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Meet The Woman Behind Some Of The World's Most Iconic Chess Photos

Meet The Woman Behind Some Of The World's Most Iconic Chess Photos

Mick
| 27 | Other

WFM Maria Emelianova, also known as PhotoChess, has been a fixture in the modern chess scene for years now. In addition to being a chess player, commentator, and photojournalist, her Twitch channel is also one of the most popular chess streams on the platform, with over 21,600 followers. Even if you don't follow the world of online chess streaming closely, there's a good chance you've seen her work as one of the world's preeminent chess photographers. 

Read on to find out how she became a chess journalist and photographer, why she started streaming chess on Twitch, and why the nation of Norway knows her as ''Mr. Lova Lova.'' Throughout the article, Maria has also shared some of her personal favorite chess photos with captions explaining the background story.


Chess.com: You’re a titled player, chess photographer, streamer, journalist, translator, and more… Can you tell us more about your entry into the chess world? 

Maria: Basically I learned chess when I was six years old; my grandfather introduced me. I quickly started showing talent in chess, and I think I beat my grandfather within a week. Then, I couldn’t find anyone to play against! When I exhausted all of my options, I asked my mother to take me to a club. That’s how I started playing.

I think I got the Candidate Master title within four years and then started playing for my school, and for the city, and made a lot of friends; I had more friends in the chess club than in school. When I was 16, the general aim was that I was going to go to university and focus on studying. Chess was never my main objective because there wasn’t much support from the local municipality or federation for many reasons. It was kind of a transition period from Soviet times to—well, we can’t really say democratic times—and there was not enough support locally, plus the competition in Russia was obviously so big.

An image of GM Anton Korobov grinning over his position at the Isle of Man Grand Swiss, taken by Maria Emelianova. 

"This is my all-time favorite photo: GM Anton Korobov grimacing over his position at the Isle of Man Grand Swiss. Many thought this was staged and I can't blame them, but I assure you if chess players were looking around every time someone with a telephoto lens would be aiming at them from under the table across the playing hall, they would've lost on time! This is taken with a Sony 70-200 on a 200mm setting, which means I was probably about 20 meters away. It definitely helps to be a chess player myself as I wasn't even planning to take his photo that day but just had a glance at the position and thought something might happen."

- Maria Emelianova

I felt it when I went to my first Russian youth (U16) tournament; I qualified there, it was my first sponsored trip where everything was paid for, and I was very excited. I got demolished on the board and I realized that I either had to sacrifice my school and completely focus on chess, or make a choice towards a career with a more conventional lifestyle. I enrolled in a University in Moscow and was basically trying to make my way up on my own. For a while it worked, but then I felt like I wasn’t doing something that I enjoyed doing.

I also briefly worked at the magazine 64 in Moscow alongside Alexander Roshal, who was a well-known journalist and master who interviewed a lot of world-class chess players including world champions like [Mikhail] Botvinnik, [Garry] Kasparov, and more. He taught me a lot of knowledge. I think I worked there for around 8 months, between 2005-2007, but it gave me a lot of understanding about how I could enjoy working with chess even if I wasn’t playing.

It was around 2009, when I visited the Aeroflot Open in Moscow, that I realized that I wanted to be more involved in the chess scene—I just didn’t know how. There was not much happening online and I didn’t know anyone. At that point, even Chess.com wasn’t really in the picture! 

When did photography enter into things?

I always liked photography, so I started taking some photos here and there. Then I heard about the Chess Olympiad, which was coming to Russia for the first time in 2010. I got a very cheap camera and went to the press conference that was held in Moscow, with the governor of Ugra and then-FIDE president Kirsan Ilyumzhinov.

Some people recognized me at the press conference and said someone who was supposed to come to Khanty-Mansiysk had dropped out of the team and asked if I wanted to join. I thought: "Yeah, sure, I already have tickets to go by train and bus!" They said: ‘’Forget about those tickets, we’re going by private jet.’’ Then I thought: "Wow, okay!"—that was the first sign that things were going the way they should.

I was taking a lot of photos there without really realizing what I was doing; taking pictures of things and players that I liked. Later on, it turned out there weren’t many journalists because of the difficulties of getting there. Not a lot of western journalists made it, and a lot of magazines were asking me to provide photos. They paid, and a lot of them paid quite well—at least that’s what I felt at the time.

An image of GMs Ian Nepomniachtchi and Magnus Carlsen at their World Championship match in Dubai, by Maria Emelianova.

  

"GM Magnus Carlsen after over 7.5 hours of intense play vs. challenger GM Ian Nepomniachtchi during game six of the World Championship match in Dubai last year, realizing he is finally winning the game, which lasted 136 moves and became the longest world chess championship game of all time."

- Maria Emelianova

I managed to get my own camera, and I never really thought about deciding to be a photographer, I just started taking photos. I was still studying in Moscow because I never thought that photography would be my main job or that it could be paid well enough. Whenever I would write to organizers they would say they didn’t really have a budget, maybe they would give me a room at the hotel or pay for my ticket in exchange for photos. So I had to really make my living by trying to sell photos, write an article, or both... it was quite difficult and stressful to justify! A lot of people were asking me: ‘’Why are you even doing this? You’re losing money!’” But I really liked chess and made it my goal to prove that this could be a viable job.

Six years later, I was at the World Championship in New York, working next to Peter Doggers and FM Mike Klein. At the time, I’d already earned a couple of recognitions as a photographer and my photos were on the cover of magazines—people knew me and I managed to get some special access at the tournament, albeit quite limited! But I managed to take some photos that nobody else could, and Mike and Peter suggested having a temporary agreement with Chess.com to have exclusive images for the articles.

That was like a turning point—those photos performed so well and I think Chess.com realized how much easier life becomes when you can actually tell the photographer what to do beforehand, and the photographer also knows the scenes and navigates their way through, and can get around some rules or get some exclusive time with the players.

How about streaming?

So first I became a photographer and I was also translating some things in Russian, then I started commentating, and for a few months Danny [Rensch], Sam [Copeland], and some other people kept saying: ‘’Why don’t you start streaming? You should start streaming!’’ I didn’t think I could be good at streaming, because I never really enjoyed social interactions with people; I think that’s why maybe I liked chess so much. Plus in school, I didn’t have a great time with a lot of people—the term bullying didn’t really exist, so there was not much support for mental health and stuff.

I think for me it was just so much easier to be at the computer and to play chess, and not to talk to people, so I thought that I couldn’t really stream. I was really stressed when I tried, but I thought why not? I was at the World Championship in Kazakhstan in 2019 when I decided to try it, and the community immediately kind of accepted me.

The chess community was always really supportive and encouraging; even small mistakes didn’t really matter. I quickly got a lot of people following me and I felt like I should continue because people said they enjoyed it and they learned from me, which I also didn’t really understand! How could they be learning from me if I’m not really that strong? Then I realized how many people could still learn from me, so later I also got the FIDE Instructor title, so I could actually teach people chess and know what I’m doing.

How do you combine your work as a photographer with streaming? 

It’s been 3.5 years now since I started streaming and I cannot really imagine myself without streaming OR without being a photographer. Although combining these two roles is very difficult. As a streamer you don’t really want to move anywhere because you have this nice set-up that you’ve worked off for years, and it’s just so much more comfortable—it can be really exhausting to travel and then to stream, and rely on the internet, noise, or other people might be annoyed if you’re doing it at night, time zones, jetlag… even food issues can be a problem!

But I cannot really imagine dropping either of those roles. Of course, they can also complement each other, because I can showcase my work or even the editing process on-stream. Vice versa, when I’m working as a photographer I also look from a different angle and I can see other things that streaming helps me to see. I think I can look at myself from the other side when I take photos.

Also traveling, of course. I always really enjoyed traveling to new countries and seeing friends from chess. When COVID happened, it was quite difficult to stop for a while, but then I switched to streaming and had my cats on stream and I was just having a nice time playing games, and I think it helped me not get so lonely when I couldn't do my main job.

What has the social aspect of streaming been like for you?

For me it’s always honesty and openness; I think it’s much better to always be honest and if you have a bad day, just be open with your community because the majority of them will feel it. Of course, streamers have different approaches here—and I won’t say that one approach is bad and one is good, but I just chose the honest approach.

If I am not in the mood and I stream and people say: ‘’Oh why are you not smiling?’’ I just say it’s because I’m not in the mood. I’m a real person and I don’t want to act, because then how can you really tell if I’m acting on the other days when I seem happy? A lot of people can relate and say that it helps them to overcome their own difficult situations because they see that not everyone is happy all the time. I built my community around honesty and supportiveness, which really helped me this year as well.

You have been very courageous and open in speaking out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. What have the last few months been like? Have you received support from the chess world and/or the Twitch community?

The last few months were challenging, stressful, upsetting, and a lot of times demotivating. But at the same time I’ve always felt I’ve had so many friends—a lot of them I've never seen and I don’t know if I ever will meet them—but a lot of people were supporting me from a distance, both emotionally and financially.

Chess.com was also always very supportive and understood a lot of things that I needed to do to take care of myself, but basically, from the beginning of the invasion, I just couldn’t stay quiet and just look at it. I was trying to help raise funds for the refugees, and constantly discussing it on my channel. I know that a lot of streamers avoided that because it was going to damage their image, their community, or bring some additional drama or negative element to their stream, which doesn’t go along with their general aim of the channel. I didn’t care. I thought if it destroys my channel, it’s fine, I just wanted to speak the truth and wanted people to know what I felt and what I think about it.

In the beginning, I also had a lot of people coming and accusing me of trying to just follow the hype and using the situation to my own advantage, but I think they quickly realized that I was hit by this more than I could have gotten any benefit from it. I was really impressed with how supportive the community was; they immediately got on board with me, with all the fundraising initiatives that I had. When I had streams with Ukrainian GM Anton Korobov, we had huge support from my community.

Later, I was also invited to join GM Hikaru Nakamura's stream and there was fantastic support; we raised more than $135,000 in one day. After that, things in my personal life got more and more difficult as I could not return to Russia and my Twitch payouts were on hold.

I was asked many times: "Why don’t you just stop streaming?" But I can't. It helps me feel all this support from the community, and it encourages me to see the messages from Russians who come to my stream and say: "Thank you for being our voice, and really appreciate what you are doing because we cannot do it." Also, people from Ukraine coming and saying thank you for speaking out and being brave.

I didn’t particularly think I was being brave, I just spoke what I felt. Chess photography also was really strong support for me; I could completely disconnect from reality for a few hours and just dive into doing what I love and try to improve my skills and find new angles, new ways, and Chess.com was just so supportive here.

My biggest appreciation goes to my community, my mods, and longtime supporters, who also became my friends over time. They were always there for me, always supported the causes that are important to me, laughed with me, cried with me, and encouraged me to be the person I am today.

An image taken by Maria Emelianova of WGM Jennifer Shahade.

 

"I love this portrait of WGM Jennifer Shahade. It looks like she is posing but she actually isn't. We spent some time trying to get a photo for her latest book Chess Queens, which was then still in the process of being finished. We didn't quite like anything, so I started talking to her while still taking photos, and I got this shot which we both were very pleased with. I was never a fan of staged photography so I am especially proud of getting something spontaneous even during a photoshoot."

- Maria Emelianova

Who are some of your own personal favorite streamers, and why? Is there anyone who you take inspiration from?

My first ever favorite streamer was PaladinAmber. She was doing a lot of variety gaming and a lot of just chatting, and she was always very creative with her layouts on stream, and she was also very honest. If you google her, probably the first clip you’ll find is how she roasts a viewer who asks her for some inappropriate pictures or makes some inappropriate comment. Back then she wasn’t that big, but I really took a lot of this ‘’if they troll you, troll them back’’ approach. 

My other favorite streamer is an ASMR streamer. Her original name was Copykat_ and now it’s Katrine. She’s from Denmark and I think she’s the best ASMR streamer, personally. She never went with the hype and always did her own thing; maybe that’s what I liked and possibly even implemented with my streams. Even if it wasn’t as popular, she still stayed true to her ethics and morals and never changed her standards.

I think her community is really strong and supportive because of that—because she never went for an easier approach. I also met her in person in Amsterdam and she’s amazing. Her videos really helped me; I never thought about ASMR as something that I would like and I don’t really enjoy a lot of different artists, but her streams really helped me when I was depressed and needed exactly that. I definitely advise you to check her stream if you want an introduction to ASMR.

An image of WIM Mobina Alinasab taken by Maria Emelianova, featuring a reflection of the chessboard in the player's glasses.

 

"An amazing reflection featuring WIM Mobina Alinasab from Iran; you can almost see the entire position and it makes you feel like you're there."

- Maria Emelianova

How about chess streamers?

I really like Hikaru’s streams. I might be biased because I also work with him, but he’s definitely the best chess streamer. The numbers show that, as well as the amount of recognition he gets, even outside of chess, and how quickly he grew. He’s just a natural at it, and he has a professional team which I also try to learn from. It’s fantastic to work with him, and I’m really grateful for the opportunity—but even if that did not happen, I still always liked watching his streams. 

And I think WFM Anna Cramling also. She’s so energetic and also a good friend of mine. I want to develop my stream to be both my own way but also more energetic like her, and I’m trying to find other ways to improve like that. I think she and Hikaru are my favorites.

What WFM Alexandra Botez did for the community is insane; she really took chess to the next level and made it "cool"! I always loved streaming with her, and also learned a lot from her. As well as Nemsko [WGM Nemo Zhou], who undoubtedly became the fastest-growing new chess streamer.

And of course, I am a big fan of IM Anna Rudolf, whom we all learned from the most: she is a real OG in content creation and professional management of a YouTube channel. My first ever collab was with her. She was babysitting me the entire stream as I made so many mistakes! She was really patient and is the sweetest person I’ve ever met. I’d love to mention more streamers, but we don’t have enough space. I am so happy to be part of this amazing community as we help each other grow the game.


What’s the most memorable or exciting moment you’ve had on stream so far?

Do you know the meme Birds With Arms? As a joke, I replaced some of my new subscriber alerts with very short snippets of those birds saying various things while moving their arms… and I also had special alerts for 5, 10, or 20 gifted subs because it just adds so much value to people who love those specific alerts; they can be really loud and funny.

But these ones were for single subs, and what I did not realize is that when someone donates a bunch of subs anonymously through Streamlabs, they go through as single subscriptions. So these funny and slightly obnoxious alerts with birds just started going one after another for an hour—and so in May, we had really crazy streams, and sometimes the birds would be going for hours.

I ended up having over 3,000 subs and I’m pretty sure it was more than 20 or 30 people doing that anonymously because it was at all different times of the day. We would just mention one word and suddenly it’d be another bomb of these subs. The Bee Gees Stayin’ Alive was playing in all of them, and it was just going non-stop. I had terrible headaches by the end of some of those streams, but it was so funny. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much on my stream ever before. It was just insanity every day for a couple of weeks.

And that's how Wendy was born:

What chess tournaments are the most enjoyable to be a photographer at?
I think my favorite one is the Candidates because it’s a combination of a very high-stakes tournament and also has more than two players. The organization is always at a very high level and the players are always very focused.

The challenge of being able to capture some special emotions and special moments from the players is what keeps me going. If you go to an event with much less at stake, it’s just easier to talk to players and ask them to do something. At the Candidates it’s completely different. There’s almost a total disconnection from the player as being your friend, and it’s just this professional link only. I really enjoy it, trying to find something special there.

My second favorite is, of course, the Olympiad because it’s just impossible not to enjoy the whole vibrant, colorful, spectacle there of so many nations and players from all over the world. I think I take the most pictures there, thousands a day, and I’m still looking through them now. Of course, the Olympiad was also my first-ever tournament where I worked somewhat professionally, so in a way, it was a life-changing tournament for me.

An image of the 2022 Olympiad taken by Maria Emelianova.

 

"The team captains of Uzbekistan and India 2 respectively, GMs Ivan Sokolov and Ramesh, both closely following the match between their teams. The body position of Ivan is striking; you can almost feel the pain of him realizing that the team is almost definitely losing the match (it looked like the score would be 1-3 in the Indian prodigies' favor) and the chance to win gold. Later the first board, GM Nodirbek Abdusattorov, made an unbelievable comeback, beating GM Gukesh and drawing the match."

- Maria Emelianova

Some of your photos from this year’s Candidates were really incredible.
I wonder if the situation that I’m in kind of affected my view and made me challenge myself more. I was also streaming a lot and showing pictures to my stream; I think that’s also a thing that is really important and enjoyable for me.

When I look at the pictures with my community and I edit them on-stream, it really brings another perspective. Some pictures that I didn’t really think were anything special, they’ll say are amazing! It helps me see that I might be too judgmental towards my own work and discard a lot of pictures that in reality are very good; and vice versa, they also sometimes don’t really feel anything towards a photo I really like and I reconsider. So having another look at the photos is quite important and maybe helped me to elevate my work during Madrid. 


You can find Maria Emelianova on Twitch, Twitter, and Discord. She also has her very own club on Chess.com that you can join.

Is there someone you'd love to see as our next Streamer of the Month? Let us know in the comments below, and your favorite chess personality might be featured in one of these articles soon.


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