Tuesday

29th Nov 2022

Feature

Ukrainian chess prodigy: 'We are not going to resign ... anywhere'

  • The Ukrainian chess grandmaster sisters took on several dozen keen amateurs in Brussels - including an EUobserver reporter (Photo: EUobserver)
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Sisters Anna and Mariya Muzychuk are world champion chess grandmasters from Ukraine.

Only weeks ago they secured gold at the 2022 Olympiad in India, a biennial chess tournament where national teams around the world compete.

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  • Sisters Anna (l) and Mariya Muzychuk are world champion chess players. When they play chess, the war and all its horrors cannot be tuned out, Anna says (Photo: EUobserver)

"We came, and we won, and we showed our strength," Anna Muzychuk told EUobserver on Thursday (29 September).

"We are not going to resign anywhere ... at any field," says the 32-year old, in what suggests defiance against Russia's war in Ukraine.

Russia was originally scheduled to host the Olympiad. But organisers moved it to India after Moscow's invasion. Teams from Russia and Belarus were also banned from the event.

The rift has seen some top Russian players coming out against the war, including 44 who penned an open letter to president Vladimir Putin in April.

But others, like Russian grandmaster Sergey Karjakin, support Putin and the war, which has so far forced millions of Ukrainians to flee and killed thousands of civilians.

Karjakin had won the Olympiad representing Ukraine in the past, before transferring allegiance to Russia. In June, Putin awarded him a 'Merit to the Fatherland' medal.

Ex-world champion in the 1970s and 80s, Anatoly Karpov, who now sits in the Russia state Duma, was also among those sanctioned by the EU after voting for the recognition of the People Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk in Ukraine.

But it is not the first time the Ukrainian sisters had faced nationalist-led adversities.

In 2017, Anna Muzychuk refused to defend her titles in the ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia as a protest against the treatment of women.

She gave up two world champion titles as a result. Her sister Mariya also boycotted the tournament.

Both rank as among the top 10 female players in the world.

The war is ever present

On Thursday, they played an exhibition event in Brussels against several dozen amateur players.

Among those swiftly crushed was this reporter, who resigned in a match against Mariya after 30 moves.

But while the Muzychuks demonstrated their prowess on the chess board, the war in Ukraine and what they had to leave behind remains.

Both had fled after Russia invaded in late February, leaving behind loved ones and relatives. Neither has yet returned.

"We haven't seen them and we don't know when we will be able to see them," said Anna.

When they play chess, the war and all its horrors cannot be tuned out, she says.

"You can't get rid of thinking about what is going on," she says, rendering the concentration for the game process more tricky.

With the team scattered, the war also made it logistically difficult to train and prepare for tournaments.

"We have to do what we can do and that is what we are doing," she says.

It makes their gold medal win at the Olympiad all the more exceptional.

Thursday's chess exhibition was organised by the EU institutions' chess club, Europchess.

The club has hosted similar events in the past, but with grandmasters from EU states. The decision to extend the invitation to the Muzychuks was a mark of solidarity with Ukraine, said the club's president Johannes Bertram.

Others at the event included Thomas Weischede of the German-based foundation, the Emanuel Lasker Gesellschaft.

"This year's success of the Ukrainian woman team reminds me of the spirit of the freedom-loving Grace O'Malley," he announced, ahead of the exhibition.

Weischede gave the sisters a €6,400 bottle of Irish whiskey named after Grace O'Malley, a 16th century 'Pirate Queen' who led a successful attack against the Spanish armada. He then asked them to eventually sell it in order to establish a European chess school for girls and women in Ukraine.

"That is our proposal and our promise is that we will help you as best as we can," he said.

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