25 December 2020

Aleksandra Goryachkina: I've Never Had Any Idols

Three-time Russian champion's interview to Eteri Kublashvili

– Sasha, my congratulations on winning the Russian Women’s Superfinal and the European Women’s Cup! What is your take on your performance back in Moscow and, more importantly, now that some time has passed? 

– In terms of performance, it was one of my best Superfinals, because in other events I used to drop as many as three games, but then would become champion anyway. I demonstrated a decent and solid game in this event. Overall, this is one of those rare tournaments that I am not upset about any game. 

I wouldn't say that it was about trying to "catch up" with Polina Shuvalova during the tournament. My goal was to show an adequate level of play and, going into the tournament, I assumed that this should be enough. My guess proved right: I did not rush anywhere and played solid and confident chess, and this was enough. 

– Which game are you especially happy about?

– I had good games with Alisa Galliamova, Olga Girya, and Valentina Gunina. All of them are of good quality. 

– What was your mindset going into the tie-break? How do you feel about tie-breakers in general?

– Since the rules and regulations are known before the tournament and the participants agree with them, the question of how you feel about tie-breakers seems no longer valid. There is no choice, everyone knows the rules. There will never be perfect conditions, and not everything is going to work out the way you like. Even this might happen from time to time, but you should not count on it. 

Superfinal tie-breakers have always been part of regulations and were played at nearly all the recent-year events. So everything is simple: I just played it. 

As for the attitude to tie-breakers, the choice is very simple: either you play a tie-breaker, or additional tie-breakers are counted it. Needless to say, it is always fairer to sort things out in a tie-breaker because the outcome depends on you and not some conditional figures. It is clear that a head-to-head encounter is an objective outcome, whereas the number of wins and the number of games played as Black is controversial, in my opinion. 

Sometimes you manage in a tiebreaker, and sometimes you don't. It all depends on you, and you should not complain about it (smiling). 

– It's noteworthy that Polina, like you, is from Orsk, even though you both haven't lived there for a long time now. Have you ever crossed swords in children's chess?

– We have an age gap of three years, which is huge for children's chess. So we didn't play in tournaments, although my dad remembers me giving a simul in Orsk, and Polina being its participant.  

I remember us playing some tournaments on behalf of the Orenburg region, and I remember her grandmother. 

– That is interesting. Just a day after the Superfinal you sat down at the board again, even if it was a digital one, to play for the Monaco club, which ended up winning the women's European Cup. Was the transition from a traditional chess game to the "online" format easy for you? Are you a fan of online chess in general?  

– The sequence of events does matter. The transition from classic to "online" chess is easy, not the other way around (laughing). You tend to prepare for classical tournaments seriously as you go over your openings and do everything more professionally, and your approach to Internet chess is less thorough. 

However, a lot depends on the tournament: I take official competitions (Nations Cup, Online Olympiad, European Cup) seriously, but there is still some distrust for certain opponents. At the same time, I rate the usual Internet blitz as just a way to pass the time. 

– How and where were you this challenging year? Have you learned something new for yourself? Have you developed a habit of watching TV shows, movies, and books?

– I spent most of my time in Salekhard. When I returned from Switzerland after the third stage of the FIDE women's Grand Prix in March, I thought that something else would be organized yet. I had an invitation to the tournament in Biel that I did not make to, but which eventually took place after all. Then we thought that the World Cup would be held in Minsk in September, but it was canceled as well. In general, I never stopped preparing for tournaments, but it so happened that they either would not take place, or I would not make it there. 

As for books and TV shows, self-isolation ended so long ago that I can no longer recall anything specific. This is the fifth tournament that I have played in the past three months, and I'm focusing on chess exclusively.  

I took me quite a while to come around after the match with Ju Wenjun. I think that even if there was no pandemic, it would still be necessary to take a break, come to your senses and take stock of what is going on. I was just trying to recollect myself.

– What do you think you lacked to win the match? 

– A bit of everything. Here and there, it was about playing strength, concentration, luck, and physical form. The combination of the above led to such a result.

– It sometimes seemed during the match that you were more confident than your opponent and that you were the one exerting pressure… 

– Then I watched some videos, but you need to understand that this is about ten percent of what was really going on. Of course, sofa experts have no problems evaluating everything from afar, but this picture has nothing to do with reality. We did our best to minimize her previous match experience, but it didn't work out completely.  

– The TV series "Queen's Gambit" is on everyone's lips now. Judging by your previous answer, you haven't seen it. Is it because of lack of time or is it a matter of principle for you?

– To be honest, I am not a fan of chess-related movies. There is no lack of chess in my life, and the last thing I want to see is more chess. So I try to choose TV series or movies as a way to distract myself. 

– I'll bring up a hot topic. You are one of the few female players who compete with men on equal footing. Why do you think not all women achieve it?

– Not everyone wants it in the first place. Besides, there are purely physiological aspects. I recognize it as a challenge, and I take it for granted that I am not that strong physiologically, but it does not stop me from competing with men in general. So, you need to work more and rely on something else instead. Since no one stops me from competing with men, why shouldn't I? 

- There is no doubt that your popularity has increased recently, especially after the championship match. How do you feel about it? Do people recognize you on the street?

– Everyone in Salekhard seems to know me by now (laughing). I am not aware of how much match-related information got on the Internet, because I tried to isolate myself from it.

- There was much media coverage.

– But after the match, I was amazed that people would recognize me in shopping centers, banks, and that they would come up to greet me with such words as "well done!" I was somewhat stressed by it. Of course, it's nice when people approach you with good intentions, but I feel somewhat awkward that they know so much more about me than I about them. 

– And what about mass media's being always on your heels to interview you? You still don't like it very much, do you?

– I simply don't like going public just for the sake of saying something. When there's something to share, I say it. What's the point of talking to the winds?

– If you could choose a venue for some critical tournament, let's say a world championship match, what would you choose? Do you prefer playing in warm or cold countries, near the seaside, in the mountains, in big or small cities? 

– This is far-fetched because none offers me anything of the kind (laughing). I do not care where to play, but usually, I try to hope for the best but prepare for the worst. I always plan for the worst-case scenario, but it's fine if things develop otherwise. However, it happens rarely.

At the same time, you may excel in other than ideal situation, and sometimes the other way around. Therefore, I believe you need to play better and stronger and not try to find fault with the environment.  

– I see. Do you have a favorite chess player, an idol from the past and / or present?

– I've never had any idols. I watch many games: I may like someone's opening preparation, the way someone plays in general or in this particular game, someone's choice of a tournament strategy, or admire someone's interviewability (laughing). These are all different people, and it is hard to single out any one person. 

– You always show up for the game well-dressed and in high-heeled shoes. Do you rate dress code as an integral rule in chess, or do you dress "for yourself" regardless of tournament regulations?

– Since nowadays most events come with the dress code (I would not check all provisions for its presence or absence, of course), I choose a dress style that fits the general rules – one that does not make room for mistakes. This way, my appearance is nearly about the same.

– Do you care how you look in the video?

– Of course, convenience is much more important to me. However, nowadays it is also essential that participants look appropriately, so I try to keep these two points in mind. This is what I do and how things stand for me. 

– You cope well.

– Thank you! 

– In which events do you intend to participate in the near future? What are your plans for the New Year holidays?

– The second virus wave takes a heavy toll on the tournaments, which are in very short supply.  No tournaments are on the agenda in the foreseeable future. As I have already completed my three stages of the FIDE Women’s Grand Prix, there is no need to compete in Gibraltar. I don't know how this tournament will be organized with the lock-down that many countries have introduced again. 

I will celebrate the New Year with my family, as usual. 

– How many days do you usually spare for post-holiday rest, and when do you resume working on chess again?

– I do not tie my rest to any holidays. There are tournaments that I need to prepare for, and neither birthday nor New Year matters for that reason. If you need to work, then you have to. You can relax at any other time when no tournaments are underway. Well, I may rest for a month, and then work for three or four months straight because I have to prepare, play, not to mention the interviews (laughing). 

– With this in mind, if your training is geared up more for the tournaments, it would be interesting to know whether you play against pieces or opponents?

– I go by the situation (smiling). Basically, I play against a person without forgetting a tournament situation in general. There is a certain tournament situation that I also keep track of. If I think that I need to undertake something in particular and it will benefit my tournament situation, then I do it notwithstanding whom I play against and what form my opponent is in. 

That said, most of the time I play against a person and not against pieces. I take into consideration my opponent's psychology and style of play.

– When pitted against Polina Shuvalova in the penultimate round of the Superfinal, you were half a point behind her. It was a quick draw. Is it an example of benefitting your tournament situation?

– I don't think I had a free hand because I was Black in that game. In fact, I was determined to play solid chess, and I was determined to fight. Of course, the chances of Polina going for a quick draw were 50-50, but it was not to be taken for granted.  

She needed to reckon with the following situation: with a quick draw, the probability of a tie-break was very high. It would be particularly inconvenient for her because I would be White in a classical-formant game. In the case of a tie-break, I needed, let's say, half an hour to get my white color opening prepared, and in fact, I could take the situation from there. That's it in terms of having myself prepared for the upcoming game. And her situation was different, which was demonstrated by game one of the tie-breaker, when Polina was simply not ready to play with the color she had. In brief, I needed less time to prepare than her after the last round. 

However, I was far from going for an easy draw by killing all play in the classical game, there was no such thing, of course.

I want to wrap up by adding that there was some kind of fuss on Facebook about me having more rest going into the tie-break. Be as it may, I finished not half a day earlier than Polina, as it was claimed, but only 40 minutes. I don't want to argue with anyone, but this number speaks for itself. Therefore, I can't say that I showed up for the tie-breaker game feeling particularly rested and refreshed. 

– Aleksandra, I thank you for this interview and wish you every success!

– Thank you.

Photos by Eteri Kublashvili and Vladimir Barsky