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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.
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The Pacific-12 Conference kicked off its abbreviated 2020 college football schedule on Nov. 7, at a time when the season is typically winding down.
When the Pac-12 announced plans for its late start back in September, observers wrung their hands, wondering why conference officials wanted to wait so long—especially given the Pac-12’s announcement earlier that month that it would provide high-speed coronavirus testing for student athletes. Since the recent surge in COVID-19 cases has led to the cancellation of a spate of college football games in recent weeks, however, the Pac-12’s hesitancy to return is looking smart.
Eight Pac-12 teams returned to the field in early November, roughly two months after teams in three of the nation’s other elite conferences began their seasons. Four Pac-12 teams remained sidelined, though: One California player’s positive test for COVID-19 was enough to derail Cal’s game at Washington, as the Golden Bears had to quarantine the player’s entire position group. Utah called off its home game against Arizona following a rash of positive tests among Utes players.
Cal-Washington and Arizona-Utah were among 10 games nationwide scheduled for the first weekend of November but later canceled or postponed due to COVID-19. In the week that ensued, the trend showed no sign of letting up: Four Southeastern Conference games scheduled for November’s second weekend—each involving at least one nationally ranked team, including top-ranked Alabama’s matchup with defending national champion LSU—were put on hold.
LSU, incidentally, has had more coronavirus-related issues than any other team in college football: The Tigers had to quarantine at least 30 players—roughly a quarter of their team—in June due to an outbreak. Their October game against Florida was postponed until Dec. 12 after the Gators had an outbreak of their own.
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Need some happy news during this hard year? The pandemic lockdown has spurred new love globally for chess. Millions have tuned in to online tournaments among the world’s best players in recent months after the pandemic postponed most in-person professional competitions.
Top players have turned to streaming platforms like Twitch, which saw a 400 percent increase in the hours people watched chess from March through August compared with last year, according to The New York Times. That amounted to 41.2 million hours of chess consumed on Twitch during the pandemic. Top Twitch gamers, who usually stream hours of themselves playing games like Fortnite, have begun streaming chess.
As professional chess players have adapted to the online format, chess has become more, well, fun. Consider Samay Raina’s YouTube stream that world chess champion Magnus Carlsen joined in September with some Indian YouTubers and former world chess champion Vishy Anand, whom Carlsen deposed from the chess throne in 2013. Raina, a comedian and chess player, started his YouTube channel in March and now has 489,000 subscribers.
On the stream Carlsen, Anand, and the others messed around playing some variations of chess, like one where they drew cards that determined which piece Carlsen had to move (if they drew a queen from the deck, he had to move his queen, and so on). Before ending the stream, Raina impulsively suggested he and Carlsen play a blitz game, but where Raina had three minutes to play and Carlsen had only 15 seconds total for the game.
Carlsen considered the insane challenge for a moment, but his competitive nature quickly won out and he accepted. Fifteen seconds turned out to be more than he needed: Carlsen won in seven seconds, prompting loud derision from the other players on the video.
“I’m so disappointed!” Vidit Gujrathi, a top Indian chess player, shouted at Raina, laughing. “Your one chance of defeating Magnus!”
“Fine, shame me, shame me! I just made a fool out of myself in front of 35,000 people!” said Raina. In the end the playful stream drew half a million views.