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first person

Illustration by Drew Shannon

In January, 1994, I turned 10 while playing my last round in the National Russian Girls Chess Championship. I was in Yaroslavl, Russia, some 850 kilometres away from my home in St. Petersburg. My mom was unable to come with me and I felt lonely without her.

“If you win this game, Olya, you will be in the Top 10 finalists in this tournament,” my temporarily assigned chess coach said. “And if you start taking chess seriously, next year I am confident that you will be in the Top 3.”

Being in the Top 3 in Russia (for each age and gender category) pretty much means you are Top 3 in the world in that category, or at least the Top 10. If I won this game, I knew I could go home happily.

I miss performing Nutcracker melodies for the National Ballet

I made my first move – pawn to E4, and pressed the chess clock. I looked at my opponent and sensed a victory. I’ve always had an inner fighter and a strong drive to win. But more importantly, that moment I was feeling the “it.” That is what I call this special energy I have that somehow changes my brain chemistry and sets it up to look for wins. Sometimes this energy arises within me on its own, but other times I have to bring it to life by entering into a deep state of concentration, believing in myself and thinking positive thoughts. Of course, it doesn’t always work. Chess knowledge and experience are also important.

As the game wore on, I gained an advantage. I captured my opponent’s knight; I lead materially and positionally. But something was wrong. My head hurt, I felt dizzy and I could hardly breathe through my nose. My opponent made her move. I looked up and saw her eyes lit with fire. I could tell she’s got the “it” too. She will fight me to the death, no “draws” this time. Normally, this would not bother me, but at that moment, my “it” had started to fade and I had no strength to bring it back.

Several moves later, I blundered … and lost the game.

“I will take chess seriously,” I promised myself on the way home. But fate had other plans. That would be my last tournament in Russia and for the next three years of my life until I started competing again in Canada.

The train ride home was painful. I sweated one minute and shivered in the next. When I got home, I collapsed on my bed. I had a high fever and a bad sinus infection.

When I recovered, my mom told me sadly: “I won’t be taking you to the chess club any more.” I didn’t understand then, but I do now.

The recent fall of communism had turned Russia and its people upside down. All of a sudden, some families became very wealthy, while others lost everything. Stories of crime and murder circulated on a regular basis. On the other hand, for the first time we heard Beatles songs, we watched Disney cartoons, we wore jeans and drank Coke and Pepsi, while munching on Snickers and Mars bars.

But the changes also broke my family. As communism fell apart, so did my father. Dad had held a good position in politics. He was loving, happy and well respected. If he wasn’t at work, he was at home playing with us. But he lost his job and with that, his income, his status and his identity. He became withdrawn. Days would go by without me seeing my father. Occasionally, he did make an appearance but as he leaned down to kiss me on the cheek, I breathed in a strong dragon breath of alcohol.

My mom had to work longer hours and assume full responsibility for running the household. She was exhausted and could not possibly take me to the chess club. My father was no help. I felt like I had been given a candy, which I ate halfway, only to watch it being ripped from my hands and thrown in the garbage.

In 1997, I boarded a plane to Canada with my mom, sister and stepfather with a no-return ticket.

Within a week of my arrival in Kamloops, I signed up for a local chess tournament held at a high school across the street. “But where are all the girls?” I asked myself. Of roughly 30 participants, there were only two of us and the other girl barely knew how to play chess.

I won that tournament and it was the turning point in my chess life. It brought back all the memories of how exciting chess was and how much I love the game. I felt as if I had never quit. And I was happy to find that I still had my “it” after all these years on hiatus.

From that point on, I buried myself in chess books, studying strategy, openings, middle and end-games. I continued to compete on a regular basis in Kamloops, where I was the only girl among older teenage boys and men in the tournaments. And while I couldn’t quite fit in at school with my peers, I felt like I was a part of a “brotherhood” when I played in tournaments, like I was right where I belonged.

A year later, the Chess Federation of Canada invited me to play at the World Youth Chess Festival in Spain, in the Girls Under 14 category. I was the top-rated player in that category in Canada.

The trip to Spain was fascinating. For the first time in my life, I saw an amazing cultural diversity of players from over a hundred countries, all under one roof, united by their love of chess.

In the spring of 2001, I won the third annual Canadian Girls Chess Championship and was one of the Top 10 female players in Canada. Shortly after, I retired from competitive chess to focus on my studies and career. But every now and then, my love for chess lures me into playing speed chess, slow chess, blindfolded chess, etc.

Life can be full of surprises and unexpected turns. In 2009, at my workplace, I raised money for the United Way by playing against 15 players at the same time. I won 13 games and drew two. During one of the games, I met the love of my life. Yes, over the chessboard! John signed up to play against me and asked me out on a date right after the event. Three years later, we were married.

Today, my chess journey is far from over as I am now passing my legacy to my two little daughters. And who knows, I might get to relive my chess adventures once again through their eyes.

Olya Kaye lives in Toronto.

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