience playing bullet over the Internet," Shulman said of the three time controls. "This is the one I will have to adjust to the most."

He likely won't be fazed if a certain historical incident is indicative of his constitution. Needing to win for the U.S. to have any chance of medaling at the 2008 Olympiad, he outplayed a higher-rated opponent as Black. Despite his time dwindling (albeit with increment), he eventually found the winning path, and gave the Americans an unlikely team bronze.

Shulman elaborated: "Of course the match against Ukraine in Dresden, 2008 was one of the emotional highlights for all players. Not only we won in the must-win situation in the final match against a very experienced team (Ivanchuk, Karjakin, Eljanov, Efimenko), which has not lost a match for the past two Olympiads, not only all other teams results turned out to be in our favor, but also we won with a score which was unimaginable - 3.5-0.5. Hikaru (Nakamura) also had his chance to beat Sergey Karjakin. I felt the energy of all teammates and friends around when I was playing this tricky rook endgame against Efimenko. I had no idea that if we had won, we would have tied for third. And, in addition, our women also won their match. So both teams got the medals! That was very exciting and emotional. As for the coach's experience - it would be very hard to forget our win against the Russian team at the Istanbul, 2012 Olympiad!"

Did we say he doesn't get nervous? GM Yury Shulman at the 2008 Olympiad.

While Shulman has transitioned, for now, to coaching his former teammates, Fridman is a mainstay on the German team. Their biggest triumph in recent years was winning the European Team Championship in 2011. "We have a good team, always ready to beat stronger opponents," Fridman said. "As it happened in 2011, we beat such top teams as Ukraine, Armenia and Azerbaijan. In Tromso (2014) we will be clear underdogs again, but I believe that we can fight for the top places."

At that European Team Championship, Fridman particularly enjoyed his study-like draw against GM Shakhriyar Mamedyarov in the penultimate round. As it happened, his team needed that draw to beat Azerbaijan, who eventually finished in second-place.

Shulman also has a hidden talent and affection - trivia. "I do not think I am the most knowledgeable," Shulman said. "At least Emil Sutovsky would argue with it!"

He could get his love for geography questions partly from his travels, or perhaps it's the other way around. Shulman has been to more than 40 countries, playing chess from Lindsborg, Kansas to Vladivostok, Russia and everywhere in between (he's undefeated in 25 lifetime games in Bangladesh!). 

"I've always enjoyed any type of games where curiosity is a major step to success."

Here's Shulman's brief three-question riddle and trivia game for our readers. We trust you won't simply Google your answers! Feel free to type your guesses in the comments.

1. What place, according to Mark Twain, has the highest rate of mortality?

2. Which country has the most lakes in the world and what percentage of the world's lakes does it contain?

3. Which has a greater percentage of wildlife area - the United States or Africa?

Shulman (r) with frequent teammates GM Alex Onischuk (l) and GM Varuzhan Akobian. Onischuk played in the 1991 and 1992 Soviet Junior Championship, too - maybe he knows the truth behind our back story?

As for whether their esteemed wives will be in the room as they play, like all good husbands, they demurred, while flattering.

"She will watch now and then, with or without my permission," Fridman joked. "She is welcome to enter the room not only if she wants to support her husband, but if she wants to switch with me to improve the score!" Shulman said.

It will be a full day of chess on Saturday, January 18, as will be hosting commentary of round six of Tata Steel, followed immediately by Death Match 20 at noon Eastern (New York time), 9 a.m. Pacific. IM Danny Rensch and other co-hosts will bring you all the action live, complete with pre- and post-game interviews with the players. Maybe we'll be able to determine when the two players actually met for the first time, and Shulman may entertain us with more trivia!

FM Mike Klein

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Mike Klein began playing chess at the age of four in Charlotte, NC. In 1986, he lost to Josh Waitzkin at the National Championship featured in the movie "Searching for Bobby Fischer." A year later, Mike became the youngest member of the very first All-America Chess Team, and was on the team a total of eight times. In 1988, he won the K-3 National Championship, and eventually became North Carolina's youngest-ever master. In 1996, he won clear first for under-2250 players in the top section of the World Open. Mike has taught chess full-time for a dozen years in New York City and Charlotte, with his students and teams winning many national championships. He now works at as a Senior Journalist and at as the Chief Chess Officer. In 2012, 2015, and 2018, he was awarded Chess Journalist of the Year by the Chess Journalists of America. He has also previously won other awards from the CJA such as Best Tournament Report, and also several writing awards for mainstream newspapers. His chess writing and personal travels have now brought him to more than 85 countries.

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