Naomi Bashkansky, a 13-year-old from Bellevue, is a fierce chess competitor. Last December, she won the World School Chess Championship for girls under 13 in Sochi, Russia. Naomi’s parents lived in the USSR before immigrating to Israel, where she was born. We chatted with the Bellevue teen about the game, her gift from Russian president Vladimir Putin when she won the championship, and why she plans to give up going pro.
How long have you been playing chess?
Since I was 5 years old. My mom tried to teach me when I as 4, but I failed. I couldn’t understand how to move the pieces, but then at 5 I got it. I’d played with my brother a lot, and he let me win, of course. And we played some more and I got better and he got better.
When did you know you were really good?
Other people realized I was good before I realized I was good. When I was 5 years old, I had already won the state championship for kindergartners. When I was 5 or 6, I played nationals and got fifth place. The trophy was taller than me.
What do you love about the game?
I plan, and I calculate. And eventually I get better positioned. And then I get better and better positioned. And then I attack. I like attacking a lot. And then, when it’s a beautiful win, that’s what I like the most.
What makes a beautiful win?
There’s just no chances given. (The opponent), they’re just doomed. They don’t have any counterplays, so they just have to defend, and they get squished and squished, and I just keep on attacking.
“There’s just no chances given. (The opponent), they’re just doomed. They don’t have any counterplays, so they just have to defend, and they get squished and squished, and I just keep on attacking.”
Is there such a thing as a game face in chess?
My game face is no expression whatsoever.
What was going through your head when you won the world youth championship?
I was feeling a bit bad for my opponent and I tried to offer her a cookie, but she was like, “No, thank you.” Mostly I was really happy and relieved. The first three games, I was not playing very well at all.
And one of your prizes was a pen from Vladimir Putin?
It’s just a pen; it has the crest of Putin on it. He didn’t actually come to the ceremony or anything. It was just in a cool box with an inscription in Russian on it.
Do you still get nervous?
A little bit, when I’m playing stronger tournaments. Especially when I get low on time. Then I don’t have as much time to think about my moves, and I get shaky. My leg jumps.
How many trophies do you have?
Umm … like 50? A few dozen.
What’s the longest game you’ve played?
Must have been like six hours. I think I was like 10 years old or so.
How often do you play kids your age?
For the most part, I don’t play with kids anymore. Because kids, there are so few that are around my age that are strong. Most of the time, I’m in the tournaments with adults. And even then, I’m still stronger than most of them.
So, you’re completely used to beating grown men?
Has chess taught you any life lessons?
When I lose, I don’t cry anymore. So that’s one thing.
You’ve learned to lose, then?
Yeah, I guess. And then when I win, not to show that I’m extremely happy. Because I know whenever I lose in a big tournament, I get so, so angry when my opponent is so happy and smiling. So, how to win and how to lose, I guess.
There are only men ranked in the World Chess Federation’s top 100 players. Do you think that will change?
Well, first of all, there’s the fact that there’s a lot more men who play chess than women … I think there might be (more women chess players) in the future because the people who are in the top 100 were born decades ago.
Do you want to be a woman in the top 100?
Honestly, not really. Chess is fun, and I’ll never stop playing it. But it’s kind of a harsh life, I guess. It’s a lot of work and not that much money, compared to other sports, like more physical sports.
What do you want to do?
I’ll probably become a software engineer. If not that, then I guess I might become a doctor. My grandmother was a doctor.
What else do you like to do?
I do dance at school. That’s a lot of fun; all sorts of dance. It’s mostly contemporary, which is like modern dance. There’s a bit of jazz and hip-hop.
What’s your favorite subject in school?
Because there’s always an answer?