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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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“I was reading, waiting for something to open up,” she said. “Eventually, I softened toward Christianity. Another one of Giorgi’s students—my friend Alex—was also converting, and he asked me if I want to go to church. And when I went into that church, all my questions fell away. It’s not even logical, it’s beyond logic. Then, my life just changed.”

I noted that her relationship with her coach sounds intense. “He’s one of my best friends,” she said. “Our love of chess, our love of the church”—

“Is it romantic?” I interrupted.

“Not now it isn’t,” she said.

She signaled the waiter and asked him to pack up her food, of which she had taken but two bites; the fish still lay whole on the plate. She had to return to the chess club for a lesson with her coach.

As we walked to the club, she told me that her conversion has been a real strain on her relationship with her parents, who see Judaism as being in historical conflict with Christianity. “It’s way worse than if I had become a Hindu or a Buddhist,” she said. I told her that I’d noticed a lot of anti-Christian sentiment in popular culture recently. “Giorgi would say, the truth is always persecuted,” she said sagely.

We entered the chess club and walked up a back flight of stairs and into a large room where three chess games were in session. Krush asked me to guess which was her coach. He is a tall man—if he isn’t 6 foot 5 he certainly gives the impression of being so—with gray hair and black eyebrows and thick black hair on his arms and legs.

“I know, he looks older,” she said, laughing.

We sat down in the corner together for the lesson. He sat with one hand flung over the back of the chair, looking widely across the room before him. I asked him how he got into chess, and there was an awkward pause while he blinked at me. He finally shrugged, then smiled. “I just liked it.”

Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush, 2009

Anna Zatonskih and Irina Krush, 2009. (Betsy Dynako)

I asked him about the difference between men and women in chess. He shrugged again. “Like the difference in tennis. When it’s a tension, men makes powerful moves. At some point, woman breaks. It’s difference in power. But only with extremely good players. In some very good players.” He nodded his chin at Krush. “She can play against me, and she will have no hope.” Could he describe Irina’s game? “Oh, no, no!” Krush said, laughing. “Nothing good! I can’t listen to this!” She jumped out of her chair and left the room.

I asked how many students he has. “Many.” He thought for a minute. “Twenty-five.” I asked if he thought he had a powerful influence over them. “He does,” Krush, who had returned, said. “They are afraid of big gray wolf,” Kacheishvili added, smiling. And how many of his students had converted to Christianity? He grinned at me from behind his black eyebrows. “Only two,” Krush said, smiling. “Listen, some students are drawn closer.”

She pulled out the foil container from the restaurant and handed her coach a piece of bread from the bag. While he ate the bread, he told me they lived five to seven minutes apart by car. “I’ve done it in three,” Krush said. She handed him the fish. He stared down at it. “How do you want me to eat this?” he asked.

“Oh no! I forgot to take a fork,” Krush apologized. “I have a spoon. Will that work?” He shrugged. Then he ate everything, including the lemon wedge, which he ate with a smile.

“He’s hungry,” Krush told me. The lesson began. Krush sat across from her teacher, her angular face gathered and pointed at the board, a hand against her sharp cheekbone. She made a move. Kacheishvili turned to me and made a thumbs-down sign. She sighed deeply, put the piece back, and tried again.

Last month, Irina Krush became a Grandmaster, making her the first American woman to be awarded the title. Only 1 percent of some 1,380 living Grandmasters are women; the only woman currently in the top 100 is Judit Polgar, a Jew from Hungary.

***

CORRECTION, Oct. 30: Irina Krush’s coach was originally misidentified. He is Giorgi Kacheishvili.

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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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