Alexandra Kosteniuk, chessmaster

Alexandra Kosteniuk, 17, is not likely most people’s stereotype of a female chess champion. The pretty young Russian sports a provocative smile and a devilish spark in her eye—a far cry from the bookish, hard-nosed competitor some might be led to expect.

Perhaps this is why some of the officials behind FIDE, the international chess federation, are considering making Kosteniuk “the official face” of FIDE as a way to raise the profile of the sport around the world (think chess’ Tiger Woods). One local sports observer even compared the brash, perky young woman “to the young Barbara Streisand in her best films.”

Kosteniuk caught chess fever at the age of five. For which she said her father is “to blame.” Soon after, a friend of her father’s gave her a portable chess set inscribed with the words, “To Sashenka, future world champion in chess.” Little Sasha carried the small case around to play whomever and wherever she could. By age 10 she was Juniors Champion of Europe. Then followed the title of Champion of Russia in the adult women’s division, then title of women’s Grand Master (and International Master in men’s).

When she was 15, her day began and ended with chess: hour-long games with dad, then school, then the chessboard and then school again. “Chess is like my little life,” Kosteniuk said. “The 12 years I spent in front of the chess board have made me a person different from others. I can figure out life situations. And my chess-oriented mind helps me to get out of quandaries ... I am convinced that there is always a way out of a situation. I am just used to being focused and strong-willed, to fighting for my place in life.”

Last December, at the Knock-Out World Chess Championship in Moscow, Kosteniuk showed all of her fight. She advanced to the finals (all other Russian competitors were out by the semi-finals) to face 25-year-old Zhu Chen of China. The competition was brutal. Kosteniuk took the first game and Zhu the second and third. Kosteniuk had to win the fourth game to stay in the running—a draw or loss would mean a loss of the match. “Up to a certain point, the Chinese woman was playing a very solid game,” Kosteniuk said. “I was sitting before the chess board with dark thoughts crossing my mind, ‘I have to offer a draw and congratulate the new champion.’ But then I continued to believe in a miracle.” And then a miracle happened: under pressure to wind up the match, Zhu made a mistake. Kosteniuk’s rallied and came back to tie the match, 2-2.

Yet, in the next day’s tiebreaker, Zhu Chen’s expertise and maturity tipped the balance in her favor; after a very tough battle, Kosteniuk lost the tiebreaker 3-5. For now, Zhu plays chess better than Kosteniuk. But then the Russian is only 17 and experience, as they say in Russian, is “delo nazhivnoye” (“something you gain along the way”). What Kosteniuk has on her side—aside from her chess playing skill—is the passion she fought with in the finals: on three occasions she was down in the match only to come back and tie the score. 

When Kosteniuk stopped her chess clock and held out her hand to her opponent, thus admitting her defeat, her emotionless face did not betray any feelings. “I found some inner strength to congratulate the new champion,” she said, “and tried to leave the hall as quickly as possible. I just did not want to see those faces full of condolences.”

“I am sure that, with such character, some day she will become a champion,” said Grand Master Vladislav Tkachev. FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, among others,  said that, in two years time, at the 2003 World Championship in London, Kosteniuk will have what it takes to win the event.

At 17, Kosteniuk has all the time in the world to hone her game. In fact, she said she personally sees her defeat in the finals as a plus: it helped her to recognize the imperfections in her game. And she said she takes the English “runner-up” engraved on her trophy literally. She does not see herself as a “second prize winner,” but rather as someone who intends to keep “running up” higher and higher.

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