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Irina Krush, the only American female to achieve the title of chess grandmaster, lives an unassuming life for someone who has won the U.S. women’s championship eight times.
Krush, 36, lives in a modest apartment in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, the neighborhood she grew up in after her Jewish parents immigrated from the Soviet Union when she was a child. As she did her daily walk in November around the bay where swans patrol the waters, she ran into her landlady, who was also her high-school French teacher.
When Krush was playing the U.S. championship at home last month, her landlady tried to keep the internet working, Krush explained with a laugh. In the penultimate championship game, her connection fritzed, and she had to disconnect and reconnect. “If I had only five seconds left, I would have lost,” she said. (In online chess tournaments the clock keeps running even if a player loses her internet connection.)
Krush won the championship. Her landlady bought her flowers.
Netflix’s popular show, The Queen’s Gambit, follows a fictitious American women’s chess champion. But Krush is the real thing: As a little girl she used to beat grown men in chess in New York City parks.
Krush played the championship, which kicked off online in October, from her small Brooklyn apartment that consists of a kitchen, a bedroom, bathroom, and an alcove where her computer and chess board sit (her “workspace,” she says). She sees her tiny apartment as an advantage for bathroom breaks in games: “Five seconds and I’m back! Everything is very nearby.”
Krush describes herself as a “Christian Jew,” having converted to Christianity in 2011. She and Alex Lenderman, another grandmaster in Brooklyn, attend the same Russian Orthodox church. She and Alex also went to the same public high school in Brooklyn, Edward R. Murrow High School, famous for its chess teams. Elite chess teams don’t typically come from public schools.
She had never been interested in Christianity, but after a year of reading spiritual books, she decided she wanted to see what a church service was like. At her first service, she says, “it was immediate: There was no more thinking or choosing. … I felt like, ‘Oh yes, this is where the truth is.’”
She remembered the sermon: “‘Faith is a gift from God’… those words went into my heart.” Three months later she was baptized, and she has now joined the choir even though she describes herself as “the least talented person you can imagine … but I’m learning to sing.”
“This is one of the unexpected moments of my life,” she said.
Another unexpected moment: In early March Krush contracted COVID-19. At the time, doctors knew little about the symptoms of the disease or how to treat it. Krush recalled suddenly struggling to breathe and feeling like a truck had run over her chest. At first, she didn’t even think about the coronavirus—she just thought she might be dying.
She went to a hospital in Brooklyn, tested positive for COVID-19, and was admitted for several days by herself. She would go to sleep with Psalm 90 playing on her phone: “Lord, you have been our dwelling place, for all generations.”
That early in the outbreak, medical workers didn’t know how to treat the virus, and after a few days the hospital discharged her as it grew overwhelmed with patients who needed to go on ventilators.
She got a pulse oximeter for herself, and doctors told her to go to the emergency room if she found she couldn’t breathe again. She did go to the ER several more times and was in a lot of pain, but her blood oxygen remained high enough that she didn’t have to be readmitted.
She’s now a COVID-19 “long hauler,” and her inflamed lungs are taking months to heal. Given her cerebral profession, she was thankful to have been spared the neurological damage that often comes with some cases.
“Brain fog or loss of memory or concentration would be very impactful on what I do, but I think that’s bypassed me,” she said.
Krush resents the idea of being a strong enough “fighter” to beat the disease. But she does think chess helped her face COVID-19.
“Chess is a character shaper,” she said. “Chess players know the experience of being in bad positions, right? It’s not pleasant, and you’ve got to defend them. … You don’t know how long it’s going to take, and you don’t know what the result is going to be. You don’t know if … after playing for six hours, you’re going to lose.”
Krush wrote health updates on Facebook to the chess community, and encouragement poured in from other top chess players: “Krush it!” one said. Through her recovery she played and coached chess. She had to call off one lesson after 15 minutes because she suddenly felt like she couldn’t breathe again. She realized that talking inflamed her lungs.
In recent years she had focused more on teaching than competing. The pandemic gave her a break from her normally frenetic commutes and travel schedule. Now she takes walks by the bay, which she previously never had time for. And she plays chess.
She thinks the healthier pace helped her during this year’s championship. During the tournament, she would play a game, walk out to her backyard and have a moment of sunshine, then go back and play more chess. Playing chess at this level is physically draining, studies have shown: The world champion in 2004 lost 17 pounds during the championship match.
Though she had already won the U.S. championship seven times, it had been five years since her last victory.
“It’s never easy. [A championship] doesn’t swim up to you and say, ‘Here!’” she said. But the happiness she felt at winning the tournament was evident in the camera trained on her face at that moment.
Only one American woman has won more national championships than Krush: Gisela Kahn Gresser, with nine championships between 1944 and 1969.
Though before the pandemic Krush had turned to teaching, now the unassuming Brooklynite thinks she’s ready to go for Gresser’s nine.
A grandmaster’s view of The Queen’s Gambit
When I interviewed eight-time U.S. women’s chess champion Irina Krush, she had seen all but one episode of Netflix’s popular new show, The Queen’s Gambit. The show follows the life of a fictional female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, a sort of hard-drinking Bobby Fischer. Netflix reported that 62 million households had watched the series in the month since its release, “making it Netflix’s biggest scripted limited series to date.” (Caution: The show includes sexually suggestive scenes, language, and drug and alcohol abuse.)
Krush said the show is true to her own experience as a female chess player, although there are some cinematic departures from chess reality. As one of the few women who have spent a career going to tournaments, she said the show is accurate about relationships between men and women in the chess world. Those relationships are collegial, and sometimes turn romantic. She noted that many top female chess players marry male chess players.
“The chess world is a small world,” she said. “As a woman, you’re a minority, and men actually usually want to help you. I mean, yes, there’s that competition. But then [in the show], when he loses, he’s like, ‘Let me help you prepare for that tournament.’”
The show’s depiction of Harmon looking at a chess board on the ceiling is also accurate to how chess players visualize games in their heads. And she appreciated that filmmakers showed Harmon studying a lot before games, which is a big part of a professional chess player’s life.
Krush does have her quibbles.
“It’s very hard for people to portray mental intensity,” she said of the actors playing chess games on the show. “So this is the thing that is missing.”
She also noted that drugs, which Harmon uses to clear her mind before games, are not widely used in the chess world from her standpoint. And she said the idea that a top chess player like Harmon would feel like she could never lose is unrealistic: “Chess players have lost like 1,000 games to get to a strong level.”
But Krush realizes the creators had to make dramatic choices. “They cannot make it so that only chess players approve of the show,” she laughed.
Soon after our interview, she hopped on a Zoom video call with Garry Kasparov, the former world champion who consulted on the show. The call also included Queen’s Gambit director Scott Frank, top chess player Jennifer Shahade, and hundreds of little girls who are chess players. While Shahade noted the show wasn’t appropriate for children, the call participants at least watched scenes of the chess games in the show (which Kasparov designed). As Shahade paused the scenes, the girls called out what move they thought Harmon should make next. The Zoom chat lit up with girls commenting on the game scenes.
“SO COOL!” said one. —E.B.