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What’s it Like Balancing Chess and Motherhood?

By Mike Klein
Chess players often complain about distractions in the tournament hall. But squeaky chairs and jiggling change take a back seat for some competitors. Amidst the intense focus required of top-level players, one subgroup must add another item to the list of complications – motherhood.
“The hardest part for me is to leave the house and get on the plane,” said Woman Grandmaster Rusudan Goletiani, one of the favorites in the upcoming 2009 U.S. Women’s Championship, to be held Oct. 3-13 at the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of Saint Louis. Goletiani will travel to Saint Louis in early October from her home in New York to try to recapture a title she won in 2005. Back then, her 2-year-old daughter, Sophie, had yet to be born. Since then, leaving behind Sophie for tournaments has been a challenge. 
“I told my husband not to bring her to the airport,” she said. “It is hard to leave her.”  Goletiani has had to before. In 2008, she left behind a needy infant to play third board for the U.S. Women’s Team at the Chess Olympiad in Germany. After the squad dramatically won the bronze medal in the final round, Goletiani’s jubilation gave way to an extreme longing to be reunited with her family. She was not the only one who expressed the same emotion. Fellow Women Grandmaster Anna Zatonskih looked visibly tired and deflected some excitement when she said that all she wanted was to see her daughter.
Chess mothers face a dual challenge – being able to concentrate on pre-match preparation while meeting the needs of their children, and also setting aside motherly duties once competitions begin.

“Once you have a kid, a kid comes first,” Goletiani said. “A lot of people have guilt for playing a lot.” Both Goletiani and Zatonskih even had to arrange interviews around the sleep schedules of their toddlers.
Goletiani related a cautionary story from her native country of Georgia, where a famous countryman who had a strong chess-playing mother was asked about his childhood. “I hate chess because it took my mom away from me,” he said. Goletiani has not played in a competition since the Olympiad. Besides a period in the 1990s when war ravaged Goletiani’s homeland, her 11-month layoff is the longest of her career.
Zatonskih and Goletiani, who will be ranked first and third, respectively, at the championship, may draw inspiration from fellow sportswomen like Kim Clijsters, who earlier this month became the first mother to win a Grand Slam tennis event since 1980, the same year that Goletiani was born. But top physical athletes can return to form once their bodies recover from pregnancy, and they often have the financial means to make sure their children are well cared for during competitions. In the chess world, babies pose a unique challenge in that players usually use their homes as their training grounds.
Zatonskih has found ways to turn the situation to her advantage. Her daughter, Sosia, is also 2 years old. During the Olympiad, she called on her mother to travel from Ukraine to Zatonskih’s home in Germany to nurture Sosia. She will do the same in Saint Louis.
“I have a great support,” Zatonskih said. “It is easier for me than other moms. Sometimes a child gives motivation. When I was pregnant, I got some rating points and my husband (Grandmaster Daniel Fridman) got some rating points, so we had a joke that we should have a second child.”
It’s quite hard to combine life and chess,” Goletiani said. “Somehow I manage. I want to teach [Sophie] things. Unfortunately playing chess suffers the most.”
But like Zatonskih, she has found a silver lining. “When I go to a tournament, I have time for everything!” She takes time to go to the gym and adds one more item to the list of tournament luxuries – sleep.
Just before sunrise on the day that she clinched her U.S. Women’s Championship, Goletiani cried relentlessly to her husband that she had not been able to sleep. Now when she travels for chess, she is afforded more shuteye than ever, a vital component when facing a six-hour mental marathon. Both Zatonskih and Goletiani claim a singular focus to their games while in progress, similar to the other-worldliness created by an engrossing movie.
While at tournaments, Goletiani enters a routine of match preparation, the competition, and contact back home. She usually calls Sophie twice daily, but the conversations do not center on mom’s results (though Zatonskih said her daughter has learned the Russian word for “champion”). Too young to understand the concept of winning or the gravitas of a national championship, Sophie redirects mom to more important matters – candy and toys.
“I’m used to winning tournaments, but top three would be a good result,” Goletiani said. This year’s championship boasts a record $15,000 first prize. So, what if she wins? “I’ll take her to the toy store and let her have anything she wants.”
Zatonskih called herself a “professional mom” and said single women “definitely do” have an advantage, but she draws motherly inspiration from players like Polish Woman Grandmaster Monika Socko. In August, Socko won the strongest tournament of her career in Norway, defeating a large field of higher-rated men.
The performance was also notable because Socko brought along her son Szymon. Zatonskih said she wants to have Sosia join her at tournaments as soon as next year, when she plans to take the family to a prestigious international tournament in Gibraltar. Multi-tasking is in her nature – Zatonskih will play five opponents simultaneously to kick off the tournament in St. Louis. Oh, and she will be blindfolded. At least motherhood does not require such hijinks.
Of the field of 10 at the U.S. Women’s Championship, there will be two more mothers. Tsagaan Battsetseg and Camilla Baginskaite both have older children and both have lingered among the country’s best female players for many years. Baginskaite, 42, is five years clear of the field in age; she has spent much time ruminating on chess, career and motherhood.
“Playing chess and multitasking is very hard – very different thinking patterns,” Baginskaite said. She enjoyed her peak rating a while ago and has not played much in the last three years. “I couldn’t spend a lot of time preparing. It does not make much sense to play.” She called herself “semi-retired” but may draw motivation from a different tennis player than Clijsters. This past weekend, Kimiko Date Krumm, 39, became the second oldest women to win a Women’s Tennis Association event. This was after officially “retiring” in 1996.
Baginskaite, like several other women in the field, has a grandmaster as a husband. An incident years ago illuminated the challenges that chess families face. While her son Eddie was an infant, the family traveled to a tournament in North Carolina. The plan was for Baginskaite’s husband to participate while she attended to the baby. But the tournament organizer wanted her to play, and that meant her husband sat out. “There is no such thing as a good balance,” she said. Still, shortly after, she won the 2000 U.S. Women’s Championship.
Eddie is now 11 and her daughter Greta is 6. Baginskaite called the financial challenges and travel demands of professional chess “unstable.” She regards mothers as fundamentally responsible for educating their offspring.
Still, the decisions between chess and family are not dissimilar to other careers. The balance created is unique to each mother. Current Women’s World Champion Alexandra Kosteniuk remains reasonably active as a tournament player, though her daughter is only one month younger than Sosia. Grandmaster Judit Polgar, whose chess skill is light-years ahead of any other woman in history, has had her rating decline slightly since becoming a mother. She has competed in only one game this year.
Zatonskih postulated that for her, the balance is still being met.  “When you sit up and talk to your child, you don’t really need anything else,” Zatonskih said. “I think [Polgar] enjoys it more than going away and playing chess. Even if she studies for a few minutes a day, she is still the best in the world. She could have 10 more children and she would still be the best.”
As her children become more independent, Baginskaite has slowly begun transitioning her life. She has a master’s degree in art history and now is studying to teach art. “I see connections between art and many subjects,” Baginskaite said. “Right now the main task of (contemporary) art is to touch peoples’ emotions and to do something unexpected. I have been a housewife for a long time, and I have been away from chess for many years. I would like to come back to chess full-time. In a couple of years we will see. This experiment is not over yet.”