Natalia Pogonina: "The race after titles, fame and money is destroying people from the inside&a

Natalia Pogonina: "The race after titles, fame and money is destroying people from the inside&a

WGM Natalia_Pogonina
Apr 14, 2015, 11:07 AM |

Natalia, my congratulations to you on an inspiring performance!

What were your expectations for the Women’s World Chess Championship? The bookmakers didn’t seem to have a lot of confidence in you: one of the companies estimated the odds of you winning the event at 1:41, while the #1 favorite’s chances, according to their assessment, were almost 13 times higher. Did you set any goals before the tournament?

I don’t pay attention to such forecasts. Humans are in charge of all those assessments, and they tend to make mistakes. For a player there is not much sense in studying such information. Under the knockout system anyone can pull oneself together and do well. One shouldn’t set any limits for oneself. I didn’t have any particular goals and didn’t treat it in the “the minimal task is to reach round X” way. I was mentally prepared to go home after the very first round. If I move on, it’s nice. If not, it’s also fine, because I will return to my family. Maybe this attitude helped me to focus on the game itself instead of dwelling on the results. My attention was on the game, not on the outcome.

This was the fourth time you competed in the Women’s World Chess Championship. Did you prepare in a special way this time?

My preparation was more serious than usual. In early March I played a training match against a strong GM. We agreed to keep his name a secret, although if he finds it acceptable, I will be glad to reveal the mystery. We played standard time control chess, rapid, blitz and even Armageddon. This is very interesting and useful. I believe the match helped me a lot, especially since I hadn’t played anywhere after the Russian Superfinal in December. I was rusty and lacking practice. Without such training it wouldn’t make much sense to participate in the WWCC.

Also beneficial was the training session of the Russian women’s chess team which took place in the vicinities of Moscow in February.

What do you think of the knockout format? How objective is it? Would you prefer the “men’s” system or some other approach?

Men have a rather interesting scheme with the World Cup being the knockout event. Getting rid of the knockout tournament altogether doesn’t look like a good idea to me. A system when there is the World Cup, the Grand Prix series, the Candidates tournament and the World Championship match is very attractive. The only drawback is that it is very complicated and costly. This time FIDE had trouble finding sponsors for the Women’s Championship, so they had to postpone the event. If we adopt a more expensive system, won’t there be even more potential problems? This is what is bothering me. If FIDE manages to attract additional funding, I guess it will be interesting to universalize the systems. If not, then maybe we should just keep the current scheme.

Knockout is a very specific format. Two-game matches are a real challenge. Sometimes even top-tier rating favorites are eliminated in the very first rounds. Lose one game, fail to strike back, and you are out. There is hardly any room for making mistakes. You have to be prepared very well and to have nerves of steel to prosper under such a system. Let me repeat my statement: I would love to play under the “men’s” system, but at the current moment this seems hardly realistic to implement.

Is it even worth it, this endurance test? When watching from the distance one’s hair can turn grey prematurely from the level of stress. And how does it feel to be part of the process? How many kilos have you lost during the tournament? I guess it’s entertaining for the spectators to follow all the sensations and the drama, but how does it feel from the participant’s perspective?

Don’t blame the format too much. It’s up to you how to react. No one is obliging you to be nervous. This system teaches you to be strong intrinsically. It has its own advantages. In terms of self-development it is very useful not to be distressed and to maintain a good self-control. The fact that I have lost a lot of weight reveals that I have been making certain mistakes. Maybe my schedule wasn’t good enough: I have been working on openings too much and sacrificing time for sleep. One should be able to survive through this without any serious harm, but you have to be prepared in a special way. By the way, Anna Muzychuk told me that Mariya has also lost quite a few kilos during the tournament. It’s not only my problem.

In such extreme conditions one can test oneself and temper one’s character.


Is playing on home turf a gift or a curse? Do you think it was easier or harder for the 10 Russian chess participants to compete in Russia as compared to other countries?

For me the venue was convenient in the sense of being close to one of my homes. Normally when you purchase the tickets you have to decide what return date to choose, but here the trip was simple. I would also like to note that the organization of the event was top-notch: an excellent hotel, a comfortable tournament hall, amazing nature, fantastic mountain air. Had we played in a megalopolis, it would have probably been tough, while here even if you are tired and haven’t slept well, the atmosphere is still refreshing. 

For the first time in my life I have felt how double-edged it is when everyone is actively rooting for you. On the one hand, this is nice. On the other hand, additional responsibility is placed upon you; everyone is expecting something from you. You are subconsciously starting to feel that you are playing for the entire Russia and thus should show a good result. After Round 3 I have felt an instant increase in attention. At first I couldn’t cope with it, but later managed to somehow let go of the tension. For me all those attempts to cheer me up by saying “come on, I know you will win” or “you will score today for sure” are counter-productive. I appreciate the fans’ support, but not when they come up to you and start saying such things. I guess they think it’s helpful, but the effect is often the opposite. Maybe it’s just me though.  

How is Sochi after the Winter Olympics? You were there during the Carlsen-Anand match and also now. Did the resort turned into a ghost town, like some journalists predicted?

Everyone is saying “world championship in Sochi”, but in fact we have been staying in Krasnaya Polyana, a mountain-skiing resort an hour by car away from Sochi. As to Sochi, numerous sports and business events are held there. The Olympic infrastructure is actively exploited. There are many tourists and vacationers. The Winter Olympiad has contributed a lot to the city’s development. I am not an expert myself, but Deputy Prime Minister and Head of the organizing committee Arkady Dvorkovich has mentioned that Sport Accord is starting there soon, Formula 1 and other events. Everything is going to be all right!


Since we already started talking about stereotypes that exist in the press, let’s deal with one more. In the Western media it is often emphasized that in Russia chess is a matter of state importance. That not only the population, but also the authorities are monitoring the events and paying serious attention to the results of the athletes. Did the Russian Chess Federation offer you any support, especially at the stage when you have become the only Russian contender for the title?

I have been granted a lot of attention, in particular after Round 3 where all the other Russian players were eliminated. All my needs have been addressed. I should also note that the RCF has offered me a hand in organizing the training match which I have mentioned earlier. For me the feeling that they do care and support me was even more important than the financial contribution.

Russian Prime Minister (and ex-President) Dmitry Medvedev attended the event and spoke to all the Russian participants of the championship

In international press a few media have independently dubbed you the Queen of Comebacks. How did you manage to “return from the dead” three times in a row? This is a unique feat in the history of knockout events. How did you handle the nervous tension between rounds? Did you sleep well?

This is a very complicated and personal question. I have my own life philosophy. I can’t give a concrete advice, because I have been sleeping badly and preparing overzealously. I also didn’t follow such popular advice as “forget about the tournament and do something else”, “watch a movie”, “get some massage”. All I had to do was to fight and not to be afraid, and in the end it turned out that I have won all the tie-breaks.

Then why didn’t you make another comeback in the Final? Both you and your play looked less confident and somewhat constrained.

I don’t want to go into details right now, but I have demonstrated certain psychological weaknesses in the Final. I have made blunders: not chess ones, but human mistakes, so to speak.  Also, of course, I was very tired, so I didn’t manage to recover and readjust my game. I didn’t have a fresh head for the Final. I spent too much time studying theory. Even if we caught Mariya in preparation from time to time, I didn’t have enough stamina and mental strength to capitalize on it. Masha was better prepared for the Final. 

I wasn’t fixated on winning the gold at all costs. It was ok for me to get silver, but I wanted to play one more tie-break. I didn’t earn that chance though. It would have been more exciting to win silver in Armageddon than after the classical games.

This is somewhat surprising. In my opinion, for most players it would have been a terrible blow: how is that to make it to the “lottery” Armageddon and to lose it? One could spend the rest of the life moaning: “Had I had a little bit more luck back then, I would have…”. No? We know such individuals in the chess world. 

No, no, for me it was more important to actually experience the playoff. I wasn’t afraid of losing it.

Did your 5-year old son Nikolai support you? How did he evaluate your chances? We both know that he is an expert at estimating the strength of a player by just looking at his or her image.

He didn’t tell me anything about the final match. When he found out that Mum will be back home by April 7 or so, he relaxed. For him this is more important than the result. He kept asking me after every game how I performed, but for him the key thing is to see me asap. As to the medals – so far he doesn’t care much.

What meaning do you place in the title of the Women’s World Chess Champion? Have you ever dreamed about becoming the queen of chess? Or do you have such a goal now? Many people wish that to you or are trying to console you and to reassure you that you will win the title eventually.

I don’t dream about becoming the Women’s World Chess Champion. Someone might say that it’s unsportsmanlike and so on, but that is my way. I have my own goals in chess and am not fixated on the titles. I don’t have any strong emotions about becoming the runner-up instead of the winner. Please note that it is not some sort of a psychological defense, you know, “she lost, so now she will be telling herself that it is not that important”. I have had that calm attitude towards titles for quite a while already. For example, you can check out my interview for Sport Express in 2012 where I told Elena Vaytsekhovskaya that I have no ambitions of becoming the Women’s World Chess Champion. Of course, I would cherish the opportunity to play a full-fledged 10-game match for the crown, although not because it’s a chance to win the title, but rather due to it being a great experience. 

Just imagine: you would have become a champion and commented in your reserved, “Zen Buddhist” voice: “It’s not that I have particularly wanted it…”. Kramnik-style. 

Right. So much undesired fuss around you. For me the results are secondary. All those questions from journalists about “achieving immortality” or “securing one’s place in history”… More important is what you are doing and what road you are walking. Obsession with titles, money and fame is destroying people from the inside. This is foreign to me. Of course, if life grants you something, you should be grateful and shouldn’t run like the plague from it. But there is no point in ardently chasing it either.

During the post-match press conference I have been asked how I feel about being the Vice Women’s World Chess Champion and what expectations I have. My answer was that I don’t have any particular emotions and that I am already occupied with preparing for the upcoming World Team Championship. As to expectations, my reply was that now I have a chance to play the Grand Prix events and have secured a spot in the next World Championship. The audience has burst out laughing. Did I say anything wrong?

Well, for them you have acted like a chess schitzo, a Luzhin in a skirt who is obsessed with the game to the extent of confessing that the benefits of being World Women’s Chess Champion is that you can play some more chess. I guess they have been expecting such a beautiful girl as you to say something like “more people will be recognizing me on the street”, “I am looking forward to additional endorsement deals”, “stay tuned for my new photo sessions for magazines”, “my popularity will increase”.

Well, maybe, maybe. I mean, really. What are my expectations? The event has granted me valuable experience. It is also nice that some people have watched me coming back over and over again and have arrived at their personal conclusions. Hopefully, they will be setting fewer mental barriers for themselves and will believe more in their own powers. One’s duty is to do one’s job well and to hope for the best.

Natalia is one of the very few female chess players to have an equal personal score against Hou Yifan: +1 -1 in classical chess and a draw in rapid.

Had you qualified for a match against Hou Yifan, would you be interested in playing? Kibitzers have been joking that since you have knocked out Guo Qi, Ju Wenjun, Zhao Xue, it would have been logical to take up on the Chinese #1 next.

Yes, I would be happy to play such a match. I have no fear at all. Four games is a short distance, and in a 10-game match there is plenty of room for experiments and trying out all sorts of things!

Do you agree with a popular assessment that after Judit Polgar’s retirement women’s chess is divided into Hou Yifan and everyone else and that none of the participants of the last Women’s World Chess Championship has a realistic chance of beating the formidable Chinese player? This is a widespread opinion.

I don’t think that the match is going to be one-sided. Of course, Hou Yifan is playing on a very high level these days. She is very strong. But there is always a chance. I wouldn’t say that everyone else is doomed against her. I would rather not comment on the chances of the players because I know both of them in person and believe that it would be inappropriate on my behalf.

Mariya Muzychuk is 22, Hou Yifan is 21. This year you have turned 30. What emotions does it stir in you? There is the, let’s put it this way, Anand-Gelfand-Ivanchuk camp of people who seem to be willing to play chess all life long and manage to compete at the highest level after age 45. But there are also quite a few GMs who believe that modern chess is a game of youngsters.

I have a calm attitude towards aging and don’t think that one should be in a rush to achieve everything in chess while being in her twenties. I don’t set myself any limits. In women’s chess there is a remarkable example – Pia Cramling. She will be 52 soon, but she has made it to the semi-finals here.

Yes, I was impressed by her play a lot and amused by a comment of one of the fans: “Pia, don’t worry! You are still too young, so you will accumulate experience and do better next time!”.

Why not? I won’t be surprised if she reaches the semi-finals again in the future. It’s a bad idea to set mental barriers in your own head. Nothing is impossible.

Chess fans often ask when you are going to become a GM. Some of them have been monitoring your performance on a daily basis, doing calculations, arguing with each other. She deserves it; no, she is too weak. It seems that for some of them becoming or not becoming a GM is a really big deal. What would you tell them?

Previously I have been concerned about it, but for the last few years I have formed a calm attitude towards it. It’s hard to say whether I will ever fulfill the requirements or not. So far I don’t have any norms, so what.

Well, you just earned a norm…

Really? I don’t think so. 

You are due a GM norm for reaching the final of the WWCC. The winner gets an automatic title. But you are not the one to ever read the FIDE Handbook…

No, I haven’t heard about it. Neither have I read the Handbook. It is so huge and full of all sorts of rules and regulations…

Would it be fair to say that you have had a couple of 2600+ performances such as at Moscow Open-2009 or the Russian Superfinal-2012, but there haven’t been enough title holders among your opponents, because there are generally few women with the GM title? Maybe you will have better chances in the Grand Prix series for which you have just qualified?

I don’t know. It is not on my agenda at the moment. Previously I used to care, but now I don’t pay much attention to such matters.

What about your rating? You gained a bunch of points in Sochi.

It is unstable. At one moment I was rated 2508. A bunch of points? Like ten? (with self-irony in her voice)

Fifteen. Not a big deal, you might say, but Mariya, for example, has won the tournament and has yet shed a few points in classical chess.

Oh, really? The peculiarities of the knockout system! Funny stuff…

How do you react to male chauvinism in chess? For example, some of the official commentators have been quite condescending and excessively familiar when discussing the players and their game, allowing such expressions as “well, she won’t find this move, of course”, “you can expect anything to happen when women are playing”, “wow, she has some sort of positional understanding”, etc. Funnily enough, in many cases the variations they have been touting where in fact worse than what actually happened on the board.

I didn’t get a chance to listen to the commentary, so it’s hard to judge. One shouldn’t worry about it. In terms of promoting women’s chess this is, of course, a minus. Why try to portray women’s play as something inferior to men’s? The commentators are supposed to be able to underscore the advantages of women’s chess and to know how to entertain the public. If someone indeed did say something like “she is not capable of finding this move”, then it’s pretty sad. Women’s chess is a delight to watch. When we came to the closing ceremony in dresses, a popular question was why we don’t wear them for the rounds. I jokingly replied that in this case no one will be following men’s chess at all! Women’s chess has its own advantages, so a condescending tone is not appropriate. Besides, there are more and more women who are capable of beating male grandmasters. Not to mention that the male GMs themselves blunder a lot and are also by far not always able to find the strongest moves. If the commentator is disrespectful towards the participants, then the viewers will feel like they are watching a second-rate show and might become upset.

Sure, especially if the kibitzer himself is not very good at chess, so he trusts the commentators, and they are like: “Oh, another blunder”. Also, I don’t quite understand this division between men’s and women’s chess. There is, let’s say, chess at 2500 level and chess at 2700 level. Generally speaking, a 2700 is stronger than a 2500. However, if we compare two 2500 players, it doesn’t matter much who has this rating: a woman or a man.

Of course. Maybe this has to do something with the identities of certain men who feel happy by insulting women. However, I know many strong grandmasters that respect female colleagues and follow our games with interest. I doubt that any of them will say something like “this move is beyond her ability” and the like. I wouldn’t generalize and say that the problem you have described is omnipresent. The commentators are supposed to act in a professional manner and abstain from making a false impression that some sort of weaklings are playing. There shouldn’t be any disdain. All the participants were rather strong players who have undergone a rigorous qualification process. Maybe we shouldn’t be putting so much emphasis on the distinction between men’s and women’s chess and instead concentrate on the game itself and the personalities of the players.

I have noted with satisfaction that many male GMs have been closely following the tournament. Who is your favorite top male GM in terms of his playing style?

I am very impressed by Magnus Carlsen’s approach. He is fighting in any position. For him there is no notion of “I didn’t get an opening advantage, so let’s just call it a draw because we are both so good”. In every situation he is searching for some hidden mysteries and for practical chances. At least that’s how it seems to me.

For the general public prize money is more important than the content of the chess games. They keep asking: how high were the stakes, how much have you made? Of course, the difference between the 1st and the 2nd places at the WWWC is not just $60k versus $30k. The prize for the match against Hou Yifan, increase in appearance & endorsement fees and other such bonuses quickly add up to a few hundred thousand dollars. Did it put additional pressure on you? What role does money play in your life? When you are participating in a tournament, do you have thoughts/concerns about winning or not winning a certain prize?

No, I didn’t have any reflections about the potential benefits. The increase in prize money came as a bonus after every round, but it wasn’t something over important. Well, if you make it to the final, you earn more. After the tournament you can decide on what to spend your prize, although you have to receive it first. All the more, I didn’t have any musings about the first place granting money here, money there. For me more critical was the fact that the winner of the championship gets to play a match against Hou Yifan. Not in the sense of the prospects of cashing in on it, but as a chance to take part in an exciting 10-game match. A pro needs to make a living somehow, but I am not fixated on money to the extent of calculating how much I will make in one case or the other.

This reminds me of Mikhail Botvinnik’s reply to the question why Boris Spassky’s results have plummeted at a certain point. The Patriarch pointed out that initially for Boris money was merely a means of playing chess, but eventually he started playing chess for the sake of making more and more money. This is an interesting philosophic argument to ponder for any professional player…

Do you think that the leading grandmasters are responsible for promoting chess? What are you doing to get more people interested in the game?


In the perfect world it would be nice if each of them did something to make chess more popular. I am not saying that everyone must launch a site, be active on Twitter, give simuls, etc., but why not start with some small nice deeds. Local activity is also productive; why not do something for your city.

It should come from one’s heart, not be imposed upon, right?

Yes, of course.

Let’s talk a bit about your life outside chess. What hobbies do you have? How do you spend your free time?

It depends. I am cognizing life. In chess. Outside of chess. Trying to spend more time with my son. Dedicating a lot of attention to the Internet. Reading. Now, for instance, I am catching up on the novels of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I love nature and going out for a walk, as well as enjoy taking photos.

I should also mention that you know how to cook a large variety of delicious meals. You are experimenting all the time and spoiling us!

You know better.

How strong is support for chess in Saratov? Do you like the city you live in? Are there any aspirations to move somewhere else or maybe even to emigrate from Russia?

A new president of the Saratov chess federation has recently been elected. Maybe there will be some changes. I don’t know. I have been living in the city for quite a while already. Everything is fine, there are no special problems. Of course, I would appreciate more support for chess, but given the current economic situation I understand perfectly well that chess isn’t the first priority in the society. Chess could use extra funding, but it’s clear that it’s not so easy to establish that.

I am definitely not planning to leave the country. I love Russia a lot and have no desire to move anywhere else.

Last but not least, please tell us about your upcoming tournament plans. Of course, we are trying to update your
tournament calendar at, but some people don’t know about its existence and send you direct messages asking where they can root for you next.

I have a very tight schedule. On April 16 we are flying to China for the World Women’s Team Chess Championship. Right from there I am traveling to Sochi for the Russian Club Cup. It is a really tough routine. The good news is that since having reached the semi-finals I am not obliged to earn a qualification spot for the next World Championship, so I don’t have to play in the European Championship. This is a relief; now I can skip the event with a clear conscience.

Natalia, thank you for the interview!