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A Passionate Rivalry Between Two Women—On the Chess Board and Everywhere Else

International chess champions Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush play the game of life to a draw

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Anna Zatonskih wins the “Armageddon match” of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship, against Irina Krush, with one second remaining. (Betsy Dynako)
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The two women sat head-to-head, and though their hands were frenzied, their faces remained still, revealing nothing, with the title of champion at stake in the final “Armageddon match” of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Chess Championship. Of the two international masters, Anna Zatonskih, 29 at the time, was the more feminine, the more mature; Irina Krush, 24, who won the competition in 1998, when she was just 14, looked more like a teenage gangster. But there was also something similar about them, the rigidity of the body so all-encompassing, the look of concentration so transformative to the features. Zatonskih had won the U.S. Women’s in 2006, but she’d been dethroned in 2007 by Krush.

The match had started at 10 p.m. in Tulsa, Okla. Krush had just finished a long game, and Zatonskih asked if they shouldn’t reschedule the already delayed final match. She was assured that Krush was eating and would be down shortly. Zatonskih waited in her room, preparing for the game and attempting to quell her nerves. She finally left her room and arrived 10 minutes late, and then waited another 10 minutes, feeling like an idiot for arriving so much earlier than Krush, rather than staying in her hotel room to further prepare for the match. Finally, Irina Krush appeared wearing a leather jacket.

As defending champion, Krush got to decide the length of the game they would play; Zatonskih would choose her color. Krush objected that the choice of color gave more of an advantage. “It was chosen at random,” the administrator told her. Krush selected 6 minutes for white and 4 and a half for black with draw odds: A draw would be counted as a win for black. Zatonskih chose black. The women shook hands and sat down to play.

The game, which can be viewed on YouTube and whose moves can be followed here, began calmly enough. Krush played the Queen’s Gambit, Zatonskih the Slav Defense. But about three minutes in, a frenzied feeling starts to emerge from Zatonskih, whose hand can’t seem to reach the timer fast enough.

As the game reaches its climax, the moves are so fast they are hard to follow. Pieces are knocked over and not set right. What people say—that chess is a sport—is painfully obvious. The two women could almost be arm-wrestling. The draw odds meant that Zatonskih only had to draw to win; as long as she could wait Krush out, she would have the game. But when Zatonskih’s clock showed two seconds, the odds seemed slim. And then, the seemingly impossible happened: After a series of dizzying moves in the bottom right-hand corner of the board, the corner (not coincidentally) closest to Zatonskih’s timer, Krush’s time ran out, indicated by a slight gesture—the upturned palm by her opponent. Zatonskih had won, with one second left on the clock.

In the video footage of the game, Zatonskih’s posture goes immediately into supplication mode—her hands turn up, then down, then up again, as Krush picks up her king, and with a muttered, “Oh, come on,” knocks it across the board and storms out. Zatonskih, hunched over the board, stares down for a minute without moving, in shock.

Chess enthusiasts have dissected the video-feed of the game frame by frame. Since then, Krush has also written an open letter “to explain what really happened in Tulsa”—that Zatonskih moved on her, Krush’s, time, illegally. She proposed that they share the title. But some of the commenters protested that Krush dropped a piece, and the rules of blitz state that a player who drops a piece must replace it on their own time, which Krush failed to do. Zatonskih said she would compose a response, but never did.

The next year, in 2009, Zatonskih won the Women’s U.S. Championship again. In 2010, Krush won. In 2011, Zatonskih won. In 2012, Krush won. She then repeated her victory in 2013.

***

Anna Zatonskih

Anna Zatonskih, 2011. (Courtesy of Anna Zatonskih)

Anna Zatonskih, 35, has big, brown eyes and chestnut-colored hair that curls gently against her neck. Her skin is bright, glowing even, and she evinces a soft, feminine energy, a presence that is both solid and forgiving. Growing up in Ukraine, she started playing chess early, at age 4 or 5. The family joke is that her father wanted a son so he could teach him to play chess and had to make do with Anna. “My mother met my father in chess tournament,” she told me when we met in the spring, her voice lyrical and heavily accented. “I met my husband in chess tournament. I wonder, maybe my daughter will meet her husband in chess tournament?” She laughed. Her daughter Sophia is 6, but as of yet, not very into chess.

Zatonskih thinks that difficult years in Ukraine spurred her game. The “bad years” of the 1990s “gave me motivation to grow in chess,” and when she was 14, she won the Ukrainian Championship and was able to  travel. “It gave me the possibility to visit Germany,” she said. “It was of course very different. For the first time in my life, I saw automatic doors.” she recalled.

Zatonskih attended college in Ukraine, despite wanting to pursue chess, in line with the Russian saying, “You need to go to college just in case—like an open bottle of vodka, sooner or later you will use it. Not me,” she added. “I don’t drink vodka.” Then, in 2002, she moved to Ohio, and after three years to Long Island. She now lives in Germany with her husband, the Jewish Latvian chess player Daniel Fridman, but she misses living in the United States, where she was able to teach. She likes working with beginners, though she admits she is probably overqualified.

Zatonskih and Fridman don’t play chess against each other; “OK, we’re at home, we have other things to do,” she said by way of explanation. But she said her husband has influenced her game. “Sometimes, I see I’m playing his openings. My opponents check what he has been playing to prepare for games against me, and I am also doing that, when I know someone is married to a chess player,” she said. “He is my husband and my coach.” Throughout our interview, Zatonskih spoke openly, uncautiously.

Zatonskih says her game has changed in recent years. She used to be an active player who favored attack. “I was more tactic; I would say I liked more attack then. Now, I’m getting very positional, taking fewer risks,” she said. “If I have possibility to take a quiet line, small advantages. Probably, because of my husband’s influence and being Mom.” Something changes in a woman’s mentality when she has a child, she explained. “I don’t have that desire anymore to win, to put everything on the game,” she said. “It’s gone.”

Her role models in chess are all people she describes with that same word—desire. “Boris Gelfand, he’s not very young, but he loves chess, he has desire for chess, and he’s getting better. And of course, Kasparov, he has such energy in his games, such concentration, such desire. And of course I have female role models,” she said. “Pia Cramling, she is playing 2,500, she is sportiv, she looks young, she’s playing so good, and always comes back on top. And Monika Soćko, her husband is Bartosz, if I would play her, I would study her husband. And she’s a very good mother.”

Another thing Zatonskih struggles with is playing good friends. “It’s very difficult,” she said, shaking her head. “Once I had to play against my best friend, and she was pregnant, and she was crying,” she said.

Of the game against Irina Krush and Krush’s letter accusing her of cheating, Anna again shook her head. “I’m trying to love people, but I know she will not say this back. Her letter came at a bad time for me.” Recently, Zatonskih was invited to a tournament in China that she couldn’t attend, and for which she recommended Krush. “She even said thank you,” Zatonskih recalled, “so maybe it’s OK now. And I heard she discovered God, so maybe that helps.”

***

I met Irina Krush at a restaurant she likes in the West Village, a small Italian place down the block from the chess club she belongs to. Krush, who is 29 years old, was wearing a bright pink lace top under a camel-colored Members Only jacket. Her hair was long with blond highlights. I recognized her big eyes and angular features from the video of the game, but the videos I had seen had failed to capture her charisma and the coltish energy that animates her wiry frame.

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A Passionate Rivalry Between Two Women—On the Chess Board and Everywhere Else

International chess champions Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush play the game of life to a draw