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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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Krush, who teaches chess, was coming from a lesson. She had told me this on the phone, but when she arrived, she said it had been canceled: “But my coach was giving a class, so I just watched that.” She smiled briefly. “He’s Georgian. He’s been my coach since I was 15 years old, if you can believe it. He was 22.” The coach, Giorgi Kacheishvili, and Krush took a break for 10 years, when he returned to Georgia and couldn’t get back to the United States for visa reasons, and resumed when he was able to return.

She talked about his strengths as a teacher for a while—his use of fresh material, his attempts to build a foundation while also building skills. I asked if she likes teaching, and she said it depends. “I enjoy it at the higher levels, but not as much when the student doesn’t need my level of expertise and can’t make use of my value,” she said. “Or if they don’t love it,” she added. “You want to share your love of chess.” She answered questions very quickly, thinking them through as she spoke and making crucial addenda at the end. The active and the cautious were equal parts strong within her.

Irina Krush

Irina Krush, 2009. (Betsy Dynako)

Krush ordered a salad and then asked me if she could order the fish, which she thought looked good. Then she asked me what the angle of the story was. When I told her about the rivalry, she smiled and said, “Let’s get Anna out of the way so we can move on to the other stuff.”

“I had more time, and then suddenly, it was gone,” is how Krush remembers the game. I asked her how she felt during the game. “The way I looked,” she said instantly. “Like someone you wouldn’t want to mess with. I see chess as a battle.” She paused, and then added, “With yourself, to do your best.”

Regarding the battle with Zatonskih, she saw it as an unfortunate set of circumstances: “The rules were not very good. It’s not supposed to be like that—a free for all.” Now she said things are different. The rules have changed, gotten better. “Everything is in place to make it civilized. I don’t even blame my opponent for trying to move as fast as she could.” But 2008 was a long time ago. “We normalized our relationship later that year.”

With that out of the way, we were free to discuss her youth. Born in Odessa, Krush moved with her family at the age of 4 to Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, where she has lived ever since. “I’m a Brooklyn girl,” she told me. “I love Brooklyn, I love New York.” Her family consists of “Mama Bear, Papa Bear, and me,” and a sister who was born when Krush was 19. “The focus was definitely on me.”

Her father, who was “a very enthusiastic amateur” chess player, taught her to play when she was 5; “he saw my potential. It was a thing that linked me and my dad. He was definitely the main influence of my early life.” Krush had no competing hobbies, unlike others she met, including her ex–husband who had to choose between chess and tennis, both of which he played well and enjoyed.

“Chess was just something that arrived in my life and never left,” she said. It gave her a sense of power, of being special. “By the time I was 13, 14, my life was different from other kids my age, with traveling to tournaments and missing school. I basically didn’t go to school at all after 10th grade. I have no friends from high school. You might think that’s discouraging. It wasn’t. I had a strong sense of identity. I knew from a young age who I was and where I fit into the world. I never cared what people thought—did I get invited to this party or not? I didn’t care about that, after I was 10 years old.”

Krush graduated from NYU where she majored in International Relations and minored in French Studies and Translation Studies (“my true passions”). She is an avid reader. Her tastes lean toward macabre tales of persecution and isolation. When I asked her about her game, she said, “I’m better as a positional player. But I don’t like to be just that. You’ll see in my games I try to be more aggressive, to create something. But I miss things. My coach identified it: In life, he said, you’re very dynamic, and you want to be like that in chess.” She admires the games of Mikhail Tal, whose tactical style she says is the opposite of her own. “They called him the Wizard of Riga—he would just sacrifice in places you’d never think, not even correct sacrifices, but he’d make them work on the board. His philosophy was, you have to take your opponent into a dark forest where one plus one doesn’t equal two, and the stronger player will come out of the forest.”

Krush’s own style is very much opposed to this kind of play, for the simple reason that she wants to win too much for the arbitrariness of Tal’s game, and if you want to win consistently, you don’t go into a forest. “I am looking for logic and consistency in chess,” she told me, things she is extremely good at controlling.

‘You have to take your opponent into a dark forest where one plus one doesn’t equal two’

Regarding the difference between playing men and women, Krush said she hadn’t noticed much of a difference. It depends rather on the rating, which is objective, she said. But she noted that women tend to be more erratic, and men more even, over the course of their games. “One thing’s for sure, when things are unbalanced in your personal life—for everyone, it leads to a streaky performance.”

I asked her if it’s difficult playing people she likes. She answered with a very definitive affirmative and told me a story about how for a while, she had trouble playing her closest female friend, a doctoral candidate at Carnegie Mellon. “At first, we made some draws. I felt little motivation to play this game, to win, to inflict psychic damage on my friend.” One time she had to win: It was the eighth round out of a tournament of nine. “I had to remind myself: This is what I do.”

***

Two years ago, on her 28th birthday, Irina Krush was baptized and became a Christian. Her path to religion began with her coach, a deeply religious individual, though Krush says he didn’t induce her conversion. Rather, she and her coach used to argue a lot about religion, “but he never budged. Finally he said to me, ‘Just read something.’ ” So, she started reading rabbinic literature, and she remembers being so amazed by one story she read about why it was Aaron who struck the Nile turning it to blood, rather than Moses—it would have been ungrateful of Moses to strike the conduit of his salvation as a baby. “When I told this to my coach, he said, ‘Wow,’ ” she said, her face alight with wonder. Then she heard a few lectures by Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis. But nothing in Judaism moved her.

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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