Natalia Pogonina: "There were no politics in the chess final"
Original in Russian here.
The World Championship finalist Natalia Pogonina told in the interview for Gazeta.ru about her path in the Sochi tournament, the secrets of Olympiad victories, Russian-Ukrainian friendship and the benefits of chess for character development.
A Women's World Chess Championship just ended in Sochi. It was won by Maria Muzychuk from Ukraine, who became the 15th World Champion; she defeated Pogonina 2.5-1.5 in the final. Natalia talked to the Gazeta.ru reporter shortly before the closing ceremony.
I want to move forward
First of all, congratulations with reaching the World Championship final. Does it feel great to become a part of chess history?
I didn't think much about it. I didn't expect to reach the final and to become a vice-champion. This was unexpected, but I can't say that I had any particularly strong emotions or impressions. Perhaps it's only now, perhaps I've just became calmer. I've won two Olympiads and a Russian championship already. I did have good results... So I don't really know what to say.
But there'll be a line in the annals of chess, "In 2015, Muzychuk played Pogonina for Women's World Championship in Sochi..."
I don't think it's that much important whether I became a part of chess history. I'm not too excited.
If we just discuss feelings, are you glad that you've played a successful tournament, or rather sad because you lost in the final?
I'm in a good mood and want to move forward. There's no disappointment, I just want to go on. And now, I'm already busy with gathering documents for a visa: on April 16th, the World Team Championship begins for our national team. I don't even have time to think about this world championship - I have to prepare for the next one.
After your Sochi success, there was a discussion: will Natalia Pogonina play at the first board in the Russian team? Do the team members argue much about who's going to play at the first board, are there any troubles because of that?
I don't know about other teams, but there's a very friendly atmosphere in our team. I can't even remember anyone saying "I'd like to play at such or such board". We trust our coaches fully and don't argue with their board choices.
For instance, I'm only the fifth-rated member of our team, and I won't argue if I'll play as a substitute - this won't surprise me at all.
We have a very good and strong team, and the coaches will make the best board choice. Perhaps this question is more controversial among men, but we are all ready to play on any board if the coaches say so.
What a discipline!
Well, you don't win three Olympiads in a row for nothing! (Laughs.)
I played the final against a friend
You've won many team titles; can you compare the pressure between team and individual tournaments? Were there any tensions because of everyone watching your games and discussing your every move and gesture?
I'm a bit unaccustomed to that. When I remained the only Russian in the tournament, I had a strange feeling, as though everyone was looking at me. Everyone starts saying, come on, we all support you.
And this got down on my nerves, I couldn't cope with the pressure and lost the first game to the Chinese player. Only then I've managed to recover and calm down, but in the first game, I was out of tune.
When you're alone, and you go to a game, and everyone wishes you victory and supports you - it's not that simple. You have to remain calm, because when you start to wind yourself up, like, you have to give it all, this may not be good at all. You may become too nervous, which is bad.
So, it was an ordeal of sorts that I've had to go through until the final. When so many people support you, it's great, but, on the other hand, it's not that simple: everyone expects something from you.
Perhaps you felt the strongest pressure before the final. Russia versus Ukraine: were there any political subtexts, uncomfortable questions from the press about this?
Nobody has asked me anything about politics, even during the final. Neither journalists nor ordinary chess fans. Everything was completely correct. Everyone treated Maria with respect, no problems at all - there were no politics involved, only sport.
I can't say whether Masha was approached with such questions, but I don't know anything about anyone pressing the topic. There were no politics at all: I played the final against the woman I know for a long time, we're friends. Nobody tried to drag politics into this, and it's very good.
You said that you didn't consider yourself a favourite before the tournament, but did you have any particular goals? Which result would have been satisfactory to you, allowing you to say that you've had a good tournament?
I didn't have any specific goals. I was ready for any result, it was a knockout tournament after all, it's very unpredictable. Many favourites would lose in second or third rounds.
Of course I didn't expect to play in the final, but I was ready for any results, even for a first-round loss. I just prepared for the tournament and tried to play my best chess, and be that as it may.
"Mom, will you get a prize?"
You said that your son was with his grandmother in Stavropol, close enough to Sochi, and you were ready to come to them in any moment. Did they come to Sochi for the final?
No, they couldn't. They supported me from Stavropol through Skype. My son asked me, "Mom, did you lose?" And then added joyfully, "Will they give you a cup or a medal?"
I told everything to him. I'll visit him for a few days before going away to the training camp.
He's five years old now; reportedly, you started playing chess at that age...
I can't remember exactly when I began, I was five or six. My grandfather taught me to play. And I've started to study in a chess club at age 8, it's kind of late by modern measures.
What do you think about your son? He sees the chess world his mom lives in - it's an entirely different universe, compared to casual life. Do you wish him to became a part of it too?
I think it depends on his wishes. Now he's learning to play chess, already knows something. We'll see whether he wants to take up chess seriously. It's too early to say now.
Do you think that chess players are any different from, say, smart people that don't play chess?
Well, I just don't know.
But is playing chess beneficial for character development?
Of course! It's very beneficial for children! It's a very interesting game that contributes much to development. And it teaches you life: the more you understand chess, the more you see that.
But professional sport is another thing: the exertion is great, you have to pay lot of attention to your health. It's different. But, nevertheless, it's very beneficial to learn at least basic chess.
"Why don't you want to play with me?"
You're conversing with chess fans in social networks. Your Twitter page is in English...
Yes, because the majority of my followers speak English. It just turned out that way.
You also have a Facebook page, which is a bit less personal: event reports, photos. How do you build relationships with your supporters?
My Facebook page is more "official" - there are various news and information, my husband helps me with posting. He's working on my site a lot, assuming some managerial functions.
On Vk.com, I talk a lot with Russian speakers from Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan. Many people write to me, I reply to everyone, I see no problems with that.
Though some people just don't understand how really busy I am, and they complain, "Why don't you want to play chess with me?" I can answer some questions, but someone would resent me because I declined an offer to play with them. They just don't understand that a professional chess player is always very busy, he or she has a lot of work and just can't play casual games all the time.
But the majority is understanding: they write and support me. During this tournament, I received many supporting messages from fans. I think that chess should be popularized, and I'm trying to do my small part by being open for conversations.
In the autumn, we'll see a World Championship match: Maria Muzychuk versus Hou Yifan, one on one. They say that the Chinese player "plays in a league on her own". What do you expect from this match?
I know a lot of people in the chess world, so I'm usually trying to refrain from discussing chances. Yes, Hou Yifan went down in history this year by topping women's rating charts. Judit Polgar led for more than 20 years, but the time has come for the Chinese player to overtake her.
I think that she'll reach 2700 soon. Judit retired from chess, and now everyone looks up to Hou Yifan. She has a considerable rating lead against everyone, but I think that there are always some chances.