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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.

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.

“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